When I meet Kirk Knight, the twenty-year-old rapper/producer, he’s wearing black Yeezy Boosts and a T-shirt emblazoned with the logo of Nineties throwback Ruff Ryders Records. It’s two in the afternoon and there’s a stream of customers at Sweet Chick in Williamsburg. He’s right at home here — our waiter recognizes him immediately — and he runs into a friend at one point. Mos Def’s “Ms. Fat Booty” pipes in from the speakers as couples linger over fluffy biscuits. Nas is an investor in the Bedford Avenue soul food joint, making it a de facto gathering spot for hip-hop cognoscenti. “It’s lit,” Knight says, looking around. “I come here a lot.”
In some ways, his threads echo his particular place in the hip-hop world. Since high school, the Brooklyn native (born Kirlan Labarrie) has carved out a niche as Pro Era’s production wunderkind, helming tracks for the rap collective as well as frontman Joey Bada$$’s solo fare. Like his style, Knight’s sound is at the crossroads of classic and current — synth-heavy and steeped in New York’s Nineties-era boom-bap, but inflected with zeitgeist-y elements like trap — and it’s catching momentum beyond the collective, marking Knight as one of the city’s ascendant producers. (Earlier this year, he collaborated with Harlem’s A$AP Ferg on the splendid, stripped-down “FLEM.”) Says Peter Rosenberg — radio DJ and host of Real Late on Hot 97, who has followed Pro Era’s trajectory for years — Knight “may be the most well-rounded talent in the entire crew.”
Which explains why Knight also wants to conquer the stage. And he’s gaining ground on that front. He released his debut project, Late Knight Special, last October, a showcase for his smooth flow and catchy hooks, with a tip of the hat to pure rap. Featuring Bada$$, up-and-coming Chicago rapper Mick Jenkins, spoken-wordsmith Noname, and L.A.-based bass player Thundercat (who helped drive Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly), it was a formidable, surprisingly versatile effort for a neophyte rapper — and it has primed Knight to make rap his day job.
Herein lies his dilemma. He’s dope behind the boards, but should he risk it to become a full-fledged artist? “I know that I gotta plan my career, bro,” he says. “At the end of the day, people can’t make hip-hop like me. When it comes to 95 bpm hip-hop — dark, moody grit — I can do that hands-down. In terms of me being experimental with Late Knight Special, do I take this and run? Do I take it and elevate, or do I go left-field?”
Knight’s beatmaking started in sixth grade, in the cafeteria at M.S.61 in Brooklyn. It’s where he first met Joey Bada$$. Knight remembers Joey as the charismatic “cool kid” to his brooding loner: “I’m banging on the tables and he’s rapping and shit.” Joey sees it differently. “Kirk was always full of energy, charisma, and life. He used to be really talented at beatboxing on the table in class [and] at the lunchroom,” he recalls. Soon he encouraged his friend to hone his skills with professional software. “I was like, ‘Yo. There’s this program, FL Studio. Download that and invest your time in it. Turn those beats that you’re making on the table into actual beats that, you know, real songs could be made to.’ ”
That was good news for Knight, the second child of Caribbean immigrants who had settled in Flatbush. His father abandoned the family when Knight was young, so he quickly became his mother’s emotional support. “There was no man in the house,” he says. Knight was a gifted student — on track to become a chemist at one point — but he resented his situation at home, which gave him a bit of a temper. “It took me a minute to control where my anger [went],” he says. “I figured a new way to channel my anger. That’s what helped my music initially.”
When Joey co-founded Pro Era in the ninth grade, he tapped his network of school friends as the group’s first members and enlisted Knight, remembering his lunchtime exploits. “He was the first person I thought about that could be a producer for Pro Era. To me, it was raw talent. He beat on a table like no other. I’ve never seen nobody do it like him,” Joey says. “His precision and timing — when he transferred those skills to the computer, there was a unique sound and rawness about it.”
The 2012 release of the mixtape 1999 established Joey Bada$$ as an exciting underground act. Pro Era was on the upswing — and its reputation has since outgrown the city and rap blogs. With it came the fans, including President Obama’s daughter Malia, who caused a buzz last year for taking a selfie in a Pro Era T-shirt.
But along the way, Knight faced personal obstacles. “My mom was like a hoarder, so the house gave me asthma. I’m asthmatic as shit,” he says quietly. He essentially emancipated himself at sixteen and moved in with his manager, Jonny Shipes. “I [couldn’t] stay there no more. You live by yourself now. There’s no Mom or Dad.” Perhaps because he was independent, paying his own bills, the teenager was hyper-focused. Shipes says that while the brownstone on State Street was like “Animal House on steroids,” Knight burrowed into his work: “I remember him being in the basement, nonstop making beats, recording in the little closet that he had set up.”
And it paid off. Knight’s work on Joey’s 2015 debut album, B4.DA.$$, shows the symbiosis between the rapper and beatmaker. On “Big Dusty,” Knight gives Joey a retro knock for listeners to nod their heads to while waiting for the G train. “Hazeus View” is a hat-tip to forebears like RZA and Havoc, reflecting Kirk’s ear for interesting samples, like the obscure plinking of Italian jazz pianist Amedeo Tommasi’s “Problema Ecologica.” Says Joey, “We have developed an unexplainable chemistry…. He knows me. I know him. We just make it work every time.” B4.DA.$$ charted in the top five of the Billboard 200 and turned Joey — and by proxy, Knight — from indie darling to financially viable act. The two are now forging into new territory, pop-streaked hip-hop, with the melodic and uptempo “Devastated,” released earlier this year.
It was Bada$$ who encouraged Knight to release his own project. By his own admission, Knight isn’t an innate lyricist. “Me? I’m only good at freestyle with hooks. I don’t have to write that,” he says. “When it comes to my verses, it’s gotta be some type of writing at some point.” Joey laughs, remembering the first time he and the late Capital Steez heard Knight rhyme in high school. “He tried to rap and we both knew he had a lot to work [on], insofar as rapping goes.” Knight agrees: “It always gave me nervousness to spit on the mic.” Those nerves are audible on early group tracks like “School High,” where he sounds rushed and almost clunky: “We on the same page just to get a heading/And now I got my head in, and now I’m just ahead and/I never came in second.” But he’s spitting more comfortably now. According to Rosenberg, “His skill set was pretty clear early, and by the time [Late Knight Special] came out, I realized how much progress he made and how complete he sounded.”
Knight is taking it slow, but not that slow. He’ll play the 4Knots Music Festival on July 9, among other gigs keeping him busy. “The only time I hang out is down by the waterfront. I don’t know what that shit’s called. Down over here,” Knight says as we wander toward the East River later in the afternoon. “I like the waterfront,” he says. “The grass and shit.” It’s a good place to contemplate the shift ahead of him.
Hip-hop is replete with multi-hyphenates, but it’s difficult for this generation’s producers to emulate predecessors like Diddy or Kanye. For one thing, thanks to beats being made and sold cheaply online (Desiigner purchased the beat for his hit “Panda” from an unknown producer on YouTube for $200), they don’t have the luxury of long careers — of becoming so-called “superproducers” — that might give them the space to experiment with performing. And even producers with bona fide hits, like Mike Zombie (“Started From the Bottom”), Hit-Boy (“Niggas in Paris”), or Sonny Digital (“Tuesday”), have found it difficult to position themselves as rappers. The few to successfully emerge from behind the boards, like DJ Mustard, Kaytranada, and AraabMuzik, have pivoted by DJ’ing, something Knight has also added to his repertoire.
If there’s a downside to having multiple hustles, it’s that it could undermine the credibility Knight has already established. But if he can pull off both rapping and producing, it benefits him creatively as well as financially. “I see it working to his advantage,” says Rosenberg. “If you’re a guy that puts out an album that sells 50,000 copies but you produce the whole album — as opposed to pay nine other people to produce — from a financial standpoint, there’s a lot of upside to that. That’s the chance you give yourself when you can do a lot of things.” Says Shipes, “He’s special…. He can be one of the greats.”
The decision, of course, ultimately falls on Knight’s shoulders. “There’s so much weighing on me,” he says. “I’ve had raw talent for a long, long, long period of time. When I deliver, I want to deliver right.”