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Earl Stevens II is E-40, except when he's not. Sometimes they call him Dr. Scrill or E-Feezy or Forty Water. Pimpy E was his first alias, the one he took in seventh grade. There is also E-40 Fonzarelli (later upgraded to E-40 Belafonte), Earl "Jack Yo Slacks" Stevens (for when he's executive-producing something), Tom Fedi & Da Batch Breakers, Mr. Flamboyant, the Mail Man, and T.K.A. -- that's "Tycoon Known As" -- Charlie Hu$tle. In certain circles, he is known as the "Ambassador of the Bay" and the "King of Slang." In others, like that of 18-year-old producer Earl Stevens III, himself referred to as Droop-E, E-40 is often called "Pops."
"All he does is work hard and grind," says the high school senior of his dad. "It's starting to pay off now."
Droop-E is the new president of Sick Wid It Records, the independent label that Pops started in the late '80s as an outlet for the Click, 40's group with his sister Suga-T, brother D-Shot, and cousin B-Legit; since then, Sick Wid It has gone on to release albums from other family members, such as 40's cousins Turf Talk and the DB'z, and his brother Young Mugzi. Earl Stevens II has been a family man from the beginning, and over the years that family has grown quite large indeed, encompassing a hip hop scene that is, as you read this, exploding. Hyphy -- the bay's hip hop youth culture defined by energetic dancing, car stunts, and playful, club-friendly jams -- is on the verge of going global.
Not since the demise of E-40's dear "booger from the same nose," Tupac Shakur, has mainstream hip hop been this interested in our Yay Area rap game. This is why, with his new album, My Ghetto Report Card -- released yesterday on hip hop kingmaker Lil Jon's BME Recordings, which is distributed by Warner Bros. -- E-40 is on the cusp of the greatest international success his nearly 20-year career has seen. So far the buildup to the album's release has included an MTV special (My Block: The Bay), a "new joint" spot on BET's 106 and Park countdown, nonstop airplay of the Lil Jon-produced single "Tell Me When to Go" (featuring Oakland's Keak Da Sneak) on national radio, and the kind of local-media feeding frenzy that occurs when a homegrown star finally gets his due.
Case in point: I'm at a Fatburger in Pleasant Hill, which has turned into an E-40 press camp on a day in late February. (Last year, the MC opened this burger franchise with Chester McGlockton, a former defensive tackle for the Raiders, and he has plans for nine more in the Bay Area.) Over a turkey burger and a chili dog, 40 brings me up to speed on his Report Card as -- get this! -- a Bay Guardian reporter, impatient for his interview time, brazenly eavesdrops on our conversation, writing down notes for what would become his paper's recent McStory on the artist. After years of listening to them, 40's records have filled my head with colorful metaphors on how to deal with this -- "Break [his] ass down like a 12-gauge and call [his] bluff," perhaps? -- but instead I chill.
If someone outside the Bay Area has heard of Vallejo at all, it's probably because of E-40, who grew up on the city's streets. As an up-and-comer, 40 went from selling the wrong thing for a minute (many of his records tell this tale) to selling his homemade cassette tapes in auto shops and barbershops, on street corners, at flea markets, and out of the trunk of his car. And he was good at it, real good: He parlayed hundreds of thousands of independent sales of his Sick Wid It releases into a major-label deal with Jive Records in 1994, which lasted a fruitful 10 years and 10 albums.
"I've been around since Kermit the Frog was a polliwog," says the rapper. "I've seen people fall by the waistline" -- yes, waistline; this is how the man talks -- "and it's just a blessing to still be in this game and have longevity like Mick Jagger or Ron Isley, you smell me?"
In hip hop, there's a large point of pride in representing where you're from. Thanks to 40's success, his otherwise obscure hometown is on the international rap map in the way that places like the Bronx, Compton, Houston, and Atlanta are. Even listeners as far away as Japan smell him. They know that Vallejo's Magazine Street is more than just a freeway exit on the way to Marine World; that it's a place they wouldn't want to run out of gas in. From 40, they've heard about such uniquely regional things as the '80s drought, Vallejo's Kaiser hospital, Pacific Bell, PG&E, Tommy T's Comedy Club in Concord, Oakland record store Moses Music, and countless other references.
But Bay Area topographical trivia is far from the only contribution the MC has made over the years. It's hard to find a major rap or R&B star who hasn't borrowed 40's phraseology (see 50 Cent name-checking his "Captain Save a Hoe," or Snoop Dogg's famous fa shizzling, verbiage that 40 and Keak Da Sneak originally popularized); his mannerisms (such as poppin' one's collar); his sound (40 dug up Roger of Roger & Zapp before Dr. Dre and Tupac used him for "California Love"); and even his business practices: 40's independent model of hustling records has inspired the tactics of Dirty South rap empires No Limit and Cash Money, among others.
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