Nothing like it

Pub date December 16, 2009
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

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. At a time when almost no records were selling locally, Dre was moving between 30,000 and 60,000 units. In an increasingly homogenized MC environment, Dre’s distinctive personality shone through, manifesting itself in a series of humorous characters on Thizz: Thizzelle Washington (2003), Ronald Dregan (2004), and The Genie of the Lamp (2004).

During the ensuing hyphy movement (circa 2005-07), debates ensued over who was responsible for the new music. Dre was a huge influence on hyphy’s colorful, comic aesthetics, but he was murdered before he could reap the rewards of his efforts. Producer Rick Rock, one of the Bay’s few national hitmakers, landed a deal with Virgin for the Federation, breaking them onto the radio with the hit "Hyphy" in 2003. Former 3X Krazy-member Keak da Sneak, however, was the man who brought this particular bit of Oakland slang to hip-hop, asserting his own claim with the Traxamillion-produced, local No. 1 "Super Hyphy" in 2005.

In between, newcomers the Team had a 2004 local radio hit, "It’s Gettin’ Hot," and inked a deal with a Universal imprint which ultimately fell through, while producers EA-Ski and CMT got their own protégés, Frontline, a deal with Ryko-imprint Penalty Records. Still in high school, E-40’s son Droop-E also contributed to the sound through radio singles like Mistah F.A.B.’s 2005 track "Super Sic Wid It."

Even this tiny amount of major interest and radio support resulted in heady times: "the drought," it seemed, was officially over. Yet after a couple of years of valuable if lukewarm support, KMEL again stopped playing local hip-hop, and the few major deals haven’t panned out. Clyde Carson from the Team was picked up by Capital, only to be dropped three years later without releasing an album. Mistah F.A.B., who continues to enhance his profile through collaborations with the likes of Snoop Dogg, remains subjected to Atlantic Records’ agonizing delays, which would have killed the career of anyone less determined.

After a couple years, the post-hyphy period of Bay rap took on a discernible personality. Though many complained hyphy was too oriented toward kids, that trend has continued to develop. The new crop of Bay Area acts — including J. Stalin, Shady Nate, Beeda Weeda, D-Lo, Stevie Joe — identify with their high school-age fans, whereas previous generations rapped as adults, even acts like Dre or the Mob Figaz who were still in high school when they began their careers. The generational shift might be considered in terms of the 1980s rise of crack, for whereas Dre, the Jacka, and others dealt crack as teenagers, the current crop was born at this time.

J. Stalin, for example, literally is a crack baby, and all these younger MCs grew up with crack as an established fact of life. The new vibe might be labeled "crack baby music," for this fact is explicitly if inarticulately present as a subject or theme. The anger of this generation manifests in the extreme violence of its lyrics, and the gangsta social consciousness of 2pac’s time is extremely attenuated, though not entirely gone. Its appeal to ghetto youth growing up in this appalling post-9/11 era is perfectly comprehensible. Yet despite its darkness, the current music also illustrates the resilience of this regional culture even in the face of indifference and neglect. In terms of the overall American rap world, there’s nothing quite like the Bay.