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 all throughout 2023.
In 2005, Keak Da Sneak dropped “Super Hyphy,” and encapsulated an entire Bay Area movement.
The region’s homegrown rap style had broken into the mainstream that year, and the Oakland rapper took credit for coining its name. The music video starts with him competing at a spelling bee, defining “hyphy” for the masses. (“Me and my homies popped purple pills and went hyphy at the sideshow,” the pronouncer reads when Keak asks him to use the word in a sentence.) As Keak raps with boundless energy, bursting with pride, he stands in front of a magazine cover with his face on it.
That magazine was Ruckus, and I was its 22-year-old editor-in-chief. At the time, I was a journalism student at San Francisco State University, itching to graduate because I was already doing what I loved: interviewing my hometown heroes and breaking new artists. I knew I was on the verge of something bigger than myself, and my timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Among labels, artists and local media, there was a crescendo of efforts to take hyphy nationwide.
After a successful September/October 2005 cover story, Keak asked us to produce his music video, and references to our mag were sprinkled throughout it like little Bay Area Easter eggs.
Ruckus’ “Dime of the Month,” Veronica from San Jose, was cast as the “naughty teacher” vixen. And with a cameo from Oakland’s Keyshia Cole, the hottest R&B artist to break that year, and turfing crew The Animaniakz, “Super Hyphy” became a primer on how folks in the Bay got down. It was just one example of how our magazine influenced the hyphy movement and taught the rest of the country on our lingo, our unique local customs.
The mid-2000s were a time of major shifts for the Bay Area rap scene. Just months prior to the “Super Hyphy” video release, one of the Bay’s biggest rap stars, Mac Dre, was gunned down on tour in Kansas City, Missouri. His death galvanized unity between long-squabbling turfs in his hometown of Vallejo, and the rest of the Bay followed suit. Mac Dre’s famous “thizz face” and throwing up “T’s” became part of the movement’s lexicon. And even as creative energy bubbled, there was a sense of grief. A lot of us were determined to carry Mac Dre’s torch forward into an unsteady future for Bay Area hip-hop.
Ruckus was embedded in the culture. Our photographer, Vivian Chen, shot the Hyphy Juice ads for Clyde Carson of The Team, and I was slanging biographies for artists’ press kits on the side. Ruckus was an incubator of talent, a staunch advocate for independent artists and a foreshadowing of how music media would be consumed in the future.
At its best, Ruckus Magazine was a scrappy outlier in the publishing world, an independent magazine not tied to Manhattan-based record labels or media empires. Following in the footsteps of local rap publications like 4080 and Murder Dog, which both launched in the early ’90s, it understood the importance of underground artists, and of balancing the scales in a way that included regional sounds. Our stories covered Zion I, DJ Shadow and QBert, and we didn’t shy away from mobb music artists like The Jacka, Cellski and Pretty Black. We even featured mainstream artists like Damian Marley and Ghostface Killah. With two Asian Americans, William Htun and Collin Lam, as the co-founders, Ruckus represented a diversity in the hip-hop publishing world that was rarely seen. And its shrunken size fit perfectly in your back pocket.
But at its worst, Ruckus perpetuated misogynistic portrayals of women, and barely scratched the surface of the Bay Area’s progressive politics and deep history of racial solidarity. Though I loved hip-hop, it was difficult to reconcile the sexism I witnessed and experienced as a writer with newfound visibility and power. I pushed for women to be featured on the covers of the six issues I edited in 2005 and ’06, but never succeeded. And I constantly deflected rappers who came on to me during interviews and cornered me in dark clubs.
I saw how other women in the scene, the ones called “groupies,” were treated as less than human. But I convinced myself that I had a loftier purpose and was different. Even though the top three positions on Ruckus’ masthead were filled by women, that didn’t protect us from misogyny that permeated hip-hop to the core. When one of my bosses said I reminded them of Kim Osorio of The Source, they didn’t seem to refer to her skills as an editor-in-chief. I understood the comparison to mean a pretty face, a hired gun, who served the purposes of the men in the room.
The idealistic euphoria of the first three issues of Ruckus eventually transitioned into the need to keep up with the other hip-hop magazines we considered our competition. The co-founders flexed their industry plugs and put established rappers like Cam’ron and Nas on the cover, while I was still trying to prioritize local artists and women like Keyshia Cole.
The magazine had a “Dime of the Month” section to objectify — I mean, highlight — sexy women. I protested silently by editing everything except that segment. I felt like the sore thumb, the nail that needed to be hammered down to make way for more advertising dollars.
Eventually, I “quietly quit” by applying for the MTV reality competition I’m From Rolling Stone after seeing a MySpace bulletin for auditions. With my airbrushed face on my hoodie, a clip of me interviewing Too $hort and, of course, my gold bottoms, I secured the audition, and eventually won the Rolling Stone contributing editor position that was the show’s prize. Ruckus folded while MTV filmed me interviewing DMX in Harlem and dancing on stage with George Clinton in Denmark.
Many magazines also didn’t make it in the years leading up to the 2008 recession. By the time we went from Friendster to MySpace, every major publication was on the chopping block. And with social media’s explosion in the 2010s, artists gained the power to control their narratives, and the role of independent magazines inevitably diminished. Even Rolling Stone took a hit when its large format shrunk down to a standard size.
Hyphy never truly popped off like it could have with more industry support, and eventually it fizzled out. But in the back of my closet, I still have my airbrushed Vans and matching T-shirt with Mac Dre’s face, along with my gold bottoms and several archived copies of the little magazine that launched my journalism career. I break them out every once in a while to remember the days of hip-hop before social media, and to remind my high school-aged son where these relics came from. It’s all documented right there, in Keak’s video, and among the treasured keepsakes dear to those of us born in the analog age.
And me? I switched careers and became the progressive feminist rap artist known as Rocky Rivera. I took every lesson I learned, every door slammed in my face and every sexist rumor about how I “got the story,” and put these experiences into verses that eviscerated my critics. In my rap career, I’ve written from a perspective that never was prioritized: my own. Though I’m grateful for the part Ruckus and I played in Bay Area hip-hop history, writing my own story became my biggest success.
Care about what’s happening in Bay Area arts? Stay informed with one email every other week—right to your inbox.