Twenty-eight-year-old Demar Bernstein (a.k.a. Turf Talk) is the most distinctive and original-sounding new lyricist to come out of the upstart, thizz-faced hip-hop subgenre known as hyphy. His is a powerful moniker–one that transcends the notion of a rapper speaking in the idiom of the streets, suggesting the entire lexicon of inner-city language itself.
To listen to a Turf Talk tune–heavily encoded with ghetto slang, and not without a sense of humor–is to be taken into a highly visceral, stream-of-consciousness world. Super-slapping, migraine-strength beats–by Rick Rock, Traxxamillion, Droop-E, and EA-Ski–don't hurt, either.
Representing not only the Bay, but the entire West Coast, the rapper stands next in line in a legacy begun by legendary microphone characters like Too $hort, Snoop Dogg, Eazy E, and Turf's older cousin E-40. Since debuting on 40's Breaking News album in 2003, the self-described "street novelist" has become a much sought-after figure for collaborations and remixes while dropping two solo albums and one compilation under his own name. Among his notable appearances are Federation's "Hyphy" remix, Mistah F.A.B.'s "Super Sic Wid It," and Dem Hoodstarz' "Grown Man" remix. Perhaps none of Turf's cameos have been more eye-opening, though, than 2005's all-Bay, all-day hook-up "Three Freaks," with DJ Shadow and Keak Da Sneak, a club favorite on both sides of the Atlantic.
"I got a good reputation," Turf says over the phone from Vallejo, an oft-overlooked, yet talent-laden North Bay suburb that's given the world not only Yay Area icons E-40 and Mac Dre, but funk legends Sly Stone and Con Funk Shun. Yet he also has plenty of ambition. After serving his apprenticeship under 40-Water, he's prepared to take his game to the next level. "I'm ready to spread my wings," he confides.
According to Turf, what's missing from West Coast rap these days are new faces. Of those, he says, "I feel like I'm one of the best," adding that his "advantage" is having lived in both Northern and Southern California. "That makes me well-rounded," he explains.
Another advantage: Turf is well versed in hip-hop history. Like many West Coasters, he grew up listening to The Click, Too $hort, NWA, and Tupac (his favorite rapper of all time), but says it was Big Daddy Kane, The Fat Boys, and Rob Base who first made him fall in love with rap.
Before devoting his efforts to the microphone full-time, however, Turf experienced the grittier side of West Coast life, gangbanging in Pomona and selling dope in Vallejo. "I think that makes me a different type of (hyphy) rapper," he speculates. "I lived a whole 'nother life." Nowadays, his life mainly revolves around his wife and the studio. "I'm a family man," he says. "That keeps me out of trouble."
Turf Talk's debut album, 2004's The Street Novelist, proved he had street cred and flows for days. For his second effort, he challenged himself to elevate his game with different cadences, pitch-tones, and tempos. "I've grown a lot," he says of the time between the two records. "I'm not saying I know everything, but I wanted to show I could switch it up."
Already hailed as a classic, this year's West Coast Vaccine offers major-label quality on an indie-label budget; Turf jokingly refers to it as a "showcase for A&Rs." He explains that there was considerable major-label interest in the album, but that ultimately he decided to put it out independently (on 40's Sick Wid It label) to maintain control over release dates. (Contrary to rumors and media reports, crunkmeister Lil' Jon was never on board with the project.) While song titles like "Stop Snitching," "I'm Ghetto," and "I Got Chips" might seem like basic thug-rap fare, it's the way he says lines like "I don't look for hoes/Hoes look for me" (from "Bring the Base Back") that make him sound extra-compelling. "A lot of rappers rap like they're reading off a paper," he says. "I'm not a dude that is gonna sound the same on every song."
"Get your own style/Stop bitin'," he exclaims on "Superstar," yet he needn't have bothered. Nobody else sounds like him; amidst an ocean of generic ghetto cats who spit trife raps about pumping cracks and ripping hoodrats, he's an island of uniqueness. "Some say I'm lyrical, I just rep the hood/Face frowned up then it ain't all good," he declares on "That's That Turf Talk." Best known for delivering his rhymes in a high-pitched drawl, on "Broke Niggas" he unleashes a wicked whisper-style, breaking off a stamina-testing, slaloming flow on "Popo's" (where he outshines 40, not an easy thing to do). That gets followed by a clipped, staccato cadence on "Back in the Day," which finds Turf casually flipping dope punchlines.
The secret to Turf's appeal might just be that, for all his ghetto stripes, he's really a hip-hop head at heart. Not only does West Coast Vaccine prominently feature scratching and skits, but it updates one of the all-time b-boy classics, Mantronix's "Fresh Is the Word" (on "Sick Wid It Is the Crew")–a reference point that's impossible to front on. "I really love hip-hop," Turf proclaims. Still, he says, "People get misconceptions" about hyphy's place in the hip-hop canon.
For one thing, rumors that the movement was over were simply unfounded, he says. "We just getting started. Hyphy was never dead. My album just dropped, [Mistah] F.A.B. just dropped. Nobody looked at it like that." He admits there was a momentary lull among the stunna-shades set after 40's 2006 hit "Tell Me When to Go," but believes "It was just a timing thing."
"Hyphy is hip-hop culture" in the Bay Area, Turf insists. "It's the way we talk, the way we wear our clothes... There's no such thing as a hyphy song. All the music in the Bay is hyphy. This is our culture."