It’s been nearly eight years since Pro Era co-founder Capital STEEZ died. And despite the fact fans have heard little new STEEZ music posthumously, there remains a small, dedicated cult following engaged with the rapper’s story.
The rap group Pro Era stands around in a circle in The Source’s downtown Manhattan office, their young, eager faces beaming in anticipation as they look into a camera in the center of the room. The collective, consisting of Joey Bada$$, Capital STEEZ, Kirk Knight, CJ Fly, Rokamouth, and Aaron Rose, is just beginning to make a buzz, and this is their first major promotional interview. Although Joey Bada$$, who’s only 17, takes center stage, holding the mic as the rest of the Pros fill in the space behind him, it is the group’s founder, Capital STEEZ, standing in back who grabs the attention. As STEEZ begins to rattle off about the philosophy behind the group’s name, you can see the nerves and adrenaline playing out on his face. “The Pro Era, it’s like … we’re productive, progressive, professional,” he says, his eyes wide and excited. As he speaks further, it becomes clear that it is not just nerves and excitement dancing in his eyes, but a certain hunger. “Truthfully, in my mind, I live in 2047,” STEEZ says, remaining straight-faced. His friends around him laugh, and STEEZ caves and cracks a smile.
Only a month later, in June of 2012, Joey Bada$$ would go on to release his debut mixtape 1999 to much critical acclaim. The collective would quickly follow it up with their collaborative-mixtape PEEP: The aPROcalypse in December. Pro Era — which was founded by STEEZ and producer friend Powers Pleasant on a late-night bus-ride home from one of STEEZ’s own solo shows — seemed to be on the precipice of a limitless future; as far as onlookers were concerned, they were just getting started. But then, on Christmas Eve of that same year, tragedy struck. Capital STEEZ tragically killed himself, jumping off the roof of the Cinematic Music Group office building in Manhattan’s Flatiron district. He was only 19. His final message to the world was a tweet — “The end.”
It’s been nearly eight years since that day. Fans have been promised STEEZ’s debut album, King Capital, countless times over the years, but the album is still entangled in opaque legal purgatory. Bada$$ alleges that the project is solely in the hands of STEEZ’s family and estate, whereas STEEZ’s sister, Tamara Dewar, claims that the project hasn’t been released due to Bada$$ refusing to give the family a fair royalty contract; at this point, it’s unclear if the project will ever actually be released. This seems to be a continuation of a pattern of bad blood between STEEZ’s family and Bada$$. In 2018, the family boycotted the Bada$$-hosted STEEZ Day festival over complaints that the event was ticketed as being a fundraiser for the Dewar family, when in reality the family saw little, if any, proceeds from the event.
Even without King Capital’s continued delayal, fans have seen disappointingly little of STEEZ posthumously, save the odd YouTube leak here or there. And yet, there has remained a small, dedicated cult following for the rapper, with countless tribute videos dedicated to him cropping up every year on YouTube and thousands filling out crowds at the previously annual ‘STEEZ Day’ festival (before shows were put on hold because of COVID-19.) In an era that is marked by diminished attention spans and fast media, STEEZ’s continued relevance for so many fans certainly raises the question: what’s so special about STEEZ?
A big part of it is certainly STEEZ’s content. With each passing year, the themes and topics which STEEZ tried to broach through his raps become that much more relevant and pertinent. STEEZ’s lyrics commonly concerned themselves with a variety of political issues — from the racialized economic inequality plaguing this country to raising the alarm on police brutality — many of which are now at the forefront of our nation’s conscience with the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer. STEEZ always knew things were horribly off, horribly unjust, even if the rest of the world seemed unconcerned, far too caught up in peripheral trivialities like the “lil’ youth sippin’ soda.”
If we look to STEEZ’s own youth, it’s not hard to see where his propensity for the political came from. STEEZ grew up to a Jamaican immigrant who was a single mother in one of the boroughs of Michael Bloomberg’s New York City — a city which ranked as one of the most economically unequal in the country and which performed millions of racially motivated stop-and-frisk searches throughout the course of Bloomberg’s tenure. According to fellow Pro Era member Dirty Sanchez 47, he and STEEZ were continuously racially profiled by police, with them getting stopped and frisked on at least seven different occasions. After each of these encounters, Sanchez says, STEEZ grew increasingly critical of the police and the government.
STEEZ’s distaste was not solely for the police and the government but really the entire system — the entire way our society is structured — under which he felt constantly constricted and funneled. “The reason I became a rapper… Well it was more like it was squeezed out of me,” STEEZ said on a radio interview with WNYU, “I mean, grew up smart, I always had intelligence, but I was always like this school stuff is wack. You don’t get to have any diversity, you don’t get to be you — you have to be what the system wants … but I grew up thinking I want to be different. So that’s why a lot of my lyrics are so passionate because I felt like [music] was the only way to voice myself.”
On STEEZ’s “Free the Robots,” the third track off his debut mixtape, AmeriKKKan Korruption, we can see how this feeling of constrainment translates to his music. There is an element of exasperation to his delivery that grows with each passing line: “It’s a shame that flippin’ crack is the best alternative if you don’t make it rappin’,” he practically shouts as the song climaxes. “But these crackhouses and traphouses are trappin’ us in!” The song then outros, and a sampled portion of “Dear Diary” by the Moody Blues plays. It gives the song a personal feel, as though these verses we’ve just heard are excerpts from STEEZ’s diary, entries of fury against the system delivered to us directly off the pages of his journal.
Perhaps it is fitting; a diary is where you go to vent when you have no one else to vent to, a place to outlet the feeling that no one is listening. It is a feeling which this current generation — with their views on climate change, politics, and racial injustice growing ever more divorced from the solutions offered by an aging political class — know all too well. After all, STEEZ isn’t the only one who professes this rejection and distaste for the system. Generation Z, a generation that has been polled as having lost trust in every major American institution, is practically in lockstep with this MO. It is this, I believe, which we can attribute as the second portion of STEEZ’s appeal; his music has tapped into a counter-cultural zeitgeist, with it being perfectly geared towards a generation which is steeped in distaste and distrust for the system.
This counter-cultural ethos is bolstered by another crucial fact: STEEZ never sold out. He spurned a record label industry system that prioritized accessibility and profit; he was adamant about not letting anything — not money, not labels — clip or dilute his message. And for the tastes of the Jonny Shipes-backed Cinematic Music Group label under which Pro Era was at the time signed, this was problematic — STEEZ’s heady “indigo child” routine and strong political convictions likely would not be easy to market to wider audiences. “STEEZ could have been commercial if he sacrificed a few things,” said Jesse Rubin, an employee of Cinematic Music Group at the time, “but he wasn’t willing to do that.”
It is for this reason that when Pro Era began to take off in the latter half of 2012, it was not the group’s founder who the label would decide to push, but instead the more palatable, swaggering Joey Bada$$. Bada$$’ releases were immediately supported by high budget video releases, whilst it took the label months to get around to producing videos for STEEZ’s releases; on Bada$$ and STEEZ’s breakout hit, “Survival Tactics,” the label changed the song credits from “Joey Bada$$ and Capital STEEZ” to “Joey Bada$$ featuring Capital STEEZ”, despite the fact that the song was STEEZ’s idea and he had chosen the beat; the group would constantly be marketed as “Joey Bada$$ and Pro Era” despite it being STEEZ’s brainchild.
Yet, despite all this, STEEZ continued on, unshaken. He continued to rap about his political grievances with the system, he continued going into interviews talking about his “chakras” and how he wanted to go to school to study “sacred geometry,” and he continued forging his rap career as he wanted it, refusing to be dissuaded by any imperative that might be presented by economic incentive. In a system which is constantly pulling not only artists, but people everywhere, to align themselves with the interests of profit and what makes the most money, STEEZ’s commitment to staying true to himself stands out as a shining beacon of encouragement. As he puts it powerfully on the track “Dead Prez:” “Some people like to compromise for the dollar sign, but I had my mind aside. And I’d rather die by homicide, instead of goin’ out without a pride.”
And so whilst the years following STEEZ’s death have been rocky, STEEZ’s legacy, and what he stood for, has remained steadfast. Capital STEEZ used his voice to both highlight the injustice he saw in the world and to express himself actually in face of that injustice, regardless of what the economic incentives of our society might have compelled him to do. For those who feel marginalized or who feel that they are fighting upstream against the conformity of an unjust system, STEEZ’s resilience and uncompromising commitment to his art serve as a powerful example. Perhaps Joey Bada$$ puts it best on the tributary 2013 track “#LongLiveSteelo:” “We was stoned by the snakes of this life of sin… But you taught us a life lesson, to always fight within’.”