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On Turf Talk's 'West Coast,' Hyphy Grows Up

To hear tastemakers tell it, hyphy was dead before anyone had ever heard of it. The boisterous, slang-obsessed rap style is the sound of the San Francisco Bay Area, where its artists are local superstars. It received a split second of national attention in 2006, around the time would-be ambassador E-40's "Tell Me When To Go" was becoming the genre's first mainstream hit. But, as with so many next-big-things, hyphy's moment never came, and interest in the subgenre quickly retreated to localist status.

Turf Talk, E-40's cousin and one of many once poised to ride the hyphy bandwagon to success, never let the lack of national acclaim quiet his menacing snarl. On his sophomore full-length, West Coast Vaccine (The Cure), the Vallejo resident turns hyphy's energy inward. He forgoes the ecstasy-addled absurdity of his peers in favor of darker intensity, drawing on the mellow-but-hard funk of the pre-hyphy Bay Area underground. (The album's art appropriately depicts Turf Talk with an intravenous line to a stack of classic LPs from that era, including The Click's Down & Dirty and Too $hort's Born To Mack.)

But don't mistake it for throwback. Turf Talk's production team, helmed primarily by Rick Rock and 20-year-old whiz kid Droop-E (who, not so incidentally, is also E-40's son), use the synth-heavy sheen of hyphy as a launch pad for their twitching nods to not only first-wave Bay music, but also many a hip-hop microgenre. Seamlessly blending old-school electronic impulses with mid-'90s sample-based production, the beats themselves provide something of a history lesson.

Turf Talk's raspy vocals have less concrete origins. He raps in shifting cadences where a whisper can quickly become a scream, or an old-school slow flow can stop and go into a double-time blur. These complexities make for a unique push-and-pull dynamic with his producers. Turf Talk wraps phrasing around their beats, echoing their sporadic bass kicks or tinkling pianos as they simultaneously adapt to his styles — stripping down arrangements to make way for his virtuosic verses, then building them up to wall-of-sound pandemonium when the chorus comes back around.

In an era when major-label artists such as M.I.A. and Kanye West receive excess acclaim for fusing hip-hop with elements of worldbeat and European house music, respectively, West Coast Vaccine is a reminder that hip-hop's own diverse past is just as ripe for recontextualization. In the process, it demonstrates that some of the genre's largest creative leaps are still being made from less celebrated pockets.

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Andrew Noz