Emari Stevens came from one of the few Bay Area families that could be called a hip-hop dynasty. His father, Earl Stevens, is better known as E-40, a local emcee who has sustained a 30-year string of radio hits. Scattered among his family tree are rappers B-Legit, D-Shot, Turf Talk, and Suga-T, who eventually found her voice in gospel. Emari's brother, Earl Stevens Jr. — aka Droop-E — gained notoriety as a producer during the hyphy era. For the younger Stevens to enter any field other than hip-hop would have been outré.
So it seemed natural that Emari, now 18, would cobble his first beats together in junior high, using software bequeathed from his father. Around that time he started wearing flashy clothes, including Coogi pants with neon stitching and a $500 Ed Hardy jacket with gold drawstrings — mostly to be "that guy," he'd say later. He meticulously took down the names of luxury cars, studied commercial pop artists, and frittered away time in his father's three home recording studios. When he was 14 years old, Droop-E rechristened him "Issue." It seemed like a rite of passage.
But Issue ultimately had to veer away from his family pedigree in order to stake out his place in the hip-hop world. Although he looks like a younger E-40, his music sounds nothing like the catchy, funk-based fare that made his father famous. It's vehemently radio-unfriendly, nearly void of backbeats, and closer to experimental noise than to conventional hip-hop. Whereas E-40 helped bring mainstream recognition to hip-hop in the early '90s, Issue is pulling it back to the avant-garde.
He says the departure was deliberate. "I don't try to be normal," Issue explains, sitting over a half-eaten blueberry muffin at a Starbucks in San Ramon, looking as normal as any other customer. He wears an oversized hoodie and square Ray Bans, which give him the nerdy, vaguely professorial look that his father was known for. Diamond stud earrings glint from each ear.
The way Issue describes it, being the son of a famous rapper was equally enabling and unnerving. He grew up in a large house in the suburbs of Contra Costa County, with a stay-at-home mother and a father who launched various business ventures — a San Jose hip-hop club, Fatburger and Wingstop franchises, a book of slang, and a line of energy drinks — while retaining longevity on local hip-hop radio. Issue's parents were high school sweethearts who met in the school band; his uncles and aunts sang in church choirs; his family encouraged Little League and Pop Warner football. Famous rappers flitted in and out of the house and tourists occasionally stood outside to snap photos. Despite those intrusions it was, by many measures, an idyllic childhood.
But Issue also chafes in the public eye. When gawkers stand outside the family home, he memorizes the make and model of their vehicles. In most of his social network profile photos, Issue wears a wrestling mask that conceals his entire face. When he launches his inaugural stage tour next year, he'll bring the mask with him.
"I'm kind of a shy guy," Issue confesses, later insisting that the mask just looks cool.
His first recordings got a poor reception in middle school, mostly because they were so far afield from traditional West Coast hip-hop. "People didn't like it too much," he recalls. "They kind of joked about it. Not toward me — it was more to their friends, and I'd hear it from somebody else." His voice pitched defensively. "I already knew it was different."
"Different" was code for music that all but abandoned the pleasure principle. If anything, Issue's music has gotten weirder in the four years since his debut. "I don't understand how I'm between a rat and a pharaoh," the rapper murmurs over a high, clamorous vocal — actually a sample of the Flaming Lips covering Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon — on the I Am Issue mixtape. Issue proceeds with a series of breezy comparisons ("More gold than King Tut/ More cheese than Pizza Hut") punctuated by mumbled appeals to the audience. "You know what I'm saying?" he asks throughout "Gold & Cheese," in the tone of one who wants to appear disinterested, but secretly seeks approval.
With its whimsical, slurred verses and slapped-on instrumentals, Issue's music has the veneer of being off-the-cuff. It's actually quite calculated, says the rapper, who writes many of his lyrics ahead of time and purchases his beats from a slew of producers-for-hire, mostly in the electronic realm. The one he produced himself, called "Don't Disturb My Fly," has the lanky boom-slap beat of conventional hip-hop, though it's punctured with low drones and a soft peal of vocals.
While it's certainly not fit for radio, I Am Issue is clever enough to dispel any suspicion that Issue is a mere heir, rather than an artist in his own right. Issue's music caught a small Internet following after Droop-E tweeted his first mixtape — aptly titled E1 — in 2010. He's produced 10 tapes since then, while courting fans and potential business partners over Twitter. One such partner, a British hip-hop enthusiast named David "Davey Boy" Sadeghi, eventually became Issue's manager and booked the rapper's first European tour.
"[He] definitely feels like an outsider in the Bay Area rap circles," Sadeghi wrote in an e-mail, adding that Issue might do better in Europe than in his hometown, owing, in part, to the attention he's garnered from European bloggers. Issue is also entertaining the idea of resettling in Paris.
Issue chalks that up to artistic sensibility and generational differences, rather than a direct rejection of the family line. He came up at a time when hip-hop stars killed their idols and eschewed old modes of production, when being an "outlaw" meant throwing out the snare and hi-hat, rather than addressing street violence.
"A lot of people compare me to my dad," Issue says, his voice bristling. "I wasn't born where he was born, you know? ... I didn't do what he did."
The comparison still nettles him, though he accepts it. A famous bloodline is his particular cross to bear.