When I finally catch up with E-40 after two weeks of phone tag, rescheduled appointments, and missed connections, the first thing he does is apologize. "I ain't had time to crack a sunflower seed," he offers. It's a memorable turn of phrase that makes me laugh out loud (and remind myself to use it early and often). His timing is dead-on; the delivery is perfect, effortless. But that's just the way Earl Stevens talks.
His down-to-earth demeanor cuts through all the celebrity bullshit; he is at once engaging, polite, charismatic, and hilarious. To fans of his music, this should come as no surprise. The self-appointed Ambassador of the Bay has the uncanny ability to tell a story in song and make you feel as if you're being addressed directly. With his new album, he hopes to address a lot of new fans directly.
Released on the Vallejo, California native's own Sick Wid It Records (in conjunction with BME/Reprise), My Ghetto Report Card could be the first Bay Area rap album in years to make a splash on a national level, but the Ambassador knows that it won't be easy. "I can't [blow up the Bay] by myself," he says. "I can only give it a jumpstart, but we need the battery to be fully charged. It's not gonna be a cakewalk–we walkin' on hypodermic needles right now."
Straight From the Soil
If anyone is willing to put in the work needed to make this happen, it's 40. He's at the forefront of the Bay's hyphy movement, characterized by up-tempo tracks, convulsive dancing, and sideshows, where passengers hang out of the doors of muscle cars as they figure-eight through intersections. From album to album, he consistently pushes himself, developing new slang and honing his lyrical techniques. When asked what sets the new album apart from past efforts, he replies, "It's me mastering my craft–bein' able to still keep my same start-stop-and-go-scoot-type delivery, but also makin' it to where you can adapt to it quicker than before. I feel it's my best lyrical display to date. I'm just spittin' lug after lug. The album's blappin'."
The bulk of My Ghetto Report Card's production is shared by crunk heavyweight Lil Jon and super-producer Rick Rock (who proclaims himself the "Northern Cali King of the Slappers"), but there are also tracks from Bay Area veterans like Bosko and Studio Ton, as well as one of the Bay's hottest young producers: E-40's 18-year-old son Droop-E. There are cameos from across the map, including Houston's UGK and Mike Jones, and Dipset's Juelz Santana. The album's lead single, "Tell Me When To Go," finds 40 paired with Oakland's gravel-voiced MC-of-the-moment, Keak Da Sneak. The duo trades rhymes over a Lil Jon beat built around a sample from Run-DMC's "Dumb Girl." In the first verse, 40 raps: "I don't bump mainstream/I knock underground/All that other shit/Sugar-coated and watered down." But the video–an artful black-and-white montage of Oakland sideshows, East Bay Dragon bikers, and hyphy dancers–has broken through to both MTV and BET, helping 40 reach a huge audience. So what does "mainstream" mean to him?
"I'm talkin' about the people see you every day on the award shows, and I don't slap that in my trunk," he explains. "I'm not mad–it might be a song or two I might blap from one out of every 10 artists–you know, somethin' that poke out like nipples." To further clarify, he adds: "Underground, to me, means independent artists that spit that soil shit, the hot niggas and the up-and-coming artists like Turf Talk, San Quinn, Mac Dre, Messy Marv, Mistah F.A.B.... I'm talking about underground like UGK."
To that end, 40 has found a way to give the underground some mainstream exposure. Up until a few years ago, radio station KMEL 106.1–the Bay Area's local Clear Channel affiliate–rarely played local artists. "To be honest, [Bay artists were] lackin' in production, and rappers had to step it up," admits 40. "But now we got hella good music out there–cats done stepped they game up to the fullest." In 2004, he met with KMEL's program director and explained that they would have to play local artists if they were to live up to their title of "The People's Station." For his efforts, 40 was rewarded with E-Feezy Radio, a two-hour slot on Sunday afternoons that gives him the leeway to play the artists he feels deserve to be heard–and he doesn't have to look far to find many of them.
The First Family of the Bay
When you look at the company that 40 has kept since the beginning of his career, it quickly becomes apparent that his loyalties lie first and foremost with his family. The oldest of four children, he formed The Click in the late '80s with his sister Suga T, brother D-Shot, and cousin B-Legit. His youngest brother, Mugzi (of The Mossie), records on Sick Wid It, as do his cousins Turf Talk and Trenches, The DB'z (aka The Dirty Boyz), and B-Slimm, who makes up Kabinet Gang with 40's son Droop-E. And across town on the north side of Vallejo, his cousin Mac Mall has been putting out records since the age of 16.
But when he says, "Every rapper got a little E-40 in 'em, whether they like it or not," he's not talking about the many branches of his talented family tree. He's referring to the fact that his inventive slang has become commonplace in the rap vernacular. Over the years, he's debuted myriad terms, not to mention nicknames for himself, including 40 Belafonte, E-Feasible, and his latest, Spittery 40 Yay (à la Sidney Poitier). The problem is that he's rarely credited for creating the slang he slings, like "It's all good."
"I put [it 's all good] out there real tough, like with 'you feel me.' All them words, that's street shit. I didn't get that from no rapper-ass nigga; it's regular street talk. I'm a street nigga–[the fans] just see the glamour part of me, they don't know I'm from the soil. I'm too laced with this game. You can't talk about the things I talk about unless you been surrounded by it."
The Hood Narrator
As he claims in numerous songs, "I speak for the soil," but that doesn't mean that he partakes in all the activities he describes. Even though 40 and countless other Bay MCs tell tales of popping pills, he doesn't touch the stuff himself.
"I don't thizz [take ecstasy] and I don't condone it," he says. "Just like Arnold Schwarzenegger don't really condone shootin' up a police station with his Terminator weaponry. I'm just a street narrator. We rappers. We just like directors and script writers, but we comin' from a street point of view, so we just talk about what we see, and a lot of these youngsters is on them pills."
40 makes it abundantly clear that it's important for him to reflect what happens in his hood–in other words, to stay loyal to the soil. By doing so, he's remained relevant when most rappers his age have long since fallen off, but that's only part of the secret to his incredible longevity in a notoriously fickle genre. He also credits "stayin' prayed up, consistently puttin' music out, not bein' stuck in a time warp, and not bein' lazy," with his success. His legendary work ethic is the inspiration behind album titles like Grit and Grind and Charlie Hustle: The Blueprint of a Self-Made Millionaire.
But it's clear that it will take more than straight talk and twisted slang to extend the Bay Bridge to the rest of the nation. It'll take an artist with E-40's talent, charisma, and focus–and it means that a lot more sunflower seeds will go uncracked.
That's My Word
As he states on the intro to The Best Of E-40: Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow, "The rap game stay stealin' my slang, pimp." Here is a small sampling of E-40's ever-expanding lexicon of slanguage.
Blaps and slaps: Hard-hitting bass sounds, analogous to the Bay term "slumps" or "slumpers."
Fo' sheezy/Fo' shizzle: The 40-fied version of "for sure," co-opted by everyone from Snoop Dogg to soccer moms. "Me and Too Short was the first ones to say that on wax," says Feezy.
Gouda: Money (as in cheese).
It's all good/It's all gravy/It's all gravity/It's all gratifying: "It's all good" is self-explanatory, but note the 40-rific evolution of the term.
Pimpin': It looks like a verb or an adjective, but it's really a noun. As 40 explains, "Pimps wasn't even callin' each other 'pimpin'"–I'm the one that got everybody sayin' that."
Pop your collar: More than a decade before Jay-Z bragged about his button-ups, 40 was flossin' grown man shirts.
Tycoon: In 1996, on B-Legit's "Check It Out," 40 drawled, "Ever since the womb, I been a tycoon." He explains, "Of course, it's in the dictionary, but at the same time, street niggas wasn't callin' each other tycoon. That was just in the corporate world, like Steve Wynn and them. But I made it street."
With a gypsy-ness/with a hurry-up-ness: With a quickness.
Yay Area The Bay Area
Yaper: Money (in keeping with the "Yay Area" theme, a Y is added to "paper.").