Laurence Madrigal never expected to make a feature-length film about hyphy music. Originally, it was just supposed to be a little side project for him and co-producer Jason O’Mahony outside their day jobs.
“It started and we were like, ‘oh, this will be like three minutes. We’ll interview a couple people, talk about hyphy,’” Madrigal says.
But it quickly grew well beyond that.
Pieced together from an estimated 80 hours of interviews, We Were Hyphy presents the boisterous Bay Area hip hop sound from as many angles as possible, centering not just the music (as made famous by E-40, Too $hort, Keak da Sneak, Mistah FAB, and a host of others) but also the movement’s highly expressive innovations in dance, clothing, lifestyle and nightlife—one short section even highlights the importance of Bay Area gas stations in the movement.
Though its scope is wide, the film is far from exhaustive. At 84 minutes, We Were Hyphy feels brisk, a little trip to the candy shop brimming with the energy of a bombastic movement.
“We wanted the pacing to match what hyphy is,” Madrigal says: “it’s fast, keeps your attention.”
Baydestrians (aka Bay Area natives, in hyphy lingo) will find much to love in the film, from its impeccable music and insightful, personable interviews, to its sweeping images of the Bay and its real focus: the documentation of a unique moment in local history. And though the film focuses largely on the Town (Oakland) and the City (San Francisco), and much hyphy discourse centers around Vallejo’s E-40, We Were Hyphy does pay respect to the San Josean who was one of the genre’s foremost architects.
“Traxamillion, for me, he really matured that sound and brought kind of a musician element to it,” Madrigal says of the San Jose-based producer who passed away early this year. “He’s just such a talented keyboardist on top of a beatmaker. He brought it to the next level as far as melody and complexity and what you can do with a very minimal beat.”
On beats like Keak da Sneak’s “Super Hyphy” and “Glamorous Lifestyle” by The Jacka (ft. Andre Nickatina), Trax continually reestablished the definition of hyphy, first as a bouncy, minimal take on Rick Rock’s sped-up mobb music (as Too $hort describes in the film), then as a Bay Area mindset complete with its own musical lexicon.
Though Traxamillion himself isn’t interviewed in the film, the music he made often soundtracks its staggering roster of Bay Area figures, including musicians like Mistah F.A.B. (“Ghost Ride It”), Nump (“I Gott Grapes”) and Droop-E (producer, rapper and E-40’s son). Alongside them are other significant figures in the movement: photographers, historians, dancers, drivers and music video directors—along with the ever-important Bay Area fans.
As the collection of interviews grew, so did the project. Madrigal says that even two years into filming, he and O’Mahony still weren’t planning on making a feature-length documentary. The clincher was the film’s acceptance at Cinequest.
“Getting into Cinequest was major,” Madrigal says. “That was a deadline where it was like, ‘well, we have to finish it now because we got into a film festival.’”
Still, up to the last moment, the movie was still taking form. The project’s final addition was its narrator: actor and Bay Area native Benjamin Earl Turner (known for his role as Earl on the Starz series Blindspotting). After seeing an early cut of the film, Turner texted Madrigal to say he was in.
“He was like, ‘yo, this is really special, let’s do it.’”
The only problem was they were running out of time. When Turner delivered his narration, it was only three days before Cinequest’s submission due date.
“And this is a feature film, so it takes like nine hours to export,” Madrigal says, laughing. “We got it in the final hours. That’s when it finally felt like a real movie.”
We Were Hyphy had its world premiere this April, during Cinequest’s streaming festival Cinejoy. Since its initial premiere online, it’s screened at SF DocFest and SF Black Film Festival and drawn praise for its loving portrayal of the stupid doo-doo dumb Bay Area sound (yadadamean?). Now, with the live screening at Cinequest, the experience is coming full circle.
“This was the first festival we got in. They’ve believed in us since the beginning,” Madrigal says. “To bring it to the South Bay, we’re just ecstatic.”
Screens at 2:20pm on Aug 20 at California Theatre at 2:45pm on Aug 28 at Pruneyard Cinemas.