Hyphy was touted as the Next Big Thing. Then the movement's momentum appeared to have stalled, at least in music industry circles. Critics had their reasons, everything from the lack of a big hit after E-40's "Tell Me When to Go" to contractual entanglements. But someone forgot to tell the kids for whom hyphy is a lifestyle, a culture and a raison d'etre.
Take Super Hyphy 17, an all-ages, alcohol-free event held Memorial Day weekend at Petaluma's Phoenix Theater. That's where about 1,000 youngsters of various ethnicities went dumb, shook their dreads and made thizz faces all night to live performances by Mistah F.A.B., Zion-I & the Grouch, the Pack, Haji Springer, J-Billion, J. Diggs and other local acts.
A palpable surge of energy moved through the crowd when the DJ spun the late Mac Dre's now-classic 2002 anthem "Thizzelle Dance"; live renditions of recent hits like the Pack's "Vans," Zion-I's "The Bay" and F.A.B.'s "Kicked Out Da Club" were greeted with equal exuberance. Though the tightly packed crowd was "in the building and feeling itself," as they say, the negatives associated with hyphy were absent -- there were no fights, no gunshots and nobody spinning doughnuts after the show.
"Is hyphy over? Not in Petaluma," said concert promoter D-Sharp, looking around at a hall full of excited youngsters sporting multicolored hoodies, special-edition Oakland A's hats, shiny grill pieces, Thizz Fo Life T-shirts and the oversize sunglasses -- called "stunna shades" -- which have become ubiquitous to hyphy culture.
Backstage, even more of the culture was on display, much of it emanating from Mistah F.A.B. The 25-year-old Oakland native who's become hyphy's official spokesman held court, dressed in a brightly colored airbrushed T-shirt bearing his likeness and sporting a matching bejeweled chain.
"How can hyphy be dead? They ain't seen hyphy yet," F.A.B. insists. "Give us a chance to put together a tour."
Though hyphy comes from the hood, it's clearly been embraced by the burbs. "That's the beautiful thing about it," he explains. "In hyphy there's no race lines, there's no discrimination." Hyphy's fans, he adds, are "white, black, Filipino, Chinese, Middle Eastern, Arabic, Indian, everything."
The successful turnout of Super Hyphy 17 suggests that, regardless of industry perception, hyphy still has tremendous appeal to young people. And the social conditions that created the culture in the first place haven't changed.
"Hyphy didn't happen in a vacuum," says radio personality and Webmaster David "Davey D" Cook, who notes it's been influenced by everything from illegal sideshows to underground raves. According to Cook, hyphy represents "a natural progression" of what's always been happening locally.
Industry observers who downplayed the accomplishment of E-40's "My Ghetto Report Card" -- which sold gold (500,000 units) during the music industry's slowdown (rap's overall sales in 2006 were reportedly down 20 percent from 2005) -- may have overlooked the fact that, like Atlanta's crunk and Houston's chopped and screwed, hyphy began organically. It was a regional phenomenon that was given a national boost thanks to MTV exposure, commercial radio support and a major-label marketing campaign.
Despite reports of its demise, it's quite possible that hyphy was just reloading. A follow-up concert called -- what else? -- Super Hyphy 18 has already been scheduled for the Santa Rosa Fairgrounds, and F.A.B., for one, remains optimistic. "The people that's making this movement, man, are hoping that everybody plays their part. And if they play their part, hyphy is just now starting."
The next few months should prove interesting, to say the least, with a flood of new releases from some of the movement's biggest factors, including F.A.B., the Federation, Turf Talk, San Quinn and E-40. It's safe to say that if these albums sell well, it will help folks like Clyde Carson and the A'z, whose forthcoming major-label projects are awaiting release dates. And while Keak Da Sneak still hasn't secured a big record deal, his latest song, "That Go," is getting heavy spins on KMEL, as is Turf Talk's "I Got Chips," the leadoff single from his album, "West Coast Vaccine" (released June 5 on E-40's Sick Wid It imprint).
It may, indeed, be premature to call hyphy a done deal just yet. Word is that shoe company Timberland is reportedly coming out with a hyphy-branded model. Also, hipster-approved designer Paul Frank has a new line of oversize sunglasses that look suspiciously like stunna shades. Meanwhile, the Federation's March performance at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, was called "the livest show I've ever been to" by XLR8R magazine. And on Wednesday, a new documentary on the hyphy movement, called "Ghostride the Whip," premiered at the Hip-Hop Odyssey International Film Festival in New York.
Closer to home, hyphy's presence can even be felt in that onetime counterculture mecca: Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue. Hoodies bearing the legend Stay Hyphy and unique airbrushed T-shirts (made by Prospect, the same artist who does F.A.B.'s designs) are for sale at the Freshly Dripped boutique. Across the street at Rasputin Records, huge posters advertise new releases by F.A.B., Haji Springer and Husalah. And at UC Sports, hyphy gear -- baseball caps, hand-painted T-shirts and even patent leather sneakers (called "Bays" and available in Giants and A's colors) -- moves like hotcakes. "Our biggest sellers are basically anything that says Bay Area," reports store owner "Big" John Tan.
Hyphy's resiliency is proof that "Bay Area culture is alive and strong and more popular than ever," says Will Bronson, co-founder of SMC Recordings, one of the local scene's biggest supporters.
But though hyphy has become an integral part of the region's cultural fabric, some of the criticism leveled at its musical component seems valid: namely, that it became too formulaic and too predictable too quickly. "The songs have to evolve," Bronson concedes. "The only thing that I did not like about hyphy was the fact that no one seemed to continue to innovate, once the slang got played and once the sound got played," says MC Zion of East Bay duo Zion-I. "Honestly, man, I would like to see a new movement," Zion confides. "The energy (of hyphy), that's just (the) bay anyway."
As Super Hyphy 17 made evident, "that feeling isn't going anywhere," says Bronson.
And despite his reservations about hyphy, "It's definitely not dead," Zion concurs. He points to the diversity of the Petaluma concert's lineup as a step in the right direction: "This show here is more like the future of what's gonna happen in the bay."
Another hint at hyphy's evolution comes from F.A.B., who displays significant artistic growth on "Da Baydestrian." Along with entirely "stoopid" songs like the title track and "Furley Ghost," socially aware material like "Life on Track," "On Yo Way" and "Jamonie Robinson" reveals there's depth to the man who once boasted "I do the dummy retarded and ride the yellow bus."
Likewise, the Federation's much-anticipated "It's Whateva" -- now scheduled for a June 27 release on Warner Bros. -- pushes hyphy's sonic envelope further by infusing producer Rick Rock's trademark "slaps" into Miami bass, electro, classic hip-hop, gospel, R&B and even heavy metal. Plans for a summer tour with multiplatinum rockers Linkin Park could ultimately bring the inventors of the hyphy sound to a much wider audience.
As Rock explains, were it not for Corey Hart's refusal to clear the sample he used on "Stunna Glasses," the whole debate over hyphy's continued relevance might be a moot point.
Initially, Rock says, "Stunna Glasses" was leaked on the Internet, where it generated a strong buzz before circulating through the mix-tape circuit, eventually finding its way to commercial radio. Rock thought he had a sure-fire hit on his hands, but Hart ("Sunglasses at Night") wouldn't license the track, citing personal reasons, which Rock says was "the worst business move I could think of."
Without Hart's permission, "Stunna Glasses" never saw the light of day. "The label couldn't do nothing with it," Rock sighs. The Federation's once-deafening buzz became a whisper as drop dates came and went; eventually, the group retreated to the studio and channeled their frustration into making new music. (Five brand-new tracks are featured on the 2007 version of "It's Whateva").
A similar situation happened with F.A.B., whose seemingly-innocuous "Ghost Ride It" video became a lightning rod for controversy. After CNN reported two deaths attributed to "ghost-riding" -- defined as "the act of putting one's ride in neutral, opening all doors, placing the volume dial on 10, and simply rollin' "; exiting the vehicle and dancing on or next to it are considered optional -- the rapper appeared on Fox's "Hannity and Colmes" to defend hyphy culture's virtue. But after Columbia Pictures, who owned the rights to the "Ghostbusters" van featured in the video, balked at licensing it, MTV pulled the video from rotation, which resulted in the delayed release of F.A.B.'s major-label debut, "Da Yellow Bus Ridah."
To keep F.A.B.'s momentum from cooling, "We kinda came up with Plan B," Bronson says. That turned out to be "Da Baydestrian" -- released on SMC/Thizz Ent., but distributed nationally by Fontana/Universal. With the future of F.A.B's Atlantic deal uncertain, it's an encouraging sign that "Da Baydestrian" outsold Björk locally and cracked the Billboard Hot 200 nationally in its first week of release.
"Name an independent release from the Bay Area that's done that in the past five years," challenges Bronson. "You can't."
Bronson, who says the major label system "is in disarray," questions the wisdom of basing an indie-driven regional movement's success on the involvement of big record companies. Holding records is a "common practice" with majors, he adds, and while indies might not sell hundreds of thousands of units per release, their market share continues to grow. As Bronson boasts, "Every record we've put out has sold more than the last."