Nef The Pharaoh Was Born To Rule

“This is the life I always wanted to live,” Nef the Pharaoh says, surveying the parking lot at Harbor Park, the South Vallejo apartment complex he grew up in. It’s a sunny May afternoon, and the 22-year-old is reflecting on a tour that took him around the world last year. His slender frame is draped in a long, blue camo-print coat he thrifted in Scotland, and a yellow beanie is pulled down low enough to obscure the Ankh tatted between his eyebrows. Read more…

A moment ago, he went off on a brief tangent about dopamine. “It’s like a drug that gets released by your brain when you do certain things,” he explained, citing a Science Channel documentary he caught earlier that week. “I feel like I get a lot of that when I do this.”

Juggling a Backwood and a tall coffee, the rapper, born Tonee Hayes, walks me through a set of biographical bullet points. He was born into a musical family — his dad DJed local functions and put him onto Prince and the Gap Band, while his mom sang in the choir at church — and he wrote his first raps at 4. His exposure to the local scene came early. “I was at all the hyphy functions, all the Mac Dre shows, E-40 shows,” he says, “I was the little kid on top of the whip goin’ dumb, in the long-ass T-shirts. This shit is really in my DNA.”It’s an origin story he’s been unpacking for the last two years, most notably on his 2015 breakout single, “Big Tymin.” An instant regional smash, it was also an efficient exercise in self-branding. The video featured a collage of visual allusions to classic Cash Money and Mac Dre, locating his work in the tradition of his two biggest influences. Months before, though, he’d already caught the ear of his city’s global ambassador, E-40, with a hometown anthem called “Bitch I’m From Vallejo.” Soon after “Big Tymin,” Nef and his KILFMB imprint formed a partnership with 40’s Sick Wid It Records, a move that paved the way for long-term sustainability and provided him with a dream mentor he says has “the cheat code to the game.”

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