PURE?: E-40, an icon since before the genre had a name, deserves whatever attention he gets from the hyphy hype.
Although Oakland’s hyphy movement got its name from a bastardization of the word “hyper,” at this point that could just as easily stand for “hype.” As it’s evolved into hip-hop’s Next Big Thing over the past few years, the Bay Area’s dominant scene has coalesced into a messy but invigorating amalgam of new slang, drug options, and Friday nights on the town. As depicted in TVT’s respectably representative Hyphy Hitz, the genre is a towering subculture, all skittering beats and electro-horror, a million miles from Kanye’s shorthand soul or even Lil’ Jon’s deep-fried air raids.
For the uninitiated: crunk remains hyphy’s closest cousin, and not just because Hyphy Hitz is modeled after TVT’s successful Crunk Hits series. Hyphy is party music, with slang like “going dumb,” rocking “stunner shades,” and smoking “purple” or “grapes.” As with crunk, most hyphy artists aren’t aiming for depth in their music or their lyrics. Keak Da Sneak, who appears four times on the comp, is constantly clowning with a voice somewhere between raspy and bubbly over beats that pound on the bass. Hyphy hits tend toward novelty numbers peppered with slang like the A’z’s “Yadadamean” (you know what I mean?) and the Team’s “Hyphy Juice,” or cultural customs like Mac Dre’s “Feeling Myself,” which helped introduce a raver fave, ecstasy, to hip-hop heads.
The trance grooves designed to be best enjoyed on that drug (“thizzing” or “zoning” in hyphy speak) have seeped into the music in the same way the slow drip of “sizzurp” (codeine cough syrup) has helped suffuse the chopped-and-screwed sound of Houston heavyweights like DJ Screw. Synths shimmer and build, and though there aren’t any of the distinct samples, drum patterns, or sonic signatures that have been so prevalent in the Dirty South, the producers on Hyphy Hitz are still the real stars: check the creepy fun of Rick Rock’s “Furious” and “Gouda.” The stark and abstract beats shriek and slice into space, where they fizzle out like the last serotonin hit.
But what’s most notable about these energized and entertaining tunes is how anthemic, catchy, and familiar they are. As the virus of mainstream hip-hop’s commercial values spreads through the countryside, maintaining a vital underground culture hardly even seems desirable anymore. Instead of greeting national attention with resistance — or apprehension — hyphy has embraced it without backlash. Indeed, it’s gotten more popular in its home town since the buzz started. Part of this is just about “getting paid,” a by-product of hip-hop’s unapologetic capitalist ethos. Then again, Oakland never asked to be ignored. It simply was. And as opposed to an underground rock genre like, say, grunge, where artists chose alienation as part of their identity, the kids making crunk and hyphy were for the most part never given a choice.
Behind the natural-emergence myth that comes with any new strain of commercially viable music, be it rap or rock, there’s almost always a more complex reality. Many of the artists associated with “new” hyphy, including E-40 and Too $hort, were Bay Area icons long before the style had a name. E-40, in spite of a mixed Warner Bros. debut (last year’s My Ghetto Report Card), deserves more attention than he’s received in his decade-plus career. And he’d make for a great leader of any Bay Area movement. The one glaring omission on Hyphy Hitz is E-40’s “Tell Me When To Go,” the Neptunes-like bare-bones cut that announced the genre’s arrival on the national scene. Sure, the track’s beat doesn’t sound that different from what’s already on rap radio. But as with any of hip-hop’s subgenres, its purer sound will eventually find the mass audience it’s been playing to all along.