Raising an army from the 36 chambers of Shaolin is great and all, but sometimes you just want to pay $5.99 for a big-ass jug of wine.
The rap world learned that lesson 25 years ago, when Bay Area rapper, label head, and future eponymous vintner Earl Stevens, aka E-40, released his solo debut album Federal. It dropped the same day as another debut, Wu-Tang Clan’s iconic Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), so nobody much noticed Federal through the thick haze of booms, baps, hoarse syncopating, and kung-fu piano etudes that abruptly shrouded our continent.
Out in Vallejo, California, Stevens was doggedly brewing a different concoction from sproingy basslines, strident synth whines, and his own unique persona: the sensible advice giver, ten thoughts ahead of everyone else. This persona would prove unusually durable. Earlier this year he released his 27th and 28th albums, roughly half the career output of the entire 10-member Wu crew.
If, as Chuck D claimed, Public Enemy was broadcasting from black America’s CNN, Wu-Tang was more like late night basic cable. E-40? He was The People’s Court mixed with America’s Test Kitchen. 40 peered over his glasses at your pitiful ass and rendered judgments peppered with helpful tips for surviving The Game. “Let me give your ass a funky lesson,” he raps on album opener “Drought Season.” “Stay low, play in the background, keep your shit on hush, mate; hit it hard one time and then hibernate.” (As a teenage busboy, I got advice like this all the time.) His song “Outsmart the Po Po’s” gives a detailed lesson in doing just that. “Rat Heads” is a thorough anti-snitch manifesto, dissecting every unacceptable way you might be tempted to rat on E-40.
All this obvious life expertise ensures that when 40 offers wine endorsements, you listen. And what he endorses is bargain-priced Carlo Rossi, specifically his Mom’s favorite, the Rhine. “I drinks it all the time, it’s extra satisfying,” he says in the album highlight “Carlos Rossi,” adding reasonably, “but don’t mistake it for Chablis unless you’re already high.” Sure enough, Carlo Rossi—a Gallo spinoff founded in 1975 in Modesto, a couple hours east of Vallejo—counts a Chablis among its line of “unpretentious, fruit forward” varietals, which also includes the Burgundy that 40 and Too $hort enjoy with “broccoli” in 2012’s “Toasted.” In the charming third verse of “Rossi” 40 plans a barbecue and, true to practical form, assigns specific potluck tasks to his fellow rappers: Kaveo’s in charge of the links and Suga-T’s “whipping up some potato salad.” The ribs are marinating in the fridge. Naturally, 40 supplies the drinks. An early Carlo Rossi commercial featured old Carlo himself asking, “If you can’t taste the difference, why pay the difference?”—a question you can imagine the rapper, eyeglasses pointedly lowered, repeating to his friends while they kick it in the backyard.
People have described E-40’s rapping many ways, usually having to do with its oddness. The word “idiosyncratic” comes up a lot, as has “inveterate weirdo." Mostly this comes down to his flow. More important than even their subject matter, rappers’ flows are their primary tools for conveying their personalities to listeners. Among these persona-construction tools are musical choices like vowel sounds and syllable placement. Early on, 40 discovered a distinctive splatter twang that turned his vowels into diphthongs and even triphthongs. When he calls Rossi a “top of the line wine,” the key words become “tyap” and “luhine”; they jump from the texture like hyperintelligent cackles. Remember the Donovan scene in the Bob Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back? The one where Dylan sings “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and makes scary-intense gargoyle eye contact while overenunciating the line, “Yonder stands your orphan with his gun”? E-40 overenunciates as a matter of style; listener imagination supplies the eye contact.
Unbeholden to any single varietal of flow, E-40 flits through Federal like he’s sampling a flight: challenging Kaveo to a speed-rap dick-measuring contest in “Drought Season,” then relaxing into more straightforward syncopation for the Ice Cube-style story song “Hide ‘n’ Seek.” In “Rasta Funky Style,” an unconvincing exercise in falsetto toasting, he explains, “Some of me raps are fast, and some of my raps are slow.” “Carlos Rossi” is the song where Earl Stevens sounds most like E-40, because he mixes it all together from line to line—the fast, the slow, and the sing-song—to heighten the conversational patterns of his words. Fretting about his driving record, he abruptly interrupts a string of fast triplets: “ifIgetonemoreDUI, thenit’s CUR.TAINS.” The percussive “curtains” lands in mock-horror falsetto. At his most idiosyncratic, 40 caricatures the secretly thrilling patterns of everyday speech—which, compared to the more traditionally musical flows of other rappers, sounds a little weird.
Case in point: E-40’s cousin and frequent duet partner Brandt Jones, aka B-Legit, who starts the second verse of “Rossi” by incanting, “HOCUS. Motherfucking POCUS.” He proceeds to cast a hypnotic spell of slow-mo rhythmic momentum, using a flow pattern that barely varies from line to line. The cousins had introduced their contrasting shtick the previous year on Down and Dirty, their first album as half of the Click. On that album’s opener “Let’s Get Drunk,” Legit interrupted 40’s verse of hyperactive curlicues, complete with quintuplets or some shit, for a resolutely on-the-beat depiction of driving a woman out to the boonies to get her drunk, a situation as rhythmically seductive as it was thematically troubling.
“Let’s Get Drunk” also originated “Rossi”’s hook, a pitched-and-slowed-down sample of 40’s line, “Perkin’ off some of that top of the line wine, Carlos Rossi.” This doesn’t mean E-40 invented screw music, as he’s suggested; Houston’s DJ Screw was already doing his “slow style” in 1990. 40 and his producer Studio Ton, who probably hadn’t heard DJ Screw’s mixtapes yet, simply had good ears for inventive hooks. And anyway, E-40 has invented enough slang to seal his place in whatever passes for Jeopardy! questions 400 years from now.
As for Carlo Rossi wine itself, is it worth dropping “over a G within a week” at the liquor store, as 40 claims he’s done? In 1993 that would have bought him over 160 gallons of Rossi—that’s one heck of a barbecue. My nearby grocery store didn’t have the Rhine, so I tried both the Burgundy and Chianti, and I’m still not convinced I could taste the difference. (Then again, my teenage busboy training didn’t teach me much beyond “red” and “white.”) A bouquet of laundry two days wet gave way to the bright taste of circus peanuts and tahini, with the finish of licking an endocrinologist’s trash can.
It was fine. I plan to serve it to my Republican relatives at Thanksgiving.