By Garrett Caples
San Francisco Bay Guardian March 1, 2006
The suburban sprawl of Pleasant Hill is so generic it looks like it was squeezed from a tube — an unlikely setting for anything more exciting than an ATM transaction. Yet here at the Bay Area's first Fatburger franchise, at four p.m. on a Thursday, there's a throb of expectation beneath the din of its middle-school patrons and its digital jukebox that anticipates the arrival of the restaurant's owner. Reporters and photographers have begun to pile up due to a delay in his schedule, as the owner in question, Vallejo rap legend E-40, is in the midst of a full-blown press junket in preparation for the March 14 release of My Ghetto Report Card, the first album under his new deal with Lil Jon's BME imprint, on Warner Bros.
Following a prolific decade on Jive Records, with whom he released nine solo discs in addition to three with his family-based crew, the Click, and one retrospective, Best of E-40: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (2004), 40's move to the ultrahot king of crunk's label is both a testament to his enduring preeminence in a notoriously fickle industry and an opportunity to reach that upper echelon of rap superstardom inhabited by the likes of Jay-Z and Snoop, Puffy and Eminem.
Not that he isn't already a star, as is immediately apparent from his entrance with a small entourage, which includes his 18-year-old rapper-producer son, Droop-E, his longtime manager, Chaz Hayes, a bodyguard, and a documentary film crew. Visibly exhausted after a two-week promotional blitz of New York City and Los Angeles, not to mention a morning of radio interviews, 40 still radiates charisma, transforming his immediate surroundings through his larger-than-life presence. Unfailingly polite, patient with the steady stream of fans, and acquainted with his restaurant employees down to the busboys, the man born Earl Stevens provides a marked contrast to the crack-slinging, gun-toting, "let-you-have-it-in-the-bladder"-style exploits of his rap alter-ego.
He apologizes for the scheduling conflict. "Just let me knock out this other interview real quick," he says — and he does, with the brisk efficiency of Babe Ruth pointing out where he's about to hit a home run, combined with the Babe's air of infinite leisure in performing such feats.
"I ain't had time to eat a fortune cookie," he says, settling down to a bunless Fatburger with the works and, in an off-menu innovation, a small Gatorade bottle half-filled with burgundy. He touts its antioxidant properties. Newly health conscious after a dentist visit revealed he had dangerously high blood pressure, the inventor of exotic ghetto cocktails with names like "Num Num Juice" sticks to red wine and rarely touches weed these days. After shedding some 50 pounds, and gaining some back, the tall, burly MC looks positively svelte at his current 333. He even works out, though hectic road life can make it impossible.
"Out in New York I did Direct Effect, MTV radio, Music Choice, a bunch of local video shows. LA was all interviews like this. When I'm not doing regular interviews, I'm doing phoners from 10 a.m. to 7 at night. But I'm not pitching a bitch, because it's part of the game."
GAME RELATEDE-40 speaks of the "game" with authority, for he rewrote many of its rules. Judged "too eccentric" by early-'90s record executives for his high-pitched, high-speed delivery and his compulsive coinage of slang — the very qualities defining his appeal — 40 began his own label, Sick Wid It, selling albums from the trunk of his car; after the label's third release, an EP titled The Mailman (1993), debuted at number 13 on Billboard's R&B chart, deals came to him. Signed through Sick Wid It by Jive in 1994, 40 pioneered the rapper-as-independent-label-head methodology that's since become industry standard.
Clearly the arrangement netted him a lot more money than many a rapper who's moved more units under direct contract with a major label. 40's got the gouda — his current currency euphemism — to invest in things like the Fatburger franchise or the Ambassador Lounge in San Jose, yet he readily acknowledges that the relationship between independent and major labels lends itself to the familiar corporate vice of outsourcing work as a means of cutting costs.
"A lot of A and Rs don't go to the hood like they used to and look for talent," he says. "They know all the rappers is connected, so they don't mind giving a big-name rapper a label deal. It's the smart thing to do. They're watching their money more than ever. They're not shipping as much as they used to. You're not going gold out the box any more."
E-40 himself has felt the pinch. Including the Click's Game Related (1995), 40 scored four gold albums between 1995 and 1998, one of which, In a Major Way (1995), was eventually certified platinum in 2002 by the Recording Industry Association of America. While his numbers, like everyone's, took a hit with the proliferation of Internet file-sharing and the general economic downturn under Bush, his albums continued to debut in Billboard's top-20 R&B chart, and aside from his own childhood idol, Too $hort, who has long since relocated to Atlanta, E-40 was the only Bay Area rapper signed to a major for the duration of the region's turn-of-the-century commercial drought.
"For anybody from the early '90s to still be here, they're keeping in touch with the kids on the street," Oakland rapper-producer E-A-Ski says. "40 don't get caught up in what he's done. He reaches out to what's going on now."
Yet 40 also feels Jive underpromoted his more recent work. "Jive was a good label when they wanted to be," he says. "The first three or four years of the deal, it was excellent. Later, when the pop music started kicking in — no disrespect to Britney, *NSYNC; they made Jive a lot of money — that took the focus away from rap, from people who helped build the label.
"Don't get it twisted: I made a lot of money with Jive," he concludes diplomatically. "But the last few years, I think they dropped the ball on a few hits, a few videos they shoulda did."
Case in point: One of Lil Jon's earliest hits outside the Dirty South was "Rep Yo City," from 40's 2002 album, Grit and Grind. "BET wanted a video, and Jive lagged on it. They said, 'You need to get up to 800,000 spins,' and we was there. It would've been smart because you got E-40, Bun B, Petey Pablo. All three of us were on Jive, so why not do a video? That's what made me think, they ain't even interested.
"Lil Jon used to be signed to Too $hort's label [the Jive-distributed $hort Records]," 40 recalls. "$hort and Jon had a group together, a whole album ready to go, and Jive didn't want to do it. Me and $hort had an album, The History Channel, ready to go. They didn't want to do it. We had someone ready to put money in our pockets. Jive coulda got points, put their logo on it. They just didn't see the big picture. So I turned in my greatest hits and left."
Granted, crunk was so startlingly new — immediately becoming its own subgenre — that Jive's failure to predict Lil Jon's immanent explosion in popularity is perhaps understandable. But the label's inability to capitalize on a collaboration between two popular artists on its own roster, or even to let someone else do it and simply make money without spending any, is incomprehensible. (At press time a publicist for Jive was still tracking down who made that particular call.) Judging from their already classic collaborations like 1996's "Rapper's Ball" and 1999's "Pervin'" (a 40ism for intoxication that's passed into wider usage), a whole album of E-40 and Too $hort would have been a signal artistic event and wouldn't have failed to turn a profit, even if sales were restricted to their own overlapping fan bases.
HISTORY IN THE MAKING: DROOP-E
Jive's decision not to put out the still unreleased The History Channel, if not an act of outright incompetence, at the very least doesn't reflect the best interests of either artist, and one can hardly blame 40 for leaving. Yet, in an undeniably cruel twist of fate, 40's voluntary abdication from his deal came at a time when Bay Area hip-hop began to recover its shine. The transition between labels meant that 2005, the hottest year in the Bay since the mid-'90s, was also the first year since '97 that 40 didn't release an album.
Still, he made his presence felt through guest appearances, most notably on Mistah F.A.B.'s hit "Super Sic Wid It," produced by Droop-E. E-40's oldest son, the young Earl Stevens Jr., made his recording debut, at age three, on his father's 1991 debut, Federal (Sick Wid It, reissued by Jive, 1995), before dropping his first rhyme, at age seven, on In a Major Way. "I didn't force him into none of this," 40 insists, though he does cop to making Earl Jr. take five years of piano lessons. "Just in case he did want to go into it, so he'd know where all the notes are."
Such precautions, coupled with Droop-E's own inclinations, have paid off, as these days he's better known for his production work behind F.A.B., Turf Talk, and Messy Marv. The all-Droop-E-produced Bay Bridges Compilation (Sick Wid It/Navarro, 2005) — one of the best hip-hop albums of last year, period — also yielded a hit by Oakland's BavGate, "On the Radio," which literally exhorted KMEL-FM to "play the Gate on the radio." Such gimmickry aside, Droop-E's success is no joke: Having grown up in rap, yet still a teen, he brings an astonishing freshness to the music that's difficult to summarize but whose unifying characteristic might be a greater emphasis on sounding fun than on sounding hard, beeping or whistling where others simply slam. Yet his beats have no shortage of knock, and the hardest street-rappers — Marv, Keak Da Sneak, Little Bruce — sound perfect over them. Being 40's son may have gotten Droop-E a hearing, but his own abilities have placed him in the front rank of Bay Area producers.
While 40 is clearly proud of his son's success and was otherwise occupied with his club and restaurant, an albumless year must nonetheless have been agonizing for a rapper who, on the 1999 track "Get Breaded," claimed to be "like a pregnant lady, [coming] wit a album every eight or nine months." It's not that 40 lacked offers to leave Jive but rather that he wanted to make the right move. "I kept recording, marinated around for about a year. I prayed on it," he explains. "Baby from Cash Money was ready to sign me. Puffy was on deck, wanting me to sign. But when I went with Lil Jon, they was like, whatever your situation is, it's all love.
"Lil Jon and I powwowed. We knew our chemistry was there. I was, like, 'This might be a good look.' He hollered at his folk, hollered at Warner. They were like, 'Let's go.' We put the paperwork in motion, and there we is right now."
BME was an inspired choice for 40 not simply because it entailed joining forces with Lil Jon, America's favorite rapper since Snoop, nor because the label obviously intends to give the Vallejo vet the major push Jive never quite managed to deliver. But of all of 40's options — significantly, from labels run by rappers rather than by executives — Lil Jon and BME are the most organically connected to his music. E-40 was probably the first Bay Area artist to try his hand at crunk. Having long enjoyed a Southern following, he was only too ready to tackle its homegrown variety of hip-hop.
But on a deeper level, crunk and the current Bay Area sound known as hyphy are intimately related: "cousins," as 40 puts it. The production style of crunk could be said to have evolved from the classic Bay Area mob sound — from producers like Studio Ton, Bosko, Mike Mosley, and Tone Capone — that powered E-40's earlier releases and was immensely popular in the pre–Dirty South. "Everyone in the South was influenced by E-40," Murder Dog editor Black Dog Bone affirms. Hyphy, exemplified by longtime 40 associate Rick Rock, not to mention Droop-E himself, evolved as a Bay Area response to the crunk dominating the airwaves earlier this decade, when KMEL wasn't playing local music. The most obvious stylistic distinction is, of course, vocal, as Bay Area producers stripped away the screaming chants of crunk and replaced them with raps more in tune with local mob music traditions.
E-40's ability to navigate between crunk and hyphy is well documented on My Ghetto Report Card. First conceived as a dozen tracks, half by crunk king Lil Jon, half by hyphy maestro Rick Rock, the project gradually expanded to include tracks by original mob-music makers Bosko and Studio Ton, as well as Droop-E, who has more than proved his ability to hold his own in such company. With the first single, the Lil Jon–produced "Tell Me When to Go," featuring Keak Da Sneak, already creating a buzz, My Ghetto Report Card seems poised to bring 40 to the wider audience his talents deserve. At the very least, as 40 is aware, the new album is sure to extend the present hot streak in Bay rap through 2006.
"I'm the quarterback," he concludes. "I'm the billboard of the Bay, and I'm here to let the world know that we back like hockey."
My Ghetto Report Card will be released March 14. Watch the video for "Tell Me When to Go" at myspace.com/e40.
By Garrett Caples