The Bay Area rapper has been rapping the same for 25 years, and it has sounded fucking sweet the entire time.
In the mid-80s, E-40 was selling mixtapes for his group The Click at M&M Liquors in South Vallejo, California. Flash-forward to two-thou-wow-seventeen, and some things haven't changed. You can still see E-40's name in the liquor store, although it's more likely to be on a bottle of his eponymous malt liquor or wine than a cassette tape. He's also still making music with the same do-it-yourself attitude that helped make him one of hip-hop's most prolific figures, and he continues to rep the Bay Area enclave he grew up in both in his own music and via young artists like Nef the Pharaoh on his label Sick Wit It.
Born Earl Stevens, E-40 is the embodiment of the Bay's fierce independence. The same hustle and business savvy the made a guy named after a 40 ounce of malt liquor the toast of Napa Valley has fostered a career that spans over 30 years. With no early major label backing, he's been able to consistently influence pop culture, and he's had a damn-near Shakespearean impact on the modern hip-hop lexicon. G-Eazy only calls himself that because E-40 popularized "for sheezy," and should they win for Broccoli, D.R.A.M. and Yachty would owe at least a tiny bit of their Grammy to him for coining the term. Now, pushing 50, he's still appearing on platinum and gold records, defying the popular opinion that rap is a young man's game. For E-40, as long as you keep playing the game and playing it well, age is just a number and he's not one to talk numbers when he's not at the bank.
From DJ Mustard's pervasive hyphy-inspired sound to Drake's tribute to Too $hort on "For Free," people have borrowed and poached from the Bay Area for years, but the region is often overlooked in conversations about hip-hop trendsetters. Now, with tech industry gentrification making San Francisco and its neighboring cities increasingly unaffordable, I talked to The Counselor about what nourished that independent spirit and if it's endangered if the next generation of would-be pioneers can't afford to stay.
Noisey: Do you introduce yourself as Earl or E-40?
E-40: Earl or E-40, however. I know to talk to sell you in, you understand me, the executive suites.
Is that something about growing up in the Bay?
This is being a corporate thug, an intelligent hoodlum, you know what I mean? I'm a corporate thug. That's the best way to be. If you're a 100 percent thug, you might not be able to prosper. And if you're too corporate you might not be able to prosper. Cause a lot of times, especially in the field that I'm out here dangling in, the street is the confirmation for everything… It gives the confirmation to the suburbs and the rest of the world. Like if the streets rock with something, that means it's cool to rock with it. When the streets leave you alone, you ain't got the confirmation. It could be clothes, it could be whatever, or alcohol, it could be whatever. So it's up to you stay relevant. You feel me? Stay woke and stay gas and shit.
When did you first start rapping?
I first started rapping when I heard the Sugarhill Gang in 1979, when I was 11 years old in seventh grade.
Do you ever lose energy at a certain point?
You know what, man, if I'm not in a studio, I get withdrawals. It's like dope. Even when I'm on vacation. I might have a nice vacation for a week and a half, and I'm trying to find me a studio just for at least one day out of a vacation. I gotta touch a microphone or something, man. It's my passion. I started playing drums in the 4th grade. And then I started with a band and whatnot, and didn't stop all the way to the 12th grade.
You have a proper musical background. People don't talk about that that much.
Snare drum, base drum, and the marching band, bruh. You feel me? I did music, and I won. I'm a motherfucker that beat the odds—me and my family. Straight from the motherfucking streets. We beat the odds. We had a passion for music.
What were the odds when you say that you beat the odds?
I didn't come up under nobody. Like, I didn't come up on the Dr. Dre. Nobody put me on. Nobody put me, or The Click on. We put ourselves on. Nobody can come back and say, "Man, they owe me. I'm the one who gave them the money to fund it." We started from the real grassroots. We were selling tapes out of the trunk of the car, putting shit on consignment, store to store, and things blossomed. Traveling, going city-to-city, state-to-state, and making our presence felt. Handing tapes out; let the world get a dose of the real street shit. And they all adapted. Because at the end of the day, we all live the same way, we're from the soil. Nothing was never given to us. We had to go out there and get ours. We had to go out and take it.
The Bay has remained, in some ways, pretty insular, right? Like, as big as some of the artists have gotten, you have other artist that are famous and successful here that don't really need to even go out and be big on a nation stage.
You should, though. You should want that. I'm sure they all would like to be big on a national stage, and that may or may not happen, but, when you making some type of of leeway and you're known locally, where you started from, that's a great feeling within itself, you feel what I'm saying? But those who haven't blossomed outside of Northern California or the Bay or the West Coast, I'm sure they would love to.
How does it feel having platinum records independently over the course of… how many decades have you had platinum records?
I've been in the game since 1988.
That's when I was born.
Hello. Wow, you're a youngin, man. But shit, man. This feels good. Let me tell you something, man. You've got to realize the first six years of my career were straight independent, and when I say independent, I'm not talking about independent with like a Universal, or you understand me, or a Warner Bros, or any other company behind me. Not a distribution deal like that. We had a super duper independent grit independent situation where we had one stop called City Hall records, and another one called Music People. They were the main hubs. So when you want to order your CDs or cassettes or vinyl, whatever.
So you were literally doing it completely on your own?
From the beginning. So you ask how does it feel to get platinum and gold records in 2016? It feels great. I'm 48 years old. I just got a single that's gold called "Choices (YUP)." I'm 48 years old. I don't know anybody in the history of hip-hop that has that.
Why do you think you've been able to do it for this long, and still do it?
First of all, it's all the creator, man. I thank God for everything. I thank my family, my backbone, my wife, my label. Everybody on my label, Sick Wild It records, family, all my cousins, like we're all locked in, and all of my fans. They keep me going. If they believe in me, I'm going to stay on it. If you keep buying it, I'm going to keep supplying it. And being woke, and keeping my ear to the soil, and also being creative at the same time. I mean how're you going to lose? You lose when you're not in the loop like a Hula Hoop.
Bay Area artists have been able to leverage the internet and social media in like incredible ways.
I think the whole world has been able to utilize the internet. I feel like you don't have to be from a certain soil. Back in the days, you had to be from a certain soil. Now, you can be from wherever and make yourself famous and known in hip-hop, because it's more open now. It used to be an urban thing. Now, it's a suburban thing. It's a little bit of this and a little bit of that, you feel me? It's like, everybody's fucking with it.
What do you think that's doing to hip-hop?
I think it waters it down, to be honest with you. But at the same time, it also helps it out. I mean a lot of cats sell CDs, hard CDs, hard copies, bootleg it. Then, that's where the hood gets it sometimes. Though we got Spotify now and all the other new shit. But at the same time, suburbs and whatnot have been supporting us for years. A lot of people don't know. That's how we've been eating. That's who buys your records. But the hood is the confirmation to say: "Oh, we're still fucking with him." If the hood's fucking with you, everybody else's going to fuck with you outside of the hood. If the hood's not fucking with you, and you used to be that guy, that's when the suburbs and all the rest are going to turn their backs and say: "Well, he isn't the guy anymore. We don't listen to him."
Those communities are disappearing because of gentrification, the tech industry, white people, etc. Prices are getting jacked up and making it harder to live in these areas.
I think you're telling the motherfucking truth. The cost of living out here is high as a motherfucker. They're tearing shit down and building new shit.
Does that make the music scene less—
—No, no, no, man. No, no. It comes from the soil, and if you never got that foundation. I don't even know what the soil is anymore. It's going to get to that point, because everything is legit now. So there isn't anything wrong with that. Shit, everything. We're just going to be legit.
Have you noticed the cultural change in the Bay Area?
Definitely, definitely. Just like we just see it, rebuilding. Like West Oakland nowadays, you might see any walk of life just walking their puppy. Just walking their puppy in the daytime with the sun out with a cup of coffee in their hand. That trips me out. When I see it, I'm like: "Hold on, what the fuck is this? Man, they're trying to get us up out of here." They're doing it, you feel me? Shit.
What's it going to take to bring these communities together? Cause it seems like the influx isn't stopping.
The Bay, one thing about northern California, we all fuck with each other. All walks of life fuck with each other. Caucasian, Asian, black, white, Hispanics, Samoan, whatever. It doesn't matter. We keep going on and on. That's one thing about the Bay Area and everybody woke. Everybody's gamed up.
What's the future of the music scene here?
I just think we need more creativity, cause what it is, is like a lot of times when you're from a soil that the recognition is not really recognized by the masses, they try to fly right over us. Like: "Oh, they're from the Bay. We know they've got talent. But we're scooting over there and we're flying to LA or whatever else we're going to go."
So it's like you look at it like: "Man, hold on, man. We got to make our presence be felt." We got the heart. We got the heart of a lion, man. We're not going to stop. This is just the way it is and we had to make our way into beasts, man. We know that nobody's going to give us anything. I love LA, but a lot of them, a lot of the rappers came up under the Dr. Dre umbrella and a few of them didn't. And there's nothing wrong with that. I mean shit. Man, I'm going to tell you something, dude. NWA did some type of contest in like '88, somewhere around then, '89. And it said, leave a message and whoever's got the best 16, is going to win a recording deal or something. You didn't think that I didn't go into that motherfucker? Spit my shit, man? I went on that motherfucker gas. I think I spit a verse from "Mr. Flamboyant." That was way back in the day. It's like '88. '89. I went on it and I left a message.
You got to realize how many years ago that is but I left a message on their little contest, their little answering machine. And really was expecting to get some feedback. I knew my shit was way ahead of its time and was thrown like a Frisbee, you feel me? So I actually didn't even trip and I said: "Man, I know they're never going to get back at me. So let me do my thing." But I wanted to be—that's Dr. Dre and them boys, man.
Well, do you think now LA and hip-hop at large has sort of benefitted from the Bay Area sound?
I think we all found it. I think we all got a dose a little bit of every each other. We're west coast. I will say this though; Too $hort had a lot to do with how the sound is right now. Too $hort is a big influence on me. That's my partner. That's my rap partner. That's my friend. That's my big bro. A lot of times what the problem is nowadays is nobody ever wants to say who they took a page out of their book, or did this then a third. Everybody's got something from somebody. A lot of people aren't going to say it because they didn't take what they got, the little bit that they got, they didn't take it to another level and turn it into theirs. So anything I got from anybody, I turned it into E-40. So when you hear anything from me, I can rap fast, slow.
What do you think of your kids' generation? A lot of people say the millennial generation is just terrible. I'm not calling your kids terrible. I'm a millennial too. There's reason to believe that I'm terrible.
It's all about the household. How you were raised. My kids were raised by a real fixture on both ends. On the father side and the mother side. So I can't speak for everybody else, good buddy. That's how you were brought up. How you carry yourself. How you were taught to carry yourself. You know, rules and regulations, morals and respect: "Thank you, I appreciate it." "Appreciate that, man." "Sorry about that, you know." That's how you got to talk to people. People don't do that anymore. "Excuse me, man." I bumped into him. "Excuse me, I'm sorry about that." It's like nowadays; it's like a third world. We're at the end of the world. They've been saying this since I was a kid. I mean it's really showing now. So I don't know. It could be 200 years from now. It could be next week.
I don't disagree. It might be the end of the world. But I think there are many apocalypses all the time.
Yeah, definitely. I think that too, it's a dice roll. You don't know. Cause the world used to be real barbaric way back in the days. There are a lot of killings, and shootings, and stuff right now. But back in the day, they were cutting off arms and fighting with swords and horses.
It doesn't seem like it but it might be the most…this is the most peaceful time in human history. As chaotic as it seems, but we are around to sensationalize it and say it's worse than it is maybe.
But you know what, as of recent, as of recent. As of the past 30 years, there's horrific shit jumping off. There's a lot of crazy shit. What about when you leave the screen door open? You might've not have been from that era.
We never left the screen door open.
We did. We just like, come on in.
We're a family of very neurotic Jews, we were fearful.
You might not have but back in the day, it was a good time.
When you were a kid, you left the door open in Vallejo?
When I was a kid, you could trick or treat. You can take your pillowcase and go way across town trick or treating, with no cellphone, nothing. Get back home peacefully. Walk back home with you and your friends peacefully.
Zach Goldbaum is the host of NOISEY on VICELAND, which airs every Tuesday at 10 PM EST. Follow him on Twitter.