E-40 is a Bay area hip-hop legend. He’s released a shelf’s worth of albums and made more guest appearances than could probably be counted, all without ever really making it big on a national scale. Even his publicist attested to this, as she tried to set up the interview: she’d grown up listening to E-40, she said, and was surprised that most people outside of the region didn’t really know who E-40 was. But with My Ghetto Report Card, 40’s newest album and first on a Warner Bros. deal inked in large part thanks to Lil’ Jon, all of that is rapidly changing.
On “Tell Me When to Go”, his new hit single, the echoing drums are remarkably loud, backed by a steady handclap and intermittent jingling bells, a synth crackle cutting in every four bars to pull it all together. This is the triumph of minimalism in hip-hop: relative to the soul-drenched layered samples of other movements, there’s barely any music to catch, but somehow it’s almost unbelievably catchy.
The accompanying crisp, black-and-white video makes one thing at least certain: E-40, the self-proclaimed “Ambassador of the Bay”, is all about the Bay area, and the Bay area right now is all about it’s own beautifully intense cultural child, the hyphy movement. As 40 himself put it, “hyphy is energy, it’s lettin’ yourself go, it’s doin’ the fool, it’s actin’ the rectum, it’s a stress reliever, it’s lettin’ your hair down, it’s energy, you know what I mean? If I wanted to put it in a sentence, I could say, ‘What happened over there, man? Why that shit happen over there, they throwin’ shit up, and it’s a whole bunch of hyphy mo’fuckers makin’ believe they fools.’ That’s the way you put that in a sentence.” Hyphy is less strictly territorial than its counterparts like screw or snap: “In LA, or whatever, hyphy can be loco,” E-40 explained, “like ‘That boy loco, he a fool, he just net up on a mo’fucker in this,’ you know what I mean, and in New York, hyphy can be—dude be wylin’ out, you know what I mean? And Atlanta, hyphy can be where, naw, he’s just crunk, he just a hyphy mo’fucker. That’s how that shit go.”
The movement itself has several different aspects: the music, the dance, the fashion, and the car culture. Musically, while hyphy lacks the entirely unique sound of a movement like snap or screw, it carries with it a definite focus on the party vibe. “The up-tempo party music make a mo’fucker do the hyphy shit,” E-40 pronounced. “You know what could be a hyphy song? That damn ‘Turn It Up’ by Busta Rhymes, mo’fuckers go hyphy off that shit, that shit go. Mo’fuckers do the hyphy dance off of ‘Ms. New Booty’, you smell me? I’ma tell you what’s real, it don’t necessarily have to be a Bay rapper that make hyphy music ... mo’fuckers go hyphy to Lil Jon’s ‘Get Low’, shit like that, with the Ying Yang Twins. On the music side of it, it’s just party music, man.” The defining fashion of hyphy is the combination of dreadlocks and the oversized sunglasses known as “stunna shades” seen in just about any hyphy video; hyphy has a burgeoning car culture as well, known for a signature move: ghost riding the whip, in which the driver hangs out of the car’s open door and makes it look like the car is controlling itself. When asked if he himself could ghost ride a whip, E-40 laughed and admitted, “I’m not the best at it…”
Perhaps the most distinctive part of hyphy culture, however, is its dance aspect, in which dancers like The Animaniaks in the “Tell Me When to Go” video go absolutely insane and bounce around freed from all restraint. “Hyphy is the fool, hyphy is a damn fool, like ‘Aww, that nigga hyphy, he a fool!’” E-40 raved. “He a monster, he a net up on your ass, he a fool! He just hyphy, wild, lettin’ stuff go! You smell me?”
This is perhaps the most awe-inspiring aspect of E-40’s hip-hop legacy: that, after a career spanning decades and a discography well into the double digits (including a 2004 retrospective compilation), he’s not only every bit as relevant as he’s ever been, he’s at the top of his game. His newest album, My Ghetto Report Card, debuted at #1 on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Charts and #3 on the Billboard 200 Chart, and he’s been a strong presence recently on channels like BET and the MTVs. “I feel like I’ve always been a dude that’s always been ahead of my time and I always kept my ear to the street, always been up,” explained E-40. “When I was a little young mustache, growing up, I always saying, ‘Man, I want to be like these old Gs right here’... I feel like, when I get 50, 60 years old, I’ma always be woke, I’m gon’ be laced, I always felt I was gon’ always be up… I understand young people. I’m not gonna be one of them old dudes that’s stuck in a time warp and stuck in my stubborn ways, you smell me? Cause I understand, I understand the young hyphy crowd, I understand the new generation, I know where they come from, cause I was that, at one time, we just got down a little different. With me, just bein’ up on game, I’ve always been able to stay in the mix like Bisquick, you smell me? That’s what I’m majorin’ in, that’s my thang, always bein’ up, I ain’t never tardy, I ain’t never late like FEMA! You smell me?”
Such idiosyncratic expressions and language are just another part of his appeal: E-40 is famous both for popularizating of pre-existing slang, such as the ubiquitous “-izzle” suffix with Snoop Dogg, and for creating his own E-40-isms, such as “po-po”, “skrilla”, and “yola-bola-dola”. “I’ve got a platinum mouth piece,” he boasted, adding later, “It just come natural. Me being always laced and I’m already creative, ever since I was real young, you know, ankle low to the centerpiece, though, I was always blessed with the gift of gab but I used to always just like to use colorful words… It’s not a gimmick, it’s a natural.” Later on, he called “do you smell me” his personal favorite of the phrases he has coined: “That’s what I find myself saying more than any of my words, it’s just natural… you smell me?”
This, then, is what’s so refreshing about E-40: in a fickle hip-hop industry ruled, for the most part, by swiftly-interchanging gimmicks, E-40 is gloriously gimmick-free. He invents words, true, but he’s been doing that even since 10 albums ago, when he had nothing near the national stature he has now; the rapidly expanding hyphy movement is another big push, but it’s always been important to E-40 to stay in with the streets, whether they’re making a commercial impact or not. “I ain’t never changed, ain’t nothing changed about me but my physical address,” he declared. “My heart and soul is on Magazine Street, my spit, up-to-par, to the fullest, probably more upgraded than ever, you know what I mean… I’m just right in the mix of where I’m supposed to be. I feel like I can rap circles around a lot of the youngsters, I feel like I’m the best who ever did it. I might not be the best MC in the world, but I’m the coldest and the best game-spitter of all time.”
By now we were running out of time to talk, so I closed with a final question relating to his infamous slanguage: “If you could invent one word to describe this interview, what would it be?” I’m not quite sure if he heard me correctly; the phone connection was a bit unstable, static cutting in and out and at points making things harder to understand. But he thought for a second, and gave a light laugh.
“Gratifying. All gratifying.”
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