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Philadelphia, Defiance and The Making of Reef The Lost Cauze.

June 28, 2013

ReefSmall01Text by Shaun Frazier. Images by Marie Alyse Rodriguez.

Sharif Lacey is part MC, part stay-at-home dad and part sociologist. Making music under the moniker Reef the Lost Cauze for more than a decade, he has long since solidified himself on a deep roster of Philly rap veterans and carved out a worldwide following. He has compiled an extensive catalog of mixtapes, EPs and full-length albums, collaborated with some of his own hip-hop heroes and covered many miles bringing his art to appreciative fans around the globe.

Along the way he has gained a profound perspective about his business and his connection to the city that raised him.

Reef’s local roots run deep. He is a third-generation Philadelphian whose grandparents have resided in the same West Philly home for more than 60 years. He credits his grandfather, Frank Lacey, for instilling in him his blue-collar work ethic and drive to take care of his family.

“He is the O.G.,” Reef says. “I’ve seen this man go to work in fuckin’ eight feet of snow.”

ReefSmall04Though he had a solid foundation to build from, Reef’s road to success had its share of potholes. Formative years were spent in the Overbrook Park neighborhood of West Philly. While his own surroundings had their share of problems, it was in North and South Philly where he saw the effects of drugs and violence and witnessed communities beginning to deteriorate around him.

“Growing up in the ’90s in Philly was an education, to say the least,” he says. “And I fell right into it. Fighting and shooting shit up. I fell right into it for no reason other than that’s what everyone was doing. I was fucking my life up.”

After getting his act together toward the end of high school with strong encouragement from his mother, Reef attended the University of the Arts to pursue a career in film. His foray into college didn’t last long. He dropped out to make hip-hop a full-time job.

Without much direction at first, he struggled to get his feet moving as a burgeoning rapper. That’s when his mother hit him with an admonishment that he took to heart, then later turned around to make it the inspiration that has since fueled his artistic output.

“She said to me, ‘You’ve become a lost cause,’” explains Reef. “And for some reason that shit sounded so ill to me, like I was almost embracing it. It was like a defiance kind of thing.”

ReefSmall03He has been Reef the Lost Cauze since 2001, and it is exactly that sort of defiance that has defined his music throughout his career. Over the years, as he has steadfastly stuck to a stylistic approach that derives from his favorite emcees – guys like Kool G Rap, Big Daddy Kane and local legends Black Thought and Beanie Sigel, he’s declined to bend over for the sake of attaining commercial appeal.

Meanwhile the nom de plume has adopted new meanings as the man it is attached to has grown and gained worldly experience. More recently, it has come to symbolize Reef’s dedication to a relatively young art form that already seems outdated.

“The main theme is that hip-hop, MCing, this art form that people used to love and respect, and the idea that the music and the soul is the most important aspect of it – that’s gone,” he says. “So anyone who makes real hip-hop their calling card is a lost cause because they’re basically championing something that is dead. It’s done and you can’t bring that back. It’s a defiance thing. I’m a lost cause because I make music that’s ancient to a lot of people. It’s dated.”

Reef’s rhymes trend more toward social essays than party anthems. They provide insight into what it’s like coming of age in an urban dystopia that has been changing all around him, almost as rapidly as the medium which he himself employs.

ReefSmall02

Reef with Grande Marshall

On “Ghost Town,” a track from his 2012 mixtape Reef the Lost Cauze is Dead, Reef raps, “Culture vultures/No home for broke kids/They stole North Philly/Renamed it NoLibs.”

It is a direct shot at the tidal wave of gentrification that has washed over one part of the city during the last decade. And while many see it as a form of progress and regeneration, Reef sees a missed opportunity to bring people from different parts of society together.

“We try to paint this picture where yuppies intermingle with the urban youth and that’s just not the case,” he explains. “It creates this friction and this drama and this unwelcoming feeling. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with people moving into a neighborhood that isn’t really functioning and building but my whole thing is interact with the people. Don’t move into a neighborhood, take it over basically and then be rude to the people who lived there before.”

As Reef expounds on his theories, one can’t help but wonder if maybe the Lost Cauze persona could also be interpreted as a reflection of the social apathy that pervades in his hometown.

“A lot of people would like to offer bullshit solutions,” he says. “But as long as people can’t afford to live where they’ve lived their whole lives and have to move away, there’s going to be that resentment. People get lost in the politics of it all instead of just learning that you might have a really cool neighbor. This dude that might look like a scary thug might be the most educated dude on the block. This chick that might look like a hipster white girl, she might be able to sit down with you and talk about Kool G Rap for two hours. But we don’t know because we don’t intermingle with each other.”

In many ways, his music is a bridge for that social gap. It has the power to bring people together while also shedding light on the reasons people remain detached from one another.

Summer2013CoverREEFsmallLongtime friend and collaborator DJ/producer EMYND points out that on top of the focus and dedication to mastering his skills, it is Reef’s emotional personality that really puts him in an elite class.

“He’s one of the most passionate and real dudes I know,” he says. “He just cares so much about his friends and his family and I think that makes him a better rapper. He can easily rap about some real and honest shit because that’s just the type of person he is and he brings that passion into everything he does.”

With his emotions on his sleeve, Reef keeps his music and his career moving.

He recently released the Sirens on Snyder EP with Philly hip-hop conglomerate Dumhi. He’s dropping a new EP entitled The Fast Way, produced by EMYND. And he does a podcast with producer and DJ Caliph-NOW.

Though Reef admits there have been times that he has felt ready to call it quits, he is proud to be an ambassador of hip-hop culture and he’s humbled by the doors it has opened up for him.

“In every business and every art form, there are going to be ups and downs but you have to vibe with it if that’s your passion,” Reef explains. “Music has always been my passion and the city of Philadelphia has always been my passion.”

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