California’s greatest art is supposedly created by collisions between the different culture in our biggest cities.  

But if that’s true, how did Vallejo become a capital of hip hop?

The North Bay city of 120,000, in producing generations of acclaimed rappers, makes the case that, in our era of hyper-connectivity, the isolation of life on the outskirts can be its own potent form of artistic inspiration. 

Indeed, most of Vallejo’s long line of rappers—from Mac Dre and E-40 to the new group SOB x RBE—have roots in the same out-of-the-way neighborhood, Country Club Crest. 

“The Crest,” as it’s known, is a suburban-style community of fewer than 10,000 people. But it sits on the far northern edge of the city, up against the Napa County border, cut off from the rest of Vallejo by Highway 37 and Interstate 80. That sense of separation makes The Crest a self-contained hothouse of conversation. On a recent visit, I wandered into intense talks between neighbors at Dick Bass Park and King’s Supermarket. 

And Vallejo gives its citizens plenty to talk about, with municipal ups-and-downs as dramatic as the rollercoasters of Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, the theme park that looms over The Crest.  

The neighborhood was settled after World War II by African Americans who were looking to buy homes. But the middle-class aspirations of The Crest have been repeatedly challenged—by drugs in the 1980s, by the closure of Mare Island Naval Shipyard in the 1990s, and by the Great Recession in the 2000s. 

The recession, and the unsustainably high retirement benefits of Vallejo law enforcement, also pushed the city of Vallejo into a terrible bankruptcy that lasted from 2008 to 2011. To dig itself out, the city chose to protect its own employee’s pensions, and instead balanced the books with huge cuts to government services.

Vallejo’s disasters, for all their damage, also have inspired Vallejo’s rappers, chief among them Mac Dre. His groundbreaking records established the “hyphy movement,” which addressed life’s difficulties with hyper, dance-friendly beats, perfect for partying with his drug of choice, “thizz,” or ecstasy. 

Mac Dre was so generous in supporting local rappers and building a homegrown music culture that he came to define Bay Area hip hop. While L.A. rappers style themselves as gangsters, Bay Area rappers are hustlers: sweeter, idiosyncratic, entrepreneurial—and thus more relatable, since California is a state full of hustlers. 

Since he was shot to death in 2004, at age 34, Mac Dre has become a regional patron saint whose ethic of mutual aid is carried on by E-40, who still mentors up-and-coming rappers from Vallejo.

There is a bittersweet side to hip hop’s connection to Vallejo. When hometown artists rap about the city, they express pride in being from Vallejo, but less pride in Vallejo.  Rappers have been especially tough on the city’s police department—and with good reason. Vallejo has one of the state’s highest rates of fatal police shootings. Some of those shootings—including last year’s killing of a rapper, Willie McCoy, who fell asleep in a Taco Bell drive-thru—drove  the successful push for a new state standard on police use-of-force. 

All the rapping about Vallejo’s problems does rankle some locals, who point out the rhymes are scarier than the reality. But the Vallejo of rap music is a winner with audiences and critics. Last year, the New Yorker magazine named SOB x RBE’s song “Paid in Full” one of its 10 top songs of 2018, praising the “delightful, prancing spite” of that group of Vallejo teenagers, who produced their first songs on a PlayStation. Today, SOB x RBE are performing across North America, and showcasing their ability to make stories of rough circumstances sound like fun.

This gift is characteristic of Vallejo. “We’re very manipulative, you know? We can talk our way out of a bad situation,” the young Vallejo rapper Nef the Pharaoh told the music writer Justin Carroll-Allan. “Vallejo went bankrupt, yet we still manipulate people to move there, we still manipulate people to come spend money at Six Flags.”

As Nef explains on his album “Fresh Outta Space 3,” when you’re from the  outskirts, you must make sure you’re not ignored.

Big trucks, big grills

I just bought my baby boy a big wheel

My city’s small and I’m big, now that’s trill

When they ask how I live?

Everything big

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.