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.
Last Sunday night, Kendrick Lamar briefly crashed the Internet by issuing To Pimp a Butterfly a week early on iTunes and multiple streaming services. His Top Dawg Entertainment management protested loudly at Interscope “fucking up” the release. But since the well-timed leak merrily coincided with a Rolling Stone cover story, one can safely assume that the world heard Kendrick’s third album (fourth if you count his Overly Dedicated mixtape) as planned.
Days later, it’s clear that Kendrick’s newest Great American Hip-Hop Novel resists quick absorption. To Pimp a Butterfly has been celebrated as a meditation on blackness as pigmentation and mind state (see Clover Hope’s Jezebel.com essay “The Overwhelming Blackness of Kendrick Lamar’s Butterfly”), and noted as a parable of celebrity sin and spiritual renewal (a la Joe Coscarelli’s New York Times profile “Kendrick Lamar on His New Album and the Weight of Clarity”). It has been dissected into helpful track-by-track guides, and sample guides, virtual Cliff Notes for an album in which Kendrick’s performance is as crucial as the themes he conveys.