The East Bay Hip-Hop Scene Will No Longer Be Ignored

While the region's influence on mainstream hip-hop has gone overlooked for decades, a new generation of break-out artists are reclaiming their musical heritage and drawing national attention back to the area.

In the hours leading up to their showcase at The Chapel in San Francisco’s Mission District in late February, members of HBK Gang milled about the overcrowded green room, laughing, dancing, and taking selfies. The effervescent supergroup consists of more than a dozen East Bay rappers, singers, and producers mostly in their early twenties. Many of them began making songs together in high school. They have a closeness that’s palpable, and their effortless cross-promotion of one another’s projects has turned their friendship into a movement. With Sage the Gemini, Iamsu!, Kool John, Kehlani, Jay Ant, Skipper, and P-Lo at the forefront of the group, HBK is part of a new generation of artists bringing national attention to the East Bay in the wake of the Aughts’ influential yet nationally unsung hyphy movement.

Hyphy, a homegrown cultural phenomenon, created a local furor a decade ago, with artists such as Mac Dre, E-40, and Too $hort at its epicenter. But despite its regional popularity, it failed to garner a national audience and eventually lost momentum in the late 2000s, leaving the local rap scene in a lull.

Nonetheless, many artists argue that hyphy created a blueprint for the style of rap that now dominates the charts and nightclubs. And with the subgenre’s noticeable influence on many out-of-town artists, some people in the local music industry are irked that it wasn’t East Bay rappers who took the region’s signature sound to the mainstream. Indeed, artists from bigger cities have become hugely successful through songs that use hyphy-influenced production and lyrical themes, while local artists have remained in their shadow — until recently.

HBK Day: Behind the Scenes from East Bay Express on Vimeo.

A polarizing figure in this debate is DJ Mustard, the most sought-after producer in hip-hop at the moment. A young Los Angeles native, Mustard has produced a number of hits during the past three years. 2 Chainz’s “I’m Different,” Jeremih’s “Don’t Tell ‘Em,” Big Sean’s “I Don’t Fuck With You,” and Tyga’s “Rack City” are just a few of the many tracks that kick off with the catchphrase, “Mustard on the beat, ho.” With their thudding bass lines and sparse synth melodies, Mustard’s beats bear great structural similarities to the hyphy songs that dominated local radio in the mid-2000s, and some people in the music industry have accused him of pilfering a distinctly Bay Area aesthetic.

“I definitely think the Bay Area doesn’t get its credit for influencing the game,” said Skipper when I pulled him aside at The Chapel while he waited to perform. In the background, Daghe, the group’s DJ, played a mix of local and Top 40 hits, many Mustard-produced tracks among them. “Our sound is really poppin’ off right now. Everything that’s popular right now, all the songs you hear in the club, all the songs you hear on the radio — that sound, that bounce to it, is definitely Bay Area influenced.”

While some major-label artists, such as Drake, are open about their admiration of Bay Area hip-hop, all too frequently, those who borrow from local rappers and producers’ sound end up eclipsing them due to the lack of music industry infrastructure in this part of the state. Bay Area artists often don’t have the resources to become stars in their own right, and, as a result, the appropriation of their music, slang, and culture has long gone unnoticed.

Things are changing, however, as the geographic lines that once barred success are dissolving thanks to YouTube and SoundCloud. HBK Gang’s burgeoning artists have staked a claim to hip-hop on a national level, and their Bay Area peers — such as rappers G-Eazy and Bobby Brackins and producers NanosauR, Friendzone, and Nic Nac — have risen in tandem.

Many HBK members — who are only at the dawn of their careers — already boast viral videos and radio hits. They’ve received cosigns from Bay Area rap legends and mainstream artists alike.

With hit songs like “Gas Pedal” and “Only That Real,” respectively, Sage the Gemini and Iamsu! accompanied platinum-selling rapper Wiz Khalifa on tour last summer and have worked with the likes of 2 Chainz. And Kehlani, Jay Ant, and Kool John recently got back from joining G-Eazy’s “From the Bay to the Universe” tour, which included sold-out stops at iconic venues such as New York City’s Webster Hall. P-Lo, HBK’s most prolific beat maker, has produced hits for Yo Gotti and Tyga.

While DJ Mustard’s hyphy-derived sound may have taken off before its pioneers got their due, members of HBK Gang are reclaiming their musical roots and using hyphy’s legacy as a springboard for their own creative evolution.

The topic of appropriation is a sticky one, especially in hip-hop. In 2015, it’s difficult to empirically calculate who has influenced whom, when so many rappers and producers rely heavily on samples, borrowed melodies, and guest verses. While some local artists have had a chip on their shoulder about the Bay Area’s uncredited influence for years (to quote E-40 in his 2006 song “Tell Me When To Go,” I’m from the Bay where we hyphy and go dumb/From the soil where them rappers be gettin’ they lingo from), others have strategically overlooked it.

After all, collaborating with someone like DJ Mustard is more conducive to one’s success than calling him out and inevitably looking petty. A conflict with a high-demand hitmaker could potentially compromise one’s industry connections — a risk many up-and-coming artists don’t want to take.

Mistah F.A.B., one of the hyphy movement’s central figures, fell victim to the effects of music industry favoritism when he and DJ Mustard got into a brawl at last year’s KMEL Summer Jam. After a series of radio interviews in which Mistah F.A.B. compared DJ Mustard’s production style to hyphy and DJ Mustard refuted his claims, the two artists got into a physical altercation at an afterparty. National blog coverage of the squabble overwhelmingly favored DJ Mustard and made Mistah F.A.B.’s concerns look like a non-issue. After all, other Bay Area artists like E-40 and Iamsu! have rapped over DJ Mustard beats and worked with his affiliate YG, who was also involved in the fight.

No one seemed to come to Mistah F.A.B.’s defense, and, from a careerist point of view, it’s easy to see why. Collaborations with big-name artists — regardless of whether they admit they’re borrowing from the Bay Area or not — are a lifeline to the mainstream music industry for local rappers whose only other alternative is to remain content with regional success. In many people’s minds, popular artists such as DJ Mustard who are spreading the Bay Area’s iconic sound only create opportunities for Bay Area rappers to rise beyond hometown-hero status. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why many of the HBK members I interviewed avoided criticizing DJ Mustard — even though they talked readily about the Bay Area’s uncredited influence on the mainstream.

“At the end of the day, we know where [the sound] came from and it’s getting praise,” said Kehlani, as we ducked into a quiet fitting room to talk during a blaring sound check for HBK’s showcase at The Chapel. While her soulful R&B tunes depart from hyphy sonically, her exposure to Oakland’s rap scene growing up is evident in the swagger of her lyrics and personal style. Now based in Los Angeles, Kehlani has yet to be signed by a major label — though many critics have heralded her as an emerging artist to watch. Her forthcoming mixtape, You Should Be Here, has already received much fanfare. “You can be salty and act like everybody is stealing you, but we know we’re making a difference and it really doesn’t matter to me personally or to anyone I’m associated with.”

Sage the Gemini, who was critical about DJ Mustard’s Bay Area-derived production in an article in The Fader last year, seems to have adopted a similar attitude to that of Kehlani — now that they’ve both begun to blow up and have more at stake. When I found him backstage sharing a couch with P-Lo among their friends and collaborators, he approached the topic evenhandedly. “The sound and all that, that came from this side. It’s easy to tell,” he said. “But [HBK] wasn’t gonna hate on [DJ Mustard] … . No matter what I say, he’s gonna be on top — congrats! But we just wanna let people know, ‘Oh, you guys like that? Well, we did that.’ … We had to go through these experiences and put our hearts into this drum pattern, or this double clap, or the high-hats slightly off of the kick, and the way we put balance on the beat. We’ve been doing this type of music since 2006… We’re not hating on [DJ Mustard] because it’s not like he did this by himself. He wasn’t just like, ‘This is my beat. We’re about to go to the radio.’ It’s labels and all that. So we can’t completely hate on him, but we’re gonna keep claiming it. Like Su once said, ‘Can’t nobody steal our style if we still got it.'”

There are many theories about why hyphy never became mainstream during the height of the movement, but the most compelling one is that before the widespread use of social media, there were few channels for such a countercultural subgenre to exist. From the early to mid-Aughts, hyphy evolved from a music style into an elaborate subculture with its own drugs, slang, dances, car culture, and mythology. In their songs and music videos, artists propelled its flashy aesthetic to a cartoonish degree, dancing on top of cars, wearing exaggerated chains and tall tees, and bragging about popping ecstasy pills.

As Naomi Zeichner, editor-in-chief of The Fader, pointed out in a recent phone interview, hyphy’s explosion in the Bay Area coincided with the fall of MTV and predated the rise of music blogs as the primary tastemakers. Before the internet democratized the way we consume music, it was difficult for a sub-genre to find a national audience. “There was no place for that movement to live except on local radio,” she said. While crunk, the South’s take on party rap, dominated the Top 40 in the 2000s, hyphy’s emphasis on drugs overshadowed its music and made the genre easy for outsiders to dismiss as a debaucherous farce.

“The Bay was prime to go big [in the mid-2000s]. E-40 had ‘Tell Me When To Go.’ Too $hort had ‘Blow the Whistle.’ Keak da Sneak was next in line and everyone had their eyes on Keak,” said Michelle McDevitt, a publicist who represented many Bay Area rappers during the hyphy movement’s peak and currently works with Iamsu! “Everybody was looking to Too $hort and E-40 like they’ve been in the game for a long time and it’s time for a young’un to hold that torch. And then when Keak didn’t pop, that’s when people started to see it as a joke and a weird fad that sort of passed by.” The tendency of Bay Area artists to stick together was also a factor and remains one today. McDevitt noted that while camaraderie is beneficial to a certain extent, local artists often end up featuring their friends on their albums instead of reaching out to rappers from other cities — a move that would help broaden their fan bases.

However, Zeichner contended that the difficulty Bay Area artists have had in breaking into the national market is not a phenomenon unique to the region — nor is it necessarily a bad thing. In fact, she argues that it’s a sign of a healthy local music scene that is advantageous to artists in the long run. Cities like Atlanta, Chicago, and Toronto are also hubs for musical innovation with their own styles of hip-hop. Like in the Bay Area, the scenes in these cities make it possible for rappers to have sustainable careers without necessarily achieving mainstream fame.

“To be a local rapper in the Bay could potentially be a better model for success than a lot of rap acts have a crack at,” Zeichner said. “Right now, achieving long-term, mainstream success across America in rap is really difficult for everyone. I think more than ever, people are getting a deal off a Vine hit or getting a deal off a single and then disappearing forever. To have longevity in this kind of climate is really hard for everyone.”

Thanks to steadfast local rap fans, the hyphy movement still enjoys a loyal following in the Bay Area despite its relative obscurity in the rest of the country. Go to almost any Oakland club on a Friday or Saturday night, and you’ll be guaranteed to hear DJs sprinkle Mac Dre, E-40, Too $hort, and Mistah F.A.B.’s hits into their sets. The latter three artists (Mac Dre died in 2004) still consistently release material and often collaborate with younger rappers, such as Bobby Brackins, G-Eazy, and various members of HBK Gang. For many emerging artists, a guest verse from one of these legends is a way of paying homage to Bay Area rap history as well as showing hometown pride.

While artists like Iamsu! and P-Lo proudly refer to what they’re doing as the next evolution of hyphy, they’re cognizant of the potential pitfalls of genre terminology. They view hyphy as a marker of Bay Area culture, and their goal is to channel its fun-loving spirit into a retooled sound and aesthetic for the next generation. And because they don’t classify their music using specific labels, they have more freedom to grow than was possible for rappers under the hyphy umbrella.

“I feel like other stuff was highlighted [about the hyphy movement], like the ghost riding and hopping on cars, but the real thing that should have been highlighted is the energy,” said P-Lo when I met him, Iamsu!, and a gaggle of HBK Gang affiliates recently at their Emeryville studio to listen to their soon-to-be-released new projects. As they blasted their songs through the speakers, everyone in the room enthusiastically bobbed their heads and bounced on the couch cushions. When I asked P-Lo whether his upcoming release would be an EP or full-length album, Iamsu! interjected that it’s better to think of it as “hyphy art.”

“You have to have that energy to be like, ‘Yo, I’m about to hop out my car and start dancing,'” P-Lo said. “I’m hyphy as fuck so that energy shows through my music. I’m continuing that legacy but presenting it differently. That’s what needs to be put in the forefront, the free-spirited energy to express how you feel when music comes on. I’m building on it sonically, too, and trying to advance it.”

G-Eazy, who came of age around the same time as the members of HBK Gang, shares similar sentiments. While his sound isn’t as obviously hyphy-influenced as that of his peers, he frequently references the Bay Area in his lyrics and has brought E-40 onto his songs. “We’re the kids who grew up on the hyphy movement — 2006 was one of the most influential years on my life,” he told me over the phone, his voice rising in excitement. “That’s a lot of what me and Su and P-Lo all talk about — is reminiscing on that time period and how influential it all was. We’re the ones that grew up [on it] and it’s our chance now to do something. It’s important to evolve and push things forward.”

Many people in the music industry have described the recent explosion of Bay Area and Los Angeles hip-hop as the Young California sound, thanks in large part to the efforts of 106 KMEL’s DJ Amen and Power 106’s DJ Carisma, who run a website and promotional company that’s also called Young California. As convenient as it is to use an all-encompassing term, however, the description downplays the uniqueness of each region.

Still, Iamsu! and P-Lo, who are frequently featured on Young California SoundCloud mixes, don’t seem to mind being part of a larger West Coast movement rather than a distinctly Bay Area one. Affiliation with bigger artists like DJ Mustard gives them more of a platform to spread what they consider to be the more important aspects of hyphy: its upbeat sound and attitude, rather than its cultural signifiers.

“I think it’s great. I hear people say ‘Go dumb,’ I hear more up-tempo songs, I hear certain cadences and styles,” said Iamsu!. “I think it’s great that people are looking in our direction for influence.” DJ Mustard produced the track “Nothin Less” on Iamsu!’s new mixtape, Eyes On Me, and his beat works well with Iamsu! and P-Lo’s other production.

“The music’s gonna grow, so [DJ Mustard] kind of opened the door for that kind of music in general,” P-Lo said. “He was just the first one through the door. It was definitely good for the whole West Coast sound — period.”

As East Bay rap is beginning to receive national attention thanks to rising local talent as well as endorsements from big-name artists, such as Drake, some Oakland musicians who occupy high-ranking, behind-the-scenes roles in the industry are looking to leverage this hype to gain traction for their solo projects. Brackins, an aspiring rapper and accomplished songwriter in his mid-twenties, views the situation as being a ripe opportunity to boost his solo music.

Brackins’ extensive songwriting credits are a testament to his widespread influence on mainstream hip-hop and R&B, even if that influence has often gone unnoticed in the public eye. Outside of industry insiders, few people realize that he was recently co-nominated for a Best Urban Contemporary Album Grammy for his work on Chris Brown’s X. Brackins — who was one of the writers of Brown’s hit song “Loyal” (on which Mistah F.A.B. also has writing credits) — started making music as a rapper with his group Go Dav while still in high school. However, his knack for writing lyrics for other artists quickly outshone his solo efforts and led him to find behind-the-scenes work. When he moved to LA with his high school friend Nic Nac (who produced the beat for “Loyal”), the duo made industry connections that enabled their songwriting and production careers to take off.

Brackins now goes back and forth between Oakland and LA, where he frequently works in the studio with artists like Nicki Minaj, Trey Songz, Jeremih, Usher, and Tinashe. (He penned the lyrics to Tinashe’s DJ Mustard-produced hit “2 On,” which was the number-one R&B song of 2014 according to Billboard.) “I enjoy working with the people who I’ve grown up listening to and I enjoy working with new people because I get to see their careers blossom and develop,” he said when we talked backstage in early February at the Warfield. He was preparing to do a soundcheck with G-Eazy for the San Francisco stop of his “From The Bay to the Universe” tour. While he wasn’t billed as a performer, Brackins came on stage that night as a surprise guest to play his single “Hot Box,” on which G-Eazy has a verse.

While his songwriting career has been fruitful, Brackins yearns to be recognized as an artist in his own right. The success he experienced in high school as a rapper (with a hit on the local radio and more than three million MySpace plays before his senior prom) allowed him to break into the music business early on, and now he hopes to step out from behind the curtain and join the current wave of Bay Area talent. “I would always come back to the Bay [after moving to LA] and keep my ear to the street, so I made friends with Su [Iamsu!] and Kool John and a lot of these guys who are doing their thing right now,” he said, underscoring his sense of belonging to the local scene despite his involvement in bigger projects.

As people from his community garner national attention, Brackins is taking steps to emerge as a solo artist. He recently released his single “My Jam,” featuring Jeremih and Disney-star-turned-singer Zendaya, another Oakland native. He predicts it will become one of the biggest songs of the summer and will enable him to launch his own tour. Brackins said that with so much buzz currently surrounding Bay Area artists, the current music industry climate is in his favor. “It’s cool to be like, ‘I’m cool with some people from the Bay.’ It gives you credibility,” he said of his experience working with major-label artists. “So now it’s less like people are taking game from the Bay and getting credit for it. Now, people like Drake are shouting out Mac Dre multiple times on their albums.”

“We’ve always been here, we’ve always been innovators, but it’s dope to see a national spotlight on the Bay Area again,” said G-Eazy. “It’s always been a place where we do our own thing whether the rest of the world is paying attention or not.”

Fuze the Mc, an Oakland-based rapper originally from Atlanta, is in a similar position to Brackins, although his connections came through his music-related work in tech. While Fuze was looking for ways to promote himself as an artist, a pitch meeting landed him the behind-the-scenes position of digital strategist for The Blueprint Group, a PR and management firm whose client list includes Lil Wayne, Nicki Minaj, G-Eazy, and, previously, Drake and Kanye West. Immersed in the Bay Area’s start-up scene (this year, Fuze will launch his music app, Playola), he leverages deals for these chart-topping artists with companies like SoundCloud and Pandora, which have offices in San Francisco and Oakland, respectively.

Though Fuze’s long-term goal is to focus full-time on his music, his endeavors in the digital arena have consumed most of his energy since his recent graduation from Howard University. Still, he has a healthy following on SoundCloud (with plays in the hundreds of thousands) and about half a million Twitter followers. He hopes to use the connections he has forged through his marketing work to eventually propel his music projects. “Everyone answers your phone calls when you’ve worked with these clients,” he said, in reference to the artists The Blueprint Group represents, when we chatted at Zoo Labs, a West Oakland recording studio and creative space where he often works.

While his ambitions extend beyond regional fame, Fuze finds comfort in the fact that the Bay Area has a large rap fan base that could make a lasting local career possible. Additionally, the local tech culture provides support for his other talents, like social media marketing and coding, which he hopes to utilize to bypass the East Bay’s lack of music industry infrastructure. He envisioned his app, Playola, as a way to help underground artists connect with fans, and he seeks to create more avenues for exposure for artists attempting to make it without label support.

Known for its bravado, hip-hop is a genre that prizes ambition and achievement. The artists interviewed for this story have their sights set on stardom and don’t feel satisfied with coasting on local recognition. Fortunately, the critical mass of rising East Bay talent is making the region hard to overlook. Like in the hyphy movement of the last decade, many of these artists are still independent. Now, the game-changing factor is that it’s becoming increasingly easier for them to market themselves online — an option that wasn’t available when major labels and national radio stations ignored the Bay Area in the Aughts.

Still, the phenomenon of bigger artists liberally borrowing from the Bay Area’s hard-won musical legacy is something that continues to haunt the region. While they’re reluctant to publicly confront those who have appropriated the region’s sound, the new generation of Bay Area rappers and producers see the importance of using their platforms for sharing their singular, local rap culture with the world. Their increasing visibility and their connection to the Bay Area’s musical history might vindicate the region in a more impactful way than a potential Twitter beef (or fistfight) that will quickly become forgotten.

As people who came of age during hyphy’s heyday, HBK Gang, Bobby Brackins, and G-Eazy have a deep appreciation for its cultural significance and see it more than as just a catchy sound or passing trend. DJ Mustard may have gotten big off of his Bay Area-derived beatmaking, but he doesn’t seem invested in engaging in its origins in a meaningful way.

Now, it’s up to this new generation of East Bay artists to think beyond trends in order to cultivate something more lasting. And they seem up to the challenge.

Correction: Due to an editing error, the original version of this story contained a photo caption in which a quote by Sage the Gemini was misattributed to P-Lo.


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