We pass new slang terms around like joints -- quietly, coyly, and informally. But that informality often clouds the issue of who first rolled the doobie in question. To this end, Bay Area hip-hop deserves a hell of a lot more credit.
The cultural significance of slang has only grown with the advent of the hip-hop era -- terms once far outside the mainstream's cultural nexus have become familiar, even ubiquitous. When Oakland rap group 3X Krazy was spitting out phrases like "Fa sheezy weezy in the keezy" (translation: "For certain, we feel at home") back in the mid-'90s, no one could've possibly predicted that nearly a decade later, Fran Drescher (TV's The Nanny) would one day say "Fa shizzle" in an Old Navy commercial.
Yes, the Yay Area is sick and tired of having its slang bitten, after years of local MCs watching helplessly as their regional expressions were co-opted by out-of-town rappers, talk-show hosts, celebrities, and even politicians: Who can ever forget the Reverend Jesse Jackson saying "Fa shizzle ma nizzle" at an awards show a few years back?
These days, terms like "It's all good" and "Off the hook" are as popular at sporting events as hip-hop shows. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. Girls Gone Wild and Soul Plane star Snoop Dogg hosts a TV show called Doggy Fizzle Televizzle, yet that terminology actually originated on the Oakland streets, and was later borrowed by Vallejo-based E-40 -- who credited 3X Krazy with "lacing" him back in 1996, noting the group "taught me how to say 'Fa sheezy. '"
Snoop is actually a repeat offender: Back when he was known as Snoop Doggy Dogg, he gaffled Too $hort's famous rallying cry, "Biiiiiiiiiitch!," as did numerous others, including E-40 and B-Legit, who at least introduced the clever variants "Bootch" and "Batch."(Another local alternate phrasing of the B-word is "Breezy," which sounds sophisticated, but isn't.)
More recently, Lil' Jon and the Ying Yang Twins had a platinum single with "Get Low," which happens to be the name of a Fillmore rap crew, the Get Low Playaz, who first popularized the term (and its corresponding dance) in 1994 with the song "Game Recognize Game." Similarly, terms such as "Pop yo' colla" and "Real talk" were an integral part of Yay Area slang years before they became national catchphrases.
With current Bay Area words like "Hyphy" -- a combination of "hype" and "fly" popularized by the Federation/E-40 song of the same name -- already making the national rounds, some local artists are taking the unusual step of attempting to copyright their original phrases before someone else does.
According to KPFA air personality and rapper T-Kash, speech that can be identified with an individual person or group has an inherent economic value: "It's not just slang. It's a commodity." He notes that Dephunk Gotti of Oaktown crew Products of My Environment has already copyrighted his favorite sayings ("Instantly" and "Buttlucker"), while Mistah Fab, another Oakland rapper, has done the same with "On-mamas" (derived from the ever-popular "I put that on my mama"). Mistah Fab has particular motivation to shield himself and his verbiage: His term "Nig-Latin," obviously affectionate in his case, was co-opted and used as a slur by white supremacist Web sites without his consent.
As Fab relates, he received an e-mail from a group based out of Montgomery, Alabama, which used "Nig-Latin" as an example of how "suburban youth has been corrupted" by black culture to the point where they "no longer speak proper English." His stunned reaction: "That tripped me out!" Slang, he explains, "is just the way we communicate," offering up a few choice examples: "Like 'Yurp,' when they say 'Yurple,' that's, like, marijuana. Like a person'll be like, man, you got some yurp? Some Barney? Barney is purple. Purple kush, you know what I mean?"
The incident spurred the rapper to look into protecting what he deemed his own linguistic innovations. After all, he wouldn't want the following scenario to become reality: "Say I'm in the studio with Snoop and I say, 'Man, pass me that Barney right now, let me get on space.' And he be like, 'Aw, that was clean,' and he comes out with a song called 'I'm Using Barney in Space.' Everybody gonna be like, 'Oh, Snoop crazy, Snoop came up with it. '"
As for Snoop's TV show, Fab says, "Aw, c'mon. 3X Krazy came out with that so long ago, 'Tribble ribble my nizzle,' you know, that's hilarious." By copyrighting his phrases, Fab thinks he can prevent that from happening to him: "C'mon, man, we plant this soil, we fertilized this soil, y'all grow up from our game, and then y'all don't even want to acknowledge the things we done gave y'all?"
Best of all, he says, it's free (or at least, relatively cheap) to make one's slang official. "It's basic copyright clauses," he explains. "You go get your paperwork, you send off your words -- at the most, it's gonna cost you about nine, ten dollars. You send that off, and once that's certified you, that's you."
Or is it? T-Kash points to the legal precedent set by sports announcer Michael Buffer, who trademarked the phrase "Let's Get Ready to Rrrrrrrrrumble" (or "LGRTR," as Buffer's Web site phrases it). Whenever "LGRTR" is uttered -- be it a pay-per-view boxing match, a NASCAR race, an episode of The Simpsons, or a Hollywood film like Ocean's Eleven -- Buffer is paid a licensing fee.
But Oakland-based entertainment attorney Michael Ashburne isn't so sure slang can be owned by anyone. Ashburne, who specializes in sampling and copyright issues in addition to representing numerous rappers (including the Hieroglyphics), says that for any given slang phrase, copyrighted or not, "for someone to have a case about the use of this word, you'd have to say, 'It was created in my song, I copyrighted the song, and you can't use that word."
The problem, he adds, is that "just by putting it in the song doesn't mean it takes it out of the public domain. Just because you heard something other people said and put it in your song doesn't necessarily give you the right to copyright it."
Ashburne speculates, however, that "If you called somebody by 'Fa Shnizzle,' and that was your name, and you performed in this area, then under common law, you could acquire rights to that name ... [if] people recognize you by that name." But the commonality of speech would make invention and ownership of slang difficult to prove. "I doubt very seriously that a slogan by itself could rise to the level of a protected trademark," he says.
And until a precedent is set by a court ruling -- as ultimately happened with sampling cases involving De La Soul and Biz Markie-- copyrighting slang will likely remain a gray area where the law is concerned. If E-40, for instance, found out someone else was using his slang even after he had it copyrighted, "he would have to find that it was worthwhile going after such a person and making an issue of it and going to court and getting a decision -- all of which happened on the sampling side," Ashburne explains. "The same process would have to take place before people would know the limits of how you could use a phrase that was trademarked by a rapper in connection with his goods and services. That's what would have to happen."
Let's hope it does, before we see the Nanny cooing over some low-rise cargo capri khakis: "That's hyphy! Ya smell me?"
An Abridged Guide to Yay Area Slang
From Bammer to Zat, feel me?
Bammer (adj.): Low-grade marijuana (cf. RBL Posse, "Don't Give Me No Bammer Weed," 1993)
B-Town (n.): Berkeley, California
Baller (n.): A player, pimp, or hustler; a game-related rap artist; a dope-dealer; a ghetto celebrity (cf. D-Shot et al, Boss Ballin', 1994)
Ballin' (v.): The act of being a baller; one who engages in street-level activities of questionable legality (cf. E-40, "Ballin' Out of Control," 1993; the Whoridas, "Shot Callin' and Big Ballin'," 1995)
Barney (n.): Purple-colored marijuana considered to be of extremely high potency (cf. Mistah Fab); see also Yurple
Batch (n.): See Biiiiiiiiiitch (cf. E-40, B-Legit, the Click)
Bluebird (n.): An annoying, bothersome person or thing (cf. RBL Posse, "Bluebird," 1994)
Blockbustah (n.): See Buster (cf. E-40)
Biiiiiiiiiitch (n.): An epithet of disdain. Can be used to describe either a male or a female (cf. Too $hort, "Dope Fiend Beat," 1987)
Bitch-ass (n.): A man who displays characteristics associated with women ("You'se a Bitch-ass nigga")
Bomb (n.): Potent marijuana; anything considered excellent ("Bomb-ass beats"); an SF hip-hop label founded by David Paul
Bootsie (adj.): Fake, wack, or otherwise held in low esteem (cf. E-40, "Bootsie," 1995)
Boss baller (n.): A high-level ghetto celebrity of enviable economic status (cf. D-Shot et al, Boss Ballin', 1994)
Bootch (n.): See Biiiiiiiiiitch (cf. E-40, B-Legit, the Click)
Breezy (n.): A slightly less offensive variant of Biiiiiiiiiitch. Generally refers only to women
Broccoli (n.): Marijuana (cf. E-40)
Bubbling (v.): Hustling with a measure of economic success; a Baller on the Come-Up; see also Grinding
'Burban (n.): A Chevrolet Suburban automobile
Burg, the (n.): Pittsburg, California
Buster (n.): A person who comes off as less than credible
Burner (n.): A handgun
Cabbage (n.): Money (cf. E-40) Cali (n.): California
Captain (n.): A man who supports women both financially and emotionally (cf. E-40, "Captain Save-a-Ho," 1993)
Candy paint (n.): Shiny finish applied to automobiles (cf. Ill-Mannered Posse, "Shinin' Star," 1995)
Cheddar: (n.) see Cabbage
Chip (n.): A cloned microchip used in unlicensed cellular telephones (cf. E-40, "Chip in da Phone," 1995)
Chopper (n.): Automatic weapon such as an AR-15 or AK-47 (cf. E-40)
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