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Singled Out: E-40's 'Function'

Courtesy of the artist

E-40 has been defying conventional wisdom since 1988, and he shows no signs of slowing down. The Bay Area rapper and businessman released three albums this week, called The Block Brochure: Welcome to the Soil 1, 2 and 3. His contract with major label Warner Bros. ended in 2008, and since then he's put out seven albums — two in 2010 and 2011 and now these three — always at the end of March. "I've been going crazy," he says.

The Northern California hip-hop community E-40 calls home has long been overwhelmingly creative, particularly when it comes to language and vocal experimentation. But more than anyone else, by building on the innovations of local legend Mac Dre and constantly nurturing young talent, the 44-year-old named Earl Stevens has developed a tone and style of music all his own — dank, slaphappy bangers with hearts of gold — while inventing and popularizing slang that spreads all over the world.

I spoke to E-40 at our offices in New York, where he described the budgetary implications of putting out so much music at one time and the difference between doing work and loving your occupation. The satisfaction he gets out of thumbing his nose at formal grammar — so plain on his records — was not dimmed by conversation.

I asked him to talk about one of the songs he put out this week, and he picked "Function," which was produced by The League of Starz. The bass bottoms out so loose and fat it blurs your vision, gives windshields the shivers. The tempo is nonchalant. E-40's articulation is as loose-limbed and delicately controlled as Charlie Chaplin falling down the stairs. His guests on the track snake their verses around the flabby low end and waft them through the hot snare and the shouted stabs. Iamsu in particular, faced with following the veteran, came to play.

"I was put on this earth for a purpose," E-40 told me. "[God] made me to be different. He made me to be an innovator, a motivator. Music is very therapeutic and healing, and I hit it from all angles. I love gospel music, I love gangsta music. I love speaking the real about life. Period."

Language Advisory: This song contains lyrics that some listeners may find offensive.

Why does "Function" sound the way it does?

The sound is right in the mix with Drake's "Motto." With Tyga's "Rack City." That's what the DJs mix it with — the Travis Porter. As far as the tempo. The tempo of "Function" mixes in for the DJs right there with the Drake song and "Rack City." It's Bay-influenced, that whole sound. I helped shape and mold that sound, and so this is the perfect time for me to go ahead to continue to do what I've been doing.

I've been in the game a long time. I've done all sorts of different types of music. From mob music to the G-Funk era. When the South really started taking over in '96, '97. I've seen it all, and I've participated in everything. And it's genuinely me. Turn with the times or the times gone turn on you. Stay within your envelope; don't go out your jurisdiction. I've been known for doing club bangers. From "Tell Me When to Go" to "Go Hard or Go Home," "My S--- Bang." The grit don't quit with me.

"Function" is one of those ones. We in the function, you know, the shindig, where it's active at. The club, the party. It's the place to be. It's the gathering.

A lot of people like to put out mixtapes; I refuse. I've never put out a mixtape in my life.

It's a double-edged word. We just out here trying to function, far as functioning on getting money. Talking about getting money, concentrating on your next idea — what's gonna make you a meal, what's gonna make you a million. Function music is also music you can work out to. When you go to the gym, that's one of those ones.

This song is for the youngsters and the OGs. It's for mommas, it's for daddies, it's for kids. You ain't even got to be in the club. You just hear it. You could be playing dominoes with the family or whatever. It's for everybody because we're all out here trying to function.

So when did you write "Function"?

Six months ago. When you a rapper you gotta be a professional beatpicker, and you gotta be like a lightweight A&R. And that's me. I'm in there, with the producers making these beats with 'em. Telling them what I want. "Keep that sound in there, let's do this, do that drum pattern, let's make it like that. Stop it right there. OK, put this to it. This need more of this." That's me. I'm right there with them the majority of the time. With "Function," that's the sound that I've been doing for a long time.

Why release three albums this week, instead of just one?

I'm a real businessman. Give my fanbase what they want — and that's all different eras of rap. So I've got songs on there that sound like it's fresh from 1992. Because I got listeners out there still that want to hear that kind of stuff. Then I got a fanbase out here that want to hear nothing but function music. I've got songs that'll make a gangster cry. That heartfelt song. People that go through it. I just speak for the people — I'm a narrator.

A lot of people like to put out mixtapes; I refuse. I've never put out a mixtape in my life. It works for some people, some people it don't. It's a Catch-23 a lot of times, it's not a Catch-22. It's a Catch-23 when you've got one of those situations where the fanbase that you're building gets too used to downloading your music for free. When you're just sending 'em out, you're doing four or five mixtapes a year. They like, "Oh, man, why would I buy his new album — why would I buy it – when I've got all his other ones for free?"

With that being said, you also take the risk of them calling your real album wack. When you're doing these mixtapes, you're carefree. You don't have to clear samples and do the business part of it and all that. You don't have the major label in your ear telling you, "Man, you need the crossover record." You can get caught up in putting out a crossover record that your fanbase really don't approve of.

With me being an independent pioneer — selling tapes out the trunk of my car all the way from 1988 to 1994, six years prior to signing with Jive Records I was already doing independent music — I've never been spoonfed or nothing. I already started from the ground up. I did 10 years with Jive Records, got gold and platinum albums. I got a gold album out of Warner Brothers.

I've been flooding the game. My fanbase love it, and I love doing music and why let it just sit in the computer and just be there?

Are you sitting on more music right now?

Yes, I am. First of all, technically, me doing 60 songs [including bonus tracks] just on these three albums — if you want to do it major label style — you paid on 11 songs. So, really, an album is 11 songs. Really, to be honest with you, instead of three albums that's a good five, six albums, in one day delivery. But I choose to put 18 songs on each one and give my fans a variety of music. You might not like all of them, but somebody gonna like the one that you don't like.

How is being independent good for you?

I have what they call a distribution deal. Normally it's 75/25, meaning you get 75% and the distributor gets 25%. Then they hold reserves of 25%.

75% of what?

It depends on what they retail for — it could be $12.01. Basically, profit-wise, you get the bigger bulk. Look at me. Compared to you only getting 13 points — which is a percentage, and they do less than that nowadays.

What does 13 points mean?

It's like $1.30 [per album]. But there's still deductions and stuff from that. After everything gets taken out, far as recording costs, your manufacturing costs, all that. At the end of the day all recording costs must be recouped. And videos. With a major, or with any company, if the video costs $100,000, you split the cost. Funding your own project is probably the best way because you get to see everything.

But there's perks and amenities to being on a major label. They'll push you. If they commit to it, they'll push you. Sometimes you'll be sitting your ass there for years. You could get tour, they could put that money in radio. It depends on how much they commit to you.

Don't get it twisted. I don't want all the majors out there mad at E-40. They already know I'm a vet in this. I've been on majors and I'm not talking bad. I did what I was supposed to do with major labels. I love Jive Records for everything they've done for me, Warner Brothers. The CEOs, everything. I have no complaints, no gripes.

I'm saying far as me — as a OG that already been through that — I started off independent. I'm back independent. I'm trying to get the bulk of the bread and do my thing. I got more freedom. Nobody in my ear telling me how I should do a record. I just do 'em. I already know how to make records. I know how to make hit records. I know how to make ghetto anthems. Ain't nothing changed with me.

When we signed with Jive Records [in 1994] a lot of people were like, "Man, they got a $3 million deal! Woo, they got $3 million!" You don't get $3 million up front just like that. No. As a matter of fact, it was worth way more than that over the years. But I already had money. I owned a couple houses. Stayed on the golf course, had Lexuses and Rovers. I was already having it. So I didn't want they advancement like that. I like to see the backend. And that's what I seen.

I read an interview where you said that you look up to the OGs because you haven't been their age yet. Who are the OGs and what have you learned from them?

Yeah, that's right. When I say OGs I'm not talking about rap. I'm talking about the neighborhood dude that's standing in front of the liquor store. But that same dude that's standing in front of the liquor store is a dude that was once that dude. The dude who had all the bread. Might have fell on hard times, might have got on drugs or something or not even that. He was once a youngster like myself. OGs, they been through everything that we going through twice. Or three or four times. Older people, they already been our age — we ain't never been theirs.

OGs need youngsters, and youngsters need OGs. You gotta grow together. I just stay woke, and keep an open mind. Lot of people do a lot of talking and not enough listening. I am long-winded, but I got a lot to say out of all my years on this earth.

Do you enjoy your occupation?

I love my occupation. I really do. Because I had jobs when I was younger — I worked at the oil refinery. I used to work this thing called the hydroblaster. A long string of water come out and it cleans the pipes. It's real strong. If you slip and fall and it hits somebody else it'll cut off they leg or something. That's how much power it had. I used to work this thing called the chipper. You're chipping all the rust off the pipes, big pipes where you have to climb up three or four stories. You know, I used to work!

I was the oldest of four. My momma and daddy divorced at eight years old. So I had to be like the man of the house. I see my momma working three and four jobs, I'm like, "OK, bam." I got that drive in my heart so I know this is a blessing. To be able to make money doing something that you love to do. And that's what I'm doing.

Do you plan to retire?

Yeah, I do. There's so much more to me. I might retire from rap one day. I don't know when though. Is there an age limit when you're supposed to stop rapping? Not when you're just as relevant as the newer people! You smell me? I'm putting out the music that they're interested in buying. Why should I stop when I feel like I'm better than ever?

Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that E-40's contract with Jive Records ended in 2008. His contract with Jive ended in 2004; his contract with Warner Bros. ended in 2008.

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Frannie Kelley is co-host of the Microphone Check podcast with Ali Shaheed Muhammad.