A Bay Area Expat's Guide To Bay Area Rap

There is plenty to miss about the Bay Area, if you are ever fortunate enough to live there and then unfortunate enough to leave—the burritos, the vistas, the A's, the tech-doofus-dystopia hijinks, the absurdly temperate weather. ("At least you're part of the national conversation," crowed a sunny-and-65 San Francisco frenemy recently, as yet another polar vortex subsumed my new, burrito-deficient Columbus, Ohio, home.) But as Sage the Gemini's debut album, Remember Me, has made abundantly clear, what I miss most is Bay Area rap.

By which I mean Bay Area rap in its natural element, here defined as dominant on the radio (KMEL, god bless) as my Mazda with the car seat in the back ran its endless Oakland-streets loop from Gymboree to Trader Joe's to In-N-Out to home and back, which does not in any way constitute this music's natural element, but it'll do, or at least for a while it did. Bay Area rap radio is delightfully weird. KMEL beats songs to death like anyone else, but beats weird songs to death, the weirdness unsmotherable even in the face of numbing repetition.

In the mid-aughts, this meant gleeful overexposure to the would-be superstars of hyphy, the spastic, ecstatic, ecstasy-addled, bass-heavy, and loopy-lingo-drunk style heralded by Keak Da Sneak ("Super Hyphy"), the Federation (plain old "Hyphy"), the late Mac Dre ("Feelin Myself"), and deathless, dauntless Vallejo godfather E-40, whose ominously clattering "Tell Me When to Go" was supposed to be the big breakout, goading impressionable teens nationwide into ghost-riding the whip. The hype was deafening: 2006 was to be "Oakland's version of the Summer of Love." No dice. It's insane in retrospect, that something so eccentric and regionally specific could ever work as a viable export, or that locals would even want to risk that co-option and dilution: far better to keep on thizzle dancing on your own.


Sage the Gemini, a 21-year-old rapper-producer from close-enough Fairfield, Calif., exemplifies the Bay Area's class of '14, what it takes from hyphy and, just as vitally, what it leaves behind, the emphasis now on almost comically extreme minimalism, on dead-eyed vocal monotony as an advanced form of charisma, on bass farts so precise and pointillistic you fear one of your car speakers blew out, on an end product so counterintuitively warm and engrossing you blow your perfectly functional car speakers out anyway.

A whole new breed of post-hyphy KMEL staples has emerged, of course. There is Clyde Carson and the Team's half-speed gang-tackle "Slow Down." There is LoveRance's vapid and uncouth "Up!," with its relentless chorus of "I beat the pussy up! Up! Up! Up!" delightfully mangled by a radio edit until hand-to-god it sounds like "I beat the pizza up! Up! Up! Up!," which is a huge improvement. There is Finatticz's phenomenally confounding "Don't Drop That Thun Thun," my first exposure to which left me more bewildered than I have ever been by a piece of music: Oh my god, what the hell are they saying, what the hell do they mean, what the hell planet am I on, why the hell have I aged 20 years in the last 10 seconds, etc. etc. And there is deathless, dauntless E-40's "Function," vibrant and infectious and au courant as only a guy this dogged and psychotically prolific (he put out three full-length records this past Dec. 10 alone) can be.


But here in the aforementioned, lately double-car-seat-adorned Mazda, far outside KMEL's airspace and now running its endless Columbus-streets loop from the rec center to Trader Joe's to Dairy Queen to home and back, Sage seems to be leading the national charge, such as it is, even if once again it doesn't amount to much. Remember Me, his debut full-length, is no world-beating breakout on the order of L.A. ratchet star YG's new My Krazy Life (a Billboard chart-topper this week if it weren't for you meddling kids), but it has its moments, namely the breathy, cavernous "Gas Pedal" (augmented by Oakland rapper and fellow HBK Gang cohort Iamsu!) and the only slightly cuddlier in-space-no-can-hear-you-play-the-theremin jam "Red Nose." (The former tune got our heroes on Letterman this week, bolstered by a guitar solo, some semi-synchronized dancing, and excellent footwear.)

Sage is not exactly a lyrically lyrical Mr. Personality type—an ever-deadpan "Call her a B / She has no stinger" is as wry as he gets—and he can't quite sustain a full-length album, but a full-length album is not the ideal vehicle for this sort of thing anyway. That'd be Vine, actually: "Gas Pedal," "Red Nose," and (the still confounding!) "Don't Drop That Thun Thun" all thrive on the six-second twerking-loop circuit. It's unclear if this constitutes a career, exactly, but at least locally, it qualifies as a small movement: Bay Area critic/scholar Andrew Nosnitsky, who in the course of normal human brain deterioration will, over the next 24 hours alone, forget more about the history and context of this music than I will ever know, recently followed the voluminous HBK Gang around the Bay Area teen-party circuit for SPIN. The kids at those parties don't seem to rate Drake/Jay Z/Kanye/etc. much, Noz notices, and twerking is just a surprisingly wholesome 21st-century version of the Twist now.

No twerking in the Mazda, in either state. My enthrallment with this music is inextricable from my remove from it; even in my Oakland days, the closest I got to street-level was pushing a stroller around Lake Merritt in an A's cap. Carefully and respectfully, I got what I needed from it then anyway, and Sage gives me what I need from it now.