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A Salute to San Francisco Rap

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A pile of rap tapes from San Francisco set against the SF skyline
San Francisco has a rich rap history—and it's been resurgent in recent years.  (Gabe Meline/KQED)

Back in December of 2020, as Vallejo’s E-40 and Oakland’s Too $hort celebrated the Bay’s hip-hop culture during a Verzuz event, I got to thinking: the East Bay may have its icons, but someone should write about the current state of San Francisco’s rap scene. It’s lightweight on fire.

Artists are active. Songs are slapping. Community is coming together. And this might only be the start. That is, if it’s handled properly. At least that’s what people are telling me.

Superstar 24K Goldn is on the path to Bieber status. Rapper and Cookies cannabis company founder Berner is one of the biggest kingpins in the legal marijuana industry. Larry June raps about player stuff like expensive watches and green smoothies, has a signature Lakai shoe and is behind the Honey Bear boba shop in the Dogpatch neighborhood—yet somehow still drops albums as often as BART experiences delays. (As he’d say to himself, “Good job, Larry.”) And Empire, arguably the most influential independent rap label in the world right now, is based in San Francisco.

But what does this all mean? Is SF having “a moment”? If so, where does this moment stand in the larger scope of things?

I started researching by listening to everything from San Francisco I could find.

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I gigged to Lil Kayla‘s “Clone Me” featuring East Oakland’s Su’lan. And I bobbed my head to the bars that Frak The Person kicked over the Bakary beat challenge, which went so stupid Kehlani had to comment.

I read about La Doña in the New York Times, and just watched her latest video for “Setas y Ceros“—she’s singing and she’s spittin’. I gave that new Show Banga and IAMSU! song, “Lonely” a spin. I added Dregs One’s new track “Fog Mode” (featuring Andre Nickatina), City P’s “Top Down” and Lil Yee‘s “Steppin’ On Steppers” to my playlist.

Ahead of an upcoming episode of my Rightnowish podcast I read Rocky Rivera‘s book Snakeskin and reviewed her entire musical catalog. And through a recently published interview with Cereal for The Kids and Baghead, I found out about the Old Soul Kollective, as well as so many other artists.

Yung Lott’s “How To Survive” has that classic west coast kick. Galaxy Atoms’ just-dropped “MVP” sounds like newer west coast flavor. I know that Richie Cunning is entertaining on Twitter, as well as on the track. And I know that Adam Raps, a.k.a. A-1, just celebrated a birthday and is about to release new music.

Gunna Goes Global is headlining a 415 Day show, alongside StunnaMan02 (aka Jordan Gomes)—and both Gunna and Gomes are also thespians, featured in the film The Last Black Man in San Francisco, amongst other projects.

I revisited Bby Laana’s “2018 Freestyle” and the “Lose Control Freestyle” that she dropped the following year. I listened to Troy LLF’s Free Play 4 and a few of the projects he dropped before that. I got put on to So Vicious and Drew Beez.

I talked to Young Bari, ZayBang and Lil Bean, who all, in one way or another, told me the City’s rap scene is definitely having a moment. I read about the recent passing of 11-5’s Maine-O, and I also re-read the circumstances around Lil Yase’s death; a sad loss of so much potential.

Hugh E.M.C poses for a photo for his album cover, as drug paraphernalia, a gun and cash lay in front of him.
Hugh E.M.C in a photoshoot for his 1994 album ‘The Mob.’ (Via Hugh E.M.C. )

I even went back, and called Hugh E.M.C., the artist behind the early ’90s song “H N*gga Groove (Keep a B*tch Broke).”

Hugh, following his “Hip Hop Manifesto,” is now encouraging artists to put out one conscious song per project. In regards to the current rap scene in San Francisco, he says, “This is a type of moment, but when I compare it to the past, San Francisco artists were having multi-regional, almost national moments… I would love to see it jump to another level.”

I called up another Frisco vet, Equipto, who also got his start in the ’90s, and is steeped in community activism. He helped launch the anti-police hunger strike by the Frisco Five and currently works with Frisco Cop Watch—in addition to advocating for the unsheltered community through Poor Magazine

Equipto, who recently dropped a new project with The Watershed, says, “Frisco ain’t never really had that highlight—the Bay Area might’ve—but Frisco never really had that run. And that’s what’s cultivating right now. There’s more eyes are on San Francisco.”

Equipto tells me that SF always had that “underground, solid, rawness of what the industry needed.” But despite the notoriety of artists like Rappin’ 4-Tay and the late Cougnut, “We were just kind of always overlooked in the economics of it,” says Equipto.

Big Rich wears a leather letterman jacket and a big chain with his initials as he looks into the lens.
Big Rich, cofounder of Project Level, turned “tragedy into triumph.” (BillionDreams)

Ask D.E.O, founder of the Trackdout app and half of the Evenodds production team, and he’ll tell you that he believes there’s something good happening in his city too. But he’s weary of pitfalls that have come about in the past—namely the “politics,” in addition to the economics.

“The street politics of the City has been the curse of Frisco,” says D.E.O. “It goes back to RBL. One of the greatest hip-hop groups of all time was dismantled because of street beef.” D.E.O believes the murders of the RBL Posse’s Hitman and Mr. Cee played a significant role in labels turning their backs on San Francisco.

He tells me that the divisions amongst communities, and the propensity for rappers to keep one foot in the streets while trying to run a legitimate business, have proven to be a major hurdle.

“A lot of Frisco artists,” says D.E.O, “don’t look at themselves as a commodity, they look at themselves as the savior of the hood—when it’s bigger than the hood. It’s fine to want to save the hood and everything, but you’ve got to think more about the corporate structure. How do real corporations work?”

Richard “Big Rich” Bougere is a well-known San Francisco rapper who has some knowledge of how both the rap game and big corporations work.

In 2012, Big Rich parlayed his name recognition from music into an arts-based nonprofit for young folks called Project Level, which he co-founded with his partner Danielle Banks. After an incident in the summer of 2019, where staff of the major fashion retailer Forever 21 mistakenly accused young folks from Project Level of stealing, the two groups met and developed a partnership.

“We turned tragedy into triumph,” Big Rich tells me during a phone call. “It opened up doors, we have Black equity in a major corporation.” It’s a big 180° to the way big companies treated Big Rich’s business when he was rapping.

Now he wants to see more investment from billion-dollar corporations into the careers of young artists of color. “This is the culture of the industry, this is where the money is generated from,” says Big Rich of the young people he works with. “We have to reinvest into these communities.”

Through Project Level, Big Rich has also seen how investing in the community can lead to striking gold.

On a rainy April 15th, at a 415 Day celebration in 2018, a young artist named 24K Goldn grabbed the microphone. “He electrified the stage, but no one was really there,” says Big Rich. “I was like, ‘This kid is dope!'”

After learning that 24K Goldn was already en route to USC in the fall, Big Rich connected him to a manager in Southern California. Now 24K Goldn, who went platinum last year and just dropped a new album, El Dorado, a month ago, “is arguably the hottest artist in the country right now,” according to Big Rich—and the Billboard charts.

Now the question is, how can more San Francisco artists shine like 24K Goldn?

It’s a question that’s not just about talent. It’s about “politics,” structure and business acumen. It’s about navigating the high cost of living. And, for some, it’s about being a member of the small percentage of working class Black and brown folks struggling to make ends meet in one the world’s most expensive cities—and still make art.

How?

“Ghazi at Empire has a plan,” Big Rich tells me. “He’s investing in artists in the City, and I think it’s going to pay off.”

The cover of 'Zaytoven Presents Fo15,' released by Empire.
The cover of ‘Zaytoven Presents Fo15,’ released by Empire.

“I didn’t realize we were having a moment,” Ghazi says during a Zoom call earlier this week. “I was trying to create a moment.”

Ghazi is the head of the major independent label Empire, and the A&R behind the newly released album, Zaytoven Presents: Fo15, which celebrates some of San Francisco’s rawest talent.

The album is produced by San Francisco’s own mega-producer Zaytoven, known for his collaborations with southern rappers like Gucci Mane. The album features members of Frisco’s next wave of stars: Lil Bean, ZayBang, Prezi, Kxng Lamma and Lil Pete.

Ghazi, who grew up listening to artists like I.M.P. and the Get Low Playaz, says, “A big part of putting this project together was to do for the next generation what those artists did for me, which is creating bigger and better things.”

He says that in the past, a lot of the issues the City’s rap scene faced were “due to lack of infrastructure, lack of proper mentorship, the political landscape that surrounds a lot of the neighborhoods, the socioeconomics,” and a bunch of other things going on in the City. But now there’s potential do things differently.

Ghazi makes a basketball comparison, saying that an artist putting up great individual stats isn’t the same as the whole team putting up great stats, or having a coaching staff that can compete with the rest of the league. “We’ve always had the talented players,” says Ghazi of San Francisco’s artists. “But we never had the franchise, we never had the coaching staff, and we never ran an 82 game season.”

“In my mind, San Francisco is not having a moment,” Ghazi tells me over the video chat as he drives through East Oakland. “In my mind, the whole entire Bay Area has been dry for quite some time, and most people have no idea what the glory years were like in the Bay… There’s a little bit of something happening, and I wouldn’t call it a moment, but there’s potential for a great moment if we stay on it. I wouldn’t call it a moment, yet.”

One of the primary hurdles the City faces is the issue with talent leaving—not just artists, but talented people who work behind the scenes in businesses that support the industry. That’s why Ghazi’s been mindful to keep his company in San Francisco and create space for culture to flourish.

“This album is proof of the factory existing,” says Ghazi of the Fo15 project.

And now, in order to get to that true “moment”—or rather, a time period of extended success for San Francisco—Ghazi has a simple formula.

“We gotta tell our story,” Ghazi tells me. He’s firm in his beliefs that people should know and be proud of all of the talent that has come from San Francisco—from Andre Nickatina to Apple’s Larry Jackson (who plays a significant role in making those Verzuz events happen) and back to every rapper named in this article.

“The more individual success stories you create, you raise the economy of the region,” says Ghazi. “When you raise the overall economy of the region, people are less inclined to leave the region because they have something to do. And when people don’t leave, you keep the talent in.”

As a kid from Oakland who grew up listening to E-40 and Too $hort, as well as Messy Marv, JT the Bigga Figga, and San Quinn, I get it. We’re a vast region with different cultures in each city, neighborhood and block. That said, when one section is going about their business correctly, the honorable thing to do is give them a salute.

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San Francisco, here’s to you.

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