Small circular spectacles rest at the tip of his nose, slanted downward, barely hanging on. His shirt is emblazoned with the words “Eat Lumpia” in the Run-DMC font. On local news during the holidays, you’ll see him hoodied up, sunglasses on, handing out backpacks at elementary schools. As a career artist going on 30 years, Earl Stevens is beloved by different generations with unique entry points to his vast career. His peer group is small. West Coast giants — Snoop, Too $hort, Cube, Dre and Ice-T — all qualify with equally historic and remarkable ascents. Stevens rose in the ’80s, but it felt like he had already reached idol status by the late ’90s. His lifestyle and videos were noticeably more lavish. In the video for “Rappers’ Ball,” the esteemed single off of E-40’s 1996 third solo full-length album, Tha Hall of Game, he’s playing pool with 2Pac and Ice-T. On it, 40 cites early era mixed martial arts in his rhymes, a low percentage reference that — years later — reveals his status, even back then. “Front row seats at the Ultimate Fights, Shamrock and Severn. Long expensive flights, up there in the heavens,” he boasts.
In the years since, Stevens has made inroads as a cultural figure, a “King of Slang” whose constant relevance has never felt forced, a conduit between different lexicons, an elder magnate now in the wine and spirits business. His line of tequila, naturally called E.Cuarenta, is hugely popular. As is his assorted line of Sluricane, a popular bottled concoction that draws its name from 1995’s classic single, “Hurricane,” where 40 shines as both narrator and comedian.
Real estate, nightclubs, cannabis, apps like Clubhouse, investments galore — 40 the business has been in overdrive almost as long as 40 the rapper. The two are connected, if not inseparable, an ethos that boils down to determinism. He’s now a familiar presence that looms large at Giants and Warriors games, as big a local sports fan as he is a local celebrity. When asked during an interview for Vibe in 2019 how he was able to take what he learned from local rap and apply it to other fields, the answer was vintage 40, bereft of clarity but we get the point: “It’s all gravity mayne. Since a young mustache I’ve been like this.”
In the earliest of interviews found in grainy YouTube black holes, you’ll find a young, taut-skinned Stevens drawing hard lines between himself and E-40 — the artist versus the CEO versus the brand. Even then, he spoke of himself in third person while forecasting the future of Sick Wid It Records, the label he founded in 1989, a family-run operation since its inception. Members of his group The Click are all blood-related and would also serve as longtime business partners and executives, the nucleus to Stevens’ manifold branches of business. In fact, 40’s first recorded appearance was 1989’s All The King’s Men as part of M.V.P., a group with his cousins B-Legit and D-Shot, and his sister, Suga T. M.V.P. pre-dates The Click era by a few years, but laid the groundwork for future releases. “The group that I’m with? The Click. Suga, D-Shot, Legit. Family-orientated, game-related. It’s the shit,” Earl raps on “Sprinkle Me.”
Soul legend Sly Stone also spearheaded a movement, pushing funk forward by adding rock, gospel and psych elements. Stone not only also had roots in The Bay, but his rise came with the aid of blood relatives, too. The Family Stone was a glowing troupe that started in their teens as well. Sly’s sister, Rose Stone, was an exuberant musician in her own right, with multitudes that went into the music, perhaps quietly — not unlike Suga T, Stevens’ sister, who on many accounts gravitated toward management and the production side as well. Sly worked with his brothers while Stevens worked with his cousins.
The Click, like the Family Stone, were emotional and musical anchors behind the scenes. Both also took to music early, and both families were devout and orbited their local church. Both groups rose to quick fame. Stevens, like Sly, was the standout, the family’s star that had no other choice but to be the bandleader. Coincidentally, Sly and his family also lived in Vallejo, moving there during the early ’50s when his parents relocated from Dallas. He was the youngest of four kids and attended Vallejo High School.
The Bay Area in the mid ’80s was a split-screen reality. The Macintosh computer was being invented in proto-Silicon Valley while the Stevens kids were in school bands in Vallejo (Earl played the drums). By the mid ’90s, he was rhyming “Floyd Terrace” with “esopha-garus,” torrents of epithets and unbound slang running amok in his rhymes. Of his many nom de plumes (40 Belafonte, E-Pheezy, Forty Water and more), Charlie Hustle works best as the most accurate descriptor. What has come to pass in the last decades has been the making of a mogul, enterprises were the prizes. All these business strides, however, never came at the cost of musical output. His rate of release is as unyielding as it’s varied — double albums, sequels, collabs, even trilogies in staggering artistic spurts. 2012 alone memorably saw five projects total — three solo albums and two more collabs with Too $heezy. Three solo releases in 2013 and two in 2014. A 2018 joint-album with B-Legit and other releases in between to boot. If all that sounds like a mouthful, it’s because it is. In the following years, he’d emerge with even more work with Too $hort.
“I knew him and his folks B.R. You know what that means?” asked E-40 during that 2019 interview, when I brought up Too $hort. “It means ‘Before Rap.’ We had mutual friends, but we never kicked it. I knew him before all this rap shit started for me. I used to go to every Too $hort show I could. I don’t look up to too many, but I looked up to him,” said Stevens.
It would only then make sense that Too $hort and 40 were tag-team champs on “Rappers’ Ball.” $hort’s career is, in many ways, akin to Stevens’: a self-made trailblazer deeply ingrained in The Bay by the mid ’90s. Empires built from cassette tapes and swelling self-confidence. “Rappers’ Ball” was the only proper manifestation, and $hort the only counterpart of equal caliber to combine powers with. Tha Hall of Game, with all of its bright moments, kick-started Stevens’ legacy — a showpiece enshrined in a sterling catalog. The excellent, under-heralded producer, Ant Banks, who’s had a long history with Stevens, produced the classic single. With a résumé that includes Boots Riley and Spice 1, he’d later deepen his credits with a who’s who of West Coast luminaries, Rappin’ 4-Tay, Snoop Dogg and more.
On “Rappers’ Ball,” K-Ci (Jodeci) perfectly over-delivers the hook, dramatic and celebratory. Pac’s dancing in the background in a silky two-piece robe, cigar in his mouth. Earl and $hort are seen slapping hands. Despite being the B-side to the lead single, “Things’ll Never Change,” “Rappers’ Ball” went on to peak at No. 4 on the Billboard Rap charts in 1996. It stands not only as one of 40’s biggest hits, but also an enviable moment from the West, for once grabbing a spotlight that had traditionally fixated eastward.
1996 was the year Jay-Z made all MCs reasonably doubt themselves. Fugees settled the score and Puff’s shiny suit was looming, about to engulf the masses in hyper-stimulated videos and Ma$e verses. In a year of genre-defining work, stunning debuts and experimentation, Tha Hall of Game offered a certain familiarity, heard in Stevens’ previous two efforts, 1993’s Federal and 1995’s In A Major Way.
Tha Hall of Game succeeds because it expounded on wild deliveries and bombast heard on those prior releases. The production and sound quality was simply cleaner. And humor, one of Stevens’ gifts, remains fully intact. We also find more introspection, like on “Things’ll Never Change,” where he says: “Did you forget that I was your creation? And all I wanted from you all was love, hope and motivation?” The track is a corollary to 2Pac’s “Changes,” a posthumous song released years later in 1998, both of them interpolating “The Way It Is” by Bruce Hornsby and the Range. Earl never even knew Pac recorded the song until he heard it after Pac’s death. “I heard it on the radio one day and it just made me feel like me and him were always connected,” said Earl in that 2019 interview. “We never even talked about the song when he was alive.”
2Pac makes his Hall of Game entrance with “Million Dollar Spot,” where he says: “They got me crossed tryin’ to be the boss, no one can stop us. Niggas dream of six figures, handle our business in choppers.” Pac was a master of the emotively succinct bar. In between fluttering eyelashes and Colgate smiles, he could quickly get to the point. Stevens recalled the first time Pac came to Vallejo: “He hung out all day. He was in the soil. All my in-laws, all my cousins, everyone, he showed genuine love to. We was deep in apartment complexes, Lucky Supermarket and the local check-cashing place, and everyone was just taking pictures with him. I remember everyone becoming Pac’s security that day [laughs].”
Within The Bay, a place where rap had to work harder to be heard, East Coast bias was not only real, but was to the detriment of astounding music being made, dismissed as inauthentic by way of geography. 1996 Bay Area was a hotbed of activity, arguably the hottest in the entire West, depending on whom you ask. Tha Hall of Game offered tracks like “Ring It,” featuring future Oakland hit maker Keak da Sneak and “Circumstances,” featuring Luniz, both songs dripping with local culture. On “Ring It” says Stevens: “’Cause in the Y-E-A A-R-E-A the game ain’t constipated. Buckin’ around in the Golden State where the game originated.” Saafir, Hiero, Solesides, Paris, Spice 1, RBL Posse and The Coup are just a few on the shortlist of incredibly diverse rap that gestated in The Bay during the early ’90s.
Tha Hall of Game was the gaudy landing of a young mogul reflecting on his earned clout, alongside legends and soon-to-be icons, all simultaneously flexing. “Smebbin” bookends the project and, once again, finds an astute Stevens — deep in thought but always a little street — with an undercurrent of menace. In the song’s early moments, he goes: “Dabbed out, bust a pattern, leave ’em smoking. Just like Felix Mitchell and them used to do out there in Oakland.” Mitchell was a prominent Oakland drug lord, known widely as Felix the Cat, who was fatally stabbed in 1986 when he was 31. Huey P. Newton attended his funeral to mainstream criticism. Only a few years after his death, however, and to the chagrin of many, Mitchell’s criminal convictions were overturned on technicalities.
It’s never personal, just business. Unless, the business is personal. In the case of Earl Stevens, it’s both. Tha Hall of Game was another level up into the mainstream consciousness, ballooning his firebrand further in a locale where he was already king. Twenty-five years later, Tha Hall of Game comes off as a more revealing record, a mark of growth under a veneer of player anthems and boundless slang.
In 2005, something in the West was festering. Hyphy — a punchy, almost frenzied take on existing East Bay rap — had gripped local airwaves and a new generation alike, quickly expanding beyond The Bay. It was also a dance and, most excitingly, a young culture. While most of the country was deep into Late Registration and 50 Cent’s string of hits, Stevens, who’d been in the industry for decades by this point, smartly teamed with leaders of the sound, one of whom was Keak da Sneak. Keak da Sneak is not only fabled to have coined the term hyphy, but also originally appeared on Tha Hall of Game, giving a retrospective full-circle feel to the whole effort. The lead single from 40’s 2006 album, My Ghetto Report Card, “Tell Me When To Go,” was a juggernaut, a commercial hit anchored by Lil Jon’s production, released on a major once Stevens’ left Jive, propelling whips to be ghost ridden beyond California, and furthering hyphy into the mainstream.
As recently as 2014, Stevens made high-profile appearances that kept him musically relevant, notably on Big Sean’s chart topper, “I Don’t Fuck With You,” where 40 mindfully goes: “Got a blunt in my dental, blowin’ hemp in a rental, on my way to Sacramento.” Another cultural moment that occurred around the same era was when the single “Choices (Yup)” came along just as the Golden State Warriors were breaking records seemingly every night, shutting down the league with astounding efficiency. Steph Curry was famously name-checked by other rappers but the Warriors actually adopted “Choices” as an informal anthem — formalized when Earl made a remix with lyrics about the players called “Choices Remix (Warriors Version).” This version goes: “Ain’t no stoppin’ (Nope!) Klay Thompson? (Yup!) Under pressure, is he chokin’? (Nope!).” Perfectly uncomplex, like all good anthems are.
In our 2019 interview, Stevens was reflective about his charity work, his many businesses and a life stage he’s thriving in. His Instagram is filled with short recipe videos, which he endearingly calls “Goon With The Spoon.” His recipe for Scotch eggs looks really impressive. You realize all of it — the whirlwind of fame, history, business dealings — are all extensions of Earl himself, a constant for decades. He’s just older now and with more interests — it’d be boring otherwise. In many ways he’s still the leaner cat in those early interviews, making his own merch, Xeroxing show posters, and ironing images of him and his family onto T-shirts. Constant work mode has guided him for decades, but now there’s another calling, one that’s community focused.
“The thing is, you have to give back from the heart,” he said. “You have to do it right and not just for show. For instance, when I gave out backpacks to some school kids, it was on the news and all that, which is fine. But I wasn’t just handing out backpacks, I purposely chose JanSport because they have lifetime guarantees. So that if something happens, these kids can still help themselves and get another backpack.”
Stevens has always been the people’s champ, and only a man of the people can truly know what the people want. In 1996, Stevens jostled himself into rap immortality with Tha Hall of Game, which remains legendary — expertly calculated in every sense and impossible to ignore, a West Coast power move by Earl and the Stevens family. As Sly Stone once sang, “Blood’s thicker than the mud.”
David Ma is a veteran music journalist whose work appears in Wax Poetics, NPR, The Paris Review, Billboard, The Guardian and elsewhere. He also teaches a course on hip-hop studies at San Jose State University and maintains Nerdtorious.com, a repository and remnant from the blog era. He writes from The Bay.