At the age of 24, KOTA the Friend has snagged the attention of XXL, The Fader, The Source, Pigeons & Planes, and OkayPlayer. As a fresh, new voice in hip-hop, KOTA is shaping out to be a force that cannot be ignored. I was granted the pleasure to interview KOTA years ago when he had less than 500 follows on Twitter, but from then to now, the rapper has built an impressive following, dropped his first mixtape, and even added a new addition to his family. Born and raised in Brooklyn, KOTA is a voice New York needs now more than ever. His newest single “Like Waters” was co-produced by Nimbus Beats and premiered on Ebro Darden’s Beats1 Radio Show. His show at SOBs is this Tuesday, May 16th. Doors open 7:30PM. Tickets are available here
I.S. Jones: From 2016 until now, you’ve gained a lot of traction from major platforms. So what made you decide 2016 was your year?
KOTA The Friend: From 2016 to 2017, a lot of things happened. I had my first child back in January. At the latter end of 2016, I started working on my next project, and really I just got excited about the music I was making. I started working with new producers, and when the XXL [Freshmen Class auditions] came, [it was] eye-opening for me. The head editors of XXL want me to tell them why I deserve to be a freshmen and it put me in a whole other headspace, I was telling myself “Just do it!” You know? I just decided this is going to be my year, because why not? Things are going well for me; I was able to do a show in L.A. and in Oakland. I have a show coming up at S.O.B.
Jones: Oh yes! I want my ticket, please!
KOTA: Yeah, I got you. It’s just like, I had a chance for all these things to happen, and so I decided all of these blessings are happening now. This is the window. I realized “This is my window”, and if I let my window pass, it’s gonna be tragic. It’s gonna be my year, not because everyone is fucking with me, it’s because I am fucking with me. Because the time is now.
Jones: Let’s talk about your son. He is so little and so beautiful!
KOTA: Heh, thank you!
Jones: It seems you stumbled into fatherhood. Did you want to talk about?
KOTA: Well, it wasn’t planned for sure. I definitely stumbled into it, of course. There are a lot of emotions that go into being a parent, getting adjusted. It’s been a super blessing. Before it happened, I was nervous, I was scared. I was like “Am I ready for this? I gotta get ready for this”. Just honestly, the blessings he gave me, being born and being on earth are way more than any other blessings that I’ve ever gotten in my life. I’m such a happier person, recently, with so much purpose. I know why I’m grinding. You could be grinding but you don’t know, but I know why I’m grinding because I want good things for him and I know I want [my son] to be proud of me. It just gave me so purpose, so much to work for, so much to live for. It really helped me put all of the drama, all of the stress, everything that was distracting me completely to the side and focus on the goal.
Jones: So, let’s talk about “Palm Tree Liquor”—it’s a beautifully produced album, only 9 tracks. It’s an album which creates a dreamy landscape of sound. Talk to me about the producers you were working with and talk to me about its sound. Is the sound you wanted for “Palm Tree Liquor” the sound that was generated when everything was mixed and mastered? Did the producers you worked with help you achieve your vision? Do you feel PLT was received in the way you had hoped? Talk to me about how the brainchild for this album began.
KOTA: PLT was 95% produced by me, but there were two other producers that were brought to me, but most of it was produced by me. It was definitely a journey. Sonically, it took a while, it took a full year to finish.
Jones: Yes, everything about the album feels very intentional.
KOTA: That’s what I like about it too. I feel every time I listen to PLT, there are sounds and things I did that I can’t really recreate, and I’ll listen to it thinking “Damn, what I did there was dope”, “What I did there was dope”, and it was something that came together at the time because it was the right time for it to come together. I feel this will be one of those projects people will return to and say “I feel this project was fully him”.
Jones: You were once a cinematographer, I know you said you put that aside to focus more so on the music, is that correct…?
Jones: What was the moment that made you decide to put this one aspect of your life on pause?
KOTA: When I think of when I started doing cinematography, it’s like I was making music before that and I knew I needed to change my direction because I wasn’t happy with where I was, so I sold all my recording equipment, all my music stuff, and I got video equipment. For 3 years, I didn’t make any music—I just shot video. I really honed in on the craft and seriously put in work. It took me far, and it took me to the point where I could have had a solid career just doing that. I think 3-4 years later, I looked it my life and thought, “I want to make music”.
The experience taught me I could be successful if I put my all into it. I was like “If I put this towards the music, then I could have the same success”. That’s what I did, because my first love has always been music. I realized that I wanna make music, I wanna be an artist, I wanna travel, and I wanna tour. I wanna be a real artist, so I took all that energy and put it right into the music. It’s been great so far. I’ve done my first set of paid features. What you put your energy into is where the success is gonna come from.
Jones: I notice the culture tends to financially exploit emerging rappers under the guise of “rap for exposure” or “pay to play here”. I think it’s really beneficial for those who love hip hop and realize they want to make a career out of it to seek advice or guidance from those who came before them or who are farther along. As an emerging artist, such as yourself who knows who they are in their music, who knows how to work the room, how does an emerging artist get paid for their work when they don’t have much of a name or have much footing in this arena?
KOTA: Honestly, people that listen to music and really like your music will not really care how big you are. If they really fuck with your music, they’ll want to pay to see you perform. The reason why I charge [to perform] now is that you get to a point where so many people are hitting you up for a feature it gets to a point where [you] can’t make money and do what I’m doing and recording all these features. You know…? You have to make a choice. Is this music thing gonna be a side thing? Or am I gonna do this full-time and really do it? In order to get people to pay you, really invest in you, they have to know you’re serious about it. They have to know you can go to distance and that you have potential, because if people see you have the potential to be great, the vision will show. They’ll want to get on when you’re not that big. I understand that completely because I would be same way. If I see someone killin’ it and he was dope but on the low, I would definitely get that on that first. I appreciate the people ate believing in me because they’re keeping me going. That feature money is money for my son. Summer wear, you know [chuckles]. Diapers for my son. It keep me going. I just wanna eat and stay afloat.
Jones: On Instagram, about three days ago, it looks like you were in front of Atlantic Records door in Los Angeles. What are you up to?
KOTA: I was in the studio with…I can’t say the person [chuckles]. We were in the studio, sharing some music and just vibin’. It was a meeting.
Jones: So now with ‘Palm Tree Liquor’ out in the world, and your next project on the way, is there anything you can tell us about your sophomore project…?
KOTA: This project is very different from PTL. First thing that is different: I didn’t fully produce any songs on it. It’s a completely collaborative effort with a bunch of other producers. I think it’s beautiful because it’s helped me to see other peoples’ vision. The sound [for this project] has gotten that much more broad because, I don’t have to take the time to make the beats. Then when I get on the verse, I know I’m not gonna get credit for the beat or verse, so I know I have to go hard as fuck. I have to put all this energy into this verse, so everything is more potent. Yeah, the verse is more potent, the hook, the sound, the mixing—it’s all on point. The sound is more grand. It’s obviously still me being more of myself, but it’s on a whole other level. More people will appreciate this project. I think it’ll be hard for people not to.
Jones: On more advice for upcoming rappers, your cinematography has financed a lot of your musical endeavors. What advice would you give to artists to curve the costs of being a recording artists—paying for studio time, use of equipment, getting features on your project, other costs an artist may not have accounted for? How do you alleviate that issue…?
KOTA: If you can do something on your own, do it on your own. A lot of artists are misguided in that they feel they need ‘this’ and they need ‘that’. You don’t need 5 music videos, when you’re an underground artist. You need to focus on making good music. When you go into these labels and you meet with these people, they’re not thinking of the music videos you have, they thinking about what the music sounds like. Every artist has to sit with themselves and ask, “Am I going to be doing this for the 5 years later or for the moment?” That will honestly eliminate a lot of stress and anxiety right there. You putting your time into anything is an investment; your time is your greatest investment. I’m not saying you only need good music; you also need to have a plan. Young kids coming up, 18, 19, 20, etc, you have time to figure it out. While you don’t have kids or other responsibilities, you can make this happen. You can network and make yourself known, just don’t get distracted by the bullshit in your life.
Jones: Finally, tell us about your show at SOB’s.
KOTA: I consider this show is my homecoming because it’s my first show at a huge venue in a while in New York. I’m hype for it. I can’t wait to bring out everyone. Everyone that I know—big and small—is coming to see me. I want people to know I am out here, so this event is a big deal. I really want to win over my city.
KOTA’s ‘Palm Tree Liquor’ can be heard here:
I.S. Jones can be found here on Twitter