The Key Studio Sessions: Reef the Lost Cauze

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The first time I encountered legendary Philly MC Reef the Lost Cauze, it felt like a whirlwind. The year was 2010, the occasion was an album release party for producer Dumhi’s latest project The Jungle at the ultra-hip Slingluff Gallery in Fishtown. The celebration was in full swing when Reef arrived, right on cue, just in time to cup the microphone and spit fire on “Lions” and “Philly Cousins.” He paced the gallery with intensity, worked the crowd as they sipped their craft beer bottles, and then as quickly as he appeared, he was gone.

If that formidable first impression was not enough, the second time was even more intense. It was two years later, early on in my tenure at WXPN, and a group of us was set up in the studio filming a collaborative Key Studio Session with local hip-hop bog Philadelphia Music Magazine. A live band provided the backing for Reef and his friend and rap scene contemporary Ethel Cee; Reef had never played with a band before, was incredibly hype over their energy, and poured everything he had into a gutting performance of “This Is My Life” that left the entire room breathless.

Later on, in an interview with PMM’s DJ AfroDJiak, Reef gave some context for the gripping nature of his performances.   

For me, a stage show is the ultimate therapy. When people watch me perform, they say “it looks like you’re getting some demons out.” And it really is, because I do have a lot of anger inside of me, just because that’s the world we live in, especially in this city. There’s so much injustice left and right. And I’m not the type to be out there, trying to be violent, fighting people, and I think that anger and rage has to be channeled somewhere. And that’s the problem with so much of our youth, they don’t have anywhere to channel it.

For me, writing, performing, those things saved me at a very young age, because I could go and get those things out. The stories I’m telling, the pain I’m telling, is so real that when I’m performing it, I want people to feel it. I want them to understand that I’m speaking from the heart. So when I get on stage, you see all of it, and anyone who’s ever seen me live, they’ll know that I’m leaving it all out there.

This blunt reality, this from-the-heart truth, is what has made Reef the Lost Cauze one of Philly’s most commanding MCs over the course of his 15-year career. His catalog includes the fierce Fight Music LP, the trippy collaboration with production duo Snowgoons called Your Favorite MC, and the DJ Bear-One project Furious Styles. Late last year, on the eve of his 37th birthday, Reef unveiled his latest, The Majestic, and it is a damn masterpiece.

As I said in my review of the record, the album is an all-encompassing collection of everything he’s proven himself capable of — biting critique of the superficiality of the rap business, incisive social and political commentary, and moving introspections on his life and his family’s. And in this week’s Key Studio Session, Reef gave a powerful performance of some of the album’s highlights, backed by his production collaborator DJ Caliph-NOW.

Unlike last time, where the live band provided a new and unexpected energy, Reef the Lost Cauze’s return to The Key Studio Sessions shows him in his rawest form, feeding on the beats as we hear them on the album, and responding to Caliph-NOW’s visual show — a constantly moving collage of music video clips, distressed and abstract animation, and family photos.

Reef once again makes a formidable entrance to album opener “God + The Algorithm” and its horror movie soundtrack tones; he’s lighthearted yet badass on a snippet of The Majestic‘s title track, a vibe that carries over to a full performance of the lead single “Stay Golden.” At this point, though, the tone of the session switches dramatically.

“I don’t have much of an identity outside of rap and my family,” he says. “I’ve shown you rap, and now I’m going to show you family.”

First, he plays “Manny’s Song,” a beautifully sentimental dedication to his youngest child, filled with father-to-son advice and celebrations of his kid’s singular personality traits. From here, the set moves to “Faith,” a song that I don’t think I fully understood until this performance. Back in my album review, I read it as a crisis of spirituality, but as Reef explains in his intro, the song is very specifically about his oldest son Isaiah, and even more specifically about being the parent of a child with autism.

“This is for everyone who felt like it’s a curse of some sort,” he says in a dedication to fellow parents in his situation. “It’s not, but it can be really hard.” And as the lyrics unfurl, I realize what I had previously heard as generalities are actually Reef breaking down and addressing God directly: “Am I a toy to you? Is my life a joke? Is that what my boy is to you?” As the song builds, so does Reef’s powerful delivery, his voice growing louder and higher, practically breaking down, but he pushes forward to the point that you can hear the tears that are streaming down his cheeks at the end. The room was quiet, and Caliph-NOW and mutually said “wow” as Reef caught his breath in the corner. Like he says: leaving it all out there.

Listen to Reef the Lost Cauze’s Key Studio Session in its entirety below — or watch the video of the set above — and don’t miss his release party for the album this Saturday, January 19th at MilkBoy in center city. Tickets and more information can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.

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