In the Summer of 2018, the dominant Hip-Hop label of the 2010s announced that it had added a new MC to its tight-knit family. Carson, California’s Reason signed to Top Dawg Entertainment. The imprint with five #1 releases, including this year’s Black Panther soundtrack held no press conferences nor staged a chain-awarding ceremony. Instead, they released one of the hardest singles of the year, courtesy of Reason’s “The Soul.”
In those verses, the rapper from the Del Amo section of Carson chronicles his journey from hunger pains to the spotlight. However, speaking with Ambrosia For Heads last week in New York City, the path from Rap hopeful to a high-profile album rollout was neither accidental nor an overnight process.
“I’ve been doing music for over four years,” Reason explains, just ahead of TDE’s September 28 release of There You Have It. “I was away, in Iowa, playing basketball [on] a scholarship. I just got a MacBook, and my favorite rapper of all-time is [Lil] Wayne. He had just dropped Dedication 5. I was messing around in Garage Band, freestyling over beats and stuff. I was just bored; I didn’t have anything to do. I was sending [the songs] to some of my friends. They were like, ‘Yo, for a dude that doesn’t rap, you kinda tight.'” More than just a pastime, it was therapy for the young man who was 1,300 miles away from his twin brother, older sister, and parents. “I was going through a lot back home, but I couldn’t get back there, ’cause of school, so [it] was just to talk about things and get things off my chest. I just started slowly falling in love with it.”
Eventually, Reason graduated from Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa and returned to Carson. “I had a contract offer to go play in Greece. I turned that down and just started doing music full-time and just going really, really hard into it.” The Sports Management and Business Management had dual-majored with plans to go to law school to become a sports agent. However, the former athlete decided to get a job to fund his Rap pursuits. “[I was] dumping money into [music]. Whatever I had to do to just get a little more exposure, I was just doing it.”
With his brother and cousin, Lynesha, both of whom he says each contributed financially, Reason stayed doggedly focused. He combed YouTube, searching for “J. Cole Type Beats” and “Lupe Type Beats” to match the sounds of two of his favorite artists. Eventually, he brought in an engineer, working from Garage Band to an actual garage studio. In early 2016, Reason dropped his first collection of songs, The Free Album. It featured onetime Game protege, Skeme, out of Inglewood, and Compton hit-maker AD. He uploaded the project to DatPiff, Audio Mack, and others platforms and hoped for traction. “The Free Album is more who Rob is, and what Rob went through his entire life,” the artist reflects, using his first name. “After that, I started stepping into what Reason goes through. That’s what a lot of people will hear on There You Have It [which is] the new project coming out. It’s a lot darker than The Free Album.”
Reason points out to AFH that some of his core fans have already heard an early version of the project he will release this Friday. “There You Have It is actually a re-release. I dropped [it] after The Free Album, in 2017″ This is also the collection of songs that got him signed. “That is what Top [Dawg] discovered me off of,” he notes of TDE’s namesake and founder. “When we first sat down with Top we were playing records from There You Have It, and then we started playing new records,” he recalls. “Top lived with [the project] for about a week, and that’s when he decided to sign me. The plan was to put out a new project under TDE. But instead, Top felt like he wanted to show the world why they signed me. So we went back in. [The project is] remixed, remastered, and added a couple things—but not much. Top wanted to keep it very, very raw. We actually cut three records [from the original release]. So I’m trying to convince Top to allow us to sell [old] physical copies as a collector’s edition. If we do that, then people will be able to get those songs that we cut off.” Like many hungry rappers, the release is built on beats found on YouTube, with verses that tell a palpable story of struggling to make it as an artist. “I wanted to make it a story that people can relate to, but also make it my story.”
How There You Have It landed in the hands of Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith is a story unto itself. One of Reason’s lifelong friends Tyrone is the nephew of Keem, ScHoolboy Q’s road manager. Tyrone had been trying to get Reason’s music in front of his uncle for some time. And when Reason threw a local concert, and several hundred people turned up, the Top Dawg employee was in the crowd. “Keem showed up. He sent the video to Top, and was like, ‘Yo, you might want to check this dude out.’ Top still didn’t really bite.”
However, Keem maintained his belief in the Carson rapper. When Reason threw a There You Have It release party, Groovy Q’s road manager purchased 20 tickets and invited his TDE colleagues. “One of the people he brought was his best friend, Moosa,” explains Reason, “who is Top’s oldest son. Moosa reached out after [the show]. He was like, ‘I love There You Have It, but I want to hear [more]; what else you have?'”
By this point in 2017, Reason was experienced industry runaround, and he was keen to it. “At first, I thought Moosa was a random dude; I didn’t know who he was. So I actually kinda played Moosa to the side a little bit, ‘Yo, I’m not gonna schedule a studio session, but if you want to pull up, you can. But I’m not about to do this whole thing,’ ’cause labels had me running around in circles [at the same time] I’m about to get fired from my job and stuff [for] just trying to make label meetings. I’m not doing that no more.” His attitude was, “‘You wanna pull up, pull up. If not, no worries; it’s all love. It is what it is.'”
At the time in his life, Reason had been working for a tech recruiting firm. While he says that job paid well, it required 11-hour days. For a time, the rapper also held a post as an assistant manager at a Beverly Hills winery and restaurant, Wally’s. He reflects that it was more like “glorified cashier,” and remembers feeling degraded by high-end customers. Careful about his resources including time, Reason did not give in immediately to Top Dawg’s son—a relation that he was unaware of. “Thank God Moosa didn’t take [what I said] offensively,” he explains with a chuckle. The exec maintained interest. After they scheduled an in-studio meeting, Moosa was running hours late. Reaching out late in the night, he suggested Reason come to him, in another Carson lab. He texted an address.
“I didn’t know it was real until I got to the house and walked in the studio and saw that studio. I was like, ‘Damn, this is for real.'” The red walls of the recording facility were just like the ones he’d seen in early YouTube posts by Jay Rock, Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, and Q. “I knew that this is an opportunity. I don’t know where it’s going, but this is a big opportunity. So I played music for Moosa for like an hour. He really liked it; told me [about] some people that he wanted me to get with. We took a couple meetings or whatever. The plan was to build me up, make another project, and take that project to Top.” However, the plan changed after Reason left. “Without my consent, he just sent [the music] to Top. I really didn’t want him to do that. ‘Cause Top is the type of person [who values] first impressions. If he doesn’t like it, then you might not have [another] shot.”
However, Top Dawg showed some interest. Reason was invited to return, and this time meet the label founder. Upon arrival, the rapper and his two associates were asked to wait in an adjacent room. During the next 90 minutes, Reason admits his nerves tightened. Meeting SZA, who was at work in one of the rooms, did not help. “It’s one thing to be on a grind. It’s another to be that close and have something not go through. That can be a blow to somebody’s confidence. I was a pessimist at times, so I was like, ‘Man, I really, really hope this goes well.'” It did not seem to—at least at first.
Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith’s fiddled with his phone while Reason’s played tracks. If Top showed any expression, it was to share a laugh with Moosa at something on Instagram. “Then I played a record, ‘F*ck With Me’ that [I am currently performing on Jay Rock’s Redemption Tour] that’s on There You Have It. That was the first time that he started nodding his head. After that song went off, he was like, ‘That’s hard. I like it.’ At this point, I think that the meeting is going horribly. This the only record he likes—I’m playing all this soulful stuff, then I play this turnt-up record, and this one he pocks or whatever.” Moments later, the Watts O.G. left the room. Upon exiting, he gave Reason his number and requested that he text him the album. Moosa warned Reason that the waiting game could take six months to a year. Top Dawg does things on his own time.
“Maybe two days later Moosa called me at like six in the morning and was like, ‘Bro, I just got off the phone with my pops. Pops said he been listening to you all night. He’s heavily impressed. If everything else checks out, I think he gon’ end up signing you,'” Reason recalls.
Things checked out; Reason signed with TDE in the last year. Quietly, he appeared on the Black Panther LP. Although rapping is now his only job, the rapper admits that not much else has altered. “What did change was the way that I made music. I got more access to better studios and better producers, but my life didn’t change. I was the same person; I just had a lot more free-time then to hang out with family, do what I wanted to do, and work on music.”
Like Isaiah Rashad’s introduction to TDE five years ago, Reason recognizes that he is still an outsider in one of Rap’s tightest-knit collectives. “I got signed, and they really didn’t know me. So I feel like I’m still getting to know everybody in the label. You’re walking into this family, and there’s still apprehensions,” he says, echoing a series of powerful bars on “The Soul.”
He has spent recent weeks on the road with his favorite TDE artist, Jay Rock. Meanwhile, Reason grew up in the same area as Soulo. He describes being inspired by Kendrick’s recording process and Q’s knack for ad-libs. Reason admits that he regularly solicits Lamar’s opinions on songs, with the superstar offering input and encouragement. “It’s almost like an adopted child coming into a big, big family. They want you, but you really don’t know everybody. You’re trying to figure out their personalities; they’re trying to figure out your personality. Top has a lot of personality and business savvy to him; I’m trying to read how he thinks about stuff, and not offend people by saying stuff but still speak my mind.” While fitting in always come with its challenges, TDE’s family is not pretentious. “It’s easy because they’re so human, so regular. These are millionaires that don’t wear—most of ’em don’t even wear jewelry. Top is worth who knows how much and he wears a red hat and a hoodie and some [Levi’s] 501 jeans everywhere. They’re so normal that it makes it a lot easier, but it still is a growing process.”
Now on a label where the mantra is “hustle like you’re broke,” it is easy to look back in the rear-view for Reason, and do what he’s always done to make him heard, recognized, and respected as one of the greats.