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How the Bay Area became a rap incubator with a chip on its shoulder

E-40, Lil B, Too $hort and Kamaiyah. Collage by Jackie Lay / NPR.
Bennett Raglin / Randy Shropshire / Taylor Hill / Gaelle Beri
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Getty Images
E-40, Lil B, Too $hort and Kamaiyah. Collage by Jackie Lay / NPR.

As it celebrates its 50th birthday, we are mapping hip-hop's story on a local level, with more than a dozen city-specific histories of the music and culture. Click here to see the entire list.


The first song on E-40's seventh album is a plea for recognition. "Why They Don't F*** Wit Us," from 2002's Grit & Grind, finds the multiplatinum Vallejo rapper airing a bevy of grievances — he's been stolen from, slept on, eternally underrated. "They never put me on the cover of The Source!" If you've talked to a certain type of Bay Area rap fan — or artist, for that matter — in the decades since, you might be familiar with this sentiment. 40 was speaking in the singular but representing for an entire class of perpetually aggrieved rap listeners, whose cries of "quit hatin' the bay!" would get so loud by the early '10s that the phrase became the name of a popular mixtape series. There's some truth in those complaints, though, even if it is more likely a matter of hate-by-omission.

Drawing on a complex and sometimes contradictory set of regionally dominant impulses — pimp culture, social justice, car culture, drug culture, funk music — the San Francisco Bay Area has long been one of the deepest, most insular and most inscrutable rap regions. It's also one of the more influential ones. Ever since the early '80s, when Oakland's Too $hort began selling homemade tapes full of "dirty rapps" set to menacing synth lines and trunk-rattling 808s, the Bay's formulas for low-end slaps, linguistic elasticity, independent entrepreneurship and flamboyant personalities have gradually trickled outward. The first major crossover pop-rap starcame from Oakland (MC Hammer). The most important street rapper of all time cut his teeth in the North Bay projects of Marin City (2Pac). The most successful rapper-turned-record-mogul of the '90s started his empire with a tiny record store in Richmond (Master P). Today, you can find traces of Bay game sprinkled throughout Los Angeles, Detroit, Texas, Atlanta, Kansas City, San Diego, Seattle ... practically everywhere except, of course, New York.

And yet, as 40 so eloquently put it, still they don't f*** wit us. For all of the influence the Bay Area has had on contemporary rap, it feels disproportionately undervalued and misunderstood, if not completely ignored, in the national conversation. (Or, worse still, reduced to a mere punchline — search Twitter for "E-40 raps like.") Sure, many Bay Area rap styles can be acquired tastes in their undiluted form (E-40 does, admittedly, rap like he has Jell-O falling out of his mouth, and yes, it sounds fantastic), but I suspect it has more to do with context collapse. The Bay Area rap canon is enormous; it was certainly the most prolific of all pre-internet rap scenes. In 1994, Berkeley radio journalist Billy Jam was quoted in Billboard estimating that local rappers had been putting out "15 to 30 new releases every week." When we talk about Bay Area rap we are talking about hundreds of idiosyncratic artists, significant ones at that, each of them in conversation with one another, working towards building a new collective rap language. The holy trinity of 40, $hort and the late Vallejo legend Mac Dre only tell a fraction of the story. The handful of crossover classics from the region — "Tell Me When to Go," "Blow the Whistle," "I Got 5 On It," "I Get Around," "93 'Til Infinity," "The Humpty Dance," "U Can't Touch This" — barely scratch the surface of its legacy.

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The roughest sketch of Bay rap history goes like this: $hort's tape hustle spread up I-80, first into Richmond where teenagers Magic Mike and Calvin T applied their real-life experience in the streets on similarly homebrewed underground tapes, arguably inventing the genre of pimp rap in the process. They, in turn, would inspire an entire generation of Vallejo rappers, including E-40 and Mac Dre, perhaps the most naturally charismatic lyricist to ever come out of the region.

By the mid-'90s, the skeletal bedroom beats first heard on trunk tapes had evolved into a denser, more musical sort of funk known as mobb music, spearheaded by Vallejo producers like Khayree and Mike Mosley. San Francisco was also developing its own stable of hard-headed street rappers like RBL Posse and I.M.P., whose frontman Cougnut sounded like he had smoked a hundred thousand cigarettes before each session. Meanwhile a parallel scene of under-underground "backpack" rappers was also taking form, led by crews like Hieroglyphics and Living Legends, who typically favored more traditionalist East Coast boom bap production but infused it with a Bay Area neo-hippie sensibility and distinctly experimental West Coast flows. They had their own hustles going too, slanging tapes to college kids in Berkeley and becoming some of the first rappers anywhere to take full advantage of the internet as a marketplace. (A few of the more fascinating Bay rappers to emerge were the ones who were able to keep one foot in both of these otherwise disparate scenes — like Saafir, a street-savvy West Oakland MC whose stop-and-go flow channeled Eric Dolphy solos, or The Coup, fellow Oakland residents who would split the difference between mobb music and Marxism.)

As the '90s came to a close, the Bay seemed like it was beginning to fizzle. Some of its biggest stars had either outgrown the scene or gotten stuck in go-nowhere major label deals. But Mac Dre, who sat out much of the decade while serving time in prison on trumped-up conspiracy charges related to a bank robbery that never actually happened, was back. He came home in 1996 with a new outlook on life, forgoing the gangsta pretenses of mobb music in favor of a looser, freer, sillier persona. Maybe he was just echoing the trends around him — ecstasy usage was on the rise and sideshows, the impromptu street car shows that had been popular since the Too $hort era, were more chaotic than ever — or maybe he helped to trigger them. Either way, by the early '00s, producers like Fairfield-by-way-of-Alabama emigrant Rick Rock and San Jose's Traxamillion had begun to catch up to this energy by stripping the funk back down to its bare essentials — just that 808 slap and some simple synths, but they also cranked the tempo. This new sound helped give second wind to E-40's style and launched the solo career of East Oakland's Keak Da Sneak, formerly of the mobb-era group 3X Krazy. Keak gave the movement a name — hyphy, short for hyperactive — and its distinctive voice, merging 40-type Jell-O flows with an almost incomprehensible rasp in the Cougnut lineage.

Tragically, Dre was murdered in 2004, and he became a martyr to the scene just as major labels were beginning to catch wind of it, signing up hyphy acts like The Federation and Mistah F.A.B. and pegging them as the Bay's answer to Atlanta's crunk movement (a comparison that vastly underestimated the caliber of rapping involved in hyphy music). That crossover never quite happened — only 40 & Keak's Lil Jon-produced "Tell Me When to Go" got any real traction nationally — but the hyphy impulse continued to resonate locally well into the '10s, with artists like Richmond's HBK Gang going minimal and Oakland's Ezale and Vallejo's SOB x RBE cranking it to further extremes, reconciling it with its earliest roots via big '80s electro funk and freestyle samples. Even today, the hyphy spirit lives on in the Bay: "Tell Me When to Go" and other '00s hits like Dre's "Feelin Myself" and $hort's "Blow the Whistle" remain in permanent rotation, while next-gen rappers like SF's Stunnaman02 and HBK's P-Lo still rack up post-hyphy hits.

The True Bay Rap Fans reading this are surely clocking its many omissions, because the full story is infinite. Where is The Jacka? Where is 415? Nickatina? The Pack? Cellski? Kamaiyah? Berner!? I feel you, I really do, but there may not be enough space anywhere to contain all of the stories.

And once the rest of you have been Bay-pilled, you, too, will experience these slights just as intensely. You'll begin to see the region's under-acknowledged impact on everything around you: Why don't we talk about how Too $hort producer Ant Banks and Shock G of Digital Underground were both fusing rich Parliament-Funkadelic-inspired instrumentation with traditional hip-hop production methods long before Southern California claimed "G-Funk" as its own brand? Or how HBK's production prefigured YG and DJ Mustard's "ratchet music" blow-up? Did the slowed hook on E-40's "Carlos Rossi" directly inspire Houston's DJ Screw? Would the currently buzzing Michigan rap renaissance have happened at all without years of social and sonic kinship with the Bay? Could SoundCloud rap even exist if not for the warped vision and compulsive productivity of Berkeley eccentric Lil B The BasedGod? Has East Oakland's Kreayshawn been underrated as an influence on the current wave of bratty female rappers? How many Drake songs have directly ripped lyrics from Bay rappers? And did you know Outkast cited Souls of Mischief as a primary inspiration? Or that E-40 is one of Kendrick Lamar's favorite rappers? Or that Zaytoven, the melodic architect of Atlanta trap, got his start in San Francisco? How about LA's The Game, who also came up under SF pioneer JT the Bigga Figga? Oh, and have you heard of Filthy Phil, the Richmond rapper who coined the phrase "player haters"?

You see it now, right? Right? Why won't anyone anywhere else ever acknowledge any of this? They must be hating the Bay.

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Where to start with Bay Area rap:

  • Too $hort, "Cusswords" (1989)
  • IMP, "Scandlous" (1989)
  • E-40, "Mr. Flamboyant" (1991)
  • RBL Posse, "Don't Give Me No Bammer" (1992)
  • Saafir, "Light Sleeper" (1994)
  • Keak Da Sneak, "T-Shirt, Blue Jeans & Nikes" [feat. E-40] (2003)
  • Mac Dre, "Get Stupid (Remix)" (2004)
  • The Jacka, "Never Blink" [feat. J. Stalin & Dubb 20]  (2005)
  • Lil B The Based God, "Like A Martian" (2009)
  • Ezale, "5 Minutes Of Funktown" (2009)
  • Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Andrew Nosnitsky

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