Photos by B. Giggz, courtesy of Nef the Pharoah
The cover art of Nef the Pharoah’s breakout single, “Bitch I’m from Vallejo,” shows one of his hometown’s most famous native sons, the late rapper Mac Dre. That song, a simmering slap full of local color, in turn, caught the attention of Vallejo’s other most famous resident, E-40, who signed Nef to his Sick Wid It label. That label released Nef’s self-titled EP, which featured the breakout hit “Big Tymin’,” a song in which the young rapper compares himself to the eponymous Cash Money trio.
All of which is to say: Nef the Pharoah could come across as another nostalgia-prone 20-something trading on people’s love of familiar hip-hop icons. But “Big Tymin’” didn’t generate millions of YouTube views, a remix with new school West Coast music royalty YG and Ty Dolla $ign, and live appearances with acts like Kehlani and G-Eazy (with whom he is currently on tour) simply because everyone enjoys a good Mannie Fresh reference.
Nef has instead quickly revealed himself to be a newly exciting voice in line with the rich tradition of Bay Area rap—nimbly handling the hyphy sound at times but more importantly embodying the kinds of frenetic shifts in lyrical tone and willingness for experimentation that made guys like Mac Dre so appealing in the first place. One of the highlights of the Nef the Pharoah EP is its emotive closer, “Come Pick Me Up,” which lays out Nef’s personal struggles over a gorgeous, squealing beat, creating one of last year’s most vulnerable rap songs.
Another key moment from that project is the slinky, lightly Auto-Tuned moonwalk of a song that is the Giuseppe-referencing “Michael Jackson,” a collaboration with the producer Cardo. The song has found an unexpected life of its own—it “really hit us in the back door without us even knowing,” Nef explained—and now it’s inspired an entire joint mixtape, Neffy Got Wings, which Noisey is premiering below.
The tape, as Nef told me over the phone, finds him stretching out, showcasing rap talent on songs like the Mozzy-featuring “Devils Team,” embracing a lively twist on the Bay Area party song formula with “#Saydaat,” and playing around with silly cadences and Auto-Tune on “Betta Run,” among other adventures. On “Innovative,” he sums it all up while detailing a few recent career highlights, like finding himself in a room with Wiz Khalifa (who, of course, is one of the artists Cardo’s beats previously helped put on the map). These songs are easily accessible and a whole lot of fun; if they get the reaction they deserve, that kind of experience is probably about to be a lot more common. Nef clearly has a big year ahead of him—among other upcoming projects he’s also about to release a line of pre-rolled joints—so I gave him a call to find out a little bit about what getting to this point has been like.
Noisey: Tell me a little bit about the project. Are there any songs that stand out in particular as far as how you feel about what the project’s all about?
Nef the Pharoah: I think “Action” is a good song off the project just because it’s showing my versatility. The Neffy Got Wings mixtape is me showing the world that I can do a lot of versatile stuff. There’s some smoker tracks on there, some radio songs on there, a party song on there, it’s house music. It’s everything. Just me spreading my wings.
Were you expecting “Big Tymin’” to be the hit that it has become?
Not really. This is my life, my job. My mama always told me your job is something that you love, and when you find a job that you want, you’ll never feel like you’re working. So I never feel like I’m working. I went in the studio, and I was having fun when I made “Big Tymin’.” And when you have fun you produce good things. And it was a hit. It’s gone so far, and I just thank God for that, that it’s blooming like it is. That Nef the Pharoah EP, it did crazy. It did better than I thought it was going to do. I’m just a kid from Vallejo, so if I get 500,000 plays it’s good to me.
I think my favorite song on that EP is the last one, “Come Pick Me Up.” On there you talk about being “posted in those South Vallejo rooms making beats.” What’s that backstory?
I was making beats with my big brother, K. Jewelz. He actually made the “Bitch I’m From Vallejo” beat. Before I used to rap I used to want to produce, beatbox. I used to want to DJ. I used to want to do a whole lot of shit, so just sitting in them little project rooms and apartment rooms, we had a lot to think about and a lot to do: beats to make up, rap groups. We’d make little beats and shit like that every other day.
Also on that song you say “you glamorize the hood and poverty, I came from it.” Tell me about that line.
Man, I come from—we lived in a three bedroom with 18 motherfuckers in it. My grandma was one of those types of people where if she sees you on the street, she felt like she could help you. She would bring you in. So even if we was doing bad, lights off, no heating, she would still have motherfuckers in the house, just to lay their heads. It was hard growing up. I’ve got 15 siblings. It’s just hard coming from Vallejo. We was the first city ever in California to go bankrupt. It was hard to make a way out. I’m pretty sure everybody has a hard story; I just happen to be a rapper and I can talk about mine.
What’s been most exciting for you as far as having your music take off?
What most excites me and what’s most intriguing to me is the recognition. When I drop something new, I want to see people’s reaction. I came out with the “Big Tymin’” song, and I was put in the category of a bubblegum rapper who just makes hyphy music, party music. When I dropped that EP, and when I drop this mixtape, it’s going to open a lot of people’s eyes to my universality. It’s going to open people’s minds, it’s going to show them that I can really rap, I can sing a little bit, I can write songs, I’m just an all-around talented guy. And that’s what I like about the industry, when I put something out, the feedback I get. Even if it’s negative, I like the feedback.
That’s interesting that you felt that reaction to “Big Tymin’.” What do you think the impression is of Bay Area music, of the hyphy movement, at this point?
I think a lot of people disrespect the Bay. I feel like a lot of people steal from us and never give us credit, and I’m here to cut all of that bullshit out. We’re really the entrepreneurs and the creators of all of this shit, all of the slang, everything that people want to do comes from the Bay Area, period. We started the independent game, we started the hustle shit, we started the swag, we started the slanguage. A nigga from the Bay’ll wake up and create a whole new dictionary in one day. Ain’t nobody else do that. We come with our own shit, we come with our own movements, our own beat. Everybody wants to be like us. They steal from us and never give us credit. And I’m just going to be the nigga to wake everything up. That’s what Nef’s here for.
How do you make music? Where do you record?
I’m on the road right now. I’m on a world tour with G-Eazy and A$AP Ferg, the When It’s Dark Out Tour. Every now and then when we stop I’m recording on the road, but when I’m at home in the Bay Area I’m recording at the house with my engineer. I’ve got the same engineer, called Slap Dre or Dre on the Boards, shout out to him. He engineered the whole Cardo mixtape. When I’m at home in Cali I’m at the house with my son, smoking my medicine, enjoying life, making music. That’s what I do.
Kyle Kramer is an editor at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.