Kota The Friend spoke to Okayplayer about pre-gentrified Brooklyn, completing his new album Everything under quarantine, and his hope-heavy presence in the borough’s full-circle rap renaissance.
These days, even the simple things require an extra step. Laundry is a germ gauntlet. The grocery store’s an if-needed-only destination. A walk in the park demands superhuman body-dodging abilities. Nevermind taking care of your kid, a loved one, or somehow checking all of these boxes while writing and producing an album in the epicenter of a global pandemic.
Kota The Friend, like so many independent musicians, is leaning on hardwired DIY pedigree to manage the unthinkable weight of the moment — do it all, be it all, and bring everyone with you. At 27-years-old, the Brooklyn rapper and producer has found and excavated a label-free path like few others, etching his own blueprint for indie rap moves and speaking his ambitions into existence. On his third studio album, grandly titled Everything, Kota The Friend gleams an earned and infectious hope; the feel-good, outwardly vulnerable counter-balance to Brooklyn’s gorgeously gritty rap renaissance.
Beaming in, as is now customary, from his corner of the internets, Kota The Friend checks in with Okayplayer from quarantine with a road map of how he made and independently released his latest album. He also reminisces over a pre-gentrified Brooklyn, shit-talks major labels, and details plans for building an equitably-owned and holistically structured company to service independent artists.
First and foremost, how are you?
I’m good. A little bit burned out after the whole album process. Like quarantine obviously happened and the coronavirus and everything is just mad right now, but other than that, I’m pretty good.
How’ve you been dealing with the quarantine?
Honestly, I’m pretty busy. Just making sure everything is right for the release. Spending time with this guy right here [Kota’s three-year-old son bursts into the room] and trying to find some peace and just walk outside a little bit, take a breath fresh air, spend time with family.
[My son is] doing as good as he can for a child. Always wants to go outside, always wants to play in water when it’s a little bit too cold. There’s so much that he wants to do. He’s ready for summer, but we can’t go to the park. We can’t see his friends. It’s a struggle, but we were bonding a lot. So it’s working that way.
Have you been staying in Brooklyn?
Yes sir, Clinton Hill.
You grew up there, right? Probably wild seeing the neighborhood change the way it has.
I already know. We’ve been here for like 20 years, so we’ve seen the whole thing. I saw the last building burned down here. They’re really building up the neighborhood and taking out the McDonald’s and putting in the pet shop. I always say I wish I was taking pictures.
Is there something specific you miss about that era Brooklyn?
I think I miss when everybody used to be outside. Just the parks used to be filled up to capacity and basketball tournaments and there was always traffic. It was a really busy place, but busy in a cultured way. And not just busy with people going into restaurants and sitting outside. You have to mention stuff like that. I mean, basically everybody was all around. You can bump into your friends at any point in time, have a pickup game with your homies, boom, go to the next part, you have the same thing. You could really have fun.
Everything is your third independently released studio album. And the indie rap lane is something you’ve navigated better than most. Was that always how you were going to do this or is your path based on not getting the looks you wanted from majors?
Well, I took the independent route because I think I realized early on that it was going to be on me. Like my career, everything. I realized every time I had to rely on somebody to do something, it wasn’t going to get done. Either they didn’t believe in me or they didn’t really know where it was going. Everybody’s really kind of selfish with their support and it just didn’t make me better. So the only way that I’m going to get it done is if I get up and do it. And it just so happened that every time I leveled up, the people that I was trying to get in touch with before were hitting me up.
And I would just be like, “Eh, I’m just going to do it on my own. Because now there’s nothing you can do for me and I can’t find where you fit into this new space that I’m in.” Me and my cousin were just talking about it. Once your price goes up, everybody wants to pay you what you were charging last year.
So we just realized we’re never going to get what we want, because that’s not how business works. You don’t get what you want in business. We just going to go into business with ourselves. We’re going to hire people that we want to hire that are good at what they do, but be fair to everybody. And we’re pretty much starting our own infrastructure where everybody’s treated the right way and where we can put on other people that are actually talented and deserve a spot while they’re still in the works of what they’re doing.
Once you figure out how to do it yourself there isn’t much of a need to call on the people that weren’t there when you actually needed them.
So you learn to do everything and you find people along the way that want to work with you. And they may not be part of a big company, or they may not have crazy credentials, but they’re willing to work by your side and learn with you. And really, I saw a lot of value in that. And we kind of built a team that way.
Are you thinking about launching a label/imprint?
I’m thinking about launching a company. I don’t know if I want to call it a label and I’m not going to say that it’s like a label. I just want to create a way to help artists that are actually at the bottom with no fans that are talented — and without me taking 80% of their music or owning it outright or anything like that. I want to create a situation where you own your music. You come from a hundred followers, a hundred listeners, and everything, but you got it. We’re going to be in business. We’re going to be an actual business where we get paid for what we do. We’re not going to get paid for the rest of your career. We’re going to get paid for what we do and that’s it.
Who do you have your ear on right now?
Who else, man? I’m really on the prowl for some like good, some dope indie acts. One of my best friends, his name is Hello O’Shay, he’s so dope. And I’m really searching for people that are actually independent and not on a label. But they get picked up real quick.
Honestly, I thought that was gonna be your path. But that’s also why it’s so interesting to hear you discuss how you’re building yourself and the community of musicians you work with.
That’s the way you got to do it if you really want to make a difference. You have to be free to give other people freedom. That’s something I couldn’t do if I was on a label. Like I would have so many restrictions. I probably wouldn’t be putting out my album the way it is now. I would probably have to add this feature and that feature. It’s like, oh no, you got to get this person on your album. And it wouldn’t feel the same. And I wouldn’t risk it. I care about my fans too much. I care about my music too much. And it’s just not worth it. It’s not worth the dollar amount they want to put on your head.
Oh, for sure. At the end of the day, you’ve got to pay that shit back anyway.
I’m telling you. Thank you for saying it. I’m glad I didn’t have to.
With so much of the album on your own shoulders, have you felt stifled at all by the pandemic?
I felt stifled…because there are vocalists and musicians that I would like to record myself. I like to record people. If I have somebody doing background vocals, I want to be with them in the studio because I would be telling them like, “Oh, punch this in here, do that. Or add harmony.” And usually, I get perfect results that way. But with this one, because everybody was quarantined in their crib, I kind of let everybody do their own thing. I would give them the track and I was just like, “Bro, you kill it with the vocals. I just need you to do what you feel.” It’s like you’re either very particular or you just kind of let a professional do what they do.
Talking about your relationships is an area you seem really comfortable in. Why do you think rappers tend to avoid that space? What draws you to it?
I feel like people have their lanes. Especially in rap. A lot of dudes don’t want to be vulnerable in that way. And that’s just the male in us, you know what I mean? The masculine. It’s just energy. But some artists do it and I feel like I’m one of the artists that just kind of can do whatever. I don’t come off as hard. I don’t rap about gang shit. And at the same time, I don’t objectify women and or anything like that. I simply talk about my life and where I want to go and my dreams and everything. It’s just part of who I am and I try to be.
If feels like Brooklyn’s in the middle of a full-circle rap renaissance. And I think your contribution, specifically, offers a shade of optimism and hope to this moment. Was there something about how you came up that gave you that grounding?
Oh wow. That’s a really good question. I grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness.
Like, you were knocking on doors?
No, I wasn’t. But my mom was. You only knock on doors when you reach that level.
It’s like going Super Saiyan.
Yeah. Basically, it’s just moving up at a job. When you’re ready for a new job, you work it. They give you a shot. So my mom is a Jehovah’s Witness and growing up in the truth you were always reminded of paradise and the opportunity to live forever in a great peaceful earth. And so I think that idea kind of stuck with me and I haven’t really thought about it a lot until now, until you asked me this question.
I used to rap about really sad and depressing things. And I think I got to a point where I realized that just my words are powerful. So I decided to turn that around and start manifesting good things in my music. What was happening in my life was based on what I was rapping about my music. Stuff I was rapping about three years ago is happening now. Like traveling the world and touring. And with this new album, I want to make music that I needed to hear when I was down. I want to make music that people need to hear when they’re down so they can get up.