It isn't hard to see that the opening track of E-40's eighth album, Grit & Grind, is a thinly veiled commentary on the regionally biased politics of the music industry. On "Why They Don't Fuck With Us," E-40 maintains he's "the most underrated rapper in the game/but everybody wanna use my slang." With Bay Area-originated terms like "pop yo colla" and "fa sheezy" becoming national hip-hop catchphrases, he's got a point. Other more commercially successful national artists have stolen game from the Bay without giving due credit. This is a big issue with local rappers, especially with New York's Jay-Z and Cam'ron adopting phrases like "fa shizzle ma nizzle" or "Oh Boy" as their own, when in fact the terms were first introduced by Bay Area artists. In an industry where words mean everything, using slang without giving props is a violation of an ethical code. To name-check one of his early songs, E-40 is "Tired of Being Stepped On." He's a little heated that other rap artists are using his slang and "not trying to network with a motherfucker." Other artists are "running with it and taking it to the extreme," he exclaims. "To the utmost! I ain't trippin', but damn!"
The biggest problem with other rappers using local slang is one of attribution. "A lot of people don't pay homage," he says over the phone. "If I get something from somebody I'm-a damn sure say they name or give 'em some love by getting them on a track with me. ... But that's the game." Then he adds with a laugh, "I'm-a let everybody know, though."
Ever since he first appeared on the local scene in 1989 with the Click's Let's Side EP, 40's been a major factor in the Bay Area rap scene. He's a classic rags-to-riches story, coming from the concrete of Vallejo's Magazine Street to the gated community of Blackhawk, where he presently resides. Over the years, 40's paid his dues, selling hundreds of thousands of units independently before signing with Jive in '94. As a major-label artist, he's notched several gold albums, but has yet to move more than a million records. He's probably the biggest local rap artist -- both in girth and in reputation -- but he's yet to receive strong industry recognition for his accomplishments.
But if not getting his props is a sore spot for the self-described "Yay Area ambassador," he doesn't let it affect his focus on his new album. Stylistically, Grit & Grind isn't all that different from 40's classic indie releases Federal and The Mailman -- the album's bread and butter is still mackadocious-flurries-of-verbal-game, all draped over Mob-ish musical backgrounds. "I've upgraded my beats," boasts 40. "A true MC should be able to rap over anything, right?"
The rapper's productions have gotten more grandiose, but rather than enlist the services of hitmakers like the Neptunes or Timbaland, he's remained loyal to the home team. Most of the album's production was handled by longtime associates Bosko, Sam Bostic, Mike Mosely, and Rick Rock. Other familiar faces on Grit & Grind include his cousin, B-Legit, and sister, Suga-T, as well as his Vallejo "sohab" (one of those E-40 words that means "homie") Kavio and East Oakland's Keak the Sneak and Harm.
E-40 is at his best when he's introducing new variants on 'hood vernacular, like the phrase "It's All Gravity." You almost have to be a linguistic anthropologist to trace the evolution of this term, which mutated from "It's All Good" (circa early '90s) to "It's All Gravy" (circa '96) to the present usage. (And Sir Isaac Newton would certainly vouch for "It's All Gravity," fa shiggidy.) "I'm nifty with my slang," 40 says nonchalantly. "I'm a funny dude, but I also got a serious side to me. That's what people like."
He admits that maintaining his core audience while trying to attract new listeners is a challenge. "Sometimes, it's a dice roll," he says. "This rap game is a fool; it's like you caught between a ménage á trois and a cowboy shoot-out. You got this cat on one side saying, 'Man, I like that old shit.' Then you got these other dudes over here saying, 'You need to try some new shit.' So you just gotta balance it out and do a little bit of both and mix it up."
Despite his struggles with mainstream legitimacy, E-40's popularity is on the rise with Grit & Grind, which has received more national media attention than his other solo albums put together. KMEL has been playing lead single "Automatic" like crazy, and this record may finally validate 40 as a lyrical heavyweight, not just "that guy from the Bay who invents his own bugged-out slang."
His gratitude, however, pales next to his perseverance. When E-40 first appeared on the scene, "a lot of people wasn't feeling my rap style," he says. "People was like, 'Man, he rap too fast.'" Though he's earned his ghetto celebrity credentials, he hasn't won everybody over. Indeed, being the perennial underdog in rap's dog-eat-dog world hasn't been easy, as he points out on "Fallin' Rain": "Up the ladder I'm trying to climb/game sharper than a porcupine spine/don't give me nothin'/I'm-a work for mine ... I thank the Lord for givin' me the gift to spit this rhyme."
Even if he's finally rewarded with a platinum plaque, what E-40 is most proud of to this day is his reputation on the "soil" (or turf). "It's hella motherfuckers out there that's influenced by the way I get at the microphone, the way I ad-lib, all the shit I been doing over the years," he says. "I got radio anthems too, but I still got ghetto anthems, ya smell me?"
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