For the love of hyphy: How a genre helped unite my community
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The flower children, disco dolls, and punks claimed the decades before us: We all know the stories of these eras and the counterculture they inspired and helped popularize. But we, the free-spirited kids of all colors and backgrounds had The Hyphy Movement, which became a pivotal part of my cultural and musical education, and introduced me to the world of underground rap.
“Hyphy,” slang for hyperactive, came to define a wild, yet short-lived era nearly a decade after the term was coined in 1990 by Oakland rapper, Keak da Sneak. In the mid-2000s, local dance floors were teeming with sweaty, titillating, bodies wearing stunna shades while going dumb to the likes of E-40, Too Short, and our resident king, Mac Dre. In school we’d joke around in hyphy lingo using phrases like “Yadidamean,” (or “Namean” for short) and “Fo Shizzle” (My Nizzle), which contrary to popular belief, did not originate from Snoop Dogg, but local rap legend, E-40. We were a colorful gathering of body-popping, blunt-toking, thizz-facing, and ghost-riding youth soaking up the alternative rap scene from Vallejo to the Yay (Bay Area) — and everywhere in between.
The 2008 documentary Ghostride the Whip explains how the activism and socially conscious counterculture of the 1960s inspired hyphy. But the genre is also deeply rooted in the alternative arts, tracing back to the Oakland Boogaloo movement and breakdancing and turfing scenes during the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. The artists behind the music spoke of the harsh realities of street life, poverty, and police violence, but they never garnered mainstream prophetic status like Tupac, even though much of their early work preceded his rise to fame. Needless to say, the mania was trill, and despite its urban appeal, even the rich suburban kids weren’t exempt from the calling.
However, unlike pop music, there was a sense that hyphy wasn’t catering to the masses, but a special club of weirdos. It was made for us — for the people and by the people.
Discovering the Bay Area Hyphy Movement in my sophomore year of high school made me late to the party, but I was soon taken by the underground rap scene. As someone who did not lose a significant number of brain cells to thizz (ecstasy) (Mac Dre’s record label was called Thizz Entertainment, and one of his other monikers was “Thizzelle Washington), it was as much about the music as it was about the spectacle of it all. It was cultural protest for protest’s sake — most of us weren’t serious activists with a list of political demands. We were about the fun, which sometimes translated into blatant disregard for the law.
But for some reason, hyphy moved me. As a youngster, I was familiar with hardcore rap but was more of an alternative rock fan. The Hyphy Movement opened me up to so much more: Funky sounds and innovate beats I’d never heard before and quirky dance moves that made you want to follow suit, compared to the dry, robotic routines performed by pop acts for which I always carried disdain. I soon developed a greater appreciation for local artists and began to search for new music instead of listening to the radio and watching Top 40 countdowns. I also understood the value of supporting artists at a grassroots level; with a limited fan base, Bay Area rappers relied on us to carry them, as offbeat as they were.
Finding hyphy at such a pivotal time in my life also evoked this sense of newfound freedom; liberation, even. When mainstream music felt oppressively conformist, hyphy gave me permission to be exactly who I wanted. It united geeks, hood, and preppy kids alike, and those in-between also had a place on the dance floor, or sideshow. Anyone could be a member of this special club; you weren’t going to be laughed at or turned away if you were different. We were encouraged by one another and united in this spirited rebelliousness that looked like nothing I’d ever seen. It was a whole new world that seemed to encourage everything unorthodox at a time in my life when so many of us simply wanted to fit in.
Not unlike the generations before us, we wanted to party — the scenery, music and the drugs were just different. Though unruliness and non-sobriety were benchmarks of the movement, there’s something to be said about the way it connected people across colorlines. Seeing people from all walks of life was particularly encouraging for me as a mixed kid. I admired how racial tensions that existed in many of our daily lives were left at the curb as swarms of Black, white, brown, and Asian folks gathered and got down. There was no judgement; at least not the kind I typically felt in the segregated cliques in high school. Most of my friends were white, and I often thought about our differences, but that quickly disappeared in the world of hyphy. Indeed, it was also an excuse for some to imitate urban, Black culture, but I knew many more people who had a genuine appreciation for all the joy getting hyphy did bring — many of us were invested, diehard fans.
We could get high off one another if we weren’t already high off something else. There was community and connectedness that made it all feel special, and a diversity that made you forget about your prejudices and perceptions of what was good, normal, or cool. Case in point: In my freshman year of college, a year or so after the movement had faded into the hyphy abyss, I was shocked when my awkward, white, thirty-something English teacher proclaimed with a straight face, “Ghost-riding is something everyone should do at least once in their lifetime.” Even the most unsuspecting people weren’t left untouched by this wild phase in Bay Area history.
That period of my life was nearly a decade ago, and I continue to speak of it enthusiastically because of the impact it left on my teens. Despite being pioneers in their own right, there’s something bittersweet about Mac Dre and his contemporaries never achieving wider recognition. (Long after he was shot dead in 2004, we continued to hail the chief voice of the movement, Mac Dre, whose 50-pound granite tombstone was stolen from his gravesite in 2006, most likely by a “rabid fan,” according to his family. ) But their local success only fostered a dedicated fanbase and intense regional pride that served as the backbone of the movement.
Its height has passed, but I will never forget the days of getting hyphy and going dumb. The Hyphy Movement made those awkward teenage years a lot freer and happier, and I’m glad I was around to be a part the madness while it lasted.