When Sharif Lopez, the impresario behind 7th Angel Productionz and the hip-hop label Cocareef, was around eleven or twelve, his downstairs neighbor sometimes held raucous house parties. Lopez lived in the Marion Gardens Housing Complex, in Jersey City, New Jersey, a stone’s throw from the Pulaski Skyway, a hulking bridge-causeway that crosses the Passaic and Hackensack Rivers and connects Jersey City to Newark. It was the 1990s, and the sounds of boom bap hip-hop were everywhere, and it was the soundtrack for the parties on the second floor, too. A friend would sneak Lopez into the party and the two boys would survey the scene unfolding around them, and soak up the music that they heard.

On occasion, Lopez would commandeer his uncle’s turntables and use them to make simple mixtapes, often made up of just two songs. There was a live music scene in the area as well. Busta Rhymes performed a show at a local YMCA, and Lopez also saw Chi-Ali, before the Bronx rapper was indicted for shooting a man during an argument and went on the lam. East Orange, about ten miles away, was home to Naughty By Nature, Whitney Huston and Chino XL. Queen Latifah was born in Newark, but lived in East Orange, and Lauryn Hill grew up in West Orange, another of the “Oranges,” a group of four municipalities in Essex County, New Jersey. Today, hardcore rappers Albee Al and Money Urk both hail from Jersey City, and Urk is from Marion Gardens. 

There’s a lot of hip hop history west of the Hudson River and Lopez wants Cocareef Records to be a part of that history, too.

Lopez recalls that he was always surrounded by music. When he was a young man, his interest in music led to club promotions at venues in New York City. And from there, special events in V.I.P. rooms, featuring models and rap artists, like Saigon, Cassidy and Agallah Don Bishop of Purple City. One of Lopez’s first parties was to celebrate the birthday of Havoc, from the Queens duo Mobb Deep. Eventually Lopez had his own club on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the 40C Lounge, and he created 7th Angel Productionz to promote events there. His connect to that club was DJ Brown Bum, a New Jersey legend.

Lopez is a voluble man, with an angular face, long wavy hair and a faint goatee. He’s affable and speaks with passion about the label he created, Cocareef Records, like a proud parent, with genuine affection for the artists he works with. In many ways, the label is like a child, maybe like one who’s now ready to leave home, and make his own way in the world; Cocareef drops the album, and the artist leaves the nest. It may be a cliche to say this, but in Lopez’s case, it’s an apt comparison. Cocareef Records is the culmination of years of work, a creative vision for a certain kind of hip hop, and for Lopez, and his place in the world.

Lopez is active on social media and his exhortations on behalf of Cocareef Records are hard to miss. On Instagram, he’s his label’s best hype man and it can feel as though he spends so much time posting, shots of the albums he’s released, with compelling graphics and shout outs to artists and fans, that it’s a wonder he has time for anything else. Lopez posts frequently, with such glee and enthusiasm that, a couple of weeks ago, when his Instagram account went silent for about twenty-four hours, I began to worry. It turned out, he told me later, that he had misplaced his phone. As soon as he had scored a new one, Lopez was back at it, posting about his latest releases, applauding his artists and encouraging fans to build their collections. He’s the coach of Team Cocareef, and every album drop is a clean shot through the up-rights, a cause for celebration. And on social media, there’s an infinite number of times you can cue the instant replay, amaze the fans and promote your artists.

Cocareef is both the name of Lopez’s record label and, when he’s creating music himself, the moniker of his artistic alter-ego. As he explained it to me, Cocareef is the man out on the street, hustling. 7th Angel Productionz is the businessman. Lopez even wrote a song about this dichotomy, “7th Angel vs. Cocareef,” from his 2018 album, It’s That Cocareef, his debut long player as a solo rap artist.

In 2015, Cocareef the hustler began to release a series of mixtapes that Lopez called Gorealler: SilverbackSeasons, and you can still find them on the mixtape web site DatPif. The albums were throwbacks, traditional mixtapes that guys like DJ Drama, DJ Clue and DJ Green Lantern were dropping in the early aughts, before the music industry shut down the practice. In 2007, in Fulton County, Georgia, police arrested Drama and his partner, Don Cannon, and confiscated 80,000 mixtapes. Although the charges were later dropped, Drama and Cannon’s splashy arrest chilled the practice of releasing “unofficial” albums, a platform favored by artists and producers, and used to release loosies, flips or remixes of popular songs, or for artists to simply test out new material. At the time of Drama’s arrest, mega-stars like Lil Wayne actively participated in the mixtape market. The New York Times even called Wayne’s Dedication 2, an unofficial collaboration with DJ Drama, from the Gangsta Grillz series, one of the best releases of 2006.  

On the Gorealler albums, Cocareef followed that model. Between and over songs, he yelled, pleaded with and encouraged both his artists and listeners, as if he were Drew Bundini Brown prepping the crowd for the champ’s entrance. He added radio snippets and shout-outs into the mix. He spliced together tracks from hardcore and underground artists, along with bigger stars, like Kanye West, Future, Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Post Malone and French Montana. Sometimes, Gorealler included artists who were unlikely to be in the same room together, let alone on the same album. On Jungle Juice…Follow That Lean, for example, a Tyler The Creator cut bumps up against one by Post Malone, and, yet somehow, the segue worked. 

https://www.datpiff.com/Various-Artist-GoRealler-SilverBackSeasonsJungle-Juice-That-mixtape.809317.html

Lopez also had an ear for talent. In 2015, when he was searching for artists to include in the Goreallerseries, he came across an up-and-coming rapper based in Harlem, named Dave East. East had a penchant for gritty street tales, and had yet to make much of a splash in the crowded underground rap scene, but Lopez presciently decided to include him on several albums for the series. Then, in 2016, Lopez discovered a frenetic, high-pitched spitter from Buffalo, with a unique flow and an eccentric taste in fashion. That artist had formed a musical collective with his brother, and another pair of brothers from their city, and they also liked to spin tales of life on the streets. Lopez called the mixtape The Almighty: Best of Westside Gun, and it featured the two other members of the Griselda crew, Conway the Machine and Benny The Butcher.

https://www.datpiff.com/Westside-Gunn-The-Almighty-Error-Cover-mixtape.864246.html

Then in 2018, Cocareef dropped the last album in his mixtape series, Griselda Massacre, a seventy-two-track behemoth, spread out over two CDs, which featured a Biblical multitude of emcees, including El Camino, Crimeapple, Styles P, Eto, Milano Constantine, Meyhem Lauren, 38 Spesh, Prodigy and Lloyd Banks, alongside a redux of Westside Gunn, Conway and Benny. Not counting the Griselda guys, the tape was a veritable who’s who of underground artists, many of whom are now blowing up in the hardcore rap scene. And, we know how the story ends for Gunn, Conway and Benny.

Incredibly, somehow amid this organized mayhem, Cocareef also managed to release It’s That Cocareef, in the same year as Griselda Massacre. It’s a hardcore hip hop record, a manifesto with booming, smack-you-across-the-face beats, snippets from gangster movies, paranoid fantasies, street stories, voice overs, drug odes, boasts, a looped sample of Busta Rhymes, bedroom talk, all of it the aural equivalent of a late era Martin Scorsese film, like the Wolf of Wall Street. Except, instead of taking place in the financial center of the world, the characters in Cocareef’s domain inhabit a milieu much further uptown, and a million miles away from Broad Street. 

Lopez said that as Cocareef, he couldn’t make a track, unless it was happening in his life, and It’s That Cocareef has enough life in it for five Scorsese movies. Lopez, as Cocareef followed up his debut album with 2019’s The Diaz Brothers, another gritty set of urban tales. This one was produced almost entirely by Onaje Jordan, and featured more underground luminaries, like Niagara Falls rhymer Jamal Gasol and the pride of Worchester, Massachusetts, the deep-voiced Killy Shoot. Like It’s CocareefThe Diaz Brothers shared some DNA with the classic mixtape; it included shout-outs to Cocareef and SilverBackSeasons, and film dialogue, this time, from every rapper’s favorite movie, Scarface, the one with Al Pacino, not Paul Muni. (In Brian Da Palma’s Scarface, The Diaz Brothers competed with Tony Montana to control the drug trade.) As Cocareef, Lopez mixed the album, he rapped, he did the ad-libs and even produced the songs, although he didn’t always take credit for that production. He wanted to give the younger guys that he worked with some legitimate production credits so they could get more work. 

That same year, Cocareef the rapper released two more projects, Surfboard Assassins, produced by Wavy Da Ghawd and Heat, named for the Michael Mann film, starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. For Heat, Cocareef played Al Pacino, while producer Rob Deniro filled the role of his acting namesake, although they spell their names differently. Both of those records included more strivers, like Lord Juco, General Backpain, Jamil Honesty and WhataMess. Cocareef Records was starting to feel like a finishing school for the underground; Lopez established a pattern of working with an array of rappers climbing the career mountain, and giving them a boost on the way up. Heat featured a line-up of twenty emcees.

As Lopez puts it, he wanted Cocareef Records to be “like a grammar school, for underground hip hop, where [artists] can jump off me and go where they need to go.” He loves to release debut albums. “You always remember the first and the last,” Lopez says. “You don’t remember the people in the middle.” Those artists who drop their first album on Cocareef Records, Lopez believes, “will remember me forever.”

On “NuGround,” from The Diaz Brothers album, Lopez includes dialogue from The Wire, and it’s revealing, because while the characters are talking about the drug trade, their comments apply to the music industry as well, especially the release of vinyl records. In the scene, the characters Dennis “Cutty” Wise and Slim Charles discuss what type of weapon to use for a hit. Cutty is taken aback by Slim’s advice and says to him “The game done changed.” Slim replies that the “Game’s the same, just got more fierce.”  And today, the vinyl game is more fierce than ever. It’s a tough hustle within which to survive, let alone prosper.

Strangely, many of the record labels releasing hardcore or underground American hip hop are in Europe. Wisconsin’s Loretta Records was one of the few U.S. labels thriving in the current environment; it’s a small label with a large reputation. Loretta was started by producer Observe since ’98, and, after a good run, the label stopped releasing albums by other artists in 2019. 

The labels Tuff Kong and Frank’s Vinyl Records are in Italy. FXCK RXP and Air Vinyls are in Germany. De Rap Winkel is in the Netherlands. Copenhagen Crates is in Denmark. Daupe is in the UK. lowtechrecords is in Austria. As any fan knows, shipping costs for products from Europe are high, and there is no guarantee that a record will arrive at your door undamaged. Throw a global pandemic into the mix, import tariffs, and a moribund U.S. Postal Service, and even the most well-run labels face mounting challenges, inside and outside of the United States.

Before Cocareef Records began to crank out its own vinyl releases, Lopez says he learned a lot about the business from Loretta and from Griselda’s Westside Gunn. Observe, the Loretta label head, was a mentor and Gunn shared his intimate understanding of marketing. About Gunn, Lopez says “I love his music, I love his writing, but what I gravitated to was the marketing. How do you market in a new age?”

Lopez’s marketing varies from that of his European competitors. His vinyl is produced in small batches, and, for now, he presses only black vinyl records, unlike the European labels. To Lopez, colored vinyl is “like a gimmick you need to sell your shit.” Lopez argues that when people think about a vinyl record, that vinyl is black. Colored vinyl distracts from the actual music. “Black is classic; it’s also pretty much what you picture a record” to be, he says. Lopez wants people to listen to the records he releases, not hang them on the wall.

Obi strips, a strip of paper wrapped around the spines of a variety of Japanese products, have become almost de rigueur on vinyl records and CDs sold all over the world. The strips can be plain or elaborate, with unique graphics and writing, often in Japanese characters, even in the American market. Cocareef Records includes an Obi strip version of its releases, but the strip is printed on the album cover, not wrapped around it. This relieves the label of the time and labor required to place Obi strips on each individual album, and, because of this, Lopez doesn’t charge extra money for the Obi versions of his releases. For other record labels, the inclusion of an Obi can add ten or twenty more dollars to the cost of the record. Lopez says that his version of the Obi strip means that it “can’t get lost and it can’t get damaged,” and he doesn’t have to waste valuable time manufacturing the strips and then placing them on his records.

Among vinyl collectors, there is disagreement about the value and aesthetics of the Obi strip. Attaching the strip to the spine of a pricey vinyl record jacks up the price of that record by ten dollars, or more, sometimes much more. It’s difficult to determine how much an individual Obi strip costs to manufacture, but today, the additional cost to the manufacturer or label is probably minimal. And anyone who collects vinyl can attest to the fact that records can arrive at your front door with the Obi bent, crumpled or torn, a condition that immediately renders the Obi valueless, and maybe the vinyl, too. Many people collect vinyl for its appreciative value and it’s unclear if Cocareef’s solution to the Obi “problem” will entice collectors to buy his records.

Lopez is also not afraid to sign odd ball artists, those without a track record, or artists from other countries, “diamonds in the rough” he calls them. In 2019, he released Rare Snow, by the Japanese emcee GG, who raps in Japanese, over Golden Age beats, that he produced. In May, Cocareef Records dropped My Way, by Nigerian rapper LuGhz and French producer Dan.Akill. LuGhz’s spitting is tough as nails, and Dan.Akill’s beats sound as though he was locked in a room with nothing but records produced by DJ Premier, which he then studied and made his own. Like everything Cocareef Records has released, these albums deserve more attention.

In July, Cocareef Records released the debut instrumental album by a young producer known as Irie-1, called Best Served Cold. The record exhibits all the qualities of the Cocareef oeuvre, from jacket design to packaging to sound. The cover features a stark picture by artist Nico Suaceda, the severed head of a man, held over a silver bowl, which collects his blood. The beats are dusty and complex, with looped vocals drifting in and out, keyboard washes and melancholy piano. Irie produced two tracks for the Cocareef project, Random Thoughts of One Mind, and Lopez was determined to do a full album with him. He wanted to put Irie’s music on wax and see the look on his face when Lopez finally handed him a physical copy of the album. “I like the artist to be happy,” he says. And the happiness of his artists, especially those just starting out, drives a lot of what Lopez does. The other motivating factor? “The culture. I do it for the culture,” he tells me. And he says it like he means it.

The Cocareef Records business model follows a formula that has allowed the label to thrive, even in a pandemic. Lopez keeps a close group of collaborators, artists, producers, engineers and mixers. He also produces, engineers and masters his own albums. Lopez works with one record pressing plant, a company whose name he doesn’t want to share, and he has avoided the bottle-necks, delays and distribution headaches faced by other labels. If you order a record from Cocareef Records, you won’t have to wait six months to get it. And if you do, blame the U.S. Postal Service. Lopez is a model of efficiency, and it’s not his fault if others don’t come correct, ready to take care of their business. 

By my count, Cocareef Records has dropped forty-nine albums in less than two years. And that’s got to be some kind of record. The label distributes for other artists, too, and it has distributed albums by DNTE, WhatAMess and Ray Swoope, among others. There’s a new Cocareef solo record coming soon, Fruit Loop Killer, and Lopez has other surprises that he’s not ready to announce yet.

By the time you read this, Cocareef Records may have dropped five more albums and distributed for even more artists. It’s all part of the master plan, to dominate hip hop. Lopez wants to put an album in the hands of every true rap fan, and rep the artists with something tangible to represent their art: a twelve-inch slab of classic black wax, with graphics that pop and a sound to match. “That’s what I get high off of,” Lopez says. “You get the fan and the artist coming together. That’s pretty much just what I wanted to do. You watch that, and it’s like nothing else.” On Cocareef’s Instagram page, you can watch short clips of artists and fans receiving or opening their vinyl. This matters to Lopez, and he’s gratified that people delight in something that he helped create.

Cocareef. “It’s Cocareef,” Lopez told me when we began our conversation several weeks ago. “C-o-c-a- Reef.”

It’s that Cocareef, baby. Don’t you forget it.