ABOVE: CJ FLY. PHOTO COURTESY OF DEE FROSTED
From the ’90s scratch-and-scribble bombast of Statik Selektah’s “Day ZzZ’s” production to the ’70s gangster flick-sound of the Backpack-helmed “Left Get,” Thee Way Eye See It is arranged like a movie montage, minus the camera. Rapper CJ Fly, of Brooklyn collective Pro Era (also home to Joey Bada$$), likes to filter Golden Age hip-hop through his 20-year-old lens, to achieve something he simply calls “truth.”
“I don’t really like to over-exaggerate,” Fly says. “Everything in my life that I rap about is realistic, so there’s really no need.” Having opened for A$AP Rocky and Wiz Khalifa on tour, alongside Bada$$ this past summer, his “truth” is about to become widely known—especially if his stellar mixtape debut and upcoming Pro Era collaborative project (set for this Valentine’s Day) have anything to say about it.
Interview is pleased to exclusively premiere CJ’s “Q&A” video and chat with the rising emcee about comparisons, careers, and crazy experiences on the road, below.
MARCUS HOLMLUND: People know you as your rap moniker, CJ Fly; what’s your real name?
CJ FLY: My real name’s Chaine Downer, Jr. Like “Downy,” but with an “er.” And my first name is pronounced “Shane.”
HOLMLUND: Where’d you grow up?
FLY: Brooklyn. Been here all my life.
HOLMLUND: You’re young and you just crept up on us…
FLY: [laughs] Yeah, I’m 20. Will be 21 in July.
HOLMLUND: How were you discovered so young?
FLY: Honestly, I still feel “undiscovered.” Actually, not so long ago in high school, my boy, Joey [Bada$$], got discovered… No one really came and found CJ Fly, if you know what I mean.
HOLMLUND: What really put you on the radar, I think, was touring this past summer alongside A$AP [Rocky] and Wiz [Khalifa] on the “Under The Influence” tour. How was that?
FLY: It was an amazing experience; and it’s weird, because nobody ever really asks about that, and it was so big for us. It opened our eyes to what real shows be like. When we [Pro Era] started out, we’d play concerts for like 200, 300 to a thousand people, and then with the “Under The Influence” tour, we’d play to hundreds of thousands of people. It was insane.
HOLMLUND: Any crazy experiences on the road?
FLY: Yeah, definitely. There was a rainstorm in Detroit when we were there, and there was a mudslide at the top of the stadium, so many crazy things…
HOLMLUND: Wow. What else?
FLY: We [Pro Era] are still independent, so we drove our own sprinter van, we didn’t have a tour bus or anything like that. The van we drove ran out of gas in the middle of nowhere in New Mexico. We had to climb down this hill that the highway was on just to walk to different gas stations to find some diesel. We finally ended up getting help from an old native with a pick-up truck that had an actual pet wolf in the back.
HOLMLUND: Totally crazy.
FLY: It was.
HOLMLUND: For Thee Way Eye See It mixtape, do you reference aesthetically anything you listened to growing up in Brooklyn?
FLY: I wouldn’t compare my sound on the mixtape to anything, but my influences are like—the minimal amount of hip-hop that I actually do know—because I didn’t grow up listening to hip-hop like that. No one really put me on to hip-hop like that… My dad’s from Jamaica and my mom is from Barbados, so that’s really the stuff I grew up listening to. You know, stuff from their heritage. I’d say my sound’s really rooted in that, infused with just me growing up in Brooklyn, really, and being an American kid. Everything on the project speaks to a different part of my life.
HOLMLUND: For “Q&A,” what’s that point?
FLY: Honestly, it was just things that touched my soul when I heard the beat that my Cali producer, ESTA of Soulection, did at that moment.
HOLMLUND: About the beat… how do you respond to people comparing its similarities to Audio-Push’s “Shine” by Hit-Boy?
FLY: While on the “Under The Influence” tour, we crossed paths with Hit-Boy and Audio-Push, who were on the Lil’ Wayne tour at the time. They brought their bus to the venue we were at and invited us aboard to preview their project, so they could present the idea for Joey to lay his verse on “‘Tis The Season.” I had my song “Q&A” for about seven months or so by then, but it wasn’t mixed, so I couldn’t play it for people other than my crewmembers until we had the final product. While they were playing their project to us, we all stumbled upon the “Shine” record. When it started playing, my heart instantly dropped, and I looked at my crew in shock because they had used the same Janet Jackson sample I wanted to use for the single from my project [“Q&A”]. My crew looked back at me smirking because we all knew I had sampled the exact same Janet Jackson song already. We continued to listen and made no comment about the version I had, just commending them for their take on it. At first, I felt discouraged to even use the song at all, but everyone reassured me that my shit was crack. I didn’t bother worrying about the comparisons because I knew it would be viewed as Thee Way Eye See It—which, of course, is the title of the project itself.
HOLMLUND: Do you have a favorite track on the mixtape?
FLY: “Thee Heiiist” is one of my favorites.
HOLMLUND: Why is that?
FLY: I think I got possessed by some rap gods on that track, honestly. [laughs]
HOLMLUND: What gets you in the zone to record your material?
FLY: I don’t know, I used to like smoking before I recorded, but, now it’s just kind of like thinking about executing it… I just want it to be the best and all that. That’s what really gets me in the zone nowadays. I want to put my best foot forward and make a statement.
HOLMLUND: How do you usually write?
FLY: Sometimes I write it down, sometimes I freestyle. I get lines coming to me randomly throughout the day and I’ll jot it down and build on that. If I get a line that’s about love, it starts up a whole love verse… And if a beat speaks to me, it’s like I already know what to write.
HOLMLUND: You took a turn as art director for the mixtape’s cover. Tell me about that.
FLY: Yeah, I came up with the cover concept about a month before the project dropped. I just decided to go into a [movie] theater and visually create what the project was like to me. The mixtape’s like a movie you can visualize while you’re listening to it, so, I wanted the actual visual to be cinematic.
HOLMLUND: Anyone’s career you idolize in the game that you’d like your own path to follow?
FLY: There are three people’s careers I’d like to meld together into my own… Jay Z’s for his business mindset, Macklemore’s hustle as an independent artist, and Bob Marley’s impact on the world and how refined and genuine his music is to this day.
CJ FLY’S THEE WAY EYE SEE IT MIXTAPE IS NOW AVAILABLE TO STREAM OR DOWNLOAD, ABOVE. FOR MORE ON THE ARTIST, PLEASE VISIT HIS WEBSITE.