Music, much like life, is cyclical. Rap music, in particular, experienced a golden era in the 1990s that so many wax nostalgic on in 2016. While the era-bashing argument of which phase of Hip Hop is superior is a tireless and anticlimactic conversation, Tef Wesley, a DMV-born and bred emcee, is working to bring back the boom bap dear to our hearts while adding his own perspective in a way that is strengthened by his lyricism.
Wesley’s newest project, out today (July 8) is an unapologetic testament he is doing more than proving he’s still in the rap game; he’s letting his music do the talking for him he’s stronger than ever and not easing up anytime soon. With over 16 years of experience perfecting his craft, his unwavering fight comes through in each track on Pens And Needles. His music got him this far, so he’s not slowing down now.
The aggressive tone behind his music is a foundation that allows other emotions to come through, such as perseverance, determination and passion, all without being too overpowering. Its fighting spirit successfully builds a motivating power behind it, and it becomes clear this is a record that has been put together with blood, sweat, tears and countless sleepless nights in the studio. One of the scarce features on the EP, “Timeless,” which includes the vocal talents of Mina Leon, helps soften the overall vibe to the project, while gritty tracks such as “Gametime,” “It’s A Suicide” and “RX” showcase how Wesley has a lot to say about some very real topics – and he says it well.
For Wesley, this is deeper than rap. His talents as an emcee just so happen to match the underlying strength responsible for fueling his mission and helping him to fulfill his message. Pens And Needles, produced by his longtime collaborator Grussle, is an important milestone in Wesley’s career as a seasoned emcee because the time he’s put in has allowed him to be in full control of the direction and execution his creative expression takes. As one of his tracks says it best, he’s here to “Keep Building,” and as this new project makes evident, he’s leveled up once again.
How long have you been doing what you do? How did you get started?
Well I would say I started rhyming in 1998, I was 15 years old. I didn’t really take my craft serious until about 2001. Before and during that time I was a bass player in metal and hardcore bands; Hip Hop was always a passion of mine and a side hobby for me to work on my lyricism. Sixteen years later with the wealth of experience, growth, and learning the business, here we are.
Is there an early memory you’d like to share about getting into your craft, such as when you realized this was more than just a hobby or a passion?
Let me think.. It must have been those house parties and shows where we would have ciphers and freestyle battles as a teenager. My friend JR rented out this house (“The Green House”) where we would have turntables set up, people would break dance, party all night, etc… and of course a lot of rhyming. It was a very Hip Hop scene you otherwise wouldn’t imagine or find in southern Maryland at that time. That time period definitely let me know I had a gift for putting words together and was further advanced with my skills, more so than many of my peers then. I had the full support of my crew always, that gave me the motivation and confidence to pursue this on a professional level.
How do you describe your sound/ what you do to people you haven’t heard before?
I know a lot of my peers in the business can relate when I say that one of the most awkward things you can tell someone as a grown adult when they ask you what it is you do is respond with “I’m a rapper.” There’s a lot of bad stereotypes, and a stigma attached to that professional title. But honestly I have to take pride in rapping well because to the casual music listener, that’s something they don’t necessarily get to hear too often these days. I’d like to be one of the contributors to making wordplay and lyricism matter again while simultaneously making great records and albums.
To try and sum up my sound… Bridging the gap between the golden boom bap era of the 90’s and the sonic production of the modern age with my own story. Raw. Soulful. Grimey. Personal. Lyrical. Street. Outlandish and “tongue in cheek” at moments. True.
Who are your influences? What is some advice that has stuck with you?
That’s a loaded question that could be an interview in itself, haha. Since we are at the one of the pillars of Hip Hop journalism, I’ll just list some emcees that most definitely influenced my style and sound and inspire me to this day: Big Pun (RIP), Nas, Masta Ace, Kool G Rap, Royce da 5’9, Black Thought, Scarface, Tupac (RIP), Raekwon, Common, Ghostface, Mobb Deep, Gangstarr (RIP Guru), Snoop Dogg, Kurupt, Eminem, Jadakiss, honestly this list goes on and on… I’ve been a student.
I’m not exactly sure where this quote or piece of advice came from but it has stuck with me for a while and I apply it to my career… I may butcher the actual quote but it’s something like…
“Make the art you want to create, because when it’s all said and done, you alone must live with it.”
What do you hope people take away from listening to your music?
I want people to take away an emotion of some kind with them when they tune in, even if that means feeling angry and punching someone in the face, or feeling appreciative and hugging your kids and telling them you love them. I hope that the fans waving that Hip Hop flag and the authentic, thorough, working class men and women out there can feel proud of what I’m creating and representing. I hope people get to know me more as a man and witness the growth right along with me.
Tell us a little bit about what concepts or themes that reoccur in your new project?
The new album is called Pens & Needles. It’s a collaborative album between myself and my friend and producer Grussle. One of the meanings behind the Pens & Needles concept is that it’s a back to basics simple approach of us creating a project. Hard beats, hard rhymes. One emcee, one producer. The pen for the lyrics, the needle for the records. No fancy features. We just set out to make some dope, straight forward Hip Hop that sometimes is soulful, sometimes it’s aggressive. It can be uplifting, and it can be dark at times… just like life.
What was your creative process like for this project? How did these songs make the cut? Any details about how this project came together would be awesome.
Grussle and I were both new signees to the Washington D.C.based label Inner Loop Records around 2010, as me being the new emcee and he being a new producer on the roster we decided to get in the studio and start vibing on records. I ended up getting on one of his beats to feature on another artists record and we both really liked the chemistry we had on the song. We decided to just start cutting records and building a sound and project together.
I’m proud to say that we were both present in the studio for the creation of each song—we made that a rule. We would email some beats or concepts and samples back and forth during the process but we were both in lab when it was time to record we were both there digging in the crates and making it happen. I own a recording studio so it’s easy for me to email vocals all day long, but I wanted us to keep a consistent energy on this album and work like we were in a time before everyone had that luxury. We recorded a lot of songs, and ideas, but really felt like these were our favorites that summed up the energy and vibe of the album and what was going on with me at the time we created it.
What are you hoping to accomplish next in your career?
Hopefully we will be taking this show on the road. I would love to be touring to a city near you and especially overseas and focusing on building that solid core fan base in places I’ve never been. I just want to make some dope music I can be proud of and hopefully it’s good enough for people to want to support and make publications like this one want to write about it.
Photo: Zack David Films