On his recently released debut mixtape, 1999, Joey Bada$$ achieves that rare feat in rap music: he manages to pile on the boyish braggadocio while still exhibiting an unpretentious appreciation for the classics. The rookie Brooklyn MC wants the world to know that, yes, he is the shit, but it’s only because he’s so well schooled in the Golden Age of hip-hop, a scene that was in full swing while he was still in diapers. As the spearhead of Progressive Era (or Pro Era), his crew of 20 or so classmates and pals, the high school senior has set out to revive the boom-bap, lyric-focused sound of mid- 1990s masters like Nas, the Notorious B.I.G., and 2Pac. With production that boasts samples from the greats—MF Doom, J Dilla, and Lord Finesse—and original beats from Pro Era members like Chuck Strangers, 1999 has the goods to usher in a new Golden Age, or, as Bada$$ sees it, to launch him into superstardom. “We’re just going to be smacking the media with new music every day, every week, like nonstop,” he says. “‘Pro Era: who are these kids? I always hear them on my stereo, in my car, on my way to work.’ World domination.
How did Pro Era start making music together?
Joey Bada$$: It started out when we would cut class and sneak into our auditorium and just rap. Then one day we just decided, yo, why not start a movement?
Who’s responsible for the beats?
Chuck Strangers and Kirk Knight. Rokamouth produces, I produce.
When you’re looking for a good beat, where do you find it? Are you using mostly samples?
Chuck Strangers: Before I make a beat, I gotta listen to samples. I hear a sample that fits the mood I want to make. You just chop a sample up and add drums to it.
Kirk Knight: I make beats from scratch. Sometimes you have a certain melody in your head that you just want to put down. Sometimes you can be in your house just messing around with different sounds and messing with the tempo to get the beat you want.
Where do you find your samples?
Joey Bada$$: Anything from the radio to just browsing the Internet for different types of music.
Kirk Knight: From vinyl. Or sometimes to make different beats, you can just use one little part and turn down the pitch. Then you get a completely different sound than what you originated with.
What vinyl do you find yourself picking up these days?
Chuck Strangers: I like progressive rock and old school, like reggae. Peter Tosh, King Tuff. Dennis Brown’s really dope. The Isley Brothers are ill.
Capital Steez: I like a lot of classic rock sampling: Led Zeppelin and old-school punk like The Clash. I always find something new there.
What did you grow up listening to, Joey?
Hip-hop, a lot of R&B. My mom was really big on Prince as well. When I was younger I knew every Prince song.
What’s your favorite?
It’s between “Kiss” and “Diamonds and Pearls.”
And who are your favorite hip-hop artists?
Notorious B.I.G., Big Pun, Jay-Z.
I heard you were singing Notorious B.I.G.’s “Hypnotize” at the age of two.
My mom was actually telling me the story of how I used to sing Big Pun’s “Still Not a Player.” I knew that song from start to finish when I was, like, two years old.
And when did you start writing?
At around five years old. It started off when I was introduced to poetry by my teachers. I immediately recognized the similarities between poetry and the rap music I would listen to. In my head the poetry was formatted in rap lyrics.
Who are your favorite poets?
Langston Hughes. Not to sound cliché or anything.
Is there a particular poem that resonates with you?
“A Dream Deferred.” The first time I heard it, it was kind of like the same shit I was on. I was probably as young as six, and I understood everything he said in that poem.
What is Pro Era bringing to the game in hip-hop? How do you want to change the genre?
Pro is reality. You know, back to life. Consciousness. Awareness. Enlightenment and good content. Spreading love the Brooklyn way.
What’s the “Brooklyn way?”
Kirk Knight: Basically just bringing everything to the highest power. Ascending. All of us bring something new to the table that can be expanded in a way that is beyond imagination.
Chuck Strangers: A lot of kids my age don’t know about the past. I feel like when they hear something, they’ll be like, “Oh, that shit’s ill. Where’d that shit come from?” I just want kids my age to know. People my age—you’ll ask them their favorite song and they’ll probably be like, T.I., or some shit like that. Fuck T.I., bro. There’s Bob Marley and all kinds of ill people doing music, and that’s why we sample. That’s why we’re trying to bring real hood shit back.
Tell me why titled your mixtape 1999.
Joey Bada$$: Because people refer to the ’90s as the Golden Age of hip-hop, and 1999 is the last year of that era—it was like the last hope. I feel like in the years to come we have the potential to bring a new golden era of hip-hop. That’s just the future.
How do you feel about contemporary hip-hop? Are you bored with it?
I’m very bored with it. All I listen to now is Pro Era or other underground artists who we find similar to us—who are spreading the same message.
What do you think is lacking in hip-hop now?
Us. Pro Era. They’re just missing us.
What do you think distinguishes Pro Era from the rest of the hip-hop scene?
Ali: I feel like we’re bringing a consciousness to it. Not everything has to be about guns, money, and females. I feel like we’re actually having fun with it. We’re not doing it to get money. I don’t mind making some money off this, but I do it because I love it. We all do it because we love it.
There seems to be a sense of euphoria or positivity in your music. Where do you think that comes from?
Chuck Strangers: I remember when I was in 10th grade that I dressed the same way I do now, but it was different because all the black dudes I went to school with wore super baggy jeans and all the kids made fun of me. I was the outcast at my school. So when I made music it was to reach kids who were like me. I made music for kids who aren’t the coolest kids in school but know all the rap tracks: “I don’t want to listen to Jim Jones. I want to listen to Q-Tip.” I feel like nowadays people don’t really connect. You could have a good time listening to some shit, but you never walk away and feel like, “That shit was ill.” You walk away like, “The beat is crazy.”
T’nah Apex: There’s no musicality. Everything sounds the same. You should be able to decipher who’s who. Nobody’s reaching your soul anymore. I feel like that’s what you need to do, because now people actually want to listen to good stuff. That’s why they’re responding to us.
Rokamouth: I feel like hip-hop has been downgraded since we were born. I think now that the generation before us is dying off or out of the game, and that we’re coming in, that it’s going to be different. We grew up at a time when hip-hop was at its prime. We grew up listening to that as kids. The younger kids didn’t get that chance, so they’re missing out on so much. I feel like we’ve got to help them.
Bullett’s fall issue is The Romance Issue. So what is the biggest turn-on for you, Joey?
Enlightenment. A girl who is in tune with her spirit and things that are going on around her. We could take trips together, we could explore, we could discuss.
What’s the biggest turn-off?
Ignorant hood-rat bitches. [laughs]
Chuck Strangers: Yeah. Ignorant, hood, ghetto, dirty bitches are, like, chicks who only wear sneakers and don’t know what anything is. They don’t even know how to carry themselves. You take them out in public and they’re loud and complain and steal silverware and shit from restaurants.
Do you have an embarrassing crush story?
I had a crush on this girl, so I walked her to class one day. As she was going up the stairs, she tripped and busted her ass. It was so funny. I didn’t know what to say. I just tried to act like I didn’t see what had just happened. When she went away I was crying from laughing.
So what is your ultimate goal for Pro Era in the next year?
World domination. We’re just going to be smacking the media with new music every day, every week, like non-stop. We’ll be taking over: Pro Era on your radio stations, on every blog. Pro Era: “Who are these kids? I can’t get them out of my iPod. I always hear them on my stereos, in my car, on my way to work. In my sleep, I see these guys in my dreams.” Projection. Things like that. World domination.
Photography by Marton Perlaki