Reef the Lost Cause has been a staple on the Philadelphia rap scene for 15 years, getting his start in the late 1990s. In that time, he has established himself as a battle rapper nonpareil and he’s garnered quite a bit of critical acclaim for both his studio work and live performances. On a personal level, he is also one of the nicest guys I’ve met in Philly. If you want to root for a local performer, you can hardly do better than getting behind Reef. Here he talks about what inspires him to write, why rappers don’t tend to like each other much, and what huge hip-hop legend gave him props after seeing him perform live.
JGT: Ok, so how did you first get into hip-hop? What was the first song or album that really caught your ear?
REEF: Well I’m a child of the 80s so I don’t recall a time it wasn’t apart of my life. My uncle rapped, my cousins were breaking and rocking all the latest fashion. I think I started writing raps at like 7 years old. My first loves in this where Big Daddy KANE and LL. Kane is the GOAT to me.
JGT: At what point were you like, “You know what, I want to do this for a living?”
REEF: Well I honestly wanted to do it for a living since maybe 16. It was just something I loved and it always came naturally for me. But I was young and just thought I would somehow get a record deal and riches and fame. It wasn’t until I was way older and had worked and worked and built my foundation that I was able to leave my day job and actually survive off music. And it’s still a struggle to this day.
JGT: What would the “experienced you” tell the “16-year old you” about the hip-hop business?
REEF: I think I would tell him to study more of the business side first. I spent so much time just being an artist and making dope music that I didn’t learn a lot about that side of things until later and some of those things I learned the hard way. The way things are now you can’t just be an artist, you’ve got to be a businessman, No way around it. I always hated that side of it, but I’m now learning it doesn’t matter how much you hate it you have to do it, so I’m playing catch up in a lot of ways.
JGT: In the early 2000s you started to create a name for yourself locally and in NYC. Was there a time when you thought, “OK, here comes the fortune and the fame, right around the corner?” Or did you know that your style (intelligent, thought provoking) doesn’t translate typically to mainstream success in hip-hop these days, and that your future was going to be as an underground artist?
REEF: I mean there were moments I felt like maybe I was about to breakthrough but in all honesty looking back I can see that the music I was making and continue to make is not the type of stuff that the bigwigs want to fuck with. But I have still always felt my music can reach the highest amount of people possible if the right people got behind it. That has yet to happen but I can’t look back or wait around for anyone. Gotta keep moving and work with the hand I was dealt. It’s by no means a royal flush but it ain’t a bad hand at all.
JGT: Do most underground American rappers today make the majority of their money by touring overseas?
REEF: I mean that’s really the last place most in our profession can really make good money. There are a select few that can tour the states and get paid properly but its a very small group.
JGT: Why is it that underground hip-hop seems to be so much more appreciated overseas?
REEF: I think it just has to do with the love affair that those kids have with the idea of what hiphop should be. They still show the utmost (respect) to all the elements: breaking, graf, MCing, turntablism, hell even beatboxing. They still have that type of respect for it because like all things, when you’re a vistor to something or somewhere you tend to show love to things that people that have it all the time take for granted. Like when’s the last time you visted the Liberty Bell??
JGT: Ha! That’s an interesting way of looking at it. It’s funny, in a recent interview I did, with local musician Kenn Kweder, he said that the big problem he had when he came along in the 1970s was the Star Wars mindset…people weren’t looking for just a good artist who could sell a few albums anymore, they were looking for someone who could be a HUGE success by doing the simplest songs for the largest potential crowd possible. And to do so meant keeping things extremely simple. Do you see that in hip-hop, and if so is that frustrating for you as an artist?
REEF: Word, I dig that. He’s right. I mean that’s with everything though. No-one wants to just be getting by we all want to be the most successful we can be and the music business is the watermark for that. People are created in labs now ya know? LOL. But hey there’s that Micheal Bay movie that makes a billion dollars every summer that everyone hates a year later, and then there’s the beautiful Indie film that becomes a classic and is studied for years. That’s the career I have. Of course the money would be nice! But people hitting me up saying they are just hearing and loving something I did 12 years ago, that lets me know the music is gonna outlast anything I could do while I’m here.
JGT: That’s awesome. Ok, so what’s the best part of the job?
REEF: What I just described man. The people. The people. The people. Knowing that what I’m doing is loved and respected by all walks of life in places I’ve never even heard of. That gives me chills. Hope. Some peace. The music has given me a purpose and an idenity in this life. A lot of folks spend forever trying to figure out what they want to do, who they want to be. I found my path early and have been able to walk it and see results. And it’s only my first act. I just am hitting my 30s and I feel more creative and free then I ever have. Can’t wait to see what comes next.
JGT: What’s the toughest part of the job?
REEF: The ends not justfying the means sometimes. I have friends that make a ton of money doing this, and I have friends that make little to none. I’m somewhere in between. And when it was just me, I could handle that. But I have a family now and sometimes it feels like they suffer because of how shaky this business is. Some months it’s steak and shrimp, some months it’s turkey sandwhiches. And that’s heartbreaking. That’s something that hurts more then anything, knowing that what you do for a living might not be enough and wondering what to do about it. That keeps me up at night.
JGT: Who are some of the bigger names in hip-hop you’ve performed with? Any guys, where you were like “Holy shit! This guy was my idol and now I’m performing on the same show as him!”?
REEF: Well today my brothers the Snowgoons just dropped an album with PMD from EPMD and I’m on the album and had to chance to build with him in Canada and it was surreal. He was so honest and candid. OC was one of the first people I toured with overseas he showed mad love. DMC came up to me at a show and told me he was blown away by my performance.
JGT: DMC told you he was blown away? Holy shit. That’s where I would think about dropping the mic, saying “I did it. F*** all y’all!” and getting an office job. Alright, so what’s a typical day like for you, work-wise?
REEF: Well I’m a stay at home dad, so I’m with my son until about 6:30 pm, just me and him. Its definitely been a change of pace, but it’s been beautiful. Once his mom gets home I usually answer emails, or start writing for whatever I’m working on. Some nights I’m in the studio, if not there I’m performing somewhere or hitting an event one of my friends is throwing.
JGT: What is something that most people don’t know about the rap game?
REEF: I don’t think there’s much anymore they don’t know. Between social media and 20-million hiphop blogs and websites, there are no secrets now. Everyone’s business is out in the open. I think everyone knows it’s all smoke and mirrors, everyone knows most rappers aren’t friends. One thing they may not know is that it’s work. It seems like rappers are always partying and living it up but the ones that have the most consistant careers are workaholics. Only way to remain relevant now, is to outwork everyone else.
JGT: Why are most rappers not friends? Is it just too cut throat of a business to trust anyone?
REEF: I mean I don’t think most actors are or ball players or hell even like bartenders. LOL. Everyone’s just tryin’ to win man.
JGT: What is your process? Do you sit down and say, “Ok, I’m gonna write for the next two hours?” Or do you all of a sudden get a great idea and go run and get it down and then call someone and say meet me at the studio in half an hour?
REEF: For me it’s like homework assignment. I rarely ever just write for fun, if I have an idea or concept I might jot it down or if a line pops up in my head I will write down to not forget but most of my songs now start with a beat. I have nonstop beats coming to me all the time so I will go through them until I find that one that makes me feel something or inspires me to write. Once I find that one, I sit with it until the words come or the concept comes, if there is one at all.
Usually I like to write the hook first because that sets the tone for what the song will be about. Then I will write a rough draft, then subtract and add where needed. Once that’s done I will go over it to make sure its right and that I have it down pat cuz when I go to record I don’t want to waste time. When it comes to recording I usually go to one of 3 home studios I use, where I feel most comfortable and will record it in a few takes. To be honest, I hate the studio, so I won’t do 50 takes or hang out and “vibe”. I wanna get in and get out. So I will come with 3 songs ready, record them and be on my way home in an hour. Ask anyone that’s ever worked with me, I get in and get the fuck out. Its called preparation ya know?
I come from the 2pac school of recording. He always said no more then two or three takes should be needed. If you ain’t got it right after that, it’s probably not gonna be right.
JGT: Alright, last one: what does the future hold for Reef the Lost Cause?
REEF: Since November I’ve just been writing like a madman. I put out the REEFTHELOSTCAUZEISDEAD mixtape, I have an EP with my man Dumhi who did “Philly Cousins” on production that’s dropping May 14th, and another EP with my brother Emynd on production dropping July 9th. After that I’m gonna be working on this joint album with Blacastan from Army of the Pharaohs, there’s the new AOTP and then I got another solo coming. Might drop a mixtape in bewteen all that too. And finally my newest venutre is my podcast. Just dropped the first one last week. I’m more excited about this then anything right now check it out www.soundcloud.com/reefradio