At the age of 20, Joey Bada$$, real name Jo-Vaughn Virginie Scott, is already a rap veteran. When I met him, a few days after his debut studio album B4.DA.$$’s release, it was plain to see the ease with which he inhabits his role as an already established local legend. After one of Joey’s people directs me to hunker down at a table in the back of a Lower East Side restaurant, the young rapper emerges from the kitchen in a matter of minutes, having been cracking wise with one of the chefs.
In the flesh, Joey is chiseled, handsome—far more imposing than his wunderkind reputation would suggest—and carries himself with a bit of coil. He also doesn’t mind letting me know he’s been doing a million of these interviews, and doesn’t seem too keen to overshare. Probing, overwrought, and/or “artistic” questions about the new album—How were you feeling when you walked into the studio that day? How easy or how hard was it for you to write this verse? What inspired you to pick this beat?—are met with direct, simple answers.
“Joey, how much time do you have for this interview? “ I asked.
“Bruh,” he replies, “the real question is, how much time do you have?”
It makes sense. I have been advised. Joey is loath to discuss a number of tabloid-ready recent events. In January, a selfie of Malia Obama in a T-shirt from his hip-hop collective Pro Era leaked somehow; Joey has claimed, hopefully sarcastically, that his phone was subsequently tapped. The rapper then got into an altercation with a security guard in Australia, about which his only public comment was a tweet that began, “The crucifixion of my character has already begun…”
One thing he’s more eager to talk about: his early days. Pro Era came together while Joey was a student at Brooklyn’s Edward R. Murrow High School, which also claims Basquiat, Darren Aronofsky, the Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch and Marisa Tomei as notable alumni.
“I mostly kept it to myself what my dreams and aspirations were, so nobody got a chance to shoot it down. I was the new kid on the block. Just because you say you’re trying to be a rapper, people are like, ‘Aight: money, bitches, and hos, that must be your subject matter,’” Joey tells me. “So I’d rather not tell you I’m a rapper. I’d rather you see what I do, be like ‘Oh shit!’
“Everybody who’s an OG Pro Era member, a founder—Capital Steez, Powers Pleasant, CJ Fly, Dirty Sanchez—they’re all older than me. It was pretty much, like, linking up in the auditorium, making ourselves lyrically sharper. We wanted to come in the next day like, ‘Okay, we got the title for the day.’ Odd Future inspired us a lot. Once we seen a group of kids who got together and unified like that—Word! Why can’t we do that? They was on the West Side, and we’re from NYC, the Mecca of it all. So it’s like, ‘Yo, there needs to be a balance.’”
Joey begins to talk about Steez, Pro Era’s cofounder who took his own life in 2012, when I clumsily interrupt him. He stops, gives me a hard look and says, “Listen. You got to chill when I’m talking about this situation. It’s real sensitive to me. You gotta take what I give you.” I apologize. “It’s all good—I just gotta let you know. Each question is like a stab to the heart.” He sips from his drink. “Word up. I’m not comfortable with media in my business, but it is what it is.”
The way Pro Era member CJ Fly, now an accomplished rapper in his own right, explains it: “In the hallways, if you wanted to get recognized for your rapping, you’d step up on the side, and we had cyphers like that; you had to hold your own.” With little more than a piano and their own vocal chords, the teenage Pros would cut class for the purposes of spitting in the auditorium—invariably getting caught, sent back to class and/or the principal’s office. “It’s kinda ironic Joey went back to Murrow and donated some money and gear for them to make a workshop, so the kids can actually go in on their free periods and make music,” CJ tells me. “Because we used to complain: ‘Yo, this is a performing arts school and you guys don’t even have a program for artists like us!’ When we got caught, that was our little excuse,” he adds with a laugh. “It didn’t really work, but…”
I ask Joey about an event from when he was 15 years old: a YouTube clip he posted in 2010 that caught the attention of his now-manager Jonny Shipes. “I pretty much masterminded it,” Joey says. “I already knew I was nice. All I needed was a way for people to see me. I don’t like WorldStarHipHop at all anymore, but this was a time when it was really important to me. Basically, I decided I’d: One, get a camera. Two, record myself spitting hot bars”—Joey savors drawing out the plural as if in zs, before breaking out in chuckles—“and three, send it to WorldStarHipHop. I envisioned it to go perfectly fine, like, I’ll send it to ‘em; they’ll love it, and they’ll post it. But you know what? They never even got back to me. I sent it to them like eleven times, nothing. So I take matters into my own hands and publish it to my own channel. But, I put in the title ‘15 Year Old Freestyles For WorldStar’ so anybody that landed on my page watching the video would have automatically thought, not only was this kid nice—he was on WorldStar!”
According to Joey’s cousin Kwon (short for Raekwon, yes, as in the Wu-Tang Clan member), “Even from young days, we wasn’t really on any gangsta shit. Out here in Brooklyn, it’s to the point where everybody ‘raps.’ So it’s just like, ‘Hey. You rap? Good for you.’ Nobody really, truly believed that Joey could take it serious; the only person who did was Junior. But Joey was confident about that freestyle. It was just one of those ‘Yo, I killed this! I can’t wait to put this out!’”
The video went viral, and thereafter Shipes, a burgeoning producer-manager whose Cinematic Music Group imprint could then claim Big K.R.I.T., reached out on Twitter. “Shipes contacted me for the first time and said, ‘Yo. I seen your video on WorldStar.’ But,”—Joey pauses here for comedic impact—“I remember thinking to myself: No you didn’t.”
Shipes’ communique was the first time Joey’s mother Kim had heard about the video. “So I got in touch with Shipes,” she told me. “My thing with him was, ‘Show me what you got. I’ll go along with this for now, but anytime I see something wrong, we’re pulling out of this.’” By the time negotiations were underway, the majority of 1999, his debut solo mixtape, was done.
“They use proper studios now, but the entire 1999 was recorded outta his bedroom. I had teenagers coming in and out of my house,” Kim says, “but you would think it’d be more than what it was.”
This was before Joey fielded a call from Jay Z himself, who flew Joey back to New York for a pow-wow. It’s hard to imagine any rapper—regardless of age or career status—not jumping to sign a deal with the mogul, and yet that’s exactly what went down. “What happened with me and Jay, it was something that he wanted to tell me. I’m not sure exactly what it is, but everything he said has affected me to this day,” Joey says. “It wasn’t just a ‘no.’ We met up; it was a more mutual understanding. I felt like he knew I just wanted to do my own thing.” Asked about the encounter, Kwon says: “Joey just didn’t wanna be told what to do, didn’t want the industry to make his decisions for him. He wanted to do everything on-point, on his own. I feel like… him not signing with Roc was the greatest thing he could do.”
Kim describes a high school tenure soon overladen with recording sessions, wherein “Joey might say he’s gonna be there from 7 pm to 10 pm or something, and it ends up going over, for whatever reason. Especially in hip-hop, studio sessions, I don’t know why, but they tend to go better at night. So Joey’s underage, the people he’s trying to collaborate with—a producer, or anyone he wanted to be on a track with—they’re all functioning at much later hours. We had our ups and downs with that. I had to drive him to school more than a few times.”
“Before high school,” Kwon tells me, “we was just on having fun, dancin’, playin’ ball, doing what kids do—just me and Joey. Now, he’d be telling me, ‘You wanna come through, come through,’ and I’d go there to chill. But now he’d just be there listening to music and writing. And that’s when I’m like, ‘Oh, he’s changed. He’s really working.’ I would feel bad, like, damn, I came here to have some fun. Growing up, that’s all we used to do!”
Shipes solicited veteran producer Statik Selektah to do scratches on a few tracks for 1999. “I took the scratches on Joey’s song with Chuck Strangers, ‘FromdaTomb$,’” Statik says. “I heard it and I was like, ‘Joey, there’s no way you’re leaving without at least a couple beats.’ And whatever I played, he’d just start rapping immediately.” Soon Statik was championing the Pros, inviting them to his home studio to record. “Those things just came into sequence,” says Joey’s middle-school pal Kirk Knight, who happens to be the group’s youngest member.
“People started hearing us online and was like, ‘Oh, those Pro Era kids. I wanna work with them. I wanna talk to ‘em, politick with ‘em, teach ‘em about the game, because they’re so young.’”
Following Joey’s junior year, Shipes put him on a nationwide tour in August 2012 with Smoke DZA and Juicy J. (According to Kwon, the other Pros were supposed to join, but Juicy took precedence.) “So this is a lot for a 17-year-old to be going through,” Joey says. “To have a name, and to see all of the regular tour shit—whole bunch of girls wylin’ out, people doing drugs and shit—and to see that firsthand while you’re in high school? Definitely makes you grow up, like, super fast, faster than anybody I was going to school with.”
To the casual listener, B4.DA.$$’s jingle-jangling, vinyl-intensive sound is not just retro but downright imitative, harkening back to the salad days of East Coast rap: A Tribe Called Quest, Biggie, Nas, the Wu-Tang Clan. Joey’s verses are as meditative as they are brazen, his voice toggling between guttural and smooth—with a New York accent that’d make Bugs Bunny blush. The music has a poindexteresque bend to it, laden with shoutouts (both textual and sonic) to the Pros’ lyrical forebears, and yet, the “throwback” box feels too small, if not suffocating, for both Joey and the Pros.
Suiting up for a session in the same Williamsburg studio where he recorded tracks for the group’s first mixtape years ago, Chuck Strangers, who has since transplanted himself to Los Angeles to focus on his career and/or kick it with legendary producer Alchemist, tells me, “I’ll say it until I’m purple: People hear our shit and go, ‘Oh, 90s music!’ It’s because it’s new, and they’re not really understanding. If you born and raised here—you walk around these buildings, your winter is this cold—naturally, trying to express yourself is gonna sound like that. Because of the music that we listen to.”
He raises the counterexample of Dr. Dre’s beloved modular synthesizer, which has made a huge comeback in rap the last few years without being packaged everywhere it goes as retro. Why is New York different, then? “Because there’s no trap to it,” Strangers says.“You could do the new West Coast style with a trap with it. It works good with how new music is. Our stuff, it ain’t really double-time. It’s going against the grain. People say it reminds them of old, but it’s like, naw. B4.DA.$$ don’t got one song that’s just a sample and drums. You know? The instrumentation is just way more elaborate.” (Two of the album’s songs produced by Strangers—“Escape 120” and “Teach Me”—are in double-time, which is enough for message board-bound tweens to already begin calling Joey a sellout.)
“Think about it. Everybody is a modern-day paparazzi. As soon as you drop something, it spread like wildfire,” Kirk tells me, taking a break from working on his own solo debut. “We don’t really ever get pressured by radio and stuff like that. Who are they to say that my shit’s hot? On the Internet, I got a million thousand, billion thousand people telling me my shit’s hot. So my shit work. You know what I’m saying? ‘I’m gonna keep perfecting my craft until I hit those barriers,’ is what my colleagues be thinking about too. Of course we’re gonna make certain types of records at a point.”
Joey and I segue into discussing the future. “I’ve already proven myself,” Joey says. “I never had to betray myself to do anything; that shit just doesn’t bother me anymore, if I’m on the radio or not. Of course it’s something I want, but it’s not the goal. You feel me? The goal is to sell records, and that’s what we did. And I’m not rich yet. But I’m not one of those people just in it for the dolla bills.” (In our talk, Kim noted with slight disappointment that if Joey were signed to a major, more copies of B4.DA.$$ would be available and sales would be better—but at what cost?)
“People have seen me grow from 17 to 20, getting more mature year by year,” Joey says. “I’ve been a kid, growing into a man, and shit. I just needed time and space to grow, even after 1999. With B4.DA.$$, I was ready. The difference between me and a lot of musicians today is the people listening to me actually get to grow with me.”
Asked about politics, all Joey offers is that he’s always been a “political, critical thinker.” (He’s being decidedly coy here; a few days after our talk, the video for his single “Like Me” is released, wherein Joey is gunned down by the NYPD for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. ) And New York? “All I see is just the same shit happening. Looking at the city, I see infection, growth, industry, y’know, mankind. None of these buildings are natural to the earth, so I’m not really sure how I’m supposed to feel about gentrification.”
I asked Kwon whether fame has changed Joey. “I mean, it changes everybody. But if he did, he changed for the better. He don’t get mad anymore. I look at him, like, ‘I woulda gotten upset at that!’” Held to task on this point, Joey laughs: “Only my cousin could say something like that, but I guess it’s pretty much true. I definitely used to have anger issues. At this point, anything I want, I could obtain. If I put enough time and energy into it, I can achieve it. It’s a more recent realization, but, for the most part, I’ve always felt like that.” •
Styling by Savannah White