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Why King Reign mattered to Canadian hip-hop

Del Cowie

King Reign was more than a hip-hop artist. He was a poet and an MC's MC. Reign, who passed away in Toronto on June 28, collaborated with and commanded the respect of acclaimed hip-hop artists such as Saukrates, Drake, Mos Def and Pharoahe Monch. While his name may not be widely known to those outside of Toronto’s hip-hop community, Reign was a Juno-nominated major label artist whose influence and artistry can be seen throughout Toronto’s hip-hop history, ranging from Maestro Fresh Wes to Drake. Throughout, his penchant for inventive conceptual narratives, sage wisdom and his distinctive gravelly baritone were consistent and unwavering qualities.

Reign's death was confirmed on a statement published to his Facebook page by his managment and publicist.

“After suffering a heart attack last week, [King Reign] fell into a coma and passed away June 28th, 2016. A Toronto-born son of Trinidadian and Guyanese parents, Reign leaves behind two children (Tayo 8, Kalu 5), a large loving extended family, his mother and father (Verna, Joe), brother and sister (Shaka, Michelle) and dear partner (Michelle Moncrieffe).”

Reign, born Kunle Thomas in Scarborough, Ont, was 40 years old. His death has left Toronto’s hip-hop and larger music community mourning the loss of an immense talent and the outpouring on social media was significant.

“We are deeply saddened to hear of King Reign's passing. We've suffered a huge loss,” the Juno Awards posted on their Twitter feed. As a member of Toronto hip-hop group Brassmunk, King Reign earned a best rap recording Juno nomination for their Fewturistic album released on Virgin Records in 2008.

“I'm blessed to have had the chance to rock with King Reign on a number of joints alongside K-OS, Slakah, and others,” said Canadian hip hop artist and CBC q host Shad on his Facebook page. “Always a soulful voice with a unique approach ... Thoughts and prayers to his friends and family. RIP.”

Kardinal Offishall posted a picture of King Reign attending his most recent birthday party on Instagram. “EVERYBODY that knew you knew how authentic your spirit was,” Kardinal wrote. “I know you loved your kids, you were a super dope emcee and everyone who knew you was extremely blessed. The whole community is grieving right now bro.”

Both Shad and Kardinal had appeared with King Reign on “Boyz II Men,” a song that also featured Choclair from k-os' most recent studio album Can’t Fly Without Gravity.

"One of the most positive people I’ve ever met. Always with a smile."

Kardinal Offishall

In the Instagram picture, Reign is standing next to Maestro Fresh Wes. The Canadian hip hop pioneer also held a huge amount of respect for King Reign as an artist and as a person. The two had collaborated on Maestro’s 2015 EP project Compositions Vol 1 on a song inspired by the tragic death of Eric Garner.  In an interview conducted by Reign for Exclaim! TV, Maestro was effusive in his praise of Reign as an MC.

“You can’t contain your flow,” Maestro says directly to Reign. “Sixteen bars don’t really contain King Reign’s flow, know what I’m saying?” But the relationship clearly extended beyond music for the duo. “Rest in peace to a true king. Gonna miss our weekly talks, bro,” Maestro wrote on Twitter in response to his death.

Reign arrived on to the Toronto hip-hop scene with the 2004 song “Looking for Love.” Underscored by a menacing, bluesy beat, bereft of a hook or a chorus, the song features the MC delivering an arresting narrative told from multiple perspectives and consciously leaving some meanings and lyrics open to interpretation.

“I always wanted to do stuff that drew people in," he told me in an interview with Exclaim! in 2014. "So if you notice on [past songs] like "Looking for Love," I just go into it… and you're like, 'Who?' It's like, 'where are you?' and immediately it draws the listener in to be like "I want to figure out where it is.'"

"Looking for Love," arrived with a compelling video directed by Michael P. Douglas and RT!, depicting the meeting of a disgruntled nine-to-five call centre worker and a suicidal man with a gun who arrives at the call centre. The song and the video unfold the ensuing dialogue between the office worker unsuccessfully attempting to talk the man out of killing himself. In the video, Reign plays both roles. “We are all the everyday worker who hates his job, and also the down on his luck, depressed gunman feeling hopeless,” RT! said via email, describing the concept behind the video. “It’s ambiguous because we didn’t want to hammer people over the head with it, preferring that they think about the video instead of spelling everything out.”

The video met resistance at MuchMusic, who initially did not want to air it because of the suicide theme, yet RT! stands by the song’s artistic merit. "'Looking for Love' shows that we all have felt alone, and have had dark days, and could make some bad choices, but we need to look twice at people who do with more sympathy and understanding,” he says. “Our perspective was that this could send a simple message that, 'Hey we feel you,' and that could help someone, 'cause in the end we’re all just looking for acceptance, we’re all just looking for love.”

With his uncompromising vision on “Looking for Love,” King Reign established the conceptual bent, penchant for empathetic narratives and fearless creativity which would be consistent elements through his career.

While “Looking for Love” was when many in Toronto’s hip-hop community first noticed Reign, he had already been developing artistically for some time. Growing up in a musically-oriented West Indian family that featured an uncle who ran an internationally renowned drumming festival and other family members who were involved in organizing Toronto’s annual Caribbean Carnival (formerly known as Caribana), Reign was musically inclined from a young age and was adept at playing the percussion instrument the djembe. But soon he also began to take notice of hip-hop and began writing rhymes at the age of eight, developing his inimitable poetic style which was inspired by Rakim’s verse on Jody Watley’s “Friends.” 

“Rakim was very conversational,” Reign said during that same 2014 interview. “I always aspired to rhyme and flow, but not just to sound like you're rushing, but he always sounded like he was just talking to you. I consciously tried to do that as I developed and as I kept writing and getting better at that style.”

And then there was the matter of the sound of Reign’s voice. David Click Cox, his manager, remembers his deep baritone. “I could listen to his voice non-stop, so full, so sultry," Cox says. "Women, would be like 'I'm in love with his voice' and guys would be on some like, 'I wish I had that voice.' I think he had an amazing voice."

"[Brassmunk] were always more positive and macro and he sort of made us more micro. I can't quantify in words what the loss is."

DJ Agile

For a number of years as a teenager, Reign worked with jazz musician Eddie Bullen who won Junos for his work with singer Liberty Silver. After taking a break from pursuing music for a while, Reign met Chase Parsons, who was managing Saukrates. He reconnected with music, eventually widening his creative circle to include producers and artists in Toronto’s mid '90s hip-hop scene. Soon, Reign was working with Nick Murray (currently of Toronto electronic group LAL), who was a member of influential Toronto production trio Da Grassroots at the time. He also worked with producers like SCAM and Darp Malone, who eventually produced the ominous beat for “Looking for Love.” But Saukrates turned out to be Reign’s most frequent recording partner and the two would collaborate on songs such as “Uptight,” “Soaring to Heaven” and “Fades Away” as well as tour with Nelly Furtado. Reign would also contribute to the critically acclaimed Big Black Lincoln album Heaven's On Fire, which featured Saukrates and DJ Agile. “Sauks and I really connected," Reign said. "We're brothers.” 

The two also traded verses on King Reign’s 2005 atmospheric “Guilty Party” single. The song’s abstract, sub-oceanic beat doubles down on the artistic non-conformity the duo thematically revel in on the song’s lyrics. Ironically, Reign’s artistic stance was gaining him attention from record labels south of the border. Reign's association with Saukrates, who had already been on the U.S. radar through snagging major label deals with Warner Brothers and Def Jam, didn’t hurt his stock at all. Soon, with his demos circulating around industry executives, Reign was headed to New York on music business trips, meeting Jay Z, DMX , Wyclef Jean and Pharoahe Monch through his connections. Eventually, Sony offered Reign a record label deal.

“I was told [record labels] have a meeting when they play music and they have a bunch of artists go over and give their feedback and they played "Guilty Party" in that meeting and Mos Def got up and was like, 'That's the shit in Toronto!' and was praising the song and me. And lo and behold, a couple of months after that I got my paperwork,” Reign said.

Back in Toronto, Reign’s childhood friend, DJ and producer Agile, had seen success with his group Brassmunk’s Juno-nominated debut Dark Sunrise and their hit single “Big.” When a member left Brassmunk and Agile needed someone to replace him, he asked Reign to join the group.

At that point, Brassmunk were known for their exuberant tag-team verses and Reign was known for his contemplative, narrative style. On paper it didn’t seem like a natural fit. But Agile's decision to add Reign to the group's Juno-nominated 2007 album Fewturistic proved mutually beneficial.

"He's a storyteller, right, and we were able to pull that playful storytelling side out of him," says Agile. "He also brought a seriousness to the group that we had if you listen to our first record. We touched on a few things but subtly, never head on. We were always more positive and macro and he sort of made us more micro. I can't quantify in words what the loss is."

"Brassmunk, we were like energetic dudes, but King Reign brought a different element, he was a more laid-back and intense dude," says Reign's former Brassmunk bandmate S-Roc. "His voice carries that when you hear him speak. He's a small dude and doesn't have all that energy but he had the charisma. So I learned a lot of just seeing his charisma and watching the poetic nature about him." Brassmunk displayed their reconfigured playful chemistry in a video featuring them walking backwards through Toronto’s Kensington Market in an homage to the Pharcyde’s “Drop” clip.

Despite recording material for Sony, Reign’s label deal eventually stalled and he regrouped focusing on the Canadian scene, releasing the EP Reign Music in 2010. On the project, he worked with producers like the then-emerging Rich Kidd on the Obama-inspired “The Audacity of Hope” and Boi-1da (“This Means War”), who would go on to be one of Drake’s most trusted producers. “Fades Away,” a string-laden, melodic Saukrates-produced track would garner significant airplay on Toronto college radio and "urban" format radio stations.  Reign was taking television and film courses at Toronto’s Centennial College, skills he would later use in directing his own videos, when he became the host for Exclaim! TV, and he acted in a small role on Jason Priestley’s TV show Private Eyes. After releasing the Reign Music Vol. 2 EP in 2013, Reign released his solo album Sincere in 2014.

The reflective and contemplative album dealt with a number of stories and viewpoints that often involve stigma, including subjects such as abuse, PTSD and bullying.

“I just kind of touched on topics I've felt over the years and were something that I wanted to write about," Reign told me. "Sincere was, I felt like, another way to just say 'true story.' Ninety percent of the stories on [Sincere] I've been through or was close to.” 

The album found Reign directly addressing issues in Toronto. Lead single “Killer” dealt with his own personal experiences with racial profiling and the video also addressed the controversy surrounding late Toronto mayor Rob Ford. Additionally, “Oh No” addressed the death of Sammy Yatim, who was shot to death on a Toronto streetcar by police in 2013. "They shot me nine times/ And it turns out I don’t have nine lives,” Reign rapped.

Despite the serious and contemplative content of the album, Reign seemed sanguine about the experiences that contributed to the album’s recordings. This is typified by the song “Happylaidback,” which addresses his negative record label experience in a refreshingly frank, yet upbeat manner.

“I'm always laughing and you'd think I'd never gone through anything, but I'm always going through something," Reign told me. "But you find a way to laugh at it, you find a way to change your mood and you'd be surprised that situation you thought was totally unfixable finds a way to fix itself if you just stay up, y'know, if you dig your head into the ground and go to sleep for 30 days.”

“One of the most positive people I’ve ever met,” said Kardinal in a Twitter post remembering Reign. “Always with a smile.” Instead of harbouring bitterness, Reign was eager to advise younger artists on the music industry.

“Tru OG. You taught me a lot about the politics of the game,” said Rich Kidd on an Instagram post. In addition to Rich Kidd, another upcoming artist Reign also encountered was Drake, who he met as the Toronto MC began his rise through the ranks of the city's underground hip-hop scene, years before his global stardom.

“I thought that he was ambitious, I thought that he was talented,” said Reign in 2014, praising Drake’s work ethic. “[Drake] would propose to me many times, 'I want to do this, I want to do that' and my idea that I came up with. Before [Drake's mixtape] So Far Gone, he was like, 'I want to do work, I really like what you're doing.'"

While the casual discussions about a joint project the two had never developed into anything more, Drake and Reign were on the 2009 song “Fades Away” together, which appeared on the Reign Music EP.

“Fades Away” in many ways typifies Reign’s artistic significance. Arguably a Toronto hip-hop classic, the song is an ode to being inspired by timeless creativity and to strive for greatness. After Saukrates’ verse lauds the legacies of artists like Frank Sinatra and Quincy Jones, he later sings a bridge where he figuratively and literally hands the baton to a youthful Drake, whose energetic and wordy flow is in direct contrast to the moody, melodic flow he now employs as a superstar artist.

But before Drake gets on the mic, Reign delivers his verse, nestling himself comfortably in between Saukrates and Drake as a connective tissue between Toronto’s hip-hop generations, name-checking legendary basketball players, James Brown, John Coltrane, Kurt Cobain and Marvin Gaye in his inimitably nonchalant and relaxed drawl.

Astonishingly, Reign’s verse lasts a mere 20 seconds. It’s a succinct reminder of the immediacy and impact of his charismatic presence as an artist. Somehow, Reign’s measured and laconic flow deceptively stacks thought-provoking content about artistic legacies into his all-too-brief bars, all the while reaffirming his own unrelenting commitment to creativity and his significant contributions to the Canadian hip-hop canon. - Del Cowie (@vibesandstuff)

A GoFundMe page for King Reign's memorial and children can be accessed here.

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