Ever since Oakland rapper Too Short slanged cassette albums like Players out of his car trunk in the early 1980s, the San Francisco Bay Area rap scene has been a source of curiosity and fascination. Centered on the city of San Francisco, East Bay cities like Oakland, Berkeley and Vallejo, and Peninsula cities like East Palo Alto, it is truly unlike any other. While other underground scenes in the South and the East Coast focus on mixtapes, the “Yay Area” (somewhat-fancifully nicknamed for the hustlers who slang coke or “yay yo”) produces hundreds of full-length albums a year from well-known to obscure artists that employ cryptic yet imaginative local slang. Vallejo artist E-40, perhaps the best known Bay Area rapper next to Too Short and 2Pac (who moved to Los Angeles before his 1996 death), even put out a dictionary of “slanguage,” and his coinage of terms like “D-boy” and “Captain Save a Hoe” have been adopted into the hip-hop lexicon.
Bay Area rap dates back to the 1980s, but its most crucial development took place during the 1990s. This was the golden age of West Coast hip-hop when G-funk pioneers like L.A.’s Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube and Coolio enjoyed a near-monopoly on the rap music charts. In the Bay, producers like Ant Banks, Studio Ton, Mike Mosley, E-A-Ski and Tone Capone developed what became known as mobb music. It was a slight derivation of G-funk’s emphasis on “funky worm” keyboard melodies and Zapp-like trunk-rattling bass, yet the bass seemed deeper, and the funk arrangements were less dependent on P-Funk samples and interpolations. Since most Bay Area artists like JT The Bigga Figga (“Game Recognize Game”) and RBL Posse (“Don’t Give Me No Bammer”) recorded for independent labels like In-A-Minute, Sick Wid’ It and C-Note, they created a hardcore sound rawer than L.A.’s slick, major label-funded gangsta rap.
The mobb music era roughly breaks down into three overlapping periods: the N.W.A.-like sampling of the early 1990s and hits like Too Short’s “Money in the Ghetto,” an Ant Banks production that culled from Kool & the Gang’s “Hollywood Swinging”; the sluggishly monolithic trunk bass of Luniz and Tone Capone’s “I Got Five On It”; and the bouncy, wholly original funk of 3 X Krazy’s “Keep It On The Real.” The latter development, which picked up in the late 90s, came from a wave of area artists briefly signing to major labels; and was a response to “jiggy era” hits like Diddy’s No Way Out and its resulting influx of mainstream rap fans. This set the stage for the Bay Area hyphy movement of the 2000s.
Much like the Los Angeles scene that was permanently damaged by the East Coast-West Coast rivalry between Dr. Dre’s Death Row label and Diddy’s Bad Boy Records, Bay Area rap isn’t as popular as it once was. But the players who emerged during the mobb music era continue to thrive as regional stars. In the Bay, independent hustle is a must, and it’ll continue to pump out dope music for the streets whether the pop market pays attention or not.
E-40, In A Major Way
E-40 greatly improved on his early Sick Wid’ It releases with In a Major Way. The beats from Studio Ton and Mike Mosely sound louder and bang harder, and E-40 wrote some of his best songs, including the poignant “1 Luv,” where he raps in the voice of a convict who sends him a letter; and “Sprinkle Me,” a hit collaboration with his sister Suga T. He busts shots on “Dusted ‘N Disgusted” with Mac Mall, 2Pac and Spice 1, but as usual the emphasis is on his dizzyingly imaginative slang and satirical hood stories, not violent gangster rap.
Spice 1, 187 He Wrote
It’s depressing that Spice 1’s overwhelmingly violent 187 He Wrote isn’t even the bloodiest example of 90s gangsta rap, but a harsh reflection of the era. One of the better rappers to emerge from the Bay Area, Spice 1 runs through “Trigga’s Got No Heart” and “Smoke ‘Em like a Blunt” with a style that mixes ragamuffin inflections with double-time flows. Meanwhile producers like Too Short (the famed Oakland rapper in a mentor/beat-making role), E-A-Ski, and Ant Banks accompany him with mordant, bass-driven funk. There’s no morality here, just “reality rap” pumped up to an extreme.
Dru Down, Explicit Game
Dru Down’s 1994 hit includes the seminal “Pimp of the Year,” which still gets played throughout Bay Area. The rest of the first half is rough — Explicit Game seems designed as a C-Note Records’ showcase, and the Luniz (who hit the next year with “I Got Five On It”) appear on several tracks telling stories more amusing to them than us. However, the second half soars with standout tracks like “No One Loves You” and “Ain’t Stoppin’,” funk beats from Ant Banks and Tone Capone, and Dru Down’s indelible, Bootsy Collins-influenced voice and game-droppin’ raps.
RBL Posse, Ruthless By Law
RBL Posse’s second album didn’t have a national hit like their debut’s “Don’t Give Me No Bammer,” but it was arguably more intense. The heavy, rippling woofer bass and ominous “funky worm” melodies underline “Bluebird” and “I Got My Nine.” Mr. Cee and Black C’s simplistic lyrics rarely vary beyond smoking weed, slanging rock, and basking in the afterglow of local success, but the menace they communicate is irresistible. The success of Ruthless by Law helped RBL Posse land a major label deal, but their momentum effectively ended when Mr. Cee was murdered in 1996.
Celly Cel, Heat 4 Yo Azz
Released on E-40’s Sick Wid’ It label, Celly Cel’s debut opens with one of the all-time mobb music classics, a hard-funkin’ maelstrom of bass wallops and gat-clap threats. Unfortunately, Heat 4 Yo Azz doesn’t advance beyond its impressive title track. Producer Studio Ton’s whimsical funk worked wonders for E-40 (who appears on “How to Catch a B*tch” and “Retaliation”), but it’s the wrong formula for Celly Cel’s gangbanging rhymes. One exception is “What Am I Supposed to Do,” where Mike Mosley and Sam Bostic (as Mob Boss Productions) help the Oaktown rapper break down the D-boy lifestyle.
San Quinn, The Hustle Continues
The Hustle Continues is one of the Bay Area mobb music scene’s underrated gems. San Quinn may nominally be a street rapper, but he spends more time breaking down his life in thoughtful and introspective terms than touting his gangsta credentials. He openly hungers for the success he never quite achieved on “Now or Neva” and “Hitz I’m Makin’,” and rues his crack-dealing origins on “No Glory,” all over beats from mentor JT The Bigga Figga. And if you thought E-40 was the only 90s Yay Area rapper who could spit, then hear San Quinn rock hard on the crackling “Shock the Party.”
Dre Dog, The New Jim Jones
Before he was one of the Bay’s most beloved independent artists, Andre Nickatina was known as Dre Dog, and he was a bit of a wild card. On his satanic 1993 debut, The New Jim Jones, he calls himself “the devil’s son” on “Most Hated Man of Frisco,” busts a furious “hophead” freestyle on “Off That Chewy,” and brags about doing coke on “The Ave” over an instrumental of Mtume’s “Juicy” (and uses the Isley Brothers’ “Between the Sheets” for “Lips,” too…all before the Notorious B.I.G. used those samples). “Selling dope is our only job/ Dank and drank is our only god,” he says on “Alcatraz.”
Various Artists, Trying to Survive in the Ghetto
Trying to Survive in the Ghetto was assembled by Herm Lewis, an activist from S.F.’s Hunters Point neighborhood known for his “stop the violence” benedictions on local rap albums. Far from censorious, Herm created a platform for young gangsta rappers to hone their craft, and a few such as RBL Posse (“I Got My 9mm”), Rappin’ 4 Tay (“Call It What You Want”) and Andre Nickatina (“I Smell Jealousy” with his I.M.P. crew) became significant regional artists. Though not as strong as other releases from the era, Trying to Survive in the Ghetto is a crucial document of 90s Bay Area rap.
- Luniz, Operation Stackola
- Rappin’ 4-Tay, Don’t Fight the Feelin’
- The Click, Down and Dirty
- JT The Bigga Figga, Playaz N The Game
- Mac Mall, Illegal Business?
- Ant Banks, Big Thangs
- Andre Nickatina, Raven – Cocaine Raps, Vol. 1
- Cold World Hustlers, Cold Streets
- 11/5, Fiendin’ 4 Tha Funk
- Mac Dre, Stupid Doo Doo Dumb
- 3 X Krazy, Stackin’ Chips
- Too Short, Get In Where You Fit In
- Totally Insane, Direct from the Blackstreet
- Too Short, “Money in the Ghetto”
- RBL Posse, “Bammer Weed”
- Dre Dog, “Most Hated Man in Frisco”
- Luniz, “I Got 5 On It”
- E-40, “1-Luv”
- E-40, “Dusted N Disgusted”
- Rappin’ 4-Tay, “Playaz Club”
- Spice 1, “Trigga Gots No Heart”
- Dru Down, “Pimp of the Year”
- Dru Down, “No One Loves You”
- The Click, “Let’s Get Drunk”
- RBL Posse, “Blue Bird”
- Celly Cel, “Heat 4 Yo Azz”
- JT The Bigga Figga, “Game Recognize Game”
- Celly Cel, “What Am I Supposed to Do”
- San Quinn, “Shock the Party”
- IMP, “I Smell Jealousy”
- 3 X Krazy, “Keep It On the Real”
- 11/5, “Garcia Vegas”
- Mac Dre, “Stupid Doo Doo Dumb”
(Rhapsody – February 6, 2012)