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Up from the underground

Hyphy, a regional strain of rapid-fire rap, fuels a scene of both community and often-unlawful chaos. Is this street party bound to burn out, or is it just igniting?

July 23, 2006|Chris Lee | Special to The Times

East Oakland, Calif. — IN the early morning hours most weekends, finding hyphy isn't difficult, it's just a matter of knowing what to look for. Pull off Interstate 580 near the San Leandro line and head south toward the San Francisco Bay. Along a nearly deserted stretch of Foothill Boulevard you'll find them: scorched black curlicues marking the street every hundred yards or so for nearly 10 miles.

These are skid marks -- physical evidence that countless cars have done 360-degree "doughnut" spinouts along this infamous cruising strip. They attest to more than just urban blight, however, serving also as a signal: the hyphy movement was here. Hyphy (pronounced "HI-fee") is the Bay Area's burgeoning outlaw hip-hop subculture.

Since March, when rapper E-40's "My Ghetto Report Card" debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop chart, hyphy's bass-heavy, rapid-fire rap sound has become Northern California's most popular musical export. Hyphy culture, which is much more than just beats, cuts across boundaries of race and geography, consisting of a jumble of loose ends: youthful rebellion and regional pride, political empowerment and hustlers' ambition, drug abuse and boogie-down bliss, much of it centered around illegal block party/car rallies called "sideshows."

At just past 3 a.m. on a recent Saturday, nearly 100 people converged at a 24-hour Chevron gas station to "get hyphy." Some swigged bottles of cognac, smashing the empties into the concrete. Others bobbed their heads in time to rap music blaring from car stereos or "turf danced," a frenetic street Kabuki, something like punk rock moshing with break dance and martial arts moves mixed in.

The sound of screeching tires drowned the music out, and attention shifted to the intersection: a Cadillac Escalade was doing doughnuts. Several bystanders rushed into the street to slap the tail of the vehicle as it swung past -- the rough automotive equivalent of running with the bulls in Pamplona. Then, in turn, the driver of a dilapidated Buick LeSabre demonstrated "ghost riding the whip." As the car inched forward, he opened his door and jumped out to dance alongside, waving a bottle of beer in the air. The crowd shouted its approval.

A moment later, it was over. Cars peeled out of the gas station, carrying the turf dancers who continued to posture wildly while dangling out of windows and doors, some even balancing atop the moving vehicles' trunks and roofs. "It's like a competition," said Rashida Ellis, 17, of San Jose. "He sees this guy getting hyphy and he's like, 'I gotta get hyphier than him.' Who's the hyphiest? It's like, who's the hardest?"

"Hyphy is wherever, whenever, whatever you feel," said Delvonne Howard, 18, of East Oakland, gazing toward the intersection of Foothill and High Street. "People going crazy, acting a fool: If you're really a hyphy person, it's your way of life."

A way of life that local law enforcement is doing its best to discourage; the Oakland Police Department employs "late tacticals," a unit created to curtail sideshows. But that hasn't prevented Island Def Jam, TVT and Warner Bros. Records from signing hyphy artists and MTV and BET, among others, from attempting to profit from what they are touting as hip-hop's next big regional thing: a West Coast answer to Atlanta's crunk music scene.

To the faithful, hyphy is a life-affirming youth "movement" based around music that provides refuge from the Bay Area's escalating homicide rate and random street violence. It has also shown potential to alter the political landscape -- such as when a bloc of voters rallied by a local rapper helped sway Oakland's recent mayoral election in favor of a candidate who courted the hip-hop constituency. Further, hyphy's evangelists say it can make good on the hippie pipe dream of unifying young people of various races and creeds as "one nation under a groove."

To its detractors, however, hyphy -- the word combines "hyperactive" with "fly," another slang honorific that means "coolest of the cool" -- only denotes ignorance and addiction. Sideshows have resulted in eight deaths (U'Kendra Johnson, to name one such victim, was killed when the car she was driving was hit by a man trying to evade police after leaving a sideshow) and hundreds of arrests last year, Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown said. Authorities also say that numerous hit-and-run injuries and extensive property damage have been linked to the parties.

Youth counselors, police and local government representatives complain that the culture dangerously glamorizes out-of-control behavior -- known colloquially as "going dumb" or "getting retarded" -- citing hyphy's extravagant drug culture in which Ecstasy, alcohol, industrial-strength marijuana and codeine-laced cough syrup are widely abused.

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