E-40: The Thrasher Interview
WHETHER IT BE by Uncle Earl, E-40 Fonzarelli from the Bay, Forty Water, Ambassador or any of his other many titles, however you choose to address him it best leave the tip of your tongue with the utmost respect. E-40 is an internationally recognized rap legend born and bred in the SF Bay Area—Vallejo to be exact. Since the ’80s, this larger-than-life character has been changing rap and beyond with a career that supersedes music. He’s built a liquor empire, has a face synonymous with the mighty Golden State Warriors, founded a predominant independent record label, Sik Wid’ It, owns a lumpia truck and has pretty much coined his own language. I first met E-40 backstage at a Rhyme Sayers festival in Minneapolis of all places where he gave me his phone to take a picture of him and his longtime friend Kool Keith. Watching him wiggle effortlessly back there was like being in the presence of a king. However, finding time to chat with such a legend wasn’t easy—as you can imagine he’s quite busy. If it wasn’t for a random late-night text where I shot my shot and told him, “Closed mouths don’t get fed,” the following gems might have never been dropped on us. He said it was an honor to have words with Thrasher. Soak game… —Traci Putkey
You started out in a group called M.V.P. and then later formed The Click. What was the motivation behind the transition from the M.V.P. to the Click and bringing on the only differentiating member Suga T to the group?
That young lady just so happened to be my biological sister—same mama, same daddy! She’s a Stevens, I’m a Stevens, my brother D-Shot—you got Shaniko Stevens, Earl Stevens, Danell Stevens and Brandt Jones (B-Legit). The other member was just one of our cousins. He was just always around us so we put him in. He didn’t even rap or nothin’. We changed our name a year later and were like, We’re way harder than this. We need to spit what we know instead of coming out the gate commercial, so we was just starting to spit what we know and we knew a lot about our culture and about the urban community and beyond that. We let our feelings out through music on the microphone and painted pictures with our lyrics.
You’re known by your peers and fans as Uncle Earl and looked up to as a leader. Do you feel that about yourself?
I think so. I’ve always been ahead of my time. The youngsters, I embrace them as well. I do feel I’m a teacher and leader and I always tell people, “Don’t be a follower, be a leader and if you’re going to be a follower, follow the right leader!” Ain’t nothing wrong with being a follower—just follow the right leader. With me, I always felt like, each one teach one. I got a thang, you know—when I’m speaking to a youngster or someone my age or close to it or whatever, if I’m telling ’em something and they do something opposite from what I tell ’em they really need to be doing, I say “The more I teach you, the dumber I get!” You know?! Ha!
Would you agree with the statement, “Forever a student”?
Forever a student! I will be forever a teacher, but I’m also a student to someone else. There’s always someone out there that got more wisdom as you—I listen to older people. You learn something new every day. Especially nowadays, you know, you gotta change with the times so the times don’t change on you. Stay in the loop like a hoola hoop. Stay in the mix like Bisquick.
Everyone refers to you as Uncle Earl. Some people just have that big uncle energy. Who do you yourself look up to in that same light as uncle? Do you have a mentor?
Well, not a lot out there because, well, I’m older. I came in the game in the ’80s but I’d have to say,my mom. She raised three boys, one girl. When my momma and my daddy separated I was eight years old and moved from one side of the town to the other and I hadn’t ever been to that other side of town
Say it so everyone knows what side of town you talking about
Hillside—went from the country club crest to the Hillside. So, she used to always tell us, “Get out there; be boys; be man.” She let us experience the world. She gave us our freedom. She let us go out there and experience the world while she worked two-three jobs. She worked her butt off. She’d play old-school music and that meant a lot—The O’Jays, Isley Brothers, Earth, Wind & Fire. So me, being a student to the game, I put my ear to it and soaked it up! She would always keep me motivated and tell me, “Whatever you do, keep rapping fast! Don’t give up your craft. Keep the faith. Give back to the church. You supposed to help people as much as you can without hurting yourself.” It all came back, and it was the truth. And I do thank her for discipline. That’s why so many people is out of control nowadays. Also my uncle St. Charles who’s responsible for helping Sik Wid’ It records, No Limit Records, a lot of the independent labels. I looked up to him and I still do. He taught me how to be a man. “This how you do,” he’d say. You go get a bank account, a fictitious business, DBA, invoicing, PPOs—taught me to be a business man and a man in general.
It certainly resonates in how you give back to and influence young rappers. How do you feel about the younger generation?
There’s no lid on categories of hip-hop. Back in our day, the majority of hip-hop was super urban, more super soil—more gangster, ya feel me? Now you can be from the suburbs and be you and talk about suburb shit and still win—you understand what I’m saying? You can be from the ghetto, the inner city, the trenches, the slums, the soil and spit that soil shit without having major radio or crossover success. Hip-hop is everywhere—it’s worldwide. This is what I always tell people—wherever you at, support the local rapper. All it will do is help bring more focus and attention to that particular city and region. More talent will be discovered and all that gonna do is feed more families, more people from your neighborhood. It’s gonna be a ripple effect. Hip-hop is the longest lasting form of music that I know. It’s not going anywhere.
So this last album Practice Makes Paper was your 22nd?
No—my 28th! My 28th official solo-bolo album! About this being my 28th album, I just want to make a statement—I’ve never ever in my life done a mixtape. Now, I wanna tell you this, not saying that there’s anything wrong with it—I’m from an era where it’s different. I’ve just always done official albums. I keep my ear to hip-hop and people ain’t even calling it mixtapes anymore. Slowly but surely mixtapes will fade out—because they really just albums. But long story short, this was my 28th official studio album.
What was it like going into this album?
I came into this album going, You know what? I’ma school these cats. I’ma game ’em up. I’ma talk about things they ain’t never heard any rapper talk about. I’ma say words that they never heard a rapper say. I’ma make ’em look back at this album and say, “Man, that boy was way ahead of his time.” That’s the mentality—make an album that was going to move people emotionally and physically, you feel me?
Photo: Doctor Graphics
Were you directing this towards your peers and fellow rappers, or your current audience?
I was thinking outside of my regular fan base. Worldwide with it. I was thinking, My fans and everyone else is going to love this. Which I’m honestly seeing. Those results are positive. The feedback I got from people was this was some of my best work in many years—a classic albums, going to go down as one of the best I ever did and I feel the same way. It’s timeless music; it’s not dated. ’Cause you know, when everyone else wants to go right, I go left—I never wanted to be like everybody else.
Thank God for That!
Yes! Thank God.
Do you have a personal favorite track?
One that really inspires me is “Bet You Didn’t Know.” I played it for my mama on my little iPhone and she was like, “Ohhh? Huhhh? I didn’t even know that!”
I love the last track dedicated to your wife.
I was going to get to that and thank you. That’s another track that I love because it’s all 100-percent real. It was wrote especially for her. I’m a grown-ass man. I don’t hide the fact that I’ve been married since 1991 and been with my wife since 1985. Maybe this will inspire other rappers that are married and I also want to inspire the youth to do what they grandparents did. To be married and have a healthy relationship, have kids and raise your kids like our ancestors did and become men. If it wasn’t for her I’d be out there running the streets, out there wild, fucked up. She’s my rib from the beginning before even me or her knew what I was going to be. I always was soil famous, you feel what I’m sayin’? I’ve always been hood rich—but there’s ups and downs because that’s how life goes. And as I got into the rap game things and matured, she had my back. She was with me when I was Earl. Shout to my boy Disco boogie. He produced it and he choose a particular sound on a baseline that normally don’t anyone choose so with a hard-ass baseline, a good subject and soulful singing, we couldn’t lose.
What took so long to make the alcohol line?!
I started off selling wine online in 2014 so we going on six years. It all happened naturally. I’ve always been one to talk about liquor and make up names like Gorilla Milk, Slurricane—all that. Actually, it was the perfect timing. Had I put out alcohol in the ’90s it would have taken millions to do my marketing and advertisement.
Was it a thought back then?
We talked about it but I never thought it would happen. When we did “Slurricane” we def would have wanted it to be something, just thought it was too far fetched. I didn’t have the resources. You sit back, observe the game, do your research—one thing leads to the other. I started off selling wine, then pre-mixed cocktail drink Slurricane Hurricane, different varietals of the wine. Now I got tequila. Also coming soon bourbon, cognac, vodka and gin. I’m gonna be the liquor store!
Is or has ever the Earl Stevens collection been under the Carlos Rossi umbrella?
Oh no—that’s Gallo. Carlos Rossi is owned by Gallo so Gallo inspired me because I used to always talk about Carlos Rossi. My mom used to always drink it and relax and I used to sneak it so I became a fan of wine because of Carlos Rossi. None of my brands are owned by anybody. It’s 100-percent Earl Stevens.
How often are you drinking your own products?
Every day! And I’m not talking about all of them—what I do drink 90-percent of the time is my Functional Red Blend. I’m a red-wine guy. All of my products are A plus.
I’ve got to be honest Earl, nothing good has come to me after a night of drinking Slurricane! It always ends in wild debauchery. Any crazy Slurricane stories you can share?
It’s only 20-percent alchohol and 40 proof which isn’t bad. Nowadays, especially with adults, there’s stuff that’s way more potent than an alcohol that’s 20-percent and 40 proof, if you get my drift. So there don’t be too many wild ones unless you add your own rum to it.
That’s what I did.
Oh yeah, you get toasted like that!
Tell me Unc, do you smoke weed?
Aw, I been smoking weed since I was a teenager but I prefer to drink.
Let’s pair some of your drinks with weed and/or food.
Yellow Slurricane: OG Kush plus lumpia. Functional red blend: chicken marsala and—I won’t say CBD, because the red relaxes you. I’ll just tell you, I’m real traditional. I’ll just stick to the script and say OG Kush. It go with everything. El Cuarento: taco Tuesday. Mexican food, mane!
Have you ever been talking to someone on the phone that you didn’t know and they recognized your voice?
Oh, all the time! When I answer the phone I always use a different voice. I know how to use different voices which I can’t put on display right now.
What do you think the three most game-changing Bay Area songs are?
“Tell me When To Go,” Too Short’s “Blow the Whistle,” and Luniz’ “I got 5 On It.” Timeless.
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