[24 January 2007]
Consider the epicenters of rap for a moment, then pity the Bay Area.
Not only was the region ignored for the first decade of hip-hop for not being New York, when the West Coast finally blew up in the 1990s, it was ignored for not being Los Angeles. With huge local fanbases and absolutely no label support, rappers like Too $hort sold albums out of their trunks and went on to pioneer the art of running an independant rap label. Master P subsequently took the indie hustle from Richmond, CA, to New Orleans, where his No Limit Records, along with similarly modeled labels like Cash Money and Grand Hustle, were crucial in the South’s dominance of the genre from the turn of the millenium to the present. To make matters worse, rappers have been jacking Bay slang for years: check E-40 yelling out “we off the heezy fo sheezy” on “Rappers’ Ball” way back in 1996. And Too $hort has been yelling “biiiiiiiitch” for two decades.
Then again, the region has never done itself any favors. Rap in northern California has always had the lack of unity and other problems that plague minor markets. But due to their guess-we-gotta-do-it-ourselves entrepreneurial mentality, they have also struggled with a slight lack of perspective. Heavy with slang and unconventional flows, Bay Area rap has never been easy on the casual fan. Rappers like Keak Da Sneak and Mac Dre have huge followings within the region, but have seen limited success beyond; Keak raps like a mumbly version of Cookie Monster, while Mac Dre is so casual he blurs the line between rapping and just talking.
But between new words and new styles, northern Cali has always been a hotbed of innovation, but with little or no recognition. Maybe that’s why the hyphy movement feels less like a real scene and more like a marketing strategy, like E-40, San Quinn and Mistah F.A.B. had a symposium at the Fairfield Mall to decide on the trends that would dictate the next few years in the region. It’s possible they just put some ideas in a hat and went with the first 15 or so; how the hell else do you end up defining the wave of the future by dancing on top of your car wearing novelty oversized sunglasses and gold fronts? Hyphy definately has a sound—fast and clubby, built on synth licks—but it’s mostly about a littany of catchphrases. You can turn any verse into a hyphy magic by mentioning your scraper, stunner shades and/or going dumb. Yadadadamean?
If that’s what it takes to get the whole Bay to move in unison, then I’m for it; anything that gets Keak more exposure is ok with me, but Hyphy Hitz is everything that is annoying about hyphy. The names of 10 of the album’s 20 tracks take at least some inspiration from the hyphy checklist. A few of these are by the artists who coined the phrases in the first place—Mac Dre’s “Feeling Myself” and “Get Stupid”, as well as Keak’s “Super Hyphy” all get the thumbs-up—but I don’t see Shake Da Mayor going places with this rap thing with a breakthrough hit called “Stunner Shades”. You could say the same about The A’z “Yadadamean”, or Da Muzicianz’s “Go Dumb” if the latter didn’t already have the dubious honor of being a Ying Yang Twinz side-project. Nobody is a worse hyphy cheerleader than Mistah F.A.B., whom the movement transformed from the Bay Area’s reigning battle champ to a sloganeer who now drives around a shortbus on dubs to prove how dummy retarded he is. His “Super Sic Wit It” shows up here and the track is awesome, with killer guest spots from E-40 and Turf Talk, but it also includes the line about the bus which inspired that purchase. Hyphy Hitz also awkwardly shoehorns great rappers into the movement; Balance is best known as the Bay’s mixtape king, who has worked hard to end up on tapes all over the country alongside heavyweights like 50 Cent, but his contribution to hyphy, “Grind” is pretty bland.
Fortunately for Hyphy Hitz, the Bay is full of talented emcees and the album works as a compilation of Bay Area hits. There are some glaring omissions (Frontline? San Quinn?) and some tracks are almost three years old, but it’s hard to be too mad at an album that highlights the better jams from an often overlooked region. And it’s hard to be mad at unity; even if hyphy promotes dangerous driving, it is bringing together artists from all over a traditionally fractious region. As noted in the liner notes, the “Grown Man On” remix features artists from San Jose, Oakland, Vallejo and San Francisco. But Hyphy Hitz ultimately is capitalizing on a gimmick, and unfortunately includes a lot of gimmicky bullshit.