Rain pelts the grey streets of a residential street in South London. I await on an overgrown drive, attempting to stand on the grassier sections so as not to get my trainers covered in mud. I’m anticipating the usual lateness that is the norm for rappers and am surprised when a black cab pulls up to the curb five minutes before our shoot is set to begin.
As the doors of the six-seater slide open, the quiet street is broken by 50 Cent’s ‘What Up Gangsta’, which blasts out of the car filling the empty street. Unexplainably as Joey Bada$$, Nyck Caution and Dee Frosted step out onto the drive the music follows. After handshakes and shoulder bumps, the trio pack into the small garage studio that we are using as a base for the morning. Once inside, they switch their impressively loud bluetooth speaker for the studio’s ones in order to try and get their music even louder. Nyck takes a seat and begins scrolling through his iPad, playing songs from Joey’s forthcoming album B4.DA.$$ (Before The Money), as well as tracks by the likes of Ab-Soul, Tyler The Creator, Kanye West, Flatbush Zombies and Ratking.
Over the past couple of years, Joey has purchased all of the notable rap releases, and hopes that this will bring good karma when his turn comes around. "From Yeezus to Magna Carta to good kid m.A.A.d city, J. Cole’s Born Sinner, ScHoolboy Q to YG to Ab-Soul. So I’m praying that’s all good karma, and that’s going to come back to me," he says. "I haven’t illegally downloaded an album ever since I started getting paid to rap. I support, even Tyler, The Creator’s albums I bought, Earl’s album, Ratking’s album, and I just recently purchased Mick Jenkins’ new album too - he’s my label mate so I support him heavy.”
“When did rap turn into a fashion show? Too many make-up artists won’t let their passion show” begins Joey’s DOOM-produced Amethyst Rockstar, and while the young Brooklyn rapper’s music certainly isn’t filled with high-end designer brands like the ones he is referring to in the song, this isn’t to say he doesn’t care about image. Rolling in dressed in a bucket hat emblazoned with an all-over-print of his Pro Era crew’s logo, a Pro Era varsity jacket with the initials JB embroidered into the front (although he jokes that this is a reference to Justin Bieber rather than himself) and later revealing Pro Era basketball shorts underneath his G-Star jeans - it’s clear that Joey knows how important his brand is and how he wants to be seen by the public. He is very accommodating with our stylists, at least trying every look and deciding upon what he felt comfortable with before dismissing anything.
This side of Joey has developed from his work as Creative Director of Ecko Unltd, a position he gave up in December last year. “It foreshadowed my future a lot,” he says of his work with the clothing brand. “Just getting me into that environment at such a young age seeing how the whole fashion and clothing industry side of things works, it really got me mentally ready for when I really start to get my shit off the ground. So I definitely appreciate that opportunity a lot. It was a good time in my life, I learned a lot from it. As the years go by I get more and more mature, so I just wish I had this mindset when I was working there.”
Between looks, he and his fellow Pros discuss the sequencing of the album, and whenever instrumental tracks are playing, Joey freestyles. "Before I would get inspired very easily, so now I kind of separated myself, I listen to music a different way now," he explains of his listening habits. "I listen to the way it’s structured, the way it’s set up. Especially albums, I would go back to It Was Written and before I’d go back and be like ‘This is shit is crazy, the flows are inspiring,’ but now it’s more the structures of the albums are inspiring because I’m structuring my own thing. Get Rich Or Die Tryin, the structure of that and good kid m.A.A.d city, the structure of that; I’m just trying to make sure my structure is on point."
The structure of B4.Da.$$ seems to be the main thing on the minds of the trio. Later we all file into a booth in a nearby pizza joint, the talk of continues. Joey refers to the notes app on his iPad, making a few tweaks and alterations before scanning the menu. "All of the music is definitely recorded that’s 100%," he tells us. "The more tracks I record the more headache I give myself, because when I make a new track I’ll fall in love with that one right away and then everything else I’ve been living with for so much longer, so it’s like the old shit I want to knock off and put the new one in. But I can’t really do that, so it’s hard.”
In an interview with RWD Mag back in April Joey spoke of Nas’ Illmatic, telling writer Nardene Scott, “That album, I’m competing with the most.” When this is brought into conversation it is met with with surprise “Did I say that? Probably did say that - I don’t know why I said that, because now people are going to hold me to that like ‘You said you was competing with Illmatic yo.’” He laughs before referencing Ab-Soul’s recent song ‘Hunnid Stax'; “Fuck what I said last night, I’m just trying to make a hundred stacks every day of my life.”
This erupts into a debate amongst the Pros about how possible it is to make $100,000 a day, and who might be on that kind of income. Names like Drake, Jay-Z and even Nicky Diamonds are thrown around. After some deliberation they decide that half-a-million per week is a reasonable goal and try to figure out their daily rate. “We can’t work out what seven times seven is apparently,” Joey says laughing as random numbers are thrown around. “We haven’t been to school in dumb long. So in other words about half-a-mil a week, thats what I’m trying to make, like $70,000 a day.” He pauses: “Anyway, back to this convo. Before the money!”
“I feel like I have one of the illest concepts in a long time, even with just the name alone,” he states with confidence of the three parts that make up the album,” he states confidently, before revealing that the title represents three parts; past, present and future. Despite a successful past few years he sees himself as currently living in in ‘Da’, meaning that his ambitions (the ‘Money’) extend further into the future. “My initial mission with this project was to inspire people to get up and go with my story,” he explains. “It’s basically the soundtrack to me chasing my dreams and following my heart, so that’s initially what I want to get across to the listener; follow your heart, follow your dreams.”
Joey’s own story starts, like many aspiring MCs these days, with the Internet. “The Internet was pretty much the gateway to my success,” he admits. “I just basically manipulated the Internet. I made this freestyle video when I was 15 and what I did was I put it on YouTube - and I did submit it to Worldstar, but they never accepted it at the time. So what I did was put on Youtube, in the caption, ’15-year-old Freestyles for Worldstar’ and I just woo-ed everybody with the perception of it. They’d be like ‘I saw your shit on Worldstar!’ but they never seen it on Worldstar, they just assumed because of the title. And so that’s how I won people over, because the raps were actually good, so why wouldn’t it be on Worldstar? And that’s actually how my manager Jonny Shipes found me.”
His use of the Internet, particularly with his 2012 video ‘Survival Tactics’ helped introduce him to a worldwide audience, and he soon had the demand of festival stages worldwide. Having just finished up this year’s festival season with Leeds and Reading a couple of days before we meet, he is ready to head back home to New York and put the finishing touches on his album, but his love of performing live and festivals in particular comes up multiple times throughout the day. “I watched everybody I could catch,” he says. “I saw Snoop Dogg this year - crazy. When you got a catalogue like Snoop Dogg all you gotta do is just stand there and lay back. A$AP Rocky kills it, ScHoolboy Q kills it, I just saw Danny Brown yesterday, Disclosure kills it, fucking murders it.” As well as watching his peers perform, Joey also enjoys the networking opportunities. “Festivals are a good environment because it’s an artist community,” he explains. “So you get to really network with people that you want to network with.” In fact, just days before our interview a photograph appears on his Instagram account of him hanging out with ScHoolboy Q and Macklemore.
The live shows have also made him think about the way he makes music. “In this day and age people’s attention span is way smaller,” he considers. “So it’s like ‘How am I going to preach my life story and keep people entertained at the same time?’” There’s also the factor of growing tired of performing older tracks: “1999, for example, I’ve been performing for like two years since I’ve been out. When I first put it out I was like ‘Aww I’ve gotta perform this dumb song.’ I was so happy to put out my second mixtape Summer Knights. But now, all of my music I aim to have it timeless; timeless mind and ageless thoughts.”
Listeners have also witnessed changed in the way he flows throughout his releases; growing more aggressive and gravelly as he progresses. This could go down to an artistic alteration, or simply growing up, but Joey believes it could be a little of both. “I’ve definitely grown, physically, mentally and as an artist. I’ve seen some harsher sides of life since 1999, since I was 17. So that’s probably where a lot of my aggression comes from as well. But it’s mostly just experimenting and just keeping it versatile.” While he clearly cares for his fans, making multiple changes to his plans and ideas throughout the day in order to better accommodate his supporters, but the one thing he isn’t willing to compromise is his art. “People, especially fans, are the biggest hypocrites,” he states. “It’s like ‘Ahh he’s switching his flow, I don’t like this shit.’ But then again if I was to stay the same they’d be like ‘Oh he’s boring he needs to do something else.’ I’m always going to go with what’s in my heart. It’s not about the fans, the only thing that’s for the fans is the message, the music is for me though.”
A great addition to Joey’s team has been Statik Selektah; employed as a tour DJ but bringing with him mentorship and brotherhood. “He’s such an asset to my team because it’s like having a hip-hop guru in your pocket. He’s knows everything hip-hop, he’s the perfect guy I needed. The way me and Statik came together was just heavens,” says Joey. “I’m grateful for Statik, he's like my older brother, I call him Uncle Statik a lot, but he’s definitely like my big brother, he guides me and he cares so much about me and my career.” The pair were initially introduced when Statik Selektah heard the track Hardknock and contacted Jonny Shipes. He ended up scratching the hook of FromdaTomb$ and the relationship continued to build. With many rappers employing their friends to hit play on a laptop, the addition of a veteran DJ is a blessing to Joey’s live set: “If we’re on stage he improvises just as fast as I can, but on the music side, he’s controlling the boards. If I say something, depending on what I say, he’ll drop a song that corresponds with it. And it’s just like ‘Wow! Word Up.’ Statik is an OG man, he’s a wildboy too, don’t get it twisted he’s wild as fuck, party animal.”
Throughout our conversation when he talks about his collaborators, including everyone from Statik to DJ Premier and Hit-Boy to the J Dilla Foundation, he talks about networking and favours being returned as opposed to emailed verses cash being exchanged. Joey prefers to work organically: “I call it the mirror effect, because what you do for me I’ll do for you.” This process means that usually two songs will be made in a collaboration. A single for the J Dilla foundation that saw proceeds go to misfortunate children at J Dilla’s school in Detroit and his own school in Brooklyn, bagged him an unreleased Dilla instrumental for his album. A verse for Hit-Boy protege’s Audio Push, had the sought after Californian producer contributing to his album. “That’s just fair, it’s better to work that way. I’ve never been paid for a verse ever, anything I’ve done is from the heart or expecting good karma from it, and if not it’s cool, I love to rap, I love to make music,” he explains. Although this process can still end in disappointment: “When I do something for an artist and then all I want is an exchange and they say no to that, I don’t understand that shit. It’s like ‘Wow, Ok fuck you!’”
Joey’s authenticity has taken him from B4 to DA, but will the $$ follow? It’s always difficult to transition from mixtape star to shifting retail units, but he has confidence in his product. “I feel like this is one of the albums that you’re going to want to own a physical copy of, I listen to a lot of my music away from being myself, I listen to it with someone else's ears most of the time, and shit, if it was me I’d buy it. I’d definitely own a copy,” he boasts. He pauses, considering the perceived format change, “If I put my mind to it and put some time aside then it’s going to be great. When I started on this album I put a lot of stress on myself just because of the name change from mixtape to album: just don’t pay attention to that, just make great music and do what your heart tells you, and you should be good. This album definitely taught me a lot, and I’m going to use it as a note for the rest of my career.”
Originally published in BRICK Edition 1