Go Dumb

Why hyphy is the best hip-hop right now.

As the poet said, there’s a fine line between clever and stupid. But must one choose sides? Not if you listen to “Stewy” by D.B.’z, a rap group from Vallejo, Calif. The song is propelled by a deliriously catchy beat—big wobbly bassline, blasts of keyboard fuzz, and what sounds like a schoolyard full of Ritalin cases chanting taunts—and by a young voice intoning a chorus: “Mainy, cuckoo, silly, bananas/ Mainy, cuckoo, silly, bananas.”Mainy is slang term meaning, well, cuckoo, silly, bananas—craziness of the most inspired and enjoyable sort. A second refrain elaborates on this theme: “Stewy-ewy-ewy-ewy-ewy/Stewy!” To be stewy is to be extra-mainy, really silly. Midway through the song, guest rapper E-40 arrives to deliver his own variation on the theme. “Look at all my young dreadheads,” he exults. “They so dumb!”

“Stewy” is one of 20 songs on Hyphy Hitz(TVT), a new compilation chronicling the Bay Area hip-hop genre known as hyphy (pronounced “hi-fee”), in which stewiness, maininess, dumbness are everything: the means and ends, the sun and moon and stars. The song titles tell the story: “Go Dumb,” “I’m a Fool Wit It,” “Get Stupid.” Stupid has been a term of praise in hip-hop for a couple of decades now. (“That beat is stupid.”) But hyphy elevates idiocy to a new level of esteem. When rapper Mistah F.A.B. boasts of doing “the dummy retarded” in “Super Sic Wit It,” he’s describing an aesthetic and philosophical ideal. Hyphy may be the most conscientiously “dumb” music in history. It’s also by far the best party going on in hip-hop right now.

Hyphy’s origins are shadowy, but most trace its beginnings to the early part of this decade. It has often been described as a West Coast analogue to Southern crunk, and though the comparison is imprecise, the two styles do have things in common. Like crunk, hyphy is dance music first and foremost; like crunk, it’s loud and garish, with lots of thudding bass-heavy beats and blaring synthesizers. But where crunk could almost be called post-rap, with bellowed chants replacing traditional verses, hyphy is exuberantly verbose. Listen to songs like E-40’s “Tell Me When To Go,” the genre’s one legitimate crossover hit, and the Federation’s much smaller hit, “18 Dummy.” The rappers are swift, stylish, and to the uninitiated, inscrutable, delivering lines thick with regional argot. That slang is a point of civic pride. In “Tell Me When To Go,” E-40, the scene’s spiritual godfather, raps: “I’m from the Bay where we hyphy and go dumb/ From the soil where them rappers be getting their lingo from.” (Hyphy rappers have long complained about rappers from other cities stealing their slang. Snoop Dogg’s catchphrase “fo’ shizzle” is an E-40 coinage.)

Online hyphy glossaries can help a newcomer get a handle on stewy and mainy and their many synonyms—as well as flamboasting (showing off), grapes (marijuana), stunners (sunglasses), thizz (ecstasy), yadadamean (“you know what I mean?”), and, of course, hyphy itself, whose etymology remains the source of some debate but which most agree connotes an advanced state of hyperactivity and wildness. Next, there are the many terms related to the automotive hijinks central to hyphy culture. Sydeshows are street corner displays of automotive stunts, usually featuring doughnut-turning at very high speeds. (Sydeshow greats have been known to sign their name on parking lot asphalt with tire skid marks.) The most celebrated hyphy pastime is ghostriding, or “ghostriding the whip,” whereby passengers exit an idling car and dance beside or atop it as it continues to roll. (Here hyphy culture grades into Jackass and extreme-sports culture.) And like many a cultural practice forged in the inner city, ghostriding has been imitated by suburbanites, often with ugly results.

To listen to hyphy, in other words, is to be immersed in a vibrant and eccentric regional culture, a universe away from the pop-rap mainstream. Chart-topping rappers boast about their late-model luxury coupes and fur coats; hyphy MCs extol their vintage “scrapers” and big goofy sunglasses. Clipse and Young Jeezy pretend to be coke kingpins; Bay Area MCs Nump and Keak Da Sneak celebrate party-hearty drug-taking. Rap superstars set their songs in the Olympian splendor of nightclub VIP rooms; hyphy rappers sing praise songs to street pageantry and hoedowns in parking lots. After years of being bludgeoned by hip-hop violence and materialism, it’s hard not to be thrilled by hyphy’s gentler, earthier, more democratic atmosphere.

But the great thing about hyphy is how lightly it wears its street cred, especially compared with the self-righteousness of so much “alternative” hip-hop. Hyphy rejects the formulas of rap radio, but it is unpretentious, and its mix of cut-rate synth blips and bass slaps—perfected by producers like Traximillion and E-40’s teenage son, Droop—has as much pop appeal as anything on the Billboard rap charts. The best hyphy MCs, meanwhile, have superstar-sized charisma. I love Keak Da Sneak’s coarse sandpaper tone and conversational boasts and putdowns. (In “Super Hyphy,” he hisses, “First, second verse, dis my third/ Six grade driving to school, I had a Firebird/ I don’t think they knowing, that’s my word/ Oh, you hip now? I was problem child, you was nerd.”) And E-40 is one of the world’s most charming rappers, with a liquid flow, a voice that sounds like it’s been soaked in thick buttermilk, and air about him of unshakeable sagacity. 

Of course, what really sets E-40, Keak Da Sneak, and other Bay Area MCs apart is their subject matter—their obsession with getting hyphy and going dumb, their willingness to reject the old hip-hop clichés and create some new ones. Hyphy Hitz is a reminder of what has long been missing in hip-hop: a little hot hot heat. For years, hip-hop has been colonized by a cult of cool—sleek sedans, icy blue bling, silken-toned rappers trying their best to sound as immaculate and above-it-all as Jay-Z. It’s a stupefyingly tight-assed style. Think how many MCs in recent years have bragged that they don’t dance! Compare 50 Cent’s “Disco Inferno” (“Look homie, I don’t dance/ All I do is this/ It’s the same two step with a little twist”) and Terror Squad’s “Lean Back” (See my niggas don’t dance/ See we just pull up the pants and/ Do the Roc-a-way”) with the scenes of doofy dance-floor abandon in the video for the late Oakland rapper Mac Dre’s “Thizzle Dance.” Hip-hop’s story can be told as a succession of regional styles, and listening to the vigorous, funny, joyful music on Hyphy Hitz, it’s hard not to hope that the Bay Area’s turn is next, that we’re just one breakthrough hit away from a hyphy takeover. E-40, for his part, is already trying to rewrite history, imagining not just a hyphy present and future, but a hyphy antiquity, complete with Ancient Near Eastern sydeshow: “Imagine all the Hebrews going dumb/Dancing on top of chariots and turning tight ones.”