Seasons change, history repeats, E-40 remains. Perpetually slick, the Bay Area triple O.G. has seen five decades go by. He’s dropped over 20 albums, a handful of EPs, multiple group projects, and has left an indelible mark on hip-hop. He popularized or coined innumerable terms in rap’s wordbook. You feel me? It’s all good. Po-po, fo-shizzle. Broccoli, fetti, choppas, player hater. The man is a walking slang dictionary.
E-40 founded one of rap’s earliest indie labels—Sick Wid It Records—in 1989, the year the internet went public. With help from his uncle Saint Charles, he ran the label's operations from Vallejo in San Francisco's North Bay, and assembled his cousin B-Legit, brother D-Shot, and sister Suga-T to form The Click. The artist also known as Mr. Flamboyant amassed homegrown fame for atypical delivery, consistent output and peculiar style.
The Click self-released a full-length before E-40 carved new rap lexicon with his solo track “Captain Save A Hoe.” In 1994, E-40 took Sick Wid It to Jive. But despite major backing, he focused on local music from the Bay Area and embraced artists from the South, ignoring execs hedging their bets elsewhere. Stevens’ instincts helped him withstand commercial droughts, a spat with Biggie, and the demise of hyphy.
Despite his lengthy tenure, 40 isn't a heritage act clutching at fame. In 2016, he laced Yo Gotti’s hit “Law” as well as wedging a thesaurus into a feature on Schoolboy Q’s “Dope Dealer.” Forever energized, E-40 sprinkled bombastic wordplay on dual albums The D-Boy Diary: Book 1 & 2, while mentoring rising label signee Nef The Pharaoh.
To top it off, he’s a nice person. Few rappers start with making amends for missing the last scheduled interview.
“I meant to tell you, I apologize for the other day man. My plate was just full with so many things, a lot of times I overbook myself, but I’m ready, I’m on deck like a sailor right now, let’s go.”
Over the course of our conversation, 40 spoke on being an innovator, riding for the South before the industry hopped on, and his influence on D.R.A.M and Ty Dolla $ign. He also discussed being faithfully married for 30 years, disliking strip clubs, and of course, longevity.
You’ve always been a little different. Have you always had a lot of fun with rap?
It just naturally happened. My name is Earl, and people called me E and then one day, on Magazine Street, where I’m from, I was drinking a 40 ounce. Everybody these days has Backwoods, they rolling up a Backwoods, you can’t see them without Backwoods or a joint in their mouth or smoking on Instagram or whatever, but in the '80s, we had a 40 ounces. We had a paper bag and a 40 at all times, instead of a Backwoods. Different eras. At that time, I got my name from drinking 40s, E-40?
See that’s my character, everything is natural man. In the '80s, I wore these glasses because I was trying to look like a square to outsmart the po-po, you feel me? It was what we call “throw off methods.” So I wear little glasses. I’ve got them sitting on my nose, I try to give them that square/nerd look and that was just a little thing and it naturally happened like that [Laughs].
I would use intellectual words like “vernacular” and “remarkable,” because its entertaining. I might look like a square, but don’t let that fool you because it’s throw off methods. I’d rather look like a square than be 100% thug, right? I’m what they call an intelligent hoodlum. If you're 100% thug, you’re likely to die.
Your fascination with words comes across in your delivery and vocabulary.
When I was little, seven or eight years old, in third and fourth grade, I would always try to use long words and stuff. But it was not just that, I kept my ear to the streets. When you’re living in the inner city, you pick up on a lot of things and you also make up things that are kind of the same meaning, like a double entendre, with the words that are circulating. You add your twist to it, and that’s what slang is all about—to be circulated and switched up. Slang is really coded talk. I can say a few things, in front of somebody, that only people who know what I’m saying are going to pick up on. That’s where it all comes from, me being laced and groomed.
WHEN YOU'RE LIVING IN THE INNER CITY, YOU PICK UP ON A LOT OF THINGS AND YOU MAKE UP THINGS THAT ARE...A DOUBLE ENTENDRE. THAT'S WHAT SLANG IS ALL ABOUT.
You went to college for drawing?
Yeah, I took up commercial and cartoon art. I don’t know if I’ve still got it, I ain’t picked up a pen or anything in a while, but I was pretty good back then.
Was your style inspired by the way pimp’s spoke in the '70s and '80s?
Being raised in the Bay Area, where there were a lot of pimps, hustlers and just a lot of different parts of the game, being there, you get to hear it every day and it becomes natural. It's the way we spit our game. It’s not just me, there's a bunch of regular cats that you see in the Bay Area every day. It's inner living talk, it's ghetto talk. At the same time, as long as it has a meaning, it's real, you can relate to it.
My style of rap was formulated by listening to different people such as KRS One, Too Short, Kango from UTFO, Ice T, and you can never leave out Run DMC. So it was a mixture of a little bit of everything. Also me being a people person, loving to make people laugh and sort of being a comedian with it. I've always been funny, but at the same time I’ve got a serious side to me. I'd rather have the make people laugh and feel good type of side, I’d rather have them see that than my hard-headed side, that's not a side that I'm really proud of.
DJ Quik said one of the reasons he’s remained relevant and musically capable, while so many of his peers faltered is he never abused hard drugs like coke. Do you think that’s true of you as well?
I think there's an element of truth to people right now doing drugs. I mean you know, a drug’s a drug, a fucking Tylenol is a drug, but when it's hard drugs like that coke, everybody, they on some serious shit, xannies, they doing shit they shouldn’t be taking. Back in them days, I never got caught up in that shit, me personally, so maybe that might have a lot to do with it. Even smoking too much motherfucking weed. Them motherfuckers be too danked out, they be too weeded out and you can't function. You don't have no 'imp in you. You don't have no pimp in your step. You wanna just sit around and smoke instead of getting up, getting out there and getting some money.
You feel what I’m saying? Money don't just fall in your lap, sometimes when it do fall in people’s lap, guess what they do? They kick back and don't take advantage of it. They step back and think it’s going to continue to fall in they lap. You got to stay on your grit. So that’s me personally. DJ Quik's from my era too, I think we the same age or I’m probably a bit older, a year or so. Yeah I kept my life to alcohol and occasionally, as of recently, I smoke CBD, which is a weed strain that doesn't have a lot of THC in it. It’s more of a relaxant. It’s natural like an afro, herb. Weed and alcohol that's all I do, and mostly wine. I'm drinking wine right now, I love wine!
Did you think about the long term when you started your career?
From the beginning! I always said it, until I'm old and grey. This is my evidence of how passionate I am about music. When I was coming up, fourth grade, my momma took me down to the music store and got me some drum sticks and a drum pad because I said, "Momma I want to get in a band." I went to Lona Vista and I started playing from the fourth grade all the way to the 12th grade. Now I remind you, I graduated in ’85. I was still a street dude, but guess what? It’s just like there are a lot of dudes that play sports right now that was really in it. It's like me, I was really in it and from the streets. I played drums, I was in the marching band and at the time, there wasn't Pro Tools, there wasn’t Logic, there wasn’t computers like that, it wasn't all that stuff. It was just sonic drums, a few synthesizers, keyboards and drum machines.
You've had criticisms from people who haven't understood your style, it must have taken strength of character to believe in yourself.
First of all, you've got to have alligator skin. You can't have jellyfish skin. If you're a jellyfish, I can see right through a motherfucker. You can't be weak in this. You gotta know if you're coming out, when everybody else is going right and you're going left and you're doing something different and you're being successful at it, if the suckers ain't comprehending it, it's because they ain't never lived it, been in it or been around it. Their game is goofy. They squares. They not cut from the same fabric as I am.
You kinda gotta give them a pass because you’ve got to realize hip-hop used to be urban, now it’s mostly suburban. You can be from anywhere, you can be from South Dakota. It don’t matter where you’re at, you can end up making yourself a star. It’s more acceptable, now days it don’t have to be shoot em up, bang bang, dope dealer, hustling ass raps no more. It don’t have to be that. It never had to be that because there’s rappers that never did get into that, that are very successful right now. But… it started in the Bronx and they were hood with it so if you’re from the hood, that’s the pattern we went by.
Do you enjoy the variety in hip-hop?
I do because you know what? I like all kind of rap. I like the Chance The Rapper type shit, I like the shit that my boy Mozzy is doing and Nef The Pharaoh and Lavish D.
"Broccoli" by D.R.A.M and Lil Yachty is obviously a big hit this year. You were one of the first to use that slang term for money.
I was definitely one of the first ones to say “broccoli.” Matter of fact, that was 1993 on a song called "Practice Lookin’ Hard." I showed a package of Broccoli in the video, it was like a little 20 sack. I held it up and I showed em, it was very self-explanatory.
Does D.R.A.M know that slang comes from you?
[D.R.A.M.] WENT LEFT WHEN EVERYBODY ELSE WENT RIGHT. I TAKE MY HAT OFF TO ANYBODY WHO USES IT, SLANG IS TO BE CIRCULATED.
Oh 100%, he's said it in Billboard. I've spoken to him, that's my guy. He's one of the true talents and I'm so glad he's getting all of his perks in this game. I love D.R.A.M. For real, that’s a great guy. We've got a couple of songs that people don’t even know we’ve got that I'm probably going to put out on the next project, that's so ahead of its time. He went left when everybody else went right. I take my hat off to anybody who uses it, slang is to be circulated. As long as you acknowledge wherever you got it from or whatever, and you don't necessarily have to do that, but it'd be the right thing to do.
You must be very aware of trends, being such a keen observer.
It’s natural like an afro, I just let it flow however it flows. Trust me, I'm watching everything. The whole purpose is to keep your eye on the ball. If you don't keep your eye on the ball, you're gunna strike out and I'm not trying to strike out.
"Saved" with Ty Dolla $ign was a gold hit in 2015. The success of that song is like coming full circle as it samples one of your first big tracks "Captain Save A Hoe."
That was the beginning to a very big, influential song. It was something that every rapper, pretty much, has said something related to, “Captain Save A Hoe,” whether they put their own twist to it or the slang. The saying, I coined that, I did that. Ty gave me a call and said, “I want you on this record right here” and I was like, “Hell yeah.” Ty was worried about, that I guess my boy J. Cole had a song that used the 3-6 Mafia's "Don't Save Her," that song comes from UGK's, you know, "I wanna chop blades."
All of them had clearances, but I signed off on all of them, I didn't have any problems with it. Ty was worried about like, "they might think I'm biting J. Cole.” I said, "Man look, you got the originator, the guy who made up the saying 'Captain Save A Hoe.' If anybody has got something to say, you need to have them call me."
You were among the first non-Southerners to use chopped and screwed vocals on one your early tracks as well.
I know what that was, it was “Carlo Rossi.” “Top of the line wine, Carlo Rossi, Carlo Rossi.” I slowed it up, that was 1992.
Are you concerned with making a classic album, or do you think you already have?
I feel like I've made classic albums, but that ain't even my goal right now. My goal is to make good music and hopefully people will like it. I put a lot into it. People don't understand that to have the style that I've got and to spit real shit, anybody can rap fast, to spit that real shit and to be real clever with your wordplay, and the whole wo-wop and you can visualize it, that's not no easy shit to do. Over an up-tempo or even a slow tempo beat.
Even "Choices," I showed my versatility on that. That was one of the most unique songs of the decade or even the last 20 years, very unique. I just try to do what everybody else don’t. That’s my whole thing and when you do that, they might not catch it at the time, but they’ll catch it later. And if they catch it later, you’re an innovator. That’s how you become an innovator, do what everybody else don’t.
You’ve got to realize, when you let something go that you have in your hand, all those folks that’s unique are loving that shit and when everybody else is saying, “Oh that’s bullshit,” there’s somebody out there loving it. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.
If you stop doing it and you was on to something, and some people was loving it and some people was hating it, there might be a motherfucker on the side line that will just come and take your whole style. Then you gonna look back and complain and say, “That was me man, that’s fucked up.” But if you let it go, you let a motherfucker get in your ear, they got you. Don’t let a motherfucker get in your ear, go with your heart and go with your gut, don’t let a sucker get in your ear. If you feel like you’re passionate about what you’re doing, finish it off.
Master P and Cash Money’s successes were influenced in part, by the Bay Area.
Yeah, and not to try take the thunder away from all of the independent Bay Area rappers, but the people that spearheaded that whole independent shit, that financed their own selves and laid the foundation? The people that showed you could do it yourself without an executive producer or anything was me and the family, The Click. E-40, B Legit, D-shot, Suga T and my uncle Saint Charles.
Saint Charles taught cats like No Limit, and [Master P] will tell you that. That all started from the grass roots, he gave them the blueprint. We all started from the ground up with that shit. They were looking at us like, we need to be like Sick Wid It Records. Now don’t get it wrong, make no mistake, they did what they were supposed to do, the No Limits, the Cash Moneys, never taking credit away from them.
God has his ways of blessing you on certain levels, they observed the game and they did a great job of taking it to other levels that we didn’t take it to, which is not our fault, it’s just how it was designed, the right timing and everything. Everything that they got, they worked hard for. I’m not taking nothing away from them and they will easily tell you that I was a big influence on their life. I love those dudes, I don’t have nothing against them. I’m very happy for them.
GET INTO OTHER THINGS, SIDE HUSTLE MONEY THAT CAN PROBABLY MAKE YOU MORE MONEY THAN RAP. THAT'S WHAT I'VE DONE.
You've got to realize, when you come from nothing and you see another brother get something, I take my hat off to them. I want to see cats get it because there’s enough money out there for everybody. No matter what I say or what I do, it’s not going to stop them from getting paper. A higher power has control over all of this. The whole thing is this man, get in this game, be passionate about it, make sure you know that this is a real occupation, try to take what you’re doing, your fame, your fan base and try to take it to other levels. Get into other things, side hustle money that can probably make you more money than rap. That’s what I’ve done. I’m gone into selling alcohol and all different kinds of products.
Do you think your alcohol range has the capacity to be as profitable as music?
Well I’ll tell you what, it’s a lucrative business and the key thing is they go hand in hand. So they both help each other out, the more relevant I stay with my music, the more relevant I’ll stay with my alcohol and vice versa.
You’ve been with your wife over 30 years and stayed faithful, that’s a rarity for any artist.
I found the right woman. When I found her, God brought my wife to me, at the time, it was a girl that I was talking to and she ended up being my girlfriend, so we ended up going together in 1985. I liked her in junior high though, she played the clarinet in Vallejo Junior High and I played the drums at Benjamin Franklin Jr High School. I would see her at the band reviews and she was always pretty, but very quiet and shy. She was just a good girl. My cousin B-Legit went to school with her. He was at band with her, this is how I used to talk back in the day when I was a young fella, I say “B-Legit, tell baby right there, I’m trying to have at it, because I like her” [Laughs]. My wife claimed that she told her [friend], “Tell him I like him” and she don’t understand that I liked her first. So to this day we have an argument to see who liked each other first. Anyway here we are, 30 years later, 25 years married. It’s a long time, I got a good girl.
I’ve heard you’re not a fan of strip clubs.
Oh very true, I don’t go to the strip club. I have been to strip clubs, but it was for business. To push a new record or something, but I ain’t been to a strip club in… I don’t know how long. It’s really just like what the fuck do I want to get my dick hard for when I ain’t gonna run up in nothing. Me and my wife ain’t going to no strip club, if that’s what other people want to do, I’m not mad at them, do it! I live my life, I do what I want to do, I feel like I’m doing the right thing so I have no problem with it.
Tell us about the history of the saying “player hater,” later shortened to “hater,” which you helped popularize.
The first person I heard say it on a song, it might have been circulating in the streets of Richmond or whatnot, but the guy that had the song in the late '80s, he went by the name of Filthy Phil. Shout out to him, he was the first person that I ever heard say the word. He had a song called “Player Hater.”
He used one of Johnny Guitar Watson’s songs, if I’m not mistaken. Richmond and the Bay Area loved Johnny Guitar Watson because he had game, he could spit that shit. He’s got a lot to do with just me and my career because I grew up listening to people like Too Short and Calvin T. I said, “Calvin, who you get your shit from?” He said, “Believe it or not 40, Johnny Guitar Watson.” We're looking at Calvin T being from Richmond and he looking at Johnny. He gets that credit, he deserve that, off top.
Because your library is so deep and you’ve been in the game so long, it seems people still aren’t fully aware of your influence.
IF YOU WANT TO BE A GUY THAT'S GENUINE ABOUT BEING A HIP-HOP ARTIST, YOU'VE GOT TO DO YOUR HOMEWORK, READ UP ON YOUR HISTORY TOO.
Sick Wid It Records brought so much to hip-hop man, people just don’t even understand. You got to listen to my 28-album discography to understand. You got to go back and do your homework, which people are lazy and don’t want to do. They want to give it to the most recent motherfucker because they don’t like doing their history. You have to look into it, you can’t just go back five years. If you want to be a guy that’s genuine about being a hip-hop artist, you’ve got to do your homework, read up on your history too, you feel me? Well I advise you to, if you really want to be in the history books you got to read up on the history of hip-hop.