Nef the Pharaoh feels ageless, the type of artist with the power to freeze. Run back the videos: He’s a photo album in figurative sepia, a golden age recalled and transplanted into the present, a ticket that promises passage back to a better time. He exhales the 1990s and speaks 2000s without having to weave Dragon Ball Z into every other song; he skirts the juvenile, and even at his most scathing he bleeds charisma. It’s hard to imagine an older, stately Nef, a Nef clocking in at thirty-five, a future Nef making his 4:44. He shines too bright. It’s been only three years since Cash Money tribute “Big Tymin” (by the way—one of the most immediate rap debuts of the past decade) cratered the blogosphere, but Nef’s always been smoother than you.
But this period in his career, three years removed from his breakout and now several projects deep without a definitive exclamation point, is an important one, a crucial differentiator between artists that flatline and artists that elevate. “Big Tymin” is the type of song that can pace (and shadow) an entire career, an immaculate homage that skirts the temptation to sink into simulation, still instantly recognizable and recite-able whenever and wherever. The scariest young hits are the ones that seem formed preternaturally whole, those that already feel as if they could be encapsulations of a career. If Nef never stepped out of that arms-swinging, chains-hanging phase, we might have understood.
Regional context doubles the stakes. The Bay Area is a famously insular ecosystem, stitched together by intimate tour circuits and presided over by its own exclusive pantheon—but the artists that run riot in San Francisco are notably absent on national airwaves. The HBKs and Mozzys get left behind even as they crop up all over their fellow rappers’ Instagram Live broadcasts, while the ones that do (Nef cites G-Eazy and Kehlani here) have been severed in the mainstream consciousness from their regional beginnings. Cross-reference that against the trajectory of Los Angeles over the last couple years—multi-million dollar deals for 03 Greedo and Shoreline Mafia, inevitable similar ones lined up for Drakeo the Ruler upon his release, and majors waiting in the wings to snap up the stars from the next 1Take/AzCult tier—it feels increasingly difficult to place a future for a rapper like Nef, from the Bay and armed with global ambitions. So what happens when the iced-out teenager from Vallejo becomes a father, runs up on his debut album, and starts signing artists instead of getting signed? Good things, apparently.
Nef’s learned to curl the smile (one of rap’s best, by the way) into a snarl, and back. Last year’s “Bling Blaow” was perfectly narrow-eyed, a dagger hidden in an album (The Chang Project) that sounds as if it was peeled off of Vallejo concrete in July. The landscape of the Bay has shifted dramatically, geographically altered by the gravity of SOB X RBE, but Nef is still the same Platonic ideal for a post-2010 face for the Bay (yes, this makes E-40 our Socrates). July’s Porter 2 Grape, a collaborative EP with 03 Greedo released in advance of August’s The Big Chang Theory, is brief but already perhaps his brightest flash. Nef’s coda on “Ball Out” is breakneck, the rare verse that manages to outpace an always breathless ALLBLACK; all over Porter Nef locks into a new tempo. Greedo is, as always, the most generous of musical partners—heavy when songs need to be weighed down and ethereal when they need to float—and opens up empty space that Nef gladly slices through. It’s properly haughty.
It’s worth noting that this career junction is one that many don’t even make it to, shot down on the futile search for Hit Number 2. He’s a virtually assured regional icon even if this is his plateau, reputation slowly built and fortified through a minor hit every year or two, and his fanbase is a fierce regiment. Many never do better. But when Nef rattles off jetsetting destinations on “Blow Up Bed”—London, Paris, “I be overseas, you ain’t never left Cali”—it’s hard not to dream bigger for him and for his city, and clearly he agrees. The Big Chang Theory is out on Sick Wid It and EMPIRE on August 10th. —Sun Ui-Yum
You’ve been quiet for a while. Besides a couple singles, I haven’t heard much of you music-wise since the album last April. Can you recap this last year for me?
Nef The Pharaoh:Technically, I went on a couple nationwide and worldwide tours with G-Eazy, I released a series of mixtapes that got a nice amount of feedback. I just dropped a project with 03 Greedo, and basically as Nef the Pharaoh, I’m the first person that E-40 had signed in eight years, so I’m the new generation of Sick Wid It. And as for me, and any of my brothers—me, Peezy, JT the 4th—we’re the new generation. We always say: never over you, never below you, always equals. So we just consider each other business partners, not even artists. Just being around E-40 is soaking up intelligence itself, he has so much longevity in the game. It’s like a cheat code, like playing Grand Theft Auto with the cheat codes already put in for you.
That makes a lot of sense. I was thinking that it’s pretty crazy that you’re only twenty-three, but this is already a big transition period in your career. It doesn’t feel like it, but you’re already several mixtapes deep in the catalog, and now there’s a whole new generation of rappers from the Bay in the mainstream consciousness—SOB x RBE, Lil Pete—that weren’t around when you were getting started. I was just curious what that’s like, especially given what you said about being around E-40: What’s it like to be a mentor, to be signing artists?
Nef The Pharaoh:Being a mentor to somebody, having artists look to you for guidance—it’s tight. It’s a lot of responsibility, but I’ve always been a man and been able to hold my own. I would say I’m knowledgeable, and I want to pass that down to my peers.
Is there an aspect of being a mentor that you really enjoy, or anything you didn’t anticipate but has been a challenge?
Nef The Pharaoh:I wanted to sign artists and make their lives better, because me going on tour, I saw what was possible. I was like, man, I have to share this with someone. I’ve never been a selfish guy, because I’ve had a lot of siblings. I’ve never been selfish, I learned how to share. So me going on the road and experiencing crowds of seventy thousand, fifty thousand, even five thousand, and doing shows in London and what-not—I was like, man, I truly have to share this with someone. No matter if it’s my blood sibling or just an artist that I think is very dope. When I got back home, that’s what I made my mission. I bumped into Peezy, then I found this young talented guy named Raymond McMahon. OMB Peezy, he’s lit already. All y’all gotta do is just be on the lookout for Raymond.
What was being on tour like? You went to a ton of different places but also played a ton of different types of shows—opening for a G-Eazy, I’m sure, is very different from a small show in Sacramento to your core fans. What was it like, what did you see?
Nef The Pharaoh:It was…different, you know? I thought what was tight to me is that I started out as an opener, the first dude on the roster. When I was on stage, barely anyone was coming into the arena. But I was still giving the show if it was five people or five thousand people. I started seeing G-Eazy watching at the end of my set, even though I’d be early, he’d be incognito watching my set—like, bro, you’re doing good. From the first opener I went to the second opener, and then for the second opener I went to the third opener, and then I became the person to go on stage before G-Eazy. It was fucking amazing.
Yeah, I bet.
Nef The Pharaoh:It was like levels to a fucking video game, bro. It was classic. A lot of dope shit I got in my head, my personal highlights, is just stories I’m going to be able to tell my kids and my grandchildren. It changed my life for the better. I’m from a small city, Vallejo, California. Super duper small, I don’t know if you’ve heard of it or been there. To be from there and see the world, I was just explaining to somebody the other day, we were on tour—my cousins and all my day ones, and we got out the car and we were experiencing snow for the first time. We’re on the side of the road, throwing snowballs at each other, enjoying ourselves, laughing like little ass kids. Cars going by, looking at us. We had never seen it before, so it was dope to all experience it at one time. It makes some families stronger. I’m very family-first.
Welcome to the Northeast. Do you have a favorite moment from on tour?
Nef The Pharaoh:I think it was my twenty-first birthday—I always have a birthday while I’m on tour, but this was the first time I was on tour with G-Eazy, turning twenty-one. And in the middle of the set, he was about to do that hit song—“it’s just me, myself, and I”—and we’re standing in the little VIP pit where the artists and people on tour can stand and watch the show. And his manager comes out and he grabs me and my friends and says, alright, G wants y’all to come on stage to throw water on the last song, we’re gonna turn up. So he gives us a water bottle and we walk on stage, and when I get on stage G-Eazy stops the whole show and makes a crowd of sixty-thousand sing “Happy Birthday” for me. They brought a cake for me onstage, popped a bottle of champagne, it was…
That’s amazing. What’s your relationship with G-Eazy like? I’m sure he’s a very different type of mentor with a very different type of experience from E-40.
Nef The Pharaoh:Yeah, that’s big bro. I call G-Eazy to ask him stuff that 40 wouldn’t understand because he’s a few generations older than us. That’s a blessing too. I just sent G-Eazy my album the other day, just to get some feedback, things like that.
One of my really close friends from college is from SF and he makes music there, and every semester he’d be back at school with ten new artists I’d never heard of but he’d swear, ‘everyone I know back home is on them.’ I always thought it was really interesting that the Bay was such an insulated ecosystem—
Nef The Pharaoh:Yeah, because—sorry to interrupt—a lot of Bay Area rappers, they get their start in the Bay Area and there’s so much money here they think they’ve made it, they never go worldwide.
Because you can make so much money selling out venues at home.
Nef The Pharaoh:Yeah.
I guess, even from the start, it felt like your approach was bigger. The first song I ever heard by you and I’d guess a lot of people ever heard from you was an homage to New Orleans, “Big Tymin.” I was curious how you started out with a bigger mindset, what made you think that you wanted to be bigger than this city and this area?
Nef The Pharaoh:Just being a kid, walking home from school, seeing all the things in the other areas I saw. And it always gave me drive, like damn, I know I can make it out of here. There’s gotta be something that…
Do you live in Vallejo still?
Nef The Pharaoh:Hell nah.
Where do you live?
Nef The Pharaoh:I stay about fifteen minutes away from Vallejo. A town called Vacaville.
I think very feasibly, there’s a world where you could’ve been on a label like Atlantic and doing what someone like Shoreline is doing now a couple years ago. So it feels pretty conscious that you’re still on Sick Wid It, getting distributed by an independent like EMPIRE. Is there a reason you want to be in that world?
Nef The Pharaoh:Just because I want to let myself know. So much of what these major labels do…it’s a contract with bonus money that they give you to have you in debt. Sign to a label, you can get $6 million dollars. Oh, you balling, but you should’ve put those $6 million dollars into your campaign, because when they come back to you to recoup…you’re like, hey, I did this and this and that with the money. Me, wanting to remain wide, and the longevity that 40 has. I’ve been learning the ropes, but I’ve been coasting as far as I can get.
I guess to that point, I wanted to talk to you about the EP you just put out with Greedo, Porter 2 Grape. You’re working with someone who’s been part of this wave of major label money flooding into LA, and I was curious how you linked up, what it was like to work with him…
Nef The Pharaoh:The project was made in a matter of a couple days. I met Greedo on some street shit, I was a fan of him myself. I told him I’m a big fan of his music, I can’t wait to do something. I was in LA at the time, I told him to pull up. He pulls up to the studio, we shake hands, caught each other’s vibes, and made magic.
You really did. I don’t think I would’ve made the connection before I heard a song but you guys play off each other super well, and someone who writes for Passion of the Weiss compared it to what it was like listening to Thug and Quan. What was it like creatively> Were you working off stems or coming together from scratch?
Nef The Pharaoh:The chemistry we had, we’d come to each other with half a song made already and sat there with each other, add on a chord, put a high pitch or a low on it, all that.
Moving away from this project, I’m curious what’s up with the next album. I know you put pictures up on Instagram with EMPIRE, so was wondering when we can expect it, what we can expect.
Nef The Pharaoh:It’s coming out August 5th. Basically this album is just an explanation of who I am as an artist, what I’m capable of, letting the—allowing the world to see my powers. It’s the definition of a theory. It’s an all different sound, all different vibe, the type of feel that I become the Chang, the artist.
I’m curious what you think the future of the Bay Area is music-wise. Like you said, it happens more in the Bay than other big rap cities in the US, but artists stay local. They run the local circuit and gain influence there, but there’s also a major label reluctance to cosign the Bay in the way they do other regions, jumping over Bay Area artists like they are on Greedo and Drakeo right now. Do you think in a couple years, someone like Lil Pete signs to Atlantic and goes national? Or do you think it stays this way?
Nef The Pharaoh:Man…I don’t know. You know the industry, they always come here, steal a lot of shit. I’m down to sign somebody major. They sign the Kehlanis and the G-Eazys and the E-40s and the Quiks, but nobody new. I feel like we just have to step it up, they don’t know.
In light of that, what do you think the next few years look like for you? It seems clear your ambitions are higher than just music and your region.
Nef The Pharaoh:Well, I know I’m gonna be a millionaire off this legal marijuana [laughs]. I got an animated series I’ve been working on that I want to pitch to Adult Swim. I want to write my own movies, I want to put some more artists out, you know? I’m starting these little dog kennels with my father, little puppies, exotic French bulldogs and English bulldogs. I have my hands in everything.
I love it. Sounds like you’re very much on the right path.
Nef The Pharaoh:That’s what E-40 always tells me, ‘you act like you’ve been here before.’
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