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Issue 66: Joey Bada$$ “Young American” Feature

Jo-Vaughn Scott, AKA Joey Bada$$, is in Brooklyn, on the phone to me. And it’s quite exciting. Hailed as one of New York’s brightest talents, the rapper found himself compared to Biggie and Nas before he’d even entered legal adulthood. Lesser artists may have crumbled under comparable pressure, but Joey Bada$$’s every move has been a right one, and the pair of mixtapes that bear his name – 1999 and Summer Knights – are of such quality to suggest those drawing such lofty parallels seem like they might just have a point.

 

WORDS / Thoma$$ Hannan
PHOTOGRAPHY / James Moriarty
ART DIRECTION / Hidden Agency
STYLING / Aaron Francis Walker
GROOMING / Holly Silius using Bumble & Bumble and Nars

 

A show I caught recently at London’s 100 Club only emphasised the potential. There, in front of a crowd that positively throbbed with appreciation, I saw a young man who was not only an extremely skilful MC, but also one in possession of qualities that could see him rise to the status of the legends he’s being likened to – a tangible magnetism, a vice–like grip on an audience, a disarming amount of edge.

I’m glad I saw it with my own eyes, because all of those traits are difficult to gauge over a temperamental phone line. Whilst I find Joey for the most part humble, polite (“I really appreciate you even being interested in talking to my dumb ass”) and thoroughly engaging, he’s hardly interested in being my best friend, and certainly isn’t afraid to slap me down.  Like when I tell him I’d heard that he started off acting before he got in to making music.

“No, that’s false. I started off rapping and then I got in to acting. Rap was something I always wanted to do. Acting was something I got pressured in to when I went to high school.”

Rather than education holding him back from a rap career, Joey Bada$$ seems to have used it to build one, forming the Progressive Era Crew (or Pro Era for short) – comprised of CJ Fly, Kirk Knight, Dessy Hinds, NYCK Caution and producer Chuck Strangers – while at high school. Loyalty to the crew is fierce – despite Joey being the first to gain international recognition. He’s at pains to stress that P.E. is “a collective, not a group. We’re a collective of solo artists.  It wasn’t like I broke off from P.E. to go solo”, he says, as if offended that I even made the suggestion, which I wasn’t sure I was doing anyway.

When I ask whether his relationship with the Pro Era has changed since his solo success, he paints it even plainer.

“Hell no. I already told you, this is really no solo thing, this is a collective where everybody is solo.”

The first many will have heard of the rest of the Pro Era crew was indeed their work on Joey’s breakout mixtape, 1999.  A decidedly playful, dextrous and melodically rich record, it introduced a lead artist wise beyond his years, and a wider collective who offered a cheekier but no less skilled alternative to crews like A$AP Mob or Odd Future.

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Yet whilst 1999 got a lot of love, it was also impossible to read about it without a mention of Joey being in thrall to a “golden age” of hip hop, or his being somehow obsessed solely with 90s rap.  I wonder if it wasn’t a little belittling.

“That’s an ignorant thing to say when explaining my music, definitely just something easy for journalists. The thing is, people haven’t heard rappers lyrically slaying tracks and maintaining trendy fashions since then. Yes, the Golden Age of hip hop was the 90s. But we’re now entering the Platinum age.”

1999’s follow up, Summer Knights – originally released as a sprawling 17 track mix tape – is now surfacing in a seven song form featuring new numbers ‘My Jeep’ and the highly infectious ‘My Yout’, which comes with a reggae-tinged chorus from Maverick Sabre that sounds tailor made for radio, even if Joey balks at the idea of a move so crass (“I don’t aim for radio, and I don’t aim for charts”, as he spells it out).  Its lead tune, ‘Hilary $wank’, is Joey at his most Bada$$, performing lyrical gymnastics that one can waste days dissecting over the smoothest of brass-led backings. Yet the original tape at a large was a much darker affair.

“Summer Knights is definitely dark, much darker than 1999. That had a lot to do with what I was going through at the time (not least the death of Pro Era member Capital Steez, in circumstances that are still a little muddy). Also it was my second mixtape, the first where it was basically me in the game now. My first mixtape came out with nobody watching, with this one, it was all eyes on me.  That played a major role in it too.”

Though he’ll later tell us he’s actually been making music for fourteen years, it certainly seems as if things have been happening quickly for Joey Bada$$, a gentleman who’s only just become an adult. Does it ever feel like it’s been too quick?

“It was never too quick, but it happened pretty quick. The only time I’d even been outside of the U.S. before my first gig in Germany was when I was like seven or eight. That was something new for me, definitely. I never knew how much people outside of the U.S. appreciated hip hop, let alone my music. I believe that everything that’s happened has happened for a reason though.”

 

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Does he ever feel like he’s missing out on being young?

“Sometimes, but nah, not really. Before all this happened, I used to think that I would feel like that, but now, it’s not how I feel. See I’m just a regular kid, that’s how I look at my life. When I’m back home, I cook, I’m on some regular shit.”

But sharing a stage with Jay Z and Nas thousands of miles away from that home, that’s not very regular shit.

“But that’s like my superhero life.  I have this superhero life, and I have the life of a regular kid.”

The music he makes, and the shows that he plays, would be impressive for a man of any age, but the fact that Joey Bada$$ was a mere boy in the eyes of the law just a few months ago can’t help but make it all the more amazing. Yet it’ll be important for him to transcend the novelty of his youthful precociousness if his ambitions, which are lofty enough to match his talent, are to be met. How long does he think it’ll be before people stop mentioning his age?

“I feel like people already stopped mentioning my age. I mean, so what?  18 is, last time I checked, an adult age. So fuck all that shit.”

And how old was Joey Bada$$ when he started making music?

“18.”

Long pause.

“Nah, I’m fucking with you. Haha!”

I get the impression he’s enjoying doing so, too.

“Probably from as young as four. I remember I was introduced to poetry about the same time, and I put the two together in my brain – poetry is just like a rap that I listen to. From then on all my poems started to have this rap structure. Back then it was pretty simple stuff, but there was some (social activist and jazz poetry innovator) Langston Hughes in there with the Doctor Seuss and things like that. There you go. Dr Seuss, definitely one of my earliest influences.”

Can he remember the first thing he rapped on?

“Hell yeah I remember that shit. I would never share that shit with the world though, that’s one for the archives. It sounded like… a little ass kid! Just trying, trying to rap. It was pretty violent, but there was humour – just some kid saying ‘I’m going to kill you’.”

I make a note not to mention his age again, and ask him about how his album – B4.Da.$$ – is coming along. Is he still working on it?

“Only as we speakin’”, he confirms. “After this interview I’m getting right back to making my album”, he says, sounding like he can’t fucking wait to get off the phone at this point.  I tell him I’ll let him get back to it soon, but – perhaps being a glutton for punishment – I ask him how the process is differing from putting together the mixtapes.

“Not much, really. It’s pretty much the same formula.  I’m just trying to make this sound bigger.” As for themes, “It’s real shit. It’s real bad ass shit.  I’ll be working with a lot of different producers; I don’t like to keep my sound boxed in, I like it to be all over the place. I like to captivate in all areas.”

How, with all these cooks around the broth, does one keep it sounding like Joey Bada$$?

“Because I rap on it, dog! How doesn’t that sound like Joey Badass if Joey Badass is rapping!?”

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I can tell he’s suspicious that I’m a know-nothing fool, but it’s so funny to hear him subtly remind me that he is a frighteningly talented eighteen year old rapper from Brooklyn, and I have only ever been one of those things. I’m starting to see that his personality, as well as his talent, is massive – something I posit must be necessary to carry off putting your stamp on a record that features so many people other than the name on the spine.

“I guess. And I guess I got that personality. But how would you know bro, you’re just an interviewer.”

Too bloody right.

“When this album drops it’s going to put me on a level I’ve never been on before. I actually believe it will put me on a level that no artist has been on before, or at least not for a long time.  I don’t want to jinx it; I just want it to unfold. If I was to be calling it right now I would be saying that I had some kind of expectation. And expectation ruins everything. My ambition is just to give the people the best music that we can. I have this fanbase that I’ve developed, and I’m loyal to them. And I’m loyal to hip hop.”

Will he need to compromise to make it to that level, does he think?  And will it involve a new level of competition, with others in the game?

“Not at all. I haven’t comprised thus far – why start now? And I don’t see myself in competition with other rappers. Rappers are highly intimidated by me and the whole crew.”

What we shouldn’t expect however is a slew of mixtapes a la Lil B or Lil Wayne in the wake of B4.Da.$$, which is shaping up to be Joey’s most conceptually coherent and narrative heavy turn yet.

“It’s kind of like a soundtrack to me, to my life.  My life has a theme and my life has a plot, so this does too.  If it was up to me I’d keep making free mixtapes, just giving them to the people.  But I’ve gotta make my money, man. I’ll definitely occasionally drop a mixtape or an EP in the future, but my album’s going to put me on another level.  I’m never really going to want to come down again.  Everything I do has to be greater than my past.”

When his past has already been so dazzling, despite there being relatively little of it thus far, one can only guess at how great the music he’ll be making will be if he follows through on this promise.  If he’s this good at 18, how will he sound at 20, 25, 30?  Where does Joey Bada$$ see himself in ten years?

“I don’t know”, he says, before turning things on me. “Where do you see yourself in ten years?”

I tell him can’t really envisage living for another ten years. I’ve got a really dreadful cough.

“I feel you, me neither. That’s my new answer to that question.”

The Summer Knights EP is out now via Relentless Records/Cinematic Music Group.

 

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Our feature with Joey Badass originally appeared in Issue 66, available for purchase here.



2 Comments on “Issue 66: Joey Bada$$ “Young American” Feature”

  • Clarissa December 9th, 2013 11:38 pm

    This interview was amazing. I really enjoyed my 30 minutes of reading it. I can listen to Joey talk all day. I just love his mindset. I’m a big fan and I can’t wait til B4.DA.$$ drops! :)


  • Clarissa December 9th, 2013 11:39 pm

    This interview was amazing. I really enjoyed my 30 minutes of reading it. I can listen to Joey talk all day. I just love his mindset. I’m a big fan and I can’t wait til B4.DA.$$ drops! :)


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