E-40 is a hard man to track down, but once he's located, it's all gravity. The Yay Area Ambassador and certified slang-spitter is currently enjoying a renaissance with "Tell Me When to Go," which begins by declaring Jesus Christ had dreads/So shake 'em. Not only has it taken the streets and KMEL by storm, but the song is perhaps the hottest video on MTV right now. The channel is so enamored of our own Fonzarelli, in fact, that it's airing a special My Block on Thursday, March 16, which will showcase such Bay stalwarts as Keak da Sneak, Mistah FAB, Zion-I, Hieroglyphics, Too $hort, Turf Talk, JT the Bigga Figga, and San Quinn, just two days after the release of 40's new album My Ghetto Report Card.
The hyphy movement's sudden surge has taken some by surprise, but for 40, it's just business as usual. "I've always been ahead of my time - I feel a lot of people don't know it," he says from his Danville home. Our hour-long chat is interrupted several times, as 40 is having some work done on his crib. Installing infrared cameras, as it turns out. Call it homeland security.
"It's a trip, me being in this position to quarterback the Bay and put it back in the limelight," 40 says. That didn't happen overnight. He graduated from selling rocks on Vallejo's Magazine Street to serving up his own rap product along with his family the Click (originally known as the M.V.P.s); he remembers hustling tapes out the trunk Too $hort-style, or on consignment to mom 'n' pops, liquor stores, and barbershops. He earned his rep as an inventor of vernacular; somewhat overlooked is his original, double-talk flow that was (and is) doper than the BALCO labs. "Even if I didn't rap, I would always be laced" with game, 40 boasts. "I was one of the first rappers speaking on triple-beam scales, street shit, choppers, ya smell me?"
The 1992 Click album Down 'n' Dirty helped set off the initial flurry of major label interest in the Bay, moving a reported 300,000 units. E-40 followed that up with the Federal and Mailman albums, certified mobb music classics that landed him a deal with Jive. For a minute, it was all good in the Bay - "Everybody was signed to major labels," he recalls. "Everybody had their chance." But while most of his peers were axed during the post-Tupac late-'90s drought, 40 maintained his baller status. After consistently putting out at least one album a year (in addition to frequent guest appearances on other people's songs), he left Jive in 2004 for the greener pastures of BME, signed by none other than the King of Crunk, Lil' Jon.
"I'm the battaram, tryna knock down the door," 40 says, and with My Ghetto Report Card, he thinks he's finally made the album that will make him as large nationally as he is locally. "This is the one that's gonna do it," he swears. The album's not all hyphy, he notes: "I got my tell-it-like-it-is type of raps, I got my struggle raps. I got a mixture."
The secret to his style, he reveals, is his combination of humor and seriousness. "You can't take me too seriously, [but] you can't take me for a joke." In addition, "I have a very creative imagination." Well, duh. Who else can make up words like "flambostulatin'" and make them buzzworthy?
Some credit for 40's resurgence, of course, goes to the hyphy movement, which has embraced him as an elder statesman. In return, he's laced some of the anthemic tunes beloved by a generation of thizz-faced kids going dumb, including Turf Talk's "It's a Slumper," FAB's "Super Sic wid It," and, of course, "Hyphy," the now-ubiquitous Federation track that gave the movement its name. E-40 also popped up on the late Mac Dre's tune "Dredio," an even more significant occurrence, forecasting the collaborative spirit that defines the hyphy era. Dre and 40, you see, hailed from different 'hoods in V-town, but despite that bad blood, 40 had tremendous respect for his rival. "I never goaltended him," he insists. "With Dre, his lyrics were funny, but at the same time real."
It's a token of his esteem that 40 pays his fallen comrade perhaps the ultimate compliment: "That nigga remind me of me."
E's hookup with Lil' Jon - who supplied the sea of 808 bass on "Tell Me When to Go" - is also monumental. "It ain't, Oh, 40 just jumped on the South bandwagon,'" he says. He attended college in Louisiana at Grambling State, and was one of the first to put out a nationally distributed Dirty South compilation, 1996's Southwest Riders. Southern DJs like Greg Street and Mean Green were early supporters back in the Federal days ("Them cats is the ones that really broke my shit," 40 admits), and E has since worked with everyone from 8Ball & MJG to Cash Money Millionaires to Petey Pablo.
Clearly, 40 is not limited to a regional worldview. "I'm not four blocks," he insists. "I need national exposure. I need people to hear me. They need to hear this good game I got."
His game is so good, in fact, that he's expanding into other businesses. Together with ex-Raider Chester McGlockton, 40 has invested in ten Fatburger restaurants (look for an Oakland location next year), turning his boast of owning franchises on 1995's "Fed-X" into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Furthermore, he's looking to spread his hustle even further by opening a comedy club. Not only has 40 earned an A+ on his ghetto report card, but he's laughing all the way to the bank.