Though the question “who is the greatest MC of all time?” has no single, universally agreed-upon answer, you could make a strong case for Vallejo, CA-born rapper E-40, aka 40 Watta, Fonzarelli, Charlie Hustle, E-Feazy, 40 Soprano, 40 Belafonte, or any of dozens of other self-applied monikers. His linguistic impact on our culture exceeds even his own fame, for he was certainly Snoop Dogg’s source for “Fa Sheezy,” though 40 himself freely acknowledges Oakland’s Keak Da Sneak as the ultimate origin of the phrase. 40 is a walking Finnegans Wake, coining slang that sometimes goes no further than his own Sick Wid It Records camp (“Smebbin’”), sometimes spreads throughout Bay Area hip-hop (“Flamboastin’”), and sometimes becomes part of everyday American discourse (“It’s all good,” for example, is his). His first EP, Mr. Flamboyant (Sick Wid It), came out in 1991, and where countless other rappers have come and gone in the time since, the 45-year-old E-40 has survived a 20-year stint on Jive Records, followed by a short spell on Warner Bros., only to return as an independent artist and score one of the biggest hits of his career, “The Function,” earlier this year. His constant reinvention of his vocabulary, his sound, and even his flow have kept him at the forefront of one of the most fickle forms of pop music in history.
In acknowledgment of his legendary longevity, E-40 recently teamed up with the founder of Bay Area rap, Too Short, to record and release two albums called History (HeavyOnTheGrind/EMI), divided on the basis of Mob Music and Function Music. I subsequently had the chance to interview 40 as part of a rap round-up for the San Francisco Bay Guardian’s year-in-music issue. Inevitably, in such a context, many of the most interesting parts of the exchange remained unused, particularly his discussion of his fellow artist Too Short, so it seems only fitting to publish some further excerpts here.
Caples: You first mentioned having high blood pressure and losing weight on your last Jive album, Breakin’ News (2003), and your weight’s gone up and down since then. Today you’re looking pretty trim, so what have you been doing to keep healthy?
E-40: Mainly staying away from carbs and exercising. And I been juicing. Power juicer. I’m not talkin’ steroids. I’m talking the power juicer where you get kale, spinach, broccoli, ginger, lemons, apples, cucumbers, celery, berries, all that. It takes time to do it and break it all down, cleanin’ vegetables and all that, but it’s teamwork, me and my wife do it. It’s very much healthful. So that’s what I been doin’, man. I been trying to age backwards instead of forwards, you know.
Caples: When did you and Too Short first come up with the idea for History?
E-40: It was late ’90s; at the time we was with Jive records, but now is the perfect time. It actually took us 2 ½ to three months [to record]. We knocked it down. We was face to face when we did it. It wasn’t none of that, ‘I’ma send you the email’; we just got the job done. We have Sick Wid It/HeavyOnTheGrind Entertainment and it was perfect because Short got his own situation through EMI and I got mine. I was already over there at EMI and they were used to my system with the multiple CDs, so Short was like, you already got it all set up so let’s rock with that and split it down the middle 50/50 so that’s what we did. It was a no brainer to make it happen and we did it.
Caples: Even though you and Short have been tight for a long time, is it still exciting for you to be in the studio with him recording?
E-40: I grew up on Short. We got a mutual respect for each other. When I was a youngster, I never said anything bad about him or tried to knock him to make myself look good. That’s what a lot of new cats do: they try to knock the big dog just to make theyself look good so they can get some attention but it’s really disrespectful. I never did that with none of the OGs I grew up on; I’m still shouting out Calvin T and Magic Mike because I remember. I don’t got amnesia, man. And I thank those kind of people. Just growing up being a student and an observer of the game, watching how they got down, watching how creative they was. And that’s me. And that’s the problem. I want to encourage all the up and coming artists, don’t throw rocks at giants, man. It’s not necessary. What you fail to realize is that you losing fans when you do that. But then you got some people that just love messiness and confusion and they like to see people argue. I’m talking about hip-hop overall; I’m talking about all regions.
But me with Too Short, I never did that. We knew each other from way back in the ’80s. I knew about his underground stuff; I bought the 75 Girls [label] cassettes and everything. So I’ve never said anything bad about him just to try to get on or whatever. If I had any feelings, I keep it to myself because that’s the way I was carved. I was carved from a different clay than a lot of other people. That’s how cats think they can get on these days, to try to make a diss song about somebody else who’s already on but I don’t do that; I ain’t never been that type of dude. If somebody come at me and they make a diss record about me and they on my page, I might entertain it, and when I say on my page, I mean as far as the level and status. And I still might not do that. I might just come see you.
Caples: Tell me something funny about Short that people don’t know about.
E-40: I rap fast but I talk slow. He rap slow but he talk fast. It’s comedy; we the odd couple. I’m a married man; he’s a playa, he’s a gigolo. But that’s my folks, though, and we understand each other. Once he know you, he got love for you. You know how a baby, an infant, when you on an airplane or something, that baby just stay looking and observing everything? And then when you an old person, like the triple OGs, the granddaddies, people 70, 80 years old, how they just observe youngsters, and they be chillin? I’m not trying to compare him to a baby or an old man, I’m just saying, he’s observing and he gonna feel you out first and once he know what you about, then he gonna embrace you. He gonna run a sonogram on you, look you over from head to toe, look you in the eye, feel your soul, if you look like you got a clear heart, he gonna fuck with you. He got that instinct where he can tell if somebody got a dark heart. It’s wisdom that comes with age; as I get older I get more and more of that. Me personally I’m the same way—that’s what’s up.
Caples: I feel like there’s less emphasis on new slang on these discs; is that a function of them being duo discs with Short?
E-40: There’s new slang in there, it just went over your head. Every time you listen to E-40, you gonna find something new. It’s deeper than slang with me. Slang is just a part of it. They knew about me rappin’ fast, they knew about me being the independent grind king, making up slang, but I been doing that since I was a young boy. And that’s Bay Area period. And I was the one who poked out in front of the whole industry. I’m a Bay boy and I’ve always been creative ever since I was a kid. But the thing is there’s so many different parts to E-40, my patterns, my voice. The lyrics that I say are different than anybody in the game.
Caples: What’s the difference between mob music and function music?
E-40: Function music is mob music too it’s just more uptempo. Function music got a lot of basslines and everything too. We got older people, we got granddaddies, we got uncles, we got OGs and youngstas that love mob music. They never veered from it. And then you got the function music where you got all the youngsters and some OGs, granddaddies and everything and they loving it so it’s like a mixture. When you been in the game this long, can nobody tell us the remedy because you never tried the remedy, this is the first time this has ever been done. We had to do it for the legacy and it came out groovy like a drive in movie.