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Nef The Pharaoh: Hyphy’s Heir Apparent

In Clubs, Music
BLING BLAOW: With Mac Dre’s absurdist flow and E-40s elastic love of slang, Nef The Pharaoh has what it takes to be the next Bay Area hip-hop star.

BLING BLAOW: With Mac Dre’s absurdist flow and E-40s elastic love of slang, Nef The Pharaoh has what it takes to be the next Bay Area hip-hop star.

Nef The Pharaoh remembers the exact moment he decided he wanted to become a rapper. At the tender age of 4, the young Pharaoh—born Tonee Hayes in Vallejo—saw the surreal Hype Williams-directed video for Busta Rhymes’ 1997 track “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See.”

The cartoonish clip, featuring Busta and his Flipmode Squad cavorting around a mansion in black light-reactive tribal paint—his spastic face blown-out in fisheye lens close-ups as he runs herky-jerky from an elephant—made an impression on Neffie.

“He was so crazy,” Pharaoh recalls. “And I was always a crazy young little kid with an imagination. After seeing that video, I made my own rap.”

Listening to Nef’s latest release, The Chang Project, it’s easy to hear the early connection he made with the far-out sounds and styles of late-’90s Busta. Pharaoh’s flow is buoyant and playful—often accented with upspeak, and very reminiscent of that other rapper from Vallejo that any rap fan from the Bay Area will know.

“Mac Dre played a very big part in my career, because he’s one of the artists that made me become comfortable with myself and who I am,” Nef says, speaking on the role that the late, great Andre Hicks had in inspiring his own style. “Mac Dre could take the weakest beats possible and rap on them and make them tight.”

One imagines Nef is capable of the same, which is not to say any of the slappers on The Chang Project are weak. Case in point: “Lauryn Hill,” the 13th track from Nef’s latest effort, finds the emcee bouncing all over a minimalist beat, pulling out layered metaphors and similes in such rapid succession that the brief song not only rewards multiple listens—it demands them.

The Chang Project also shows off a number Neffie’s mannerisms, which were doubtlessly informed by that other great Vallejo rapper, E-40. Up and down the record’s 15 songs, Pharaoh pulls out autotune-less warbles and demonstrates a knack for inventive slang, as well as expressive onomatopoeia: “Look at my neck—bling blaow!” he exclaims on the appropriately titled “Bling Blaow.”

The jubilant track celebrates Pharaoh’s making it big enough to blow some serious cash on jewelry. But it is also a particularly Bay-centric celebration of the malleability of language. From the signature stretched-out “biiiitch” of Oakland emcee Too Short, to the “fo-shizzles” and “fo-sheezys” of Keak Da Sneak, Nef is quick to point out the innovative linguistic contributions Bay Area rappers have made to the hip-hop canon over the years.

And then there was the hyphy movement. Launched by Keak Da Sneak, Mac Dre, E-40 and others, the hyphy style—with its specific lingo, stripped-down beats, signature dance moves and uniquely absurdist, quasi-psychedelic worldview—was huge in the Bay Area. But outside of 40 Water’s “Tell Me When To Go,” hyphy made a much smaller impact on the national scene.

Fast-forward to 2010, however, and you’ll find all the trappings of hyphy’s sonic signature in the beats of L.A. producer DJ Mustard. Swipe left all the way to 2017 and take a closer look at the meteoric success of Atlanta trio Migos: the rap-game gonzo of Quavo, Takeoff and Offset is nothing new. It’s just a different twist on the thizz dance.

“This is ground zero,” Nef says. “We are the mecca. Hip-hop might have started in New York, but the Bay Area gave it its style. We gave it its slang.” And with The Chang Project and the soon-to-be-dropped The Big Chang Theory, Nef aims to underscore his assertion.

“I’m bringing it back to the Bay,” Nef says. And that’s more than your typical hip-hop bluster. Nef has scored tons of mentions in prominent music publications—including SPIN, Pitchfork, Noisey, and The Fader.

To put it bluntly—heh—fans looking for the next big thing in rap would do well to catch Nef The Pharaoh when he rolls through town this Saturday.

Nef the Pharaoh
May 6, 8pm, $25+
BackBar SoFa, San Jose

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