“I live this shit and this is something you get paid to do,” Reef the Lost Cauze declares on the intro to his fifth studio album Fight Music. It’s that same mentality that almost drove the Philadelphia spitter away from the game, as the politics and behind-closed-doors antics grew to be too much.
Luckily for the rest of us, Reef took a step back, a deep breath and racked up the miles traveling to Virginia and Boston to work with production duo Guns-N-Butter on Fight Music, an album produced entirely by the team of Stu Bangas and J-$crilla. The album finds Reef rediscovering what he does best – dropping witty punchlines at the drop of a hat while still providing fans with deeper tracks they can zone out to.
HipHopGame caught up with the Army of the Pharaohs affiliate to discuss his new album, politrix of the game and much more.
Fight Music is your fifth album and arguably your most polished record to date. Do you feel like it’s your biggest release so far?
Absolutely. I think it’s not only the biggest but also the most important. I’m getting older. I’m trying to establish myself and get myself in the position where I can really make sure that music is my future because right now it’s very back and forth. I see some of my favorite MCs throwing in the towel because the game is so messed up. I think this is the biggest with how it needs to do as far as making the impact. It’s the biggest there and Enemy Soil, the label behind it, is a powerhouse. The guest features and the overall buzz for it, it’s definitely the biggest of my career. I think it needs to be because of the fact that to the public, it’s my third album but to me, it’s really like my fifth or sixth record. It’s funny because this is the one that I’ve put the least amount of pressure on. I’m usually stressing and I told myself I was going to let it do what it does and it’s gotten some really good responses from people. I’m excited for what the future holds.
You start out the intro saying it’s “not hipster rap, it’s that official vicious rap.” How important was it for you to let people know that you were coming hard out the gate?
It’s a major part of my identity. It’s something that I’m very adamant about as far as letting people know where I’m coming from and what I stand for. Not to take a shot at hipster rap, but that shit’s just wack to me and it’s not something that I can see myself ever doing. I do different types of songs that aren’t always about punching you in the face but this is the 18-19 year-old Reef where I’m chopping heads. The intro is my favorite track on the record because I’m getting things off my chest and talking about what I went through when I was recording this record. I had to let people know what they were getting themselves into when they pushed play. It’s extremely important to me.
Why do you think “official vicious rap” is in the minority today?
I don’t know, man. I think we’re in a state where hip-hop has kind of morphed into different worlds and different sectors. You have the majority of people that are “running hip-hop” now, just coming from a whole different place from the people who originally started it. What I mean is that it started in the streets and it started in the ghettoes and the ciphers in the alleyways and the stairwells and I think the people who once represented that have been taken over by a new power, which is really suburban kids who grew up loving hip-hop and for better or worse, started making it. This is why you have groups who I would consider are not musically talented but they dress very well and they have that image of being “downtown cool.” The same reason those acts are successful is because the same people who are writing about them are at their parties. The same people that are spinning their records are their DJs. It’s all one big circle jerk. If you look at the indie game has sort of become the mirror for this morphing.
Even some people that I know that started off just kind of representing that hip-hop music, they tried to go over to the other side and they got burnt doing that. Hip-hop changes every few years and I think the creative energy got so stagnant that people stopped focusing on lyrics and more on how tight your jeans were and what kind of sneakers you have on. I think the lyricism got lost in that and it almost became a joke to be an MC. I’m friends with DJs that spin club music and are into all that kind of stuff and I’ve heard people have conversations where they say that rapping for the sake of rapping and spitting lyrics is dead and no one listens to that shit. When people try to “make it” in the game, they say you shouldn’t worry about spitting that raw shit and worry more about how you’re dressing.
Of course the kids are going to mimic that. It’s not about the kids who have that aggression and spit what you and myself grew up liking. It’s not that it’s not there, it’s just that so many people got afraid of doing that because it’s not selling records. But that’s what we came for. Some people got into it to get rich and make money. For other people, such as myself, of course I want to be successful, but I always have to rhyme and my instinct has always been to be a little bit more poetic and a little bit more in-depth with my lyrics. I can’t really dumb it down. Vicious rap is what I do and it’s what I know. It’s how I grew up. I can definitely make more songs, whether they’re dance-oriented or you want to lay back and smoke or whatever, but there’s also a side of me that just loves to spit that raw shit and I needed this album. I needed to get back to that vibe.
Did you ever feel like you were losing your passion for MCing as the game changed?
Yeah, man. Honestly, I felt so stagnant because I allowed hip-hop to become my living and my breathing and my life and at my age, I’m 28, about to be 29, when you start to get older, that type of stuff really starts to weigh on you. When you have become so wrapped up in the identity of who you are as an MC, you start to lose your identity as a person. I was so wrapped up in hip-hop that I didn’t have the time to be a regular-ass dude. I hadn’t seen my family in so long. That’s not to say I was neglecting them, but just to take a day and go and kick it with my moms and not worry about some rap shit. It seemed like every email I was getting and every phone call I was getting had something to do with rap. When you’re just starting out, when I was 21 and 22, I was having so much fun and had that hunger.
Now my man High G, who records me most of the time, he was laughing and told me I really hated this shit and would be like, Aw, man, I have to record three or four songs today instead of being excited about being there. I want to get it back and the Fight Music album is the start of that. In between I have some different projects that I’m working on now. I will definitely get back to that. But yeah, man, there was definitely a point where I wasn’t really feeling it. People wouldn't know that because I would still come and spit my heart out and rock it like there were a million people there.
But I didn’t know how much longer I could really do this shit. I would have been perfectly content with getting a regular-ass job and living my life. A lot of my buddies that envy me because I’m always on the road or doing interviews, it seems so cool but what they don’t know is that sometimes I would love to be that guy who comes home at 5 o’clock, has dinner with his family and a beer on the porch after and call it a day. Some people say that’s not living but when you’re trying to make it on your own with no steady paycheck or health insurance, I don’t want to make it just about music, but when you’re so passionate about something and that’s all your time is spent doing, I would see a family walking in the park and I would be in a bus going to the airport, and seeing a family relax with no worries, sometimes I really yearn for that type of shit, man. I know that it’s normal for people to feel like this.
My boy Supastition, he’s one of the illest. He basically retired and said he couldn’t really do it anymore and I felt him. He’s not alone in that. My will is still there and I’m still going and we’re still putting out dope music, but honestly, man, this shit is not all it’s cracked up to be. They think tour life is this glamorous shit. Maybe if you’re Kanye or one of those niggas, but us underground rappers, we’re on a bus or a van for months at a time, missing our peoples, just to keep our shit afloat. It’s a grind and sometimes that shit really wears you the fuck out. But I’m here, I’m getting back to the love of it, and I think it’s crazy that the Fight Music album seems like it’s going to be really successful and get a lot of love and this is the album that I’ve put the least stress on. I’ve just stepped back and allowed whatever’s going to happen is going to happen. This shit is going to get a lot of love and I’m not even tripping on anything. Before I would be so stressed about it and reading every comment and looking at YouTube hits and getting upset at comments, when I finally chilled and said I was going to let it do what it do, people started hitting me up for interviews and shows. I just allowed things to happen as they are and I’m going to always make music but I’m not ever going to be where I was a year or two again where if this shit didn’t go the way I needed it to go where if something doesn’t happen by a certain time, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I found balance and time where I don’t have to put pressure on my music. It is what it is and I can stay in the studio all night because I love to do it and not because I’m on a deadline. I really want to get back to loving this shit and the Fight Music album helped me get back to that. We just recorded songs and I just chilled in the studio and it did what it did. All those songs were done on the spot and there was so much aggression because there was so much to get out. That’s why the intro is my favorite song. I had tears in my eyes when I recorded that because everything about who I am is on that first two minutes of the album and then everything else fell into place. I’m trying to understand what it is I’m here for. If it’s to make music, it is. If it’s something else, I’ll find it. But right now, it seems like hip-hop is what I’m supposed to be doing so I’m doing it.
You talk about how you’re tired of critics on “Bosses.” How did you get to feeling that way?
I feel like they fall in line. Opinions are very individualistic. It’s very rare that you’re going to find five, six, seven people that all think the exact same thing about a project. The thing that I noticed is that there seems to be certain artists where they’re in that little bubble within a lot of these sites and magazines where they could put out an album of them farting on a record and they’re always going to get those four stars and it’s going to be hailed as the greatest record in the world. That’s the reality of it. The critics, publicists and artists are all at the same parties together and they’re all buying each other drinks. I’ve always refused to do that shit and my people are always trying to get me to come to New York and go to a function. I always said my music is dope because it’s fucking dope, not because someone co-signed it.
You’ve been around. It’s all politics and relationships, but when you do that, you make their perception twisted. If six people say the album is dope and you know these are big people, then you think it’s dope. I’ve done that shit. Then I’ve gone out and bought it and that shit was trash. That’s because those people that said that it was dope, they’re all in line with each other and they’re not going to go against that shit. If a certain site says this album is the shit, the smaller blog underneath it isn’t going to debate it. Nine times out of 10, they’ll copy and paste the same review! You can look at artists who people are afraid to slam them and the reviews all sound alike! That’s why it’s funny that people are so shocked that the New York Times would diss M.I.A. because since she’s been out, all she’s gotten is glowing reviews. So for you to write a bad review or to say you don’t like an album that everyone else likes, it creates a vacuum where you can’t say what you think because you don’t want to be that guy and then you can’t get into the party so you just fall in line. The same people are sheep. It’s social.
I’m human. I do it too with movies, sneakers or whatever. If you hear something is dope and you hear it enough times, you have people who are basing their opinions on others and they’re afraid to do it on their own. There’s a lot of people selling records because of the politics of it all. It’s not because it’s great music. It’s because people are falling in line and buying it. My advice to critics is go to explore and find artists that nobody knows about or go find an artist that isn’t plugged in or Mr. Popularity and you co-sign that motherfucker. You tell them that the person is dope. You do that because you feel that way. Don’t do it because you’re worried about losing ad space. If you’re not feeling a new album, then you’re not feeling it. So what if this person has a ton of fans and support in the media. Don’t give them a good review just to go with the flow. A lot of times people won’t do that because they don’t want to be the “hater.” That’s the word that has become so synonymous with everything. You’re hating if you say how you really feel about the shit. I wish we could go back to how it was where you could really say how you feel. That’s my thing with critics. Are they really criticizing or are they just copy and pasting what someone else said about a record so it looks like they’re in the know too. I know you know what I’m talking about.
I had a major label tell me I wouldn’t get any interviews from them because I didn’t like a new act they were promoting.
That’s the shit that goes down every single day! Every single day! We won’t help you if you don’t help us! So you create a world where these people are regular human beings who read these papers and read these blog sites and read these magazines and they think what they’re reading is the truth. And they form an opinion. They’re like, Wow, all these places are saying this guy is the shit and they get burnt. They don’t understand what’s going on and they don’t understand the emails and phone calls. They don’t understand where if you don’t do this, you will suffer. This game is ruthless. For me, it’s like when they found out there was no Wizard of Oz. I thought if you put out good music and did a good show, everything would fall into place but there’s so much politics and hand-stroking and all this other bullshit that it makes it so sour. All that stuff polluted my take on how I felt about making music. It’s this game. They don’t call it a game for nothing.
I think that this Fight Music shit, recording it saved my life because I was going through so much where I really didn’t want to do it anymore and to be able to make a record with two great records, Stu and J-Scrilla from Guns-N-Butter, they’re one of the funniest, most laid-back cats in the world. To be able to be in the studio and just smoke my weed and not have to worry about nothing, that was the greatest shit in the world. All the politics and the games with the media and the show promoters and even the fans who can go against you, all of that can tear at your soul. I got all of that shit off of this record and I feel like on the next record, I can go back to what I do. I needed this to be dark and angry because in this time of sunshine and dancing and rainbows, I needed some aggression in my life and since no one but my crew AOTP and Jedi Mind Tricks camp, I had to come out with Fight Music because this shit will make you want to fuck some shit up.
What was it like working with Kool G. Rap and R.A. the Rugged Man on “Three Greats”?
I feel honestly, it really does not matter, anything that I do from here on out, I can honestly look back and say I did a song with Kool G. Rap and R.A. the Rugged Man, two legends in different areas. R.A.’s a new legend and Kool G. Rap is one of the greatest rappers of all-time and he kills shit! He comes through and just fucking wrecks shop! I don’t know what else to do other than feel honored by that. These are people who respect me enough to come through and do music with me. I got a song with G. Rap. I’m in the books! I’m honored, man. I’m blown away. R.A. killed it. Paz is a legend in his own time. Big Noyd…These are people that I grew up listening to and they’re doing records with me. It’s a great feeling. It lets me know that I’m doing the right thing and it lets me know to keep at it. I would consider the G. Rap and R.A. cut a very important victory in my career. I’m very excited for people to hear that.
What was it like working with Guns-N-Butter on an entire album?
It was separate sessions because Scrilla’s in D.C. and Stu’s in Boston. It was funny because I would go up to Boston and do some stuff and go to D.C. to do some stuff. Even with living so far away, they were connected as far as the production goes. I know they don’t make beats together, but their sound is so succinct that it made it easy to just go to the studio and vibe out and make some music. Their name is going to be recognized. They’re already doing stuff with Blaq Poet, Heltah Skeltah and Roc Marciano. They’re doing really, really good stuff and I’m really excited for them. I want them to grow as producers and remember what they came for. A lot of times this bullshit stuff can push teams apart. I just hope that they can continue working together and remember that they’re brothers first and remember who they are. They’re definitely going to get more work and the sky’s the limit for those guys.
Did you like working with one production team as opposed to getting beats from a variety of producers?
It made me realize it’s the best way to do it. I can honestly say, the next albums I’m going to put out, I’m doing an album with the Snowgoons and my next album might only have one or two producers, at most. I think having 18 producers on a record, they don’t create a vibe because they don’t have different flavors on there. I think this record as well the record I’m working on with the Snowgoons, I think it made me realize that it’s dope to only deal with one or two producers. I think we need to get back to that. If you look back to the greatest records that were made from the Juice Crew and Marley Marl to Eminem, Snoop and Dre to Mobb Deep having Havoc and Alchemist, a lot of times the best albums were done by one or two producers. Even The Blueprint with Jay-Z. He really used Kanye and Just Blaze. I think this album is going to do so well because it creates a vibe. So many albums are all over the place and I’m guilty of that. My albums have been all over the place. They’ve been a whirlwind because my life is a whirlwind. I’ve always tried to capture everything that’s going on but I think this time around, I worried about capturing that lyrically but beat-wise, keep it a little bit close to home. I think this next project I put out is going to be on the same vibe because I think a lot of times is my biggest fault is I like so many different types of music. I love down south beats and dirty sample beats. You just have to find a simple balance to where it all sounds like it belongs together.
You’ve also made your mark working in groups, from Chief Kamachi and the Juju Mob to Army of the Pharaohs. What’s it been like working with AOTP?
Oh, man, it’s been beautiful, man. Those guys are my brothers. When these dudes were putting out records and 12”s and things like that, I was a freshman in college, a senior in high school, just ciphering, trying to get my name up, trying to decide if I was really going to do this rap shit. For it to be 10 years later, I remember Iago, who did most of the production throughout my career, I would be at his crib and he’d have all the 12”s from 7L and Esoteric’s Dangerous Connection and Apathy and all those dudes, now I’m a part of the crew with them and drinking at the bar with them. These are some of the best MCs. I think Kamachi is one of the greatest rappers ever. People will never give him that credit. For him to take me under his wing and put me on my first 12”, I’ll forever be in debt to him. It’s an honor to work with people I grew up respecting. Bahamadia knows who I am! Brother Ali, Evidence, Phonte, motherfucking Ill Bill, these are people who know who I am and show me love when they see me. Sean P was on Feast or Famine. It’s just been beautiful, man. I hope I continue to build more relationships like that because they’re not fake meetings at industry events. These are genuine friendships and I talk to them about real-life shit. I hope to continue to build relationships like that.
Will there ever be another Juju Mob album or is Black Candles all we’re going to get?
I don’t know. We definitely talked about it and it’s one of those things you never know if it could happen. I just reached out to Charon [Don]. It’s been a long time. I know ‘Mach is doing his thing. I haven’t seen or heard from State Store. But you know what, man, I think it might be one of those things where it was just a moment in time and people will remember that time and era when we were doing our thing. You know, sometimes, man, things happen and you just keep moving. I don’t know if it’s needed for us to do another album. You don’t know what the future holds, but we’ll see.
Do you have any interest in getting back into the battle scene?
Oh, man, the only way I would consider it is if someone called me out on wax. But as far as signing up at a club and there’s a prize and there’s judges, that’s not what it used to be. Now it’s comedy hour. The last battle I was in, I got robbed. It left me with a sour taste in my mouth. I realized that it was time to move on. At that point where I was doing battles, I was already putting records out and doing tours. For me, I used the battle circuit to get my name known and when I was doing it I got a lot of stuff and it served its purpose. You don’t want to beat a dead horse. There’s a lot of dope “battle rappers” and that’s all that they’re known for. For me, it’s always dope to be known for that. Yeah, I did that, but I also put out albums and toured. I don’t want to be that dude where the only time you see me or hear of me is if I’m battling on YouTube or somewhere else.
I don’t disrespect those venues because when it’s done right, it’s one of the last things that we can call our own. It’s one of those things that the mass media could never take a hold of because it is so gritty, but as far as doing an organized battle, I would never do that. The only way I would do that shit was if someone was foolish enough to call me out on wax or on record and even then, they’d have to be someone that was worth my time because honestly, there’s a lot of haters out there that just want to get a name off me and my peoples. But I’m still hungry and I’m still that dude that has a lot of pride in what I stand for. If a rapper tries to come at me and is foolish enough, I’m chopping their head fucking head off.
Other than that, man, I’m chilling. I’m making music. I’ll never forget what my man Immortal Technique said. He said that battling is like wearing a shiny suit. People don’t ever want to forget that they saw you in a shiny suit. The battle thing is like they don’t ever want to forget if you lost. It’s like boxing, man. Miguel Cotto might win here and there, but everyone knows that he was beat down by everyone he fought that was on the top-tier level. If you lose or something goes wrong, that could fuck up your life.
The last battle I was in was Scribble Jam ’06. The hating-ass judges basically tried to say I lost to this clown-ass dude. After that, I said I was fucking done and it’s been the best decision I ever made because the battle game, how it used to be, you could say you was tight. If you’re battling now, basically it means you’re a good stand-up comedian. They come prepared and shit and nobody freestyles off the top. There’s some good kids coming up and they’re doing these battles that are representing that and they do still have that anger and that spark and when I see them perform and battle, it makes me want to do it. But for the most part, what I see is two MCs with no rhythm over-enunciating how they’re going to fuck their mother in the butt. “I fucked your mother. I’m lyrical. You’re nothing. I fucked your mother’s stuffing.” That’s what I see online. There are some kids who will chop your fucking head off if you fuck with them, but those kids are few and far between.
How would you feel about dudes fighting to this album?
I think it would be dope for a fucking boxer or MMA dude to come out to one of these songs, man! No homo or nothing, but this is the perfect album to put on if you’re upset and put it in the car and take a ride. If you’re at the gym and you feel like smashing some dudes, put this on. It has some knock. I was almost against putting it out in the summertime but it’s so loud and it’s so aggressive that it’s perfect trunk music. It’s aggressive hip-hop music that I grew up loving. Maybe this will turn the tide and make that hot again where motherfuckers weren’t all worried about how they looked in the mirror. This is for motherfuckers who wear white t-shirts and Nikes and go to the bar and smoke weed and drink. I just feel like hip-hop has become so emasculated and feminine. I’m able to see that as an older man. The younger generation, that might be something that they’re cool with and they’re down with, but this album was made for people who came up on M.O.P and Jedi Mind Tricks. This is that raw, aggressive hip-hop, man. We’re trying to bring that back to the forefront and that’s what Enemy Soil is all about. That’s what Guns-N-Butter is all about. And that’s what I’m all about.