Did we lose you? If we did, what we said, more or less, was "Check it out, player, it's time to get crazy." If we didn't, you have the San Francisco Bay Area to thank.
Northern California has long been a breeding ground for hip-hop's most contagious slang. But 2005 might be the year that it spawns a nationwide music movement--and finally gets the "Yay Area" some props. One of the most infectious regional singles of 2004 was a tune called "Hyphy," by the group The Federation, whose debut, "The Album," is out on Virgin. More than a rap, it was a battle cry. Hyphy (which, although pronounced "high fee," has nothing to do with bling or hourly rates) has long been a slang word, a dance and even a way of driving in Cali. Now, with that anthemic single, the local rap community is creating a uniquely Californian style of hip-hop in the mold of the raucous Southern crunk sound that was so popular last year.
"It's a soundtrack for the movement," says producer Rick Rock, who built the beats for the Feds' "Hyphy." "It's the music of the culture. It's the young kids, the hyper energy, the gangstas and the hustlers." It's also a savvy marketing device. The word hyphy had been in local circulation for several years before Rick Rock and Federation guest rapper E-40 decided to cash in on it with a single.
Just as the word "crunk" is a combination of crazy and drunk, "hyphy" is a mixture of hyper and fly--and it means "get stupid," or, as succinctly expressed in the title of another Rock-produced Federation cut, "Go Dumb." To wit, if you see a hip-hop head doing an insane, nonsensical dance--eyes rolled back, arms akimbo, looking like an epileptic zombie--he's hyphy. If you see someone so beautiful you stop and do a blatant double take, you'd call her hyphy. If you see people driving their cars in a way not conducive to getting anywhere--by accelerating, then slamming on the brakes before accelerating again (or "gas-brake dippin'"), often with the doors open and stereo blasting--they're definitely hyphy.
Whereas crunk has a boisterous reggae-dancehall-meets-Miami bass sound, hyphy is a hybrid of late-'80s Bay Area minimalist old-school beats and a contemporary hip-hop vocal delivery. "It's shake-your-dreadlock music," explains Rock. And he's not against using crunk's ubiquity to finagle hyphy onto national playlists: Rock is currently working on a collaboration between E-40, a Bay Area rapper known for his lyrical flow, and Dirty South producer-rapper Lil Jon (he of the clever "What" and "Yeah" catchphrases). With the forthcoming single tentatively called "Hyphy Meets Crunk," it's a move tailor-made to keep hyphy on the radio. "The main difference is that crunk is slow and hyphy is faster," says James Archer, music director of the Bay Area's hip-hop Clear Channel station, KMEL. "With crunk, there's more violence associated. Hyphy's association is just partying."
As with any trend, Archer remains skeptical about hyphy's staying power. He says that although his listeners can't get enough of the homegrown beats, "I think next year hyphy will be gone." It's the quintessential conundrum of hipness: that which is cool only remains cool until the uncool kids find out about it. Being into hyphy--its sound, its dance moves, its lingo--is like being a member of a club. While the rappers promoting the sound want nothing more than for it to go nationwide, it runs the risk of losing its edge for hardcore fans. Rock claims the Bay Area would be hyphy whether people were listening to him or not. But take Usher's 2000 single "Pop Ya Colla." The song's title is a catchphrase the Atlanta crooner co-opted from the Bay Area. But by the time he had gotten his hands on the expression, it just wasn't hip any more, and the single fizzled. Usher had better timing last year, however, when he teamed up with crunk daddy Lil Jon, striking platinum with the monster crunk-lite single "Yeah."
Usher's "Pop Ya Colla" moment wasn't the first time the Bay Area saw an outsider sweep in and, uh, borrow a piece of its culture. Ever hear Snoop Dogg (or, for that matter, Fran Dresher) say "Fa shizzle?" Thank the Bay. Then there was Master P. The local independent entrepreneur took his homegrown No Limit Records label, his money and his contacts to Louisiana and built himself an empire. It was a move that some say betrayed the locals. "P took the game and didn't give anything back," contends Bay Area music critic Eric Arnold.
Local artists like The Federation, as well as Frontline, The Team and Keak da Sneak, who say the Bay music scene fell off the national radar when local boy Tupac Shakur was killed, are determined to win back the national eye. "There was definitely a time when the Bay Area was really on top of stuff, and a lot of people were signed in the early '90s," says Arnold. "And there was a time where there was a drought after Tupac died. Now, we could definitely be on the cusp of something. But I think that hyphy has kind of done its thing. You can't expect one catchphrase to keep going year after year." Rick Rock is betting against it, though: in addition to his forthcoming hyphy collaboration with Lil John, he's planning to put out his own hyphy energy drink called--wait for it--Hyphy. "We have a cherry-lime flavor that be bangin'," he says.
David Henderson certainly likes what he hears. The 14-year-old freshman at San Francisco's Abraham Lincoln High School is among hyphy's target audience--and he's convinced it's not going anywhere soon. "I was just on a chat line with some girl from North Carolina, and she did not have no idea what it was," he says. "But it's going to be around for a long time. It's very popular." Henderson, called Doom by his friends, likes the music because it gives him a chance to let it all hang out and just go crazy. But as far as the buck-wild dancing and gas-brake dippin' go, he cautions NEWSWEEK readers, "don't try it at home." Leave that to the Yay Area pros.