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.
“I don't call it ripped off, I call it donations,” cracks one of 40's chief mentors, legendary rapper Too $hort (aka Todd Shaw), speaking from the Oakland video set of his own Jon-produced single, “Blow the Whistle.” “You put it out there and it's out there. You can't say, 'I put this out there and it's mine,' you just put it out there as a gift to the world. From the first time you say it and the first time you do it, it's everyone's swagger. Every person who ever mimicked things me and 40 did, it was just a compliment.”
Like Too $hort, 40 is uncharacteristically modest for a hip hop star. He knows he's a figure who's often been imitated and emulated, but his head hasn't swelled up to the point where he doesn't think about his local people, his “weepolation.”
“I figure, the bay is who made me, so I'm just giving back,” he says. “When I got signed to a major label, I knew that there were rappers out there that wanted to work with me. I know how much of a big deal it is to work with somebody that you respect and love as a person coming up. And that's what I do. I make sure that I work with the local rappers, 'cause I know how it is. They're the rappers of tomorrow, and when you do that, the game will pay you back.”
“A lot of Bay Area artists aren't really giving him his props for that,” Droop-E says about his dad's commitment to supporting promising local talent and sounds. “Prime example: 'Tell Me When to Go.' He could have easily went with a [formulaic] single, he could have had anybody, any rapper on the first single. But what he did was he made a hyphy song — a Bay Area-type track so that people would start looking at the bay more. And he didn't have to do that.”
“You don't necessarily have to be that person who is on top for me to still be your friend or call you on your birthday,” adds 40.
To hear 40 talk about it, this respect for the next generation is just a way of paying forward what he got from Too $hort. $hort has helped hundreds of people with their careers at all levels. In fact, it was $hort who once extracted Lil Jon from a bad record-company situation before he became the multiplatinum crunk hit-maker he is today, a favor that has come back to pay $hort, 40, and the Bay Area in spades.
“If Lil Jon just stands next to you, it's, like, a hit record,” says $hort.
Which brings us to My Ghetto Report Card. “I made sure that I wasn't stuck in one time warp,” 40 says, commenting on the constantly evolving style he brings to each new project. “I've always tried to readjust myself and push 'reset.' You have to be around what you wanna talk about, and it'll come to you. You have to do your homework.”
Report Card's guest MCs and producers reflect 40's studious approach to ensuring his new album stands up to the best local as well as national releases out there: Besides Bay Area folks like Turf Talk, Too $hort, Stressmatic, and B-Legit, the LP features heavyweights from other regions, such as Kanye West, Juelz Santana, Mike Jones, Pimp C, and Bun B. And in addition to the infectious “Tell Me When to Go,” which has launched hyphy into the national consciousness, there's also “U and Dat,” a song featuring Atlanta “rapper turnt sanga” T-Pain that has significant buzz building in the South, and that could end up being a second single.
“I feel like a brand-new man; it's my second wind,” 40 proclaims. “I feel like I've stepped it up a few notches and I ain't lost the beat. Like wine, it's better with time.”
My Ghetto Report Card will go down in history as the album that helped Bay Area hip hop reclaim its place on the national stage. As Droop-E says about his dad, “He bust open the doors. Now all we gotta do is flood it.”