A year ago no one knew who Joey Bada$$ was, but now everyone is listening closely. The Brooklyn native broke through in early 2012 with the video for "Survival Tactics," in which he and late friend Capital STEEZ (who committed suicide in December) rap from the basement of a crumbling building. Bada$$' flow is dizzying and visceral, an uncanny amalgam of almost every great New York rapper from hip-hop's golden age: Biggie Smalls, Nas, Method Man, Big L. The YouTube video has garnered more than 2 million views and quickly caught the attention of tastemakers. Last June, Bada$$ released his debut mixtape, 1999, which inspired proclamations of a new rap renaissance.
Photos: Joey Bada$$, Pro Era Juice Session
"To me, the youth wasn't really representing for the shit that I grew up on," says Shipes, 33, who discovered Bada$$ three years ago through a freestyle video on WorldStarHipHop.com. "[Bada$$] just had it. He was this 15-year-old kid spazzing in a hallway with his friend beatboxing. I was like, 'I gotta find this guy.'"
Shipes, a former Bad Boy Records employee who also discovered Big K.R.I.T., Smoke DZA and Nipsey Hussle, signed Bada$$ to his independent label Cinematic Music Group, which last year inked an exclusive distribution deal with Sony's RED. Shipes says he's set up his new prodigy to be "his own boss," giving him a mirror deal where he gets an equal percentage of record sales and retains control over his marketing budget.
Bada$$ says he's happy with the freedom the arrangement provides, but hasn't ruled out making a jump to the majors. "I'm still learning," he says. "I want to understand every aspect of [the business] before I make a move. I'm figuring out what an artist is supposed to have: What's slaving and what's not slaving?"
Late last year, Mountain Dew-backed imprint Green Label Sound inked Bada$$ to a single deal for "Unorthodox," produced by boom-bap pioneer DJ Premier and released in January. It was a big month for Bada$$, who, in addition to turning 18 and assuming duties at Ecko, appeared on the A$AP Rocky posse cut "1 Train," featured on the fellow New Yorker's Billboard 200 No. 1 album "Long.Live.A$AP."
"Me being from New York and having a title as a rapper, that's already enough to prove 'cause people in New York are arrogant and they [are] just cold so if you make it here, you can make it anywhere. With this whole new New York movement, as far as the Beast Coast [Movement] -- Pro Era, Underachievers, [Flatbush] Zombies, you got cats like Bronson, Xquire, Smoke DZA, A$AP -- new New York is looking real nice right now. It's on the rise."
In the Ecko offices, Bada$$ is a kid in a candy store, rummaging through racks of samples (a sign reads "Touch if you want your hands chopped off") before settling on a glossy black jacket with matching bucket hat. He drags a speaker dock into a cramped, fluorescent-lit room that dregs up bad memories of in-school suspension and whips out a cracked iPhone containing some of his new songs.
During the course of six as-yet-untitled tracks, it's clear that Bada$$ has the makings of a landmark debut album as outlined by his heroes. Some are reminiscent of early Wu-Tang Clan, others Nas' Illmatic. On one he snarls like Ol' Dirty Bastard at his most petulant.
"Even when I first started, I never looked at other teenagers as competition," he says, mentioning that he was recently in the studio with Q-Tip. "I looked at who was in the game as a whole-period. That was my competition."
In the spring, Bada$$ will go on tour with his promising crew, Pro Era, and fellow ascendant Brooklynites Flatbush Zombies and the Underachievers. The album (he has a title in mind, but is keeping it a secret) will follow. "There's a lot of Pro Era stuff that's going to be coming out in the next couple of months. I plan dropping my debut summer time or early fall," he says. "Now, I'm just focused on this whole new path of life I took on."
Although he had to stop attending Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn-"Shit was getting too crazy"-Bada$$ says he's still taking classes online. He's holding out hope that he'll be able to attend senior prom this summer. "I've been thinking about it," he says, flashing a grin. "But things might be even crazier then."
Additional reporting by Erika Ramirez