Herman Hesse's Siddhartha chronicles a Brahmin's quest for self-realization in fifth- and sixth-century India. Siddhartha's travels and incarnations allow him to transcend the anxieties of human existence and join the timeless flow of the universe.
As humble scholar and father MC Tajai, of Souls of Mischief and Hieroglyphics, wouldn't liken himself to the Buddha figure. Tajai's quest is for self-realization in a vast, angst-ridden culture and industry full of lessons. Hip-hop offers the trinity of life's paths: the stage of mind, the stage of flesh and the stage of transcendence-Siddhartha.
"It's a book where I read it and I'm like, "Damn, this is me,'" says Tajai. "But it's everybody. There's only a couple of real lessons, y'know? All the other things are just the road maps to the understanding of those lessons. Like love is love, everything is everything, give what you get."
Hieroglyphics was founded more than a decade ago, and their imprint, Hieroglyphics Imperium, is half as old. The crew's forthcoming second album, Full Circle (due Oct. 7) will be followed by Tajai's debut solo opus, Power Movement. As independent artists, Tajai and his band of missionaries have traveled the world sharing their music and perspectives on life. While the mainstream has yet to embrace Hiero and similar groups-Def Jux, Living Legends, Project Blowed, Rhymesayers-underground hip-hop has built a tremendous following.
"I think Hieroglyphics is sorta like the underground vanguard... like the underground resistance," says Tajai. "Not underground in terms of music, but underground in terms of, like, the French underground. We're sorta like the alternative to the mainstream. We're on the verge of becoming a household name. Like our symbol, people see the symbol like, What is that? I see that everywhere.
"So we're known, but it's an unquantifiable resource that we represent."
Trade papers like Billboard measure quantity, though, not quality.
"We're selling hundreds of thousands of records," Tajai says. "Whereas a lot of people cash out, and then they get that 10, 20, 30 million-[dollar] deal with a major [label], we're building and building. Maybe [we'll] deal with the majors; or maybe we'll have enough money to where we can compete with the majors and be enough of a thorn in their side to where they're gonna have to let us in to these mainstream video and music radio outlets."
So the story goes for many independent hip-hop artists. The genre evolved from ascetic to aesthetic, from the stage of the mind to the stage of the flesh, and it became titillating and profitable. Tajai sees both paths as enlightening.
"I'm not into that, lamenting the fact that something gets big," he explains. "It's just gonna touch more people's lives and maybe they can get sucked in and end up at the core.... I don't mind stuff being watered down. Some people can't just eat a vitamin-some people gotta have Tang."
Indeed, Siddhartha learned valuable lessons from Gotama Buddha (spirituality), and Kamala and Kamaswami (love and commerce, respectively). Transcendence, then, would be the harmony of the two. But will MTV audiences embrace wisdom as easily as hedonism? Nas as equally as Jay-Z?
"The MTV demographic is the hip-hop nation. Or is an extension of the hip-hop nation, or is infused by hip-hop," explains Tajai. "I don't think that there is a difference anymore. And it's really just now, "OK, now that y'all have the fake shit, check out the real shit, too.' The lesson is to listen and learn from everything and everyone, as Vasuveda, the ferryman whom Siddhartha equates to the river of life, professing the unity of all things."