E-40 is in the midst of a busy New York City press junket. He’s in a private room at the restaurant Sei Less in Manhattan, calmly having a sip of red wine with his wife. The serial entrepreneur would like to be sipping on something from his own brand, Earl Stevens — named after the rapper himself — but the alcohol shipment he sent cross-country for his birthday party and release dinner is still en route from the Bay Area. He’s here celebrating the release of his cookbook, Goon With the Spoon, as well as his new album, Rule of Thumb: Rule 1. On this chilly November day, he’d already done Good Morning America and finished another interview right before me. He also has at least one other interview after me.
How does a rap legend handle a day of repeating himself to strangers? For E-40, he’s managing it in the way I imagine he navigates everything else: with a charismatic cool.
The hip-hop legend has been rapping for more than 30 years, carving his own corner of the rap world with his inimitable vocal quirks and a freewheeling cadence that made songs like “Sprinkle Me,” “Tell Me When to Go,” and “U and Dat” transcendental hits. He’s also known for a labyrinthine reserve of Bay Area-inspired slang — “captain save a hoe,” “fo’shizzle,” “brocolli” (for weed), and “po po” (for police) are just a few he’s added to the cultural lexicon — he casually drops “everywhere like air” on me during the course of the interview. He’s done it all based in the Bay Area, embedding himself into the region’s cultural fabric like a car dealership or grocery store chain — or, as he calls himself on the recently released Rule of Thumb: Rule 1, the “Bay Warren Buffett.”
The 23-track project holds generation-spanning features from his Mt. Westmore peer Too $hort and appearances from Gucci Mane, the recently released BG, Trae the Truth, and newcomer YoungBoy Never Broke Again. “I have a mixture of everything,” 40 says of the project. “It’s a nice pot of stew. Jamming, too. Clapping, blapping. Going crazy.” The title Rule of Thumb is a reference to the general rules of navigating the tumultuous streets. He says for some, a rule could be to “stay prayed up at all times and ask the Lord to forgive you for any sins.” But for others, “it could be never leave the crib without your [gun]. If you in the streets. [With] me having a verbal paintbrush with my lyrics, I like to teach. I like to guide those who ain’t never been through what I’ve been through into the right direction of how to be a young entrepreneur and how to break up out of the curse that they got us boxed into.”
He’s giving out that game throughout the album, which he says he already has a follow-up for. 40 trades struggle stories with Never Broke Again on “Tryna Get My Life Right,” recalling “beatin’ a nigga ass and talkin’ to him while I’m cryin’.” But he also has fun on the project, including the funky “Pressure” and “AYE!,” where he rhymes “Hella whiskey been tipsy since 8 a.m./Shoulda had my mackin’ ass at the gym!” The record is another example of his unmatched mic presence, à la his West Coast rap brethren Snoop Dogg.
While Snoop isn’t on this album, the two share a sensibility that extends beyond music. 40 recently collaborated for Snoop Dogg Presents: Goon With the Spoon, a cookbook full of meals out of 40’s own arsenal. The book is a follow-up to Snoop’s 2018 cookbook, From Crook to Cook (stay tuned: Snoop also offered Latto a cookbook during their Musicians on Musicians talk).
“[Snoop] put me into his world because he’s seen I cook, he know what I do.” 40 says. “He said, ‘Cousin Earl, let me go and put your book out.’ And me, I don’t have a pride situation. Who wouldn’t let somebody like Snoop present their book when he already has the platform and the outlet?” The book has recipes categorized by breakfast, mains, sides, munchies, and sweets, as well as drinks.
40 says cooking “came natural” for him as the oldest of four children — his extended explanation on how he cooks his lumpia could be a mouthwatering album interlude. He credits a stint working in a restaurant for his skills with upscale dishes like escargot, chicken cordon bleu, and orange roughy. In 2014, after his in-laws bought him a pressure cooker for Christmas, he began tagging his culinary works on Instagram with #GoonWithTheSpoon, a moniker he gave himself in his music catalog. The phrase began to stick online, creating a pathway for him to roll out his Goon With the Spoon line of frozen burritos, sausages, and ice cream in 2022. 40 says there will be more additions to the brand, including chicken spaghetti inspired by his wife’s recipe (that he tells me Too $hort is clamoring for).
While most rappers have sponsorships and brand deals with alcohol companies, 40’s is a 100 percent owned operation with his wife. He previously had a brand ambassadorship with France’s Landy Cognac and met someone at the company who eventually moved on and offered 40 to bottle up his own wines in Napa, California. In total, the Earl Stevens alcohol portfolio contains 18 wines, as well as tequila, cognac, bourbon, and his premixed Sluricane hurricane drinks.
40’s business acumen was honed in his native Vallejo, California, where his uncle Saint Charles taught him the ins and outs of what entrepreneurship entailed. 40 says Saint Charles, like his father, was a multitalented instrumentalist and visual artist who sold his music direct-to-consumer — Master P also credits Saint Charles with teaching him how to independently distribute music during his time in the Bay. Variety recently named 40 as one of hip-hop’s 50 greatest rap executives of all time in part for founding Sick Wid It records. 40 recalls the label independently selling its first projects all over the Bay.
“As I became a rapper, I did it [my uncle’s] way, out the trunk of the car,” 40 says. “Selling to liquor stores, putting 30 cassettes on consignment or CDs or whatever it was at the time.” He reels off specific Vallejo locations like he just pulled up on them last week: M&M Liquor, Jay’s Records, Builds, and Wheels.
After returning from a year at Grambling State University in 1986, 40 decided to put his all into rap, and do it all on his terms with help from his uncle. “[My uncle’s] company, Solar Music Group, would make calls every day,” 40 recalls. “‘[He’d ask] did you get the cassettes? You want to put the order in? OK, bam.’ And we’ll put five CDs or cassettes inside a package [and] send it out to them. ‘Hey, you can have these. Just tell us what you feel about it.’ Send it and [say], ‘Give it to those who are fixtures and factors that are riding around on vogue tennis shoes with candy-paint gold tips with a tremendous slap in their car.’ You feel me? That’s what you give that to. And that’s what they would do.”
40 says he felt like his flashy album covers helped attract listeners, while his “unorthodox” style enthralled them. That grind paid off, as Sick Wid It’s workman model and albums like Mr. Mailman and Federal (rereleased on the same day as Wu-Tang’s 36 Chambers and A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders) led to a historic deal with Jive. “That’s when they called me the $3 million man,” 40 recalls. Earning millions to play with, 40 began investing in real estate, and eventually in restaurants like Fatburger and Wingstop, leading the way for him to become what he calls rap’s “guy guy guy” when it comes to spirits. He says his self-starter nature came from not being given the opportunities of his peers in other regions.
“I had a clothing store that I built, but a clothing company I didn’t have,” he recalls. “Being from Vallejo, California, [no one was] like, ‘Hey, man, look, we’re going to make your company, call it this and make y’all clothes. You ain’t got to put up no money, just wear it and then when we sell it, you going to get 20 million.’ None of those opportunities fell in my lap. No disrespect to anybody else, it just never happened. So, yeah, I’ve been on the grit from the beginning. I’m glad how everything worked out. God is great.”
At one point in our interview, 40’s shipment of wine arrives. He opens a bottle of Earl Stevens Function Red blend with a custom “Earl Stevens”-inscribed bottle opener he retrieves from his pocket before asking his wife to film him pouring the drink for social media. It’s not just about having something, but knowing how to sell it.