Music by VICE

The Bay Area Is Still the Rap Capital for Nonconformists and Self-Made Hustlers

Nef the Pharaoh, Tia NoMore, Kamaiyah, and more lead the current Bay Area scene.

by Nastia Voynovskaya
Jan 9 2017, 5:47pm

The second season of NOISEY premieres on Tuesday, January 10 at 10 PM EST on VICELAND. The first episode focuses on the Bay Area rap scene—starring E-40, Nef the Pharaoh, G-Eazy, and more—and examines how the music community is dealing with the rapid gentrification brought on by the tech industry. Learn how you can watch VICELAND here. To celebrate the premiere of NOISEY, we're outlining what's going on in the Bay Area right now.

"See, in the Bay Area, we dance a little different," Mac Dre explains matter-of-factly in "Get Stupid." The 2004 hit became a blueprint for the hyphy movement, the freewheeling, party-centric subgenre that reigned the Northern Californian rap scene in the 2000s. At local warehouse parties and clubs—even nowadays—teenagers and twenty-somethings rap along to every word of his iconic tracks while twisting their lips into thizz faces and throwing their T's up like Mac Dre did before his untimely passing in 2004.

Mac Dre unapologetically celebrated his eccentricity, and that attitude extends to the Bay Area's rap scene today. The Bay Area has always been an underdog to Los Angeles, and locals rep its underground countercultures with fierce pride. LA is home to the music industry establishment, but in the Bay Area, artists have always had to do it themselves, from selling CDs out of the trunks of their cars—like most of our rap icons did from the 80s through the early 2000s—to starting their own labels and, in recent years, inserting themselves into the national conversation through viral anthems such as Kamaiyah's "How Does It Feel."

The region's sprawling geography and lack of a single cultural capital makes it all the more unique. Vallejo, the Solano county city about 30 miles north of San Francisco, gave us Mac Dre and E-40, the enduring hitmaker who's had more longevity in the rap game than any other living artist—period. Oakland produced pimp rap extraordinaire Too $hort; hyphy icons Mistah F.A.B. and Keak Da Sneak; and conscious hip-hop pioneers Souls of Mischief and Hieroglyphics. Pittsburg gave us The Jacka, a street rap kingpin that was senselessly murdered in Oakland in 2015.

To understand what's going on in the Bay Area today, it's imperative to learn about the various rap movements that have existed here over the years. Mobb music was our answer to LA's g-funk during the early-90s gangster rap era, and platinum records such as E-40's In a Major Way and Too $hort's Life Is… Too Short emerged from this homegrown style of hard-edged street rap. 

During the same period, Souls of Mischief popularized soulful, jazzy West Coast boom-bap with their classic "93 'Til Infinity." Then in the early aughts came hyphy, which saw the established rappers of the day embracing a youthful party culture that celebrated thizzing (popping ecstasy), dancing on top of cars, stunna shades, and plenty of other colorful gimmicks.

Though hyphy eventually went out of style, many artists who are currently in their 20s—who were in high school during the height of hyphy's popularity—now consider it a major influence. But the vanguard of the Bay Area scene isn't content with being pigeonholed into the "post-hyphy" label, and instead is reaching for hybridized sounds that reference the various movements that have defined Bay Area hip-hop over the decades, as well as influences from other genres and regions. Meet some of the Bay Area's brightest stars:

Nef the Pharaoh

Vallejo's golden child, Nef the Pharaoh blew up with his viral hit "Big Tymin'," an infectiously boastful slapper. His flow, charisma, and hometown pride caught the attention of the boss of the Bay Area himself, E-40. 40 soon signed Nef to his independent label, Sick Wid It Records, and Nef has since delivered plenty of gems, including the funky, futuristic mixtape Neffy Got Wings and Fresh Outta Space 3, which contains the lush, airy single "Everything Big ." A young boss himself, Nef is making moves with his own label KILFMB, which stands for Keep It Lit For My Brothers—a reference to living life to the fullest in honor of the deceased.

Rexx Life Raj

After returning to the Bay Area from playing football at Boise State University, Berkeley native Rexx Life Raj gained recognition in the local scene with "Handheld GPS," a dreamy, rhythmic groove that incisively points out our collective lack of wisdom despite the abundance of information in the digital age. His latest album, Father Figure—which we dubbed "An Album For Anyone Who Likes Breathing and/or Good Music"—combines undulating electronic beats with trap-influenced flows that get their melodic qualities from Raj's church-worthy singing voice instead of gratuitous autotune.

IAMSU

IAMSU is the leader of HBK Gang, a crew of young, multitalented rappers, producers, and creatives that also includes Sage the Gemini, P-Lo, and Kool John. His work references hyphy as much as it does the glossy, synth-driven melodies of legendary pop producer Giorgio Moroder. Su rose to national acclaim after touring with Wiz Khalifa in 2014, and his 6 Speed and Kilt mixtape series are now practically cult classics.

Kamaiyah

Oakland native Kamaiyah vindicated broke twenty-somethings with her bouncy squad anthem "How Does It Feel," which offers a refreshing contrast to the constant flexing we tend to hear in rap on the radio. Kamaiyah's debut project A Good Night in the Ghetto has an old school, mobb music flavor, and her one-of-a-kind flow and tomboy swagger have earned her cosigns from YG and Drake and a new deal with Interscope.

G-Eazy

With his platinum album When It's Dark Out, current radio single, "Me, Myself & I," and performance with Britney Spears at last year's VMAs, G-Eazy is undoubtedly the Bay Area's most commercially successful young artist. His music savvily straddles pop and rap while paying homage to Bay Area hip-hop culture.

Ezale

It's impossible not to smile while listening to Ezale, the Oakland rapper who came onto the scene with his 2013 Drug Funnie mixtape and its lead single, "Too High." Ezale opts for danceable, funky beats with noticeable '80s influence, and his ebullient delivery is always hilarious and engaging. He recently teamed up with legendary Bay Area producer DJ Fresh for an edition of Fresh's locally renowned mixtape series The Tonite Show.

Caleborate

Originally from Sacramento, Caleborate relocated to Berkeley and captured the hearts of Bay Area rap fans with his debut album Hella Good, an understated, down-to-earth project that 90s hip-hop heads and backpacker fans can appreciate. On his most recent project, 1993, organic, soulful instrumentation complements his humble, earnest lyricism.

Lil B

Lil B was a viral rap star before the age of viral rap stars. In the late 2000s, he split off from his group, The Pack (which is responsible for the iconic Bay Area anthem "Vans"), and began self-releasing dozens of stream-of-consciousness mixtapes, including one that featured 855 songs. He's the creator the #based philosophy (which encourages living peacefully while being your authentic self) and is somewhat of a spiritual guru on social media.

Tia NoMore

Oakland rapper Tia NoMore first gained recognition for her ex-boyfriend diss track "Suck It Easy," but recently swapped its boom-bap sound for darker, synth-driven beats on her 2016 album, Holloween. Her aesthetic is something along the lines of Too $hort meets the Powerpuff Girls, with lyrics that flip the theme of pimp culture—which has historically been ever-present in Oakland rap—on its head while celebrating femininity and having fun with squad.

Nastia Voynovskaya is a writer based in the Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter.