Grinning from ear to ear inside his electronics-crammed studio in Richmond, veteran Too $hort and Master P producer Al Eaton gets off the phone with a music publishing company. This time it's not California's hip-hop community but Nashville that's come calling, and the voice on the other end wants him to produce the new Wynonna Judd record. Huh? Wynonna Judd? How can the man who cowrote, produced, and played on one of the nastiest, best-selling, and groundbreaking rap records of all time (Life Is... Too $hort) now produce a glossy country album?
"Wynonna's got the funkiest band going right now!" says an excited Eaton. It sounds far-flung, but most would be inclined to trust Eaton's funk radar. Besides his work with East Bay rappers, he just played guitar at a recent Yerba Buena/Hip-Hop Museum event with two of the members from Sly & the Family Stone. Eaton produced, cowrote, and played on the first two Too $hort releases for Jive, and has had everyone from Master P to Kid Rock come through his modest East Bay studio over the years, chasing the once successful Oakland sound that blew up in the late 1980s.
"To me the Bay Area hip-hop sound is pretty tired now," he sighs. "The bay says that they love local hip-hop, but they' re not buying it -- they're buying Jay-Z. " Although Eaton would love to work with Jay-Z, or acclaimed local underground hip-hop artists like Blackalicious, his phone is not exactly ringing off the hook these days. Instead, Eaton is cozying up to anyone who will let him play, cowrite, and produce at his preferred rate -- the local hip-hop crews may be getting great press, but they don't have the money to pay for his studio time. Besides, fewer and fewer hip-hop musicians seek out producers like Eaton these days; all they need is a sampler, a drum machine, and Pro Tools, and the song is done.
Born in 1958, Eaton got his first guitar when he was a teenager, and by the time he was seventeen, his band Together was signed to Columbia Records by Clive Davis. It was his first taste of the commercial side of the music industry, and, according to Eaton, it was all downhill from the moment they signed the deal. "It was just one screwing after another," he remembers. "The producer ran off with a large portion of the advance, the production company that signed us used some of our money to finance other projects, and we were left penniless." Although the teen group had a manager (Eaton's brother, coincidentally), he didn't exactly represent the band's interests very well. "[My brother] had no job to speak of," laughs Eaton, "but he sure was living well back then." Surprisingly, Eaton is not bitter. "We were young and dumb, basically," says Eaton. "Together didn't associate playing with money back then. We were much more into the girls." If anything, Eaton's early experiences in the music industry made him savvy, and opened up his eyes to the behind-the-scenes world of session players and producers. He eventually left the band and started doing session guitar work around the Bay Area. From there sprang his introduction to hip-hop.
"I'm proud to say that I played on the first rap record to come out of the bay -- Superrap by Motorcycle Mike," boasts Eaton. While the song never really took off, Eaton knew that a new urban movement was afoot. He started amassing his own studio equipment at a time when home studios were far from the norm, and tried his hand at recording and playing simple loops for early local hip-hop acts like K-Cloud and the Crew. Todd Shaw, aka Too $hort, had heard the K-Cloud tape and tracked Eaton down. The two had no idea that they would change the course of hip-hop. The breakthrough came in 1988, when Too $hort's record Life Is...Too $hort took off nationwide with its X-rated lyrics and groove-heavy tracks. Eaton produced and played on several key tracks, including the title track and "City of Dope."
"For Life Is...Too $hort," says Eaton, "Todd wanted to use 'Schoolboy Crush' by Average White Band. But at the time, Eric B and Rakim had it out as a direct sample. So I said, 'Why don't I take it and just replay the whole thing? I can give it a different feel than just the sample.'" Thus began the movement for live playing and "interpolations" of popular funk and R&B tracks instead of direct samples that became the foundation of the Bay Area rap sound, and later the LA-based "West Coast" rap sound. Heavy on the bass, the early East Bay rap sound was greatly influenced by Parliament and live instrumentation, in addition to samples and heavy bass drum-machine programming. Essentially, the sound boiled down to one thing: Can you ride to it?
Eaton's success playing and producing on Too $hort's early releases led him to further production work with Master P, E-40, and Rappin' 4-Tay, and remix work for Queen Latifah and Ice-T. It may surprise some that Master P's "New Orleans sound" actually got its legs in Richmond via Eaton and his studio.
While the producer is exited to work with local up-and-coming artists, he often finds it difficult. "I want to work in the bay," says a despondent Eaton, "but I'm in no position to do anything for free, and usually a lot of local cats are in no position to pay me." In the meantime, he is busying himself with playing on and coproducing the new Commodores record, various remix projects, and local interests like the new hip-hop museum at Yerba Buena.
These days, all of Oakland's fire seems to have shifted south in the wake of Dr. Dre's now legendary sound. But Eaton remembers the time when Oakland was the epicenter of platinum-selling rap artists like Too $hort, Digital Underground, and (God help us) MC Hammer. While there has been a recent resurgence of longtime critically acclaimed underground hip-hop artists like the Coup, Blackalicious, Latryx, and the Hieroglyphics crew, the Bay Area has not produced a commercially successful rap artist for several years -- save the modest successes of Luniz and Rappin' 4-Tay. It remains to be seen whether Eaton can recreate the magic with a new Oakland rapper and wrestle the West Coast commercial hip-hop crown back from LA. In the meantime, Eaton will keep doing what he loves most: playing and producing -- even if that means he's got to break out the cowboy hat and head to Nashville. john mockus
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