Inside a private room in a Manhattan recording studio on a rainy Tuesday afternoon, Pro Era members Nyck Caution and Kirk Knight are shooting a video parodying the “Damn, Daniel!” meme. CJ Fly has no idea what’s going on. “Where have I been? How’d I get here?” Kirk’s already got his phone ready: “Damn Jesse!”
“Put it on Instagram. It’s gonna go viral,” orders Nyck.
CJ starts to respond but is interrupted mid-sentence by Kirk, who has hit the record button and is imitating the voice of Joshua Holz, the teen behind the camera of the viral Snapchat videos. Nyck struts around the small space, showing off his ripped 501s. Everyone is bursting into laughter watching it again.
Compared to his buddies CJ and Kirk, 22-year-old Nyck has the most eventful week ahead of him. In six days he’ll be releasing his Cinematic Music Group / Pro Era debut, Disguise the Limit, featuring Kirk and Pro Era’s leader, Joey Bada$$, who guests on two tracks.
Though part of an increasingly well-known crew, listening to a track like “Basin,” an insomniac’s tell-all of chasing dreams, it’s clear Nyck has differentiated himself from the pack. He takes a back-to-basics approach to music; every song has a meaning and a purpose.
“We’re still so young, so [fans] are just going to see that Pro Era is not one style, it’s not one thing,” Nyck says. “We’re all coming into our own.”
CJ is the same age as Nyck, but you can look to him as a veteran of the crew. He was the first to break out of Pro Era with his solo mixtape, Thee Way Eye See It, in 2012, and has since developed his own devoted following. CJ and Joey have similarities in terms of favoring the same mellow, soulful soundscapes that pair nicely with their intricate lyricism, but he’s a rapper’s rapper. A CJ project is perfect for your headphones, where you can dissect the layers and nerd out on the cleverness of his lines.
That leaves us with Kirk. At 20 years old, he’s one of the younger members of Pro Era. Yet he’s wise beyond his years when he speaks, using analogies like “if you drop your iPhone and you get a scratch on it, it gives you character” to describe his personal style. He was one of the standout names on Joey’s critically acclaimed mixtape 1999 on “Where It’$ At?” and got his name buzzing with Internet freebies like “Early Morning Hiatus,” “Brokeland,” and “Extortion.” He’s a double threat as a producer and rapper. “I like to study things in the studio. I have a lot of machinery—SP 500-44s, SP 500-55s, MPC 1000s,” he says. “I take the vibe in the studio just as seriously as my brother Nyck here because Nyck is one of my favorite collaborators.”
It’s hard to imagine any other New York crew who are quite as close as Pro Era. Formed in 2011—the name short for Progressive Era—they’re a tight circle of rappers, producers, photographers, and designers who all came of age in Brooklyn’s diverse neighborhoods. Nyck is originally from Mill Basin, Kirk reps Flatbush, and CJ is from Bed-Stuy. Joey, also from Bed-Stuy, went to Edward R. Murrow High School, where he met Flatbush-native Capital STEEZ, originator of the name Pro Era.
With 17 members (a number that fluctuates), the Pro Era family tree is intricate; mapping each connection would require a poster-sized diagram. Kirk and Joey, for example, actually went to the same middle school, but separated when they attended different high schools. Still, it was Joey who encouraged him to produce, pushing him from beating on lunch tables to creating big sounds.
In Nyck’s case, he met members of Pro Era at STEEZ’s mixtape release party for AmeriKKKan Korruption in 2012. A year later, on his birthday, Nyck got a chance opportunity to perform during a Phony Ppl and Dyme-a-Duzin show at the Knitting Factory. He impressed STEEZ, who was in attendance, and was initiated into Pro Era the next day at school.
By this time, Joey and STEEZ’s “Survival Tactics” video had gone viral (it currently has over 10 million views on YouTube), and rap industry attention was growing as Pro Era added more personalities including Chuck Strangers, Dessy Hinds, and Dirty Sanchez. Joey, with each release, was shifting from promising rapper to the new face of New York hip-hop.
Similarly, STEEZ was on the rise, becoming the second-in-command for Pro Era. But for reasons still unknown, he took his life on Dec. 24, 2012 at just 19 years old. He was a skilled lyricist, showcasing his sophisticated rhyme schemes on “Survival Tactics” and on five tracks from the group’s PEEP: The Aprocalypse mixtape. STEEZ was also known for his intriguing mind and spiritual outlook on the world, often referencing the “third eye” and chakras in his raps. In one of his last interviews with WNYU, he spoke openly about the importance of pineal glands—the part of your brain that’s supposed to activate psychic abilities. After his passing, he gained a cult following—the hashtag #LongLiveSteelo still permeates Rap Twitter.
“I look at him as the tree of the group. He was the glue [that] held us together. He came with a lot of knowledge. Everybody has a connection to everybody else, but somehow everybody was still connected to STEEZ,” CJ says.
Kirk adds: “He was a big part of everything. If you pull out a tree, you are going know that there was a tree in that spot forever. It’s always going to leave a mark.”
It’s an hour before lunch and Pro Era has a lot of energy. They’re shadow boxing, kicking in the air, and pulling off Bruce Lee-like karate moves in order to nail the perfect action shot. The guys are rocking Levi’s, each in an outfit they’ve picked themselves. Kirk’s decided to add a personal accessory with his chain, a half-moon that Joey had made for him. In between breaks, there’s friendly banter as they take turns DJing on their iPhones. The playlist runs from Anderson .Paak’s Malibu to unreleased cuts off CJ’s forthcoming FlyTrap. “This [is] Kirk’s favorite sh*t right now,” CJ Fly tell us, cueing up a track with intricate lyricism and a motivational hook.
As teenagers, Pro Era’s style was influenced by New York City, which CJ describes as “gritty, raw, untamed.” Surrounded by graffiti and urban art, the industrial-like environment and its rich legacy helped mold their fashion choices. “Brooklyn’s always been a place of fly people for years, for decades. We’re just another generation of it,” CJ says. “We got to keep it alive.”
Big Sean, Wiz Khalifa, ScHoolboy Q, and Kid Cudi are all cited as idols—individuals who were innovative in using style as a direct representation of their artistry.
“The more I’ve done live shows, and seen what I want to be in music, it definitely reflects on my style now,” says Nyck. “I look at everything as part of your image.”
For Kirk, the importance of style choices extends beyond the stage. “Sometimes I like to get really fly and then go to the studio because it makes me write something different,” he explains. “That inspires a line I wouldn’t usually say if I’m just chilling in my regular clothing. Clothing has a lot to do with the atmosphere of what I want to say.”
CJ is more relaxed, but his approach is similar: “I wear a lot of vintage jackets to reflect on a vintage sound, or I’ll wear comfortable clothes, like joggers or Roshe sneakers. Something I’m cozy in—[a] hoodie. My music is very comfortable, very personal, and that’s how I feel it reflects on that.”
To fully understand the scope of Pro Era’s development, consider the first week sales of Joey’s B4.DA.$$, which was released independently on Jan. 20, 2015. It debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 with 58,000 copies, beating out Lupe Fiasco’s Tetsuo & Youth. “60K first week for the B4.DA.$$/200K to this day, I know you * mad,” he raps on his new single “Ready.”
With Joey’s brand of nostalgia and rejuvenated boom bap sound drawing fans, each member of the crew has been given a valuable platform. And while a co-sign from Joey is a nice boost, CJ, Kirk, and Nyck don’t want to ride his coattails. They possess the same independent spirit as Joey, trying to get their rap careers off the ground with music that isn’t “thoughtless,” but through music with a message.
“It just made it seem like it was possible,” Kirk says of Joey’s rise. “At the end of the day, for people who try to follow music or any type of creative career, there’s a very low rate that you might succeed.” Seeing that it was possible “is what made us actually want to make music,” he explains.
CJ agrees: “Everything just seems more realistic and obtainable after seeing his growth. We just have to be positive and more confident with what we do. We’re taking note to try to not make the same mistakes and try to do better and all succeed together.”
Before our interview ends, Nyck pulls up the latest version of a track called “Get Down.” There’s a verse and hook by Joey and a verse by Nyck with enough blank space for another artist to jump on it. Everyone huddles around his iPhone as it blasts through the speakers. Nyck’s part comes on and he’s rapping his verse aloud, emphasizing certain lines by repeating them. Kirk and CJ start nodding their heads. The conversation moves to how they would re-do the hook. Should Joey re-sing the hook? Should they get another singer instead? A Pro Era brainstorm is taking place.
“The way a lot of songs get made is where I might get a beat, do a verse and a hook, and then I go, ‘Yo, I can hear you on this,’” Nyck says of their recording process. “I don’t think it’s the best way, but it’s strong because if I’m playing you something I’ve recorded and I love, it’s already strong and you just need to add your energy to it and it becomes our track.”
A typical studio session as a group is just like this. They feed off each other’s energy, making music depending on the mood for the day. They’re discussing direction and concepts, harnessing individual strong points to create a full listening experience. “If it’s a hype song, we all get hyped together,” says Nyck. “If it’s a mellow, message song, we all feel that vibe. We can switch. We can go from one to the other.” CJ adds: “Us as a unit, we have a common aesthetic. We all have our own styles within that. That’s what makes us be so cohesive together. We are stronger together.”
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