Music

Various Artists: Hyphy Hitz

The latest from the Bay Area bureau of rap tourism.


Various Artists

Hyphy Hitz

Label: TVT
US Release Date: 2007-01-09
UK Release Date: Available as import
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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.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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