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Oakland is the New Oakland

Stem cell research and the Oakland rap revolution

News Feature, Russell Morse
YO! Youth Outlook, Jul 10, 2006

Next time you’re in Oakland, make a wrong turn. Trust me.

If you’re on Martin Luther King or way out in Deep East, take a left and you’ll see a hundred kids in the street, dancing on the hood of a purple Oldsmobile, wearing glittery grandma sunglasses and smiling so hard their gold teeth scare the sun back over the horizon of the Flatlands.

The woofers in their trunks will be slapping with frantic hood party songs recorded on Pro Tools in somebody’s backyard studio.

You think I’m kidding, but this is Oakland today.

There’s a lot of Bay Area band-wagoning going on right now. If you’ve heard the word, you’ve heard the rumors: Hyphy is the new Crunk. Whatever that means.

It’s a pretty lazy comparison, especially if you consider that Crunk is great strip club music and that’s about it. Hyphy, on the other hand, is a movement encapsulating everything from Haitian drums to gentrification.

And hallucinogenic drugs and the hardest car culture since Rebel Without a Cause. All that and glittery grandma glasses, too . . .

I used to call Oakland a cultural wasteland. I’m from San Francisco, so I’m almost obligated to spout arrogant nonsense like that. I have to go on record now, though, and say not only was I wrong, it seems that San Francisco has become the barren territory.

Since the rap world still tends to revolve around the SECOND most arrogant city in the world, let me make a New York Analogy: It’s the same reason Hip Hop grew out of the Bronx and not Manhattan.

I’m not enough of an authority to say this, so let me phrase it in the form of a question: Is anything interesting happening in Manhattan? It’s all art openings and apple-tinis, right? Sorry guys, but no viable, engaging or progressive culture is gonna come from an island crowded by journalists in $400 heels.

All of this town-bashing is to say that in my lifetime, I have had to watch my hometown devolve into a Manhattan for Prius-driving non-profit project managers. And you can’t really get less Hyphy than that.

I’m making a right turn in Oakland. I shake my head the whole drive because Frisco kids are not supposed to cross the Bay Bridge unless we’re in a stolen car. I peel off the freeway on Martin Luther King, duck under the BART tracks and then I’m forced to stop a couple blocks down on 52nd street because 37 youngsters in enormous, crispy white t-shirts are in the street dancing to slap happy-beats in the headlights of a Buick with Lamborghini Scissor doors. This is where I’m supposed to meet two young up and comers in the Hyphy scene, J Stalin and Beeda Weeda.

I get out and said hi to my boy Pen, who’s video taping the whole thing. He turns the camera off for a minute and tells me J and Beeda might be a minute because they’re in the studio. So I wait in the street with the rest of the party, dancing and going dumb, as they say.

52nd street in West Oakland is a kind of anonymous, narrow residential street that sits behind the elevated Bart tracks in the shadow of Children’s Hospital. It’s a long row of crooked homes with brown lawns and a Technicolor American Dream Car in every driveway. But it’s an anonymous street with a long, revolutionary history. Huey Newton’s childhood home is on the next block. These kids are dancing and partying on the same street where the Black panthers drafted their manifesto.

Eventually, I make my way through the crowd to the backyard tool-shed studio where J and Beeda are pounding keyboards and pushing knobs, stopping only to sip some Carlos Rossi Chablis from a little green jug. This is California, after all. A hungry pit bull is trying to climb the neighbor’s fence so he can eat me. Beeda shakes my hand and smiles, showing his gold tops and bottoms.

J and Beeda lean against the scissor doors of someone else’s car (or “scraper” as they say) and pontificate Hyphy. J can’t stop smiling or talking and he twists his hat around on his head as he waves his hands around. “It’s got nothing to do with no music. Hyphy is how you act. Hyphy is a person with a don’t-care attitude.”

Now it’s time to address a misconception. The phrases associated with this irreverent Hyphy behavior—going dumb, going stupid, being retarded and riding the yellow bus—contribute to the idea that this movement is somehow violent, negative or otherwise eligible to be outlawed.

This is, again, a misconception. I’m a white kid from San Francisco, dressed down in Giants Orange and I feel right at home at this impromptu Oakland block party. As long as I’m dancing, laughing and being a goofball, I’m as much a part of the party as anyone else. The only rule in this Hyphy movement is that you’re “feeling yourself”... as they say.

Everyone here tonight is feeling themselves. The guy with the shiny plastic grape necklace on is dancing with the dreadlocked dude in the “Stop Snitching” t-shirt, who is laughing with the nine-year-old peanut head who stopped playing basketball to join the party. I haven’t seen this many smiling black faces since OJ got off.

After their interview, J and Beeda throw on their outrageously bouncy single, “Keep it 100” and the Turf Dancing crew The Animaniacs start what Star Magazine would call a dance-off. One kid comes out with a can of Grape soda and starts making robotic love to it in the driveway while everyone cheers him on. Welcome to Oakland indeed.

And why is this the most surreal, goofy block party in the history of the hood? They call it “thizzing,” but it’s just slang for being on ecstacy. So what does it mean when E is the new Hennessey? It means these kids are doing a Sergeant Pepper and transcending mundane turf rap and samples. They call it the Nation of Thizzlam, a phrase coined by the now deceased demi-God of Hyphy, Mac Dre.

Now, not every one here is on drugs—in fact, most aren’t—but somehow MDMA opened up a portal in the Bay Area rap brain and let the fun back in.

So what does surreal dance music and hallucinogenic drugs have to do with a political movement, stem cell research, gentrification and hybrid cars? To begin, Hyphy is not specific to Oakland. In fact, the most recognized players in the movement, Mac Dre and E40—are from a town called Vallejo. Hyphy is all Bay, all day. Frisco, Oakland, San Jo, Vallejo, Daly City, Fairfield, even Concord (our own little Jersey), is Hyphy.

But last year, the University of California San Franciso landed the state’s billion dollar stem cell research contract and built a monstrous complex on the border of San Francisco’s last remaining black neighborhood—Hunters Point.

The city also tore down the majority of its public housing projects and approved zoning for quaint live-work lofts on Hunters Point’s main drag, 3rd street. So now no one worth his weight in drum machines can afford to live in San Francisco. Or: you can’t dance on the hood of a car in front of your house when the landlord is looking for any reason to boot you out and convert to a condo.

This is only interesting because it forces arrogant San Franciscans like myself to look outside of our insular Thai restaurant-infested town and witness the beauty of the culture that is exploding across the water.

So thank you, stem cell research. Thank you, Mayor Newsom. Thank you, bicycling hipsters and internet cafes. God bless you, ironic t-shirt boutiques. Go with Jesus, wealthy gay couples. You have expedited the most amazing cultural, musical revolution since the Beatles took acid.
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