If someone read off local rapper Referee's attributes (he's 6'3", weighs over 300 pounds, has a great playoff beard and possesses "intangibles"), you'd assume that person was reading Mel Kiper's draft preview for an NFL offensive line prospect. Scouts would drool. The Browns front office would undoubtedly be making its way to this player's "pro day" (or not, you know how they do things in Berea). The athlete would be buying jewelry and cars in anticipation of his impending Monopoly-styled payday and his family would be prepping the living room for ESPN cameras to invade.
Instead, Referee lives the rather anonymous life of a local rapper, although his size and beard alone make him stand out in a crowd. But now, word of this unique talent is spreading, and he can't avoid the attention. He used to go to every underground show he could find. He would post his hulking frame in the front row, intently supporting acts from open to close, head bobbing whether the beat resonating from the speakers merited the action or not. He shook every hand. He passed out countless promotional CDs and flyers. He never missed an opportunity to network.
"I just know what it's like to put in all of that work and not have someone there to support, and it sucks!"he says.
All of his hard work culminated with a 2012 South by Southwest trip. The Austin, Texas festival is the world's foremost event to showcase independent artists and Ref thrived in the environment. "It really shows you that the world is bigger than Cleveland," he says. "There might be a show with no one you've ever heard of on the bill and like 500 people there to support."
Ref jumped on the N.E.R.V.E. DJs showcase at SXSW and impressed the crowd with his unique stage presence. He's just entertaining as hell to watch. Upon his return to Cleveland, social media was abuzz with word of his exploits, and he went from that guy in the front row that supported everyone to the guy on stage everyone came to support.
"At the Steph Floss event [a recent rap cypher hosted by the Z107.9 DJ], I had people come up to me that followed me on Twitter that I'd never met saying they came out just to see me. I get recognized out at places like IHOP, you know, just off of the internet support.»
DJ EV and Steph Floss assisted on his recent disc
Larger Than Life and the artwork for the project is a visually stunning illustration of a bearded, hoodied giant stomping through a city, symbolic of the gargantuan emcee laying claim to the 'Land. The video for the single "White Boy Wasted" is what really captures the vibe of the album. Shot at an afternoon house party somewhere in Cleveland, the video captures all things Ref. "Now I lay me down to sleep, a bottle of Vodka at my feet," he raps at one point in between doing body shots and chugging Colt 45. It was an instant viral hit and has become the summer anthem for frat houses and Trap parties.
But don't expect Ref to change what he does best to connect further with a particular fan base. He does admit that recording his new album, Gold Chains, 40 oz's and Inner Demons, has brought the focus away from the parties and show biz. Ref laments on the fact that although he's rapidly finding more and more success in the music industry, he was ultimately feeling less in touch with himself.
"I remember sitting in this club and looking down, thinking all I really had in life was the 40 in my hand and the chain around my neck," he says. "Everyone else was having a good time and I was feeling lonely and depressed. This album became a way for me to channel that and express that feeling."
Working with local producers Big Head Dez, Cleveland's Trump, Lady Trauma and Matlock helps keep him grounded and making good music, not just chasing trends.
"We have such a great relationship," he says. "If they think something is wack, they tell me. If they are using a sound that doesn't fit I just tell them, 'Yo, this sounds terrible!' It makes the music so much better!"
The signature sounds of those producers are helping to pull a different side out of the rapper that many of his fans have yet to see. As a result, Ref has became a "must have" at all events, making appearances at the Rebel Army Radio awards and Ohio Mixtape Awards, as well as being nominated for an Ohio Hip Hop Award. Now, he graces the stage as the opening act for one of the most talked about events of the spring: the Cleveland Ohio Music Awards (COMA). As anyone who follows music knows, the first act and last act are the most important, and Ref is happy to have the opportunity to set off the show.
"Of course, it means a lot to have someone think enough of you to want you to be a part," he says of his appearance at the festival. "It's an honor."
It's also going to be the first time Ref debuts some of those "inner demons," as he'll play all new music at the show.
"I always do 'White Boy Wasted,'" he admits, "but I do want to try out some of the new music and see how it works."