‘We Were Hyphy’ Documentary Remembers the Bay Area’s Iconic Rap Subculture

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A still from 'We Were Hyphy,' a new documentary from Laurence Madrigal. (We Were Hyphy)

Just about any casual Bay Area hip-hop fan remembers 2000s touchstones like stunna shades, thizz pills and ghostriding the whip. But the new documentary We Were Hyphy makes the case that the colorful, flamboyant hyphy movement meant something much deeper.

For young people born in the years after the war on drugs devastated the Bay Area’s working class communities of color, going dumb was a search for a near-spiritual ecstasy—an escape from oppressive social conditions. And in a region that never quite got its shine in the mainstream music industry, hyphy became an emblem of the Bay Area’s homegrown ingenuity and countercultural spirit.

We Were Hyphy explores this era through firsthand accounts of originators like Nump, Rick Rock and Mistah F.A.B.; the younger artists who inherited their legacy, including Droop-E, G-Eazy and Kamaiyah; and chroniclers of the scene, including photographer D-Ray, Sacramento State University professor Andrea L.S. Moore and KQED’s own columnist and Rightnowish host Pendarvis Harshaw. Archival footage from Mac Dre’s Treal TV DVDs and local newscasts, and a brief Zoom appearance from elder statesmen E-40 and Too $hort, help round out the story.

The film is available for streaming April 1–17 through Cinequest’s Cinejoy online film festival, and marks the debut feature by director Laurence Madrigal, a 33-year-old Antioch native and San Francisco State University film grad. In addition to D-Ray and Nump, executive producers include Blindspotting co-creator Rafael Casal and Thizzler rap site founder Matt Werner.

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We Were Hyphy is a solid 101 course in the genre and subculture—beyond the life and death of hyphy’s patron saint, Mac Dre, and its big hits, like E-40 and Keak Da Sneak’s “Tell Me When To Go.” Bay Area viewers who were there for the parties, dance battles, concerts and sideshows will feel a sense of pride to see lesser-known sculptors of local culture get their shine on screen. And for a national audience, and even the up-and-coming generation in the Bay who didn’t witness it firsthand, We Were Hyphy makes for a good introduction.

We get to hear from turf dancers like Ice Cold 3000, and people behind the scenes, including Thizz Nation CEO Kilo Curt and Sideshow Tone, a keeper of Oakland car culture. With their interviews, the film paints a fuller picture of hyphy as more than just a musical style, but rather a youthful, grassroots movement that came from the streets and became a commercial export.

At times in the film, people who’ve been close to hyphy and Bay Area hip-hop since the 2000s or earlier might yearn for the story to go deeper—especially when it comes to that connection between street culture and mass entertainment. Gender issues also go largely unexplored, and the film only briefly mentions pimp culture as an influence before quickly moving on. Giving a bit more air time to some of these sticky, uncomfortable subjects, and treating them with empathy, could have made the film that much richer.

But a documentary about this influential period in Bay Area music and cultural identity is long overdue. And We Were Hyphy is just one hyphy history, not the hyphy history. Could a completely thorough, definitive documentary about such an explosive, chaotic movement even exist? We Were Hyphy is a good starting point of a conversation on screen.

'We Were Hyphy' is streaming now through April 17 via Cinequest. Details here.