There’s a short list of big names that hail from Vallejo, California. You have the late Mac Dre—one of the most influential artists to ever come out of the Bay—and E-40, a rap legend who introduced a whole new vernacular to the masses and has maintained a career that spans decades. And then you have NEF The Pharaoh. He’s in pretty good company, to say the least.
At just 22, the “Big Tymin” rapper has already toured the world, signed a record deal, collaborated with multiple brands, and has rubbed elbows with some of the greats. To think this all began with just a pair of regional hits. NEF hasn’t even scored his “breakout” smash yet, but suffice to say, he has more under his belt than some of his peers who already have that hit.
The young star constantly flashes his ear-to-ear grin; truly enjoying every moment this journey has brought him thus far. As he flails his dreads around while dancing on stage with moves that I’m not even sure have a name, NEF can make even the coolest of concert-goers turn up with him, and that’s a talent that not many can boast. This guy is a star.
Following a headlining show in Los Angeles, I met up with NEF to discuss his trajectory thus far and how he’s gotten to where he is. At one point, he excuses himself to the bathroom, but he’s sure to keep the door open while doing so.
“I can’t wait until I’m to the point where like, Rolling Stone is asking for fun facts about me that no one knows,” he tells me, as I sit on the other side of the wall. Of course, he is looking for me to ask why, so I curiously oblige.
“Like, no one knows that I have to use the bathroom with the door open because I’m afraid of being boxed in. It’s real, that’s real,” he says with a laugh. “I can’t wait until I can let people know stuff like that.”
You’re welcome, NEF.
You’ve accomplished a lot at 22—more than some have accomplished much later in life. What are some of your biggest accomplishments thus far, and which would you say means the most to you?
I’ve accomplished a lot. I have my own touring company, I have my own record label with successful artists, my own pre-rolls. I’m even about to start my own series of illustrated children’s books! I feel like one of the dopest accomplishments though is being 22 and being interviewed by Forbes. A lot of people can’t say that! A lot of men read Forbes and want to be in there, and I made it in there by 22.
You’re signed to E-40’s legendary Sick Wid It imprint, but it’s not a traditional deal. Can you talk a little bit about the partnership, and what it means business-wise?
My deal is better than damn near 99.9% of these artists in the game, simply for the fact I have a 50/50 profit venue share. I’m not signed as an artist; I’m signed as a business partner! Everything we do, we go half. It’s E-40 and Sick Wid It and NEF The Pharaoh and my imprint, KilFMB. It’s not me signed as an artist. Of course I am a Sick Wid It artist; I do represent Sick Wid It! But you know, I want to be in this business with longevity and I wanna learn the game, so me and 40 worked out a way for me to learn game and have longevity in this rap shit. And for me to be a dope ass businessman!
Why was it important for you to sign such a deal? Have you heard horror stories from other upcoming acts?
I always was taught that reading is fundamental. I’m not gonna dwell on the pitfalls of others with their mistakes in how they signed, but I just read up on what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it. I prayed on it, went over it with my mom and my people, and I made it happen.
So did you present this kind of deal to 40?
I made it a way where we could both win. Basically, he came with the idea too. I don’t want to just sit and get all the credit; that’s my sensei. But we both came up with the deal as a mutual agreement. You know, you gotta sign on both ends. That shit was amazing, man. I thank God for that deal.
You started getting a pretty big local buzz in 2014 with “Bitch I’m From Vallejo.” Did you have any management at that time, or were you just throwing things out there to see what worked?
You know, I had my uncle as my manager, but it wasn’t really like managing my music and telling me what to put out. I put out all my music on my own, so the choices and the steps I took to get there, to get to the “Big Tymin,” that was all NEF. The “Bitch I’m From Vallejo” track, I chose how we shot the video, who we had to shoot with, and the same for the “Big Tymin” video. I picked where we shot it, the concept, how we’d drop it, all of that shit! I just sat, and I came up with a little masterpiece and a play, and we just ran the play. It’s a good goddamn game! It’s not even over yet. That was just one play.
I have management now, though. He’s always been a factor in my region. I always seen him when I was growing up, and we know mutual people. He’s a good man in the business, and so it was only right for us to link up. We had actually linked after I’d already signed with 40.
So you really did a whole deal and everything by yourself, before you were even 21?
Yep. 40 hadn’t even signed me yet when I had “Big Tymin” out. That was the record that made him sign me. I did all of that shit by myself with word of mouth. I didn’t have no manager, no professional backing; I just worked the fuck out of social media! That’s what it was. Then Cousin Fik found me, and we did a song on 40’s album, and we got the deal done. After that I got with my manager, and we’ve been going hard ever since.
What did you do on social media that was so crazy?
I just moved precise. It was chess moves. I watched what I would post, when would post it. There’d be a few things I’d post and I wouldn’t even tweet people from my own Twitter. I’d make fake Twitter pages because you don’t want to spam motherfuckers from your own shit because it’s like, “This nigga’s annoying!” Don’t nobody wanna see that shit anyway, so if you already make it seem like you got fans, it’s a different move. I just made hella different Twitter pages, and I was tweeting hella people, and all that type of shit. This is kind of before Instagram got super big. I had an IG page, but motherfuckers wasn’t really on it like that, so it was Twitter, MySpace, and Facebook campaigning for me.
Well now you have a whole team, and it’s all comprised of people you grew up with. That has to feel good achieving these things together.
Family is everything. The majority of people that you see me rocking with is family or I’ve been involved with them for over five years. I got my cousin with me, my OG, my best friend since high school, shit like that. All my niggas is my day ones. We’re family.
And they all really stepped up to the plate and assumed their roles in helping get you going.
Yeah, most definitely. We’re running like a mob!
G-Eazy brought you on your first tour in 2016, and since then, has brought you out on a few other legs; including an international one. Why do you think he rocked with you so hard? I mean, there are other Bay Area artists that he’s taken on the road as well, but it seems he gave you a few more opportunities.
It’s probably the chemistry we have. I’m a good person, and I gravitate toward good people. G has a good soul, I have a good soul; his team is full of joy and love, so is mine. You feel me? We just mesh. We’re like family, and that’s my brother. If motherfucking anybody say anything crooked about G, if somebody even say they don’t like his raps, I will go to bat! Like, “Why don’t you like him? You’re not even listening to him!” I even got my niggas in the hood that stand on the block everyday that listen to really “murder murder, kill kill” type shit, and I even got them to fuck with at least one G-Eazy song. He’s just a genuine person and we clicked the first day we met. I learned a lot of things from G; my performance was enhanced by his team, the way I carry myself, the way I move! Like, I don’t go out all the time now, and if I go out, it’s to get the bag for the walkthrough. It’s shit like that, that he taught me; just how to move precise. I move like a rockstar now, and I learned that from him.
Do you think part of the reason he brought you out with him so much too is because of your stage presence? You really keep the crowd hype!
I think so, yeah. I really do. I make motherfuckers move, and they don’t even have to know my songs! I be having dumbass fun on stage, and I never run out of breath either. I don’t do no cocaine, I don’t drink energy drinks; it’s just all pure core power from the Lord.
Sometimes it’s hard to recognize your star rising around you, because you’re immersed in this lifestyle all day, everyday. I think a good point of reference is SXSW, though. How did it change from 2016 to 2017?
My first SXSW, I walked on the street and didn’t nobody know who I was. Every fucking show I had, didn’t nobody care. I had the crowds moving when they actually paid attention, but it was bootsie. We had to mix and mingle and really get connected out there the first year. It was cool though; it was a good experience. We took it like, “What can we learn from this to come back and beat the crowd up this year?” Whatever the Lord did for me with blessings he gave my way, I really wanna thank Noisey for what the fuck they did. Their documentary on the Bay Area was so fucking dope. They made us look so well! We are dumb and hyphy; we go stupid and retarded, but we’re intelligent hoodlums. That’s how I would put it, and they really made us look well. My side of the city, South Vallejo, it really didn’t get a lot of shine because Mac Dre is from the Crest. When you go to Vallejo, everybody thinks of the Crest. So I got to bring them to my side of the city. We really was in South Vallejo, we was really in the hood! The police yanked up on us and shit, and everybody saw a piece of my life and how real it was! They saw that I’m a real person making real good music, and that coming out before SXSW really made a difference this year. When I went this year, I couldn’t go nowhere without people stopping me! Somebody was taking a picture here, someone’s yelling like, “Nigga, that’s that nigga from Noisey! Boy them niggas really be outside!” They was taking pictures with my partnas too; they knew my niggas’ names and shit! That shit is tight. It was amazing! God has been working good for me and my team.
Are there other things that have changed for you that made you say, “Wow, I’m on my way!”
I’ve been doing exclusive shit on Beats1 Radio. I got to come out on Beyoncé’s show in the Bay when DJ Khaled brought me out, Diddy be playing my songs on his Snapchat! He be playing “Boss Me” and “Big Tymin,” and that shit is tight. The Lord is good, man. Chris Brown be playing my shit, fucking everybody be playing my shit. It’s tight.
Well one of those people is Drake too! At the top of 2016, he posted you to his Instagram page—something he does when he really wants to co-sign an upcoming talent that he feels is going to be big.
Our managers had talked I guess, and they had me come out to the OVO store, and I got some gear. They took a picture of me rocking some of it, and he posted it and he hit me like, “Yo when I come to the Bay, we gon’ fuck around!” He really kept his word and brought me out when he came to the Bay on tour! It’s funny because when I had came back to the crib the day he posted me, I’m like, “Nigga! Drake fuck wit me, nigga!” and my niggas was like, “No he don’t. He just posted you and that’s it.” I’m like, “Yeah aight! Watch when that nigga come to the Bay!” So he comes a few months later, and the first night, he didn’t bring me out so everyone was like, “Nigga, that nigga didn’t bring you out! You lying!” So I just stayed quiet, and I ain’t say nothing, and the second night…grand finale, bro! He brought the Chang out with Mac Dre’s mom and Mistah FAB and that shit went up! We was doing the Thizzle dance and all this shit and I was giggin’ and really turnt the crowd up. Shout to Drake and the OVO team for real.
The Bay is seeing more recognition now than it has in quite some time, and you’re really at the forefront of it. You have IAMSU, Kool John, P-Lo, Sage The Gemini, Mozzy, Kehlani, Kamaiyah, G-Eazy and so many more. It seems like everyone really helps each other out, too. As a matter of fact, I actually got put on to not only Kamaiyah from your Snapchats but GetItIndy as well.
It’s just because the Bay really is a “crabs in a bucket” area. Motherfuckers just don’t know that! When the hyphy movement came out, niggas didn’t want to see each other on and that’s why it disappeared and got so fucked off. I feel like the new school—me, Kamaiyah, G-Eazy and Kehlani, Philthy Rich, Berner and whoever else you wanna add in the new school—we saw that happen to the Bay. So I feel like we all just made this invisible vow to each other to not let that happen again in this area. Even if we don’t fuck with each other on a personal level, we post each other’s music and support each other’s music because it’s going to bring light back to the Bay Area and bring money back to the Bay. It’s gonna bring more jobs, more tourists, and all of that shit! It’s gonna bring joy back to the Bay Area. It’s a real rough and rugged motherfucking place and people don’t know that, but we make good music and 99.9% of the rap game gets their swag from the Bay Area. Period! From the motherfucking language—the slang, the independent game, to giving yourself aliases and aka’s and nicknames, doing hella crazy shit—we just started all of that shit and a lot of motherfuckers don’t be giving us our credit. I feel like the era I’m in, we’re gonna do that and we’re gonna continue to make that invisible vow and that invisible pact to hold each other down and put the Bay back on.
You’ve been open about your battle with dyslexia. Does it affect how you make music or how you operate at all?
It hasn’t affected me too greatly, unless I really allow myself to get sidetracked. I’ve learned to control it for the most part. It’s really if my body is stressed, then all that shit kicks in. I’m not sure how it came up when I was younger, but I think my mom saw that I would mix words or mix letters and shit. I could read stuff backwards hella good, and she’d be wondering how I could do that. It was never a problem in school, though. I always had good grades and stuff too. I was just a badass, and that’s why I got kicked out.
You have a young son who is obviously your world. Is making sure he doesn’t follow in your footsteps with not finishing school a priority to you?
Yeah he has to finish high school. If he doesn’t want to go to college, that’s fine. That’s his decision. But he’s gotta finish high school. I gotta go back and finish too so he can’t say, “Dad you didn’t finish, so why should I?”
What if he wanted to rap?
I want him to be a singer, but if he wanted to rap, so be it! Let’s do it. Whatever the fuck he wants to do, I’m with him. If he wants to take over the world, he might be crazy, but I’m right behind him. That’s my son.
Why’d you say a singer? Is he trying to sing now?
I just always wanted to be a singer, so I would love if he was. I’d rather be a singer than a rapper, everyday.
Can you sing though?
My niggas say I could sing. I don’t think I could sing.
Throw a little Auto-Tune on that shit and you’re set.
That’s cheating! Auto-Tune is cool, and I’ve done it a few times, but I’m gonna put myself in vocal classes one day soon. Watch!
Well at least you have a singer on your label!
Yeah, KilFMB the corporation. It stands for Keep It Lit For My Brothers. Our singer is Deltrice, she’s more for the ladies. She got that heartfelt shit. Then we got OMB Peezy—everybody’s seeing him right now. That’s like the main focus. He’s going crazy right now, and he’s just amazing. He’s from Mobile, Alabama and right now what we call his shit is reality rap. Then we got Eric D. He’s a Sacramento native and he keeps putting on for his city like I am. We’re the same age too; that’s my brother.
What is your ultimate goal in this game?
I want to become one of the pioneers in this rap shit. I want to be up there with the legends. I’m not gonna say any names, because I don’t know who y’all classify as legends, but to be up there with the legends of this rap shit is where I want to be.