A young Charles Kunta Kinte Bowens Williams was an active kid. So active that his mother would often tell him he was hyperactive. Rather than describing himself has “hyper,” Charles would call it “hyphy.” Little did he know, his new word would later define a movement in hip-hop culture.
Now, the Bay Area native is known as rapper Keak Da Sneak, renowned for his unique rap style, recognizable voice and as a forefather of the “Hyphy movement,” a style of music and dance primarily associated with Bay Area hip-hop culture, where the music is distinguished by gritty, pounding rhythms (it is what crunk music is to the South).
“To me, hyphy is energy,” Keak describes in his distinctive raspy voice. “It’s turning negative energy into a positive energy. It’s a way to express yourself without hurting someone. It just became popular, but we’ve been saying it in the Bay Area for years. It’s the way we live, and to us, it’s more of a ritual than a movement. The South gets crunk, and the Bay Area is hyphy.”
Although he may have coined the word “hyphy,” Keak doesn’t let it get to his head. His bumpy road to success has made him modest. “I went through a lot of bad record deals,” he describes. “I put all my energy into staying focused to keep going, always telling myself never to give up and quit.”
His first big break was in high school with his then group 3X Krazy, a mid- to late-’90s hardcore rap trio. Their first EP album, Sick-O, was released independently in 1995, but the group later disbanded and Keak embarked on a solo career in 1999 with his first independent solo album, Sneakacydal. “I sold 60,000 units independently,” Keak boasts. “I put a lot into it. When I saw how successful it was, I kept coming out with an independent album. I was selling records by word of mouth with no radio play or music videos. Fans started calling into the radio stations to play my stuff, and that’s when all the major labels came around looking for me again.”