Up from the underground
IN the early morning hours most weekends, finding hyphy isn’t difficult, it’s just a matter of knowing what to look for. Pull off Interstate 580 near the San Leandro line and head south toward the San Francisco Bay. Along a nearly deserted stretch of Foothill Boulevard you’ll find them: scorched black curlicues marking the street every hundred yards or so for nearly 10 miles.
These are skid marks -- physical evidence that countless cars have done 360-degree “doughnut” spinouts along this infamous cruising strip. They attest to more than just urban blight, however, serving also as a signal: the hyphy movement was here. Hyphy (pronounced “HI-fee”) is the Bay Area’s burgeoning outlaw hip-hop subculture.
Since March, when rapper E-40’s “My Ghetto Report Card” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard R&B;/Hip-Hop chart, hyphy’s bass-heavy, rapid-fire rap sound has become Northern California’s most popular musical export. Hyphy culture, which is much more than just beats, cuts across boundaries of race and geography, consisting of a jumble of loose ends: youthful rebellion and regional pride, political empowerment and hustlers’ ambition, drug abuse and boogie-down bliss, much of it centered around illegal block party/car rallies called “sideshows.”
At just past 3 a.m. on a recent Saturday, nearly 100 people converged at a 24-hour Chevron gas station to “get hyphy.” Some swigged bottles of cognac, smashing the empties into the concrete. Others bobbed their heads in time to rap music blaring from car stereos or “turf danced,” a frenetic street Kabuki, something like punk rock moshing with break dance and martial arts moves mixed in.
The sound of screeching tires drowned the music out, and attention shifted to the intersection: a Cadillac Escalade was doing doughnuts. Several bystanders rushed into the street to slap the tail of the vehicle as it swung past -- the rough automotive equivalent of running with the bulls in Pamplona. Then, in turn, the driver of a dilapidated Buick LeSabre demonstrated “ghost riding the whip.” As the car inched forward, he opened his door and jumped out to dance alongside, waving a bottle of beer in the air. The crowd shouted its approval.
A moment later, it was over. Cars peeled out of the gas station, carrying the turf dancers who continued to posture wildly while dangling out of windows and doors, some even balancing atop the moving vehicles’ trunks and roofs. “It’s like a competition,” said Rashida Ellis, 17, of San Jose. “He sees this guy getting hyphy and he’s like, ‘I gotta get hyphier than him.’ Who’s the hyphiest? It’s like, who’s the hardest?”
“Hyphy is wherever, whenever, whatever you feel,” said Delvonne Howard, 18, of East Oakland, gazing toward the intersection of Foothill and High Street. “People going crazy, acting a fool: If you’re really a hyphy person, it’s your way of life.”
A way of life that local law enforcement is doing its best to discourage; the Oakland Police Department employs “late tacticals,” a unit created to curtail sideshows. But that hasn’t prevented Island Def Jam, TVT and Warner Bros. Records from signing hyphy artists and MTV and BET, among others, from attempting to profit from what they are touting as hip-hop’s next big regional thing: a West Coast answer to Atlanta’s crunk music scene.
To the faithful, hyphy is a life-affirming youth “movement” based around music that provides refuge from the Bay Area’s escalating homicide rate and random street violence. It has also shown potential to alter the political landscape -- such as when a bloc of voters rallied by a local rapper helped sway Oakland’s recent mayoral election in favor of a candidate who courted the hip-hop constituency. Further, hyphy’s evangelists say it can make good on the hippie pipe dream of unifying young people of various races and creeds as “one nation under a groove.”
To its detractors, however, hyphy -- the word combines “hyperactive” with “fly,” another slang honorific that means “coolest of the cool” -- only denotes ignorance and addiction. Sideshows have resulted in eight deaths (U’Kendra Johnson, to name one such victim, was killed when the car she was driving was hit by a man trying to evade police after leaving a sideshow) and hundreds of arrests last year, Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown said. Authorities also say that numerous hit-and-run injuries and extensive property damage have been linked to the parties.
Youth counselors, police and local government representatives complain that the culture dangerously glamorizes out-of-control behavior -- known colloquially as “going dumb” or “getting retarded” -- citing hyphy’s extravagant drug culture in which Ecstasy, alcohol, industrial-strength marijuana and codeine-laced cough syrup are widely abused.
“This is total disregard for human life, for law, for each other, for everything,” Oakland Police Department spokesman Roland Holmgren said of hyphy. “They’ve created their own world and lifestyle where this stuff is acceptable to them. You can drive yourself crazy trying to make sense out of it.”
Still, hip-hop is among the few remaining regional forms of American popular culture. In recent years, Texas, Atlanta and Detroit have all enjoyed national attention for their local rap scenes. In the mid-'90s, the Bay Area took a turn in the mainstream spotlight largely through the efforts of Oakland’s self-styled pimp MC Too Short and East Bay gangsta rap superstar Tupac Shakur. But when Shakur was murdered in Las Vegas in 1996, Bay Area hip-hop went underground.
“Since Tupac passed away, everybody pretty much left us alone on the national scene,” said DJ Shadow, a pioneering Bay Area turntablist/trip-hop producer who recently started recording hyphy music. “There was a sense of ‘Nobody’s looking at us so we’re gonna be who we want.’ That’s why hyphy is a culture. It’s not just music.”
Departing from the schedule
THE idea must have looked good on paper: capture hyphy’s chaotic essence in a three-minute music video for “18 Dummy,” a new single from the Federation, a rap trio signed to Warner Bros. Records. The location: Alameda Point, a decommissioned naval air station on an island promontory west of downtown Oakland
It was 78 degrees and sunny, and all the appropriate paperwork had been filled out. And the day’s shot list read like a hyphy checklist -- turf dancing, ghost riding the whip, going dumb, etc; it would be edited together to form a primer-cum-propaganda film that would sum up the culture.
But with the arrival of some 1,500 extras and more than 150 cars -- three times as many as expected -- two hyphy-affiliated motorcycle gangs, two excitable pit bulls with their “trainers” (guys with small whips who goaded the dogs into an assaultive frenzy) and one graffiti-covered “Hyphy Icee” ice cream truck, the shooting schedule went out the window.
“Turn your cars around,” first assistant director Devaughn Hughson shouted into a megaphone. “Don’t get hyphy in the street.”
He was roundly ignored.
Ricardo “Rick Rock” Thomas, 35, a platinum-selling hip-hop producer who has worked with artists such as Jay-Z and Fabolous but who is credited with pioneering hyphy music’s rapid-fire electro-pop sound (his “18 Dummy,” for instance, cruises along at a pulse-quickening 120 beats per minute) observed the crowd from a catering truck. Ensembles of custom air-brushed T-shirts, baggy jeans and sneakers were the prevailing fashion statement, although more than a few people in the crowd sported “grills,” gold- and diamond-encrusted dental jewelry.
Thomas called hyphy a “first cousin” to Atlanta’s synthesizer-heavy crunk. Although both are designed to pack the dance floor, crunk is more openly fixated on sex. Hyphy is all about delirium and escapism; the lyrics of artists such as Turf Talk, Droop-E, Keak Da Sneak and Mistah F.A.B. tend to be laughably simplistic and chock-a-block with Bay Area-specific references such as “thizzing” -- getting high on Ecstasy.
“My definition of hyphy is thizzin’, sniffin’ lines / I’m in the building and I’m feeling like, yipeee,” Keak Da Sneak raps in his song “Super Hyphie.” “Hold it down for the Bay, reppin’ Oakland.”
The producer explained that hyphy’s extreme form of self-expression appeals to people with a certain disposition: those searching for something -- anything -- to distinguish themselves as individuals. “The hyphy movement is an extension of the street,” Thomas said. “It derives from the Bay Area’s culture of gangstas, pimps, hustlers. Everybody wants to shine and do their own thing, to be set apart from everybody else.
“It’s nothing that’s new under the sun. But as a movement, it’s something for them to say, ‘That’s us in one word. Hyphy: That’s us bottled up.’ ”
Several Alameda police officers looked on in mute disbelief as three motorcycle riders did doughnuts and popped wheelies. Muscle cars revved their thunderous engines and demonstrated the “gas, brake, dip” technique: a lurching vehicular break dance considered one of hyphy’s signature innovations.
Meanwhile, a dozen people turf danced aggressively atop the ice cream truck, making discreet hand gestures that signified (to those in the know) what neighborhood each of them came from, many shaking their dreadlocked hair while wearing oversized sunglasses referred to as “stunna shades.” Almost everyone was grandstanding wildly in an effort to get camera time.
But with barely half of the video in the can, police became worried that things had gotten out of control. And as the sun began to set behind a row of candy-colored lowriders, the mob of extras jostled and surged, crowding the Federation band members out of the camera’s view. In typical hyphy style, the sideshow had become the main event.
It was then that police threatened to arrest director Jeremy Rall if he didn’t stop filming. A sense of giddiness and palpable disappointment pervaded the scene as a cordon of officers in bulletproof vests began herding extras back into their cars and off Alameda Point.
“It’s a Bay Area Mardi Gras,” the Federation’s Anthony “Goldie” Caldwell reflected. “Each individual is their own walking party.”
Getting out the vote
TO hear it from some locals, this scene could have happened only in the Bay. “We’re the home of liberals, of the [Black] Panthers, gay pride, on and on,” said Oakland’s Chuck Johnson, coordinating producer on Black Entertainment Television’s “Hyphy Week” special in May. “Now we have individuals saying, ‘Let’s take this energy and organize it, make something good.’ ”
Inspired by rap impresario Russell Simmons’ Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, Johnson co-organized Vote fo’ Sheezy, a voter registration drive that encouraged young adults in the hip-hop community to vote in Oakland’s June mayoral election.
As part of the initiative, Mistah F.A.B., a local rapper and one of hyphy’s biggest celebrities, was enlisted to get the word out. Although Vote fo’ Sheezy is a nonpartisan organization, he decided to back Ron Dellums, urging his fans to vote for him at concerts and rallies. A Dellums campaign manager said F.A.B.'s support helped win the election.
“Hyphy brought in a new demographic that I hadn’t seen in my last seven years working in politics,” said VaShone Huff, an executive assistant for the Dellums campaign. “These rappers were in folks’ ears, planting seeds. For this generation, it’s such a powerful movement. It gave us a visible push.”
“Hyphy’s more than just a dance craze, a drug culture,” said Johnson, 31. “There’s a perception that it’s just buffoonery. But we’re attempting to get hyphy by voting, building community, reducing crime -- by being more positive.”
Even the scene’s most vocal proponents acknowledge, however, that hyphy has to clean up its act.
Toward that end, Youth UpRising, an Oakland community center, teaches turf dancing and rapping skills as an after-school program. Programs there afford local teens an alternative to becoming gang-affiliated and attempt to ritualize and commodify hyphy’s cultural presence: The center hires out its dancers for music videos and is planning to produce a documentary film.
“Right now, what’s lacking in hyphy is depth,” said Jacky Johnson, a Youth Uprising organizer. “This is a ‘movement.’ But where are we going?”
Like rock ‘n’ roll in the early ‘50s and hip-hop itself in the late ‘80s, hyphy has spawned outspoken critics who lament its corrupting influence. David Muhammad, executive director of Oakland’s Mentoring Center, which helps people under 25 transition from the California Youth Authority back into society, says he has seen hyphy’s negative effects up close: addiction, fighting, traffic accidents and a sneering attitude toward women and authority.
“In the music you hear on the radio, there is an extreme promotion of Ecstasy use, marijuana smoking, alcohol drinking and irresponsible behavior,” he said. ""There are so many tragic outcomes from this.”
Calling the designer club drug by its street name, “thizz,” rapper Caldwell of the Federation explained Ecstasy’s place within hyphy. “Thizz is a party drug,” he said. “It’s like taking a Flintstone vitamin -- it’s just part of the culture, not a prerequisite.”
Another mean aspect of the culture takes place about two-thirds of the way through the underground DVD documentary “Wildest Sideshows Uncensored.” In the incendiary film shot in East Oakland and San Jose, a late-model Cadillac SUV is stuck in gridlock traffic. Several teenagers dance atop the car’s roof and hood.
Suddenly and inexplicably, they decide to attack the driver and rip the vehicle apart. About a dozen kids are shown giving the Cadillac a group stomping, caving in its roof, ripping the doors from the hinges and smashing in the windows. In another scene, a taxi from the Yellowtop Cab Co. is similarly vandalized while sitting in traffic. Other drivers are also shown being harassed.
“There are times when innocent bystanders, people who aren’t associated with the sideshows at all, make a wrong turn and find themselves in the middle of a sideshow,” said Oakland police spokesman Holmgren. “Depending on the mood of the crowd, they might total the car while it’s at a standstill.”
“Wildest Sideshows’ ” cameraman/co-director (who will identify himself by only his rap moniker, Drop Knock) describes the scenario as “unusual, un-hyphy behavior” -- never mind that he’s responsible for packaging and selling such antics as hyphy.
“Hyphy is a youth-driven culture that thrives on pure energy,” said Drop Knock, a hulking yet soft-spoken bear of a man who wore baggy jeans and a custom T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Got Purp?” (slang for a type of marijuana). “A destructive nature sours the whole thing.” True, he conceded, sometimes hyphy’s barely-in-control nature spills over into violence.
Drop Knock was eager to put a more positive spin on hyphy, singling out its unifying effect on Northern California. In a display of racial and regional unity that is highly unusual in mainstream hip-hop -- and nearly nonexistent in Los Angeles and New York -- young adults from across what they call “the Yay Area” have bonded through their shared affinity for hyphy.
“It’s creating camaraderie,” Drop Knock said. He pointed to an ethnically heterogeneous group that included young people of African American, Asian, Latino, Middle Eastern and Caucasian descent who had gathered at 90th Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard in East Oakland for a sideshow. “You have kids coming out here from San Jose, Sacramento, Fresno and San Francisco, driving to Oakland to be a part of the scene,” he continued. “It’s getting everyone together and representing the Bay as having one culture.”
A ‘hyphy train’
LATER that night, at close to 4:30 a.m. in East Oakland, a reporter and photographer found themselves in the middle of a “hyphy train” -- a caravan of some two dozen cars filled with scenesters speeding east down Foothill Boulevard
Moving in formation, many of the vehicles ran red lights and stop signs, driving with the doors open and into oncoming traffic. Now and then, a police cruiser pulled one of the cars over while the rest drove off.
Hyphy trains can grow to as many as 100 cars. As a blue Camaro executed a textbook spinout, Drop Knock said admiringly: “To us, doughnuts are an art form. It’s perfectly controlled chaos.”
Later, Anjanee Howard, 15, of East Oakland, expressed doubts about hyphy’s ability to provide anything more than momentary diversion from harsh urban realities.
"[Stuff] gets old real fast,” she said. “I love going out and getting dumb, you feel me?” she said. “But a lot of people take it the wrong way. There’s a lot of shootings out here, a lot of killings. You look at that and you don’t want to go out and get dumb and have fun. That makes you want to stay up in the house -- or carry a pistol.”
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Talking the talk in ‘one nation under a groove’
Even by rap’s baroque language standards, hyphy lingo can be, by turns, bizarre, hilarious and incomprehensible. For the uninitiated, a lexicon of hyphy terminology:
Beezey: An attractive woman.
Flambostulatin’: Acting out in an ostentatious way.
Gas, Break, Dip (alt. Yoking): A lurching vehicular form of break dancing in which the driver alternately accelerates and slams on the brake, making the car dip and shake.
Getting Dumb (alt. Going Dumb): Losing oneself in the moment through ecstatic, highly athletic movement -- usually dancing or driving. “It’s one of those hip-hop slang terms that’s a paradox,” said DJ Shadow. “It’s a way of turning misery on its head.”
Getting Stewie: Synonym for “getting dumb” derived from Stewie Griffin, the infant protagonist on the animated TV series “Family Guy.” “ ‘Getting Stewie’: It’s a peak of being,” explained Anthony “Goldie” Caldwell of the rap group the Federation.
Ghost Ride the Whip: A dangerous maneuver in which a driver hops outside a car while it is inching forward in traffic to dance or walk alongside, feigning the appearance that the vehicle is driving itself.
Purp: A potent strain of marijuana known for its purplish color.
Riding the Yellow School Bus: Synonym for “getting dumb” (see
“Getting Stewie”) derived from the bus service for children with special needs.
Scraper: A dilapidated car outfitted with a loud stereo system, flashy hubcaps and oversized tires that “scrape” against their wheel cowls.
Sideshow: An impromptu block party/car rally that is one of the cornerstones of hyphy culture.
Stunna Shades (alt. Cooners or Tycooner Shades): Cartoonishly oversized sunglasses.
Thizz: The club drug Ecstasy.
Thizz Face: An unattractive grimace caused by taking too much Ecstasy.
Town: An abbreviation for Oakland derived from the city’s mid-'80s nickname: “Oaktown, the city of Dope.”
Yadadamean?: “Do you know what I mean?”
-- Chris Lee