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Regional Interests

‘It’s Pure Energy’: How Hyphy Came to Define Bay Area Hip-Hop

When it comes to cultural exports of the Bay Area, hyphy is in a league of its own.

The subgenre of hip-hop has an up-tempo, hyperactive beat that makes you want to dance. In the early 2000s, artists like E-40 and Too Short had audiences around the world loving this distinctly Bay Area sound. But to locals who lived through the hyphy movement, it was much bigger than music.

“It’s an energy. It’s a culture. It’s a dance. It’s expression,” E-40 said in an interview posted by Artisan News Service. “It’s cars. It’s the sideshows. It’s the swinging of donuts. It’s scraper cars — the Buick LeSabres, the Park Avenues, the old-school muscle cars … It’s the struggle. It’s the way we dress. It’s our lingo. It’s a culture, man.”

Pendarvis Harshaw, who is now host of KQED’s Rightnowish podcast, recalled growing up in the midst of the hyphy movement.

“The scrapers getting sideways, airbrushed T-shirts, big stunna shades, all of that — that was my teenage experience,” he said. “I remember being in Emeryville at the record release party for E-40’s My Ghetto Report Card … which was arguably the height of the hyphy movement.”

He’s watched the culture and music evolve over the past 20 years. Now, young people who were just babies at the height of the hyphy movement are rediscovering it.

“To this new generation of young adults, what’s old is new again,” Harshaw said.

That’s also true for Bay Curious listener Lauren Tankeh. She grew up in San Carlos and remembers starting to listen to hyphy in high school. Now, she’s in college at Cal Poly and says when a hyphy song gets played at a party, all the Bay Area kids go crazy. She wants to know more about how the culture became so synonymous with the Bay.

Below is a conversation Pendarvis had with music producer Trackademicks for the Rightnowish podcast. They’ll answer Lauren’s question, taking us through the hip-hop legacy of Northern California, and dig in on the etymology of the word “hyphy.”

Jesus El stares into the camera as Pendarvis Harshaw does a video interview with E-40 at Youth Uprising in Deep East Oakland. (Courtesy of Jacky Johnson.)

Pendarvis: I think it’s time for a Bay Area history lesson on hyphy music, and who better to talk to than the cool collar scholar himself, the HNRL producer who has worked with J. Stalin, Kamaiyah, Mistah F.A.B. and more. His name is Trackademicks, and he knows a thing or two about hip-hop history in this region.

Pendarvis: What’s the first hyphy song you ever heard?

Trackademicks: I’d have to say that E-40 album … it had the song “Gasoline” with Turf Talk. That’s when I first started hearing like, ‘oh, this is an actual crazy sound.’ The hyphy sound. Turf Talk’s voice next to E-40’s voice, it just kind of created this crazy tone where it’s just unruly. It was in your face.

Trackademicks: The beat’s by Rick Rock.

Pendarvis: Rick Rock was the Northern California producer behind classic old-school songs, contemporary hits, and a ton of songs from major hip-hop artists, like Tupac, Jay-Z … even Busta Rhymes and Mariah Carey. Rick Rock was one of the producers who laid the cornerstone to the hyphy sound — producing songs like “Hyphy” and “Go Dumb” by the Federation, as well as E-40’s “Yay Area.”

Trackademicks: Rick Rock was making crazy beats. He was making more uptempo songs with wacky, wacky sounds and crazy percussion. This is something different, it’s hyphy. I mean, we didn’t have the terminology yet. But it slapped.

Where did the word “hyphy” come from?

Pendarvis: “Hyphy” the word was first said on record by East Oakland’s Keak Da Sneak in the mid-’90s. It gained popularity in the early 2000s. But in the early days when Keak started using it, “hyphy” didn’t mean what it means now.

Trackademicks: He’s the one who created the hyphy terminology. In Oakland, hyphy … didn’t mean fun. Hyphy meant … “They hyphy over there.” Like I’m not trying to go over there. They might rob you. You never know what’s going on.

Pendarvis: But, as language does, the term evolved to mean hyperactive — in a good way. Full of exuberant energy, the life of the party.

Trackademicks: Hyphy is pure energy. It’s not a clap sound or ghostriding whips and all that … it’s pure energy.

The Musical Lineage that Created Hyphy

Pendarvis: The hyphy sound in the mid 2000s didn’t come out of nowhere; it was a combination of the energy of the people and the evolution of music styles happening locally. To start us off, back in the day, there was funk music…

Pendarvis: The heavy bass and synthesizers from funk shifted into a darker tone… becoming mobb music.

Trackademicks: In the ’80s, you had prehistoric mobb music. I call it prehistoric, Cro-Magnon mobb music, where it was influenced by East Coast rap like Whodini.

Trackademicks: Specifically here, it’s just the bass lines, and the ominous sounds … the Moog synths, and the different synthesizers that they were using back then. So that’s the first iteration, like that mobb, that eighties, you know, Too Short.

Pendarvis: Everyone knows Short sampled Parliament Funkadelic and James Brown, but it’s the deep cuts that show how foundational the funk was. Tracks like the Conscious Daughters’ “Somethin’ to Ride To (Fonky Expedition)”. That song is built off a sample of the S.O.S. Band’s “No One’s Going to Love You.”

Trackademicks: As it went through the late ’90s, mobb music started re-interpolating a lot of things. Musicians like Ant Banks and Khayree were producing very lavish productions.

Pendarvis: That sound got juiced up and grew into what we know as hyphy — same bass, more tempo, not as dark, and a lot more fun. The mobb era came with different flavors from all across Northern California. Similarly, the hyphy movement had different flavors from different towns too. There was Dem Hoodstarz out of East Palo Alto. J. Stalin and Livewire Records out of West Oakland, and The Federation out of Fairfield, to name a few. And many artists had careers that spanned both mobb music and the hyphy movement — like Too Short, E-40, and this one guy whose birth name is Andre Hicks. But you might know him as the Furly Ghost, Ronald Dregan, Thizzelle Washington, Andre Macassi, the Cold Crest Creeper, or simply: Mac Dre.

Trackademicks: The thing that Mac Dre brought was the energy of hyphy, the caricature, the character of hyphy. He kind of set the groundwork of the fun aspect of it. And as the music started to catch up, with Rick Rock and E-40 bringing that actual sonic sound of hyphy, that connected with the characters that Mac Dre gave F.A.B in the 2000s. The baton from Mac Dre was kind of passed to Mistah F.A.B, and in that regard, everybody else.

Music Today

Pendarvis: What’s going on right now in terms of the Bay Area sound?

Trackademicks: It’s all like a post-mobb and hyphy sound kind of mixed together. So you have a lot of the slap and kind of the general rhythmic disposition. We’re back to the ominous chords and the pianos. It’s undeniable that the sonic backdrop of it all is a direct descendant of the older Bay Area music. Even someone like Rexx Life Raj, where it’s almost like soulful mobb or soulful hyphy. It amazes me how much it stays ingrained in our music. And I believe that it’s going to stay, because it actually has influenced the whole landscape of music.

Copyright 2021 KQED