WE WERE HYPHY: New Documentary Captures the Scarcely Highlighted Sights and Sounds of the Bay Area’s Early 2000’s Rap Scene

Director Laurence Madrigal talks about his personal journey to document the history of a musical and cultural movement with the help of those who experienced it
Director Laurence Madrigal, whose documentary We Were Hyphy is having its world premiere this year at Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose, CA. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Laurence Madrigal

Arturo Hilario
El Observador

Mac Dre. Turf dancing. Ghost riding.

These are many of the words that will bring a nostalgic smile to the face of anyone who listened to rap music in the early part of the 21st century in Northern California.

Hyphy music was part of the larger hyphy movement, which in it included street dancing known as turfing, unlicensed car shows known as sideshows, and a dynamic view of art and politics.

The sound of the Bay Area’s rap scene at that time was centralized within and around the borders of Oakland, San Francisco and San Jose to the South. Hyphy, a mesmerizing slang to be
“hyperactive”, was a call to anyone that wanted to let loose in a hedonistic moment that would eventually be lost to time. It was a moment that is so easily defined by the artists, dance styles, fashion and political environment, but at the same time one that has never had its real time in the limelight of popular culture.

That is until recently, when scholarly articles, reflections and now a full feature documentary want to exhume that moment in cultural history and give it its due diligence and analysis.

Laurence “Larry” Madrigal is a lifelong Bay Area native who studied film at San Francisco State University and whose sonic palette was influenced greatly by hyphy music in his adolescence. His new documentary, We Were Hyphy examines the world that hyphy music shaped, from its legendary musical artists to the broader cultural effects that it brought to the Bay Area and beyond.

We recently had the chance to talk to Larry about his own experiences with the hyphy movement, how it led to wanting to create a documentary about it, and how collaboration with those that lived and created the movement allowed for it all to become a reality.

We Were Hyphy will have its world premiere at Cinequest Film Festival on Saturday August 20, with an encore on Sunday August 28. More information available at cinequest.org.

So to start off, I was just curious to know what initially inspired you to want to tell this story about the hyphy movement?

I grew up in the Bay Area, I grew up in Antioch and then went to SF State in San Francisco after, so I’ve lived in the Bay Area my whole life. I’m 33, so I was in high school going into the early 2000s, around the time when the hyphy movement was really taking off in the Bay Area. So, for me, it’s always been a really fun, exciting, special time in my life, definitely.

Also, it kind of coincided with my coming of age when I was becoming an adult. And I’ve just always held the music, the culture, the fashion, the cars, all that, I’ve always had that really close to me. So I knew one day, studying film at SF State, I was like, “it might be cool, somehow to do some kind of movie that takes place during that era”, because at that time, I was just planning on being, a narrative filmmaker, not documentary.

But once I got older and started working, I drifted more towards documentary. I always wanted to make a movie about the Bay Area and that time specifically because it was like a once a lifetime moment. I don’t think there’s a lot of light shed on it, too. So that’s the passion, I guess, where it came from.

So in terms of how you get the ball rolling for this, how did you actually get that process started? Who did you get involved and what was the timeline like?

It was actually originally the producer, Jason O’Mahony, it was his idea. So we were working together at the time at an education company in the video department filming educational videos. He did not grow up in the Bay Area, but he’s a big appreciator of cool stuff, especially if it’s local. So I’d always share with him, like, Mac Dre songs and sideshow videos. I taught him all about it, and he was really fascinated by it. And one day he just approached me at work, he’s like, “We should make a little short, just, like, documentary or just a short video piece about hyphy and put it on YouTube or something.”

And I was like, “yeah, I’m down. That sounds good, man.” So we were working the whole time, but after work and on weeknights and on weekends, we spent time just trying to reach out to people, figure out how to get this thing made.

And it just started as a small little passion project. Then once we finally started meeting some people, like our first real big connection was Nump, the creator of the famous “I Got Grapes” song, and we met him, he kind of started introducing us to other people, and we met Mistah F.A.B., and that was an amazing interview.

Then we started going to Oakland First Fridays with a camera, and we just started hanging out, filming people dancing and going down. And then we started meeting all the car guys, like Falcon Dave with the Falcon Boys. And he gave us a download of the old school car culture, where the side shows kind of grew from, the original Oakland scene.

And then it just started snowballing, at a certain point, we were really picking up a lot of footage and started really developing the story more because we were learning a lot about the hyphy movement.

I felt like I was an expert on Bay Area hip hop and that era, but there’s so much more to it than just the music side. It’s like a whole cultural movement. So I learned a lot and started doing research and it just kind of evolved at a certain point [to] where we should just try to make a feature with our own means. A lot of people volunteered their time behind and in front of the camera.

Every interview is people them just agreeing to do it for free and volunteering. And then a lot of filmmakers and other artists contributed to the creating of the film. A big one was we met D-Ray and Gary Archer, who are Bay Area legends, and they were, like, a big part of the movement when it was going on. And D-Ray came on as an executive producer and she gave us a ton of guidance, but she also joined the team and gave us access to just thousands and thousands of photos from that era.

I think she might be the only photographer that was taking high quality pictures at that time because this is like right before the smartphone, kind of inaccessible. So whatever footage of the hyphy movement is kind of just like Treal TV, like, Go Dumb USA and then, like, D-Ray’s photos. It’s really not that documented.

I had read that the pandemic stopped your progress, could you talk about how that affected the project?

We were really moving, and then we’re really about to finish and had a lot of traction, and then covid hit, so we had to take kind of like a year off filming and we didn’t know how long it would last.

And then at that point, I hadn’t started editing it yet, and I decided to jump in and start just going through the interviews and piece it together. And that was huge, I’m actually really glad I did that because that kind of redirected a lot of ways the story was going and gave me a lot more insight.

I knew I wanted to edit the movie or at least do the basic editing myself because I just didn’t know really where to go with it. Even if I was to work with an editor, I wouldn’t really have a lot of direction to give them at first, but I think I was really intimidated to jump into it.

I was sitting on, like, ten terabytes of unwatched footage, two years of filming – I kind of just put it off. But then with the pandemic, it’s like I was just sitting in my house. It was really locked down, like you could barely go to the grocery store. So I was, like, sitting with all that footage, and I was like, “you know what, man? It’s now or never, if you start off this now or it’s not going to get done.” So, it really kind of humbled me and centered me and got me to get to work.

And then once the lockdown started opening back up, we had a little bit more focus and knew exactly who we want to talk to and what we wanted to talk to them about. And then that final year of 2021, we just filmed the rest of the movie, and then I finished the edit, and then we basically wrapped it up early 2022. So it’s like four years in the making.

So could you tell me a bit about what the documentary entails? What is the connecting thread to the story or what you’re trying to tell here about the hyphy movement?

For context, I think it’s important to say this is one of many, many, many approaches to telling that story. The hyphy movement, I think it’s a massive thing to cover and one movie is just not nearly enough. So I’d say this is one of many to come. I hope this excites people to tell their own version of the story or their own perspective because there’s a lot.

Each element of hyphy could be its own documentary series, like just side shows, just slang, just music, so it was hard to fit it all in. But I’d say what “We Were Hyphy” is about is it’s hopefully like a good 101 to any people that maybe don’t know anything about hyphy, people not from the Bay Area at that time. So we tried to really make it accessible for an outside audience.

But then I hope for those from that area, from that generation, I hope it’s a good nostalgic fun trip and look back and also maybe a little bit more of a deep dive into the certain parts of the culture. Like, if someone’s really into cars, maybe they can learn a little bit more about the slang, the fashion, or the music.

So it’s supposed to be a nostalgic, fun trip for the old school cats and then, like, a good introduction for the people outside. And I think what I really try to do with this was kind of make it for my generation of Bay Area natives. Specifically, like our age, where we were in high school, coming of age at that time.

It’s supposed to be kind of like a coming-of-age story for that generation of ‘baydestrians’, as they say, and come through that perspective. Then even for the more famous people, near the end of the movie it shows the passing of the torch from the E-40, Too Short, Mistah F.A.B., Keak generation to this new generation, like P-Lo, Kamaiyah, HBK, G-Eazy, all those guys. So it’s kind of about the two generations kind of overlapping and how the old generation that created hyphy, like Mac Dre and all those guys, inspired these young kids and now what they’re doing now.

So in the course of researching for this documentary, was there anything specific that was really surprising finding out about?

The big one was diving into the more academic analysis of the social and political climate at that time. And I give all that credit to Pendarvis Harshaw from KQED’s Rightnowish podcast. He’s like insanely knowledgeable and just grew up in Oakland at the time and just very present in that period, in this place in Oakland. And he just kind of woke us up to like, why things like the hyphy movement don’t happen in a vacuum. There’s a reason and kind of started unpeeling this kind of narrative or kind of story of [how] it was a reaction to an era. And then later on, as we continue making the movie, I was doing a ton of research while I was editing, just deep diving online and that kind of led me on a rabbit trail.

I kind of like stumbled upon Dr. Andrea L.S. Moore’s Dissertation that she wrote in graduate school called ‘How Hyphy Sparked a Social Movement’. Read the whole paper and then found her email address online, she’s a professor at the Sac State, and just sent her a cold email, like, “Yo, I just read your paper. It was mind blowing. I’m a super huge fan of your work now and we’re working on this documentary and are you interested in getting involved?”

And she responded super, like, enthusiastic and was like, “of course, let’s do this.” And then we had an amazing interview with her and she just been such a great resource. In front of the camera as an interview, but I just ask her questions and she’s always down to hop on a call and she just has a deep knowledge of this subject. That whole diving deeper than just the fun side was really fascinating and challenging and those two were a big part of that.

Then on another note, I think just learning more about turf dancing and where it came from. So big shout out to the TURF FEINZ and Icecold3000. Because they really were just super warm and inviting and invited us into their whole world and we were able to film some pretty, I’d say beautiful cinematography with them and just learning the whole history of turfing in Oakland and what it stands for and [how] it was meant as a way of communicating and kind of like spontaneity of emotions and stuff.

As someone that has spent so much time involved in making a documentary about hyphy music, what would be some of your suggestions for someone that is not familiar with it, if they wanted to do a little research?

I say start with just listening to the music. It all roots from the music. As Droopy in the [documentary] says, “hyphy was a reflection of the streets,” but the music is exactly that. Hyphy came from the streets, the music kind of documented it and then it became like a soundtrack for the streets. So it’s kind of like this circle.

Start with Mac Dre. From my perspective, it kind of started with Mac Dre. Not just his music, but his whole persona and just like his interest in car culture and the way he acted and dressed. Trackademicks says in the movie, he’s like “the personification of hyphy.”

So Mac Dre is a good starting point. And then obviously E-40. I mean, he’s the ambassador of the Bay. He really helped bring that culture to the national level along with Too Short and “Blow the Whistle”. So Mac Dre, E-40, Too Short, Mistah F.A.B. and Keak Da Sneak – those guys were like the young guys at the time, but they really expanded it.

I’d definitely check out Treal TV, the TV series. We were lucky to interview Thizz Nation CEO Kilo Kurt, who was also one of Mac Dre’s best friends, which was such a fascinating interview because learning more about Mac Dre as a person.

But he also was like, “you can use some Treal TV footage.” And I watched a ton of Treal TV when I was in high school because there was no social media. That was the closest thing we had, I think, to hyphy social media. So yeah, I’d say those things, but the music is a great start.

The era of hyphy was an event in time that is rarely discussed or documented. I feel like there is a need for this documentation of this slice of life of the Bay Area, so I do also hope that your documentary is a start to more documentation of the hyphy movement.

It’s a historical event, and I think it wasn’t always looked at that way. It was like, “oh, they’re just like crazy, jumping out of cars” and stuff. It was a historical event that I think should be in the history books, just like the hippies and all that stuff in the sixties.

Why would you recommend that folks check out “We Were Hyphy”?

I think for me the reasoning behind why people should go check it out is right now at least in the mainstream film coverage of the Bay Area, like Netflix and major studio movies, I feel like there’s a lot of coverage, a lot of stories that take place in Silicon Valley, we had The Dropout that came out last year, there’s the show Silicon Valley.

And I think hyphy is kind of a cool spotlight on a different Bay Area born culture that is contrastingly different than that and not a lot of people know about. But I think it can be really inviting and fun, and I think people will have a good time watching it and I think learn a lot more about a different side of the bay that’s not typically covered in mainstream media.