As the lights explode and bodies fly off the smoke-clouded stage, as the bass booms and the crowd unleashes a wave of screams, as the evening hits a fever pitch, Joey Bada$$ steps back and smiles. The 19-year-old Brooklyn MC—tall, gaunt, massive afro projecting out from his svelte frame—looks satisfied. And he should. This has been an immensely difficult crowd to get moving, but now they seem to have crossed the precipice from ho-hum audience to hip-hop audience. As security guards rush across the stage to quash the possibility of more crowdsurfers hanging ten above the heads of their friends, you can see through the smokes and the flailing limbs that Bada$$ is satisfied with the party he’s set off.
Bada$$ is part of hip-hop’s new crop of traditionalists, a young MC with an oldschool flair and taste for throwback beats that ignores rap music’s steady swing towards Euro-centric pop and dance sounds. Bada$$ and his crew Progressive Era—Pro Era for short—are on the brink of turning a whole genre around, on the verge of steering hip-hop culture back to its roots. Pro Era’s sense of classicism— the jazzy beats, the reggae influence, their lyrical dexterity—promise to bring the rap crown back to New York after almost a generation of the Big Apple’s diminishing influence on the genre.
(When a West Coast MC like Kendrick Lamar can claim to be the King of New York with only minor blowback, as he did on 2012s “Control”, you know the birthplace of hip-hop is at a low creative ebb. Sorry, New York, but it’s true.)
But listening to Bada$$ and Pro Era, it’s almost like New York never fell off, that the central axis of hip-hop hadn’t shifted to the South and Midwest for the better part of a decade. Watching Pro Era perform, it’s like the ’00s never happened, like the so-called Golden Age of Hip-Hop never ceased, like Lil Jon and Black Eyed Peas had never happened, like the era of lyrically ambitious, musically sophisticated hip-hop had never come to an end. Bada$$ and crew may be new school (they’re barely out of high school), but they love the old school and the results are pure true school: hip-hop that is true to its history, true to its community and true to itself.
“Two years ago, our first mixtape was named The Secc$ Tape, so now we’re back with the sequel, hence the name Secc$ Tape Volume 2.”
It’ a few days earlier and SMACK is on the phone with Mister Bada$$ himself. Banging beats and different crew members drift in and out of the room, a flurry of activity that underscores the Pro Era hustle. In the tour years since dropping their debut, Pro Era—and Bada$$ in particular—have seen their stars rising at a breakneck pace. Between The Secc$ Tape, Bada$$’s 1999 and AmeriKKKan Korruption, by late crew founder and friend Capital Steez, Pro Era ran 2012, taking the underground community by storm and generating heat faster than corduroy on a fat kid’s thighs.
The mixtapes led to shows around the country and around the globe—when we talked to Bada$$, he had just gotten back from New Zealand and Australia, which was “one of the best experiences of [his] life”—and countless guest spots on some of the hottest tracks around. Bada$$ alone made appearances with Mac Miller, Statik Selektah and on A$AP Rocky’s “1 Train,” one of the most epic posse cuts in recent memory, packed with future Hall of Famers like Yelawolf, Action Bronson, Danny Brown and B.I.G. Krit. If an artist can be judged by the company he keeps, then Bada$$ is amongst the elite. But even while globetrotting and collaborating with some of the most respected in the industry, Bada$$’s main focus is still Pro Era and maintaining the unique synergy of styles and personalities that made the original Secc$ Tape so dope.
“This one definitely offers that cohesive vibe,” Bada$$ claims. “The chemistry of the group is going to be evident on this tape right here. It’s real easy-going, real smooth, real jazzy for you and the ladies. For you and the mistress, for, you know, whatever—it’s really for the ladies, but you know, whatever the ladies love, everybody loves.”
What Bada$$ doesn’t mention is that this is the first Pro Era tape without co-founder and high school friend Capital Steez. Steez, generally credited with the group’s genesis and nomenclature, jumped to his death from the roof of their label’s office in December 2012, bringing a quick and tragic end to a promising career and snuffing out one of the most challenging and critical voices to emerge from New York rap in recent memory. As noted in the December issue of The FADER, the passing of Steez received little notice at the time, and offered little in the way of explanation beyond a tweet from Steez saying “the end.” It was a mysterious end to a vivacious artist.
But even the loss of a close friend and compatriot couldn’t slow the Pros down. Their PEEP: The aPROpocalypse—released just weeks before Steez’s death—would generate even more interest in the young and ever-expanding crew.
(By some counts, the membership of the squad includes up to 47 rappers, DJs and producers.) Bada$$ and company spent the year on high-profile tours, running cross country on Wiz Khalifa’s Under the Influence tour and the “Beast Coast” package with Flatbush Zombies and the Underachievers. Bada$$ released Summer Knights, his first proper EP, and began working on his debut album B4.Da.$$—or Before Da Money, “depending on how you see”—which is slated to hit stores this summer.
“What I’ve learned is that, on the last mixtape [Secc$ Tape], our recording procedures were basically in home, in the comfort of our own space, our freedom, our own creativity,” Bada$$ says. “Over the past two years gaining experience, having the liberty of being able to use studios, I’ve learned that having your own space is the best way to get out what you want to get out.
“When we first started to lift off, we were like, ‘Aw shit, we’ve got studio time,” he continues. “But even with that, the studio can make you feel a little... oh, how would I say it? Underdressed. You know? The home definitely offers a better vibe.”
That better vibe—and the loose laid-back intimacy that it stems from—is all over Secc$ 2’s lead single “Sol Luna.” With Bada$$, A La $ole and Dyemond Lewis on the mic, and Navie D behind the board, the group taps into a vein of deep, cosmic hip-hop that hasn’t been seen since Jay Dee—before he was known as J Dilla—and the Pharcyde hid themselves in a basement and came out with 1995’s backpack classic Labcabincalifornia. The verse and chorus are permeable with hooks and lyrics floating between the two, ad-libs and studio banter drifting in and out like conversations in a bleary, smoke-filled rooms. But for all of its aesthetics, there’s a level of craftsmanship and an attention to authentic details of a bygone era that belies the group’s youth.
“When we say we’re gonna work, we work, and when we say we’re gonna chill, we chill,” says Bada$$. “We’ve known that when we go in the studio, we need to work, but I’d say the drive is shifted up now.”
That drive has seen B4.Da.$$ pushed back a number of times since it was originally announced. But its current position on the summer slate of releases is a portent of things to come. That his team and his label think that they’ll be able to compete in the summer months, when the music industry is typically rolling out its heaviest hitters. And while Bada$$ was tight-lipped about who he was working with—“nah, man, I can’t tell ya”—his résumé points towards an album, that will be produced by some of the most respected artists in the genre.
“We’re just doing a solid album taking our time, working with all the producers I want to, trying to find quality.”
We’re back at the show—Bada$$ smiling, lights exploding—and SMACK finds itself being crushed by a throng of of Pro Era pushing their way towards the stage divers. Maybe it’s the scent of weed reminding the crowd that they came here to party—security was thorough and there was so much confiscated contraband that those guards won’t have to re-up their stash until B4.Da.$$ hits stores—but more likely it’s that Bada$$ and his crew are real MCs. When hip-hop pioneer Rakim declared that “MC moves the crowd,” this was exactly what he was talking about—anybody can speak into a mic, but only a true MC can shake a crowd from its indifference, incite a crowd to jubilance.
And the crowd, as standoffish and unenthused as they may have been earlier in the night, are ready for it. For those craving real rap skills, sans artifice and god-complex and million-dollar production values, this is a serious feast. As more of the Pro Era crew joins Bada$$ onstage, as verses get swapped and choruses get chanted—one friend in attendance noted that there were “so many people on the mic, it was tough to tell who was actually rapping”—the crowd’s mean-mugging stoicism melts into a wild, celebratory fever. All of the subcultures and scenes represented—the fashion kids, the junior thugs, the chin-scratching music nerds—suddenly cast off their respective facades to throw their hands in the air, to join the mass of enthusiasm being projected at the stage.
When Joey Bada$$ steps back to let his crew take center stage, you can see the look of satisfaction in his eyes. As bodies move along and a sea of hands from all walks of life are bouncing in unison to his tracks, you can tell that the young MC’s hard work and dedication are paying off. It’s easy to imagine this 700-person audience scaling up to 10 times its size and still reacting the same way. It’s easy to imagine our kids referencing songs like “Hilary Swank” and “95 Til Infinity” as examples of “real rap” in the year 2034, the sands of time eventually sweeping the Pro Era explosion into the same narrative as legends like A Tribe Called Quest and the Pharcyde. But for now it’s just satisfying to know that we have real hip-hop, right here, right now.