Guardian illustration of E-40, Mac Dre, and Mistah F.A.B. by Matt Furie and Aiyana Udesen
Crack baby anthem, you can feel this music Mistah F.A.B., "Crack Baby Anthem," from Baydestrian (SMC, 2007)
DECADE IN MUSIC In retrospect, it's easy to see 1999 as the end of Bay Area rap's glory. The '90s mob music era was pretty good around here. Too Short had paved the way from releasing local discs to landing a major deal. A spate of acts were signed in the early '90s (Digital Underground, E-40, Spice-1, the Delinquents) and the mid-'90s (the Luniz, Dru Down, Richie Rich, 3X Krazy), not to mention that the world's most popular rapper, 2pac, claimed Oakland as his home.
So what happened? 2pac's murder in 1996, for starters, took the jewel in the Bay's crown. The second round of signings yielded less sales than the first, with only the Luniz's debut, Operation Stackola (Noo Trybe/Virgin, 1995), hitting putf8um. Conventional wisdom and conspiracy theory generally hints that the murder of Queens rapper Notorious B.I.G. in L.A. in 1997 frequently portrayed as a revenge killing for 2pac turned major label interest away from Bay Area rappers, though it's unclear whether anyone from the Bay had anything to do with either Biggie's or Pac's death. The majors stopped signing Bay Area rappers around that time, a situation that remains largely, though not entirely, unchanged today. The final factor was the purchase of local rap station KMEL by Clear Channel in 1999. KMEL never played enough Bay Area music, but soon stopped altogether, save for E-40 and Too Short, the only two acts to retain their major deals as the new century dawned.
Enter "the drought." With no radio and no major-label interest, Bay Area rap languished. Local alternative rap fared better because its business model usually didn't include the radio or the majors. Though the Hieroglyphics had been around since the early '90s, the collective stepped up their activities in the late '90s and early '00s. Given their devoted following, heavy touring, and iconic symbol, Hiero was Bay Area hip-hop for many outside the region. The Bay was also home to hip-hop collectives like the Solesides-derived Quannum Projects, whose Blackalicious put out Blazing Arrow through MCA in 2002, during a brief blip of major label interest in progressive hip-hop.
Two of the significant records from this period were Party Music (75Ark/Warner, 2001) by the Coup and Sonic Jihad (Guerilla Funk, 2003) by Paris. A neo-P-Funk dust-up, Party Music achieved much notoriety for its original cover depicting members Boots Riley and Pam the Funkstress seemingly blowing up the World Trade Center. Scheduled for September release, the album was of course put on hold after 9/11 until new art could be arranged. Paris was one of the earliest local acts to go major. He predates the concept of "alternative" rap when he began, you could be a militant rapper like Chuck D and still get signed. After two years of mind-numbing flag-waving in this country, Paris had the audacity to release an album whose cover depicted a plane about to fly into the White House, and whose lyrics excoriated the Bush administration, accusing it of complicity with the 9/11 attacks. It was a bold action in an otherwise spineless cultural moment.
Meanwhile, the Bay was reloading. Special mention must go to Mac Dre, who, with the Delinquents and a few others, held the scene together in its lean years. Dre went to jail for four years beginning in 1992. When he emerged in 1996, major label opportunities were drying up, but he refused to let it stop him. From 1998 to 2004, he released 11 solo albums on his Thizz Entertainment label, not to mention innumerable compilations and side-projects.