Pro Era has grown into an elite hip-hop collective with a band of talented artists who have redefined the New York sound. Following the success of Joey Bada$$ and the surging popularity of the late Capital Steez, members like CJ Fly, Nyck Caution and Aaron Rose have found individual success as solo acts with their collection of EPs, mixtapes and albums. In 2018, the brand continues to grow through the raps and sounds of Kirk Knight — who released his solo sophomore album IIWII (an acronym for “it is what it is”) on Friday.
Knight has been a major factor in the Pro Era camp since its inception back in 2011 when he was only 15 years old. As a producer, Knight accumulated credits on early Pro Era projects like Joey Bada$$’s Summer Knights and the late Capital Steez’s Amerikkkan Korruption that led to production with other artists such as Smoke DZA and Mick Jenkins. As a rapper, Knight was featured on several Pro Era mixtapes and impressed listeners with his debut album Late Knight Special. The album showcased Knight’s lyrical prowess and ability to blend the sounds of the golden age of hip-hop with contemporary sonics. Knight boosted his resume with the release of his instrumental album Black Noise that preceded his collaborative effort with Nyck Caution, Nyck @ Knight. Noticing the growth in his popularity, the 22-year-old took a step back from rapping to perfect his craft.
In his time off, Knight dove deeper into the art of beatmaking, learning from the other creatives he worked in the studio with. The labor he put in behind the boards led to one of the biggest records of the year, A$AP Ferg’s “Plain Jane” which went double platinum and produced a remix with Nicki Minaj. To close out a huge year, the “Downtime” rapper is unleashing IIWII, his newest “music baby,” as he calls it, for observers to take in. The 12-track album is a look into the new skills Knight has learned and the artistic spaces he’s taking his music to. “I want to show you all that I’m producing, singing, and rapping. I’m doing everything on this album,” Knight tells Billboard. With Lucille Gotti serving as the sole feature, Knight is taking listeners on a journey through his anomalous world with the spotlight focused on him.
Billboard sat with Knight to talk more about IIWII, the things he learned while taking time off, choosing which art form helps the rapper express himself better, and what he wants his lasting effect to be in hip-hop. Check it out below.
Besides the project with Nyck Caution and the several production credits over the years, what else were you up to in the time between your solo projects?
I was just honing in on my craft. I was also gearing up to learn different instruments and stuff like that. It was like I was putting myself in a mindset for me to be able to access different parts of my mind when I’m trying to strive for something different. I like to prepare myself a lot. I was also living life. You have to live life to talk about it. Sometimes when you’re always making music, you start depreciating it in thought because you’re doing it over and over.
Was there anything you did, in particular, to evolve your sound in those years?
One of the things I did that made me get better at producing, more or less, was probably sitting in on a lot of sessions where I was co-producing as opposed to me just making a beat. I sat with a lot of session musicians and seeing how they manipulated sounds and played keys motivated me to understand there’s more than just programming and sitting there organizing the sounds. I understood the feeling of it. Watching them play over samples and stuff like that is kind of mind-blowing. You have to sit there and know what type of sounds and EQ you want to do when you’re trying to mimic a sample. That’s one of the biggest things in terms of like altering my mind of making music.
When did you come up with the idea for IIWII?
I came up with the idea throughout my life. That’s a statement that has followed me my whole entire life. It kind of just relinquishes a lot of expectations. It makes it feel, more or less, limitless. I didn’t want to feel like I had a title that was so strangling. I just wanted it to be a self-expression of myself. That’s why there’s only one feature—-I just wanted to have a project that was really just me. With Late Knight Special, I had a couple of features from my close friends and stuff like that, but I felt like there were a lot of features that low-key bodied me. I just wanted to get on my shit. This is just a show of confidence as an artist and being just me.
Why make your comeback when you could’ve continued your career as a producer, especially after “Plain Jane?”
I honestly just want to do both [Laughs]. I don’t even look at it as a comeback. I wanted to learn and be more in-depth as a producer. I wanted to know what I was talking about and run sessions. That’s why a lot of the reasons why I took a lot of time off was because I didn’t want to just keep doing something and not really know what the fuck I’m doing. At the end of the day, I entered the game at 15, a lot of things that I had to do in life I had to jump to it. I didn’t have that peace. That time off was me having a pace and try to figure it all out.
Which is harder for you, making beats for yourself or other people?
I think it would be making beats for other people because I feel like when it’s for yourself, it’s easy. You sit there and if you don’t like it you’ll figure out a way to alter it so that you do like it. When it’s for someone else, they can tell you they don’t like it and they don’t even give you a reason why. You have to sit there and figure it out and try to reach for it. That shit is too hard. When it’s me, I know how I’m feeling.
What did you do differently with your writing on IIWII?
I focused on that punchline feeling but not really having punchlines. I didn’t really care to have any punchlines, but there’s a way you have to rap where it translates well when you do it on stage. I feel like, with this album, a lot of the music translates well on stage so I feel like it gives me more power on stage. I feel like people are more receptive to that and that makes it a better groove. I feel like with Late Knight Special, I was really trying to rap and spit bars. When I do it on stage it’s dope but it’s just not that feeling when the beat drops. With this album, it has moments even if it’s just songs that aren’t turn-ups. It has moments that translate well. I want people to hear the music and want to see it live.
What have you taken away from the people you’ve worked with during your time off, and how did you apply that to IIWII?
Being timeless. That’s one of the things I feel like a lot of artists forget. Can I listen to this on a continuous loop where I don’t get tired of it? I think that’s one thing I took from the sessions, like no matter what’s played, it still has some form of relevance in it. Even if it’s not with words, it still counts for production too. Instead of me thinking about the substance, I was thinking about the appearance sonically. Like, how pleasing is it to the ear. This is the first time I didn’t really sit there and think about having bars. I thought about what makes a good song.
Also sitting with songwriters opens up a new type of vein. You’re sitting there and you watch artists explain their life to somebody, and literally someone is writing about someone else’s life that’s not even there. Just that act of selflessness and knowing that I could step back and embody somebody else’s mind as if I were them is crazy. It was very interesting to see people work in that type of environment. I was picking up a whole bunch of shit. That’s why a lot of the hooks on the album are somewhat R&B or catchy. I really tried to focus on things that everybody could say.
With this being your sophomore effort, did you have any concerns that you didn’t experience with Late Knight Special?
No. At the end of the day, I’m limitless and genreless. I don’t think about trying to be better than the last thing I’ve done. I just try to think about how I can show myself differently to the world. You can take it or leave it. I don’t really give a shit [Laughs]. I’m expressing myself and that’s what we came into this game to do. If I sat there thinking about how I’ll be better than my last work, I’m not going to be better. You can’t compare yourself to your old self, you’re supposed to compare yourself to aspirations that are far from what you want. I’m not going to look at something that already happened.
Which do you feel is the better avenue for you to really express yourself, rapping or producing?
That’s a great question. But you know what, for now, it’s producing. Rapping definitely helps me but it’s something about getting the right pitch and you hit the right key—-it’s a different type of feel. The reason why I would say producing is that, depending on what you use, beats are timeless. That’s why I applaud Metro Boomin—-he’s one of those people that uses their sounds successfully in terms of like mixing samples, using 808s and stuff like that. That shit makes things a bit more interesting. A lot of things have been said in rap already but with producing when you hear that new sound? Oh my God, it’s over. It’s like creating something that was never done before.
As we’re celebrating 25 years of Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), how does it feel being one of the few producers people consider the torchbearers of the Wu-Tang sound?
It was the moment when I was studying Madlib, RZA, Peanut Butter Wolf, and J Dilla. I realized and learned something that people are doing more now which is making sure the sample isn’t quantized. Also putting a lot of filters on samples and digging for certain sounds. You have to dig through the sounds. I ripped sounds off vinyl and not just samples, but certain sounds. There’s this West African record I was listening to and there was this sound that sounded so crazy to me. It was like if someone cut a turkey bone or something. What all of that taught me was putting one sample that has nothing to do with a specific record and putting it together.
When I met RZA, I told him how I felt not knowing how to play the piano was a crutch, and he told me he made his first platinum record not knowing a single key. That has stuck with me to this day and that inspired me to make “Plain Jane” and go 3X platinum. You don’t have to necessarily be professionally trained. Some of the people that are professionally trained won’t play a certain way because they think that’s not the right way to play it. But what is the right way when you’re creating music and expressing yourself? The only right way to express yourself is to express yourself. There’s no right or wrong in that.
With the success of “Plain Jane” bringing more attention to you and your art, how do you keep yourself balanced?
I’m just chilling. There are all these people twerking and going crazy for “Plain Jane” and I’m just in the crib chilling [Laughs]. I like all that stuff, don’t get me wrong, but I just rather chill. When I do get in that zone and I need to go back to that place where I’m comfortable, I drive around Flatbush. That’s my thing, I love driving. People aren’t really a factor for me to be sane. It’s what I’m doing in the atmosphere that keeps me sane. People surprise you and I’ve been surprised too many times.
What’s the lasting effect you want to have in hip-hop?
I want to successfully be the jack of all trades, man. I really want to do next level shit from stage design to scoring music to halftime shows—-stuff that you can only figure out if you go into my mind. I want to have a hand in everything, even if it’s only 40%. I want to be remembered as the dude who did everything he wanted to do and never held himself back. I’m trying to create a world that I can live in and the only way you can do that is if you understand a lot of the shit that’s going on in the world. That or have your hand in a lot of shit. I really strive to be different.