Top Dawg Entertainment’s newest signee, REASON, is running a well-deserved victory lap. After a number of hardships that could’ve broken anyone’s psyche, REASON beat the odds through a relentless work ethic and sheer force of will. The past few months have elevated REASON’s standing amongst new rappers with a coveted cypher spot at this year’s BET Hip Hop Awards, a standout feature on Black Panther: The Album, and opening for Jay Rock on The Big Redemption Tour all stamped on his resume. With so much in store for the young MC, it’s hard to believe the 28 year old was ready to quit music just a year ago.
REASON has always been a dreamer. As he grew up in Carson, CA, REASON had aspirations of making it to the NBA. He received a basketball scholarship from Northwestern College in Iowa and while there, the “Better Dayz” rapper developed a love for music that stemmed from the frustrations of attending a school that’s culturally different from Carson. Music would slowly take over basketball as REASON recorded a number of freestyles as a form of therapy. After graduating from Northwestern, REASON’s newfound love influenced him to turn down a contract to play professionally in Greece in order to focus solely on music.
REASON’s start in music was not the most gracious. He worked a bunch of mediocre jobs to fund his craft and few took him seriously in his hometown. A considerable buzz grew with his first mixtape The Free Album, but it was his second project There You Have It (the original version of his remastered TDE debut) that was meant to be the breakout moment. Thousands of dollars were put into the creation of the mixtape with nine thousand going to a publicist who was supposed to build exposure for the project. After receiving the payment, the publicist disappeared and the mixtape fell into obscurity.
Despite losing everything and nearly quitting on his dreams, REASON crossed paths with Moosa Tiffith, the son of TDE founder and CEO Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith. Through this relationship and meeting the TDE boss, REASON signed with the hip-hop powerhouse after his mixtape, There You Have It caught Top’s attention. In August 2018, Top announced the signing by releasing REASON’s “The Soul,” a passionate record explaining his come-up.
With his TDE debut, There You Have It, REASON is establishing himself within the TDE family as the honest story-teller. He details the struggles he’s encountered in his life in grim detail with nods of having a good time throughout the chaos. It’s the first time a TDE artist has their story told in such a bold manner and according to REASON he wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Billboard sat down with REASON to speak on his TDE debut There You Have It, the gems he’s taken from his labelmates, his relationship with Top Dawg, turning down playing professional basketball to focus on his music career, and his starting five of artists skilled at hooping. Check it out below.
How did the transition into music affect you despite your passion for sports?
It was hard, mentally, for me to accept. To me, I felt like I was pretty much saying I failed in sports. I didn’t reach the goals I wanted to reach in basketball and it was a tough battle having to deal with that. The transition made it really hard for me to tell people that I was doing music. I had just gotten back from school and everyone knew me for hooping. When you tell people you want to do music, you’ll more than likely run into people who’ll laugh at you. It was a strong battle of believing in myself and having the confidence to keep going.
How did it feel turning down that contract to play professionally in Greece knowing you’d be making money instantly?
It had the reverse effect for me. It wasn’t as hard of a decision only because it was kind of like a step in that journey. Even though I didn’t make it to my ultimate goal, the NBA, I reached a level where I could’ve played professionally. It almost allowed me to be able to let it go a little bit more, honestly. I feel like if I didn’t get that offer, I would’ve spent another year and a half stuck in that limbo stage trying to figure out which one I wanted to do. I’m really hard on myself when I feel like I’ve failed, so that gave me a small step to kind of take that weight off my shoulder a little bit and allowed me to go into music.
What have the first few months at TDE been like for you and what is your goal for the label?
Joining TDE comes with a lot of pressure. It’s really dope to be the new person at such a great team. It’s like joining the Lakers when you’re the new guy. You’re excited but after 10 games into the season, you see what all that comes with. It’s all fun and games until you’re on the court and see the banners. You have to step up, hit these goals and prove yourself. We have some incredible artists on the label and it’s a very “earn your stripes” type of label. If you’re not bringing it, you can easily be pushed to the back. It’s really about who can stay on the label’s mind and not only impress the world, but you have to impress everyone on the label. K Dot, Q, everybody.
The pressure is weird though. Even though we’re all on the same label, it’s just weird. I was always a huge TDE fan and they impressed me more now than they ever did. It really is like playing basketball. You think you could play with them until you hit the floor and really see how they play. It was like, “Goddamn did they turn it up a notch when I got signed?” [Laughs]. My goal as far as being with TDE is to put pressure back on them where they hear my projects or see my videos and feel like they have to work harder because this kid is coming and he’s trying to work his way up the ladder fast.
With the way Top carries himself, always being two steps ahead of everyone, do you ever feel pressure or intimidated whenever you talk to him now?
At first I did. Definitely over this last month, with me being on tour and just talking to him more on the phone, the pressure has faded a little bit. We have more of an open relationship now. I think he’s starting to let me in a little bit more and understand how he’s thinking. But you will always feel an intensity when you’re speaking with Top, unless you’re just joking around or shooting the shit. You always want to bring your best foot forward. If Top is excited, your shit is going to go.
What are the strengths you feel you bring to a powerhouse like TDE?
I feel like TDE has lived in this age where they’ve been mysterious in a way. There’s all this mystique about TDE where no one truly knows what’s going on or what’s happening. I think one thing that I bring to the table is a direct, straightforward approach with the way that I rap and craft my lyrics. I make my metaphors and bars hard to get, but my message is never mistaken. I think it brings a very in-your-face, realistic vision that’s not so hard to understand. I think that’s where Top felt like my music stood out from the rest of the group.
What was the most important gem you’ve learned while being under TDE?
[Jay] Rock just taught me to just always be a professional. He showed me that while on tour certain things can go wrong and you have to be in top form. Rock showed me regardless of the accolades you receive, you always have to keep it together. There’s never any excuses with Rock. He comes with his helmet and hammer, shows this is what he does, and that it’s always about the fans. It seems like it’s a simple bit of advice to know but in the midst of shit going wrong, it means a lot. I wear my heart on my sleeve, and sometimes, I show it a little bit. Rock will never show he’s upset about anything. It’s always about showing up, being a professional first, and putting the fans first.
Kendrick has been teaching me how to keep the end in mind. His approach to making music isn’t always about the music. It’s about knowing you have a perform, make a video, and have a marketing strategy. He’s teaching me not to only do my music just for music, but keep the bigger picture in mind. It’s like what else can you do to elevate the record even further. Kendrick is very strategic in that way. With Top, it wasn’t necessarily learning something directly from him, but he’s always pushing you to embrace your creativity. He tells you to try and change your voice, to try and sing, if you’re a rapper try to make 10 bangers. He inspires you to keep pushing yourself to continue to hustle and to not get comfortable. His motto is hustle like you’re broke.
Where did you find the motivation to keep working on your music despite the tough series of events you encountered prior to signing with TDE?
To be honest with you, my friends and family. They were supportive and put so much into it for me. I felt like there were many times I wanted to quit and if I did, it was going to be a slap to their face. I was getting ready to quit music literally a month before I met Moosa and put this team together to go to Top and play music. A month before that, I went to a rap contest that had a $200 entry. I lost the contest unfairly, in my opinion, and I didn’t have anymore money. My brother Tim actually loaned me $150 and wasn’t allowing me to quit. It was moments like that and my loved ones stepping up to make sure that I didn’t let them or myself down.
Do you feel the music you’re making will help those who are struggling with their mental health because of hardships and failures?
Yes, 100%. That’s something I do want to help with. I went through depression after I graduated with two bachelor degrees. I came home and was pretty much a glorified cashier that was trying to do this new grind with music. I’m only making $12.50 an hour and no other job is even remotely trying to hire me. It made so much sense for me to chase music. My parents didn’t really know rap and felt like I was wasting my time but they tried to be supportive. Then seeing my brother coaching at USC, my sister making six figures and I’m just here trying to figure it out, it did a lot mentally. I know what that can do on the mental level, but people don’t really talk about that affecting your spirit. I feel like when you go through mental health issues, your spirit breaks first before your mind does. A lot of people just give up and fall into depression, you know? I can definitely see myself, and I want to see myself, as somebody that can speak for that moving forward.
Based off the positive reactions you got with your verse on “Seasons,” was there another song on Black Panther: The Album you wish you were on to really flex your lyrical muscles?
Not based off the reaction of “Seasons” because I was very appreciative of that moment. I honestly didn’t think that verse was going to get its just due. I had that reaction listening to records like “Paramedic” and “X” and seeing how they smashed. It made me think I wanted something that was more mainstream. Fast forward like four, five months looking back on it, I’m glad Kendrick didn’t give me one of those because “Seasons” shows who I really am as an artist, as far as content. It was right up my alley and one of the easiest verses I’ve ever written in my life, to be honest with you. I wrote that verse in 15 minutes but it was just because I was so familiar with it.
What was the reason for re-releasing There You Have It as your TDE debut?
I always wanted to do that but me and Top’s relationship wasn’t as strong, so I was too nervous to ask it at the time. I really wanted to re-release this project. When Top had us in the studio making new music, I guess he was living with the project for like two weeks and he felt he had to show people why they signed me. Not a lot of people know SiR’s story or SZA’s story or even how TDE even found these people. I feel like he felt like this was a unique opportunity to be able to tell the story without putting a press release out. If they love it when they do more research they’ll figure out why Top pulled the trigger on me.
Why did you decide to continue J. Cole’s “Killers” on “Colored Dreams/Killers Pt. 2?”
I feel like one thing Cole does so uniquely to me is his ability to tell stories. There’s these little, small lines that he’ll say that doesn’t necessarily add too much value to the story, detail wise, but they just add value because you can agree with that. I remember way back on The Warm Up, he had a line talking about a mother getting a phone call that her son was killed and he talked about the phone hitting the floor. He didn’t have to mention the phone hitting the floor but it adds such a unique spectrum to it. I feel like that’s what he brought to “Killers” as well.
I vividly remember where I was when I heard that verse. I was so locked in that when he switched subjects I was like, “Damn, I don’t understand why he wouldn’t finish that story.” [Laughs]. So when I started writing and coming up with the story, I was thinking of how I had to finish it. I had to take this story and run with it because there are so many different avenues to run with it. We expanded upon it with “Thirst” and “Colored Dream.” It’s also a story that continues in my new music that I have coming out. I ran with it a little more and put another twist to it. I think it’ll end up being one of those series that people look forward to on every project.
What was the feeling like releasing your album the same day as Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter V?
It was scary at first. I think I called or texted [my manager] Keem asking if we were really going to drop the same day as Wayne [Laughs]. But he advised how it’s a different day and age in music and to trust the process. Afterward, I was happy we did it but I was super nervous at first. I would be lying if I said it was all just positive feelings. It was a dream come true to see my name in articles with Wayne. I can’t even tell you what that did. To see people compare our projects, it was almost like you grew up watching Kobe Bryant and you finally get a chance to play against him. It was dope but something I was apprehensive about, to begin with.
If there was a classic album from a west coast rapper to describe your come up what would it be?
This is going to sound a little cliche but probably Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. I think that album hits a little bit different for people that grew up in Carson. It’s two minutes out of Compton so a lot of the things he was talking about we all knew. I look at it like a story of Kendrick talking through his childhood but then speaking about how his life has changed towards the end. On “Sing About Me,” he talks about how it’s touchy talking about people’s personal life and how they take it versus you. Those are some of the same struggles that I go through when I tell stories about people that are close to me.
You’ve been through this process before so how do you find that trust to believe in TDE having your back?
That was something that I struggled with a lot and still struggle with. My managers and I had a lot of conversations where they had to always tell me you have to pump the brakes and trust the process. I think any TDE artist will tell you that’s a very difficult thing to do, at least anyone that’s not in the original four. This label is very family-orientated and they grew up together so how do I trust somebody like Dave Free, who makes a lot of moves at the label and is Kendrick’s best friend, to even care about what I got going on. That was a huge struggle for me within the first year of being at the label and it’s still something I struggle with now, to be completely honest with you. But as my relationship grows with the label that struggle gets less and less. It’s really like a day by day, week by week process.
Out of all the rappers that can hoop, who’s on your starting lineup?
Definitely me, I think that I’ll be the first one. Chris Brown is nice but he got a cheat code because he’s so athletic with the dancing and shit [Laughs]. With my third choice, people probably wouldn’t notice me saying this but, Lil’ Dicky. He’s fire on the court like he can really hoop it’s a little scary. Fourth, I’d pick Dave East because he’s actually good and he’s tall. Fifth, I don’t know it’s hard after that because artists really suck at ball. Quavo is not bad but I will say I think he’s overhyped. People have been selling this ball thing with Quavo a little too much. He can get out there and play though so that would be my top five.