City of Dope [Excerpt From the Dec./Jan. 2012 Issue]

The Bay Turns Inward
Plenty of rappers made their names off of large sunglasses, dumb dancing and tricked-out Buick LeSabres and have hardly been heard from since. But just as many, if not more, have stuck to what they were good at in the first place: making and distributing their own music all on their own, without any major-label support.

The two biggest acts to come out of Oakland in the 1980s, MC Hammer and Too $hort, were a harbinger of how things would work in the Bay Area. Selling dirty, dirty raps out of his trunk (believe it or not, the original “Blowjob Betty” is even nastier than the Jive version), Too $hort made himself a small fortune—and began one of the longest, steadiest careers in hip-hop history. MC Hammer got a deal with Capitol Records, sold tens of millions of records, spent all his money on shiny things and race horses, and went famously bankrupt. He now lives in relative obscurity, the bogeyman of major-label excess. The tortoise-vs.-hare lesson in this story was sort of lost in the collective excitement over hyphy.

“It’s one of the few places you can literally make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and be unknown everywhere else,” Stretch says of the current state of the Bay. He should know:
He has helped put out more than 150 albums in his decade-long career in the local industry.

Take Stretch’s business partner, West Oakland’s J Stalin, for instance. He’s turned what used to be a cover for his illegal hustling into Livewire Records, one of the most active independent street labels going in the Bay Area.

“I sold ’em on my turf,” Stalin says of his early records. “Like, I used to be outside, selling drugs at the same time. I’d have a backpack on with CDs in it. And I’d be selling CDs while I was selling my little drugs, you know. So if I ever got stopped by the police, I could tell ’em I’m selling CDs.”

That backpack of home-burned, hand-labeled CDs has turned into a small empire of sorts, a launching pad for other talented Oakland street rappers. J Stalin’s Livewire imprint has made local stars out of a growing list of Oakland rappers (among them, Philthy Rich, Stevie Joe, Shady Nate and Lil Blood) dedicated to doing nothing but documenting the dark realities of life in Tha Town.But in all this grit and violence, Stalin has found financial success. “Livewire Records is making a lot of money,” he says over the phone from Oakland.

One key part of the business model: cutting out the middleman. Stalin’s next mixtape is coming out soon. (I’m Sellin’ Dope, it’s called, naturally.) The day before its release, you might catch him with boxes of his CDs, dropping them off by the thousand to local record shops like Rasputin and Dimple Records.

Here’s how it works. “I pressed up 5,000 of them, and 4,000 of them is already presold,” he says. “I’m gonna drop 2,000 off at Rasputin for $6 apiece. So that’s, like, $12,000 from them. And then I’m gonna drop another thousand off at Dimple [in Sacramento], and that’s gonna be another $6,000. That’s, like, $18,000 that you can make off a mixtape—in one day.”

The Jacka is another excellent example of a Bay Area rapper who has found independent success by bucking trends, instead of hopping on them. From Pittsburg, a smaller town northeast
of Oakland, located where the Sacramento River meets the bay, Jacka is a member of Mob Figaz—a group consisting of himself, his partner Husalah and a semirotating cast of third players, including AP.9, Rydah J Klyde and Fed-X.

Though he doesn’t manage a large roster of artists like J Stalin does, Jacka has made something of an industry of himself. Grim and melancholy, he’s won accolades from East Coast rappers like Cormega and Freeway and has developed a market for shows across the Midwest (something that Livewire’s stable also enjoys). And he releases a huge amount of product: more than six albums a year for the last few years. He estimates he’ll net an average of $80,000 on each one. “You do the math on that,” Jacka says. “Those is good numbers.”

“It’s just like being on a major,” he continues. “We get the same amount of money, but it depends on how famous we wanna be. Like, if I can pick up a check for 50 or 60 thousand, do I spend that all on radio, or do I spend that all on getting a spot on BET or MTV and try to get national, you know, be nationwide? Or do I stack the money and keep dropping projects that I know are gonna make money? I’d rather take the bread, you know!”—Will Staley


Recommended for You

Around the Web

Best of XXL

  • $yk


    this is where XXL fails…you can’t tell a Bay story w/o E-40…but y’all got Lil Brandon and Kreayon up there trying to show these kids they’re the epitome of Oakland…no this tidbit does not make me wanna cop the issue to see of you did either…

  • $yk

    but I will LMAO @ the irony of the title and pictures posted…

  • CaponeMOB

    SMH..along with the stupid soulja boy dance,this hypy shit gotta be one of the dumbest fads i’ve ever it doesnt even surprises me at all that that shit FLOPPED miserably. like they say YADAMEAN? what the fuck is yadamean? that shit is fuckin stupid. i understand alotta slang came out of the bay,but it seems that they were just trying too HARD to come out with new slang. in my eyes the BAY is the west coast version of atlanta. they just come out with pathetic gimmicks…SMH


    Bruh None of yall commenting will make it out here in the BAY so hush ya mouth unless you willing to walk OAKLAND streets

    • $yk

      don’t make yourself believe that everyone who comments is a young cat who don’t know anything and ain’t been nowhere…

      read the comments in whole before you address all

  • Nate

    I’m from the Bay. I’m a real rap fan. (Collect 3000 rap albums covering the entire genre nationwide since the late 80′s to now.) I can say without bias that there are dozens of great artists from here. Some fell into the “hyphy” craze a bit, others were totally original alongside the Thizz camps, etc. But like all movements hundreds of wannabee no talent, all “style” rappers tried to bandwagon from that 2003-2006 era. The good rappers prior to and after went through the ignorant outside labeling even though it may have slowed down their careers. The same independent spirit continues, in fact before the digital craze, we invented the independent game so that hundreds of artists could copy the blueprint across the country. Hyphy was just one element of the many blends of bay music. the downfall had many reasons. Here are a few.
    1. Hundreds of no talent copycats giving people who judge a area by a song or two a bad name for the bay.
    2. Mac Dre’s death. Dozens of artists success followed his, and his charisma and leadership as a pied piper/mentor was something they still relied on. i saw a flier at a huge concert at San Jose the week he died. He was on a bill with the largest southern artists, hewas going to break nationwide. He had the entire west, and midwest out to k.c. on lock already.
    3. Majors trying to “market” hyphy. Not backing top artists like FAB.
    4. BIG VON’s payola of non cali artists, and standoff with FABdropping his airplay entirely- same with la stations- he has sucked for 10 years now-not everrepping the best artists on theradio.
    5. hyphy briefly overshadowing the other aspects of our artists. From the conscius ones, backpack music, mobbmusic, or lyricists, people associated radio songs as the entire representation of the region although our artists probably per capita have more originality, selection, styles, choices, etc than most parts of the country.
    6. Every year the digital edge cut physical copies of rap sales down. This was industrywide,not just bay. So that factor contributed to the overall idea that the music “died”.
    7. Being that we are the most independent, NY record companies always had the hardest time signing our BEST artists to deals. easier to signsouthern artists for peanuts who are used to cheaper costs of living on BS deals. Bay artists (ones making $ and with talent) usually wouldn’t go for these garbage deals. So either cheap deals would be offered by companies who shelved the 2nd rate artists not repping the bay right, and/or with contrived fly by night “hyphy” music, or they would pass altogether and downplay our music.
    There is a reason the dumbed down Southern music has been dominant mostly for 10 years. Cheaper for large labels, more money, and easy to make albums with simplistic lyrics.
    Not at all to talk down on southern rap. There are also dozens of great artists, but less overall in% of total artists that are top notch.

  • Crunkatlanta

    I have to see what they come up with ….

  • kd

    All yall that something to say about the BAY bring yo ass out there and see what happen…dont ever overlook the bay youll get yo ass ran straight through…that hyphy shit was a fad but not get it messed up them niggas be talkin bout some real shyt…pick up a Jacka, J-stalin, album tell me they aint talkin bout some real shyt

  • Itzmi

    i love how Stalin didn’t mention Jay Jonah n he is an original Jay Jonah, shady Nate, n stalin are the three that started livewire. Guess he don’t get mentioned cuz he gas harder then any of them. Also no mention of kiwi the beast. She one of the hardest females n the bay n jus happens to b part of livewire originals. Stalin not tryna let nobody harder then him shine but he won’t b around much longer. But as u can read it says “J Stalin’s Livewire” lmao he jus another rapper that rap about somebody else life n ain’t Neva lived it.

  • raka nation

    i can’t believe XXL would touch on the diversity of the Bay and not even mention the Latino community. one of the hottest and independent-movements OF THE MOMENT is coming from the soul and flavor of the Hispanic community in the bay…LOS RAKAS. NPR even named their debut EP as a ‘Top Release of 2011′ alongside Kanye, Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar…get with the times XXL! These guys deserve their own FEATURE!