Bay Area rap legend E-40 finds success in beverage world
By Tamara PalmerJanuary 19, 2016
The type of store where Earl Stevens sells his products has changed a bit over the last quarter-century or so. The Vallejo native whose records led to empty shelves at Tower Records, Sam Goody and Virgin Megastore is now prompting re-orders at Safeway, Costco and BevMo.
Stevens is a platinum-selling, trendsetting rap star who represents the Bay Area to the world under the stage name E-40, a nickname he earned while drinking 40-ounce beers on the 1300 block of Magazine Street in Vallejo’s Hillside neighborhood. This week, the hip-hop legend pays tribute to that block — the place he calls his “soil” — with the release of E40, a honey-kissed malt liquor available in 24-ounce cans and 40-ounce bottles.
In 2013, he released the Earl Stevens Selections wine line, which includes a red blend and two types of Moscato. Last year saw the debut of Sluricane, his potent premixed version of a Hurricane, the famous New Orleans cocktail. Stevens began his booze endeavor by selling wine online; the demand got so big that he partnered with Southern Wine & Spirits for distribution.
“They started off with a few cases,” says Stevens. “And then next thing you know, they were like, ‘Hey Earl, one day we’re going to pick up a pallet, 56 cases, just you watch!’”
That “one day” happened in the next two weeks. The success kept snowballing, recalls Stevens: “And then after a pallet, they were like, ‘Hey Earl, one day we’re going to pick up a whole truckload of the stuff, man!’”
Two weeks later, they picked up a truckload, roughly 20 to 21 pallets.
“I push pallets,” he says. “When I put that on Instagram — ‘I push pallets’ — that’s really what I do. That’s really my job.”
Bringing new products to market in the wine, spirits and beer worlds may be an intimidating prospect, but Stevens can’t recall an incident in the beverage world where he hasn’t felt totally welcomed. “Everyone says they’re a fan,” he says.
“I’m a little man on the totem pole in this world,” he says of jumping into the booming Bay Area beer industry. “But I won’t be for long.”
That combination of drive and swagger should be familiar to E-40’s legions of fans.
It’s approaching 30 years since Stevens started slinging addictive, unorthodox slang and selling infectious albums throughout the Bay Area on his Sick Wid It record label, first out of his car trunk and eventually through partnerships with larger indie labels like Jive Records.
At 48, he’s achieved true staying power and a rare relevance in today’s rap world, a youth-driven culture that has been frequently accused of ageism.
Alcohol has been a frequent theme throughout the huge E-40 discography, led by early-’90s songs that have become part of the Bay Area hip-hop canon like “Carlos Rossi,” written about the Gallo-owned wine brand Carlo Rossi, and “Hurricane,” the chorus of which, decades later, inspired the Sluricane label.
In 2009, he teamed up with Berkeley High grads — and “Saturday Night Live” alums — Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone (also known as the Lonely Island) to record a song about Carlos Santana’s sparkling wine called “Santana DVX.” It was for the trio’s debut album, “Incredibad,” a record that also featured popular songs from “SNL” like “Dick in a Box” with Justin Timberlake and “I’m on a Boat” with T-Pain. Some of the lyrics in the Santana song: “From the heart of Napa Valley and the guitar king/Comes the sparkling wine to make a blind man sing.”
Stevens has actually been dabbling with selling drinks for the better part of a decade, first with the now-defunct 40 Water, a brightly hued take on Vitamin Water, and later as an endorser and shareholder of Landy Cognac. As a teenager, he worked briefly as a cook at Commandant’s Residence Restaurant in Benicia, which shuttered in 1979.
But his current drink ventures mark a different level of absorption and commitment for Stevens. He’s been focusing much of his energy on them, forgoing opportunities to tour in lieu of performing spot concerts here and there.
Stevens has applied his monster work ethic to his beverage ventures. When it comes to his prolific music career, one of his favorite sayings is that he tries to “make like a pregnant lady and drop an album every nine months.” He has stayed true to form, releasing at least two albums each year between 2010 and 2014 — and has at least two planned for this year, the latest installments of his “Sharp On All 4 Corners” series.
He’s got similarly large plans for expanding his liquid empire beyond the new beer label. He’ll soon add a new tropical flavor of Sluricane to his catalog, called Sluricane Yellow Bird, which he calls a “real party turn-up drink” at 60 proof: “Right as you drink it, you’re like, ‘Man, I’m drunk!’”
Also in the works are an IPA, a flavored malt liquor beverage, vodka and Tequila, a growing collection to one day compare to his library of sound recordings. After all, Stevens says, “Rap and alcohol go hand in hand.”
E40 beer is in stores Wednesday. 24-oz. cans will be priced at $1.99-$2.59. 40-oz. bottles will be $3.99-$4.99.