Brooklyn rapper Joey Bada$$ established his bona fides right away on “Summer Knights,” the opening track on his 2012 debut mixtape, 1999. “It’s been a minute / Since they’ve seen a style with no gimmicks,” he rapped. Appropriately, the 18-year-old rapper borrowed the title of the song for Summer Knights, a new mixtape he’s releasing today.
In the year since 1999 was released, Joey and his Brooklyn Pro Era crew have gotten plenty of attention for serving up some of the most authentically-styled and -worded New York hip-hop since the early Nineties heyday of Nas, Notorious B.I.G. and Jay-Z. Plus, it came out when the kid was 17: Joey was immediately recongnized for a lyrical ability and intuition well beyond his years. Joey and Pro Era have evolved from high school-hallway cyphers, and they’re being acknowledged for bolstering a true New York hip-hop renaissance under the Beast Coast umbrella, which includes fellow Brooklyn camps the Flatbush Zombies and the Underachievers.
Joey’s tracks include production credits by old-schoolers like Lord Finesse, Alchemist and MF Doom, in addition to consistent work with East Coast producer Statik Selektah and his Pro Era cohorts Chuck Strangers and Kirk Knight. He even teamed up with production god DJ Premier for “Unorthodox,” the first single off his upcoming solo debut album, which is set for release in early 2014. “That was amazing,” Joey tells Rolling Stone. “That was everything I thought it would be, plus more.”
He’s also been featured on tracks with Mac Miller, A$AP Rocky and Action Bronson, and despite the collaborations with better-known names in the hip-hop world, Joey’s work is rife with the creative input of his Pro Era crew. They’re a thriving group of about 20 friends who cover everything from rapping and beat-making to graphic design and video production. “That’s just how tight we are,” Joey said of Pro Era’s DIY ethic. “The things we talk about, the things that we are on, it’s not really relatable to anybody else.”
Pro Era gained notable recognition with the video for 1999‘s “Survival Tactics,” which features a verse from the late Capital Steez, Joey’s best friend and an indisputable talent. Last December, Steez took his own life. The news garnered media attention and the story of Pro Era wouldn’t be complete without note of that tragedy; but the crew moves forward, with Steez’s spirit captured in continual tributes to their fallen comrade.
Joey was working on Summer Knights up until the last minute, and he pushed back the release date by two weeks to buy himself more time. Rolling Stone sat down with Joey last week to discuss Summer Knights, staying independent and what’s next for Pro Era.
Your official debut is coming out in early 2014; what was your thought process behind putting out Summer Knights before then?
Well, just the simple idea of me not wanting to go straight from my [first] mixtape into my album – I wanted to allow myself to grow more as an artist, and also as a person. Because, you know, I am very young. So I just wanted to give it more time. I don’t want to rush it, and I don’t want to force anything out: I want it to be perfect. But I definitely already started working on it, and I want to continue to take my time with it.
Summer Knights started as an EP, then it became a full album project, then the release date got pushed back. You [were] a bit down to the wire getting it done. Do you feel pressure going into this, or are you just still having fun?
No pressure at all, ’cause it’s done; it’s pretty much done. . . . I’m actually pretty excited for this. It’s gonna be some weight lifted off of my shoulders and onto the next. And my next shit is gonna be crazy.
You mean your debut? What makes you so excited about it?
I’m working on a couple of things . . . I mean, you know, I’m taking my time, I don’t really want to give out too much info on the debut. There’s still some time I have to give before I really wrap it up and before I’m going to be ready to really express what it is and what it’s going to be.
If you could have anyone collaborate on your debut – a dream feature – who would it be?
Jigga man. Definitely.
Speaking of Jay-Z, on [A$AP Rocky’s] “1 Train,” you rap that you’re “thinking about signing to the Roc,” and you’ve have been a bit insistent on staying independent. Why do you think it’s important to stay independent as an artist?
I think it’s important to stay independent as an artist because – I mean, for me, it’s always been my vision, it’s always what I wanted to do and always what I’ve seen myself doing. It’s funny because exactly the way my career is going, it’s exactly what I wanted it to be and how I predicted it to be. My rollout was, “I’m just going to do this shit from the ground up, I’m going to start my own record label – I ain’t going to sign to nobody. I’m just going to do it on my own.” So that’s what I’m working to, that’s the goal I’m trying to achieve.
June 18th was a big day for hip-hop releases, with new albums from Kanye West, Mac Miller, J. Cole and Statik Selektah. Do you have a favorite out of those releases?
My favorite is definitely [J. Cole’s] Born Sinner. Definitely. Yeah, that’s my favorite. Out of the question.
You got hooked up with your manager and with Mac Miller because they tweeted at you. In what other ways has being in your generation, in the Internet age, shaped your career?
My come-up has been influenced by it a lot. The Internet played a very key role in the discovery of me. I basically came up on the Internet; before I was coming up on the block, I came up on the internet. It’s crazy. People around the world knew who I was before people in my neighborhood did.
You’re going back to Europe soon on tour. How is the hip-hop scene there different New York’s?
Anywhere other than New York is totally different. But overseas, they bump to the feel, and off of your energy. I did a show last year in Germany; these people couldn’t even speak English, but they were going so hard, and they were listening, because they felt me and they got the energy. As opposed to doing a New York show . . . everybody’s just trying to be so cool. I’d be lucky if I got a little head nod or something. But most of the time it’s all these people fucking staring at me, judging me. Yeah, it sucks.
Can you think of an artist that you’ve been influenced by or really love that you might not be able to hear in your sound – someone unexpected?
Well, a lot of people know now, I’m one of the biggest Daft Punk fans. I’m into a lot of neo-soul, but that element is actually present [in my music], I would say. I like a lot of abstract shit; I like punk rock some times.
There’s this band called LCD Soundsystem. I like them a lot.
How do you think the Pro Era movement has grown in the last year?
Oh, we went global. They bump Pro Era in Denmark now. It’s beautiful, because a lot of people who were influenced by that golden age sound, it’s like the same feel again – they get it.
Besides touring and working on your solo debut – what do you think is next for you and Pro Era?
Great things. World tours. We went on a U.S. tour, this year, I’m sure we’re going to go on a world tour. I can’t wait for that. Because I love traveling with my brothers. We really grow together.