Tell Me When to Go: The Hyphy Movement's Legacy 10 Years Later

An insider look at the movement that brought the Bay Area its historic moment in the national spotlight. Go dumb...
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I was 19-years-old when I moved to the Bay Area in 2001. No, "moved" implies some sort of plan. I had no home lined up, no job, no college education. The only thing I possessed resembling a plan was an image of myself as the second coming of Jack Kerouac, drunk in the streets of San Francisco with groundbreaking novels leaking out of me like a cracked whiskey bottle. It was reckless, but what's the point of being 19 if you're not reckless? 

A couple weeks of couch surfing turned into a room in a crowded house in Berkeley, and a couple weeks in a crowded house in Berkeley turned into a late night car ride with my new roommate Steve, along with Vivian and Jackie. They were all Bay Area natives - from Rodeo, Vallejo and SF respectively - and so when "Sprinkle Me" came on KMEL they exploded. "OOH OOH OOH HERE I BE" the girls chanted in unison, windows rattling. 

I had spent the sum total of my hip-hop listening life until then in Boston nurturing an obsession with underground rap that was just beginning a heavy Def Jux phase. It had never even occurred to me that it was possible to rap like this, words somehow simultaneously slurred and surgically precise. "Who's this?" I asked and they looked at me like I had just walked into a church and asked what the deal was with that guy on the cross. I don't think it had ever occured to them that not knowing E-40 was a human possibility. 

That was my first indication that I had entered a parallel universe and that if I wanted to survive, or at least not be the guy looking confused while the rest of the party went off to the "Thizzle Dance," I needed to learn the native dialect of this new land. Luckily, learning that language was an immersive experience. I'd ride the AC Transit and listen to high schoolers, kids just two or three years younger than me, talk without really being able to follow along, which was the point for them. I'd quickly get lost in a barrage of words laced with "giggin" and "slappers" capped off with a "Yadadamean?" Waiting for the train at MacArthur meant watching kids practice their best thizz faces, and by 2004 it was clear that I was witnessing something special. There was no label attached to it, yet, but it really did feel like the Town was crackling with an elevated energy. The sideshows were getting bigger and more brazen, every day brought a new way of politicians promising to crack down on the public menace. I'd come out of the Emeryville Denny's at 3 in the morning to find kids standing on top of cars - there was a 50/50 chance it was their car and not a stranger's. In 2016 parlance, shit was lit. 

And then in 2006 E-40 dropped "Tell Me When To Go" and the Bay Area exploded onto the national scene like it never had before. Like the attention Houston was receiving around the same time, a spotlight swung toward a region that had been largely ignored by the hip-hop mainstream for decades and people were fascinated to discover what had been there all along - a distinct culture complete with its own unique style, fashion, slang, dance and music. A culture that had become so unique exactly because it had been ignored by the mainstream.

Suddenly MTV crews were rushing to document what had been neatly packaged as the "Hyphy" movement, bringing cameras into areas they wouldn't have dreamed of venturing into just months ago: Hunter's Point, Richmond, Vallejo, East Oakland and beyond. Suddenly E-40's gurgling flow and Keak Da Sneak's gravel-raps were being heard beyond the confines of KMEL. Suddenly, a full 21 years after his first album, Too $hort was getting big spins on the national stage. Life in the Yay Area was, indeed, super duper hyphy. The only shame was that G-Funk pioneer Mac Dre wasn't there to see the seeds he planted grow into a forest. 

Like all waves the hyphy movement eventually ran out of energy and crashed, but looking back a decade later it's still clear that hyphy wasn't something imagined, a mere trend or fad. It was a very real, very tangible, very incredibly moment in Bay Area hip-hop culture and history. But as much as I tried to immerse myself in the Bay Area, I was an outsider to the culture. At best I was a witness, not a creator, not a native to the soil, so if I wanted some real perspective on what that time was like I had to talk to someone who was there from the ground floor. 

So I called Locksmith. A lifelong Bay Area resident, I first heard Locksmith around 2004, when his group The Frontline was making some serious noise locally. At the time I was still a few years from realizing that writing about music was a real job real people could really have and Lock's moved on from Frontline to establish a remarkable solo career, but all these years later we've developed enough of a relationship that he's willing to let me grill him about some hyphy history. This is his insider story: 

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"The first time I heard the term hyphy being used was around 2002. We used to throw our own shows, our first shows, and they were in Berkeley, right on Telegraph Ave. We'd have The Team, Mistah FAB, a couple of my other friends. That's when I first heard, 'Oh, they gettin hyphy,' but it was a term for when stuff was getting rowdy, when people were ready to throw down. It wasn't associated with a specific music, it was for when someone was out of control.

Hyphy was originally an Oakland thing. The first time I heard the term it was coming from Oakland people. There's no one way to make these connections, no direct path, but you can draw the lines like this. To my knowledge, Keak da Sneak was the biggest independent artist I had seen come out of the Bay. No radio play, just the streets, you couldn't even buy his album from stores. He had beats from EA Ski and Tone Capone, but it was the Rick Rock songs that had people really amped. It had that hyphy sound, but that word wasn't really being used yet.

Then when Rick Rock came with The Federation and they had the "Hyphy (Remix)" with Keak Da Sneak, E-40, San Quinn and Turf Talk, it had all the major Bay Area places represented. That song was huge in the streets and even though there were other songs with that sound, it really put the stamp on the whole thing and you started to hear hyphy, hyphy, hyphy....

The clothes, sideshows, all that existed before. Keak had a song called 'White T Shirt, Blue Jeans, & Nikes' because that was the uniform at the time. People had been rapping about dreads, but when the 'Hyphy' song blew up, all of it got labeled as this hyphy culture. E-40 had embraced hyphy for a while, had done records with Keak and Mistah FAB, but when he did his own hyphy record and had Lil Jon produce it, who was really big at the time, and it had Keak on it, who was the people's champ of Oakland, he had both the national thing and the streets. There was no way that record could not win. It put the hyphy movement in the spotlight for the rest of the world to either not like it or roll with it. 

We [The Frontline] never considered ourselves hyphy, we never had a song where we used the word 'hyphy,' but because that was the movement that took over, if you had a song that was poppin on radio or the club, you'd get called hyphy. A lot of artists got clumped into it, but I never took an issue with being labeled that because a lot of those people were my friends and I knew that if you listened to our music you'd hear that there was more to it than just uptempo beats. You had people like Goapele, Zion I, too many more to name, who were not hyphy but they were still making music and being successful before, during and after hyphy. When hyphy came along we all benefited though, we took advantage of it. If you want to call me hyphy fine, as long as you're paying me to do these shows [laughs].

In the national spotlight, after E-40's album was successful there was really no one else who hit that level. Mac Dre could have been another very big piece of that puzzle, but unfortunately we didn't get to see it. There were still a lot of local artists making songs, still bubbling, still hyphy. We fell back from music and I figured out I wanted to go solo - you know how you find yourself and what you want - but there were younger guys keeping it going. There was that group, Trunk Boiz, they had that song "Cupcakes No Fillin" and they were a part of that E-40 and Too Short song, "Bitch," so that was the sound continuing. And then you had people like HBK and IAMSU bubbling, they had songs getting played by the kids in '09, before radio, and it was carrying on hyphy but less aggressive.  

What's going on now, you have a lot of younger Bay Area artists like IAMSU, Kehlani, who are successful and saw hyphy and ran with it in their own way. The thing about sideshows is that people got killed, people were dying. It feels like that younger generation took all the positive things about hyphy and left the bad - now it's just fun music. 

As soon as you put a label on something - oh that's hyphy, that's crunk, that's trap - you can market it and push it, but that also means you can end it. Hyphy as a term ended but it didn't really end, it just morphed into something else. That's Bay Area culture, Bay Area culture is alive." 

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A Beginner's Hyphy Playlist

By Nathan S, the managing editor of DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter. Illustration by kwadwo owusu Asante.

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