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I can’t remember the first time I heard a Traxamillion song, but I always knew when it was his. My fellow Bay Area natives agree; for homegrown ’90s babies, it seems like he was always there, pumping bass, mixing frenetic drums and pulsing sounds I still can’t identify to this day to complement the biggest names in Bay Area hip-hop. And he was.
Born Sultan Banks in New Jersey and raised in San Jose, Traxamillion was a multitalented and prolific music producer who’d worked with all the Bay Area OGs, and then some. Too $hort? Repeatedly. Keak da Sneak? Super-hyphily. E-40, Mac Dre, San Quinn, Andre Nickatina, the Pack, Mistah FAB, the Jacka? Obviously. He even produced a song for Andy Samberg’s satirical 2016 movie, “Popstar.”
Few musicians can confidently claim they catalyzed an entire sonic movement (and Trax never would), but his ingenuity and dogged work ethic fostered the raucous, musical joy we know as the hyphy movement. On Jan. 2, he passed away at the age of 42 in Santa Clara from nasopharyngeal cancer.
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His death has reverberated across the Bay Area, from his hometown of the 408 to Oakland to Richmond, and all the disparate fans who succumbed to the zany energy of his productions online or at a clandestine sideshow. Many know Traxamillion for anthems like Keak da Sneak’s “Super Hyphy,” San Quinn’s “San Francisco Anthem” and Mistah FAB’s “Sideshow,” but his musical inclinations were even more expansive than the hits let on.
Former Soul Beat TV host and BET producer Chuck Johnson, who now heads Ultimate Gaming League, calls him “a galvanizer” with a “visionary mindset.” Johnson, who cut his teeth hosting Soul Beat’s “The Rap Show” in the mid-1990s, first heard about Traxamillion as the song “Super Hyphy” was exploding in 2005 and putting Bay Area artists in the national spotlight. By then Johnson was working for BET as a producer, and knew he would be remiss if he did not seek Trax out for the network’s 2006 “Hyphy Week.”
“That song was a kick in the door; it really let you know the end is here now. He was at the forefront,” Johnson says. “He never tried to blend in.”
While most point to Traxamillion’s 2006 album “The Slapp Addict” (on which “Sideshow” appears) as his breakthrough project and a blueprint for the hyphy movement, Trax had always been musically inclined. San Jose can get overlooked within the ranks of Bay Area music ingenuity, but it’s precisely the landscape of cultural interaction that fertilized his fully realized sound.
He was barely a teenager when he began making beats and rapping in the 408, eventually forming a group called Lackadaisical with other local rappers Dem One and Jesse Jones. The group was short-lived, and Trax eventually began seeking out new artists and collaborations to further his craft. It was around this time in the early 2000s that he met Kevin Allen, known in the hip-hop world as Erk tha Jerk.
“I was looking for production, the top people. He was one of those guys,” Allen says. They would collaborate on multiple songs (many unreleased) under the same management through the next near-two decades, including Erk’s 2009 hit “Right Here,” and “Hands on It” and “Work” from Traxamillion’s 2012 album “My Radio.” Trax will always be remembered for his infrastructure of 2000s slaps, but Allen says his tastes and talents were even more eclectic.
“What was special about him was he could capture the best parts of whatever he was making. He was tuned into music that way; he took the song to the next level. Trax could rap, write songs, sing; he could do everything in the studio,” he says. “I just want people to understand his fullness, as a producer and more so as a man. He was able to galvanize people; he was a rare person.”
If the sheer spectrum of voices who have come out to share their stories working with and just knowing Traxamillion wasn’t indication enough, his discography speaks for itself. As hyphy’s star eventually faded, Trax continued pushing the boundaries of what Bay Area hip-hop could be. His 2016 album, “The Tech Boom” centered artists from his hometown, a place Johnson says he had a “reverence for” and which has weathered the long-term impacts of tech-related gentrification.
According to San Jose native and multimedia artist Jeff “Silence” Arthur, Trax also frequented local artist hub MeezyArt and never turned down a chance to chop it up; he “changed music out here forever. He inspired the hell out of me, and I never got a chance to tell him that,” Arthur says. So many of us are thinking the same thing.
The last album Traxamillion put out before the coronavirus pandemic was the 2020 project “Super Beat Fighter,” an homage to his love for the Street Fighter video game franchise. Just a matter of weeks before the Bay Area went into lockdown, he held the Traxamillion Celebrity Street Fighter Tournament & Listening Party at the San Francisco arcade bar Emporium, with the tournament hosted by Chuck Johnson’s Ultimate Gaming League.
“He’s a gamer too!”, Johnson says.
Solidifying a Legacy
KQED Arts editor Nastia Voynovskaya wrote on Twitter that “his passing is an incalculable loss,” and it’s true; there was still much for Trax to achieve, and endurance of his influence will be shaped by the years to come. San Francisco musician and recording engineer D.E.O. tweeted, “Traxamillion was one of the most giving creatives out here.. he never minded sharing his genius.”
Traxamillion’s final project was 2021’s “Sirens,” an album with exclusively women artists, both singers and rappers that bolstered the growing shift in hip-hop’s gender divide.
It’s easy to say now that Trax will always be remembered and given credit for the Bay Area’s sonic legacy. But we must do the work now, as friends, collaborators and fans, to ensure what we know of him remains on the record.
“Now it’s our job to let it be known what the history is when you talk about the culture of music,” Allen says. “His legacy for people that loved him is for people to push his name and continue to give him flowers. He is part of Bay Area history and culture. That’s brother to me. Condolences to his immediate family.”