The Bay Area's always been diverse stylistically — and that's no more apparent than in the current crop of hip-hop and R&B starts from the region. (Collage by Rebecca Kao)
A heated text message exchange about hip-hop artists from our region had my phone’s battery at less than 10%. You know it was bad because I was sitting on the couch with the phone charger right next to me. No time to plug in that stupid cord. I had points to make.
The friend on the other end of the line was saying something I’ve heard for years: “I don’t listen to rappers from out here, they all sound alike.”
I’ve heard this way too often. Let’s set the record straight.
Yes, people do sound alike. As humans, our vocal cords only range so far. And despite our region’s unique lingo, our slang is still a derivative of the Queen’s English — the most popular language in the world.
Add to that, for something to be “hip-hop” it has to fall within the broad but limited confines of a certain sound. And a major part of hip-hop is repping your region. So it would make sense for an artist to make music that’s easily identifiable as something from the West Coast, specifically Northern California.
So when we’re talking about one region, in one specific genre of audible artistic expression, you’re not going to get some expansive, thousand-miles-long variety of vibes. Sawry bruddah.
But come on man, this region is (and has been) home to some of the most diverse artists you’ll find. And right now, at this very moment, music makers from this rich soil are putting their foot down deep in this proverbial thing called “the rap game.”
And you mean to tell me you don’t listen to any of them?
You’re not tapped into the spiritually healing bars of Berkeley’s Rexx Life Raj? Vallejo’s LaRussell isn’t inspiring you to become a Zen-like Croc-wearing entrepreneur who spits ether? You’re not pushing the speed limit in a mid-sized hybrid sedan while slappin’ the high energy music of East Oakland’s Su’Lan? What are you smoking?
In the time it takes you to order and eat four tacos from your favorite truck, you could listen to tracks from Stockton’s Haiti Babii, Sacramento’s ShooterGang Kony and Oakland duo 1100 Himself & Mitchell, and get very different, lyrically sound approaches to modern gangsterism.
That album features the song “Risen” by the immensely talented Elujay and the newly appointed First Lady of Death Row, Jane Handcock. On another project that dropped last week, Snoop Dogg’s Gangsta Grillz album I Still Got It, Jane is featured on multiple tracks flaunting dope rhymes and high-quality vocals. I said she's killin' it in R&B and hip-hop, and she's on Death Row. Don’t check me, check your ears.
Stop being lazy and writing off an entire group of artists just because of where they’re from.
Yes, there are artists who undeniably sound like “Cali rappers” — which, to be clear, isn’t a bad thing. Maybe it’s the clear pronunciation of Richmond’s IAMSU!, the carefree gangsta flow of Vallejo’s Nef The Pharaoh, or the cold mackin’ lines coming from Antioch’s Mike Sherm. But differences remain even among those with regional proximity.
Take, for instance, rising star Young JR, who clearly sounds like he’s from here. And at the same time, he just sounds different.
“I mean, I got a young JR sound,” Young JR tells me over the phone earlier this year. The East Oakland artist’s delivery has a sharp pitch and bit of a mumble, with a blatant tongue that’ll say some wild stuff over heavy beats that blap in your trunk. He looks the part too, from his fly attire and short locs to his turf dancing-inspired gigs. “I let it be known: for sure I’m a Town nigga, you feel me?” he says, about his aesthetics.
Young JR says he’s gotten comparisons to other Bay Area rappers, as well as southern artists, which makes sense. The amount of Black folks in the Bay with direct ties to the Bible Belt is astounding. Even a generation or three removed from the Great Migration, accents linger. (Have you ever heard someone with a heavy Richmond accent say “car”?)
At the same time, because Northern California is home to so many people from places all around the globe, we inherently have an eclectic array of artists.
In June of this year Young JR dropped his project Born Again, which features San Francisco’s Stunnaman02, Antioch’s Symba, Oakland’s UC Kayla and Sacramento’s OMB Peezy, to name a few. “It was intentional to get different sounds,” Young JR tells me, noting the diversity in the region and then pointing out what’s going on in the Central Valley. “We’ve got a few Sacramento artists that sound different,” he says, bringing to my mind artists like Celly Ru, Mozzy,DB Boutabag and Nate Curry. “They got their own sound; they kept their own sound and perfected their own sound,” says Young JR.
Sacramento’s Gritty Lex has heard the Cali-rappers-sound-the-same claim, although she says it’s more about the men. “I don’t think there are a whole bunch of female rappers who get put into that category,” she tells me during a phone call a few months ago.
She floats in between genres, but identifies as an alternative hip-hop artist. Someone once described her sound as “if Jhené Aiko and XXXTentacion had a baby,” she says with a laugh.
Lex, who performed at Rolling Loud last year and just this month dropped a new project with Myles titled High Tolerance, says the confining definition of the “West Coast sound” is something rappers deal with across the board. “A lot of rappers are already boxed in, no matter what they do. It’s not how I see it, but people’s attention spans are really short nowadays. Once a listener gets that, they classify you as that; it’s hard to break that barrier down.”
It’s a point that I’ve contemplated for some time, and a bit of a chicken or egg question. Was “that barrier” put there because the people said early on that West Coast hip-hop is the standard, and anything from out here has to fit into that mold? Or did the industry say this is how the West Coast sounds, so only artists who fit that mold rise to the top?
I called someone who knows about vocals, the industry and the coast.
Bosko Kante, an Oakland-based, Grammy-winning musician and creator of the handheld autotune instrument called the ElectroSpit Talkbox, is originally from Portland, Oregon. Before moving to the Bay, he spent years in Los Angeles working with Bay Area artists like E-40, the Luniz and Dru Down. He also spent some time in Atlanta, where he worked Big Boi of Outkast. In 2020, Bosko contributed to Dua Lipa’s “Levitate,” arguably the biggest song of the year.
Back when he first moved to Los Angeles, Bosko says the popular artists of the time were Snoop and Warren G. “So I put out records, myself as a rapper, that sounded like those, because in my mind that’s what you had to do and that’s how you should sound to be successful,” Bosko tells me during a phone call. “To be within the West Coast rap genre, you have to be within a certain circle, but you want to be more toward the edge of that circle to stand out,” says Bosko, noting the odd balance of fitting in and simultaneously standing out.
As the founder of the Black Music Incubator nonprofit, housed at the former site of Zoo Labs, Bosko helps artists develop their sound. So, clearly, I had to ask him if we all sound alike.
“I do not agree that all Northern Californian artists sound the same,” says Bosko. “What I will say is that I think the Bay Area culture is one where we want to be different. So, in some ways, maybe we sound the same in that we sound different than the rest of the country.”
He adds that most artists from this region are proud of being from here, and that’s shown through their unique slang and style. “I’ll give it up to the Bay for being the most unique region in the country, in my opinion,” he says.
Whatever your flavor, you’ll find it between the Sierra Mountains and the Pacific Ocean.
You could be on some healthy player stuff and listen to San Francisco’s Larry June. Or you could be on some ten-toes down "real P" stuff and listen to Oakland’s Capolow. Both of these artists use the ad-lib “Aye,” but do it in a different way. And you mean to tell me neither of them float your boat?
Sacramento’s Stunna Girl just dropped the braggadocio track “Shut Me Up.” Oakland's Fredo Bagz has the aggressive flow on this week's release "123". There's the the spacey creative concepts found in Señor Gigio’s music. The boom-bap music of Oakland’s Ovrkast. San Francisco’s Lil Kayla has been running it up all year — her confident but relaxed bars on “11:11” illustrate her approach to the game. Oakland’s Paris Nights is spittin’ with aggression on a track she dropped earlier this month, “Coldest.”
Qing Qi, the Bay Area actor and active member of the Pu Tang Clan, just released the first episode of her web series All Hail The Qing. But if you need some raunchy bars, I’d suggest checking last year’s song “Big D.” Frisco factor Dregs-One is a graffiti writer, hip-hop historian and lyricist who has a beer named after one of his recent projects, Fog Mode. San Lorenzo’s Ruby Ibarra, a scientist outside of her rap career, raps in English and Tagalog in the song “Us,” and it was featured on NBA 2K23.
There’s the Spanglish wordplay about street life coming from Oakland’s Baby Gas. That gritty straightforward flow San Francisco’s Blimes Brixton. The cutthroat bars of Stockton's EBK Bckdoe. The flashy and uptempo music of Drebae. The openly honest and catchy tunes coming from Marika Sage. And there's the multi-layered sounds of R&B, ranchera and rap coming from La Doña, a daughter of the Mission District.
Look, Professa Gabel has a chill flow. Frak The Person is a punchline and battle rapper. And Richie Cunning just dropped an album, Big Deal, that merges rap with that smoky, jazz-club Sinatra sound. All three are white dudes from San Francisco, and even they sound different from one another.
There’s the hardened tales of returning from being incarcerated and getting back into the streets coming from artists like Oakland’s Killa Fonte and Richmond’s Bla$ta. And there’s the glossy pop-style sound of Frisco’s 24KGoldn, who just might be the next Bieber — but with more bars.
Literally everything you could ask for.
To overlook the diversity of sounds coming from the people who call this place home is to completely dismiss what makes this place unique.
And you’re telling me everyone from this region sounds the same? You, my friend, sound like everyone making that same old played-out-ass claim.
Care about what’s happening in Bay Area arts? Stay informed with one email every other week—right to your inbox.