Interview: Kota the Friend – Killin’ with Kindness

photo by Geoff Levy

by Jack Carenza

There’s never been confusion as to the honesty of Brooklyn’s Kota the Friend, even when it comes in the form of swagger.  On pristine new single ’96 Bulls, he claims in a potent final verse, (“I’m a unicorn in my industry”).  This line reverberates with indisputable truth as Kota approaches the rap game with distinctive artistic humility, and allegorical commercial independence.  The mythology of Kota grows each time he distances himself from the historically discriminatory and greedy clutches of record labels, each time his lyrics plainly edge a listener toward the crusade for simplicity, clarity, and inner peace.  With Kota the Friend at the helm, internal serenity feels achievable.  And what’s more is he provides palpable, relatable solutions for our everyday struggles: love and loyalty to family, finding peace through nature and personal space, self-reflection, embracing and subsequently discarding flaws.

“I think I often write things that I need to hear. Sometimes when I write I’m trying to manifest things into my life. I think it just comes out that way sometimes and sometimes it’s intentional.”

In the face of adversity, and injurious external forces, Kota has displayed remarkable maturity and poise, almost as if he has heeded the advice of his own music.  Rather than display hate, or self-destruct, he has turned to his love for creation, his love for his son, his earnest mission to build a simple, safe, and comfortable life, to accumulate generational wealth.  Self-control has only bolstered Kota’s shine and has provided a clear path for one of hip-hop’s most promising, endearing stars to create with trademark clarity, candor, and love.  We had a chance to catch up with Kota to discuss his dynamic plans for 2021 and beyond:

What are you listening to lately?  Any favorite record/album of 2021 to date?

The Vince Staples record is my favorite of 2021. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of soulful covers. I recently discovered a Sade and Neptune’s mash up of ‘By your Side’ and I can listen to it all day. Anything soulful and calm that makes me feel good.

Describe your writing process – do you generally write to a beat, or write lyrics and apply them to a beat where they fit?

I usually need to hear a beat that resonates with me in the moment. A lot of times I will revisit a beat that I Initially didn’t like and suddenly be inspired to write. Sometimes I just have a sample and a drum track and that’s enough for me to write an entire song. I’m heavily inspired by the music.

Your catalogue is largely composed of jazz-influenced/boom bap/lo-fi style beats.  What draws you to certain sounds, and what is your process for beat selection?

It’s part of my up bringing and my experiences. My parents listened to a lot of chill jazz/soul music when I was a kid. I played trumpet in a jazz band. When I got to High school was really into Nujabes, N.E.R.D, folk music, and acoustic guitar music. So, I incorporate all those sounds into my music.

Your son figures prominently in your lyrics, and even vocally on many tracks, which is incredibly endearing.  Can you explain his influence on your lifestyle, your music, and what you hope to impart to children/parents who may be fans?

My son is the most important part of my life. He definitely calms me down and grounds me. Knowing that I have someone watching my every move, he pushes me to be a better person just by existing. Whenever I am working on an album, he knows that at some point he is going to record his parts on it, and he makes sure I don’t forget. 

How did your relationship with Statik Selektah develop, and what was the experience like working with Statik as an exclusive producer of To Kill a Sunrise?

Statik and I linked up in 2017 when he invited me on his radio show ‘showoff radio’. Soon after that we got in the studio and made a song. We stayed in contact over the years and always spoke about doing a project together one day. At the beginning of 2021 we just buckled down, got the beats together and I recorded it in 2 weeks. Statik’s beats just make me wanna be the best rapper and give my best bars.

We love the Lyrics to Go format of compact, concise tracks with powerful messaging.  What attracted you to this format?

I made lyrics to go episode because I needed a cheap way to get video content out into the world. So, I propped up the camera, pressed record and stood completely still while rapping a verse. It unexpectedly started spreading like wildfire and so I kept repeating that system. Lyrics to go helped me get where I am today and helped me stay independent. Now everybody uses that format and I think that’s cool.

You have the unique ability to write specifically in your own voice, but with messages that are so universally relatable.  What do you think it is that allows people to connect so intimately with your music?

I think people connect because it’s coming from a real place. Even if the perspective isn’t necessarily evolved its always genuine. I make sure everything I write comes from the realest place in my soul. I believe that we all feel the same things at different times, so as long as I am speaking from my heart it will connect.

The importance of family, home and your personal space are often referenced in your songs.  What does the ideal Kota chill space look like?

I actually recently created my perfect space. I moved to California and created my dream home close to the beach. There are palm trees and bonsais in the front yard, A small porch, a backyard where hummingbirds and butterflies visit often. I have a hammock, a fire pit, workout equipment and a grill. I’m such a simple person and getting all these things makes me feel like i have everything I could ever ask for. 

I think fans often use your music in the way a reader might use a self-help book.  Do you create with this thought in mind, or is it more so a result of your creative outlet?

I think I often write things that I need to hear. Sometimes when I write I’m trying to manifest things into my life. I think it just comes out that way sometimes and sometimes it’s intentional.

Your output of music throughout the pandemic has been prolific – how has the state of the world during this time effected your creative process?

It’s been rough and a lot of the time I was uninspired and just trying to keep my head above water. Sometimes I made music because I felt like I had to. Recently I’ve had a flood of inspiration come in and I’m grateful for it. I feel like I’ve grown so much emotionally that I am making sense of things and it is becoming easier to put my feelings into words.

We were rockin’ heavy with Outside and are really excited to see how ’96 Bulls fits within the fabric of your project. Talk about how your independence shapes your ability to release the songs you want, on the schedule you want, on your own terms.  

I usually finish a song and release it 2 weeks later. I’ve never been one to hold onto music for too long. I want to get it out into the world because that’s how I feel about art. The world needs it. I’m always excited to see how it’s received and then continue putting out more art. Being independent gives me that freedom.

You teased an early set list of your next album Memo on social media.  Care to share anything about the project, and is there a set release date yet?

Memo is my most important work to date in my opinion. It’s the sequel to my FOTO album which makes it super special. ‘Everything’ was like a vacation and ‘Memo’ is like “let’s get back to the program now”. I feel like it is me at my best, musically, mentally, and spiritually. And I think that it comes across. The beats are produced by myself and my DJ e madonna along with some other musicians. Memo is the perfect ending to a story about personal growth and me coming back to myself.

I know you were expanding your Flight Night Festival Series before the pandemic shut everything down, and your LA show had already sold out. Do you have any plans to reintroduce the Flight Night Festival?

Yes, Flight Night is coming back in full effect. We will do shows in Chicago, LA, Harrisburg PA, NYC and then take it internationally. We want to go to Paris, London, Australia etc. in each city we will get local artists to perform. We will create fun events where people can discover new artists and get immersed in the FLTBYS NYC culture. We have big plans for Flight Night.

With growing anticipation, today, Kota dropped MEMO’s first single, ’96 Bulls. Backed by a beat that speaks to the billowing palm fronds and conjures images of warm days on hammocks, Kota is at his best, balancing superb tempo with surgical lyricism.  This track speaks heavily to Kota’s focus on personal growth, and on a dazzling future, but does not shy away from the fact that this is a bounce-back period after being, “down bad” and kicked while down. Kota has always had a knack for uprooting delectably charming bars with bold indignation.  ’96 Bulls conceals a vicious punchline delivered with tranquility and an indelible pun: (“You foes is faux, I hold the facts.”)

Wordplay, layering, mood, and meaning are dialed up, and as was the case on To Kill a Sunrise Kota graces us with the endangered (near extinct) third verse.  A switch-up in the beat sets the stage for quick-step, staccato Kota, who completes another superb single with the realization that despite all the imprudence, he is back to being, (“On the beach with my peace.”)

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