Last August, Top Dawg, CEO of Top Dawg Entertainment, announced that he had signed Carson, California rapper Reason. A month later, the rapper released his TDE debut: the pensive There You Have It — a project he previously dropped back in 2017.
Instantly, Reason, a rapper who had been circulating in the underground circuit for a couple of years, was on the radar. He had a machine now, and it showed; in December he dropped the vivid video for “Colored Dream,” a jarring look at the consequences of street violence.
At the top of 2019 Reason made headlines again: he was one of the MCs invited to J. Cole’s Revenge of The Dreamers III sessions in Atlanta, alongside other elite rappers, like Vince Staples, J.I.D, Rick Ross, Bas, and more.
We were able to sit down with Reason to talk about his journey as an independent rapper; what it was like to join the “Lakers” of rap; and what really went down during those Dreamvillve sessions.
Read it in his own words below.
As told to Shirley Ju.
The moment that I got signed, everything was moving at 100mph. I’m glad I went through certain things as an underground artist because it helped prepare me now for certain things that happen in the industry. Not taking certain things personal, learning when to capitalize on opportunities — those are things that you learn in the grind of coming up that help you when you actually sign.
Honestly, we’re all still in disbelief. All of my close friends and family still treat me the same, none of them call me Reason. It’s weird for them when we’re all out, and it’s a thing to other people. When we did Rolling Loud, seeing that we had our own room, food, catering, and all that, we’re just not used to those things. We’re used to having a show and we have to sell 100 tickets to get on that show. We’re still in that adjustment period.
My crew is the exact same. That’s one thing I love about TDE, they didn’t make me change anything. Even down to where I record at. Sometimes I’m at Interscope but for the most part, I’m still at my home studio. My last project that got engineered, Ali didn’t even do that. My engineer mixed and mastered that. The goal is to hopefully upgrade and be able to have him learn from Ali because Ali is so amazing, but they’re letting me still build up my team organically. They’re not forcing me to use this person or that person. It’s just more about bringing home that same product that you’ve been bringing home. As long as you’re getting better, then they don’t care how I get there.
Signing to TDE was similar to joining the Lakers just because I grew up on TDE and I’m a huge fan. Even just down to the annual Christmas show that they do. I went from being a fan there to the next year being signed but not performing, then the next year performing. It’s an indescribable feeling, but it comes with a lot of pressure. Because wow, that’s really cool to be signed to the most talented rap label on the planet right now, but it also comes with a certain bar you have to hit.
You’re not coming out with a project unless Top feels like it’s the right representation of you. That bar sometimes is a difficult thing to deal with because you’re constantly sending records back and forth, you’re constantly trying to impress management or people at the label, so that way they can all get behind it. You know TDE, once they drop a project, everybody moves as a unit. They get behind it. Well, you gotta make them want to get behind it.
It’s a lot of pressure, but I also feel like they only sign certain types of personalities. There’s no one on the label that’s scared of the pressure. Everybody welcomes it. Everybody is excited about it. We all want to elevate. It’s cool to have opinions from people that are going to be completely honest, tell you “nah that sucks” or “you haven’t grown really.” Sometimes a song is good, but you just haven’t grown. They’re like “we don’t want to put out the same type of project that we just put out.”
What’s funny is I was talking to Sony for a while. When you’re underground — a lot of underground artists can relate to this — you just want a situation. Something that will get you out of a job, to help you focus on music. I started talking to Sony, Universal, all these other labels, and after literally coming home from my ninth meeting, I told my business partner LT: “I don’t think we’re going to sign unless it’s TDE or Dreamville.”
At the time, I was like “these are the only two labels I know that are going to take a chance on a hip-hop artist because of his talent, and not worry about numbers or how many views he has. Any other label we’re going to have to sell our soul for them to rock with us because they want you to come already with 100k followers. Realistically, if I get to that point, I’m not signing.”
I [remember running] into Bas twice and [giving] him music. I love Bas, he’s an amazing artist. People give me music sometimes and I try, but I don’t always listen to it. I can be honest about that. It was something I used to take personal as an underground artist but through the hardship of getting to where I’m at, I understand people are just busy. It has nothing to do with anything else. I always thought “it’s not a coincidence that I keep running into all these Dreamville people. Sooner or later, I’ma probably sign to Dreamville.” Then the first connection I made at TDE, it just ended up going that way.
I had known Keem for three years, he does management for SchoolBoy Q. Thankfully, I had been pressing play on him a lot. He just knew how the label worked. If he were to take my music to Top how it was then, it wasn’t going to make sense for Top. Keem just always encouraged me, kept telling me to keep working, keep getting better. “You’re a great rapper but the music isn’t there yet.” Then when we dropped There You Have It the first time. Keem came to the release party and he was like “yeah, he’s ready now.” Keem brought [manager] Moosa to one of my shows. When Moosa saw me live, he didn’t even hear any music, he just thought that I had it based off my stage presence.
We actually threw our own show at The Union (now Catch One). I got tired of not getting booked for shows, so I just started throwing my own shows. Anybody I wanted to open for, I would just book them with my own money and open up for them. This was my first headlining show. It was called There You Have It for the album. I had a couple of local acts that I personally liked and rocked with open up for me.
It was 500 to 600 people that pulled up. A lot of people, a lot of love. It was like me reaping the crops that I was harvesting. Moosa ended up seeing me there and the next day, I had a DM from him. He just literally reached out. I wasn’t even following him, so I had to go to the unread. It was right around the show so I had a lot of unread DMs. I wasn’t really checking it like that but for some reason, I just happened to check it that day.
He said, “Yo, I was at your show and I really liked what I saw up there. I was wondering if you could come and press play on me with new music.” I told him he could pull up on one of my sessions, he didn’t end up coming because he was really late. I was leaving when he hit me, he told me to come to his studio in Carson – which was the famous TDE house, but I didn’t know at the time. When I pulled up, we walked inside and I started seeing pictures on the wall and the couch. I was like “yo, this is real. I don’t know if Top still lives here, I doubt it because they’re successful and what not, but I remember seeing videos of this house.”
At that point, I knew it was real and I just started playing Moosa everything that I had. He helped grow my sound a bit more. We were supposed to make another project and take that project to Top, but Moosah just kept living with There You Have It and without even telling me, he sent it to Top. Next thing I know, we were getting a call for a meeting to go sit and talk to Top in person. It was crazy.
When I found out, I was at home and literally just started crying. I remember that moment like it was yesterday. It’s funny, Top Dawg takes you through a series of tests first. When he first knew that he liked my music enough to sign me, he wanted to see me work on the spot. Because Top is really big on his artists having to write. He doesn’t want somebody that’s getting writers and what not, because everything is in house. It’s not a knock to them. It’s just that if we have to get writers, then we have to pay writers. That’s what TDE is built off of. He wanted to see me write a verse in person so he set me up with a studio session with Jay Rock.
And it’s not like Jay Rock wrote his verse on the spot, Rock already had a verse recorded. “Reason, you now have to put a verse on this record.” Also just being in the camp with stronger personalities, like Q. “Do you fit in? Do you fit the culture?” Because you could have all the talent in the world, but Top won’t sign you. There’s artists in the industry right now that people don’t know but Top got them signed. They didn’t sign to TDE because it didn’t make sense. He got them signed to another person because this person is talented enough, but he doesn’t fit us. Top Dawg always has his ear to certain things.
Top literally called me a day and a half later: “I know Moosah already told you, but we want to bring you in the camp. Before we bring you down for paperwork, now is the chance for any questions you have. I don’t care what it is – about anybody in the camp, shoot those questions.” I had a bunch. You have certain hesitations like “what’s the process behind dropping an album?” All types of things that you see from the outside you don’t understand.
It was dope, he was patient with me. He sat there on the phone with me for about two hours just to answer whatever I asked. Once we were done, he told me, “Go talk it over with your family and if you’re with it, go sign the paperwork tomorrow.”
“There You Have It” was actually the second to last song I did for the album. I do that a lot with albums, I don’t make the intro until I have the core of the album done. Because to me, the intro states “where are we going with this album?” I just really was listening to all the songs I knew was going to be on the project, and it sounded very hungry and dark. Shout out to DJ Swish, that was one of the few songs on there that’s not from YouTube. Swish produced that record for me on the spot. I told him I wanted it to be dark but soulful, so he took a soulful sample and made it dark and hungry. Then I didn’t want a hook, I just started rapping and talking about everything that had been going on at the time.
I’m a person who doesn’t really like to talk about a lot of stuff, so that always my process of getting stuff off my chest. But it’s hard to come to the realization sometimes to put it out. I wrote a lot of songs that were personal that I just never put out. It was hard for me to come to grips that some people need to hear this stuff because they’re going through the same exact stuff as me, and this could help a person get through that hard time they’ve been struggling with. Some topics are more sensitive than others, so it just all depends on how I feel about it.
For 2019, I want to release my first official album with the camp. I want to be able to go on at least two to three tours this year. We have one lined up with J.I.D. I just want to continue to grow. I have a lot of goals of where I want to be, as far as popularity wise. I just want to keep my foot on the gas. I don’t want to be that TDE artist — not yet at least — that drops a project and ducks off for two years. That’s just not how I have ever moved. I’m thankful that Top knows that, he even said it before I did.
I’m probably 90-95% done [with my forthcoming debut]. I have a name, but they don’t want me to put it out yet. I actually have a name for my next two albums; I’m just different like that. I’m hoping to announce it really soon. Top knows where I’m at with the process. Before you can release a project, you have to be able to sit with the project with Top and explain to him what you think the singles are, what are the big records — basically what you think about the project that way he understands it. Top executive produces every project. He might pick up the phone and say “let’s put this person on this,” he does his Top Dawg thing. All I really have to do is that process with Top Dawg, and the album will be done.
Recording with Dreamville in Atlanta was dope. I was only out there for the first five days. At first, it was me, Cole, JID, Cozz, and Lute from Dreamville. Long story short, it was like 35 producers. Each producer came up and they played five beats. We would either thumbs up or thumbs down it, and we couldn’t leave from that moment until all five rappers thumbs up on the same beat.
So we spent three hours doing that. We finally did that and that’s when we broke out and starting working. That’s the vibe it was, it was a very competitive, high-quality environment, where everybody was just feeding off each other. Everybody was making each other better. I feel like I got better there. A lot of artists did. Everyone took little tips and bits from everybody. It just shows what the industry could be if everybody fucked with each other, and it wasn’t all this political bullshit.
‘Cause you got with 3M followers, and they’re fucking people with 10K followers. They’re making genuinely good music, it’s something more people should definitely adopt. I’m already talking to my camp about doing something like this, because only the best music comes out of this. It was a very collaborative and inspiring environment altogether. They wanted me to stay longer, but Top needed me back focused back in LA.
Shirley Ju is a Los Angeles-based writer who grew up in the Bay Area. She lives, breathes, and sleeps hip-hop, and is literally on top of new music the moment it is released. If there’s a show in L.A., you can find her there. Follow the latest on her fomoblog.com and on Twitter @shirju.
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