“High Key” is a series of profiles conceived with the intent to tell the story of Philly’s diverse musical legacy by spotlighting individual artists in portrait photography, as well as with an interview focusing on the artist’s experience living, creating, and performing in this city. “High Key” will be featured in biweekly installments, as the series seeks to spotlight artists both individually and within the context of his or her respective group or artistic collective.
In the Summer of 2015, Spotify published a survey of 1000 cities internationally, analyzing some 20 billion tracks, and concluding that hip hop was the highest consumed genre of music worldwide. That’s maybe no surprise to its fans, especially in New York City and in Philly, the two cities where the genre was conceived and first took root in the late 1970s.
Philly’s own Sharif Lacey is better known as Reef The Lost Cauze. Together with friend and producer Todd McConnell, known onstage as DJ Caliph-NOW, Reef has earned his status as a prominent steward of that legacy.
Informed by influences as diverse as Killer Mike, to Jadakiss, to Phantogram, to local compatriots The Roots and the late Philly rapper Viro the Virus, Reef’s prolific catalog offers eclectic tastes of a full spectrum of hip hop’s evolution, including an upcoming release with producer DJ Bear-1 on the Soulspazm label that the rapper considers to be his “most accessible, most gutter record” to date. He notes, “I’ve never really done something that I think dudes that hustle in the streets of Philly would really fuck with, and [Furious Styles] is that record.”
Reef and Caliph-NOW are currently abroad in Bogota, Colombia, and plan US and European tours for this Summer, but you can still catch them sporadically in and around Philly in 2016. Earlier this month, on a bill with Ratking and Mic Stewart at Ardmore Music Hall, Reef delivered a kinetic set, backed dutifully by Caliph-NOW’s turntable proficiency and what’s become their trademark video visuals, during most of which the rapper was engaged eye-to-eye with fans — not on, but in front of the stage.
Keep an ear out too for the pair’s Soundcloud talkcast, Reef Radio, as well as an upcoming Viro remix album, produced annually by Caliph-NOW every April, another installment of a series that continues to update the legacy of a friend Reef calls without hyperbole “the greatest MC he’s ever heard.”
The Key: You’re from Philly right?
Reef The Lost Cauze: I’m from Philly, I’ve lived here my whole life, except for a five-year stint in State College, Pennsylvania, where Penn State University is. My whole thing with it was, that town is built for the school, so if you’re a townie — which I was, me and my friends — it was just like, you hung out at the arcade all day, you know what I mean, try not to get beat up by fuckin’ douchebag fuckin’ hillbillies. But yeah, other than that, I was born and raised in West Philly. I came down to I guess downtown South Philly area to go to UArts in ‘99 and I lived in South Philly ever since. I moved further south literally every few years since I moved down here, I’m on 2nd and Wolf now, so you can’t go any further. You know what I mean? You’re heading to Jersey [laughs]..
Todd McConnell: I’m from South New Jersey, but I’ve always considered Philadelphia my city.
TK: Did you go to high school in Philly?
RTLC: Yeah did, I went to Lamberton. I started at Overbrook, and Lamberton is like their sister school. I mean it’s up the street and it’s much smaller. My mom pulled me out of Overbrook because I was getting in a whole lot of trouble. I had at a lot of cousins that were going that were older, and I was trying to be cool. I believe it’s closed, if I’m not mistaken, but at one time it was the only school in Philly that was kindergarten through 12th. So you had one building that had the elementary school and the middle school, and then the high school was in the other building. So was really weird seeing like little kids and shit. But it was good, it was a good experience, I’m still tight with almost everyone I graduated with, so.
TM: I went to high school in South New Jersey, and then as soon as I was old enough to buy records and skateboard I came to Philly like every day.
TK: How did you first get connected to the music scene in Philly?
RTLC: Well, I was always doing my thing, as far as freestylin’ and battlin’ and things like on a local level as far as college parties and things like that. What really set it off for me, was these two guys named Happ and Scandal — they were part of a group called 40th Dimension — and they did these shows at La Tazza, which was a spot in down an Old City, like 2nd and Chestnut. And I befriended them through a girlfriend — my girlfriend was roommates with Scandal’s girlfriend — and we got cool and they were kinda makin’ moves on the local scene, and they put me on a show, and I tore that shit down, and the rest is history man. I just started making contacts, and you know, getting on people’s songs, and doing shows with [Todd], and Viro the Virus (may he rest in peace), Krush Unit, Side Effect — all these guys that were incredible MC’s locally that I didn’t even know really existed so, that’s how it got started for me.
TM: Well I started workin’ with Viro the Virus, he was from my area as well. I still can’t believe I work with him. We put seven records out in like seven years. We will come to Philly to do shows.
TK: How’d you get connected to him?
TM: Just through a friend who worked at a music store, told me to go to a studio, they were there, we started working on music together and just clicked, and it was history. We started going to these meetings, the hip hop alliance meetings in Philly, that’s where I met a lot of good people. And then I would also give credit to The Illvibe Collective DJ’s. Those guys always would throw parties, that’s where I met Reef, and all the MC’s in Philly were probably from these parties called The Body Rock, I would go there and meet everybody.
TK: Around what year was this?
TM: Probably like ‘99, 2000, 2001, up though all the early 2000’s. That party still goes on.
TK: Who is your favorite Philly artist, or which Philly artists influenced you the most?
RTLC: Black Thought. Hands down. You know, just lyrically, you know, I’ve always been more lyrical side. You know, Beanie Sigel’s up there — I have a lot of love for the whole Roc-A-Fella/State Prop crew and all they did — but, you know, I’m from West Philly and there was almost an emphasis more on lyricism, and Thought was, you know, at that level. Guys like Last Emp[eror], Bahamadia — that’s where I come from, so. By far though I think he’s one of the greatest of all time, I don’t think he gets the props that he deserves. But definitely Thought.
TM: That’s a tough one too. I would say the Illvibe Collective DJ’s, again, those were a big influence to me as a DJ. There’s five members now, but yeah, DJ Panek, and Skipmode, and then Statik. Those three guys, I would just go to those parties and watch them DJ, and like, I didn’t see that besides watching it on a VHS tape. And then Last Emperor, as an MC. Last Emperor, when I heard his tape in college, I was like who is this guy! Besides the immediate people, like Reef The Lost Cauze and Viro, people I knew were bigger influences to me overall
TK: Where did you play your first show Philly, and what do you remember it feeling like to be on stage at night?
TM: First show I can remember that was legit — I mean I had a group in high school but it was like high school friends there. I guess that was exciting, and everything. But that’s not what I remember. What I remember is the first show me and Viro did, because it was buzzing, ‘cause people heard us before they saw us, and we are playing Philly with guys like Reef and the Jedi Mind Tricks guys, at La Tazza, probably — it was either La Tazza or Aqua Lounge. I would say the Aqua Lounge show was the biggest because we were playing with guys that I heard on record, that I had their vinyl, and we were playing a show with them and we had to impress them, and we killed it. [laughs] It was a good thing. I was nervous, but from then on we had respect in the city which was what we wanted. We always repped New Jersey. We always repped South New Jersey. It’s a little different for me ‘cause, as a DJ or someone playing the music, it’s slightly different. Then for someone who’s who has To Remember lyrics. But I also hate, I’d be the right guy, you know? Yeah just sweating, seeing people watch you. I hope they like us. These are our peers. These are people we look up to. Don’t mess up.
RTLC: Yeah yeah, it was that show I mentioned, La Tazza. It was February of 2002. February 2nd. The reason I remember that, is because the girl that I mentioned before that was roommates with the guy that hook me up with the show, we had broken up by then and she came to the show with her new guy. February 2nd, ‘cause that was her birthday. But yeah man, I remember, I only did like three or four songs, but I had such a big group of people come out and support me, and it was this tiny little basement, and it was just this energy you couldn’t really describe, and I mean it was one of the best nights of my life, man. I fuckin’ demolished it. Like even during soundcheck, there is something going on in the air. I was like okay, we’re gettin’ started here.
TK: I feel like it’s rare to feel your first show went really well…
RTLC: Yeah! Because you know what man, I didn’t jump out, there was years and years of training, and you know, recording, and I’ve been making music since I was 11 or 12 years old, like doing cyphers and battles. And I was trained in the theater, you know, I started acting classes when I was 8 or 9, my mom always said that I had that energy so, I was ready! You know what I mean, I think that’s the problem with a lot of people is that their first experiences don’t go as well because they’re not ready, they just jump out there. But that first show man, that was something special, yeah. We still got footage of that somewhere.
TK: Which Philly venue is your favorite to play at and why?
TM: I would say growing up, going to shows, my first real show was at the Trocadero. Never thought I would play there, got to play there. So I would say Trocadero is number one, the main stage of the Trocadero, just cuz it’s a legendary spot. I’ve seen Cypress Hill, I’ve seen Pharcyde, I’ve seen so many groups there, and I got to play there. That would be my favorite like classic venue. My favorite new venue’s Union Transfer. Those guys are just super professional, it’s great sound, great sound on stage. And Johnny Brenda’s. I would have to say those three. Sorry, scratch the Troc. I love the Troc, but Johnny Brenda’s, because of those screens! [laughs] It’s a hard question! The Blockley was my least favorite. I hated that. Everyone loved the Blockley! I didn’t like the setup. I’m the only one.
RTLC: That’s a tough one man. I don’t know, I’ve never really thought about it. I’m going to say for obvious reasons, well La Tazza because it’s gone and it was the first one, but, we love playing Johnny Brenda’s, it’s intimate, but it still has that feel to it. And that sort of the level we’ve always kind of been most comfortable with. The really small shows are kind of hard, and the really big shows are kinda hard, it’s right in that middle space that we feel most comfortable, but. We’ll say the Troc, as far as big shows go. I mean I got a lot of them. So the answer is I don’t know. [laughs]
TK: What do you love most about the Philly art scene?
RTLC: The fact that it’s always been extremely genuine as far as people’s opinion. I think New York, LA, there’s a lotta smoke being blown up people’s asses. You know what I mean? Well it’s Hollywood, so a lot of Hollywoodin’, you know what I mean? I think here it’s so tough to get ahead or get the props that a lot of people in Philly deserve. There’s a lot of talent here, but there’s also a lot of tenacity. There’s not a lot of room for bullshit. I think that weeds out people pretty quickly. That’s why you have so many people complaining about here, but if you notice the people that don’t complain about it are the ones that are able to be successful and make moves because, you know, it should motivate you, not hinder you, you know what I mean? I think a lot of people get caught up in “I’m trying.” You know we live in a society now where everybody gets a trophy for participating, and in Philly it’s like you’re not getting a fuckin’ trophy, you suck! And I think that separates the men from the boys, and I like that, you know what I mean? I like that attitude of like, you know, fuck you, you gotta impress me. We played so many shows where they start off [with folded arms], and by the end of the night they [got hands in the air]. And that to me is the victory. It’s not the shows that they’re just like, “oh we’re just happy that everyone’s here!” It’s like nah, make us work for it. And that’s what they do here, you know?
TM: I just love that if you’re involved in it, and you work hard and you’re decent what you do, the community is there for you. It’s a small big city, or a big small city — you know what I’m trying to say. It’s a small community, and if you’re good at it you know everybody. Not everyone supports you [laughs], but, you know everybody, which is cool.
TK: What if anything do you find most frustrating about being an artist in Philly?
TM: To tie in from that, it’s just really difficult, I don’t know what it is, it’s just historically, you always have a shadow. You can’t make it here. I don’t know why. Whether it’s acting or music or painting, or whatever it is — you hone your craft here, which is great, and I think there a lot of talented people here, but they don’t really succeed in till they leave. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know why.
RTLC: I think it’s a double-edged sword, because like I mentioned, the difference between Philly and New York and LA is that Philly’s more genuine. But the difference on the flip side is that there’s more opportunity to grow. There’s a glass ceiling, man, here there’s very little room to really expand, and I think that’s why so many people leave to chase their dream. I know so many people in the last three years who have moved to LA or New York or wherever to try to make moves because there’s not a lotta room to grow here. If you’re not able to get out and do shows in other places, like if this is your only option, it’s really hard after awhile. It’s very frustrating, so I think that’s number one.
TK: Lot of people express that about Philly. How do you feel about Black Thought moving The Roots and Okayplayer up to New York?
RTLC: I mean I think you have to do that, you know what I mean? I don’t have a lot of regrets but, I was always one of those people “man fuck New York, I’m Philly!” You know what I mean? But looking back, hindsight, as an older man looking at the business, there’s nothing here that can get you where you need to get. You have to go to New York. It’s the same as if I was from Baltimore or Boston, you know what I’m saying? There’s very few places where you can hone your skills, get a following, and then take it to that next level.
And those places are like I said — LA, New York, maybe you throw in somewhere like Atlanta, Toronto. But other than that, so I don’t blame them, they would still be stuck here if they didn’t do it. They wouldn’t be on [The Tonight Show with Jimmy] Fallon, and all that. They had to do it. They had to do it. I can say, on record, that it does bother me a little bit that that hand hasn’t been really extended back, you know what I’m saying? That bothers me a little bit. You know, Quest has the power to say “this guy’s dope, check him out,” and I don’t really see him doing that for too many Philly hip hop artists. He does it every once in awhile, but he has the influence that he could have gotten a lot of people in a lot of positions.
You can’t blame him for that, but at the same time it would have been nice to see him at least try. And that’ll always be something that, you know when it comes to that guy I’ll always look at him kind of funny for that. Everyone knows my position. I’m a big fan of The Roots, I love Black Thought, but just like I said, I would have loved to see a little bit more help thrown our way, you know what I mean? Beanie came back and got all his boys, you know what I’m saying? I mean look there’s a whole list of people, we can go down the line, that were successful that reached their hand back, and even if those artists that they reached their hand back for didn’t become as successful as them, they still tried it, they still did it. Who can you say [The Roots] did that for, you know what I mean?
TK: Which Philly neighborhoods have you lived in? Which made you want to stay in which made you want to leave?
TM: I’ve been livin’ in Philly for about eight years now. I live in Graduate Hospital, South Philly. I liked it. I was there for six years. I’m in Kensington now, and I love it. There are places to go, cool coffee shops, cool bars. I love it here.
RTLC: Ideally, my favorite neighborhood was the Broad and South area. For college I basically lived at Broad and South, and then like 16th and Fitzwater. I love that area so much man, it’s still the city but it’s still got that, you know, urban griminess to it. Nice houses real people. I’m in a real neighborhood now. What I mean by that is like, you know it’s like, fuckin’, it’s pretty boring, it’s families, there’s nothing really going on. I’ve never been a fan of [Fishtown], that was always [Todd’s] thing, he always wanted to live where the cool kids live. I’ve never liked it [there], you know what I mean? I still don’t. But it sucks because everything is going on [there], you know what I’m saying? Like, clearly, this is where the photo shoots happen, the art gets made, the videos gets shot, but my favorite neighborhood was that Broad and South area. But I mean, I like where I’m at now. It’s alright. It’s quiet. You know I got two boys, so. But I still want to move, if I can, when I get some money, move back to West Philly just try to get some land, you know what I mean? Some grass, for them to play on.
TK: What’s your preferred means forgetting around town?
TM: I have a car. I drive, I like drivin’, puttin’ music on.
RTLC: You bike sometimes though!
TM: I have a bicycle, yeah. The El train, since I live right under it.
RTLC: Um, preferred means is Todd or someone else giving me a ride. If not, SEPTA, and then after midnight I have to do a cab. I’m a dinosaur, I have yet to step into the Uber/Lyft world, because I just don’t understand, you know what I mean? I’m like, yo, what’s going on here. I’d rather just hail a cab. Believe it or not, the great thing about Uber is that now that they’re fuckin’ killin’ shit, cabs actually like stop right away! Before, it was like a hassle. Now they got to do it they ain’t got no customers, you know what I mean? So, shout out to Uber.
TK: How have you seen the city change, and do you feel it’s for the better or no?
RTLC: I struggle with that. We actually have a song called “Ghost Town,” that talks about the gentrification. I feel like a lot of places have lost their flavor a little bit, because they’ve just become, you know when a rec center is a Walgreens, or a block that was filled with unique, interesting people, they can’t live there anymore because there’s million-dollar homes. I find it really sad, a little bit. So I’ve seen a change in the idea that we’ve become this young-urban-professional hotspot, but the people that have been here before are suffering. Our schools are closing, people were really poor and broke, but all this new money coming in, I don’t know where it’s going, because I don’t see it being restructured and refinanced into the original community. I don’t know where these people are going they can’t afford to live around here. You come down [to Fishtown] ten years ago, you fuckin’ get shot, or robbed, but now it’s, you know, this is where the artists live. And I mean it happens all over the country. So, you know, it is what it is. It’s evolution, I guess, but, I would like to see a little more more of a balance, you know you can have been renewal without completely destroying and getting rid of all the people that were here first, you know what I mean? But that’s America for you man, you know what I’m saying? Kill or be killed, dog eat dog. Et cetera.
TM: Yeah you know, the gentrification thing, I pretty much second what Reef said on that. It’s such a difficult thing to deal with. But then there’s the other side, it’s like, with politics and economics, it’s just young people trying to afford a place to live, and young families come into places that are cheap, and then, you know, eventually a bunch of people come into somewhere and the prices are gonna go up, and they’re gonna move on to somewhere else, and unfortunately people that have less money than that suffer as well. It’s tough. But from this part of town [Kensington] alone, it’s great, you know, we got the Fillmore, we got all these cool venues opening up, it’s cool, you know? Philly’s a classic city for art, it’s got a great reputation, but it’s not seen. So it’s great that there are places now — like restaurants, it’s a great restaurant city now. People come to the restaurants here. From New York! People come down here to eat! It’s great.
TK: Are you with Philly sports fan? Cunningham or McNabb?
RTLC: I am! Cunningham dude! For my life, yeah! I was a big fan of that guy, man.
TM: I would lie if I didn’t say McNabb, because in the prime of my early adulthood, McNabb took us to like five championships and a Super Bowl. So it’s hard, you know what I mean? Cunningham was exciting, he would do like cartwheels into the end zone you know? I had a Byron Evans jersey, so, I love that era.
TK: PBC or Yards?
TM: I have to say PBC man, Kenzinger is like my go-to, just like, easy beer to drink, and it’s right next to my house, so.
RTLC: Yards, because of my best friend Todd making me drink it. I used to be like “I’m not drinking that shit!” But now it’s like, I love it. Yeah yeah. I love it. Brawler, right? Yards Brawler?
TM: I like Kenzinger. [laughs]
DJ Caliph-NOW, high key, Philadelphia, Philly, portrait, quest love, Reef The Lost Cauze, Sharif Lacey, The High Key Portrait Series, The Roots, Todd McConnell