Hieroglyphics' At the Helm came roaring through my television when I was about 13 years old and -- truth be told -- the jam changed my life.

Turns out yours truly was watching the snowboarding flick Technical Difficulties, trying to get his shred fix. But the crashing melodies and clever rhymes of "Helm" validated my ears for voyage into uncharted territory: hip-hop.

That was 1999. Back then, Hieroglyphics' underground super-group of rappers -- A-Plus, Opio, Phesto Tajai, Casual, Pep Love, Domino, Knobody and Musab -- was led by the swashbuckling and groovy Del tha Funky Homosapien, a dude as eclectic as he was clever and talented.

It was Del's show, whether he knew it or not. Ice Cube, his cousin, helped him catch his break in 1991, and his solo effort, I Wish My Brother George Was Here, eventually translated into underground and commercial fame for his Hiero homies.

Del was popular. He gained exposure and critical acclaim for his collaborative efforts with Deltron 3030 and the Gorillaz. Hiero was visible because of Del.

Things are different now. "A Hiero fan isn't just a Del fan," Opio says with a trace of snarky annoyance. Seems Del has taken a sabbatical, leaving his boys to tour by themselves.

Makes no difference in Opio's mind. Hiero is Hiero, with or without Del. The night before, he said, they had played San Francisco -- their stomping ground -- and it was tight.

& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & H & lt;/span & iero changed my life because they showed me rap didn't have to be about busting caps and f---ing bitches. It was about fluency and rhyming ingenuity -- they told me -- and I listened.

Around the same time, New York's Wu-Tang Clan had emerged onto the hip-hop scene with guile and swagger and they gallivanted from borough to borough. Wu-Tang was high-profile and wielded commercial appeal, but they shared many similarities with their other-coast counterparts, Hieroglyphics.

Both had underground beginnings. Both boasted enough members to nearly field a basketball game. They each had their fierce, local cult followings -- in a 2000 interview with SF Weekly, Del remarked he'd seen as many as 20 people tattooed with Hieroglyphics' iconic logo -- and both groups were dedicated to lyrically driven songs.

Among the reasons Wu-Tang sustained mainstream success was the individual efforts of their crewmates -- platinum-selling artists and producers, Grammy winners, TV and film stars, screenwriters, businessmen. When one member of Wu-Tang wasn't available -- locked up, MIA, pursuing a solo career -- they were still a hip-hop dynamo.

Hiero's members have not made cameo appearances on television or the big screen. But there is a wealth of talent. Souls of Mischief -- a quartet of Hiero's rappers -- released 93 Til' Infinity, an album that preceded Hieroglyphics but was considered a landmark effort as it climbed to No. 17 on Billboard's R & amp;B chart in 1993.

"With Hiero, you get a lot of different elements," says Opio, a member of Souls of Mischief.

Indeed. The solo efforts of Pep Love appeared in 2000; three years later, Tajai released his own individual work, Power Movement. Opio, for his part, has offered two solo albums since 2005.

& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & "H & lt;/span & iero is always stronger when we're all together," Opio admits. Throughout our conversation, he lauded the accomplishments of his colleagues and hadn't suggested that Hiero needs Del.

Perhaps they don't. Like Wu-Tang, Hiero could well be a hip-hop force without the talents of their marquee star.

"There aren't many cats that do it like we do it," Opio says. He launches into praise for Casual's "raw lyricism," exemplified by "Say That Then" -- a cut from his 2005 Smash Rockwell -- that showcases a funky flow conjuring Jurassic 5. A Plus, for his solo part in 2007's My Last Good Deed, drops a dark beat with "Good Time Charlie" and delivers his rhymes with deft agility.

"These cats have demanded we come out," Opio says with marked sincerity of Hiero's fans. "It's not like we're trying to hustle."

On his second studio album, Vulture's Wisdom, Volume 1, Opio uses his stripped-down voice to attack the mic. He sounds a bit scruffy, but there is an undeniable lyrical musculature present, one that isn't necessarily graceful but hardworking and industrious. He is the reluctant front man of Hiero now and a peacekeeper of sorts. He doesn't want to indict Del.

"Things happen," he says of Del's absence. "We don't have any problems with Del."

Who knows when he will return? "Del has been in the game longer than anyone else," Opio says. "It's just relentless..."

In the meantime, Opio says Hiero will continue to provide fans with what they want: shows and music. He misses Del because his contributions increase the creative capitol that Hiero cashes in on. But Del exists intangibly, on the albums.

"It's really what the people want," he says of the group sans its founder. "Nobody's walked away sayin' 'We didn't get our money's worth.'"

The Hieroglyphics and the Blue Scholars at Gonzaga University, outside Crosby Student Center, on Thursday, Sept. 25, at 7 pm. Free. Call 313-6123.

Just Plain Darin @ Iron Horse (Valley)

Wed., Feb. 8, 5-8 p.m.
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