Joey Bada$$ Is Earning His Respect Before His Debut Album
Coming Of Age
The past two years have been a roller coaster ride for Joey Bada$$. Now with his debut LP finally on the way, the Brooklyn MC plans to take his Pro Era movement to the next level.
Words Dan Rys
Images Jason Goodrich
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the October/November 2014 issue of XXL Magazine.
At the corner of State Street and Flatbush Avenue stands Atlantic Terminal, the monolithic train station dwarfed only by the nearby Barclay’s Center as the symbol of Brooklyn’s new world order. But State Street itself is a throwback to an older era, with leafy trees looming over weathered Brownstone walkups that recall a time decades earlier when Jay Z kept his stash house at 560 State Street.
Five bulidings down, 19-year-old rapper Joey Bada$$ sits on the stoop outside the apartment of Cinematic Music Group founder and CEO Jonny Shipes, eating chicken and rice his mom made out of a Tupperware container. It’s one of the first cool afternoons in September, and the young rhymer is rocking jeans and a navy Supreme hoodie to protect against the chill. Lately, Joey’s been dealing with the pressure to finish his debut album, B4.Da.$$, due out by the end of the year, but he’s in no rush to get moving.
Life has come fast for the young MC. Born Jo-Vaughn Virginie, the teenage rap prodigy landed like napalm on an increasingly stale New York rap scene with his breakout mixtape, 1999, in June 2012. The tape earned praise for its blend of uncompromising lyricism and old school, boom bap beats from the likes of J Dilla, MF Doom and Lord Finesse. In the two years since, Joey’s gone from freestyling in the hallways of his high school to headlining national tours with his rap crew, Pro Era and appearing on magazine covers as part of the 2013 XXL Freshmen Class. In many ways, Joey embodies the current feel of Brooklyn itself: holding onto history while updating its infrastructure for a new generation.
Born and bred in Brooklyn, Joey was drawn to hip-hop since he was a toddler, running to catch The Notorious B.I.G. music videos any time they came on TV. As a lone kid growing up in a single-parent home in Flatbush—his father left his mother when Joey was five, though they’ve maintained a good relationship—he was often alone while his mom worked to support them.
It was during these periods, before and after school, that a young Joey began to rap, recording videos of himself spitting bars and hoping something would catch. A childhood hobby began to turn into a serious enterprise when he enrolled at Edward R. Murrow High School in Midwood in 2009. That year, the young upstart uploaded a video of himself rapping to YouTube, titling it, “15-Year-Old Kid Freestyles For Worldstar” in the hopes of catching the eye of the viral video site. The clip eventually did make its way to WorldStarHipHop, but not before Shipes caught it and became intrigued by the youngster’s vitality. “You could see the star power oozing out of him,” Shipes says about that initial video.
The Cinematic boss offered a guiding hand with no strings attached, helping the rapper develop. Around the same period, Joey met Jamal Dewar, later known as Capital Steez, another aspiring MC two years Joey's senior who attended the same school. The two began cutting classes to rap in hallway cyphers and soon formed a close bond. Their chemistry—musically, artistically and intellectually—led Joey and Steez to begin recruiting like-minded kids they knew from around the school to join a new movement. That collective, which grew to encompass rappers, producers, artists and videographers, would eventually be dubbed Pro Era. “Pro Era mainly was supposed to be a youth activist group,” says Joey. “The Progressive Era. To progress this age.”
In 2011 while the clique began recording their hallway cyphers in the school auditorium, Joey set out to work on his own project. With the support of Shipes and Cinematic, Joey put out his first real song, “Survival Tactics,” featuring Capital Steez. The video, uploaded in February 2012, put faces to the flows and visuals to the aggression, depicting the crew rapping in warehouses and walking down Wall Street wearing panda ski masks. “It reminds me of us, of Gang Starr, the whole Foundation,” says DJ Premier. “And I loved it. I thought that was so dope.”
Joey’s debut mixtape, 1999, appeared that June and through his connection with Shipes, Joey spent the summer touring the country with Juicy J on the 30-date Smokers Club Tour, while major labels came calling. On an off day in Denver, Jay Z flew him to New York to talk about signing him to Roc Nation, a dream scenario for a kid who grew up walking the streets of his grandmother’s neighborhood in Bed-Stuy. But Joey turned down every offer that came his way. “I got to the point where I’m in this man’s office,” Joey says about meeting Jay Z. “[I thought,] I can make my own office from here.”
Joey wound up sticking with Shipes and signed to Cinematic soon after. Following the tour he dropped out of high school and began building up Pro Era, launching a clothing line and working on a crew mixtape. That project, Peep: The aPROcalypse, came out on Dec. 21, 2012—capping a year that brought the collective from the halls of Edward R. Murrow to national stages.
Pro Era was riding high off the response to the tape. But days later, in the early hours of Christmas Eve, Capital Steez jumped to his death from a Manhattan office building. With the whole world in front of them, Pro Era stopped in its tracks. “We were gettin’ all this recognition from the project and then all of a sudden we started gettin’ recognition because of Steez passing,” Joey says, pausing for long periods to collect his thoughts. “It made us not want to do certain shit... We were just so young, man. We couldn’t understand a lot of shit.”
While Pro Era was in mourning, the spotlight kept getting brighter for the crew’s front man. Joey was the top act on the 24-date Beast Coastal Tour, alongside neighborhood friends Flatbush Zombies and The Underachievers, which kicked off in March 2013. And later that month, he made the 2013 XXL Freshmen cover, which pushed his visibility to a new level just at the time when he was contemplating whether it was all worth it.
“I thought when I got there I would always have him around,” Joey says about the Freshman cover, where he wore Steez’s face on his shirt. “That period of time was just recovery. It went from the previous year being one of my most happy years to that year being one of the most depressed and sad times in my life.”
That shift in tone was obvious on his second solo mixtape, Summer Knights, which dropped July 2013. Many of the core elements of Joey’s sound were still present, but the tone was darker, more bitter. While 1999’s aggression was born from a cocky self-assurance, his flows on Summer Knights felt like they were bred from anger, like he was lashing out at the world around him. It was a strong tape, but wasn’t received with the acclaim of 1999.
Pro Era spent the rest of 2013 on tour, first with Wiz Khalifa and A$AP Rocky on the Under The Influence Of Music Tour through the summer, then headlining the Smokers Club Tour with Ab-Soul that Fall. Then Joey’s album, originally slated for release at the end of 2013 on Cinematic/Sony Red, was pushed back. The year was effectively lost.
This year has been all about regaining the swagger that made Joey such a vital lyricist when he first broke onto the scene. Pro Era dropped two crew projects—The Secc$ Tap.e Vol. 2 in February and The Shift EP in May—while Joey has been in the studio readying B4.Da.$$. He’s been in the lab with Premier, and has beats from Hit-Boy and J Dilla slated for the project. “Big Dusty,” the first single from the LP, dropped in August, and the gritty, grimy cut catches the MC growling with the confidence of somebody with a point to prove. “What I’m trying to do, one of my main goals now, is to get all of my fans to forget expectations,” he says. “You just gotta accept it. It’s the evolution. And I love the evolution of myself.”
With B4.Da.$$ nearly done, Joey and Pro Era are embarking on their first world tour. It’s his biggest stage yet to deliver his mind-expanding rhymes to a fanbase that is growing up with Joey on every new release. “We’re very young and we’re very aware of that, so we’re just gonna keep pushing,” he says with firm confidence. “We provide some type of balance in this whole music world. And we’re gonna earn our respect in due time.”
Related: Joey Bada$$ On The Progression Of Pro Era
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