"Hyphy is here to stay because hyphy was created in the streets and the streets will be here forever."
E-40 in an e-mail, June 28
Send a 911 to the 415 and 510: does hyphy have a pulse? Several articles in recent months have suggested the answer is no. A May 13 San Jose Mercury News article, "What Happened to Hyphy?" by Marian Liu, for example, insists that a year ago, "the Bay Area seemed poised to become the center of the hip-hop universe," when, we are told, the genre "was ubiquitous at clubs, on the streets and on local radio stations." Now hyphy is "listless, with even local popularity beginning to dissipate."
This account of the rise and fall of hyphy is exaggerated to the point of fiction. Bay Area hip-hop has, of course, been cracking for at least two and a half years, following a long post-Tupac period of commercial decline now referred to as "the drought." But while the amount of local spins Bay Area music received increased, hyphy was never anything like ubiquitous on the radio. The small number of major-label signings never threatened to displace any presumed center of hip-hop's stubbornly regional universe nor does such an image convey what's been at stake in the Bay's struggle for recognition.
According to the Arbitron radio ratings system, San Francisco is the fourth-largest market in the country, after New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago. This figure includes Oakland but not Sacramento or San Jose, which are classed as separate markets but are considered by everyone from the rappers to the media and the listeners as part of the Bay Area in terms of hip-hop regions. All Bay Area artists want is to be treated like other rappers in similar areas of the country. Rappers from smaller markets like Houston (number six), Atlanta (number nine), Miami (number 12), and even St. Louis (number 20) routinely receive local airplay, major-label deals, and national exposure.
Only the Bay is denied such opportunities. While the publicity of E-40's 2005 signing with BME/Warner Bros. scored hyphy coverage in national media like USA Today and secured the Bay its own episode of MTV's region-oriented rap show, My Block, the music hasn't had a chance to blow up. With the exception of E-40 whose gold-selling 2006 album My Ghetto Report Card (BME/Warner Bros.) ensured a Warner Bros. release of his upcoming The Ball Street Journal no Bay Area hip-hop artist has been permitted to drop a big-label full-length in the past two years. Albums by the Pack on Jive, Mistah FAB on Atlantic, Clyde Carson on Capitol, and the Federation on Warner Bros./Reprise have all experienced frustrating delays, fostering the notion that hyphy is foundering. But not everyone agrees with this impression.
"How can hyphy be dead when the key players are still there?" 19-year-old producer extraordinaire and Sick Wid It Records president Droop-E asks. It's a good question, for if the short history of the hyphy movement has proved anything, it's that there's no lack of hot Bay Area acts, from vets like Keak Da Sneak to new artists such as FAB to rappers who came up during the drought and didn't get to shine, like Eddi Projex (formerly of Hittaz on Tha Payroll) and Big Rich (once of Fully Loaded). Carson, the Jacka, Beeda Weeda, J-Stalin, the Federation, Turf Talk, Kaz Kyzah, San Quinn, Messy Marv: the list of major-label-level talent only begins here, and the extent to which any of the above identify as hyphy hardly matters, inasmuch as for the rest of the country, hyphy stands for Bay Area hip-hop.
Many of these rappers predate hyphy, and while the word definitely has musical signification it's a fast, club-oriented sound inspired by crunk but transformed by electronica and techno flourishes its most important function has been as a marketing tool to direct national attention back to the Bay. To write off hyphy as a passé trend is, in this sense, to write off the region, leaving the Bay back where it started.
Further complicating any so-called postmortem analysis of hyphy is the fact that the term also refers to the Bay Area culture of disaffected hood youths known for white Ts, dreadlocks, and ghost riding. "Hyphy is part of the street," Droop-E affirms, noting that the culture emerged before the name was attached or the music drew attention to it. The merging of this culture and a particular hip-hop sound in a single term is what makes hyphy so potent a concept, functioning in a manner akin to the word psychedelic in the late '60s. This union between a lifestyle and an aesthetic is the chief justification for considering hyphy a movement, however vaguely articulated.
"The hyphy movement reflects what's going on in the streets," Federation producer and national hitmaker Rick Rock says. "That will never die, as far as that goes. The kids are going to be hyphy. But the music you don't have to say 'hyphy' to do a hyphy song. If people are saying 'go dumb' on 10 different songs on the radio, then you're shooting yourself in the foot."
Traxamillion another architect of the hyphy sound and producer of Keak's local number one hit "Super Hyphy" agrees the music could be "losing its edge due to oversaturation of the same topics: scrapers, purp, pillz, shake ya dreads, and stunna shades," underscoring the tension between hyphy and a region whose rappers pride themselves on originality. Yet if hyphy's lyrics often suffer from an overreliance on now-established slang, the limitations of its subject matter hardly seem greater than that of mainstream rap; the high-fashion emphasis of East Coast rap is infinitely more tedious.
In any case, Rock's response has been to reinvigorate hyphy through the innovative impulse that led to its current form. "That hyphy sound I blueprinted, I don't have to stay with it," Rock says. "Hopefully people will gravitate toward the new music, and that'll be the new hyphy."
Rock is leading the way with the Federation's thrice-delayed It's Whateva finally to be released by Warner Bros. on Aug. 14 (see sidebar) and his production on "I Got Chips," the guitar-driven first single off Turf Talk's West Coast Vaccine (Sick Wid It), released in June. One of the year's most anticipated Bay full-lengths, Vaccine more than fulfills its buzz. Besides the excellence of its composition as an album, it displays Turf Talk's tremendous artistic growth in the number of flows he adds to his characteristic bark, from a whisper to a lazy drawl to a hyperactive bellow.
While Droop-E confirms that several major labels expressed interest in Vaccine, ultimately none pulled the trigger. Yet deals of various sorts keep trickling in, most recently for Keak, whose camp confirms his recent signing to national independent Koch. Tha Mekanix production squad is negotiating a rerelease of J-Stalin's On Behalf of the Streets (Zoo Ent., 2006) through one of the biggest independent distributors in the States, Select-O-Hits. And more major-label ice has begun to thaw, as the Team member Carson reports that Capitol is leaning toward a mid-October release of his solo debut, Theatre Music.
"It's going to be real good for the Bay," Carson says of his ambitious project, originally conceived as one continuous track, à la Prince's Lovesexy (Warner Bros., 1988), though Capitol has nixed this risky idea. Yet Carson insists the album "will still be one body of music." Cobranded by the Game's Black Wall Street Records and boasting appearances by the multiputf8um rapper, Theatre Music finds Carson busting over big-time beatmakers like Scott Storch and Wyclef Jean, and it's hard to imagine Capitol squandering such resources.
Another symptom of hyphy's alleged demise, offered in the Merc and elsewhere, is its lack of current radio play. Yet if there's been no recent hit on the level of Keak's "Super Hyphy," it's because KMEL and other hip-hop stations have withdrawn support for local music.
"The radio play on the hyphy movement has definitely slowed down," Traxamillion says. "They play a few Bay joints here and there, but overall I feel a lot of the radio play is coming to a halt."
Mistah FAB, for example, has a pair of new singles, "Goin' Crazy," highlighting Too $hort and D4L of "Laffy Taffy" fame, and "Race 4 Ya Pink Slips," with Keak and Spice 1. But you'll never hear these on KMEL, as the station has stopped playing FAB.
"It's the politics of radio," says FAB, who claims that since he accepted his Friday-night radio gig at KYLD, he's been subject to an unofficial ban at KMEL, courtesy of musical director Big Von Johnson though both stations belong to Clear Channel. "As an artist, I find this hard to accept," FAB confesses. "As a businessman, I realize why." Nonetheless, FAB was surprised that ending his radio show had no effect on the ban.
"It hurts the movement," he says, and he's right. His 2005 radio hit "Super Sic Wit It" was one of the catalysts of hyphy, bringing other local music in its wake. "If we can't get the support here at home, how can we expect to break nationwide?"
FAB has a point: local rap needs radio to generate sales, which in turn generate label deals. At press time, Johnson hadn't respond to several requests seeking his side of the story, yet the Arbitron ratings speak for themselves.
In summer 2006, when it was playing hyphy, KMEL was the number two station in the market, after KGO-AM talk radio. That winter, when it began slacking off, KMEL finished at number seven, tied with KYLD. (Spring ratings aren't yet posted.) This is difficult to reconcile with the claim that hyphy's popularity has dissipated. Yet while hyphy and by extension, Bay Area rap may never break nationally if KMEL doesn't support it, even fewer people will tune in to KMEL if the station doesn't play it.
Nearly every Bay Area rapper I've met seeks what Messy Marv once called "that major label shine." Yet the lack of hyphy-era major-label-deal flash or rather follow-through thus far may stem more from the general decline of the corporate music system than from the strength or weakness of local hip-hop. Fewer major-label albums are being released now compared with earlier periods of pop, and those imprints are generally taking fewer chances and are often unable to move fast enough for rap. Radio, moreover, has lost at least a portion of its audience to Internet alternatives like MySpace and YouTube, both of which FAB credits with mitigating the impact of absent radio play. Given the fact that a popular independent artist can potentially make more money at the price of much glory, perhaps than many bigger names, it's hard not to wonder if the major labels do hip-hop more harm than good. It's something to consider as we wait to see if the Federation's new album, whateva its final form, keeps hyphy's momentum alive.*