Nef the Pharaoh is one of the Bay Area’s most promising young hip hop artists. You’ve heard him on Big Tymin (or at least TY Dolla $ign’s remix) and you might be catching rumbles from the release of his new mixtape, The Chang Project. E-40’s protégé (they’re both from Vallejo), Nef rocks the classic Bay Area post-hyphy vibe; the difference between him and the standards, though, is that he’s got an infectious personality that warms his rhymes, so you feel almost affectionate listening to his raps about money and bitches. Clearly the Bay feels that way too-- Chang Chang is bumping out of San Francisco’s cars on the reg.
Nef has already won attention from the arbiters of hip hop cool, and you’ll hear more from him as he works on becoming the Bay’s biggest worldwide star. On that note, we wanted to get to know him a little before he comes to New York for the August 5 Warm Up. Listen in on our phone call below, and then feel extra special when you see him onstage at MoMA PS1.
Lorem: Every piece of media about you mentions that you’re from Vallejo. Is that something you work for, or do people just find it interesting?
Nef: I make sure the media mentions where I’m from every time just because my city is so small. My city is five minutes long-- not even. Four minutes. In order to be from there and be at the level I’m on.. Some of the greats from Vallejo ain’t even did some of the shit I done. I was just talking to E-40 the other day and he told me ‘you’ve been to more places in the world than us.’ I was like ‘what, you serious?’ I’m standing here doing something for my city, you know?
How does that make you feel?
It makes me feel amazing. Both to know that, and to really come through and achieve what I set out to do. I did that. I’m living proof.
Do you want to be known as a Bay Area rapper?
I want to be seen as a worldwide Bay rapper. We’ve only got a few of those, you know G-Eazy, E-40.. I want to be up there with the greats.
Where’d you get your Chang nickname?
Johnny Ca$h gave me that name. You know.. Not Johnny Cash, Johnny Ca$h. I was fascinated with his gold and the sounds his chains used to make when they’d clink together like chang, chang, chang. And I’d be like, ‘Damn, you icin’ and he’d be like, ‘don’t worry about it, chang chang. You’ll get this one day.’ So you know I just always kept that nickname. But I’m not little no more so I added Big. Big Chang Chang.
Yeah, why is everyone still repping ‘Lil’?
Yeah I don’t know. I’m not gonna belittle myself. I’m not little anything.
Would you go by Big Nef?
Yeah I would go by Big Nef. I mean my family’s calling me that too, you know I got my son, Little Nef. 2 going on 20.. He’s a handful.
You’re fucking delightful. How much of your success do you think is because your music is great, and how much is that you’re likeable?
I think it’s 50-50. Since I’m such a loveable person it makes you want to pay attention to my art-- so you really listen to what I’m talking about. Then you notice that, my songs, the formula, the structure.. They’re not too bad! It’s actually good music.
On that note, what’s your process? How do you make a track?
I sit down, roll some of my medicine, and go through my beat emails til I find a slap, one I think is real tight, you know. Then contact the producer, get everything taken care of, and then I think about how this beat makes me feel; I think about what color this beat makes me see. I don’t know what it’s called when you see colors when you hear music?
I have that too. It’s called synesthesia.
For real? You get that too?
That’s tight. Yeah whatever color I see, that’s what I try to produce on that track. If I’m feeling yellow and happy, it’s gonna be a dope yellow and happy song. I don’t know how I write songs, a lot of the time I find myself laughing at myself, saying, ‘Damn, thank you God, I don’t know how this came to my head.’
Does your synesthesia influence your album art, say, on the Chang Project?
Yes ma’am. The yellow, Chang color. That’s how I feel right now.
You’re splitting that record half and half with E-40?
Tell me about how you came to that decision.
Well we’re business partners. And I don’t need a record label to show me how to do things. Selling $100,000 out the trunk-- that’s going ghetto gold, going ghetto platinum. People with no label, they’ve still got everything that all these labels got, and they own the rights to their own music. They’re not signing their souls away. A lot of these artists, they don’t really know what they’re doing; basically just signing with a major label is signing a check to be in debt. Yeah you just got a $200,000 advance, but now you’re $200,000 in debt. You know? I can make $200,000 myself with no label and be in debt to who? No one. And I’ll still be on the same level as these international artists signing 360 labels, gettin’ fucked. I’m able to do everything they’re able to do, *and* have my freedom. I took that route cause I’m smart. I don’t need a record label to make me bigger when I’m capable of doing it my damn self.
Ok last question: what do you wish people knew about you?
I wish people knew how much stress I deal with daily. But never let it override my attitude or disturb what I’ve got going on. I might have just had my car broken into but I’ll still stop and take a picture with a fan. Cause it’s all about the fans, I wouldn’t be here without them. I’d always stop and take a picture with a fan, unless they suck.
I got a new song, Knock Down a Fan. Some fans are fucking annoying. They come at you with a mouthful of food, taking a selfie without permission.. Or I’m in the store trying to buy shoes for my son, and they take a video of me all secretive. Don’t be a fuckin’ weirdo doin’ all that spy shit. Just act like a human, and treat me like a human.
Amen, Nef. Great talking with you.
Great talking with you too.