A few months ago, a kid Brooklynite called Joey Bada$$ stuck a video for a track called "Survival Tactics" on the Internet, and it whipped music media into a frenzy. The song is really slick, stacked with tricky, tight wordplay and a smooth delivery system that feels more '90s than now in the very best way. The video is an aesthetic triumph, featuring a journey from Brooklyn to Wall Street, decorated with a couple of panda masks and American flags. If you missed it, take heed—the thing is, the video was just a glimpse into a world of cyphers, skateboards and serious talent that Joey Bada$$ and his Pro Era crew have been cultivating in high school hallways for a long time, and the noise is only gonna grow.
Watching Pro Era's debut show, I felt old at twenty-three in a way I'd never experienced before, not least because a near round dozen of youthful show-goers nervously approached me to buy 'em some booze. The stage was chock full of kids, Pro Era crew and then some, pinging back and forth like manic pinballs, hopping and crowing and diving and passing around some really, really sick beats and rhymes. It was pretty phenomenal, watching this debut unfold with the sort of maximum energy that only dims with age, and I left the Knitting Factory filled with hope. This energy is infectious, it's buoying up real, raw talent, and it's revitalizing.
As such, we sat down with Joey to chat about his crew, his career, and his take on the state of hip hop. We found a pretty stoic kid, Flatbush born and raised, and excited but not necessarily surprised to find himself gaining some momentum. “It was destiny for me to be successful in something that I do,” he shrugged. “I never really lacked in anything that I put my mind to—once I put my mind to it, I succeed.”
Keep an ear out for his mixtape, 1999, and more hype on Joey Bada$$, Capital Steez, and the rest of the Pro Era crew. It's all coming soon.
Tell me about Pro Era. How did you guys come together?
We're only a year and some months old. It was me, my homie Pow, CJ and Steez. We always used to go to the school auditorium and just rap, until one day we just decided we were gonna start a team. Now, we're like twenty deep.
Do you think there's power in those numbers?
Things can get out of hand as far as release dates go, when people want to put their stuff out, it becomes like, a line. I don't want anyone to be told when they should put their project out, so I don't think we should expand too much. I think we're closed at this point.
You're being billed as a sort of East Coast revival. How do you feel about hip hop in New York right now? Is it coming back up?
We're bringing it back! It's been a minute. But I'm not mad at hip hop in the East Coast, or the acts coming out of New York right now. We just do us—we're fans of good music, not necessarily just hip hop. I listen to a lot of non-hip hop. I'm a fan of everything. The only thing I don't really respect is when people call something hip hop and it's not. They make subgenres or something. That gets me pissed off.
Like, how could I say this the nice way... That's that shit I don't liiike [laughs]. It's cool, you know, but they should call that shit swag rap, or some shit like that. I mean, in no way is that hip hop. I mean, I fuck with Chief Keef and all that, but that's swag rap. They shouldn't call that hip hop.
Do you think the East Coast/West Coast dynamic is still relevant, or anything like it was in the '90s?
I feel like it could escalate to that, and that's what people are trying to do. But nah. That whole Biggie/Pac epidemic, it'll never get as big as that. There's not gonna be any war or shit like that—maybe little rap feuds, but that's nothing. People might escalate it to that... I'm ready for anything.
I read in the Voice that you're definitely going to finish school, that it's really important to you...
And it's important to my mom. I'm still under her roof, so it's basically her rules. But I think it's definitely important for me to finish school before anything else.
Your video for “Survival Tactics” is really sick. You guys are down on Wall Street marching—how important are social and economic problems in your work?
It's the problems in the world that we often get our inspiration from, and these people need voices to speak for them. Some people won't speak up, and some people don't have the ability to. We're the voice of the people, and we support them.
Do you feel like your music could change things like that?
Yeah, and I think we could go really far. And after the music thing, I really want to go the acting route, do things like that. Even then, we'll change some things up.
What made you want to act?
I've been acting since I was younger. It was my initial dream to be an actor, which is why I want to go back to it. I've always been rapping and I've always been acting, but I was at a point in my life where I realized the rapping would take off faster. I love doing it anyway, so it's like, why not? I can always go to acting later. That's my plan.
Talk to me about your mixtape. How long has it been in the works?
It's been about a year. I'm a perfectionist. I'm really nervous with what I put out, and really self-conscious. I can't hold on to my tracks too long because I'll just start to hate it. Ask any one of my homies, they'll tell you—I hate every song I've ever made. Because the thing is, I record it and then listen to it like fifty times after, and I play it out before anybody ever even hears it. To hear people bumping shit I did like a year ago, it's the strangest.
Do you think you'll ever be satisfied as an artist?
I'm always satisfied once I record the song, but I just over play it. So I gotta limit myself to... but you know, fuck that. I love the music I make. I'm always gonna hate the shit at the same time.
What's the next step?
In different ways. The future will tell.