Joey Bada$$ is perched over a Pac-Man tabletop arcade machine at a neighborhood bar in Flatbush. With a glass of Sprite resting on the video game’s screen, he confesses that he’s never played Pac-Man before, gives a laugh, and says, “I probably suck at this.”
Bada$$’s lack of experience at early-’80s pixel pastimes is understandable: He’s 17 years old and still attends Edward R. Murrow High School. But since dropping the song “Survival Tactics” and its incendiary video earlier this year, the rapper and his oversized Progressive Era crew have been propelled to the front of a fresh wave of New York rappers who combine lyrical swank with an unabashed love of their hometown and its heritage. The peak of the hyperbole that “Survival Tactics” has cultivated has even had Bada$$ compared to a young Nas; it’s a lofty comparison that’s not a total over-reaction, with both rappers reciting rhymes with a slight rasp in their voice and the worldly wise visions of an older mind, although Bada$$ is also fond of enjoying flights of MF Doom-ian free word association fancy.
Next up, Joey Bada$$ is preparing his mixtape 1999, which despite a few delays should drop shortly and solidify his credentials as Flatbush’s finest. Before that though, there’s a show at the Knitting Factory this Friday (which will also act as the inaugural Pro Era public outing). So while he flexed his virgin skills at Pac-Man against his Pro Era pal Kirk Knight (and won), we pestered Bada$$ about the potential of a skateboard showdown with Odd Future, Pro Era’s take on Lil B, and the troubles of Tumblr stalkers.
Things have been going well for you since the “Survival Tactics” video took off, right?
Yeah, I mean, it’s going well now. Since the video dropped things have been moving really well. It was perfect synchronization—everything that I wanted to happen has happened. It’s weird.
Have you been surprised by the reaction to “Survival Tactics”?
I’d be lying if I said no. This is actually my least favorite track on my mixtape that I’m dropping, but I just threw that out there and there was nothing out there like it.
Whose idea was it to wear the panda ski-masks in the video?
That was me. They were from Urban Outfitters. Then the black ski-mask was from just a regular on the street seller.
“Survival Tactics” is actually a beat from an old Styles of Beyond record, right?
Yeah, [Capital] Steez had found it. That track was recorded in the summer time. He showed me the beat and I knew I had to do it, so we rapped it the next day.
Mike Shinoda, from Linkin Park, was involved in the Styles of Beyond project and has re-blogged your version of it. How did that feel?
That really psyched me out. He’s like the dude from Linkin Park, and I grew up on that, and now he knows [my music]. That just hit me out of nowhere.
Have you had any sort of a response from other hip-hop artists since then?
Yeah, 9th Wonder—I was actually talking to him before I got here [today], we were direct messaging. I’ve been a fan of his for like the longest. When I was younger and just starting, I used to browse through a lot of instrumentals—that’s how I came across 9th. Then also Mac Miller has reached out to my manager [Joey Bada$$ appears on Miller’s “America”], Smoke DZA who I already knew, and Big K.R.I.T. has showed me a lot of love.
Are you a fan of Mac Miller’s music?
I love Mac Miller. I don’t know why people hate on him, honestly. He has fun, I can totally respect that. It’s not like he’s selling out, and he has like the number one indie album in 25 years. That’s a huge accomplishment. If anyone doesn’t recognize that then they’re plain dumb.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve read about yourself and “Survival Tactics”?
“Fuck these kids, I like Styles of Beyond’s version better, I hate these kids!” That, and on YouTube some kid put it on the video that it reminded him of 25% Flavor Flav, 25% Nas, 25% Tyler, The Creator, and 25% original. Some shit like that.
Influence-wise, how would you break down the track like that?
I give it 100% me.
A lot of people have focussed on Capital Steez’s line that disses Lil B in the song: “They say hard work pays/ Well tell the Based God don’t quit his day job…”
It is what it is. We’re all fully set on supporting the real music and the real hip-hop, so it is what it is: Tell the Based God don’t quit his day job, ha ha.
Your crew’s initials and image also appear to be inspired by Public Enemy. Is that intentional?
I mean, it was a coincidence honestly. We do have that Public Enemy influence, you can definitely say that, but the name was definitely a coincidence.
The video to “Survival Tactics” has you marching on Wall Street. What was the thinking behind that?
With Wall Street, when we shot that video the whole Occupy Wall Street phase was on, so that’s what we tried to incorporate, but the time schedule didn’t really allow that fully. If we were allowed that it probably would have been even bigger, but I’m happy with what we got.
Do you support Occupy Wall Street?
Yeah, we really do. We went a couple of times and just stood out there all day.
Was it boring?
I wouldn’t say it was boring—we were helping people fight for a cause that’s important for that. It was like helping out the general nation.
There’s skateboarding featured in the Pro Era videos and photos online. Do you skate much?
I skate, but wouldn’t call myself a skateboarder. But I’m definitely not a poser with it—it’s something I’ve picked back up on recently. The board that I have is like a regular board with big ass cruiser wheels; I use it to get from point A to point B right now, but when the summer comes I’ll get on my grind.
Odd Future are also a large hip-hop crew that skateboard. Who’d win in a Pro Era vs Odd Future skate contest?
I don’t know ’em personally but Odd Future, ha ha. We keep it real. We’re not skaters! I’m sure we could learn shit. We’re not skaters; we actually rap! Put that in the [interview]!
What’s your earliest memory of growing up in Flatbush?
Taking off my training wheels. That was a big day for me. That was probably one of the biggest accomplishments of my life. What happened was my dad, he snuck it on me: he told me they were still on, I started riding, and they weren’t.
What bike did you have?
I remember that bike! I love that bike so much! It was a Power Rangers bike, ha ha. I grew it out and it got broken and stuff so we had to throw it out.
On your Tumblr, a lot of fans seem to think you’re from Bedford-Stuyvesant, not Flatbush. Why is that?
I don’t know! I never got that. I tell them Flatbush. CJ Fly, a member of Pro Era, he’s from Bed-Stuy. But I’m from Church Avenue, like on Snyder [Avenue] which is the next block over from Church Avenue, but I just call my area Church Ave.
You also have a lot of references to an ex-girlfriend on your Tumblr…
There’s this anonymous fan who always asks about my ex. Before the buzz started coming in, yeah, I used to mope on Tumblr about my ex and shit. So this annoying fan is like, “How do you feel about your ex now you’re blowing up?” I’m over that.
Does the ex ever read any of this?
I’m not sure. She lives around here, that’s the funny thing.
Going through your Tumblr playlist, you have Audio Two’s “Top Billin'” on there, which was made before you were born. Can you remember how you first came across that?
“Top Billin'” is one of my favorite hip-hop tracks of all time. I was probably seven-years-old when I heard it, but I was like “Damn, what the hell is that?!” It’s been with me ever since.
Is that representative of the sort of music that’s on your iPod?
Most of the things on my iPod is shit from the ’90s and things like that.
What sort of non-hip-hop music is on your iPod?
Daft Punk’s “Something About Us,” that’s one of my favorite songs of all time. Then Quadron, Cee-Lo Green I really love that music, Erykah Badu—I’m really influenced by her.
Can you remember the first rap song you heard?
Biggie, “Hypnotize.” That was the first song I ever memorized. I was like two years old singing, “Biggie Biggie Biggie…” Then when I went back to all these verses I was singing as a child and really broke them down I was like, “Damn, that’s what I was saying? That’s crazy!”
What was the rap song that made you want to rhyme yourself?
Gang Starr’s Moment of Truth album and the song “Moment of Truth” itself. I had this Dave Mirra video game, [Freestyle] BMX 2, and this song came on and it gave me that feeling, like this is hip-hop, this is rap.
At first, you used to rhyme under the name Jay-Oh-Vee, right?
Yeah, Jay-Oh-vee was a point in my life. But last summer my lyrical ability just shot up to a level I’d never had before and I just felt that Jay-Oh-Vee was just me at a younger age. The name change was necessary.
Before Joey Bada$$, did you consider any other names?
Yeah, Scotch, just weird names; Joseph Scotch, some shit like that. I’m embarrassed sharing them!
Your upcoming mixtape is titled 1999. What’s the meaning behind picking that year?
The concept of 1999 is how people always refer to the ’90s as the golden age of hip-hop and that’s the last year of that era, so it’s like a last hope type thing, bringing back the golden age. It’s a perfect thing ’cause it’s falling into place. We’re trying to bring back those days of hip-hop you people actually love.
Can you give us any previews of tracks that will be on the 1999 mixtape?
My favorite tracks right now are “From the Tombs”, which is probably the latest cut I made and produced by Chuck Strangers, and “Funky Hoes” is probably gonna be the song of the summer.
Is that about a hygiene issue?
It’s not exactly a hygiene issue—you got to hear the song…
Do you feel any pressure for the mixtape, being that “Survival Tactics” has been accepted so well?
No disrespect, but I feel like my lyrical ability surpasses a lot of New York artists today, so I don’t feel any pressure. I just do me.
You tweeted that you couldn’t go so South By Southwest this year because of school commitments.
That’s something people don’t understand, that every day I go to high school. I was in school today. I’m definitely going to finish high school. If I’m not in a position to not go to college, then I’m going to college; if I’m in a position to be set for life, I’m still gonna go, ’cause I feel like the system is fucked up pretty bad. But I’ve got to get home for a project after this; I’m doing it on Apollo 11. It’s a piece of cake, but I think I’ma go home and write about it right after this.
Joey Bada$$ plays the Knitting Factory on Friday.