INTERVIEW: LARRY MADRIGAL
TALKING HYPHY WITH THE DIRECTOR OF “WE WERE HYPHY”
I’ll never forget the first time I saw the video for the 2006 E-40 and Keak Da Sneak song “Tell Me When To Go.” Clearly, something special was happening in the Bay Area.
Hyphy was an entire subculture, with music to match, and it seemed to mirror–if not in style then maybe in spirit or simply in its sense of newness, at least to my dumbass 19-year-old brain–other regional scenes in Houston and Baltimore and Atlanta. It wasn’t pure street rap but it wasn’t backpack rap, either. It was a different kind of energy, and the “Tell Me When To Go” video broke down that energy. For one thing, it taught me about the concept of ghost riding the whip: you let a running car roll while you walk or dance alongside it. Did me and my friends attempt to do this? No comment.
There’s plenty of other elements of the culture, more than one of which can be traced to the legendary rapper Mac Dre (RIP): there’s the big sunglasses (Stunna Shades), the burnt-rubber car throwdowns (Sideshows), the elegant popping and footwork (Turf Dancing), and the ecstasy-induced gurning (making a “Thizz Face”). That kind of stuff. Musically, hyphy was pitched somewhere between the influential funk-influenced Bay Area rap style known as mobb music and something more high energy, which could mean Miami bass or crunk or even some of MC Hammer’s early electro freakout records.
Last year, Larry Madrigal made a great hour-long documentary called We Were Hyphy. It’s a true celebration of the culture and it’s now streaming on Bay Area PBS-affiliate KQED. Hyphy was about a lot more than just music, but when I hit up Larry for an interview, that’s what I wanted to focus on. This is a music blog, after all: John’s Music Blog. So we linked up virtually on a Sunday and we talked music… Hyphy music.
I’ve done some touring, and I think the last time I played in Oakland was probably four or five years ago. At that club, DJs were still playing hyphy.
When you’re in the Bay Area, they’ll play some Top 40 or whatever, and then they’ll drop one song from the hyphy era–it just brings everyone back, and everyone stops what they’re doing. If you weren’t dancing before, and you’re at a Bay club and they play Mac Dre, you just run to the dancefloor.
What’s considered some of the foundational hyphy records? Or even proto-hyphy records?
To give context, I grew up 30 minutes east of Oakland, in Antioch, so I wasn’t in Oakland when it was all going down, but I was just a huge fan, everyone in the Bay Area was. I come at it as a student, and a major appreciator, and a third-generation Bay Area person. As a fan, I think the two big songs that to this day are still the poster-boy songs for the era are E-40 “Tell Me When To Go” and then Mac Dre “Feelin’ Myself.” And I think E-40 and Mac Dre–and, Too $hort, obviously, too, and “Blow The Whistle” is in there too–those three are the founding fathers. They were a generation earlier, they already had their careers very much established, but they kind of were the older brothers during the movement.
“Tell Me When To Go” really reached the mainstream audience the right way. It still kept a lot of what made the culture so special: You had turf dancers and sideshow shit going on in the music video. I think it was still a great reflection of the culture at the time, but played on MTV.
Were there records that E-40 was responding to when he made that song?
Pre-“Tell Me When To Go,” Keak Da Sneak had “Super Hyphy.” The original “Hyphy”was by The Federation, that was Rick Rock’s crew. It’s the song in the opening credits of the movie. Hyphy wasn’t always this fun, go-crazy dance kind of music, that wasn’t always the definition. Originally as a slang term in the streets, hyphy was, like, you’re being too much. You don’t want to go to that party because they’re hella hyphy and a fight’s going to start or something. It used to have a negative kind of connotation.
I think when “Hyphy” the song came out, you listen to the lyrics, that’s what they’re talking about. But the beat is so fun and bouncy and crazy that it was kind of the bridge between the old way of looking at the word hyphy and this new culture, feel and sound. And the “Hyphy” remix was basically The Federation featuring the entire Bay Area. There’s 10 plus verses on it, Keak’s on it–it really covered the spread as far as the whole Bay Area. That was a good foundational song.
Even before that, were there records that sort of shifted the tempo focus from that sort of slow, mobb music that was happening in the ‘90s, to this more kind of uptempo, almost electro influenced…
You go to mobb music, you have early E-40–one that I think of is “Sprinkle Me” by E-40.
It’s like 86 BPM, I used to always DJ that song. So, it’s kind of in between.
The E-40 record Grit & Grind, that is like proto-hyphy right there. “Automatic,” with Fabolous on it, that beat, the tempo started really coming up. “Mustard & Mayonnaise” is a big kind of proto-hyphy record.
Oh yeah, Rick Rock produced “Automatic.” In the doc, Rick Rock talks about how he comes from the South–that was interesting to me. He talks about the influence of Miami bass.
Yes, big time. Mobb music is like really womp-y 808 basses and then that kind of dark tone, but you bring in that pounding, uptempo, Miami bass element to it, and I think that’s… We spent like two hours with Rick Rock, talking through it with him–he was kind of figuring it out as we were talking, because he’s never really talked about the birth of the sound versus the culture of it–and he’s like, I feel like those two things combining is what gave me my inspiration. At that point in his career, he said he wanted to do really minimal, stripped-down beats. It’s just a kick drum with a bass attached to that, very minimal percussion, and then just one element, some kind of synth or horn or something. It’s not super-layered stuff, whereas mobb music was more layered and had a lot more going on.
And it was more laid back. It must’ve shifted the entire energy of the city in a way, to go from this kind of… The pocket of mobb music is what I would read as ‘90s California. To an outsider, it has that G-funk kind of feel.
Mobb music has a similar sound to the Southern California hip hop of that time. But hyphy is just very Bay Area. After hyphy, LA started fucking with that sound, with Mustard and ratchet.
Yeah, exactly, but at the time it was very uniquely Bay Area. You got me thinking about proto-hyphy songs. Again, this is just from my perspective: Mac Dre “Too Hard For The Fuckin Radio” and “Dredio.” Not necessarily the actual sound of the beats, but just his presence as a rapper on those songs, and his charisma. He’s a gangster but he’s still being kind of fun. That whole persona, those were the early songs that led to what he would make later on that would define that era of Bay Area hip hop.
There was an element of silliness. Tied with that, I think about the drug use. This is a bit tangential, but I read a book recently about soccer hooligans, and by the late-1980s they kind of mellowed out because they were all doing ecstasy.
Yeah, the acid house thing happened, and these soccer hooligans stopped fighting as much, I guess. And there was a lot of fighting in hyphy, I believe, from watching the movie, but still it seems to me like there was this playful energy that was almost like a rave energy.
That’s interesting, because it’s always been very masculine, tough, especially mobb music–it’s like, that’s street music. But hyphy was a little more, let’s come together, let’s have fun together, that was different for sure.
How does The Pack [Bay Area rap group featuring Lil B, Young L, Stunnaman and Lil Uno] factor into this for you, because that feels like a major part of hyphy for me, even just in terms of where those kids went after their little moment together as a group.
They, for me, were the first step in the evolution. They were hyphy 1.2. They weren’t quite hyphy 2.0, but they took that sound and they gave it an even more modern feel. They kept the fun, kind of silliness, but they stepped up the production, for sure. Young L made some crazy beats.
For sure, I remember the first time I heard “Vans.” It felt like the midpoint between what The Neptunes were doing and hyphy.
Odd Future gets a lot of credit for introducing skate culture into hip hop at a really high level, but I think The Pack did that just before Odd Future.
Totally. And then what Lil B went on to do, that was its whole own thing. But it sort of started there.
There must’ve been some kind of freedom within the scene that allowed them to do that.
It gave permission to be a little bit more yourself, and less of a tough guy. It was more, you could be unique and express yourself a little bit. And the Bay Area always has that kind of energy, right? But it's just a newer version of that. In hip hop at that time, in the early 2000s, there was less of that. Nowadays, that’s all hip hop is. It’s all these young guys being exactly who they want to be. But back then, it was a very masculine-driven world.
At that point, people were looking for these pockets where things were a little bit different. But the thing about hyphy that was exciting to me was that it wasn’t through the lens of backpack rap or other stuff that was happening at the time, it was still this party-focused sound.
It still was like hood shit, you know? On top of all of that. It was still anchored in the streets.
What’s the timeline for you in terms of the golden days of hyphy? Are there records that move past that timeline that you think are still important? Because clearly this music is still getting played.
My senior year was 2007. In 2006, 2007, that was all we ever talked about or listened to. I didn’t really give a shit about the Top 40 at the time, or any other genre of music. There was so much local music coming out, every other week there were new mixtapes, everything that was coming out on Thizz Entertainment, there were so many artists. I was 18, so it was a really fun part of my life, the timing was great for me. Songs that have continued on past that era and are still important–like I said, “Feelin’ Myself” by Mac Dre, they play that at Warriors games, it’s a way of celebrating something that happened in sports. So it transcended just music, it’s almost like a cultural alarm going off.
Is there a younger generation interested in the sound right now? Clearly, there’s been this feedback loop between Northern California and SoCal where the Jerkin’ thing happened and then the Mustard kind of records happened. I know there’s people like P-Lo who have been pretty active in the Bay over the past decade.
Yeah, P-Lo and HBK Gang kind of took the battalion when it almost got dropped, they really were making new age hyphy stuff. P-Lo’s killing it, he stays making those kind of beats. I think Kamiyah holds it down, not just for hyphy music but for mobb music, too. She collaborates with mainstream artists, but still has that sound that’s super Bay Area. The LA thing is kind of interesting too, obviously Jerkin’ was a big reaction to it, but just how big ratchet music and Mustard got at one point in the early 2010s. Nowadays, I look at it like it was really interesting and they were clearly influenced by the hyphy movement. At the time, we were all pissed. There was this frustration, like this is working on a mainstream level but they’re just stealing our sound. So it was an interesting moment in this story of hyphy.
It’s such a SoCal versus NorCal thing. LA, they’re going to find a way to maybe cash in more than the Bay. The cities have such different histories and focuses.
That’s true. There’s just a bigger music infrastructure down there too, right?
The Bay is like this self-contained island, almost. I remember watching an episode of that MTV show My Super Sweet 16, and one of the girls got Keak Da Sneak to play her party. It was a huge deal for the kids, but I bet most people watching that shit barely knew who Keak Da Sneak was.
That’s a really good take on it, because that’s how I felt making this movie–I’m like, There’s no way we’re going to be able to interview Keak, he’s a legend. But they end up being so accessible, once you meet them. I met all my heroes growing up, and they’re just really accessible, they’re hella cool. Trackademicks ended up mixing some of the score for the movie, and we were just trying to interview him because he was a super-prominent producer. They’re both legendary but just regular people down to collab and make something cool. Nump’s my friend now, we talk every week.
We Were Hyphy on Instagram. Larry Madrigal on Instagram