Rapper & Business Mogul E-40 On His Spirits and Wine Empire: “The Proof Is in the Juice”
During his decades-spanning career in hip-hop, Earl Stevens, a.k.a. E-40, has gone platinum and worked with fellow rap giants Snoop Dogg, Lil Jon, and the late Tupac Shakur, to name a few. Already cementing himself in the entertainment industry, Stevens’ progression into the wine and spirits spaces felt natural because he found music and booze working “hand in hand,” he mentions to EDITION. Stevens adds, “When you’re drinking any booze, it's always good to have music and some food with it. And when you make music or listen to music, it's always good to add some booze to it. So, that's a great pair.”
Stevens launched Earl Stevens Selections in 2013, debuting with the Function Red Blend, named after his 2012 hit single, “Function.” Since then, he’s sold bourbon, tequila, and Cognac, with plans to launch a vodka soon. We spoke to the legendary rapper and business mogul about how he got into wine and spirits and what he’s learned in building a beverage empire.
So, what compelled you to get into wine and spirits? Was there a particular spirit or cocktail?
Wine has always been something that I've always liked. I've always liked good wine. And I've always drunk wine even when I wasn’t supposed to be drinking wine. I drank wine when I was younger. I don't know if it's the Vallejo, California in me because our area code is the same as Napa Sonoma, where they grow all the best wine. Vallejo, California, is like 60 seconds out of Napa. So, we went wine tasting when I was younger – me, my wife, my mother-in-law, and my father-in-law used to go to Napa to taste wine. I ran across a wine called Muscat when I was about 21 or 22. I didn't know that it was actually Muscat from Moscato. It was sweet, and I was like, ‘This sh-t good as hell.’
I never thought at that time that I'd be making music and staying particularly great enough to make my Mangoscato, Tropiscato, and my regular Moscato. So, I just ended up having the opportunity to run across a guy I knew who worked for a company manufacturing wine. He told me to come down and go through some of the flavors that they had and see how I wanted to customize mine. That's when I came up with the Mangoscato. So, that was the first wine that I launched, and I launched it online. So, my first few cases were at a restaurant. Then, I sold my first pallet at Food 4 Less in Vallejo. From then on, it was all uphill. So, I started selling wine online, and the next thing you know, the demand built up. So, I went to talk to Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits, which is now the biggest distributor in the nation and brought my samples with me, and it was all good. So, now, I'm selling truckloads instead of just single bottles and cases.
Well, congratulations. That’s amazing! You first debuted in 2013 with red wine, right?
That was the first time I posted a picture online in late 2013. It was the Function Red Blend.
So, how involved are you with the day-to-day operations?
I'm 100% involved.
I ask because you never know the level of involvement – whether it’s lending a name or taking part in the processes.
No, this isn’t one of those situations. I know that many other artists are either brand ambassadors or will slap their name on something already established or get behind something that's been around and was just lesser-known but has been around for years. That's not my case. Mine was start-to-finish from the first idea of coming up with the name of whatever I'm going to do, whether it's Tycoon Cognac or E Cuarenta Tequila – which is E-40 in Spanish, or E-40 Sluricane Hurricane, which is lesser-known but has been around for years, or Earl Stevens Selections sparkling wine or the Tycoon Vodka that's coming – all this stuff is from the ground up. Earl Stevens Prosecco or the Prosecco rosé is all from my brand and me developing this and hiring the right people to do what I need them to do. I want to make sure that everything is professionally done, and it doesn't just look like a rapper who’s automatically stereotyped to throw a musical note on it and call it a day. I wanted it to be high-class and really elegant. That's why I came with that packaging on the wine and everything. You got to pay to play. So, I said, ‘F-ck it, I'm not going to cut any corners,’ and made sure my sh-t looked professional.
Love it! Getting into the spirits component, when did you decide to pivot into creating tequila and cognac?
Well, you know, opportunities. Once you're in it, you're in it. People got their connections and plugs even on the streets, and they don't give it up to people outside. You got to just be in it. Once you get in it, you just got to pay attention and rub shoulders. I mean, everything happened naturally to me. My cognac plug came out of nowhere with me sitting courtside at the Warriors game. If you want the money, you got to get next to the money. So, when you’re courtside for the most elite team in the whole NBA, and you're a season ticketholder on that hardwood floor, you rub shoulders with all kinds of wealthy people. So, this plug was actually one of those situations where I always wanted to do Cognac, and I had already trademarked Tycoon Spirits because I did it for vodka already. So, a fella came to me – and he just happened to work for Cognac accounts – and he was like, “You got all these brands. Have you thought about coming with a Cognac?” I said, ‘Hell yeah, I've thought about that.’ So, then I connected with them, and history was made.
I admire your authenticity – from being forthcoming with how involved you are with the brands to how you've been able to make these different connections. What do you feel you've learned in being this tycoon in the spirits and wine world?
Well, it's not easy, although I make it look easy. And I know that I'm doing something that many of us who look like me haven’t entered this arena, especially at the level that I'm on with it. Not many build a brand from start to finish in the music industry or let alone outside of the industry that's African American to have this many brands and own 100% of them. It’s not just owning them that makes you successful, but I'm having success with a lucrative business. I am truly grateful. Since the beginning of time booze has been around, and America was built on booze. So, I think every hour is happy hour.
I love that mentality. What are some of your plans going into the balance of the year?
I plan to continue to spread my brand and enter new states. I want to extract more space, get more accounts, run more centers, and make sure to spread the word because I want to do a lot of tastings. That's where it's at, you know? The proof is in the juice.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.