- Hip-hop icon and entrepreneur Earl “E-40” Stevens spoke to Insider in a wide-ranging interview tied to the signing of a national distribution deal for his spirits business.
- E-40 spoke at length on his entrepreneurial history and diversified investment strategy, and discussed how he continues to approach the rap game 35 years into a music career.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
For hip-hop legend and entrepreneur Earl “E-40” Stevens, the COVID-19 pandemic has been “a blessing at the same time as an unfortunate situation.”
“I think it gave me time, and probably you and a whole bunch of others, time to sit back and focus a lot more on what we mainly want to do,” E-40 said in a phone interview with Insider earlier this month.
The year and over a month since the pandemic hit has been a productive period for 40. In December, he released an album in a collaborative project with his Bay Area “big brother” Too $hort ahead of the rappers’ Verzuz appearance that month.
40 said that sales for his spirits business — which started with “Earl Stevens Selections,” a line of wines, and has grown to include lines of tequila, cognac, bourbon, and other assorted adult beverages — “flourished” after his Verzuz appearance with $hort.
This month, 40 signed a multistate distribution agreement with Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits that will make his spirits brands a national, in-store product for the first time, with availability in 41 of 50 states in the US.
In the interview, 40 spoke at length on his entrepreneurial history and the strategy behind his diversified investments in over 50 startups, including an early investment in the Clubhouse app. He also discussed how he has worked to “stay in the loop like a hula hoop” as a veteran rapper, 35 years into his music career.
I wanted to get into this recent development here, off the bat, with Southern Glazer’s. How is that deal gonna work on the ground level to expand your business?
Well, what it’s gonna do is get me into states where I’ve never been. Even my wine, which is what I first started selling, I had three SKUs — I had the Mangoscato. I had the Moscato, and I had the red blend, the Function Red Blend. Those were my original wine line. It was only three at the time, you dig? And those never even got to so many states that I’m going into now. So, this is gonna help tremendously to be national, you know?
Yeah. How do you.. what’s been your approach to the selection aspect of “Earl Stevens Selections,” and executing the other lines. How are you approaching the spirits industry?
So, you know, once you hop into something, bro, it makes it a lot more easier once you’ve been in it. You rub shoulders, you connect with others, you ask questions. That kind of stuff, one thing leads to another in a great way, you know what I mean? So you find out how to go about this. You find out how to go about that. And one thing about.. what my granddaddy, the late Reverend Thurman, always taught me, he said, “Ask questions. Don’t be ashamed to ask questions.” Along with my uncle, Saint Charles. He taught me that as well. And just, you know, “Pay attention to the ball.” So, I always focused on observing and seeing how some of the people before me did their things in any lane that I’ve ever been in, whether it’s music, whether it’s sports, whether it’s being a businessman overall. Real estate, whatever it is. I just observed. I stepped back like a fly on the wall and soaked up game like a beach towel.
[Laughs]. Looking back, generally beverages have been like a steady theme in your entrepreneurial history. I was wondering why that’s been the primary move for you, historically.
Yeah. I mean, it’s like, it’s natural like an Afro, you know? Uh, rap.. I would say music, overall: Music, beverage, and food, all are like a gumbo pot of entertainment. Just enjoyment. You know what I mean? Just like laughter and great times, and, overall, something that’s just a beautiful thing. You can’t lose. Liquor, music, and food? Come on, man. Hello. So, you know, it was a no-brainer for me to get into this. Because, me speaking on.. I like to drink wine. I’ve been talking about wine since I was a teenager, when I was sneaking in my mama’s wines. When I wasn’t even at drinking age. And I’m not tryna tell kids to do that. It was just, back in my days, 18 years old, in Louisiana, was the legal drinking age when I went to Grambling State University in 1986-87, fall of ’86, ’87. All I had to do was, I was 18 years old: Put my ID on the counter. And I was able to purchase alcohol. Period. And it was all legal. You see what I’m saying? So that’s me, man. It’s just natural. It comes natural for me to hop in this arena, of adult beverage wholesaling and development.
But you’ve really diversified across the board, in investment. Outside of beverages, how have you approached just your investment strategy, broadly?
Well, when I think of something, when a light bulb pops up on the side of my head, and it’s an ideal, and it says “Ding.. Oh, shoot. I need to do this.” Or whatever it is, I kind of do my due diligence on it, and see how lucrative it can be before I hop into it. We all in the business of making money, you feel what I’m saying? And it has to make sense. In order to get some cents, you got to make some sense, right? So, if it ain’t make good business sense, ain’t no need to even waste your time doing it. You gotta look at, whatever arena you’re finna hop into, you gotta make sure that it’s profitable.
And I’m not tryna hop into nothing that ain’t lucrative. So I observe every arena-tive. Uh, every arena.. That I decided to get into. And I say, “Okay, this can be something.” You know what I’m saying? And you have to be passionate about it. See, one thing that makes life great.. like I’m sure what you’re doing right now, maybe you have some other things that you are into, and maybe you have some other things that you have agendas about that you want to do. But I’m sure that you are having fun doing what you’re doing right now. This right here, what you’re doing, doing interviews and such and such, writing your things. And, you know, I’m sure you got other things that you have in mind. I’m certain about that. You know.. it makes it better when you making money doing something that you love.
No, I’m.. I’m blessed.. Uh..
What about, as an early investor in Clubhouse.. what did you see in that, from the jump? What stood out to you about it?
Well, I knew it was something different and new. And the people that’s involved in it, they don’t make bad decisions at all. They are very, very successful. The people who brought me in, I asked questions. Like I say, you gotta always ask questions. “A closed mouth don’t get fed, and a lazy hustler don’t get bread.” They can either tell you no, or they can tell you yes. Or vice vers. You know what I’m saying? It’s like, “The stupidest questions you can ask is not asking the question at all,” or whatever that saying is. Hello.
[Laughs]. So, I told them I wanted to get.. You know, they see me. They see me doing it. And I’m a good example of an Afro-American, African-American that really, really, really is passionate about everything I do. You know, I’m a married man. I’ve been with my wife since high school. And that is my backbone. That is my rib. That is my heart. That is my.. that’s my soulmate. I don’t know what I’d do without her. I mean, we was living off of love. We wasn’t always papered up like a fax. You dig? You know, we had our ups and downs. You dig? Not far as relationship-wise, but far as financial-wise. And I’m here to just look back at it and just praise God for everything that we’ve ever been through. You know?
So I’m like, this thing that I’m doing, man, it’s like, I’ve just gotta be grateful for it. I’ve gotta be grateful for it, and I want to be a good example to the youth. And I just wanna be an innovator. Do what’s different. You know? And I am doing something that’s different because there’s not too many people that own their products 100%, that is African-American. I don’t really know a lot of them. It’s probably a handful, brother, you know what I’m saying? And I’m hands on. And it just makes me proud, and this is not bragging. This is just letting them know if anybody else could do it, we could do it too. If we stay focused. We have to stay focused, though. It has to be something that you want to do. You have to know it’s something that you believe in.
I did want to get into the music real quick if we could.
No problem at all.
You and Too $hort I think had the best approach to Verzuz, dropping the collab project ahead of it. I wanted to ask what you made of the trajectory of Verzuz over the pandemic, and the reaction to your appearance on it.
You know, at first, me and Too $hort.. We’ve told the story at lightweight before, but I’ll make a long story short, and a short story long.. We both were hesitant, ’cause we didn’t know.. We never rejected Verzuz. We was just like, me and him.. You know, we talk all the time, like that’s my big brother, you know what I’m saying? So it was like, “Hey man, if Verzuz ever came to us..” ‘Cause a lot of people was talking about it, like, “Man, I want to see Too $hort and E-40 do Verzuz.” So it was like, we ever did it, we both agreed: It need to be just a celebration. It don’t need to be like a battle. ‘Cause we are really a true story of like innovation and independence, independent music. And like trend-setters, and like legendary, and like longeverty. Like all this in one. So we didn’t want it to be no, you know, the battle part about it. And I understand what they first started off saying “battle,” you know? ‘Cause it is a battle in so many ways. But we was like, “Let’s make it a celebration.” And they were with it too.
And I commend and I take my hat off to Swizz Beatz and Timbaland for coming through for it. And they painted a bigger picture for us when we all got on the phone and talked about it. So they talked us both into it. They talked me into it, and I talked $hort into it as we got on, me and Swizz. And it became something groovy like a drive-in movie, man. You never know what comes out of that thing. And we didn’t know that it was going to be a monumental night. We knew it was going to be monumental, but we didn’t know it was gonna be that monumental. I mean, something just hopped in us. We were just being us, and that’s what me and Too $hort say. He said, “Man, let’s just get up there. Let’s get it. Give me the Sluricane drink. And we gon’ drink a little bit of Ciroc, and you gon’ drink that wine, that Mangoscato.” And we just went up there and did our thang, you know, because that’s my love ones, you know? And [the fan reaction] was like, “Whatever, 40 drinking. I want some of that..”
[Laughs]. Right? And that was my Mangoscato, which is 18% alcohol, 36 proof. And it’s Moscato, but it’s with mango flavor. It’s mango Moscato. It is delicious, and it will get you on cloud 19. It will have you so toasted, you know, ’cause it’s so good. But the buzz was so big once we did that, Verzuz. Like, it been my number one SKU, my number one skew. Right? But the buzz was so amazing. We sold out so quick, and it’s still going so strong. Like it’s been around for a minute now, and it’s always been crazy. But now it’s even crazier. And now that I have this national deal it’s going to be even crazy, crazy, crazier. You know what I’m saying? So, sales.. sales.. what they call that, when it, uh.. Flourished. Once I did that Verzuz.
You know, carrying with the drink theme, on “Pass The Chalice,” you say the “youngsters call [you] uncle.” And you’ve brought a lot of new acts into the fold in your recent work. How have you navigated.. at 35 years into the game, how have you navigated staying current and true to you at the same time?
Well, one thing that me and my family, which is The Click — D-Shot, my brother D-Shot, Danelle Stevens; Tenina Stevens; Brandt Jones, B-Legit.. One thing about us as The Click, a group, we always said: “We’re gonna make sure that we stay in the loop like a hula hoop.” You know, me and B-Legit, when we was at Grambling State University, we already had it planned. ‘Cause, both of our dorms was right next door to each other. His dorm room was directly next door. We drove out there from Vallejo, California to Louisiana, Grambling State University. And we stayed in Drew Hall dormitory.
And all we did while we was there, it was “When we get back home, we gon’ do this. We gon’ do that. You gon’ have a show in Nebraska. I’m gon’ have a show in Atlanta. Vice versa.” You know, we just had it all planned out, and it really came into existence. And we always taught ourselves, “We ain’t gon’ never be ancient. We never gon’ be dinosaurs. Though, even when we dinosaurs, we’re not going to be ancient and dinosaur, you feel me? We gon’ be up on game. We gon’ be hip. We gon’ be the different OGs. We gon’ be woke. We ain’t gon’ do extras. We ain’t gon’ try to superly dress too young, but we ain’t gon’ dress too old. We gon’ have that happy medium,” you know what I’m saying? And that’s me.
So, I always kept my eye on the ball, and I always showed the love to the youngsters that showed me love. When I like what you doing, I’m going to commend you, because I didn’t have nobody to commend me. Because I’m the first of my kind. So I didn’t have nobody out there to commend me. I had nobody to look up to actually show me how to do it. I had to figure it out on my own. So I’m here to try to help those who want to be helped. And if you show me love, I’mma show you love. If I grab a young rapper, that’s doing his thang, and I see that he’s really ambitious and really wants to make a change in life, and really want to take this here thing we call rap serious, like it’s a real occupation, because it really is. It’s a lucrative payout. If I can get somebody like that, and we connect, it’s great. Because we’re helping each other out. I’m grabbing their fan base, which is the newer fan base. And they’re grabbing my fan base.
A lot of cats have said, “Man, 40, I would have never knew about the little young dude right there, Whoopty-whoopty-whoo, if it wasn’t for you,” you know? And it could be vice versa. It’s some youngsters, man.. I remember when I came out with “My Ghetto Report Card,” one of my OG partners called me, and he was like, “40! Man, I’m over here with my nephews and my nieces and my kids and everybody, man. And they tellin’ me I ain’t up on E-40..”
And he said, “40, man. I told them, man, ‘40 old school.'” And I told the OG, “They don’t know that though. They feel like I’m new. So let ’em think it. Leave ’em alone. Stop talking to them about that old school sh-t.’ [Laughs].
So, it’s great to have that happy medium where we both scratching each other back. No “Brokeback,” you dig?
I mean, I was listening to “In A Major Way,” and that sh-t holds up.
Right on, man. They say that’s my best album ever, and I agree with them.
Was just playing it, prior to calling you here.. But uh, how are you looking forward to the end of the pandemic, this tragedy we’ve all been through here?
You know, man, I think God just does what he does. You know, God just work in mysterious ways. The strong gon’ survive. It’s been a lot of people that have made a lot of money during the “plandemic”.. [trails off, laughing] “plandemic”.. a lot of people that made a lot of money off this pandemic [laughs], and a lot of people that have not. But I think that it gave me time, and probably you and a whole bunch of others, time to sit back and focus a lot more on what we mainly want to do, also work on our passion projects. I’m one of them dudes that been with my wife since we was teenagers. So, I’m used to being home. I love it, you know? And then, my sons, they can’t see they partners as much as they can, so they here with me. And we always been close, ’cause we all do music, we play dominoes. We drink together. We do it all. We do everything together, the same sh-t. The sh-t that I like to do my kids love to do. That’s what’s so great about it. You know what I’m saying?
So, it brought a lot of families closer. Outside of my family, people in the suburbs and inner city, no matter where you at, some of these kids may not have known how to use a screwdriver or a wrench or a hammer. Maybe they never knew how to cut a line of grass because, you know, now your landscapers not coming over every day, even though my landscaper is here now outside. The girls are probably.. The young ladies in the house, mom and them teaching them how to bake and how to cook food and stuff, you know, if people didn’t normally cook for them at home, trying to do the same thing for their families and stuff like that. So it’s been a blessing at the same time as an unfortunate situation, the pandemic.