When it comes to making old-school hip hop new (again), weird and poignant, Philly friends and fellow rappers R-SON the Voice of Reason from Gangstagrass and Reef the Lost Cauze have it down to a science.
The friends will hit the stage at Brooklyn Bowl Philly this Thursday.
While West Philadelphia’s Reef has been playing as a searing solo act since 2000 with albums such ‘A Vicious Cycle’ to his name, his newest album, 2021’s ‘Reef the Lost Cauze IZ ALIVE’, may be his most vulnerable yet, as it touches on the hot button topic of mental health issues. And Gangstagrass — the Brooklyn-meets-South-Philly septet complete with banjos, fiddles and deep beats — have been doing their thing since the mid-2000s with their own definitive albums (‘Lightning on the Strings’, ‘Thunder on the Mic’ and ‘Rappalachia’) to their credit. Along with their recordings and live shows, Gangstagrass is renowned for it appearance on ‘America’s Got Talent’ and for their rustic theme song music for FX’s ‘Justified’.
Metro recently hooked up with R-SON and Reef for a shared conversation ahead of their Philly show.
Amorosi: What were the circumstances of how you two met, and what were each of your impressions of each other’s music?
R-SON the Voice of Reason: Reef retold the story recently but from my perspective, it was a bit deeper. I’d been blessed to be hanging out with some very dope MCs at the time and when we went to do soundcheck, I was introduced to Reef. I was there when he was doing his, and his song “This Is My Life” came on. I don’t remember what else I was doing but it all became way less meaningful. The lyrics, the delivery, every bit of the record caught me. I’ve been a fan since.
Reef the Lost Cauze: That’s when we truly first met but it actually goes back further than that. When I was a kid I lived a few years in State College PA, home to Penn State. A bunch of my friends from that area ended up staying and going to school there, and many of those guys ended up being friends with R-SON while he was up there – bo-bliz and emynd of The Bounce for instance – and everyone ended up in Philly years later. I love that connection, past-present-future type of thing.
Amorosi: Both of you have ties to Philadelphia. Explain how this city informs what you do as artists, start to finish?
R-SON: You’ve got to work extra hard in Philly to get your respect because so many people are doing it and doing it well. But, when’s it’s recognized that you’re really giving it your all and aren’t being too extra in your craft and your attitude, we’ll give you the props you deserve.
Reef: The thing about this city is no one is easily impressed, and you have to earn that respect so it puts a fire in you and instills a work ethic that is unmatched. You won’t last long half-as*ing it. And we definitely don’t like divas. So that is something I’m always conscious of, on stage or off. Work hard and be humble. That is the Philly aura, and it is what I live by.
Amorosi: Reef, it’s been ages since you put out new music, and when you did, it was the one-two punch of the single, “Unstable”, and the ‘IZ ALIVE’ album. How do you think the new material has evolved from the albums of your past?
Reef: Thank you so much. I had put out “The Majestic” at the end of 2018, and that was something that took years to make. So I needed time to rest, observe, feel, I needed to experience things. And obviously the pandemic and impending civil war helped with that (laughs). So summer of 2020 I started writing, knocked out a quick EP with my buddy Haj and then caliph and I got to work on ‘RTLC iz Alive’. It’s just like everything I do, just trying to be honest, to speak my truth and create a snapshot of where I am in life and how I see the world at that time.
Amorosi: R-SON, your Gangstagrass crew revolutionized a newly-forged sound by teaming bluegrass and hip hop, and have been doing so for 15 years now. How would you say that you have evolved that vibe from album one – into 2021’s new single “Please Don’t Take My Home” and 2020’s “No Time for Enemies?”
R-SON: When Rench (the producer and creator of Gangstagrass) started the whole project with ‘Tone-Z’ it was very much a different thing. Dolio and I brought a different style of MCing and the arrival of Dan Whitener (banjo) and more recently B.E. Farrow (fiddle) brought more minds into the songwriting pot. We’re creating on different levels, using bluegrass traditional melodies and songs, telling different stories and using more Hip-Hop samples along with them. We created, over the last two years, two new mixtapes of our versions of Hip-Hop classics that we’ve gotten props from the artists about. Pharaoh Monch really dug our version on ‘Simon Says’ and we got big props from Slim Kid Tre of the Pharcyde for our ‘Passing Me By’ homage. Taking that step of reimagining Hip-Hop classics in the way we’ve done bluegrass ones has been a thrill and shows audiences of all types that we respect their classic material.
Amorosi: Discuss returning to live stages together after two+ years of fears and tears?
R-SON: We were on the cusp of big things when everything shut down. Being back and having the opportunity to be in touch, spiritually, with fans and share space with them is a blessing. I’m trying to make sure that folks leave with an experience they’ll never forget and are happy to be able to have once more.
Reef: Anytime I’m able to touch a stage now I go harder than ever because I realize now it can be taken away at any time. I know how grateful I am to be able to perform, and I want the audience to feel that way too.
Gangstagrass and Reef the Lost Cauze will perform at Brooklyn Bowl Philly, 1009 Canal Street, on Thursday, Feb. 17 at 8 p.m. For information and tickets, visit gangstagrass.com/PA