Kirk Knight / Photos by the author
As we walk through the Parkside Avenue entrance of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, Kirk Knight and I get nostalgic. We’ve immediately connected as lifelong residents of this neighborhood, Flatbush, a place we know as an urban concatenation of Caribbean bloodlines and hip-hop culture. It still is that way, but the neighborhood’s changed. Before, you couldn’t have a movie theater without it getting shot up. These days, we’ve officially come up—I think. Flatbush is worthy enough to host a concert from the human embodiment of incense that is Erykah Badu. It used to be that you couldn’t walk just anywhere in Prospect Park at any time of day; now swans mackle upon its sparkling lakes. The costs? An increasing distance from island and golden age principles. The Blockbuster on the corner of Caton and Flatbush is gone, and residents are being displaced because of rising rent.
But the ability to change is a fundamental necessity for living. I had to get my money up. Kirk Knight’s crew, Pro Era, had to outgrow the 90s revivalist box they were placed in. Knight, born Kirlan Labarrie, had to come into his own after appearing as a fresh-faced 16-year-old on Joey Bada$$’s song "Where It'$ At?" from the latter’s breakout project 1999. Like anyone else, the two are still evolving as they transition into their early 20s. After flipping distinctly East Coast sounds for the palatable B4.DA.$$, Bada$$ has reportedly been in the studio Metro Boomin and Lil Herb. It could be Boot Camp Clik remixed for Magic City. Or not. We’ll see.
For now, I’m chilling on a Prospect Park bench with a Kirk Knight dressed in all black. He’s blessed: He’s one of the few lucky enough to get the black Yeezy 350s and is finally releasing his debut project, Late Knight Special, on October 30. LKS isn’t only important because it’s a debut. It represents a crossroads. Knight is subverting critics’ perceptions of his crew being Old New York romanticists. Plus, he’s telling a story while it’s still in the developing stages. That’s a conundrum in itself: Great albums more often come from artists whose worldview is developed and definitive. As it’s his first release, Knight hesitated to even call Late Knight Special an album. Whatever it is, it’s an enjoyable mix that sounds like Brooklyn neo noir, a coming out party that shows Knight's breadth as a producer and a burgeoning lyricist. He invites Joey Bada$$ to join him over nefarious boom-bap ("5 Minutes"), floats over incandescent riffs ("Heaven Is For Real"), and flirts with serenity with some help from Thundercat and Noname Gypsy ("Dead Friends"). Knight's persona is as multicolored as the beats. He makes a pun on his name on the innocuous sensual joint "One Knight," but later, on the album-closing "All for Nothing," he remarks, "16 a nigga got more dead than alive."
What’s striking about Knight within a few minutes of conversation is how self aware he is. He breaks up answers and biographical details with thoughtful ruminations. He constantly uses the phrase “look at it like this,” as if continuously restructuring our chat as a brother-to-brother conversation. He’s also obsessive—when I ask him about his favorite Madvillainy song, frustrated he can’t remember the title, he pauses our talk and searches through his phone for it. “They were both in character,” he says of his admiration for the album. “Like, they weren’t Madlib and MF DOOM. They were Madvillainy. Just the fact that they stayed so close to that theme and created a consistent album is one of the most amazing things at my age to listen to.” He finds the song: “Accordion” deserves the interruption. Knight is verbose, but his words don’t cloud his mindset. He’s happy to be here, although he’s aware of how far he has to go.
Noisey: You Caribbean?
Kirk Knight: Yeah, I’m Grenadian and Antiguan. My mother’s Antiguan and my father’s Grenadian.
Does that background influence your music at all?
It gave me a rhythm. It gave me melodies, you know what I’m saying? Because as a young kid, that was the thing I was hearing. When I put it all together when I was coming up—like 15 or 16—I would have flashbacks of, “You make me wannnaaaaaa.” At that part, once you hear that, you have to jump. You can’t not jump. Things like that—being more on key before the beat drops—little things like that you notice as a kid and then everybody reacts, jumping on that first jump. That’s how it is at the shows. That’s basically the influence that it has.
Also, the level of maturity that Caribbean artists were preaching. And then your parents would just play the record. Look at it like this: People like Damian Marley, who was rapping in that Nas album, ain’t say no curse. You know what I’m saying? There’s rappers that curse and some rappers that don’t curse. DOOM don’t curse. He be minimizing the amount of times he curse. It’s easier for a child to hear that, and if you’re talking about life lessons on top of that, it’s like at an early age you’re learning about life just through music. It’s like if you want to give a dog medicine, you gotta put peanut butter over it. You gotta ease it in there. You can’t just give ‘em the pill—unless that’s how you like it.
You think the Caribbean thing is inherited? Like, when “Palance” plays, you automatically start getting ready to jump…
Yes. Just look at what they come from and their background. When you go to the islands, there’s Carnival. There’s places where people have mass amounts of fun in the area. One of the things that I’ve thought about is that there’s millions and millions of festivals overseas and there’s nobody getting killed or any of that. It’s just amazing a lot of people can come under a common area and show unconditional love. It’s things like that that make me frown upon the way that we can’t do that as a community even in Flatbush, even in Brooklyn in general, even in Manhattan. When people link up, there’s always that one crazy one that always has got to shoot somebody or stab somebody. Even in the Carnival I know that stuff still happens, but a majority of it is just fun. It’s fun overruling the violence. That’s what I fuck with.
I read in one of your interviews that you had to experience a little more before putting out an album. What have you experienced that made you put out Late Knight Special?
I live by myself. I moved out of my house when I was 17, and ever since then I was grinding to get it. So it was just the experiences on that road. I was just thinking on the train that I’m still not where I want to be. Far from it. Very far from it. That’s what I also wanted to say, too: This is not an album, it’s a project. I would never put out an album this early because it’s like I’m not even musically ready for that yet.
But yeah. Just the fact that I had to go overseas, experience relationships, experience one-night stands, experience all these things in terms of me touring for a long time. My mother seeing me perform on stage for the first time. My father seeing me the same way. Girls frontin’ on me now they love me. Now I’ve got a little money in my pocket. Buying some gold. Those are just little experiences that are going to make you think of life differently because you’re able to do those things. You’re able to achieve those things that you couldn’t a couple months ago or a year ago. Experiences like that.
Or just experiences like us sitting in the park right now. I really love Prospect Park to the death of me. This experience could make me write my next album. You never fucking know. Like, when you buy the right juice in the morning, that’s an experience. Down to that. Like when you buy your favorite juice when you had a fucked up day.
Like getting that Vitamin Water in the morning…
Exactly. Like Power-C?
Is it hard for you to grow as an artist in a public light?
It is very difficult. I’m not even gonna lie. Because at the end of the day, when Nas put out a record, you didn’t know who the fuck Nas looked like. Simple as that. At the end of the day, when you put out a record, someone could look up your name and see everything about you.
There’s that and the fact that the Internet gives a lot of people the power to say a lot of things that they don’t need to say. Some of those opinions honestly jade artists’ way of thinking. Not saying that it’s particularly me, but I’m just saying for the whole generation of artists who’re growing up.
A lot of people can’t think of the fact that Pro Era grows up. We grew up. We’re not going to stay at the same stage. We still have that same message though. The message has never changed. It’s just that, physically I’m taller, I got a beard—it’s different. It’s a different ballgame. Everybody grows, you know?
The one good thing about it is just that people can see you grow into an artist, so they believe in you more. So when they see you get over that hump, they be like, “Wow. I remember when he used to be that.”
I remember back in 2012 when you guys crashed Ab-Soul’s concert at S.O.Bs. Is it a trip for you come from that to now?
Just think about it at this level: I came from going everywhere with Joey in terms of hype-manning and in terms of giving him the energy on the stage, producing for him, all this stuff… At the time Joey was doing like 3,000-4,000, sometime 25,000 [attendees]—crazy amounts of numbers. I was going back down to, like, 200 to 300. Being on my own tip, I had to go back down to earn my own stripes. It’s like, “Wow. I see what it could be, but in reality, this is not what it is for myself.”
It’s interesting how you mix that ambition with humility.
That’s one of the things artists don’t have sometimes: Humility or vulnerability. That’s one thing Kanye played off of his whole career. He was a very vulnerable artist. That’s why he’s where he’s at today. Look at Drake. Drake is a very vulnerable artist as well as an unstoppable artist. It’s about playing both sides. You can’t just sit there and say you never had a soft spot. Everybody has a soft spot. I actually like getting in touch with my feminine side because of the fact everybody lacks compassion. Everybody lacks showing unconditional love. That’s one of the main points of what I preach today: That fact that people would play hate faster than they would play unconditional love is just crazy to me.
You spoke a lot about your friendship with Mick Jenkins. What is it about you guys that make ya’ll sort of like kindred spirits?
It’s like, as soon as I met him, I had the illest vibes with him off the rip. What we did was, one day when he came over to my crib when I was living downtown, we just chilled and we took the train. He’d never been on the train. We were watching people dance on the train and shit. It was just real organic off the rip. It wasn’t like me having to come up to somebody and have to put on a face. I don’t do that regardless, but it was just the fact that it was so organic.
He was always giving me advice. When I was making the project, one of the questions he asked me was, “What do you want to say?” Simple as that. It’s just simple things you tend to forget. You know how everybody says simplicity is key? It is. It’s just that sometimes you forget. So he asks me, “What is your story? What do you want to talk about? What do you feel that people are lacking that you should be able to tell them that they need to hear?”
How tight is the Pro Era crew these days? Odd Future grew apart. Is that the case at all for you guys?
Nah, we’re still tight. Hell yeah, we’re still tight. It’s just that everybody is trying to work on their selves. Because at the end of the day, music doesn’t stop time. You still get older. You still get more responsibilities. You still got more jobs to fulfill. It’s still more everything. At the end of the day… there’s still more to be done. I’m still probably gonna get a pet. I still gotta take care of a fucking pet. I never had a pet in my life. There’s still levels. There’s still things that I have to achieve. It’s just that everybody is still solo-ly on the quest of achieving those things—and maintaining them.
Kirk Knight is currently on tour throughout the US. Find tour dates here.
Brian Josephs is now accepting Rasta Pasta dates. Follow him on Twitter.