Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Seed-N-Soil: An Interview with Bennie "Eclipse" Herron

Eclipse Heru
    Masters of the Universe are arguably the most important rap collective to come out of San Diego and also one of the most important of the whole west coast 4-track movement. Bennie Herron aka Eclipse Heru was an integral member of the crew, being featured on the mysterious Retina tape, as well as being heavily featured on both Microcrucifiction and Back 2 tha Future. After MOTU splintered off, Eclipse transitioned to a solo career, specializing in both positive, uplifting raps as well as powerful spoken word poetry. He debuted with Seed-N-Soil, and later Churches and Liquor Stores Vol. 1, and has also authored a book of poetry entitled greens. With a new book and website on the horizon, I was able to contact Eclipse and discuss his history thus far.

What was your earliest experience with hip-hop and what inspired you to start writing yourself?

    I would say the earliest experience I had was just as a fan of the music, going to elementary school in the 80s, listening to the early east coast hip-hop, Run-D.M.C. It's almost like when I heard it, it spoke directly to me. It felt different than the music I heard my parents playing, the R&B on the radio. So I would seek it out. As you know, in the early years it was really hard to find, if you had the kind of mind for hip-hop. Especially on the west coast, we were limited. We didn't necessarily have some of the radio stations and the resources the east coast had but whenever we could get ahold of a mixtape or a record, we were all about it. Even if it was wack [laughs] we were trying to find something. It was just so different. But I remember the first piece of music that I actually owned. My father's friend had a son who was a DJ, and he brought me a Whodini album. It was actually Whodini, the "One Love" single. It had Whodini's "One Love" on the one side and on the b-side it was just the instrumental and a cappella. So to this day, I could quote that song from front to back [laughs]. 

So as far as MOTU, I know a lot of you guys went to high school together. But would you say it really started when you guys were dancing and had a houser crew? Is that how it all started?

    Yeah, I would say especially for the core members of Masters of the Universe, yeah, we pretty much started out as dancers. Going from late elementary school to early middle school, as you know, that golden era, '89, '90, '91, when everybody was dancing. Even the hardest cats were dancing [laughs], you know what I mean? There were so many dancing crews in San Diego and we were young so we thought, "Why don't we start a crew?" So we started House Klan. Out of that, Orko moved out of the neighborhood. Most of us went to Bell Junior High, but he had moved away. Then, in the 8th grade, he just popped up one year, just on a visit. And we were just kickin' it, and he was still dancing. He kicked a rhyme. And we were like, "We're starting this group called House Klan," and that's how we reconnected and we've stayed connected ever since.

    He had started to rhyme too so he wanted to start a group. I had maybe, at this point, two raps. I should call them rhymes 'cause they were just basic, like nursery rhymes that I had written and memorized. He was like, "Oh, let me hear it!" and I spit it. And he was like, "We should start a group." So we actually started a group with one of his relatives; I forget his rap name but his birth name was Chris. So it was me, Orko and Chris, and we were looking for a DJ. Then sooner or later Burnt Cereal, B.C. as he's known, he started going to Bell and we were like, "We'll take him in as a DJ." So Orko was going to school in El Cajon, we were going to school in Southeast, but we just started to link. So then as we became more interested in the rhyming - we were still dancing, but we also started Boot Without a Soul at the same time. From Boot Without a Soul and House Klan, other groups started to form out of the dance crew. So out of the dance crew there was Boot Without a Soul, the Black Bradys, the Little Rascalz. So we started creating this sort of early, Wu-Tang-esque movement. As we grew into our skill set and started to take it more serious, then we decided to take the playful element out of it and became Masters of the Universe as we started to evolve. 

I know you guys have a ton of unreleased music but the earliest release I'm aware of is the Retina tape (Phroetry). Can you talk about that tape?

    That was actually just one of those projects that we basically did in Orko's - he didn't have a basement, but we called it the Basement. We also called it the Abyss. It was like a shack he had in his backyard. Literally a shack, like one of those Home Depot shacks, that we would use as a studio. Then we moved his equipment into his garage and, in there, a lot of dope music came out of that, out of that address, out of that time period. That's where he made Doomsday Prophet. That's where we did the Back 2 tha Future tape. So Retina was really just a concept. We wanted to do a poetry album. We just found old jazz loops; well, not even loops, just jazz records in the crates. And we wanted to find ones without too much movement so we could kinda fall into the pockets and, you know, recite over it. And we just did it on the fly. I think it was myself, Millennium, now known as Jashun, Bassment - I dunno if Bassment was there or if he did his later - and Orko. Some of us had written stuff, some of us just freestyled poetry off the top, it sort of danced between raps and poetry. We just kinda did it. We didn't have plans to, you know, press up 100 tapes or whatever. We just did it and it was kinda dope and when we played it for people, they'd tell us we should put it out. The copy I had, I mean it was super dirty at its highest quality [laughs] so I can only imagine what it sounds like now, unless somebody digitized it and tried to enhance it in that regard. But we recorded some of it in his garage, some in his kitchen. And some of the records were in good condition, some were dirty or scratchy, but we just did it and it was dope.

So I think for most people who weren't there, it kinda starts with Microcrucifiction. When I interviewed Shamen 12 and Zombie619er, they told me Orko really spearheaded that and collected all the songs from people.

    Exactly. We had talked, as a crew, about doing different projects at different times but, as you know, when you have a large group of people in any type of setting it's hard to get them on the same page to execute. So Microcrucifiction was kind of one of those things where Orko just said, "Hey, I'm gonna take the bull by the horns. Wherever you're at, wherever you're working. If you have studio access, if you don't, we'll find it, but I need a song." I would say half of it he recorded, the other half we collected from other producers, other crews. But it's a true compilation in that he pulled from all different directions. As you probably know, he actually designed the cover, drew it by hand himself. From the inside, the writing that isn't actual typed text, he did that all himself. And that was the first time we came up with Fuk tha Industry Productions.

    Most of our early music, it was very improvised. We took the idea, the concept of being able to create, as we create, very seriously. I think even down to the projects, in and of themselves, they're improvised to a certain extent. We made the linear notes, we wrote the linear notes. We weren't just talking about improvising on the track or on the phone, you know, my man over here did the artwork, you know what I mean? Going to Kinkos by San Diego State University to print copies. It was very hands on and very on the fly.

Well, like you said, it is a compilation and it does sound like a compilation but I always felt like you and Orko, and actually in particular you, really rolled with the Microcrucifiction concept.

    Yeah, I mean, I think it was one of those things where, in our early years, I called us the concept kings because we came up with concepts all the time. As I look back on it, it was almost a gift and a curse because we were so creatively motivated we didn't give time for anything to breath life into it. As soon as we created something, it was over and on to the next thing. Instead of saying, "Let's cultivate this and give people a chance to get behind it and take it over the mountain." I mean Monday to Friday our styles changed [laughs]. That's what we fed off of. We challenged ourselves in that regard. It's not, "Wait 'til my next album." It was, "Wait 'til my next verse, what I'm gonna do!" Microcrucifiction was sort of a product of that. Not even just that tape but Ruckus, better known as West Kraven, he had this idea and we sort of always talked about it like, "You need to roll with this!" We called it horrorcore. Not hardcore, horrorcore. And it was really dark, deep, if you could relate it to a popular music, it'd be like the goth of hip-hop. It was dope. But even that concept, he only did a couple songs and it was on to something else.  

    Microcrucifiction was sort of the same thing. We said in the song, "I saw a microphone crucified on the cross," which was speaking on the death of everybody wanting to be a part this artform, it being saturated and bastardized. Something we really loved dying before our eyes. We paralleled that with Jesus Christ and we were, at that time, very into reading what would be considered subversive literature, Behold a Pale Horse, you know, watching documentaries. It was very sort of urban, underground cult, I won't say conspiracy, but below the radar intelligence. We were very in tune to that, so the play on Jesus Christ, and the Illuminati, the microphone, the cross, that was showing our deeper interest to enlighten people and give them an understanding of what's really going on. I think you can hear that in our music. It was knowledge with lyrical skill with a political edge but at the same time we tried to give you bars, lyrics and skills at the highest level.

Well, I always felt even though you guys were very lyrical and had concepts, you also had some of the dopest hooks when it came to 4-track stuff.

    One thing I know for myself, and with Orko, in our early years we worked with a really good team that helped us write songs. So in the 8th grade we knew how to count bars. We knew what a hook was. It was to hook you! It was to make you walk down the street and sing the words or hum the tune and you don't even realize you're doing it. So we took pride in taking that simple skill, that sort of R&Besque, Top 40s type skill, and adding content to it. I know, for myself, I was kinda known as the hook king 'cause I'd go into the studio and there'd be various individuals from our crew working and they didn't even have a hook. They'd just have dope lyrics and a dope beat. So I would always use a melody, or take a piece of their lyrics and put it with something I thought of to tie it in. So I think there was a seriousness we took in song writing, not just being lyricists but writing songs.

You guys also obviously had a strong battle edge to your music, but you in particular, you'd have make references to 666 and talk about demons. Was the concept there taking something negative and flipping it positively or was that just a battle thing?

    It was really just a battle thing. It was both taking something dark and making it positive and bringing light to it, but mostly just to get the emcee that I'm across from to understand that it's that dark. It's going to be that glum for you. Your lyrical demise will be likened or be parallel to death. But even from the earliest phases of hip-hop to today, it was our way of - we even used gun metaphors to some extent. When we talked about guns, we were talking about the mic. I'm not literally talking about pulling out a nine. You've probably heard in our rhymes something like, "My mind is my nine." We're just trying to body you on stage, to lyrically assassinate you on stage. So whatever reference to morbidity or death or doom or of an apocalyptic nature, I was trying to use, so that's what that was.

Something that I don't think really gets talked about too much is the Underground Improv. Was that sort of like a Good Life for you guys?

    Oh, man! Exactly! You hit it on the head. It was a Life for us. Orko, a sister named Taj, a brother named... we called him Black Santa because of his beard [laughs]. That was really one of those things that as we look back on it - put it like this, I always tell my wife: I won't say all, but I'll say 20% of what we were doing in our city, if we were doing it in another region of the country, we'd be in a completely different place in our lives. Don't change anything, just do exactly what we're doing but in San Francisco, in L.A., or God forbid, New York, we'd be in a completely different place. People say, especially in the west coast, you need to leave your town to get exposed. But I think, again, for that creative foundation we had, I think we sort of missed the boat to a certain degree in that we could have contributed a different element to hip-hop. And I don't mean that to be arrogant, but I think a lot of people think their music is original and there's nothing like it, but to this day I've never heard anyone make music the way we make music. Good or bad, like it or not. Whatever your take is, whatever your opinion is, you can't tell me you've heard something like this.

Yeah, I agree with that. You have certain groups on a similar wavelength like Darkleaf or the Shape Shifters, for example, but what you guys did was very unique, I agree.

    Exactly. There's definitely numerous underground groups we could name - and I don't mean to put us in the same category, of course, but instantly people think of Freestyle Fellowship and the Good Life and Project Blowed. Of course that's a parallel but if you listen to our music comparatively it's completely different. We may chop our words at times and use multiple syllables and flip terms but it's really in terms of the approach. It's very different. I think the Improv was just another bi-product of that, of us being so focused on creating and creating, we didn't slow down and say, "Hey, let's strategize and get some media out there." Make it something that's not a myth in time but etched in stone. The people that know know. But it's one of those things where if you weren't there, there's really no history about it. There's no place you can go to find out. It was really a lot of skillful individuals that came out of that time period. I have a freestyle on the Back 2 tha Future tape and it's a live version of the Improv, and I'm saying to Orko, "Man, we doin' the Underground Improv but how long we been in the game?" We had just graduated high school and we're already 10 years into it. We're considered old cats. We're like 19 but we'd been doing it for so long. So I was just kinda reminding the crowd that although this may appear new to you, this isn't new. We been doing this. Where have y'all been? [laughs] We've taken it serious for a long time. I wish we would've had more of a professional business outlook on it.

So was Seed-N-Soil the first solo project you did?

    Yes, that was the first one. My man, Enigmatic, was working as a music engineering student at the time at Southwestern College and he had free reign to the live studio, the track recording studio, he had access to it. So we were like, "We have access to all this equipment. We need to take advantage of it. Let's do a project." When will we again have this opportunity to engineer and have this type of form for free? So we just basically did that album in like 18 hours over a series of 6 weeks.

It's a very varied project too. Not one song sounds the same. You had spoken word. You were singing on one of 'em.

    That one song that I sang, that's freestyle. We had a homeboy in the studio playing that guitar riff and that bassline and I just was like, "Fuck it!" and just recorded it. And it was actually like 9 minutes, that's why it fades out [laughs].

About Enigmatic, I know he also produced on that Neuro Symphony in C-Minor tape. Is that when he hooked up with MOTU or was he down before that?

     I would say he was down. I think he connected to Masters through Orko. It was one of these things where he always had beats in his head but had limited equipment. I think he had a 4-track but limited equipment. So his role sort of stepped up when he got more equipment to get more involved and hand people beats. I probably have 60 songs that I've done with him that no one's ever heard. I'd go to his house at least twice a week just to create. I'd do songs over and over until they were perfect. There's mad songs in the vault. Same thing with Puddi (producer of Innercity Productions EP and member of Black Bradys). I probably have over 100 songs with Puddi all the way back to when he got his first 4-track. That's when, I dunno if you remember 'em, but he had a minidisc recorder. We thought that was like the best sound ever [laughs]. So we did like 12 songs on that. It's crazy how much we have in the vault.

   And I think this is a perfect opportunity - I know you probably have other questions - but I just wanna say that I wouldn't be doing any of this, even my poetry, anything that I'm involved in creatively as far as my knowledge of hip-hop, if it wasn't for Orko. Orko, although we're the same age, he's my Yoda. Orko encouraged me to become an emcee. Early on, when I wasn't sure about my rhymes, he'd help me with my rhymes. I didn't consider myself a rapper. He helped bring that out of me. He was like, "Dude, nobody can dance like you and not rap!" [laughs] He's like, "Dude, you dance like a rapper. The way you bust, it's in you!" So I just wanted to say that, I want it to be noted like that. That dude is a genius. He should be a millionaire somewhere.

Yeah, I view him as, in terms of techincal ability and skill and creativity, I think he's on the level of, like, Freestyle Fellowship but he doesn't quite get that kind of recognition.


Another theme that I notice a lot in your music is in regards to recognizing your roots. You talk about ancestors, the foundation of hip-hop, even the name Heru. Can you talk about the importance of knowing your roots from a hip-hop perspective?

    I think for me it goes hand-in-hand - I see hip-hop as being a part of our continuum, not just of black history but of human history. I'm a black man. I understand that there's certain politicized experiences we've been through in this country that have painted this picture that we're not human, that we're inhumane. But hip-hop is just another link in our greater human story. So I try to always tie that piece of myself in the present to myself in the past. I think, for hip-hop, it's a great avenue to do that because individuals like X-Clan and Public Enemy taught me to do that in the 7th and 8th grade. They're saying names like Kwame Nkrumah. They're saying names like Marcus Garvey. And I'm like, "Why is somebody rapping about that? Who is that?" And I'd go look it up and I'm like, "Wow, this person did what? I'm in the 8th grade and I've just now heard of this?" I'm going home to my parents, "Don't you know? Haven't you heard?" [laughs] So it goes hand-in-hand. I don't really separate the two. Even in my day-to-day grind, people are like, "How are you a social worker and a poet and an emcee?" For me, it's all the same content. It's about making myself better and the world around me better by evolving and learning and adding on. As you learn, sometimes you have to unlearn, you have to go back. That's what a lot of my music and my poetry focuses on. 

Can you break down the concept behind the name Eclipse Heru?

    I will, and again, it goes back to my man Orko [laughs]. My name originally was Phase 1 and that was like ehhh. It was a stretch to get a meaning out of it. Then I was B. Dove. Then one day I was in the studio working on some Boot Without a Soul music in Chula Vista and this cat that was in studio was like, "What does the 'B' stand for?" And, you know, I'm in the 8th grade. I'm like, "I dunno, Bennie. It's my first name." And he was like, "Nah, people gon' ask you those questions." He was like, "Make it 'Black'! Black Dove." And I was like, "Ok, word." So I was Black Dove from like middle school to 11th-12th grade. Then Orko was like, "You need to change your name. Your name is Black, you should be Eclipse!" [laughs]


   Then with Heru, going back to reading esoteric knowledge, you know, books on the Kemetic knowledge, eastern African knowldege, the Metu Neter, the Book of the Dead, showing people we're some deep cats who won't just lyrically slay you, we'll uplift you. That's why you hear us sayin' we'll resurrect you from the dead. A lot of that was knowledge from the Five Percenters, the 120, being dead and rising from the living, the Eighty Fivers. That all plays into our wisdom and how we move in hip-hop.

You were also part of the Taco Shop Poets. Can you talk about what that was all about? That was a live band with you doing vocals?

     Yeah, it was a collective of poets that basically took the same model as the Last Poets or the Watts Prophets. Each person wrote their own poem but they came together as a collective. The concept of the Taco Shop Poets was, in San Deigo we don't have cafes, we don't have bodegas, we don't have speakeasys, like the beatnik era, these music spots. We don't have that. What'd we have on every corner? Taco shops. So those are like the crossroads in our city. So a group of people: Adrian Arancibia, Tomas Riley, Adolfo Guzman and Miguel Angel Soria, they basically were like, "We're gonna do a series of poetry readings in taco shops," not thinking it would become a group. But they did one, it was maybe 40 people. They did a second, there were maybe 80 people. They did a third and there were like 300 odd people showed up. The police had to come. It turned into it's own thing. So from that, they were kinda like, "Wow, we're onto something." [laughs] At that time, anybody who came and read their poems, they could be a Taco Shop Poet.

    So then it was like, "Ok, if we're gonna do this and become a group, we're going to have to hone it down." And I wasn't involved in those early stages but I would say around 2001 the group was evolving and they were looking for some changes. I had known all of them within the poetry and music scene in San Diego. I had done different shows with them, opened for them and collaborated on some projects. But I was invited to become a part of the collective in around 2000-2001. And we toured the United States. We went to New York. We went to Boston. We went to San Francisco. We flew all around the country performing poetry with a band. It was dope.

You had a record called The Love Album. Was that a mixtape 'cause I recognized a J Dilla beat on there and a few others?

    Yup! It was a mixtape in the new era sense where you take beats and use original stuff. I personally like that because I did that whole album in 4 hours. 

That's crazy. Was Orko there too 'cause I thought I recognized his voice on there a couple times?

     Exactly. That's my man. He really produced it. He let me use one of his beats, that song "They Don't Love Me Anymore." That's an Orko production. I was like, "Fuck it!" I was gonna do a Love Album, a War Album and a Hate Album. I'm still wanting to do those at some point but life's a little different now. But I was going to do three concept albums like that. The first one focuses on love, the second was focused on war, the third one focuses on hate.

You were also part of a group called Brooklane Music with some guys, Will Downs and T. Downs. Can you talk about that?

I was the group, for the most part. When we put out Churches and Liquor Stores - he was around since the Boot Without a Soul days and he's older and he was always involved in the music himself. He actually wanted to do an album with me and Orko. It was really difficult to get ahold of Orko at the time, to sit him down like, "Let's do this frickin' album." [laughs] So he was like, "Well, let's just roll with it and do it with you." So we were actually On-1 Entertainment at first, then we changed it to Brooklane Music because we grew up on a street called Brook Lane. It was really created as a company because we were putting out an album. It wasn't really a group, it was more of a necessity.

Well, I know you had Churches and Liquor Stores, but I saw some other titles, Deadbeat Radio, Decade Sessions, Good Medicine. Are those all albums or was Churches and Liquor Stores the only album?

    I'm looking at a stack of Good Medicines right here that would body half the stuff in the industry right now. Again, it was one of those things where my man was just beefing up his studio and learning how to produce. In his progression, I thought, "Fuck it, let's just record. Let's not wait for you to get professional." He had just got the keyboard and learned how to use it. Some of those beats where the second and third beats that he made. I was like, "Let's honour that. It's hot!" Let's show your grind. Let's show how you can make dope music with minimal information. Let's do it. So we made the album.

I wanted to ask you about the stuff you did with Havana because that was kinda different. She's an R&B singer?

     It's so funny because most of the people we're talking about I've known for so long. I've know her since 7th or 8th grade. She used to date a guy who used to rap [laughs] and he knew one of my best friends, his name was Ecto, he was in House Klan. Once we started rapping and getting heavily into it, he started fading out of the crew. He's always family, but he didn't really come with us on the rapping side. He danced in high school then just got a job and had a family. But his best friend was dating Havana and he was saying she was a great singer and she had a group. They were called Shalom. She ended up searching me up later on around 2002. She had an album called LIFE and I did a poem on there. We had actually talked about doing a group and a project. We had a concept group called Match'd Frantic. We did maybe 20 songs and on her album Entervention, "Not Affected" is one of those songs.

You do spoken word poetry, you're a rapper, obviously, but you're also an author. Can you talk about your book, greens? That's a book of poetry, right?

    Yes, it's a book of poetry. I have to credit Jashun (Millennium) with that. He was heavily into writing what he called poems. And for me, I had some a cappella rhymes that could be called poems and he'd take me to different poetry meetings. This was in the mid-90s. And he was like, "You should do some of your a cappella rhymes. Just go up there and do it!" And people were like, "Oh, that was so awesome!" And, you know, I didn't call myself a poet. Man, I'm a rapper! [laughs] But slowly but surely I got that bug. I got my MFA in Creative Writing. It became me. So now I consider myself a poet/emcee. I don't like to talk about it too much. I just like to show people [laughs]. Because everybody does something. I mean, it's just ridiculous. 

Yeah, there's no quality control anymore...

     Yeah, like when I tell somebody I write, they're like, "Me too!" I'm like, "Okay... Nevermind, let's just move on."

So my last question here, I know you have a new book, but any other future projects you'd like to mention?

     Well, right now I'm going to be working with - hopefully it'll really come to fruition sooner than later, but we're definitely gonna make it happen - but I'm gonna be working with Milky Wayne and Taylor Tosh on a joint project. I think it'll be fire. Milky Wayne and Taylor Tosh are the individuals who produced Homesick and they produced the Low Cal EP back in the day that got released to vinyl. So we're trying to at least release an EP, or single, maybe even go straight to vinyl again. Taylor keeps sending me dope beats. I'm gonna be working with some other emcees out in L.A. I think it could really do some damage. It's gonna be dope.