After 26 Years, E-40 Knows He’s Got The Rap Game Down Perfect
All Due Respect
After 26 years in the game, E-40 is still at the height of his powers. And he’s not planning on slowing down any time soon.
Interview Dan Rys
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.
It’s been said time and again that hip-hop is a young man’s game. But tell that to E-40 and he’s more likely to laugh in your face. The Bay Area rhymer, now clocking in at 47 years of age, is an anomaly in hip-hop, an MC who has mixed underground grit with an uncompromising dedication to his craft all while putting a traditionally underappreciated region on his back for a generation. Over his career, 40 Water has maintained a vice-like grip over the Bay’s hip-hop scene with an eclectic style that defied convention and gained him the credibility to be both an ambassador for his city and a well-respected lyricist who has made appearances on albums as diverse as 2Pac’s All Eyez On Me, UGK’s UGK 4 Life and Gucci Mane’s The State Vs. Radric Davis. It’s a resume that few can match and many have envied.
In short, 40 is a rapper’s rapper. His influence can often fly under the radar: slang phrases like “Fo shizzle,” “It’s all good,” and “You feel me,” for instance, are staples that he helped introduce but that are often credited elsewhere. But students of the game know what time it really is. 40 has had records bouncing around the Top 30 on the Billboard Hot 100 in three different decades, including his most recent guest spot on Big Sean’s “IDFWU,” which came complete with a football-themed concept video that pitted Sean as the quarterback, DJ Mustard running the ball, Kanye West as the head coach and 40 announcing from the broadcast booth. In a way it’s a microcosm of his career; E-40 has never been the focus, the center of the mainstream’s attention, but his voice reverberates through much of what is heard on the radio now.
Now it’s been more than a quarter century since 40 made his debut in the rap game back in 1988 with his group MVP, a three-piece crew made up of his brother (D-Shot) and cousin B-Legit, and 40 doesn’t see an end in sight. Since March 2012, he’s somehow managed to put out six solo albums and two full-length collab LPs with fellow Bay native Too $hort, and he’s got another four albums—Sharp On All 4 Corners 1, 2, 3 and 4—on the way, with the first two scheduled for December and the following two in the works for March. With 31 albums in 26 years, XXL caught up with E-40 to find out what it is that makes The Godfather of the Bay so impervious to Father Time. —Dan Rys
XXL: You’ve got four albums coming out in four months. Is there a grand concept to this?
E-40: Nah, it’s no gimmick. It’s always a concept, because I always talk about the struggle. I feel like I’m a voice of hope. I’m always giving life lessons in my music. Some people don’t get it because they never lived it but I paint pictures with my raps. So that even if you ain’t lived it you can see the visuals, you know what I mean? In my music, just listening to it you can imagine how things are and was for me and a lot of other people. And then a lot of times, with my unorthodox rap style, my lyrics go over their heads like a shower nozzle, you know? Sometimes I’m too deep—I tell ’em I’m too gamed up for these bench warmers.
"See, I'm a OG, so I gotta lace these unlaced people out there."
There’s always a message in my music, you just gotta be able to just sit there and be open-minded. The world revolves around nothing but just normal rappers, a regular flow. Everybody can rap regular. You know what I’m saying? So be innovative. Do something different. Throw some twists and turns in the game, mane, you know what I mean?
But I’ve been having music on the shelves for 26 years, so evidently I’m doing something right. It’s not luck. You can only have so much luck, man. Everybody got a little tiny bit of luck, some people got a whole bunch of luck, but I’ve perfected this, man. This is what I was born to do, music. And I’m here, and it’s very rare to find any artist in the rap game who’s been relevant and successful for this long. You can have three, four, five, six years of platinum and double platinum albums and have a good run, but what do you do after that? Are you still able to do that 20 years later? That’s very rare. So I pat myself on the back and congratulate me for what I’ve accomplished.
What do you feel like you’ve done differently than everybody else to get to this point?
Well first of all, I helped pioneer the independent rap grind. I really started from grassroots, without a handout or anything. There wasn’t one person who put money in my pocket, you know what I’m saying? I funded my own shit, you feel me? That’s one.
But two, it was real coming from a small little city in the Bay Area when all you knew was Oakland and San Francisco. Vallejo, Richmond, Fairfield, some of those other small cities in Northern California wasn’t really recognized like that; we had to carve our own identity and make people recognize us.
To make a long story short and a short story long, what I did different was I came in the game with an unorthodox rap style. I talked about subject matters that everyone wasn’t talking about. I came with a bunch of slang, I spit real shit that real muthafuckas can feel, you know what I mean? I was the first one talkin’ about triple beam scales and drought season and choppas and AR-15s and all that good shit, I could go on and on forever. First one screaming, “You feel me?” and “It’s all good,” all that shit. Words that people say right now. When you hear a muthafucka say, “That shit slap,” that came from me. E-40 coined that shit in his rap game, you feel me?
After 26 years, you’re doing something not many artists have done, drop multiple albums at once.
That’s right. I always had so much music and I was like, “Why you gotta wait every one to two years,” you know? I’m like, man, release something every nine months. Make like a freakin’ lady and release something every nine months. Or even before that. So I just started doing multiple albums.
I already have Gold and Platinum albums. I got a Platinum album and four Golds. But you gotta realize—people might say, oh, only that after all these years? Yeah, but I was ghetto gold before that, before I signed with a major distributor. One hundred thousand is ghetto gold, and when you got a distribution deal, the amount of money you make equals a Platinum album on a major label. So I’ve been successful since the beginning of my career.
I’m just grateful to keep a consistent fan base that believes in me and knows that I carry it like a real boss and I’m as solid as they come. I’m not perfect—everybody makes mistakes—but the only thing is, when you make a mistake, you just can’t keep doin’ ’em. So I try to be solid, I try to live my life solid, not potato salad. I don’t downplay everybody else to make myself look good, all I do is call it like I see it and give it to ’em straight not fake.
What keeps things fresh for you?
If you don’t keep your eye on the ball you gon’ lose. So I keep my eye on the ball, I stay consistently hustling, side hustles, I stay in they face because you know, out of sight, out of mind. If you workin’ on your album and you ain’t got nothin’ out there at least try to get on features and make yourself seen.
But not only that, make sure you’re being you, but at the same time you’re adjusting to the times. It’s not just one easy way of doing this, this is something you gotta live and learn. So I practiced it and now I got it down to perfection. How to stay relevant and still be you, still have your fan base loving you for you, because I ain’t changed. All I did was make a few adjustments to make it more current. You feel me? So that’s my whole thing. Turn with the times or the times gonna turn on you.
See, I’m a OG so I gotta lace these unlaced people out there. There's a lot of people who say stupid shit. And a lot of times, some of these rappers, they might not be a fan of me because the region that they are in is kinda slower than how we live out here in the Bay Area. So the shit that I say might not catch up to them for like five years, and by that time I won’t get the credibility because they forgot. Y’all recycled what he already said many moons ago.
Is that frustrating for you?
Very frustrating. But I’m an older dude, but I ain’t no gripin’ dude, you know what I mean? I’m not complainin’, I’m just game bangin’. Not gang bangin’ but game bangin’.
"Just be grateful that you're livin' and put 100 percent into everything that you're doing. And everything ain't about just braggin'."
Right around the time you dropped the last three albums in Dec. 2013, The Block Brochure 4, 5 and 6, you had said that those albums were tougher for you than other ones had been. Is it still getting tougher for you to put out more material?
Nah. Not tougher; I didn’t mean it like that. What it was—it’s not easy dropping three albums at a time. I had dropped The Block Brochure 1, 2 and 3, and then I had come with the two Too $hort albums right directly after that, the History: Mob Music and Function Music, and that was two CDs. So then going into The Block Brochure 4, 5 and 6, that’s when it got like, “Damn!” But I still pulled it off and it was still slappin’.
It’s never been easy, but that damn sure wasn’t easy. But this is what I love to do. Rap is my passion; I got a real passion for it and I’m not in it just for no damn money. Of course it’s my occupation, but I’m in it because I don’t care if I had a billion dollars, whatever the case may be. Even if muthafuckas didn’t wanna hear me no more, I’d be rappin’ for myself. And those who don’t wanna hear it, I don’t care if I’m 70, you know what I mean? If somebody wants to hear it, I’ll throw it on iTunes and if you wanna buy it, fine, it’s there. But I’m gonna make music for myself all my life.
As long as I’m breathing, this is what I do. You know, people put rap in a category where there’s an expiration date, an age cutoff. But who wrote that book? Ain’t nobody been around long enough that’s been relevant that can put an expiration date on rap but people like me and Too $hort that’s still relevant. So I’ma stay rapping as long as I got my life, health and strength and I’m in my right mind, you know what I mean? I got somethin’ to say.
How do you feel your role in hip-hop has evolved over the years?
I feel like, man, I’m playing my position. Yes, I am an OG, and I accept that to the extreme. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to make it to this age. Some of these youngsters, man, they lookin’ forward to goin’ to the pen, they not plannin’ on livin’ past 25. I don’t know where they get this muthafuckin’ attitude from because they got it good as a muthafucka. We the ones who had it hard. When we was comin’ up, one pair of shoes for the whole fuckin’ school year.
A lot of these youngstas, they wanna act like they got it super hard—which it is, some of them do, there really is some that do—but a lot of these muthafuckas have it better than they think. When you got all your body parts, everything’s functioning, you know what I mean, you in your right mind, you healthy, there’s a lot of people who would love to trade places with you. There’s a lot of people out there that would love to trade places with these youngsters while they sittin’ up here complaining when really they should be grateful.
So I just play my father figure role, I play the OG role, I’m solid. And I’ma continue to tell them, each one teach one. Let ’em know, man, there’s bigger things in life. Just be grateful. Be grateful that you’re livin’ and put 100 percent into everything that you’re doing. And everything ain’t about just braggin’. That’s the thing right now—everybody’s bragging. I got this, I got that. Hip-hop did start off bragging, but it was also a message. Have you ever heard the song “The Message?” Grandmaster Flash and them? Melle Mel and them spit that real shit.
You gotta mix it up. You can brag every once in a while, but don’t make every song about a bitch. Don’t make every song about, “I’ll take your bitch.” Don’t make every song about, “I got this, I got a Gucci belt, I got that.” It’s like, mix it up. Put some positive messages in there too, man. Show some muthafuckas how to get out the muthafuckin’ dope game, you know what I mean? Shit like that. Show muthafuckas it ain’t about killin’ each other, man. When I rap, I might spit some shit about muthafuckas killin’ each other, but I put consequences and repercussions about how the shit jumped off, you know what I mean? At the end of the day it’s not gonna turn out too good on either one of your sides. I spit that real shit.
For the complete E-40 discography, head to the next page.
During the course of his illustrious career spanning over a quarter of a century, E-40 has released an immense amount of albums and EPs. Take a look at the Ambassador to the Bay’s definitive discography.
Research Emmanuel Maduakolam and Dan Rys