Bay Area hip-hop legends E-40 and San Quinn return, older and wiser, but still goin' dumb
Longevity in rap is the exception, not the rule, but those exceptions are glorious: witness E-40, who dates his career from his 1988 self-released 12-inch as a member of MVP. After 11 years with Jive Records, 40 signed to Lil Jon's Warner Bros.-distributed BME for his 2006 Gold-certified album, My Ghetto Report Card. Now the 41-year-old Vallejo veteran has returned with The Ball Street Journal, which dropped Nov. 24, a Monday, to increase first week sales.
The same day, San Francisco independent SMC released From a Boy to a Man, the long-awaited seventh solo album by Fillmore legend San Quinn, who began recording in 1991 at age 14. "My competition was Kriss Kross," he told me in a phone interview several days earlier, neatly putting his endurance in perspective.
Though Quinn, now 31, released a handful of discs in his late teens on JT the Bigga Figga's then-Priority-distributed Get Low Records, his success has always depended on his loyal local fanbase. Fueled by his regional radio hit, "Hell Yeah," his last disc, The Rock (SMC, 2005), is his biggest seller yet, moving more than 20,000 copies.
Yet despite good independent numbers and 17 years in the game, the powerfully deep-voiced Quinn is still hungry. "I've yet to blow all the way up," he said. "I want to be known worldwide, and I'm still slowly climbing that mountain."
Quinn makes a good point: if your audience keeps expanding, you can't be said to have fallen off. A major label rapper like Yung Joc may have debuted with a triple-putf8um single "It's Goin Down" in 2006, but where is he now, let alone 17 years from now? The overinflated major label economy of scale means Joc could sell 200,000 and still be a failure, whereas Quinn's independent grinding has kept him viable with only a tenth of that figure. I somehow suspect Joc's artistic legacy won't compare with Quinn's in terms of length or depth, regardless of sales.
"Lotta these new dudes is ringtone rappers," E-40 remarks on BSJ's "Tell It Like It Is." After 15 years of major-label activity, 40 knows whereof he speaks. He pioneered the "rapper as independent label head" model with his Sick Wid It Records, forcing the industry to take notice when his 1993 EP, The Mailman (Sick Wid It), debuted at no. 13 on Billboard's R&B chart with no major-label distribution deal.
While signed to Jive, 40 frequently complained the imprint never gave him that superstar push. He knew he could be bigger, and in an era of shrinking album sales, the fact that the well-promoted Ghetto Report Card scored 40 his first Gold since 1998's The Element of Surprise (Sick Wid It/Jive) proved him right. (His 1995 Gold album for Jive, In a Major Way, went Putf8um in 2002, showing more artistic longevity than many an instant Putf8um disc.)
The push is not without its price, however. Don't get me wrong: BSJ, to me, is clearly the best major-label rap disc of the year. Like every such recording, it's too long and where Jive gave 40 free rein, the corporate hand of Warner Bros. is evident. For example, the Akon collection, "Wake It Up," is an admittedly catchy pop single though it sounds more like an Akon song showcasing 40. Similarly, the marquee power of Snoop Dogg can't disguise the fact that his verse on "Pain No More" sucks, which is a shame, since 40's verse rocks.
But overall, BSJ is a more distinctively E-40 disc than Ghetto, inasmuch as its tempo and feel varies more than the hyphy-fueled onslaught of its predecessor. (BSJ had 12 producers, where Ghetto had five.) "Earl," an atypical slice of moody mob music from Lil Jon, is the most classic-sounding E-40 track in years, while the more spiritual "Pray for Me," produced by longtime 40-collaborator Bosko, is a close second.
"It's got an old-school, 1989/1990-kinda feel," said 40 by phone a month ago. "But I mixed it all up for the new generation." The new generation, to be sure, is much in evidence: in the strong contributions from 40's producer/son Droop-E and rapper/protégé Turf Talk, especially the hyphied-out mob banger "Got Rich Twice." Rick Rock's three spacious, sample-laden beats are, as usual, way ahead of their time. The rapper's collaboration with Too $hort, "Sliding Down the Pole," might sound like old times, but the whistling Willy Will beat is as fresh a post-hyphy groove as anything on BSJ.
Where BSJ is like a big-budget cinematic thriller, Quinn's From a Boy is more like an autobiographical novel, with an emphasis on storytelling and a socially responsible undercurrent.
"If you want to know how a young black man feels in San Francisco, you can tap into this record," said Quinn. Yet his disc belies this everyman characterization. It's saturated with Quinn's personal history, from his mother's struggles as a single parent on the title track, to his relationship with his sibling, Fillmore rapper Bailey, on "My Brother," to his advice to his 11-year-old son, Lil' Quinn, who raps alongside his dad on "Billionaire." "Billionaire" displays a very different conception of the uses of wealth than most street rap: "College education for your children," Quinn raps. "That's what we call livin'."
The extraordinary thing about From a Boy is how Quinn holds its various themes together, sounding neither preachy nor hypocritical. While nominally a gangsta rapper, Quinn is much more a "kill you if you fuck with me" than a "kill you because I enjoy it" MC. His crack-dealing persona is there as on the infectious single "Rockin' Up Work" but the overwhelming impression the full-length leaves is cautionary. Opening with actual KTVU sound clips about a deadly Fillmore shooting, "They're All Waitin' on Me" reminds me of Paris in its depiction of the urban war zone and is much more typical of the album's vibe.
Quinn admits he's not the best beat-picker, and given how incendiary the Traxamillion-produced bonus track, "Do Ya Thizzle," is, I wish there were a couple of more A-list collaborations. Quinn's protégé, Filipino producer Dexbeats, is a great find, and the songs are so well-written, they render such second-guessing moot.
All told, both 40 and Quinn have reaffirmed their OG status in Bay Area rap. It'll be interesting to see whether BSJ will equal the success of 40's first Warner Bros. disc and whether the increasingly national visibility of SMC will get Quinn any extra regional play.