Erica Reynolds is a petite, attractive 28-year-old with chunky high-heeled boots and manicured nails. She grew up singing in the church choir at Holy Ghost Temple Church of God and Christ in Richmond, fell in love with hip-hop as a young girl, and began rapping under the stage name Silk-E. At age sixteen she left home over conflicts with her strict God-fearing mother, gave birth to a son, and moved into an apartment by Lake Merritt. She paid the rent doing freelance work for other rappers, either by singing hooks or dropping guest verses on their tracks. By that time Silk-E charged up to $1,500 per cameo, putting herself on the higher-end of the market spectrum in a business that was — and is — hostile to female entrepreneurs.
Twelve years hence, Silk-E still uses her hip-hop career to put food on the table and care for her son. She optimizes her revenue stream by singing and rapping: She’s shared stages with Ledisi, Martin Luther, the Coup (replacing former backup singer and American Idol star Latoya London), Kev Choice, and reggae artist Rankin Screw, in addition to sporadic gospel gigs and session dates with nearly every Bay Area rap artist on the radio. She’s managed to balance the rigors of parenthood — which now include science fairs and spelling bees, she said — with a vocation that requires her to have an iron-hand demeanor, just to keep from getting burned. Last year, Silk-E finally teamed up with a man who’d been one of her rap idols growing up, though his music was forbidden in her mother’s house: Oakland mogul Too $hort.
No doubt they make an odd couple. $hort, after all, is not exactly known for his enlightened gender politics. “When people first heard we were working together, I know they were like, ‘What?!'” said Silk-E. “Because people know me as the girl that’ll tell you about yourself if you try to be slick. For him to be known as the guy that will just kinda say whatever, I know they were just kinda shocked.” She actually met Too $hort about ten years ago, coming outside of a Rahsaan Patterson R&B show at Emeryville’s now-defunct Kimball’s East club. Too $hort had not come for the show. Rather, he’d come to the parking lot to greet Patterson’s female fans as they walked to their cars. “He mighta asked me my name — you know just, ‘Hey lady, what’s your name?’ I was like, ‘I’m Silk-E.’ He was like, ‘Oh, the rapper? Oh, all right. I’m sure we’ll work together in a minute.’ And he walked off.” Though she claims to have been a longtime fan, Silk-E must have been immune to $hort’s cult of adoration. She describes their first encounter offhandedly: “I rap, so it’s kinda like, these are all my colleagues.”
At one point, Silk-E’s mother would have been horrified to hear her describe Too $hort as a “colleague.” The elder Ms. Reynolds was a church organist, single mother of three girls (Silk-E was the oldest), and strict disciplinarian. She enjoined her daughters to come straight home after school and prohibited rap music — and, for that matter, all secular music — in the house. “She was serious. …When school let out, ‘Come home.’ So when I hit sixteen I moved out and I moved to Oakland, and I have been there ever since.”
Granted, Silk-E gave her mother plenty to worry about. She ran with a crew of girls who lived in the Barrett Apartments, in a rougher part of Richmond. Her best friend was killed there in the crossfire of a drive-by shooting. “Leading into high school we had a group called Two of a Kind,” Silk-E said. “I met her at fourteen and she was dead by the time I was sixteen.” Around that time Silk-E got shot in the face with a pellet gun. Within a year, another friend from her high school crew would be killed. All that carnage compounded her mother’s fear that Silk-E would be exploited by her male counterparts in the rap game. “It scared her because she didn’t want anybody to talk me into anything,” Silk-E said. “You know, you didn’t want your daughter to get sucked in and be one of these studio floozies.”
But Silk-E’s career began taking off once she moved out. She established herself as a gun-for-hire and charged high fees for guest appearances on other people’s rap songs — first $500, then $700, and eventually, $1,500. She landed spots on a few Bay Area compilations (including Time to Ride and Pimps, Playaz, and Husslahs) and eventually hooked up with Oakland rap financier Ron Blackburn, founder of the label Ronlan Entertainment. Blackburn sent her demo to MTV’s The Cut, a talent competition hosted by TLC’s Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes. Silk-E became a contestant on the show and won the final rounds in 1998 with a song called “Respect.” In 1999 she released the album Urban Therapy on Ronlan Entertainment. The following year, Blackburn was fatally shot in a fight at San Francisco club the Glas Kat.
Silk-E soldiered on. She befriended soul singers Ledisi and Martin Luther, who later introduced her to the Coup’s Boots Riley. Silk-E started touring with the Coup in 2004 and quickly established herself in the backpacker realm, garnering a much broader fanbase than the more hardcore “turf” audience that had supported her previous projects with E-40 and San Quinn. At the same time she helped give the Coup a rougher edge, with her raspy voice and sharp, metallic delivery. By the time she hooked up with Too $hort in 2007, years of navigating through the hip-hop world — mostly without outside management or financial backing — had turned her into a no-nonsense female powerhouse. Two of her most successful songs to date were “Respect” and “You Can Keep the Bullshit with Her,” and she went by the motto “hit woman for hire.” She was, and is, exactly the opposite of the typical woman in a Too $hort rap song.
Yet, it seems to work. “Me and $hort will do songs that’ll probably be the perfect cat and dog fight, but the respect level is there,” said Silk-E. “It’s two artists doing many different types of songs together as opposed to the traditional man-woman bashing. It’s not a battle of the sexes.” Her latest project with $hort is the band Town Bizness, which also features Kev Choice; Martin Luther; bassist Elijah Baker and drummer Brian Collier (both from Tony! Toni! Toné!); and Legally Blynd guitarist Jubu Smith. Silk-E is the first to admit it’s a weird assortment of people. Their new single, “Red Bull and Vodka” is a bizarre, new-wave-ish dance track that sounds almost as though it’s trying to turn glitchy electronic music into the new hyphy. But it’s exciting.
As Silk-E rose up the ranks in hip-hop, relations with her mother finally improved. “She has had all these wild scares of wondering where was I at and was I not in the right place. You know, ’cause you don’t know what these dudes are into, so you have to be mindful of where you’re willing to go, where you’re willing to meet ’em, what’s on their mind — you don’t know if they’re on something. So I think once she figured out that I had the respect of a lot of my peers and that I knew how to carry myself, then she kind of was okay.”