Kirk Knight, Pro Era's go-to beatman, discusses the rise of his Brooklyn crew, balancing rapping and producing, and his decision to make an instrumental album after last year's "Late Knight Special."
"In 2016, instrumentals are more important than rap. Producers be doing a lot," says 20-year-old Pro Era member Kirk Knight, who both raps and produces. But his heart really lies in the latter craft. Though he considers production to be the prime component of today's trending sounds -- "rap that makes you feel yourself" -- he's always had a special admiration for what a producer can bring to a song, pointing out that Jay Z couldn't have made the song cry without Just Blaze.
He feels that the new instrumentals he's been working on represent him better than anything on last year's Late Knight Special, his self-produced debut album, on which he raps on all 12 songs. In an interview with Noisey before the release of Late Knight Special, Kirk shied away from calling the project an album, even though it was commercially released via Cinematic Music Group, saying, "I would never put out an album this early because it's like I'm not even musically ready for that yet." He's ready to call Black Noise, his upcoming project -- entirely instrumental, an album.
In middle school, Kirk met Joey Bada$$, who convinced him to put his lunch table beat-making skills to the test and start learning production software. Back then, Kirk counted his hobbies as music, chemistry, and little else. Indeed, Kirk is always searching for the perfect beat, though he knows such a recipe might only contain three or four ingredients. A loop so clean that it could play out for hours without sounding the least bit stale -- take "The World Is Yours" or "Shook Ones, Pt. II," for instance. Kirk has been honing in on his penchant for boom bap-type beats designed to elicit an immediate and lasting bobbing of the head. He's landed on a few huge ones, most notably "Big Dusty," the lead single off Joey Bada$$'s debut album, B4.DA.$$. The chilling late-night instrumental is much more in the vein of the aforementioned Infamous beat than the Illmatic one.
Kirk also lent a gentler, more reflective instrumental to B4.DA.$$ with "Hazeus View," which he had long kept in his personal stash before finally deciding to bless Joey. "He wanted that beat so bad, bruh," says Kirk. "I was like, 'Damn, why am I gonna be the man holding back another man's creativity cause I wanna rap on a beat?'"
Songs like "Big Dusty" earned the Pro Era crew a reputation as being revivalists of the mid-'90s heyday in New York. It's a label that was partly useful seeing that they were some of the few New Yorkers not making songs inspired by other regions, though it's one that Kirk and his fellow crew mates have ignored as they've achieved a brand that extends way outside of the city.
When Joey first emerged as one of New York's most promising young talents, Kirk played his main hype man. Slowly but surely, Kirk's production began to prove itself as an essential component of the Pro Era movement, and he started getting tapped for work outside of his crew, lending beats to Smoke DZA and Mick Jenkins, the latter whom is now his labelmate at Cinematic. Earlier this year, he teamed up with A$AP Ferg for "Flem," which boasts an expertly chopped loop of a sampled harp riff along with pulsing bass drums and moody textures more in line with Ferg's usual sound. "Kirk Knight on the beat, feel these vibrations through your feet," raps Ferg.
Having guest verses on two of Joey's fan-favorite mixtapes, 2012's 1999 and 2013's Summer Knights, as well as being a vital voice on all of the Pro Era compilations, those who had been following the collective knew that Kirk could rap. But he wanted to prove himself as more than a reliable cypher participant. Thus he devoted himself to what became Late Knight Special. The album is a far-reaching personal statement, as Kirk paints himself as both a loner and a lover, and a child of hip-hop whose craft affords him both inspiration and stifling pressure. Joey shows up for what stands as Kirk's biggest hit to date, "5 Minutes," boom-bap of the darkest variety, and "Knight Time" shows that Kirk can easily channel all of the menace of the Brooklyn streets on his own.
Though Late Knight Special stands as Kirk's coming out party as an emcee, it's just as much a showcase of his growth as a producer. He experiments more freely than on the boom-bap collabs he was known for, taking increased influence from the lushness of Dilla beats and the psychedelia of Madlib. He also finds freedom in spearheading his own collabs, calling upon forward-thinking Chicago talents like theMIND, Noname, and Mick Jenkins as well as the LA bass wizard known as Thundercat.
Kirk hit a creative lull after his debut album, and it was Mick Jenkins, who guested on the LKS track "I Know," who offered him a career-changing piece of advice. "He was telling me the realest shit," Kirk recalls, "He was like, 'You gotta figure out what you want people to look at you as. When they say your name, what's the first thing that will come to mind? What gravitates to your name?" That sparked his decision to reinvest himself fully in production, but not for other rappers. For Kirk Knight.
"I ain't gonna let the lack of raps on it hold me back," he says of Black Noise. "Look at it like music." Thus far, he's only released one track off Black Noise: "Young Ones." The song is meant to be heard in its every detail -- an attempt to show that a beat can be beautiful and expressive in itself. His usual drums are met with a vocal sample chopped into an atmospheric haze. A laser-like synthesizer soon takes over and threatens to go haywire, eventually settling back down into the backdrop -- like a smooth voyage through space with a surprise asteroid shower. The album seeks to balance the simple template that's Kirk's bread and butter with lively new improvisations that come naturally when there's no rapper beside him.
"I just look at it, hear it, sit in the studio with it, and I'm like, damn, this is me," says Kirk, more excited about Black Noise than anything else he's been a part of. "This is actually me. Music me."