The beginning of the new year brought disheartening news that Sultan Banks, better known as the producer Traxamillion, died on January 2 in Santa Clara after a battle with nasopharyngeal cancer. He was 42, and according to KQED, is survived by his 19-year-old son and his father. Over the past four days, the hip-hop community has mourned Banks’ death, the most recent loss of a rap icon gone before their time.
On numerous hip-hop records, Traxamillion helped create a unique sound that gave Bay Area residents pride, setting the region’s music scene apart from the East Coast, South, and Southern California. The many people sharing remembrances and grief over the past few days remind us that Traxamillion was not only one of the most important innovators of the Bay’s unique musical sounds, but he was most importantly someone people knew as a friend.
In his interview with KMEL in 2016, Traxamillion said making music was “a blessing.” Ideas came to him as a feeling, and listeners were influenced to continue the energy.
His 2006 album The Slapp Addict featured other giants of the Bay Area hip-hop community, including a collaboration with Zion I for the song Top Down. Like Sultan, Stephen “Zumbi” Gaines of Zion I passed away at an early age last year. Sultan also brought together San Francisco’s San Quinn, Oakland’s Mistah F.A.B., and Vallejo’s Turf Talk for Grown Man (remix). Would we even know how to “go dumb at the sideshow” if it weren’t for another Traxamillion production, Mistah F.A.B and Too Short’s song The Sideshow?
Long-time friend and producer Marqus “DJ Fresh” Brown met Banks around the time he began his album series The Tonite Show in 2006. The duo held online DJ battles years before the popular music series Verzuz entertained masses on Instagram. They also collaborated by producing Mistah F.A.B’s mixtape Year 2006 (2018).
“From a musical standpoint, he was always willing to try new things,” said Brown. “He was a pioneer. He helped usher in a fresh new sound everywhere, all across the world.”
Traxamillion was also the trailblazer behind the distinguishable bass heavy beat of Keak Da Sneak’s Super Hyphy, the namesake of a movement. Hyphy wasn’t just music. Those familiar with the sounds Traxamillion and others were creating called it the Hyphy movement, an artistic and cultural shift symbolized by shaking locks, grills, 808 sounds, and sideshows.
“He provided the soundtrack for that time, taking the energy of the streets and putting it into a musical space,” said Kev Choice, a musician and member of Oakland’s Cultural Commission. “Letting the world hear what it sounded like, he was very integral in that aspect.”
As the Hyphy movement gained national attention, Bay Area slang had a soundtrack that was unmistakable. Every song is a reminder of that one summer, that party, that first date, or that taco truck. “Going dumb” was rhythmic.
“It’s something about the base, recognizable melodies,” said Choice. “It’s nostalgic to us because it takes us back to a certain period. It reminds us of our culture, our neighborhood, our community, and takes us to certain spaces.” Hyphy music was the inspiration for Choice’s live shows featuring his band with the Oakland Symphony in 2019.
Traxamillion’s discography shows a range in his production ability and highlights different community identities. Tech Boom (2016) was his way of representing those from the South Bay and his hometown of San Jose. In 2020, he made an entirely instrumental album, Super Beat Fighter, based on the sounds of the video game Street Fighter. His most recent work, Sirens, featured all women artists, including San Francisco’s Qing Qi, who in an interview with KQED said Traxamillion broke down gender barriers in a male-dominated industry.
“Those songs [Hyphy music] are now the anthem of the Bay.” said artist Jorge Bejarano, who created a 13-foot canvas painting for Traxamillion’s home, bridging San Jose and Oakland, two cities he loved. “The hyphy movement caught me during high school and was the peak of sideshows for us,” said Bejarano. “It muted everything else and it was just about hyphy movement for a while.”
Oakland R&B artist Netta Brielle, also featured on Sirens, recalled that Banks loved to experiment with different sounds, including 80s pop music. It was Sultan’s production on Brielle’s mixtapes that got her a recording contract with Atlantic records.
“He was so excited to be a part of something that was R&B influenced, that had singing, bridges and harmonies, things outside of what he was normally doing,” said Brielle. “He isn’t just the hyphy sound, that sound that he was boxed in. He was so much more.”
Behind the music was a man who was cherished by people he met. With his passing came an outpouring of appreciation and love. Friends shared that Banks maintained an even temper and positive attitude even before he began facing his challenges with cancer.
Each time Bejarano went to work on the mural in Banks’ home the two would have conversations about music and life in Oakland.
“I admired that peace that he had everywhere we went,” said Bejarano. “There was nothing that excited him too much, or that brought him down too much.”
Brown described Banks as “a warm dude,” and mostly introverted. Banks didn’t have a large entourage and enjoyed time alone, which he explained was common for a producer. “I’ve never seen him angry,” said Brown. “When we would have conversations about the music game, he would express his frustrations. But I’ve never seen him angry.”
“He was just a classy guy and such an honor to work with,” said Brielle. Outside of the studio, Brielle said that Banks gave her confidence, encouraging her artistry. In weeks prior to his passing, Banks called Brielle to express gratitude for the opportunity to experiment musically and continued to share his new tracks of music with her.
“It wasn’t just a work relationship. It was like a partnership, a friendship and family,” she said. “That’s not something that’s popular when you think about the music industry.”
The interlude My Angels, from Brielle’s 2015 album 580, was a song that Banks told her reminded him of his mother, Tina Banks, who passed away in 2020. “Now that song for me is closing my eyes and seeing him,” said Brielle. “I never finished [the song]. But maybe I will now.”
There was no shortage of kind words and love shared for the man who helped to usher in a new sound to represent the Bay Area. Traxamillion’s love for the Bay Area created a sonic memory for his community.
“He’s been at peace, and it’s cliche to say, but he’s at peace now,” said Brown.