“Scared of lizards or mice, y’all?” Nef the Pharaoh asks as he ushers me and a photographer into the barn of his Vacaville ranch to show off his ATV.
“I try to have my friends come up here," he says as he pulls off the dusty cover to get on the four-wheeler. "We do paint balling. We have a couple ATVs going, a few dirt bikes in the garage.”
The Vallejo-raised rapper has been coming to this two-and-a-half-acre ranch since he was a little boy. His grandfather James got the property on a lease-to-own land contract after coming back from the Vietnam war as a combat-injured veteran. Once his rap money started coming in, Nef paid off the rest with his dad.
"Now it's ours and we own it," he says with pride.
Nef, who just drove in from his nearby condo in a silver Mercedes, has on a white tank top and simple gray sweats with one pant leg rolled up; he got a new tattoo earlier in the day and needs to let it breathe. The 90-degree heat makes the freshly inked words “Dream More” bleed on his shin, right next to a tattooed portrait of his mentor, E-40, a fellow ambassador of the 707 who’s championed Nef since before his single about being a teenage hustler, “Big Tymin',” went viral in 2015.
“I got this far and never signed with a major label, ever,” Nef says, praising E-40 for setting an example of how to thrive as an indie artist in the Bay Area.
When E-40 signed Nef to his label, Sick Wid It Records, it was an invaluable endorsement from the foremost gatekeeper of Bay Area rap. Now, with his first official album (and fourth major project), The Big Chang Theory, dropping on Aug. 10, Nef has outgrown the role of protégé, becoming a star of the Bay Area music scene in his own right.
Along with indie upstarts like SOB x RBE, ALLBLACK and Mozzy, Nef the Pharaoh has come to define the current era of hard-edged, streetwise Northern California rap. Tracks like "Bling Blaow" and "#Saydaat" have become regional hits over the past two years. And collaborations with some of the West Coast's biggest stars, including Ty Dolla $ign, YG and G-Eazy, have positioned Nef as a conduit between the notoriously insular Bay Area scene and the national stage.
“I never wanna get satisfied because once you get satisfied, you get lazy. Everyday, I know I accomplished a goal but I still want to go at it like I’m a freshman,” he says of his place in the local rap pantheon, taking a sip of an ice-cold Snapple. “I still want to achieve, or prove, or earn my spot. I don’t wanna kick my feet up.”
A gracious host, Nef continues the tour of the ranch. A herd of baby goats skips away as he approaches, seemingly unaccustomed to the presence of an urbanite visitor with a diamond-encrusted gold chain (incidentally, in the shape of Plank from the cartoon Ed, Edd n Eddy, about a trio of friends obsessed with concocting money-making schemes).
We walk along the dirt path, through shady groves of fig and olive trees, to a team of horses, some of whom Nef and his grandfather adopted from ranchers displaced by last year’s destructive Sonoma County wildfires. When he points out his favorite, a brown-and-white mare, his face lights up with the gentle kindness of a genuine animal lover.
Nef, who was raised in South Vallejo (in E-40's Magazine Street neighborhood) and Sacramento, often visits the ranch to get away from the stresses of city life.
“I come here and get a peace of mind,” he says as we sit down on a porch swing in the shade. “All you hear is the highways, and you see the stars.”
Despite Nef's considerable success, those urban stresses are ever-present in The Big Chang Theory, whose opener “Victim,” featuring OMB Peezy, indicts police brutality against the black community.
“I’ve witnessed police brutality in my younger years, and I’ve witnessed police brutality this year—me being Nef the Pharaoh,” he says, adding that success doesn’t insulate him from the realities of racism in America. “I just want the world to know that even though I’m here and I’m able to maintain this lifestyle, the flashy objects, I’m woke. I still know what’s going on. And they still hate me just like you. I’m still a product of my environment.”
The conversation turns to Stephon Clark, the unarmed 22-year-old murdered by Sacramento police in his grandmother's backyard in May, leaving behind his girlfriend and two young kids. “I actually smoked with him a few times in my adolescence," Nef says—and then, conscious of the ways the media often demonizes victims of violent crimes when they're black, clarifies, "Even though I’m saying I smoked marijuana with the dude, he wasn’t a bad person."
On "Victim," Nef calls out racism in the criminal justice system without mincing words: “That’s why I hate the police / And I raise my son to / Baby, we got melanin / That’s why they wanna hunt you,” he rhymes over an airy beat that manages to sound wistful despite its subterranean bass and distinctive Bay Area bounce.
With the track, Nef makes poetry out of that pain and fear, but he's also pragmatic. He brings up the fact that officers rarely face legal consequences for killing unarmed citizens, and explains the need for greater accountability. “Some cops have a whole background history of being racist; they have a whole background issue of mental illnesses,” Nef says. “One thing might trigger their mental illness and next thing you know, he’s beating this man senseless or he just shot this man for no reason. They should really be evaluated deeper than they are; they should go through more training than they are.”
Amid the many highly publicized police shootings in recent years, Clark's killing hit particularly close to home to Nef as a young father, he explains. “Even though me and my son’s mom aren’t together, we always talk about how fathers or young parents get taken away from their kids and how much that would hurt,” says Nef, who is 23.
Nef’s four-year-old son, whom he co-parents with his ex, is a huge part of his life. Baby Nef was a newborn when “Big Tymin'” started to blow up on YouTube. Navigating newfound fame, financial success and fatherhood made Nef grow up quickly, and he looks back on that turbulent period as a major life lesson. “That was a dope time in my life,” Nef says. “But me being young and on the road fucked up my relationship with his mom. I was a young adolescent; I just let the road get in the way of what was more important, relationship-wise. We’re still not together, but it is what it is. I just gotta be a man and take care of my family.”
The demands of fatherhood called for more income, and more income meant more touring and being away from home. After a pensive pause, he raises his voice passionately to talk about the often-overlooked mental health consequences of being a traveling musician. “Man! Depression, anxiety,” he exclaims. “A lot of shit that rappers don’t talk about, or a lot of rappers try to cover it with this big Xanax epidemic.”
He mentions Lil Peep, who died of an opioid overdose in 2017. “I just see my peers—this anxiety and depression that we go through, being young and on this road by ourselves—feeling like we have no one to talk to can eat you alive,” Nef says, adding that he once had a Xanax prescription for anxiety and stopped taking the drug because it made him feel like a “robot” and a “zombie.” “I saw that early on and I vowed to myself that I wasn’t going to be one of those rappers.”
Beyond its downcast opening track, Nef’s attitude throughout The Big Chang Theory is celebratory yet defiant—of racist institutions, the law, poverty, stereotypes. The project’s bonafide club banger is the rapidfire “86” featuring ALLBLACK and Cuban Doll (who’s shaping up to be a next-generation Trina with her mix of pretty and gangster). On it, the trio spits venom about getting booted out of a club to an adrenaline-inducing, double-time beat with a gritty, Bay-meets-Detroit funk.
Throughout the album, Nef does plenty of punchline-oriented flexing, but The Big Chang Theory also goes deep into his real-life struggles—being a young dad, escaping poverty by virtue of his talents, navigating the pitfalls of fame. With Hercules' DTB and Sacramento’s Juneonnabeat as producers, the project positions Nef as an heir to Northern California’s mobb music sound—which his mentor, E-40, helped pioneer in the '80s and '90s.
That balance of fun, toughness and honest reflection throughout The Big Chang Theory gives Nef a chameleon-like quality, appealing to suburban kids and those from the hood alike. He sounds just as natural on a love song with silky-voiced Dej Loaf (“What We Have”) as he does on his recent mixtape with 03 Greedo, the L.A. rapper who recently went to prison on a 20-year sentence for trafficking meth.
But as much as Nef chases success, broad appeal comes with a price, and he remains wary of fame. “Knock Down a Fan” is a warning to hangers-on with bad intentions—a testament to the lessons he's learned on tour.
“Now I know how to be prepared for the road more: keep my dick in my pants,” Nef says. “Even though I’m single, it’s not safe, gambling with life. I could have another baby. I could catch an STD. Everybody’s gonna come up to you with a smile, but they’re not going to show you the jealousy and envy. The demons that’s holding the sides of them cheeks up—those are invisible.”
Nef the Pharaoh has always been precocious. He knew he wanted to be a rapper after winning a talent contest at four years old, and later dropped out of high school in Sacramento to pursue his dream. (He comes from a musical family: his uncle was a member of the pioneering Chicano rap group Funky Aztecs). On one of his early features, on Corn’s “Old School Hyphy,” he brags about out-earning his teachers via the streets.
Now, he’s focused on building wealth that will weather the ups and downs of the notoriously fickle music industry. Like E-40, who preaches the value of persistence and diversifying one’s income, Nef is slowly building his business empire and a better future for his son.
“If I get something, it’s going to be land, a vehicle—something that’s going to last me long-term that I can invest in,” he says, mentioning his brand of pre-rolled joints, called Pharaohs, that he sells at cannabis clubs across the Bay Area. He’s also working on his own weed strain, called Chang’s Hii Chew (named after the Japanese candy), and is starting a French bulldog-breeding business on the ranch with his dad.
Nef is also writing a cartoon that he hopes to pitch to Adult Swim. And his own label, KILFMB (Keep it Lit for My Brothers, a motto for living life to the fullest in honor of those who’ve passed), is also on the rise: his first signee, OMB Peezy, has been gaining national attention for his Sacramento-by-way-of-Alabama swag in recent years. The two of them will hit the road with E-40 later this month for the Gift of Gab tour, which Nef plans to follow up with a tour of his own.
Nef says goodbye to his grandfather, who's inside watching the news at high volume with no air conditioning. It's time to escape the unforgiving Vacaville heat, he says, and go back to the condo to finish binge-watching the new season of Orange is the New Black. He's savoring his days off before hitting the road again for several weeks.
“After this album drops, it’s foot on the gas," he says, determined, and hops in his Mercedes to cruise down the desolate country highway.
Care about what’s happening in Bay Area arts? Stay informed with one email every other week—right to your inbox.