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How the Bay Area and the South Became Hip-Hop Family

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A short Black man in dreads holds up a microphone with one hand and rest his other rm on the shoulder of a smiling, larger man
Lil' Jon and E-40, pictured onstage together in 2006. From his home base in Atlanta, Lil Jon produced the hyphy era's two biggest nationwide hits: E-40's "Tell Me When To Go" and Too Short's "Blow the Whistle" — just one of many close ties between Southern and Bay Area hip-hop.  (John Shearer/WireImage for MTV.com)

Editor’s note: This story is part of That’s My Word, KQED’s year-long exploration of Bay Area hip-hop history, with new content dropping all throughout 2023.

“Picture me on a tour bus in 1995 with a bunch of West Coast artists,” Percy “Master P” Miller wrote in his 2007 book Guaranteed Success. “My brother and I were the only artists from the South. We were the opening act, and they wouldn’t even play our music on the bus.”

At the time, in 1995, Master P was near the end of his four-year tenure as the owner of a small record store, No Limit Records & Tapes, in Richmond. The New Orleans-raised artist had relocated to the Bay Area to attend Merritt College, and he opened his San Pablo Avenue shop with $10,000 he’d inherited from a malpractice settlement after his grandfather’s death.

“I took that money and made my first financial investment: I bought a record store that was going out of business in an urban community,” wrote Master P. He negotiated six months of free rent in exchange for improving the retail space. “As a result, my record store was a booming success and, for the first time, I began to experience a comfortable lifestyle.”

Not everyone was checking for Master P and No Limit, though. In addition to being shunned by his tour mates, San Francisco radio station KMEL wouldn’t play his music — “even though I done sold more records than any other artist in the Bay Area,” he told Billy Jam for a 1997 San Francisco Chronicle article.

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By the time of that interview, Master P was back in New Orleans, living an ostentatious multimillionaire lifestyle. No Limit had become a successful label with national distribution through Priority Records, and its massive sales funded Master P’s ever-expanding business empire. (By 1998, No Limit had cumulative record sales totaling $120 million, according to The New York Times.) He’d had an entrepreneurial spirit that dated back to his childhood, but it was in the Bay Area — home of the “out the trunk” independent rap hustle since the early ’80s — where he absorbed the game that facilitated his nationwide success.

Master P attends the 26th Annual American Music Awards in Los Angeles. By the time of this photo, in 1999, his label No Limit had grossed over $120 million in album sales. (Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

Master P’s empire is just one example of the ongoing cultural exchange between the Bay Area and the South, which goes back decades: During the Second Great Migration between 1940 and 1970, Black Southerners flocked to cities like Oakland, Richmond and San Francisco.

In the years that followed, their descendants helped establish the Bay Area’s distinctive hip-hop culture, whose sound and independent business model then traveled back to Atlanta, New Orleans, Houston and Memphis. Close observers of the rap scenes in these Southern cities will find strong ties to the Bay Area, and in turn, Southern rappers, producers and promoters have had a sizable stamp on the Bay Area’s own scene. This close kinship between the two regions undeniably shaped hip-hop history — and it continues to this day.

[Listen to our ‘From the Bay to the South’ playlist, curated by Tamara Palmer, on Spotify and YouTube.]


The Bay-to-South business pipeline

Master P and No Limit weren’t alone. Over the years, artists and record labels all across the South adopted the Bay Area’s independent business model and used it to achieve great success.

“Selling tapes out the trunk of the car, that was pretty much patented by E-40, Too $hort, Tony Draper at Suave House, Rap-A-Lot, people like that,” Vallejo-born rapper Earl “E-40” Stevens said in an interview for my 2004 book about Southern rap, shouting out two Houston labels. “Then came along the Master Ps of the world and the Cash Moneys. They watched the game and did what they supposed to do, and now they reaching for the stars.”

In a 2019 interview with Sway Calloway, Master P seemed to agree with this assessment. He referred to E-40’s uncle, the soul singer and entrepreneur Saint Charles Thurman, as the “OG” music distributor who taught him how to release records independently. Watching Thurman’s success running the small distribution company Solar Music Group, Master P realized: “I don’t need to wait for the big companies to push me, I’m going to get out there and push myself,” he recalled.

In turn, Master P along with other Southern artists, DJs and promoters played a crucial role in the national success of Bay Area artists like E-40 in the ’90s. Taking a cue from Herm Lewis, the Hunters Point street activist who popularized artist compilations, Master P released West Coast Bad Boyz, Vol. 1: Anotha Level of the Game in 1994. It included contributions from the Bay Area’s JT the Bigga Figga, RBL Posse, Rappin’ 4-Tay, Ray Luv and Dre Dog (now Andre Nickatina).

Master P would continue to release compilations after he moved No Limit back home to Louisiana. In 1997, the label’s breakout year, West Coast Bad Boyz II starred Mac Dre, E-A-Ski and Sacramento rappers C-Bo, Lunasicc and Marvaless, and was dedicated to Tupac Shakur. Even more successful was the soundtrack to the 1997 movie I’m Bout It, with E-40, B-Legit, E-A-Ski and JT The Bigga Figga, and which reached No. 1 on the Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart and No. 4 on the Billboard 200.

E-40 also credits DJs and promoters like Meen Green in Dallas, Greg Street in Atlanta and Marvin “Jabber Jaws” Williams in Shreveport for helping build his career on the radio and in clubs in those early years. Forming a constellation across the south, they booked him for gigs and put his records in rotation.

Though streaming has long replaced the “out the trunk” era, the Bay Area’s influence on independent music distribution remains. These days, the savviest artists from the South know that they need to hit San Francisco to strike a lucrative business deal with EMPIRE, now the world’s leading hip-hop distributor. When I visited the company’s well-appointed Financial District penthouse office in 2019, I met the remarkable Memphis rapper Adolph “Young Dolph” Thornton.

“I can’t shake,” he said warmly when introduced, offering a big hug in place of a stiff hand. Dolph, who was later murdered in his hometown in 2021, was responsible for two gold-certified records on EMPIRE’s wall. His EMPIRE deal also enabled him to sign and develop his own artists, such as fellow Memphis rapper Key Glock, setting them up to win via collaborations.

It wasn’t the first time the Bay Area played an important role in a Memphis artist’s success. Young Dolph’s one-time rival, Yo Gotti, made his mid-2010s comeback with hits like “Act Right,” produced by Pinole’s P-Lo, and “Law,” featuring E-40. (E-40 also recorded with the late “Queen of Memphis,” Three Six Mafia’s Gangsta Boo, who once proclaimed: “SHOUT OUT TO THE BAY AREA!!! I ROCKS WITH YALL THE LONG WAAAAY.”)

Going back further, musical and cultural influence has also flowed from Memphis to the Bay. MC Hammer admitted on Twitter that he learned the pre-crunk, pre-hyphy “get buck” style of dancing (later known as gangsta walking) in Memphis in the late ’80s. And iconic Memphis duo 8Ball & MJG worked with marquee Bay Area names like E-40, Mac Mall, Rappin’ 4-Tay and Spice 1 on both group and solo projects in the late ’90s and early aughts.

Even though Atlanta had become the rap industry’s power center by the time EMPIRE launched in San Francisco in 2010, keeping EMPIRE’s headquarters in the Bay Area is a core part of the company’s mission. “San Francisco has always been a place where incredible creatives were bred, but few of them are here at this point,” EMPIRE Vice President Nima Etminan told me in 2019. “Even in the music scene, when you look at it, a Sway [Calloway from SiriusXM], or an Ebro [Darden of Hot 97 in New York], or a [early Apple Music exec] Larry Jackson … all came from here, but people don’t really realize it.”

“I think [being in the] Financial District on the 24th floor in downtown San Francisco is definitely not necessarily the cheapest route to take,” Etminan continued, “but it’s a statement. It’s like, you’ve got to come here to see us.”

The Bay’s influence on bounce and trap, and the South’s mark on hyphy

The Bay Area, Atlanta, Houston and New Orleans share a love for big, trunk-rattling beats, and collaborations between the cities’ artists have resulted in influential hits. Atlanta hitmaker Lil Jon bumped Too Short in his ride in high school, and later produced Short’s “Blow The Whistle” and E-40’s “Tell Me When to Go,” the twin beacons that introduced hyphy to the rest of the nation.

In turn, producers from the Bay Area have facilitated crucial Southern records. The late KMEL DJ Cameron Paul’s track “Brown Beats” helped form the spine of New Orleans bounce music. Houston’s DJ Screw, who passed away in 2000, recorded a session in his home studio with Texas-born Oaklander Spice 1, and was known to feature plenty of Bay Area rap songs on his influential “Grey Tape” cassette mixes. Mike Dean, who produced for Houston’s Rap-A-Lot Records, crafted beats for Stackin Chips, the 1997 debut album of Keak Da Sneak’s group 3X Krazy, and Bay Area artists like Yukmouth (whose Smoke-A-Lot Records is distributed by Rap-A-Lot), Seagram and producer Tone Capone recorded for the label in the ’90s and early aughts.

Just outside of Houston in Port Arthur, Chad “Pimp C” Butler of UGK shared a close friendship and musical camaraderie with Too Short. In 2007, the night before he died, Pimp C appeared onstage at Too Short’s show at the now-defunct House of Blues on the Sunset Strip, according to Julia Beverly’s biography Sweet Jones: Pimp C’s Trill Life Story. In what’s said to be his final interview, Pimp C credited the Oakland legend for his career longevity: “I just follow what Too Short told me. He told me ‘Don’t Stop Rappin’.’ I just kept on making the kind of records that the people down where I live at like.”

Outkast, whose Andre 3000 has acknowledged the Bay Area as a notable early influence, broadcast an alternative rap sound out of Atlanta in the ’90s. “I have to — I have to — give a shout to the Hieroglyphics crew and Souls Of Mischief, because as kids we were hugely influenced by them,” Andre 3000 told NPR’s Microphone Check in 2014. And Outkast’s Big Boi was just as direct about another Bay Area influence: “One of my favorite rappers happens to be Too Short,” he rapped on the 2010 track “Fo Yo Sorrows.”

Later, as trap music began to fill the Southern streets, a Bay Area-bred producer helped develop its sound and take it to the national airwaves.

Xavier “Zaytoven” Dotson was born to a military family in Germany and spent his formative years in San Francisco before joining his parents in Atlanta, where a giant, free basement studio at their new Georgia home beckoned. Within a year, when he wasn’t away from the studio playing organ for his parents’ church, Zaytoven produced Gucci Mane’s breakout 2005 hit “Icy.” Word quickly got around the proverbial trap that Zaytoven’s basement was the place to record, and his client list grew to include Future, Usher, Travis Scott, the late Young Dolph and many others.

“Even though it’s with artists from the South, you can hear, you can see where the sound came from: that’s Bay Area music all day long,” Zaytoven said of “Icy” in a 2018 interview with The Sana G Morning Show on KMEL. “[The Bay] still has a funky instrumentation sound to it, so even when I’m in the South making just gutter beats, I still got them melodic sounds going on. That’s what attached me to the Bay Area so much. … I definitely try to represent the Bay every time I get. This is where I got my game from!”

In 2021, the producer returned to his local roots and worked with EMPIRE to release the compilation Zaytoven Presents: Fo15 on April 15 (or 415 Day, in homage to San Francisco’s area code). Up-and-coming San Francisco artists on the collection included Lil Bean, Lil Pete, Lil Yee, KxNG Llama, Prezi and ZayBang — proving that the Bay Area-South pipeline is far from running dry.

“I was molded in San Francisco, California,” Zaytoven added in his KMEL interview. “That’s why I represent the Bay Area.”

Zaytoven performs at AfroTech 2019 at Oakland Marriott City Center on Nov. 9, 2019. (Robin L Marshall/Getty Images for AfroTech)

A cultural and philanthropic exchange

Beyond business and beats, Northern California has made an imprint on the South’s cultural institutions thanks to philanthropy and outreach from artists like Tupac and E-40. Though Tupac is considered a West Coast icon, surprisingly, Too Short called him “the heartbeat of the South” when I interviewed him in 2004.

“I used to be at the club and the DJ would put on records off Makaveli because Makaveli came out right after Pac died,” said Too Short, who lived in Atlanta in the mid-’90s. “You would swear that nigga was on stage! The whole damn crowd be singing every word. It would be like a concert, and he ain’t even there.”

Towards the end of his life, Tupac moved his mother Afeni Shakur (who was originally from North Carolina) to Stone Mountain, Georgia, a suburb near Atlanta where he purchased his first home. Afeni operated the Tupac Amaru Shakur Center for the Arts in the former Confederate town from 2005 to 2015. It was an extension of the annual PACamp that Afeni started in 1997 as a free summer arts program for youth ages 12–18.

When I visited the arts center a few months after its opening, I was struck by a statue of Tupac in the Peace Garden, which represented how he might have looked had he been allowed to grow older. It was remarkable that Tupac’s legacy was housed in Georgia instead of the Bay Area or Los Angeles. And his influence resonated beyond the Peach State throughout the South.

“I just saw how much of an influence Tupac had on Master P and No Limit, how much of an influence Tupac had on the whole city of Atlanta, Georgia and on Houston, Texas, and just how much influence on that whole ‘Bankhead [Bounce]’ and getting crunk certain songs off Makaveli had on that shit,” Too Short said. “Tupac was so much crunk — his shit was so crunk as far as what crunk meant, you know what I’m saying? He was a part of it even though he had just passed away. But he was a part of it. The Makaveli album was in it. It was in the scene.”

The Tupac statue at the Tupac Amaru Shakur Center for the Arts in Stone Mountain, Georgia in 2006. (Tamara Palmer)

Two decades after the Tupac Amaru Shakur Center opened, E-40 would make his own impact on a southern state by investing in its young artists. The veteran rapper still has family in Texas and Louisiana, and studied at Grambling State University in Louisiana for a year. Although he didn’t complete his degree there, he made a lasting contribution with his $100,000 donation to the university’s marching band and music program, which now boasts the brand-new Earl “E-40” Stevens Sound Recording Studio on campus.

“Music is my passion,” E-40 said while presenting the check in February 2023. “Music is therapeutic and healing.”

The South wasn’t just where E-40 spent formative years as a young musician. It also influenced a key part of his artistry: his slang, much of which he has invented himself over the years. “Of course, I don’t make up all the fuckin’ words in the world, but I make up at least 75% of the shit I say,” said E-40 in a 2004 Murder Dog interview. “The other 25%, I get words from down South, choppin’ it up with my folks down South.”

The familial, cultural and business ties between the Bay Area and the South are strong and diverse, and have been for generations. It’s time to appreciate and nurture these bonds. And the beat goes on: as this back-and-forth flow of influence continues to percolate behind the scenes, the future is looking rather funky.

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Tamara Palmer is a DJ and the author of Country Fried Soul: Adventures in Dirty South Hip-Hop (Backbeat Books, 2005). She’s currently working on a personal rap anthology called California Love.

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