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Watch: ‘We Were Hyphy’ Celebrates the Bay’s Innovative 2000s Rap Subculture

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Editor’s note: This story is part of That’s My Word, KQED’s year-long exploration of Bay Area hip-hop history, with new content dropping all throughout 2023.

The hyphy movement looms large in the Bay Area. Its trunk-rattling beats, high-energy dance moves and flamboyant fashion still sit at the core of local culture over a decade since its peak in the mid-2000s. But there’s a lot more to hyphy than going dumb. For a generation that came up in the aftermath of the crack epidemic and mass incarceration, the subculture’s wild expressions of joy also made room for catharsis, protest and liberation.

Laurence Madrigal’s feature documentary We Were Hyphy puts the movement in this larger social context. The director enlisted an expert team of executive producers: “I Gott Grapes” hitmaker Nump, Thizz Nation photographer D-Ray, Thizzler founder Matt Werner and Blindspotting’s Rafael Casal, all of whom except Werner appear as commentators in the film.

We Were Hyphy celebrates big hits like E-40’s “Tell Me When To Go,” but it doesn’t miss the deep cuts. We hear from artists like Mistah F.A.B. and Keak Da Sneak — the latter of whom introduced the word “hyphy” to the masses — as well as the turf dancers, independent label bosses and sideshow drivers at the heart of the grassroots subculture. Interviews with Sacramento State University’s Dr. Andrea Moore and KQED’s Pendarvis Harshaw take the narrative a layer deeper, showing how creative innovation thrived in spite of oppressive circumstances. And testimonies from big-name artists raised on the hyphy movement, including G-Eazy and Kamaiyah, create a throughline to its enduring influence.

We Were Hyphy is not the first hyphy film. In the 2000s, while the movement was ongoing, Mac Dre’s Treal TV and the sideshow doc Go Dumb USA captured the good times. Madrigal was a teenager in Antioch in those days, when hyphy made its way from inner cities to the suburbs, and onto the radio and MTV. Now, with the gift of hindsight, he and his collaborators evolve the conversation.

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After making its premiere at Cinequest Film & Creativity Festival in San Jose in 2022, We Were Hyphy is now available for streaming on KQED and the PBS app. It will also broadcast on PBS stations nationwide (Feb. 5 at 9 p.m. on KQED PLUS, and Feb. 7 at 9 p.m. for KQED Channel 9). As you watch it, don’t be surprised if you find yourself dancing in your seat one minute and wiping a tear the next.

As Madrigal says, “Let’s just be wowed about how this community of people made something so beautiful out of nothing. It’s the classic story, [similar to] the birth of hip-hop.”

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