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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."