[Click Here to read Part 2]
JOEY BADA$$ AND PRO. ERA
During the Flatbush Zombies set, I managed to gradually maneuver my way up through the crowd, which placed me fairly close to the stage as we awaited the headliners. Being on the right side of the room, it also positioned me near the stage entrance for the performers. Neumos has their greenroom downstairs and, as time approached, I could see the Pro. Era squad accumulating off to the side, waiting for their signal to come out. It’s a small little space at the top of the stairs with no real separation from the audience other than whatever staff member they have standing there for the night. Joey was located toward the front, as was fellow Pro. Era emcee, CJ Fly, but they had such a large crew with them, that there were a number of members piling up halfway down the staircase. Some of these kids are pretty young and I’m assuming that most of them have never really traveled to this degree before. Earlier in the day, they did an in-store signing for Ecko Unlimited, a company that recently made 18 year old Joey a “creative director.” Now they were all about to take the stage in front of a sold-out crowd at a club on the opposite side of the country. I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of thoughts were going through their heads, but as I type this now, I’m pretty sure that they were mostly just focused on tearing the fucking roof off of the place.
Joey, himself, was first discovered through a youtube video that featured him freestyling in a graffiti-infested stairwell at the age of 15. At the time, he was rocking braces and was operating under the moniker of “Jay Oh Vee.” The video made its way onto the site WorldStarHipHop.com, where it came to the attention of Cinematic Music Group founder, Jonny Shipes–also credited with discovering such acts as Big Krit, Smoke DZA, and Nipsey Hussle. The first time that I ever heard Joey‘s name was after being contacted by someone that wanted to write for the site, and I was skeptical. I remained skeptical about the writer (after he asked to cover a Macklemore show, it became officially obvious that we weren’t going to be able to work together), but as for Joey Bada$$, I was sold immediately. Like a number of people, I watched the “Survival Tactics” video (featured the late-Capital STEEZ) first, and when I did, I couldn’t believe that music like that was actually being produced in this day and age. Granted, the beat was taken from a 1998 Styles of Beyond track of the same name, but what these guys did with it was undeniable. There was a throwback sound to the song, but it was still surprisingly fresh. I could speculate forever about who Joey‘s style was reminiscent of, but I honestly believe that the familiarity that I felt was simply authenticity, a concept which, in itself, has, unfortunately, become somewhat dated. From there, I went on to find videos for “Waves” and the song “Hardknock” (featuring CJ Fly).
I had to wonder if that “hip hop revolution,” or resurrection, that everyone has been waiting for, but never really expected to happen, had actually arrived. It’s just too cliche and I’d never want to make such a claim, because I’ve heard it thrown around so casually on so many different occasions over the years, but these kids really seemed to be making some major moves that could have a huge impact on the entire genre, at large. Moves that I would be foolish not to acknowledge. Plus, I wasn’t one of the people claiming that much of the wack shit that has come before was going to “change the game” or anything, so I still have my chips to cash in on something like this. And I phrase it “these kids” as in plural, because it was clear that it wasn’t just Joey that had fire, but that his entire collective was uncommonly solid. Anyone that has even the smallest doubts about them needs to watch the Pitchfork Selector video where the Era crew is eating BBQ and freestyling in a cipher, because it’s pretty fucking ridiculous.
At Neumos, Joey Bada$$ set things off by stepping up on the stage alone and busting into solo tracks like “Summer Knights,” “Waves,” and “World Domination” (featuring MF Doom’s “Poo-Putt Platter” beat) off of his breakout mixtape, 1999. During this segment, CJ Fly was still off in the wings with a microphone, supplying backing vocals and out of view. Behind the tables was DJ Statik Selektah, which is a pretty big endorsement, in it’s own right, that he was eager enough to hit the road for a full on tour with this crew so early on in their careers. For an artist that is still yet to release anything other than mixtapes and cameos, it was impressive how well versed the crowd seemed to be with Joey‘s material, even rapping along to his verse from A$AP Rocky‘s all-star posse cut, “1 Train.”
After the initial intro, CJ Fly stepped up to join him for the track “Don’t Front” (also on 1999). They both eventually exited to allow members Dessy Hinds and Nyck Caution to run through “Vinyls” and “Natural,” their cuts as a duo from last December‘s Peep: The aPROcalypse mixtape. And the show continued to unfold in a similar fashion, with the sequencing of the set list incredibly well thought out and structured perfectly to allow the transitions to flow smoothly throughout the night. Joey and CJ would return to join Nyck Caution on “Wreckord Out” (also on Peep), before leaving Bada$$ to tear through additional tracks from his solo mixtape (“Funky Ho’$,” “Snakes,” and “Pennyroyal”), as well as the more recent “Unorthodox” single that he recorded with the legendary DJ Premier of Gang Starr, and general hip hop pioneering, fame. Next it would be Caution rejoining Joey with Kirk Knight and Dyemond Lewis to bust through “School High,” then Ala $ol and Caution doing “Resurrection of Real,” before Sol and Joey tackle “The Renaissance;” all still from the team mixtape. After that, Joey and Cj again, for the hit, “Hardknock“… And that’s, more or less, the basic manner in which the night progressed and how they segued through the music. There was a heavy focus on the PEEP and 1999 tapes, but I remember that, somewhere in the mix, Joey also performed a track from The Secc$ Tape that the crew released last year on Valentines Day.
Or, at least, it was something close to that–give or take a song or two. The house was packed and, being up front, it wasn’t even worth trying to take notes. A handful of us with cameras were jammed in tight, getting whatever we could, from whatever angle we could, whenever we could; but this adopted practice of splashing bottled water out onto the crowd wasn’t good for anyone’s equipment. Over time, a mob of Pro. Era members had accumulated off in the corner on the stage, who were either on deck, providing backing vocals, or simply just part of the crew. Producer and one of the first 4 original Pro. Era founding members, Powers Pleasant, was easily visible, as was emcee, Dirty Sanchez. Noticeably missing, however, was Chuck Strangers, who is a major figure that has provided vocals for and/or produced a number of beats on some really key tracks for the crew. Regardless of who was or wasn’t there, however, there was no question that the squad was adequately represented. There were so many people, both on stage and off, that the line between the two was becoming blurred at times. The general enthusiasm from everyone involved, from performer to attendee, swirled together into a crazy unifying energy that is extremely rare at a live show, let alone a hip hop performance.
When Joey wasn’t performing, he was often sitting off to the side on the little stoop that led up to the stage. Guys would slap his hand and females would slide in next to him for an iPhone photo or autograph, which he would happily accommodate. But the most important thing wasn’t that he was posted up off to the side taking pictures with people, but how he was doing it. I saw Hieroglyphics once, years ago, and, for much of the show, Del just sat down way in the background. As the most recognizable figure with the most “successful” solo career, it could be interpreted that he was simply trying to provide the rest of his crew with the focus that they deserved, being just as vital members of the collective as he was. And to some extent, it actully was like that. However, in reality, by sitting in the backdrop being unresponsive, while everybody else “rocked the stage,” he was actually more of a distraction and came across like a mopey shithead that felt as if he was above even having to be there for something like that, in the first place–it’s always a good idea to check when you see a Hiero show announcement, these days, because Del most likely will not be part of it. When Joey was relaxing off to the side, he was genuinely out of view–it’s a small weird set up in the club–and he didn’t seem to be pulling the passive aggressive, “I‘m kind of a big deal, but please don’t pay any mind to me over here guys” move. It’s a fine line between playing up a cocky rockstar mentality and genuinely being cordial to people, but he really seemed to be riding it admirably; never inappropriately “macking” on the girls, or doing anything other than meeting and/or posing with folks, as if they were already casual acquaintances. He didn’t show apprehension and he seemed appreciative, never overreacting, as if he believed his own hype. It was actually noticeable how casual and unnoticeable his whole demeanor was.
Pro. Era members seem to support each others individual successes, but project the ideals that no one individual is above the crew. It was clear that their entire stage show was arranged to bring attention to the collective and their respective skills, not just Joey Bada$$, regardless of what the flyers, individual venues, or promotions might imply. The way that the members have continued to carry themselves in the wake of such pressures and rapid, continuous growth in recognition is both respectable and encouraging. It isn’t because of their ages that their attitudes are so refreshing or impressive, it’s more about the amount of integrity that they seem to possess, because it would be difficult for anyone to keep a level head with this much going on around them, regardless of age. These guys are supporting each other and reinforcing each other’s confidence, but they are also the ones keeping each other in check and making sure that they don’t get too much of it.
It was no secret that there was an appreciation from the entire tour that they were in a city that has passed the legalization of marijuana use, highlighted by a slightly older cat on stage rolling blunts during the set; even sharing one or two with the front row where he was positioned. It wasn’t until the end of the show was approaching that I finally told one of the girls in front of me to let me take a hit off of one of them. Shortly afterward is when the show turned toward a more somber, yet uplifting, direction, as they paid tribute to Capital STEEZ (aka “Steelo”/”Jay Steez”/Jamal Dewar”) who passed away last Christmas Eve, only days after their Peep: The aPROcalypse mixtape was released, and right in the midst of it receiving one critical praise after another.
Since Steelo constantly referenced the coming of the apocalypse, both on his collaborative work (mixtapes and cameos) and on his solo mixtape release Amerikkkan Koruption, and was known to explore and openly reflect upon certain aspects of mysticism, including one especially controversial thread about baphomet on his Facebook page, there was a lot of speculation about his passing and how it related to his suicide–was it related to the “occult,” a belief that he was a god that would be resurrected? etc. But motherfuckers are both equally insensitive and conspiracy happy, and I personally don’t want to feed into that sort of hype, speculation, and whatever implications people want to make about his mental condition. Most of the people discussing it have absolutely no business even trying to delve into this kid’s mental territory anyway; he was a well studied individual and they wouldn’t even comprehend half of his hyper-specific references–there’s also a new trend for internet rap fans to try and connect everything to the illuminati for some ignorant fucking reason. The purpose for me mentioning this shit at all is to provide an understanding about why Pro. Era members may seem reluctant to address such questions regarding STEEZ‘s passing; they’ve lost both a brilliant mind and promising figure in their ranks, as well as an incredibly close friend, and it doesn’t need to become some backwards public forum for answering questions from a judgmental, gossip-hungry public. During an interview with Sway, Joey was questioned about Jamal‘s death and simply responded that it was “self inflicted” before they moved on.
The thing about Dewar is that there was no question that he was slated to become the next breakout star of this crew before his demise. I even considered trying to contact him in an attempt to arrange an interview right around the time of his death. When “Survival Tactics” dropped, it was impossible not to pay attention to Steelo‘s verse in that video, because he had such presence and ability, and it was something that immediately demonstrated that Pro. Era was coming as a collective, not just the teenage rapper that the video was credited to. It was apparent that they were a much larger force than just one individual. It wasn’t until after his death that rapper Lil B decided to record a really weak diss track coming at Joey, as an incredibly late response to STEEZ‘s infamous “Survival Tactics” line, “Tell the Based God, don’t quit his day job.“ Bada$$, who knew that he could easily wreck B verbally, threw a quick response back at him within hours, but those are the only type of methods in which the crew has really chosen to address Dewar’s death at all, through their art, or simply just mentioning that they love an miss him. Talking in detail about the actual tragedy, doesn’t do much for them. [A limited edition shirt was also produced in his honor]. So, that’s another fine line to walk: paying tribute to someone that was so influential on everyone without falling into the trap of discussing personal information that really isn’t anyone else’s business. STEEZ actually came up with the name “Progressive Era,” along with Powers P, and has been credited with first introducing Joey to influential artists like MF Doom back when he was still listening to much more mainstream shit. Whatever these guys accomplish and however they develop, whether it be as artists, a collective, or simply as people, Dewar will remain a major and important force behind it.
The first track off of the PEEP tape is the Statik Selektah-produced “Like Water,” which is supported by an incredibly emotional piano line. The first appearance on the song was by STEEZ and, as the Pro. Era crew went into it live, the crowd recited the verse in his place. This is when everything from the entire evening coalesced into an undeniable unity–almost uncomfortably so. There’s typically only a very small sense of a shared experience among whoever I’m with at a show, if not a complete solitude, but there was something encouraging throughout the show that suggested that there actually was a much larger group of people out there in the younger generation who were also waiting for legitimate lyricism and quality to resurface in rap music again. I’ve only experienced select moments like this, such as at Phish shows, at a Remember Shakti concert, and even during an Antony and the Johnsons and a Bill Callahan performance. What it is is a moment when you’re aware that almost everyone in the environment is experiencing/sharing the same emotion on a tangible level (it’s like those false advertisements for church). I sure as fuck didn’t expect it to happen at a rap concert supported by a bunch of teenagers, but it did. And not only was it happening, but it was magnified by the context of what was being represented. This was both a tribute and a celebration of a life lost far too soon. Looking up at the Pro. Era members crew who actually knew Dewar, there was a remarkable look of awe and disbelief on their faces. It had to be incredibly surreal for them to be on the other side of the country witnessing a mob of strangers being so familiar with the art that they’ve put so much of themselves into in their own little neighborhood; work they made for each other more than anyone. That had to be overwhelming enough, but now to see how much respect people had for their dead friend, who, by all accounts, never really should have been known beyond their neighborhood (especially, that early on), if it wasn’t for his exceptional gift… there are no words for that. It was embarrassingly magical and, as I was beginning to feel faded off of that blunt, I felt like I needed to get the fuck out of that crowd, and quick. I worked my way through to the back of the room, where I met back up with Jon Banta and watched the rest of the set from there. With so much emotional energy swirling around me and staring dead at these kids faces, I almost felt like I was going to start crying. I’m fairly sure that some of them already had their eyes welling up. How could they not? Things were getting a little too real.
After “Like Water,” came another Steelo track from the mixtape called, “Interlude 47” (both songs also featured Joey and CJ, with the latter including Dessy Hinds). Kirk Knight took the mic, after that, and gave an incredibly heartfelt thank you to the crowd for reciting Steez‘s lyrics and showing showing so much love for his memory, before diving into a rowdy version of “Bun N Cheese,” a more upbeat joint recorded with Steez, Ala $ol, and CJ Fly. For this one the entire lineup hit the stage, including Flatbush Zombies and The Underachievers, with everybody jumping around in celebration. They finished the night off with “Survival Tactics” and everyone screaming out Jay Steez‘s final verse before leaving the stage. That’s how they pay tribute to their friend, tangibly, emotionally, and respectfully through action more that hollow words and sentiments. It seems to be a principal that they implement into everything that they do as a camp.
I was both surprised and impressed. It’s not as if I don’t try to attend shows that I feel there is going to be some merit to, or that I plan on reviewing something just so that I can talk shit about it, because I don’t, but I’ve also proven that I can become cynical mother fucker, especially when it come to modern day hip hop “artists,” and this show honestly blew me away. I’ve never felt so proud or happy for the success of complete strangers before, but it’s hard not to get behind what these guys are accomplishing. There’s a purity to it that’s incredibly rare, especially in the internet age.
POST SHOW ANALYSIS / BEAST COAST AS A MOVEMENT
After the show, Jon and I stood outside of the venue in the cool night air, discussing the show that we had just witnessed and speculating about what the performers, themselves, must be feeling. This isn’t the type of venue with some crazy private alleyway where the artists load up equipment among security and sneak in through a back door. The front of the venue basically just places you right onto a major sidewalk that leads to bars, restaurants, and other night life. Members of all 3 groups moved back and forth from their shared tour bus and the venue freely, passing their fanbases with little concern about separating themselves from the public. They were just hanging out with each other and taking it all in, but they weren’t opposed to stopping to talk, or pop out of the bus door to say hello to people, if there was an interest. In fact, you could see the genuine enthusiasm on their faces and the appreciation for the fact that anyone actually gave enough of a fuck to want to meet them. We concluded the obvious: it must be amazing for these guys to be so young and get to operate like rock stars with females and adoring fans anxiously waiting outside of their tour bus. But even so, it was evident that what mattered the most to them was that they were there together and that this was all the result of a collective vision that they’ve put endless hours and everything that they’ve had into. This shit didn’t just fall into their laps and, without the skill, determination, and each other, they were nothing. There will be inevitable speculation about how long they will be able to sustain this mentality and focus, with their ages remaining a major talking point for both optimistic and skeptical perspectives. I’m looking at this from the more optimistic angle, recognizing that this isn’t a typical situation of starry-eyed adolescents being thrust into the limelight. They are where they are because of a solid foundation that they’ve already built for themselves and, if things unfold the way that I believe that they could, it’s a foundation that will carry them far into their careers.
There are comparisons being thrown at Pro. Era from all directions, but the comparisons that I see are a little less obvious and relate more to certain dynamics, historical patterns, and approach to their craft, rather than a specific sound from any specific time period. It’s easy to refer to Joey and his crew as golden age revivalists, trained in the ways of the boom bap, who take cues from such lyrical pioneers as The WU, Das EFX, Big L, Notorious B.I.G., KMD, and so on. In fact, it’s hard not to make such comparisons, but if they are “revivalists” they are revivalists in much the same way that Daptone Records are revivalists of deep soul; you can feel the authenticity behind it and nothing sounds forced. Even more so, they are revivalists of simply giving a fuck about what they are producing rather than merely focusing on the marketability of what they’re doing. One modern-day comparison to them that people like to make is with Odd Future, because they are both young collectives, but to me, OFWGKTA seem like the type of crew that really has gotten sucked into their own deluded ideas of themselves and have already demonstrated a tendency to be less consistent with quality (their Adult Swim program, for example, is nearly unwatchable self-indulgent bullshit–and I liked Trash Humpers.) Pro. Era have far more substance, hustler mentalities, and complex lyricism going for them than that and, with all of the cooks that they have in their metaphorical kitchen, they have still yet to expose any real weak spots within their ranks. One of the first comparisons that people love to make regarding Joey specifically, is with NAS. While I can definitely understand that, especially with the quality of his early work, I am more so reminded that NAS was only about 17 when he made his debut on Main Source‘s “Live at the Barbeque.” In fact, people also seem to forget that Ice Cube and MC Ren were teenagers when they put out Straight Outta Compton, so it’s not as if groundbreaking rap music by teenagers doesn’t have a precedent, or that Pro. Era‘s only worth can be derived from the novelty that they are so young. It’s just that, after a couple of decades worth of marketing label-made artists like Lil Bow Wow and Lil Romeo based on that novelty, people have forgotten what quality is, or perhaps that it’s even possible to obtain.
If there is any one specific rap-related comparison that I could make to the Beast Coast movement, it would be to the Native Tongues collective, founded by Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, and A Tribe Called Quest in the late 80s. There was a recent Complex interview with The Underachievers where Issa Dash made the following statement, “A Flatbush Zombies and Underachievers song is way more valuable now than if we dropped it at the ‘So Devilish’ time. So why not wait and hold out and just keep working, and then we can collaborate and get shit done.” And it’s an extremely valid point, because, as with Native Tongues, each of these 3 crews has forged their own unique identity and is working independently to push this music further, along with affiliate NYC crews like A$AP Mob and the lesser known Phony PPL (also Beast Coast), World’s Fair, and Tan Boys. The idea that crews like Pro. Era should find themselves at a disadvantage by being comprised of such young members working from such a grassroots level without the assistance of major label development is misguided, at best, and is only pertinent as far as it relates to immediate financial support. The possession of those qualities is the furthest thing from detrimental, in regards to affecting actual artistic development and maturity. Their youth is actually a major part of their strength, because, as the rest of us bitch about the music of “kids these days,” they are the ones that actually have the most at stake. It is their generation after all, and if anyone deserves to be heard, or has anything of validity to say about it, how can it not be the people who are actually living within that generation. In the past, there has been far too much reliance on obtaining such a platform from older/disconnected figures who are simply vying to capitalize by marketing to whatever their statistical analysis has determined that “the youth” will buy into. The Beast Coast didn’t ask permission and have utilized whatever resources their current generation has afforded them–including the internet, with all of it’s flaws–to claim that unfiltered voice for themselves.
Such a youthful and independent foundation is actually the established formula for just about every other musical movement that’s ever been worth a shit, including San Francisco in the 60s, Germany‘s Krautrock/kosmische musik explosion throughout the 70s, Seattle‘s rise of grunge into the 90s, and the original development of the Hip Hop culture in the late 70s and 80s. Back in the day, it wasn’t enough to simply appear in someone elses video with a chain on, you needed to prove yourself and, if your shit was wack, you got called the fuck out for it. There was actually a weeding process. Pro. Era operates like a microcosm of that original culture, with the members continuously and rigorously testing each other out and sharping their swords on the skills of each other. They make music for themselves and each other, first and foremost, and value the respect within their smaller community above all, not the respect of the world at large, or if Cameron Diaz listened to their fucking mixtape and mentioned it on Ellen or not. Erick Arc Elliott had been making music forever and Flatbush Zombies formed as his friends finally decided to join him and tap him for beats. Inspired by the Zombies and recognizing AK‘s talent, Issa Dash decided to join up with him to form The Underachievers. Chuck Strangers had been making beats for quite some time, but it was the encouragement of Capital STEEZ that really pushed him into taking it seriously. On a slightly larger scale, the different Beast Coast crews look to each other as motivation and, on an even larger scale, they hope to have some broader long-standing influence in the culture that they respect and believe has more potential than it has showcased in recent years.
The future of the Beast Coast looks promisingly strong and with it, the future of rap as a genre seems more promising, as well. Aside from working with DJ Premier, there have also been reports of Joey Bada$$ working with other legendary producers like Q-Tip and Pete Rock for his debut studio release B4.Da.$$ (“before the money”)–endorsements that don’t come easily. Him earning a coveted spot on the cover of this year’s XXL magazine’s Freshman Class issue, returns a little credibility to that selection process as well. CJ Fly and Kirk Knight have made mention of their own releases and Capital STEEZ even has a posthumous debut album, King Capital, slated for this summer, with the proceeds going to his family. Of course Flatbush Zombies are blowing up all over the place, and there should be some amazing things to come through The Underachievers working with Flylo and Brain Feeder. Instead of buckling under their friend’s death (all 3 crews knew STEEZ) these young artists used it as motivation and went to the grind twice as hard, carrying his spirit with them. That alone is a sign of their resilience, and if that couldn’t topple them, it’s difficult to imagine anything else ever slowing them down. And once they all really get rolling full force, it’s going to be a lot more difficult to catch all 3 of these groups together in such a small club, if not impossible. I can foresee a time when people are clamoring for a Beast Coast reunion tour 20 years from now, but even if rap music has receded back into less promising territory, like the one that they are slowly trying to pull it out of like an X-Wing in a Dagobah swamp, hope for a rejuvenation is also being created right now. If you consider that a large portion of people mark the end of the golden age of rap exactly 20 years ago, then it would make sense that this new breed of rapper–one placing importance back on lyrical ability and substance–would have been forged through the exposure to that era by parental figures that lived through it the first time around. Over the last year, pioneers like EL-P and Ghostface Killah have proven that they still have the ability to release some truly amazing, fresh, and forward-thinking material, and while that’s truly inspiring, these young kids are not only the future, but the future of the future. This is fuel that will shape what is to come, and even if it takes another two decades to re-materialize after this initial wave, I’m finally convinced that such revolutions are not only possible, but inevitable.