The shocking news spread quickly across the Canadian music scene: on June 28th, 2016, the gravelly-voiced, well-respected Toronto rapper King Reign (born Kunle Thomas) had died of a heart attack. He was only 40 years old.
It was a devastating blow to his fans, and to a rap scene that Reign had influenced since he debuted in the hip-hop outfit BrassMunk in the mid ’90s (the group earned both major label recognition and a Juno nomination). Collaborations with Drake, Saukrates, Boi-1da, Rich Kidd, and Pharoahe Monch followed and, in 2014 King Reign (R-E-I-G-N was an acronym for Rhythm Energy In Gods Nature) struck out on his own with his first solo album, Sincere. The LP examined street violence, bullying, despair and racial stereotyping with an unflinching eye and tremendous compassion. Reign seemed primed to release more stellar and thought-provoking music. Then, he was gone.
Reign was an artist of great intellect and curiosity, and he had eclectic musical taste—he counted the Counting Crows’ August and Everything After, of all things, as an early musical influence. (The track “Rain King” from that album inspired his stage name.) He got his start as a poet by writing lyrics in a diary gifted to him by his sister. His family, peers, and his friend and former manager David Cox are in the midst of planning a posthumous collection of his work.
We spoke to Cox about King Reign’s death, the making of his final record, and what his enduring legacy will be.
If you are comfortable sharing, can you tell us how you learned about King Reign’s sudden passing? And what was your reaction?
I got a call from King Reign’s cousin letting me know that he had a heart attack. That was a huge shock to me and many others. He was very active—an “in-the-gym” type of guy. He was in a coma for two weeks before he passed, and every day, all I could think about was that he was a strong dude, and was definitely going to come out of it. So, it was a big blow to my heart, as well as for his family and friends, when he didn’t.
What has been the reaction from his fans?
The fans have been amazing with their outpouring of love and support—everything from numerous emails [to] people sharing his music and pictures.
For those not familiar with his importance in the Toronto hip-hop scene, can you share what his work meant and still means?
There is only one King Reign. From his vocals, rap delivery, soulful tone and lyrical substance and style, his work was something very special and unique. He was a wicked storyteller that could make you visualize what he is saying and paint pictures with his words—definitely gifted with the wordplay and melodies. He is important to the Toronto hip-hop community for the number of songs he released and contributed to, which made a strong impact with hip-hop fans in Toronto and around the world. He rocked stages with that real MC demeanor! He also received commercial radio play and underground college radio love. Before the ‘Drake effect’ on the world, King Reign was ringing bells. He was well-respected by many of his peers for his artistry and the intellect he put into his music.
Was he working on new music at the time of his death, or is this upcoming release a compilation of unreleased work?
Yeah, Reign was always working on music. I remember just before we started working together and he was going to school—he hadn’t released anything in a while, and I asked him if he was still recording. He laughed, and said, ‘I’m always recording.’ He was constantly working on music, and had numerous ideas for projects. He had a couple of different concepts and album ideas. This release I’m putting together will be partly new material and classic unreleased.
What goes into putting together a posthumous release? And who’ll be working on it with you?
I’m working closely with DJ Agile, who was part of the group BrassMunk with King Reign. We’ve been friends for a long time. Plus, he and Reign have been close friends for a long time. Having him as executive producer overseeing the project helps, because we can keep each other on track. I really want to make sure this project has his voice and essence. It’s about making sure it’s 1000% authentic. I’m bringing in all of his peers that he worked with over the years. Also, I’m looking at having some individuals that he looked up to and respected involved. I don’t want to call names until the sessions are complete, but they know who they are. We’ve picked these individuals from the many conversations we’ve had, and these are people he mentioned wanting to do music with. The goal at this point is to create some King Reign magic in the studio, and we’re looking forward to sharing it with the world.
What are some of the challenges of putting together an album for an artist who died so unexpectedly?
The biggest challenge at this point is finding sessions for some classic songs that I want the world to hear. There is a series of songs that he did years ago, and unfortunately the producers lost the sessions for the songs. It makes it hard to mix them without all of the parts that make the song breathe to its full potential. So, it’s a little upsetting when I have a really strong song that I want the world to hear, but without the working files, these songs are missing that sonic power, bump, and clarity. So, I’m working on some cool ideas and options that could still make these songs see the light of day. Stay tuned and keep ya ears open.
Tell me about the first release from the album.
At the moment, the first single we’re releasing is called “Santa Romeo.” This is a classic King Reign song that was recorded in the early 2000s with the producer Darp Malone, and features trumpets by Ivana Santelli. This was done around the same time as his classic songs like “Uptight.” This song has always been a favorite of Reign’s and mine. We actually planned to release it back in 2013, but it didn’t happen. I think it is special because it shows his humour, charisma, personality and especially his storytelling skills. This song really draws a picture for you and I’m so happy that we have an animation video coming out to accompany this joint.
When can fans expect the full album to be released?
Fans will need to hold tight for a minute, but the goal is late summer or fall. But I may release a couple of other gems in between.
Lastly, as a good friend to Reign, what would you like fans to know or remember about him and his work?
I think the one thing I want people to know is that King Reign was definitely a special artist, but also was a dedicated father and family man. He has two beautiful young kids that he lived for! He definitely was the best dad on the earth to them, and could be a great role model to many fathers.
—Chaka V. Grier