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."
Along with Too $hort and Spice 1, E-40 became one of the first Bay Area rappers to sign to a major label, Jive Records, which put out The Click's second two studio albums and 40's early solo work. Finally, in 1993, 40 got a mainstream hit, with the player anthem "Captain Save a Hoe," which he released as a solo track featuring the other three members of The Click. Two years later, his 1995 solo album, In a Major Way, debuted at No. 13 on Billboard and eventually went platinum. With "Sideways" and "Sprinkle Me," now considered classics, he helped define the West Coast gangster rap sound.
In the gangster-rap era, Los Angeles had g-funk and the Bay Area had mobb music. And 40 and the rappers and producers in his inner circle pioneered the region's signature sound: trunk-rattling bass, a few ominous synth notes, funky flavor, and exaggeratedly enunciated flows.
"I coined that word, 'mobb music,'" he said. But he credits Todd Shaw, a.k.a. Too $hort, for conceiving the actual sounds of the genre. "Short called it the 'dope fiend beat,' you know what I mean. I call it mobb music. Real sinister. Like, real eerie, with heavy bass lines, and shit that just put you in a certain mood."
In addition to pioneering the Bay Area's signature sound, 40 also coined or popularized plenty of slang words that have made their way into popular terminology. He was the first rapper to say "fo' sheezy" on wax (on "Rapper's Ball" featuring Too $hort, 1996). And he takes credit for the expressions "doing too much" (acting over the top), "bootsy" (a versatile diss), "slap" (a song with thumping bass), "broccoli" (weed), and too many others to count. His obsession with the elasticity of language defines him as a lyricist — and has unequivocally changed the way the people from the Bay Area's urban centers communicate.
Label attention faded away from the Bay after the mid-'90s, but E-40 was determined to stick to the mobb sound even as his peers jumped on trends from other regions. "I'm like, 'OK, let me hang on like a hubcap,'" he said of his loyalty to the genre. "'I'm gonna be mobbin' and everything, while everybody else switchin' out.'" He says he hung on to mobb music until 2003 — then things became a little different.
In the early 2000s, E-40, Mac Dre, Mistah F.A.B., Too $hort, and Keak Da Sneak — among others — became part of the hyphy movement, which set the aggressive knock of mobb music to faster, more danceable tempos. The music reflected the eccentric, ecstasy-fueled youth party culture of the era.
"I'm definitely not the guy who made it up," E-40 clarified. "To be honest with you, I don't think it's a guy. As far as the movement, that was a whole thing beyond the rap shit — kids going crazy in the streets, youngsters doing their thang, the dances, the culture of it.
"I'm from the Bay Area, OK. I don't live under a rock. I see everything. I'm woke. My ear is to the soil. I've never moved, I'm right out here in the thick of it. So I'm definitely gonna participate in what's going on."
The lyrical content of mobb music was hard and streetwise, but hyphy revolved around partying and was easier to market to a suburban fan base. Many rappers in the Bay Area were on the cusp of national fame. Labels began viewing hyphy as the West Coast answer to crunk, the Atlanta style of party rap that dominated the radio in the 2000s. And E-40 was instrumental to helping it take off on a national scale. His seminal 2006 album, My Ghetto Report Card, rose to No. 3 on Billboard. His hit "Tell Me When To Go," which crunk pioneer Lil Jon produced, became one of the most well-known hyphy anthems.
But by the end of the 2000s, the hyphy movement lost its momentum and eventually came to be widely regarded as a passing fad. Many of its rappers faded to obscurity. "A lot of people who got signed [during the hyphy movement] dropped the ball and didn't show up like they was supposed to," said 40. "All I know is I played my position, and I've been part of every movement the Bay Area has ever had — from the Eighties to two thousand motherfuckin' seventeen."
Finding Strength in Faith
It's the day after 40's birthday and phone calls from friends and family keep breaking his concentration in the studio. He checks out an Instagram photo of himself as a teenager, sitting on the hood of a Cutlass Supreme, holding a MAC-11, a photo that he'd published earlier in the day. "My little post is doing numbers," he observes happily as likes roll in.
The photo was taken on Magazine Street, a rough part of Vallejo where 40 grew up. "It was a reality show every day on Magazine Street, especially when Reagan and Noriega and them let the booger sugar enter the inner city," he remembered. E-40 says he watched the neighborhood respond to crack epidemic and ensuing drug war. "All kinds of things developed. I just sat back and was a student of the game. ... It was the hood, and we rep it to this day."
References to Magazine Street often appear in his music. But on Poverty and Prosperity, an EP released at the beginning of last year, he moved away from this gangster persona and revealed an unexpected vulnerability. The project taps into E-40's religious roots, too, more so than any of his previous work. His grandfather was a preacher and his grandmother was "the mother of the church," he said, and the rapper has always been a devout Christian.
On that record, for instance, 40 raps about life and death in the inner city from a broader vantage point, one that considers how human drama falls into God's plan. "My whole thing is to make a gangster cry — whether it's tears full of joy or tears full of sorrow," he explained. "With songs like 'The End' — ain't gonna be no gangsters in the end. I advise everyone to listen to my song 'The End' featuring Krizz Kaliko. And listen to it. It's gonna tell you how it's gon' be. It's beyond us. I'm a true believer in the Creator. G-O-D."
In fact, 40 says that he received divine instructions to record the EP. "It was like God said, 'Don't care what it sell. It's not about that' — and it did great! But he was just like, 'Put it out.'"
He says he understands how music can be therapeutic and healing. "Music means a lot. Music can stop you from doing bad things. And it can also make you do bad things. But my music is, 'Hey, before you do this bad thing ...' I make sure that I tell 'em, 'Just understand these are the consequences.'
"'Be ready for 'em.'"
Lacing the Unlaced
E-40 gets a phone call from Droop-E, his older son, who's also a rapper and producer. He's is on his way to the studio for a recording session with Maloles. "Droop-E, talk to me, I talk back," he says into the receiver, echoing a line from his 2002 song "It's All Gravity."
It's difficult to name a rapper with more longevity and relevance than E-40. "And guess how I think it all unfolded? By me not actually becoming an overnight sensation," he explained. "I didn't sell 2 million or a million [at the beginning of my career]. I started out independent with small numbers."
He firmly believes that he's only as good as his last album, that one remains relevant by the strength of new releases rather than coasting on past accomplishments. Rap blogs with millennial readerships, such as Complex and Fader, have praised his new singles "Slappin'" and "On One," and Fader premiered The D-Boy Diary — a testament to his multi-generational fan base.
"Slappin'" in particular is a gem, with a bouncy beat, featuring "Broccoli" rapper D.R.A.M. on its goofy-grinned hook, and back-to-back verses by 40 and his protégé Nef the Pharaoh, a 21-year-old Vallejo native and Sick Wid It Records' rising star.
He also has featured on some of the biggest radio singles in recent years, such Big Sean's "IDFWU," the West Coast remix of Fat Joe and Remy Ma's "All the Way Up," and Ty Dolla $ign's "Saved," an homage to his own "Captain Save a Hoe." And his cosigns have been instrumental to the success of many of the Bay Area's biggest new rappers, such as G-Eazy and IAMSU.
E-40 said he didn't think he'd be rapping into his forties, but he doesn't plan on stopping any time soon. "Even if I actually didn't sell any records anymore, I'd probably still make music for myself," he said. "God willing, long as I got my life, health, and my strength, and as long as I got my right mind — oh my. I'll end up making a hit record when I'm eighty."
But in recent years, he's also put a considerable amount of his time toward his alcohol enterprises. A longtime wine drinker ("Not trying to tell kids to do this, or teenagers, but I used to sneak into my mama wine," he said), his approach to his brand Earl Stevens Selections hasn't been too different from selling his first cassettes with The Click. He started out small, bottling wines through an independent contractor and selling them online. As demand grew, he began to sell it in stores.
"Next thing you know, it went from a palette — which is 56 cases — to a truckload," he said. "From a truckload to truckloads, you feel what I'm sayin'."
Now, he's got a line of cocktails, including the popular Slurricane Hurricane, and the E-40 beer we drank when I first arrived at his home. Soon, he'll be launching new brands of vodka, tequila, and whiskey.
E-40 is also a family man, and he and his wife, Tracy Stevens, have been married for almost thirty years. They met in the school marching band — she played clarinet — and their two sons, Droop-E and Issue, are both musicians, as well. 40 said their shared interests in music keep their relationship close.
His son walks into the studio with singer BAGO for his session. But he also needs a chance to catch up with his dad. He plays 40 three new beats by DJ Fresh, a veteran Bay Area producer. After listening to each ebullient, synth-driven beat twice, 40 settles on the second one. "I gas that thing all the way up if [Fresh] wants me to," he told his son.
Droop-E was always precocious. At just three, he appeared in the skit "Questions" on 40's album Federal. His dad helped him write his first rap when he was five. And, as a teenager, he produced the beat for "Super Sic Wid It" by Mistah F.A.B., an iconic track of the hyphy movement. And he's had some pretty successful solo work: The video for his single "I'm Loaded" featuring E-40 boasts over a million views on YouTube.
Droop-E gets out a keyboard and begins writing a bass line for a new beat. Everyone in the studio, including 40, bobs their heads to the driving, funky sound. "Hold on, you gotta do it like this," 40 interjects, singing a different variation of the first four bars. His son doesn't seem to mind the feedback, eagerly soaking up game from his dad and asking questions.
Now, it's time for 40 to get in the booth. Maloles put on the beat 40 wrote to earlier that day. "I'm just gonna say some shit," 40 announced. They run through several takes of the verse as 40 perfects his delivery.
Eventually, the rapper breaks away from recording to watch the Warriors, who are playing the Toronto Raptors. "We GS, mayne. We them motherfuckers," he exclaims as Kevin Durant sinks a three-point shot. E-40, a gracious host, makes sure everyone's cups are full and passes around more CBD. There's a celebratory feeling in the room as the Warriors climb to a ten-point lead, eventually winning the game with 127 points.
In E-40's world, there always seem to be plenty of victories to celebrate.