My Lyft driver zigzags up a winding road through E-40's gated community in Danville, an East Bay suburb about half-an-hour south of the rapper's hometown of Vallejo. We pass a series of mansions with manicured lawns and six-car garages — each more impressive than the last — until we finally reach the entrance to his sprawling, modern-style home.
"Who are you going to see? Trump?" the driver jokes as we pull up.
A walk down E-40's oval driveway leads you past an elegant, abstract sculpture and impeccable landscaping. The rapper's engineer, Migui Maloles, welcomes me into the house. Walls decorated with platinum and gold records lead to 40's in-home studio, where the orange paint and carpet complement his home's sleek, bold decor. Bottles of Earl Stevens Selections, E-40's wine brand, line the side tables. The only thing in the room that hints at the rapper's humbler beginnings is a door covered in Sharpie graffiti.
Eventually, 40 strolls into the studio, looking dressed-down in a T-shirt, jeans, ankle socks, Cartier glasses, and a glistening diamond ring. His stature is imposing, and his voice booms, but his smile is warm. "Do you drink?" he asks, then pauses. "Wait a minute, how old are you?" I share my age, then giggle. He pours E-40-brand malt liquor into a red Solo cup; ever the business man, he doesn't miss this opportunity to push his product. We sip the beer and he jokes: "You look hella young. I'm a fossil."
But he's no relic. He had just returned from a press tour in New York, and he will soon be off to Los Angeles to promote his latest album, the 42-track, two-disc gangster epic The D-Boy Diary: Books 1 and 2.
But a new record isn't out of the ordinary for 40, who's been so prolific since the Eighties that hardly a year's passed without a hot single. In 2016 alone, three of his tracks — "Choices," 2014's "Function," and "U and Dat" from 2006 — were certified either gold or platinum. He currently has two bangers, "Slappin'" and "On One," racking up millions of plays on YouTube. And the two discs of The D-Boy Diary simultaneously ranked No. 6 and 7 on Billboard's rap chart in December.
But what's truly remarkable about E-40 is that, at 49, he's still in the prime of his career — an oddity in popular music in general, not just rap. During my recent afternoon at his home, "The Counselor" — a nickname he's earned because of his seniority and influence — explained how, "as a triple OG," he's embracing his role as the godfather and gatekeeper of the Bay Area's rap scene.
"My assignment is to lace the unlaced, and show 'em there's bigger and better things," he said, acknowledging his responsibility as a role model.
In other words, E-40 approaching fifty is ready for a new challenge. "They look up to me, and I'm glad I'm a good example," he explained. "I'm not a falsified dude. I'm not a hater. I just wanna see people get money.
"What I want for myself, I want for others."
From Slinging Cassettes to Going Platinum
E-40 asks Maloles to roll some weed — CBD, a milder medical cannabis that doesn't take away from his focus, he says — as we chat about California's newly passed legalization measure. "Soon I'll be getting my CBD from CVS," he says, then laughs.
"That's a bar right there!" responds Maloles, suggesting 40 use the line in a song. Wordplay is one of E-40's strong suits as a lyricist, so much so that lines from his verses often make their way into regular conversation, and vice-versa.
"You don't mind if we work on some music?" 40 asks. Maloles plays a bare-bones beat, with a looming bass line and thunderous knock. "I'm a composer, too, on the tuck," he continues. "People just don't know my nickname. My nickname is Benjamin Blapperson. I be behind the scenes on things, I just don't claim it."
He gets in the zone, bobbing to the beat, mumbling under his breath, as he comes up with a verse on the spot.
He's been living like this since 1978, when, at eleven years old, 40 first heard the Sugar Hill Gang and knew he wanted to rap. He and one of his cousins, B-Legit, played the drums together in the school marching band, and in the mid-'80s the two of them started the group The Click along with E-40's siblings, Suga-T and D-Shot.
Their uncle, Saint Charles Thurmon, was a soul singer who independently released his music. He showed 40 the ropes of the business, helping The Click market their early cassettes, which they put out through 40's own label, Sick Wid It Records.
"We did it ourselves with no executive producers, no silent partners, no nothing," 40 said emphatically, sitting up in one of the studio's armchairs. "God was like, 'If you're gonna do it, you gotta do it yourself.'"
In these days before social media, E-40 practically wrote the playbook on developing a grassroots following. "We were selling our tapes from the trunk of a car, going hood-to-hood," 40 recalled. "You know how bosses get complimentary everything? Well, that's how we were treating the bosses in the neighborhoods of each soil in Northern California. Anybody that had a boss slide through with hella slap in his trunk — feel what I'm sayin' — we'd give him the CD, complimentary. Like, 'Here you go, man. Check it out when you can. Slap it in, man.' And that's how it all happened: organically."