by Minister of Information JR Valrey
One of the worst movies to be selected in the Oakland International Film Festival this year is the documentary “We Were Hyphy” by Larry Madrigal. Basically, it is colonialism and gentrification on film, a non-Black director trying to sum up a Black culture from his own understanding, although he did not live it and was not there from the beginning to see or feel the phenomenon.
I can speak authoritatively about the “hyphy” music movement that started in the Bay Area, because I lived it, covered it as a journalist and know most of the players involved. My main issue with “We Were Hyphy” is the misrepresentation of the culture in general, the pseudo-importance or lack of importance of certain people placed in the film, the chronology of events leading to the craze, as well as the commentary of people who have no relevance to the culture and watched it from the sidelines at best.
“Hyphy” is a word that was coined in Oakland in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s, and it meant “aggressive” and “wild,” as in: “They showed up in all black to the party: hyphy.” Hyphy was not a culture then; it was a part of Oakland Black culture. Basketball player JR Rider was hyphy; Gary Payton was hyphy. Tupac was also hyphy before the movement, when he shot two police officers for messing with a Black man that he didn’t know.
It did not originally mean goofy, standing on top of cars dancing with no one driving aka ghost-riding, wearing big glasses, or getting thizzed out (taking ecstasy). The word was used in turf slang during the crack era, much like the word “hub,” which never got regional recognition but was used widely in Oakland.
Mac Dre and Keak Da Sneak are the credited originators of the culture, with songs like “Thizz Dance” and “Super Hyphy.” Too $hort and E40 alongside Lil’ Jon were major pillars of the Atlanta crunk culture, which was the older cultural cousin of hyphy, but their interest in “hyphy” gave the culture national recognition.
This is important to state, because the film covers Mac Dre’s ascension after prison to the King of Hyphy, but you have to wait about 40 minutes in to hear about “King Kunta” aka Keak Da Sneak’s influence. The time in between is filled with people with lesser influence telling their story.
Amerikkka media culture has normalized non-Black people defining Black life and culture, and that is not acceptable.
This is a major foul because a story on film has to be told relatively quickly. The most relevant facts and interviewing the most relevant people has to take precedence over everything and everybody if the story is going to be authentic instead of a commercial for the director and crew’s lesser known acquaintances.
Although Gary Archer and D-Ray are non-Black, they were a part of the Thizz movement and should have been interviewed in the film, but the two Black journalists in “We Were Hyphy” were not a part of the hyphy movement in the streets, although they spoke passionately as if they were on the field and not in the bleachers.
The Filipino rapper Nump who had the hit “I Got Grapes” was interviewed, but members of the Black group The Federation weren’t. They had the songs like “Hyphy,” “18 Dummy” and “I Wear My Stunna Glasses at Night.” They were mainstays and Nump was a one-hit wonder.
Rap groups like the Team and Frontline’s contribution to the culture were also noticeably missing from “We Were Hyphy.”
With the exception of Mistah FAB, Oakland is not represented adequately in the film, because I would have liked to see some of the roots of hyphy linking back to Oaklanders like Digital Underground, Luniz, Askari X, The Delinquents, 2Pac and 3X Crazy, especially BA. With Oakland being the cultural mecca of the Bay Area and Northern California, it seems like the cultural movers and shakers in the ghetto would have been interviewed; instead, one hit wonders, television producers and hip hop shop owners took their place in the film.
Another thing that the hyphy movement did was usher in ecstasy culture to Black and Brown youth and normalize it as an acceptable drug in hip hop. Before that, ecstasy was viewed as a white “rave drug.” “We Were Hyphy” missed the ball on reporting on the downside of the culture.
The thing that I liked most about “We Were Hyphy” was that it included rare interviews with two legendary producers who don’t speak much, Rick Rock and Droop E, who both played pivotal roles in providing the soundtrack to the hyphy movement.
It is important that any Black experience is told from the perspective of Black people primarily – in front of and behind the camera. Amerikkka media culture has normalized non-Black people defining Black life and culture, and that is not acceptable. As a film critic, I had to point this out, because culture vulturism in cinema has become too commonplace, especially when it comes to our history. I lived this history. So let’s open up this discussion.
“We Were Hyphy” screens Sept. 21 at 9:15 p.m. at the Grand Lake Theater as a part of the Oakland International Film Festival.
JR Valrey, journalist, author, filmmaker and founder of Black New World Media, heads the SF Bay View’s Oakland Bureau. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Facebook. Visit www.BlackNewWorldMedia.com to read more.