Exclusive Interview: P Reign – “When I grew up listening to hip-hop, Canada was non-existent.”
P Reign talks to Grant Brydon about his 'Dear America' project, Canadian hip-hop and what he's learned from Drake...
P Reign has been playing the long game – he’s not looking to snatch 15 minutes of fame and disappear, although we’ve no doubt that he easily could. Time after time he’s shown off his ability to share the booth with the biggest artists in the game; Drake, Meek Mill, Future, A$AP Rocky, French Montana. When we catch up with him, he’s in Sony’s London offices after touring the country in support of his latest project Dear America.
The project comes in two parts, a free mixtape, and an EP, which slot into one another to form the overall listening experience, immersing the listener into the streets of Galloway, Toronto where P Reign grew up, meeting a young Drake in his teenage years and setting off a spark that made the world pay attention to a city – and an entire country – which was otherwise ignored in hip-hop.
It feels like now is the time for P Reign to take the recognition he deserves.
Why did you call the project Dear America?
Being that I can’t go to America. I got into trouble a while back, so unfortunately I haven’t been able to cross the border into America in over a decade. So the project is conceptually about not being able to cross the border. When you want to be one of the biggest hip-hop artists in the world, it’s almost imperative that you’re able to go to the States because that’s the stomping grounds for all of the top artists. Not being able to go there was the biggest thing that was holding me back from achieving my dreams and being successful, so just my frustrations with that all translated into this one project. So conceptually it’s all about that.
I think that people over here often see Canada and the States as being pretty much the same. How do the two compare in your eyes?
We have a lot in common, I feel like. Especially now with the way hip-hop is going, with the success of Drake and The Weeknd we have a lot more in common now. But it’s still two completely different places, I mean just the population difference off the bat. America has a lot more people. It’s a lot easier for an artist to be from just one specific city like New York or Chicago and thrive in just that one city, because of the amount of people that they have to come to their shows, help spread the word or buy their music. Coming from Canada we’re at a disadvantage, just because we don’t have the amount of people that America has. Just to put things into perspective the state of California alone has more people than all of Canada combined population wise, just to give you a quick fact. You have to also understand that hip-hop is not the biggest thing in Canada, especially not compared to how big it is in America, I mean we come from hockey and rock ’n’ roll and things like that. It’s starting to pick up now, but it’s definitely not the go-to thing in our country.
Over the past few years though we’ve seen a tonne of new talent emerging from Toronto in particular with the likes of PARTYNEXTDOOR, Jazz Cartier, Tre Mission, Rochelle Jordan, to name a few, really finding a new sound.
I mean I think it’s just a sense of pride, a surge of energy. When I grew up listening to hip-hop, Canada was non-existent. Nobody even spoke about Canadian hip-hop really, except for maybe mentioning one or two names the odd time. It was funny because everybody used to hate on each other. It was one of those things where I think people are scared of the unknown sometimes, Canada was just unknown when it came to hip-hop. But with the success of some of the artists that we’ve had recently, it’s just natural that people are going to jump on the bandwagon and act like they believe and act like they’ve been believing from the beginning. Everyone is so hype now that they’ve seen it right in front of their eyes, it’s believable.
I remember when Canadian hip-hop used to be like Kardinal Offishall and Swollen Members.
Yeah exactly, there’s probably a handful of guys that you could even mention. And in a lot of places throughout the world they don’t even know those names.
Which Canadian artists did you grow up listening to, that you looked up to?
I liked Saukrates man, there was a dude named Saukrates. I liked Kardi, I did like Kardinal – some of the stuff that he was putting out. But I didn’t really have a hip-hop artist in Canada to say that they were one of my favourites. I grew up listening to American hip-hop, probably like all those guys did. But I definitely have to shout out guys like Kardinal, like Saukrates, Swollen Members who definitely were putting in work and trying to make a name before anybody else was, and guys like Maestro before that.
What do you hope that people to take from the Dear America project?
Besides the fact that I’m not a weirdo and I love to speak about real life experiences. I take pride in the fact that I’m known for just my music. I’m not known for all the extra things that come with it. You see so much in hip-hop today, guys putting on skirts or wigs or whatever the fuck they’ve got to do to try to garner some sort of extra attention. I take pride in the fact that I can tour the world and people know me for my music, none of the extra bullshit. I love speaking about real life experiences; things that I’ve been through, things that people close to me have been through. I grew up listening to Nas, Slick Rick, storytellers, people that spoke about real life things. Reality rap; things that were going on around them and their environments and their neighbourhoods. And me growing up in the hood, in Galloway, I just love to speak about that. Growing up listening to hip-hop one of the reasons I fell in love with it was the fact that, for whatever situation I was going through, there was a record or an artist that spoke about that. So it helped me to get through whatever experience I was going through. And I don’t think we have a lot of that anymore, so I just want to be one of the guys to continue to provide that for the fans and everybody else out there.
There’s a conversation that runs throughout the mixtape, where did that come from?
You know what’s funny? Our homies were having a conversation in the car and they were drunk as hell coming from the club one night, and my manager Matt recorded it. He just pressed record on his phone, but they didn’t know they were being recorded. These are my boys that I’m with every day, and that was just a conversation they were having about my music. I wasn’t present, he played it for me and I just couldn’t stop laughing because it was so hilarious. All my homies loved it, so we were like “We should put it on the mixtape”. Because there’s nothing better than real shit. You can’t fake that. When you get conversations like that, they’re priceless so we definitely wanted to share it with everybody.
There’s a skit (‘He’s A Rapper’) where they talk about the music being “HMV ting”. I wondered if that informed the choice to save some of the tracks for retail?
No you know what, to be totally honest I wanted to give it away for free man. I just wanted to put out a mixtape. Before that I hadn’t released music in so long, so I just really wanted to give away a free project and just let the fans know “Thank you, for waiting for me for so long and for still supporting me.” I wanted to just give them that music. But you know what it is, the politics of signing to a major record label, they always want something to sell and you can’t knock that. So we definitely tried to compromise with the fans and the label. We gave them something to sell and we were still able to put something out for free – so it worked out.
You’ve been touring a lot lately. Which of the records are people really responding to live?
Ahh fuck. ‘DnF’ is definitely a monster – they know every word. ‘Realest In The City’ as well, ‘Chickens’, ‘We Them’. Everything off the EP is doing really well, it’s definitely resonating with the fans; they know every word and just going out there, performing live and seeing the response is overwhelming.
Especially from the mixtape, to see them appreciate records like ‘Camera’ where I’m talking about experiences that I’ve been through, and records like ‘Where You Been’ – I remember my boy Kevin Durant hit me and was like “Yo, that ‘Where You Been’ is crazy!” I think ‘Where You Been’ was something that surprised us all, that everybody gravitated towards. Because I almost didn’t put that on the mixtape so I’m happy I put that on as a bonus record.
How do you choose which records make the mixtape and which go on the EP?
We’ll just sit down in the studio and play everything. We kind of do a voting process. It’s one of the worst things I go through actually because you’re so scared about what to put out, what not to put out, what could’ve hit, what didn’t hit. So we just put our trust in the music and we do a voting process. Whatever everybody’s feeling more we just put on it.
When you step into the booth – what’s your motivation?
Besides vodka and Red Bull – they are the things that motivate me – it’s just my love for the music. If you don’t have a passion for what you’re doing I don’t think you’re going to continue to do it. Or even have the drive to want to wake up and work. But when you’re having fun it’s such a better experience, when you’re doing something that you love and it’s a dream of yours, and you’ve had a passion for it since you were a child. It’s not like work to me. I get up and I go have fun and just do my thing.
You’ve been in the game for a while playing the long game, but we see so many people blasting into the forefront overnight then more often than not they disappear. What made you choose to take your time?
I’m definitely in it for the longevity. I put so much work in and I care about what I do so much, that I don’t have time to waste sitting around here trying to think of the next record that sounds the same as everybody else – which is the one hit – to get my five minutes of fame and be out. This is something that I love to do, that I know my fans love to hear me do. So it’s something I would do for the rest of my life if I could. So I definitely want to make the music that will allow me to do that.
You have your own crew Reps Up, but are also affiliated with OVO. Can you explain the relationship between the two?
I was OVO before there was OVO, we used to be in something called ATF – Always The Family. And Reps Up is something that I created from my hood before I even met Drake, with my homies. And when I ended up meeting Drake, we were still kids, that’s before he was even rapping. That was before he even had the OVO thing. We had a lot of mutual friends and family members and stuff like that. He’s Reps Up man, you’ll see him in Instagram pictures throwing his ‘R’s up, you’ll see him with his Reps Up chain on, you’ll see all my homies from the hood on Instagram throwing their OVO signs up with their owl chains on. So it’s actually one family, Reps Up/OVO is the same thing. We just have two different names. But it definitely means the same thing. We have the same friends, same family, we’re with each other every day.
But as far as your label deal it’s Reps Up…
Definitely my own thing. I’ve always been a guy that took pride in standing on his own two. Reps Up’s something I had before I even knew who Drake was and that’s what it’s always going to be. So Reps Up is through Sony.
You’ve watched Drake’s whole journey from the beginning. What would you say is the most important thing you’ve learned from seeing his approach?
That it doesn’t come overnight. If you want to make records that last, you gotta take time with it. You gotta work on it. I know you see the artists on Instagram and Twitter talking about “I made seven records last night” or “I did this album in a week.” Rome wasn’t built in a day and great music definitely takes time to create. I’ve learned from him not to rush anything, just take your time with it and it will come. He was like “Man, if you go in the studio and you write a couple of bars for a record, that might be all that you needed to accomplish that night. It’s the guys that rush it that don’t make the music that lasts.” So if there’s one thing I can take away from him it’ll be that.
Purchase the Dear America EP on iTunes.
Words by @GrantBrydon
Photos by Matt Barnes