Philo Reitzel: Asheville hip-hop raconteur living his best life thanks to recovery

Philo Reitzel

Like a lot of artists who come up hard — either through circumstances beyond their control or ones of their own design — Philo Reitzel embraced the game.

The Ties That Bind UsComing up in Asheville, North Carolina’s hip-hop scene, he threw himself readily into the drug and alcohol subculture that’s often glamorized in the genre. By his late teens, his drinking was a badge of honor, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently, and music often served as the catalyst for the party that surrounded it.

Eventually, however, it stopped being fun. Get wasted, rinse, repeat … while the life he wanted slowly slipped between his fingers like handfuls of smoke.

“For me, I struggled for so long, without knowing particularly that addiction was what I was struggling with primarily,” said Reitzel, who released his new album, “Live the Life,” last week. “I’ve been saying I was an alcoholic since I was 18 or 19, so it’s like I knew it, but I also didn’t know it. I tried (to get sober) a bunch of times, and I always thought, ‘I got this,’ but it never lasted more than a couple of weeks, and then shit started getting worse and worse, and I’m out there taking stupid penitentiary chances.

“There were a bunch of times that should have been my bottom. That should have been when I said, ‘I need to give it up,’ but it takes what it takes. It’s totally a moment of clarity thing where I realized, I didn’t know a fucking thing. There I was, thinking I knew everything, but all that was, was lip service. I tried to quit a bunch of different times, but I was never sober for a month.

“Finally, it was like, ‘I can’t fucking do this anymore,’” he added.

Philo Reitzel: The origin story

Philo Reitzel

Courtesy of Emma King

To say he came by his predilection for partying honestly is a more complex origin story than such a statement might portray. Growing up in a rough-and-tumble holler in northern Buncombe County — today a bourgeoisie suburb of one of the hippest cities in the Southeast — Reitzel wasn’t chugging 40s as a child, nor was he surrounded by gangsters who indoctrinated him into a dark lifestyle.

He does, however, come from the sort of independent Southern stock that prides itself on blue collar values. The hills of Western North Carolina have long been an attractive place for those who flew a Gadsden Flag before it was co-opted by the alt-right, and Reitzel grew up surrounded by a rough and rowdy people who worked hard, played hard and loved hard.

“Everyone drank a lot, and most of the people in my holler were either a preacher or an alcoholic,” he said. “My family was real loving, but there was a lot of partying going on, and everyone drank a lot, but it was super normalized, and for a long time, that’s how I thought every place was. On the other hand, my childhood was really good: I had a loving family, I grew up in the country, and I always had enough to eat. Physically, it was kind of difficult sometimes — we lived in a super old cabin that was only heated by wood, and I had to work at a really young age.”

Music was a constant, however — his father played in a band for a while, but by the time Reitzel was 9, he’d discovered hip-hop. Viewed through the filters of 2020, MC Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This” sounds today like cheesy ’90s party rap, but at the time, it had the same effect on Reitzel’s young mind that booze would in the years to come. And while the frenetic beats were something that made his heart pound, the words weaved a more powerful spell.

“It’s a fly song, and Hammer’s a dope emcee,” he said. “He’s from East Oakland, and I lived in the Bay Area for a long time and knew some dudes who knew him and his crew, and they always told me that Hammer was hard as fuck, because Oakland in the ’80s was just an insane place — but he made positive music. Over time, that became really important to me: I like for music to have a message.

“It doesn’t always have to be super deep; sometimes, you hear music, and it’s more like a lecture. There’s got to be that balance: The sound is dope, and I can vibe to it, but if I want to dive in, there’s deeper shit. That’s one reason I love Kendrick Lamar and Andre 3000 or Ice Cube back in the early ’90s — their stuff will be real dope, but if you go down, it’s like layers on layers on layers. But with Hammer, I didn’t know anything about that at the time. I just thought, ‘This fool an rap and dance, and this is fly!’

“That’s the first song I remember sitting in my mama’s car, and when it came on the radio, I thought, ‘This is awesome!’” he added. “I started writing raps right after that.”

Challenges, hardships and perseverance

Courtesy of Ricky Tale

As he embraced hip-hop culture, he found himself a target in public school, he said. To peers who associated all things rap with an affinity for black culture, Reitzel was pigeonholed as a lover of diversity by those who weren’t fond of it.

“I got picked on a lot, bullied a lot, in fights a lot,” he said. “It was pretty whack. I was different, my name was different, and I didn’t like that I was different than most of my peers, so I had this anger. People pointed out differences and made them very clear to me, and I felt that apartness.”

Rather than change to fit in, he leaned into the stereotype, adapting a tough guy persona and listening to gangsta rap as a way to bolster an image of a kid who was not to be trifled with. That genre’s glorification of drugs and drinking became attractive, and his anecdotal experience on the home front only served to bolster it.

“Some of the people in our family, in our circle, were rough and tumble people,” he said. “My parents were college-educated, but some of the people around me when I was growing up were legit outlaws, so it was like I was getting higher knowledge as well as lower knowledge. Up until fifth grade, I was like a mostly A and B student, and then halfway through fifth grade, I just fell off.

“I went into middle school, and things just got way worse. Sixth grade was terrible, and that was around the time that ‘The Chronic’ (by Dr. Dre) came out. I was listening to N.W.A., Dre, Public Enemy, all that gangsta shit, and with that, I thought, ‘OK, I gotta smoke weed all the time, because that’s part of what you do. So I would smoke weed as often as I could.”

Finding his lane wasn’t easy. Two guys he considered friends jumped him and beat him behind the dugout while he was still in elementary school, and that affected his trust issues. By the time he was 14, however, he’d begun to make his own beats, and a year later, he put out his first mixtape. His talent caught on, and selling tapes at school earned him something of a reputation — as did getting busted for selling weed there.

“Not a lot; I was put on probation, and that sucked, but part of what happened was that it solidified my identity,” he said. “All of the sudden, it was like, ‘I’m a criminal. I’ve got street cred.’”

Eventually, he started attracting friends who gravitated toward hip-hop as well, and he began bringing them in to drop a bar or two on his tapes. By the time he finished out his high school career, he had assembled a crew known as Frontline, a collective of colorful rappers and hip-hop heads who cultivated a reputation as a party outfit.

“I remember we did our first show at this punk rock/anarchy house called Pink House, and my bandmate was puking in the back before going on stage,” he said. “We got fucked up all the time, and I was a daily drinker by the time I was 15 or 16. Drinking daily, smoking not even daily, but literally every chance I got. I’d ride with my homie to school, and we’d have beers on ice and smoke blunts. Looking back, it was pretty stupid.”

Philo Reitzel: The roller coaster picks up speed

Courtesy of Ricky Tale

Along the way, the evolution of his disease combined with life events to reinforce the growing need to stay narcotized via drugs and alcohol. Like many artists, he felt that weed helped him make better beats. Blackout drinking became a regular occurrence, he added, and subsequent musical endeavors revolved around partying. Despite such prolific tendencies, however, he carved out a niche as a driven rapper, particularly with the crew Fist Fam, which did some touring and enjoyed a loyal regional following. Most of it, however, was built on getting wasted, he said.

“Our fanbase and the culture was real, ‘Rah-rah, this is a party, we’re all getting hella fucked up!’” he said. “Slurring our words and messing up was part of the fun. We had big shows that turned into big parties, and I’ll be honest — it was a blast! I hear people say that their worst day sober is better than their best day getting high, and I’m like, ‘You’re full of shit, homie!’ Because we were young, and it was fun, and we had a lot of songs about drinking and getting fucked up. It was a cool, creative time that was a lot of fun.”

But then his uncle was murdered, and the pain was so great that chemical anesthesia seemed preferable to feeling it. Rather than cope, he decided to pull the rip cord on Western North Carolina and head to the West Coast, where as part of Fist Fam, he’d made some connections.

“Everything turned really dark for me, and I figured that because the world is fucked up, the only way to get through it is to just be numb,” he said. “I felt like you couldn’t allow yourself to feel, because bad shit happens to good people. I went out there and surfed couches for a month and made music, came back for a minute, then moved out there in 2005.”

Several guys in the Fist Fam crew followed him, and the guys built a respectable following in the Bay Area. Reitzel, however, got a job as a bartender, and however bad his drinking was in North Carolina, it got even worse then.

“You could bartend in North Carolina, but you can’t drink while you work, but in San Francisco, that was totally acceptable,” he said. “I literally started drinking liquor all the time, from when I woke up to when I went to sleep. If I took a day off, I would get the DT’s like crazy, and then other shit got involved. Coming up, I had homeboys that sold crack and shit, but our whole thing was, ‘We don’t do that shit because we’re not fiends.’

“I had this line that kept me from doing that shit for a really long time in the ’90s and 2000s, but then it shifted, and it became acceptable to do coke in the hip-hop culture, and in San Francisco, no one cared. I was just dabbling, but I was drinking very heavily. We were still playing shows and making some good music, but looking back at it now, it was not as compelling as it used to be.”

Even his rhymes focused more on drinking and partying than anything else. In hindsight, he said with a laugh, his output started to sound like a broken record.

“We talked about drinking so much that it was like, ‘Goddamn, we get it!’” he said. “Everything about it gets put on this pedestal in your mind.”

But then word came from back east: His father was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. In 2012, he left the West Coast and returned to Asheville.

'When at the end of the road ...'

Philo Reitzel

Courtesy of Ricky Tale

Away from the San Francisco slipstream, it began to dawn on him just how bad his problem had gotten. There, he’d buy a bag of cocaine and share it with friends, but gradually, it became a regular part of his own intake routine. He recalls at one point driving and thinking about how he’d done so much coke that he had stayed up for two or three days at a time over a two-month period … only for it to dawn on him that he’d actually lost two years to that rinse-and-repeat cycle.

“It shifted so subtly that I didn’t see any of that,” he said. “I was wrecking my relationships, except with my most codependent addict friends, but the thing is, I had always wrecked romantic relationships, a lot of it due to me being selfish and an alcoholic. I had no idea what a healthy relationship with a woman was like.

“It’s also like, in (hip-hop) culture, selfish and addictive behaviors are glorified. All that shit gets normalized, and you think it’s normal to be a misogynistic, womanizing shithead all the time, and you make songs that sound cool.”

Back in Asheville, it began to dawn on him just how close to slipping under a wave of permanent darkness he’d gotten as his addiction had deepened on the West Coast. Still, the thought of permanent sobriety terrified him. It was a part of his identity and his art, and he wasn’t sure he knew how to live otherwise.

“A year before I got sober, I quit for almost a month, and I quit drinking for three weeks, maybe four weeks, but the first night I went to a bar, I got wasted and almost got murdered when some dude threw me down some steps,” he said. “I woke up in the hospital with detectives around me, but that didn’t even make me want to get sober.

“I think after a while, you talk about being in the game, and you just slip into the game. It becomes a stream that just takes you for its ride, but you think that’s how it’s always been, because you can’t see it. In reality, shit could be falling apart, and bad shit could be happening all around you, but you’re lost in that darkness.”

The end of his run, he added, was oddly anti-climactic. He borrowed his girlfriend’s car, ran into a friend at a bar, and the pair decided to randomly get tattoos, which they chased with drinks. He returned the car, he and the girl got into an argument, and a scene was made. She told Reitzel she didn’t want to see him again, and he disappeared into a 36-hour coke-and-liquor bender. Somewhere in there, the lightbulb came on.

“All of the sudden, I had this realization,” he said. “We hadn’t been dating that long, but I had lost relationships with people that I deeply, deeply cared about beyond just her. I saw that I was hurting all these people that cared about me, and it was like, ‘When did I become such a fucking asshole? Boom. Done. I’m not running my life; drugs and alcohol are literally running my life.’”

Stumbling out of the darkness

Album cover, "Live the Life."

Reitzel had gone to recovery meetings in the past and even picked up a white chip or two. The whole “keep coming back” mantra never stuck, however, but this time, he emerged from the fog long enough to see that he had no clue how to stay sober on his own. So he went to a 12 Step meeting, and this time his mind, foggy though it was with the miasma of drugs and alcohol, was open enough to begin receiving information.

“This time, it was like a switch was flipped. All of the sudden, all of the mirrors got shattered, and I as just terrified,” he said. “I didn’t know what was going on, not to mention all of the people that I knew who were dying on a semi-regular basis from what they were doing.”

One of the last hold-outs was the hesitation that sobriety would screw up his creative process. The longer he stayed clean, however, the more he discovered the opposite was true: Within a couple of months, he was banging out rhymes, and today, he added, he has “a thousand times the creativity” he did when he was using. And the more rhymes he began to write, the more he discovered he had something to say that add a little clarity to the game.

“I never did (heroin), and I’m real glad, so sometimes when I reference drug use in my songs, I’m ambiguous,” he said. “My thing is, I’m trying to talk to everybody, and I don’t think it always has to come from precisely personal experience. I can speak to somebody that’s got a fucked-up smack addiction, because I have homies with fucked-up smack addictions. I think it’s really important to reach people who are still out there, because I get it.

“I’m not on some sugarcoated bullshit, but if I can do this, anybody can. I want people who are trying to get sober to know that life can still be dope, and you can still have hella fun and still be cool. If anything, I’m a cooler dude because I’m sober.”

And so began a deep dive into life and the meaning of it, all distilled from his personal experiences and brought to bear on “Live the Life.” At first, he had to come to terms with the fact that his story, no matter the highs and lows, was just as important as anyone else’s, and that it’s not a contest to see who suffers the most. What matters, he pointed out, is the place that everyone who suffers — those who come from privilege and those who endure lifelong hardship — always find themselves in the same place: waiting around to die, the chemicals that once brought comfort slowly leaching color from the world like a toxic bleach of the soul.

“I try to be positive without being like, ‘I know better,’” he said. “I know I’ve gotten opportunities in life, and things could have come out for me very differently depending on where I grew up. I could be in a very different place, and I try to be mindful of that. I don’t want to be on a white savior kick, but it’s hard for white people to see our privilege sometimes.”

The foundation stone of “Live the Life” was “No Quarter,” a meditative rumination on the unstoppable nature of addiction and its effects on a narrator swimming against the tide. It’s a dark song, but it let Reitzel know he was onto something. The title track followed, a languid beat underneath the clawed rationalizations of a man trying to ride the crest of a wave that he knows will ultimately put him 6 feet under.

“It was like telling the story, and then it was, ‘I need to get all this stuff out,’ but at the same time, I didn’t want it to stay there,” he said. “I wanted to move it away from where I’m not, because I’m a different person today.”

Philo Reitzel: Learning to live again

Philo Reitzel

Courtesy of Ricky Tale

The end result is a real, raw and visceral look at one man’s journey through the mouth of the beast, the slow decomposition in its corrupted depths, and the furious slashing through its hide to stagger back into the light. It’s not a record that preaches, nor is it one that glorifies. It’s a collection of stark stories overlaid with complex beats, a work that’s as complicated as one man’s recovery story can be.

“I just feel like there’s not enough attention given to that side of it,” he said. “I relate to when people are talking about how they’re slipping and can’t handle it. I feel that because it’s a lot of that defense mechanism you put up in yourself when you’re doing a lot of questionable shit. That lifestyle is extremely dangerous and spiritually unfulfilling, and you know in your heart that you shouldn’t be doing it, but you’ve got this defense mechanism that keeps you from honestly talking about it.”

On “Live the Life,” the defense mechanisms have been deconstructed, and the results have raised Reitzel’s considerable profile in Western North Carolina even higher. A recent profile in the alternative paper Mountain Xpress detailed some of his sobriety story, and the feedback has pleased him — mostly because it shows that his mission has operated below the radar, as it should be.

“You can’t preach it, because that turns people off who need to hear it,” he said. “I remember having to go to court-ordered (recovery) meetings, and you could not tell me shit, because I didn’t want to hear it.”

His life, he added, is fulfilling in a way he never imagined it could be. His art, his relationship, his work — a production, mixing and mastering of a “hodgepodge” of media, in addition to launching a business with a friend — keeps him busy. Recovery keeps him anchored. And his message to anyone who might struggle as he did is a simple one.

“Everyone should know their story is important, and that you can help other people,” he said. “I don’t ever want to say that being sober is easy for me, because I don’t want to get complacent, but it’s a hell of a lot easier than it was living the way I was living.”