Bay Area Hip-Hop Is Proudly Local, Fiercely Independent and Super Weird

It's Saturday night during last Thanksgiving weekend in a West Oakland, California, warehouse that was once a steel factory. On this evening, American Steel Studios — now a community art space — is the site for Feels IV, an immersive arts and music experience with 25 to 30 artists and an 8,500-square-foot art gallery showcasing paintings, photography, projections and mixed media, all from local artists.

The crowd of 2,500 is a diverse snapshot of the multiethnic makeup of Oakland and the Bay Area, and they bounce, dance and breathe together into the night, relishing in their blissful nonconformity and ecstatic weirdness. This intersection of art, hip-hop, electronica and creativity is where 26-year-old Iamsu!, one of the brightest young rappers from the Bay Area, chose to make a surprise appearance and premiere songs from Kilt 3, his second studio album released in late March.

"That event was really, really dope to me," Iamsu! said. "Culturally it was really cool."

Bay Area rapper Iamsu! performing in Mountain View, California, 2014.Getty Images

On previous records, he's worked with massive hip-hop stars like Atlanta's 2 Chainz, Los Angeles' DJ Mustard, Pittsburgh's Wiz Khalifa and even local Bay Area legends Too $hort and E-40. But on Kilt 3, featured artists are strictly from the Bay Area (largely from Iamsu!'s HBK Gang crew) and it was released on his own label, Eyes on Me.

Years ago, scaling it back to a more localized approach would have been a crazy move for a Bay Area rapper gaining as much steam as Iamsu! But in the last five or six years, the Bay Area hip-hop scene has come into a crop of evergreen talent, in a scene that's becoming increasingly self-sustaining, without pandering to prevalent musical styles of Los Angeles or New York City. "I think we're at an all-time high." Iamsu! said.

"From the soil where them rappers be getting their lingo from." The Bay Area hip-hop scene is unlike any other. It's a scene where the pinnacle isn't bottle service at the swankiest club, but rather to be artistic while being yourself and project that output as far as it can go. It's why artists like Iamsu! have gotten past that proverbial velvet rope, and then came right back to the Bay to do it local again.

"It's a unique place that people come out of sounding like nobody else," Michelle McDevitt of Audible Treats, Bay Area hip-hop's most prominent publicist, said. Born in the Bay Area but based in New York City, McDevitt was there at the height of the hyphy movement in 2006 — when pounding bass rhythms bucked commercial rap trends and established a vernacular that was very much from the Bay — promoting seminal Bay Area releases in E-40's My Ghetto Report Card and Too $hort's Blow the Whistle.

E-40, My Ghetto Report Card, Sick Wid It Records/Too Short, Blow The Whistle, Jive Records

"That was the first time since the MC Hammer/En Vogue days of the '90s when artists outside of the West Coast were getting to know the Bay Area as a breeding ground for talent," McDevitt said. "I was able to translate what a lot of Bay Area-based memes were to New York-based media. And a lot of that groundwork has stood up."

On "Tell Me When To Go," E-40 sings: "I'm from the Bay where we hyphy and going dumb/ From the soil where them rappers be getting their lingo from."

And it's a time capsule that still holds up. Much like the groundwork that McDevitt refers to, Bay Area slang has always projected itself across the country. From E-40 and Keak Da Sneak establishing the term "hyphy" to how Iamsu! and HBK Gang popularized the simple shout-out, "Yee!" It's a testament to the free-flowing vibe in the Bay that oozes beyond California's borders.

This vibe even dates back to the '90s hip-hop Golden Age, with independent hip-hop pioneers Hieroglyphics crew and Souls of Mischief's epic "93 'til Infinity; a "conscious" rap song if there ever was one, the video still has a clip of muscle cars doing doughnuts in the middle of the street.

Opio (right) performing with Hieroglyphics in 2012Getty Images

"The culture in the Bay is unlike anywhere," Opio, a founding member of Souls of Mischief and Hieroglyphics, said. "It's like the muscle car culture... doing crazy doughnuts and sideshows, it's kind of a common thread. Even a song like "93 'til infinity" compared to a "Tell Me Where To Go" [by E-40] may seem worlds apart, but really we're a lot closer than people would know."

Home team pride: And the local hip-hop culture vibe extends far outside of a rap video or a show. You haven't lived until you've sat at the Oakland Coliseum for a Raiders game and heard seemingly every single person in the stadium sing along to Too $hort's "Blow the Whistle" after a score (save your jokes for how touchdowns have been few and far between in Oakland, the team is on the come up.)

Speaking of the come up, Bay Area hip-hop has been at the center of the resurgence for the NBA champion Golden State Warriors. Their games are reflective of the very fabric and vibe of Bay Area hip-hop culture — so much so that Oracle Arena's house DJ, D-Sharp, turns a home game into a hip-hop dance party with Too $hort actually performing "Blow the Whistle" on the hardwood in between quarters once. 

"The platform of what the Warriors are doing is bringing a lot of light to the Bay Area," Iamsu! said. "People are checking out the culture and they play a lot of local music with A-list people coming to games like Kanye, Rihanna, Drake."

E-40 performs during half time at the 2015 NBA Finals in Oakland.Getty Images

The vibe has always been strong in the Bay, but it wasn't until recently that the unique culture has felt like it's fully formed creative ethos has real staying power on a national scale and that a business infrastructure to sustain it had been established. It's no coincidence that Silicon Valley rests just south of Oakland and San Francisco — social media giants like Facebook, Twitter, Spotify and Pandora have been close to home for hip-hop artists like Iamsu! Kehlani, G-Eazy and Nef the Pharaoh, thus allowing them to magnify their reach and have more people take notice outside of the Bay.

"The independent game isn't going away." San Francisco-based Empire is a distribution company and record label that has become a part of that very infrastructure. A quiet giant of sorts, Empire has played a role in the distribution of music from Kendrick Lamar and Kurupt to Bay Area stalwarts like Iamsu! and Sage the Gemini. Founder Ghazi Shami explains how the absence of and development of this infrastructure has affected the scene:

"The infrastructure was lacking, but the lack of it allowed for all of this independent creativity, too," Shami said. "And even now, the independent game isn't going away. If anything it's getting stronger. Now we have all these companies out here, and we're working in a triangle of sorts."

While a technological business infrastructure is helping to make Bay Area hip-hop built to last, it's the creative aura present at events like Feels and Warriors games that's been here the whole time. "It's a little more like the Wild Wild West out here," Feels IV organizer Will Bundy said, whose music and arts collective Wine & Bowties staged a fifth Feels festival on May 28, back at American Steel. "It's a little stranger and a little bit rough around the edges. But it's about accessibility and inclusivity."

And the Bay Area is one of the places where the more you're here, the more you feel the musical pulse. This is the catalyst for its creative growth.

"It's always gonna be weird, unique and awesome." McDevitt said. "We're not riding any other sounds that are popular. We have our own slang, our own memes; sounds. Culturally, (to quote Lil B) it's truly 'based.' And you can be whoever you are and do whatever you want, and people don't really look at you sideways. You have such a wide spectrum to express yourself without looking like a weirdo, 'cause everyone's a weirdo."