Say 'Bay' -- Behind the New Bay sound of local hip-hop: NorCal producers

by Garrett Caples
San Francisco Bay Guardian July 6, 2005

'WHAT AM I – Old Bay?" a sardonic Tone Capone says, digging up some 3X Krazy tracks on his computer. One of the main architects of the Bay Area's classic midtempo mid-1990s mob music, the North Oakland native Anthony Gilmour, a.k.a. Tone Capone, is perhaps best known as the producer of the Luniz's 1995 weed anthem, "I Got Five on It," the second-most-requested track in KMEL history. Tone was instrumental in launching the solo career of the Geto Boys' Scarface and later put high-schoolers Keak da Sneak, BA, and Agerman together as 3X Krazy. But despite the enduring popularity of "Five on It," the classic sound Tone helped pioneer has lately been held responsible for the Bay's subsequent commercial drought.

It's an idea Black Dog Bone, editor of Vallejo's redoubtable Murder Dog Magazine, doesn't quite buy. "I do think things got stagnant in the Bay, with the same sound for a long time. But mob music was really popular. People loved it." As a longtime observer, Black Dog attributes the Bay's subsequent commercial decline more to a lack of radio support. "I think the only reason KMEL is playing Bay music now is because of [Power 92.7]," he says. "KMEL was losing its audience. It wasn't about tempo."

Nevertheless, Black Dog's excited about the new sounds coming out of the Bay: "It's hyphy. The beats are faster and crunk-influenced, but the rap is still more like mob." Ivan Heredia, a marketing manager for Penalty/Rykodisc who heard the buzz E-A-Ski and the Frontline were generating out in New York, is confident the label can break the Frontline's Now U Know nationally because its "aggressive, more accessible sound" will appeal in other regions, like the South and the East Coast. "Now's the time for the New Bay to shine," he insists.

Tone Capone is unimpressed: "It's more of a club sound, if there's any kind of vibe attached to it. The New Bay stuff I hear is all kick-clap. Techno sounds. I even did one like that because that's what they wanted. But I can't say that that defines the Bay."

As Tone's remark suggests, the variety of sounds presently flourishing in the Bay can't be reduced to any single category. These days, most Bay Area producers won't even admit to having a particular style, but one thing's for sure: From Federation to the Frontline, most of the recent major signings in the Bay have occurred through local labels, themselves often based around the work of a single producer. In an age of increasingly capable digital technology, the producer has achieved an unprecedented autonomy and importance in hip-hop. Often he wears many hats: arranger, songwriter, musician, label head, artist rep, talent scout, surrogate parent, and sometimes also rapper. The ultimate model, of course, is Dr. Dre, a star in his own right, with million-dollar budgets and a continually expanding roster of platinum artists. Here are a few of the major players in and around the Bay.

Rick Rock

Label: Southwest Federation

Reppin': Fairfield and Sacramento

Like E-A-Ski, Rick Rock has maintained a national reputation as a producer even during the driest days of the Bay's commercial drought, providing hits for the likes of Fabolous, Jay-Z, and Busta Rhymes. And like Ski, Rock has played a central role in the present resurgence. In 2003, on the strength of the radio and club success of "Hyphy," the Fairfield trio Federation were picked up by Virgin through Rock's own Southwest Federation imprint. But Rock was unhappy with Virgin's promotion of Federation's The Album last year. "The whole reason why I did the major-label thing was I wanted the visuals," Rick groans. "But they didn't have a video. It's depressing to know we had a great body of work, and it falls by the wayside."

Besides completing a new Federation album, Rock's splitting production chores with Lil Jon on E-40's album for the crunk king's new BME label, due in September. "When everything was the slow mob music, I came through with the up-tempo, hard-hitting, Rick Rock aggressive music," he says. "Now people are switching to that up-tempo, hard-hitting type of thing. And that's cool – just do it your way. Because next time I come around, I'm going to come around with something else."

Droop E

Production team: The Pharmaceuticals
Reppin': Vallejo

"As far as the Bay Area," Rick Rock says, "I think Droop E, E-40's son, is gonna blow up. A youngster – he's 17 now. He was raised in music, though." Indeed, Droop E's first appearance on wax was at the age of three on his father's 1993 album, Federal (Sick wid It), though his production debut, at 15, was a Turf Talk track on Mack 10's 2003 compilation, Ghetto, Gutter and Gangsta (Ark21). He's also laced tracks for Mistah F.A.B., Baby Jaymes, and, of course, his pops.

"Pharmaceuticals: We're basically prescriptions and antidotes for these rappers," Droop E explains. Yet he adheres to no one formula. Compare the slow, swelling R&B brass on his "Can't Nobody," from Messy Marv's Disobayish (Scalen, 2004), with the techno-influenced shuffle of "Get On My Hype," from Marv's Bandanas, Tattoos and Tongue Rings (Scalen, 2005). "I flip-flop," he says. "I don't want to stay in one category." His own group, the Cabinet, is currently working on their Sick Wid It debut.

Sean T

Production Team: Dallas Squad

Reppin': East Palo Alto

If you're feelin' Mac Dre's posthumous hit, "Feelin' Myself," then you're feelin' Sean T. With a career stretching back to 1989 with Murder One Records, Sean T has numerous solo albums, but he is more known these days as a producer of "slaps," those monster handclap beats that remain a staple of a Bay Area hip-hop diet. Still, his production is diverse: The multi-instrumentalist draws on exotic varieties of world music in his search for sounds, layering them into thick, piano-laced slabs of gangsta funk. "I don't really have a style, because I'm like a chameleon," he says.

Having produced much of JT the Bigga Figga's two proto-Game releases, 2004's The Untold Story and 2005's West Coast Resurrection (both Get Low), Sean maintained ties with the Aftermath signee, who helped the producer land a distribution deal with Interscope for his own Get Gone Records. His album, Long Time Comin', is due out this month.

Mekanix (Dotrix and K. Tweed)

Label: Zoo Entertainment

Reppin': East Oakland

The Mekanix were accidentally formed in 1999, when former Digital Underground DJ Dotrix hooked up with street producer Kenny Tweed to work on a couple of tracks. Six years later they're still working together on a daily basis, laying down darkly atmospheric, stridently synthetic grooves for Eddie Projex, Dru Down, the Delinquents, Keak da Sneak, and Yukmouth. "They're definitely coming with something new that's not your typical Bay sound," E-A-Ski partner CMT remarks. "Very innovative beats." Recent albums featuring mostly Mekanix music include former Cydal member T-Luni's The Autobiography and FM Blue's The World Is Blue (both FastLife, 2004) and female rapper Okolo's Diamond N tha Ruff (HereAfter, 2005).


Label: 101% Music

Reppin': East Oakland

Touré's been holding it down for years as chief DJ for the Hieroglyphics, as recently documented on their Full Circle Tour DVD-live album (Hiero). His career as a producer started gradually, beginning with a track on Casual's 1994 classic, Fear Itself (Jive). Currently in the process of establishing his own label, 101% Music, Touré is working with former TWDY member Dolla Will, Emaculate, and Rhythm & Green members Ray Royal and Crown Jewel. He's also formulating Touré's Theory with the 101% roster.

Touré attributes the club sounds circulating throughout Bay music at present to the current software packages. "Hip-hop comes bundled with techno," he says. "And a lot of these keyboards now, you can manipulate and change the sound waveforms and create your whole sound."

Mike D

Label: Mo Slap Beats

Reppin': Oakland

An accomplished organist who enlivens the services at both Abyssian Baptist Church and Millenium Ministries in Oakland, Mike D has served as a musical director and performer on tours with TLC, Faith Evans, and Tony! Toni! Tone! But he is best known for laying down dark slices of funk behind OGs like Too $hort and the Delinquents. With his former partner, Sonny B, Mike laced $hort's coming-out-of-retirement albums, 1999's Can't Stay Away and 2000's You Nasty (Short), with four tracks each. His experience with the Delinquents' 1999 smash, "That Man!" confirms Ski's remarks on making music for the radio (see " 'Pressure' Drop"): "They really wasn't feelin' it, but I told them, 'You gotta give the radio something that moves.' " More recently Mike's been talking with Def Jam about his new label, Mo Slap Beats, and helping to promote Yella Paidgez (DoWhatchaDo), by his brother Yella Yezz.

One Drop Scott

Reppin': Berkeley

The son of Thalmus Rasulala (who appeared in such films as 1975's Friday Foster) and born in LA, Scott moved to the Bay as a kid in the early '70s. The accomplished percussionist helped form Salsa de Berkeley, played drums for jazz giants like Bill Summers, and replaced then-girlfriend Sheila E in Confunkshun.

While a member of the Freaky Executives, Scott wrote and produced a novelty rap song "Surf or Die" – a 1987 full-length of that name, credited to the Surf MC's on Profile Records, just edges out Life Is...Too Short (Jive, 1988) as the first big-label Bay Area rap album. One Drop worked with Tone Capone on Scarface and 3X Krazy projects, but it was his work on C-Bo's Til My Casket Drops (AWOL, 1998) that earned him his reputation for densely layered, musically sophisticated tracks that still bring the boom. One Drop recently contributed to BavGate's The InstaGator (Thizz, 2005).

Tone Capone

Reppin': North Oakland

"Straight mob," Tone says, his gravely voiced, staccato pronouncements betraying the world-weariness of one who's been to the platinum mountain yet found it wanting. "Just want to make some good music before I die, do my part." Yet despite Tone's seeming lack of ambition, his utter refusal to get excited about the latest round of major-label courtship, the ongoing intensity of his music is evident. In addition to recent work with San Quinn, Tone is preparing a conscious thug project called The Product, due on Koch in a few months, with Scarface, SF's Will Hen, and Mississippi's Young Malice. "It's a group with different flavors from different regions," he says, playing me cuts of awesomely revamped mob music, bouncing and slapping a little bit faster, more spaciously.

A track comes on that's a little slower, with the huge whomp bass of classic Bay mob. It's totally Tone, and I start to describe why this track reminds me of the old mob music in a way the other ones didn't, though I'm aware of an amusement dawning behind his impassive features. He waits for me to finish my explanation, then savors his mirth a moment longer. "Scarface produced that one."

part 1

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