KIRK KNIGHT IN BROOKLY, NEW YORK, JULY 2015. PHOTOS: RAF STAHELIN. GROOMING: YACINE DIALLO AT DEFACTO INC. SITTINGS EDITOR: JESSI JACQ.
East Coast rapper Kirk Knight (neé Kirlan Labarrie) first met fellow New Yorker Joey Bada$$ during middle school. Bada$$ quickly introduced Knight to members of Pro Era, and Knight began amassing credits on early albums from the likes of Bada$$, Mick Jenkins, and others. In 2012, the 19-year-old Brooklyn-born and based rapper was featured on Bada$$’s debut mixtape 1999 with the track “Where It’s At,” and has since self-released and recorded songs such as “Early Morning Hiatus” and “Extortion.” Now, he’s gearing up to release his debut project, Late Knight Special, on October 30 via Pro Era/Cinematic.
Drawing inspiration from everyday life as well as iconic figures, including Madlib, Kanye West, Notorious B.I.G., and J. Dilla, Knight’s music is infused with honesty and his own personality. He might have started by beating on lunch tables with pens and pencils, but during his time at Erasmus Hall High School, he was introduced to FL Studio, where he realized rapping—and conveying New York and Brooklyn’s inherent grit and ruggedness—was what he wanted to seriously pursue as a career. Before the release of Late Knight Speical, Knight met up with friend, model, and rising actress Romy Byrne in New York, where they spoke about his beginnings and process.
ROMY BYRNE: Okay, how did we first meet each other and how long have we known each other?
KIRK KNIGHT: I met you through [the founder of Cinematic Music Group, Jonny] Shipes, and I think it was that one time we went to Beauty and Essex—I feel like it’s the first time I ever met you.
BYRNE: I have no idea where I met you, but we met through work, through Shipes.
KNIGHT: He used to always tell me about Romy.
BYRNE: So what you are trying to say, Kirk, is that we met through the fact that I worked at the record label you are signed to. How long have we known each other?
KNIGHT: Could be a year now?
BYRNE: Kirk, I’ve known you for three years.
KNIGHT: Three years? Okay, you have the facts.
BYRNE: So I write poetry. Do you think there are similarities in the writing processes—writing songs and writing poetry?
KNIGHT: When I write, I think about the hook first. I just think, “What is the topic of this song? When I hit the beat, what is the first thing that comes in my mind? What am I going to narrate in the story? What is the topic I’m going to narrate this story around?” Once I do that, then I go to the verses and try to fill it in with nice little paragraphs of what I really want to say. That’s my process.
BYRNE: What about fashion? How does that play a role in your music?
KNIGHT: Well, fashion plays a role in my music…Like, if you’re doing a song that’s a celebration song, or you’ve triumphed over all your struggles and now I’m at this big time success—songs like those, I have to dress for that song to really be real, to really feel it. Then sometimes, for example if I’m making grimy beats or something like that, then I come to the studio in sweatpants. But fashion plays a big role just because it makes me feel a type of way. It makes me feel like I am that character I’m trying to portray in music.
BYRNE: So how did you get the name Kirk Knight?
KNIGHT: So my real name is Kirlan. Boys don’t want to really call you Kirlan, so my nickname on my block that I was growing up on, on Parkside [Avenue], was Kirk. And then where I got Knight from is this song I used to listen to all the time called “Michael Knight” by Curren$y. You know about Michael Knight…
BYRNE: Yeah. I know that song.
KNIGHT: So basically, he would go like, [chants] “Michael Knight, Michael Knight, Michael Knight.” And I used to just sing that shit. Then I was like, “Yo, Kirk Knight,” and I put it both together. Also, another reason is I like doing stuff more in the nighttime than in the day. That’s just a real fact. I love the nightlife of things.
BYRNE: You’re dark. [both laugh] I’m kidding. So, what do you think Brooklyn means to you?
KNIGHT: Brooklyn to me is everything, just because of the fact that this is the place where, when I opened my eyes, I was at, like when I was first born. Hearing the stories of how people used to hustle, how people used to fight for their right to live in Brooklyn, to how it got gentrified at a point—that’s everything around me. These are the things I see and have to project in my music. So Brooklyn is everything to me—the vibe, wearing Timberlands, wearing bubble jackets because the New York winters are harsh and cold. All these factors play into being Kirk Knight, ’cause that’s what I’m from. I always gotta rep that.
BYRNE: Does that come out in your music?
KNIGHT: All the time. It’s due to people like Biggie and Jay-Z, how they were rappin’ about the fast life, getting cash, but then also being on the tip, where we have our humble moments, where we feel vulnerable, like, “Damn, this is what’s on my mind and I gotta speak it from a vulnerable point of view.” Then there’s some times when I’m braggadocios and I have everything that I want. Then there’s times I see I got to get to a certain place, I gotta hustle, or the struggles and all that.
BYRNE: Do you think you would be pursuing the same path if you hadn’t grown up in the city?
KNIGHT: You know what’s so crazy? I don’t think I would, because I always wanted to be something else. When I was growing up, I wanted to be a chemist, ’cause I like chemistry. But then, being on the table, and seeing the groove of progressions, and the fact that words can go over that and fit into pockets, into that groove—and the background of BK has already kinda assessed the character of who you are supposed to be in a new generation.
BYRNE: So how did you first get into music when you first started rapping?
KNIGHT: When I first started rapping I was 16. That’s when I really took rap seriously. How everything started was that I used to be on the table [in school] with pens and all that shit making beats, and Joey [Bada$$] used to rap back in middle school. I knew Joey for a little hot minute. Over the summer he’d be like, “Yo, why don’t you take that to a program? Why don’t you actually try to learn how to make beats like musically, wavelengths, mp3…” That’s what we talked about. I’m like, “Okay, word.” I took that into account and kept pushing and pushing, and that’s how I got started with making beats.
With rapping, I used to just be in sessions with Joey and [Capital] Steez, looking at them going back to back. When I met all the Pros—I met the Pros through Joey, because Joey went to [Edward R.] Murrow [High School] and I went to Erasmus—it was just seeing how they ciphered and how they vibed that really inspired me to get to where I’m at today.
BYRNE: Were you always listening to rap?
KNIGHT: No. That is a strong fact. My brother used to listen to people like Yellow Cars, Calvin Harris, and Hawthorne Heights—stuff like that. When I turned to music, I told my brother, “Yo, I think I wanna try rapping.” He knows his background, and he was like, “Oh you wanna try rappin’? Listen to these dudes—Doom, B.I.G., Jay-Z.” [He] really put me on-game, so I knew my history when I entered the game. So no, I wasn’t always listening to rap. But “Miss Fat Booty” by Mos Def was the first hip-hop song I heard that really touched me. I was like, “Damn! This is hot! I could do…”
BYRNE: I feel that. [laughs] How did you meet Joey in middle school and become involved with Pro Era? What do you think you’ve gained from it?
KNIGHT: Going back to the last question, I met everybody through Joey in middle school and what I gained is just the fact that when you go into the music industry, what you say is really what you say, and that sticks with your character. All those songs add to your catalog of who you are. Every 16 that you spit is a little bit more that a person can know about how you think, your thoughts, how you feel about certain things. That’s how you get closer. That’s what I feel I have gained—I know that now, that that happens. That’s what motivates me to keep writing more songs, so people can get to know me more. Another thing that I gained is that your first decision’s got to be a decision that you believe in. There’s no half-stepping or second-guessing. It’s got to be like, “Okay this is it, this is how I feel, let’s go, this is what I want to do.”
BYRNE: Where do you draw inspiration from?
KNIGHT: Everything. But to be specific, I draw inspiration from experiences a lot. When you experience something, that’s going to be the only time you experience it unless you are put into the same situation again. So it’s me trying to remember those situations and put it into music.
Another thing is the silliest thinking, like, “Oh wow, I went into this store and I really like this jacket and it’s amazing, but I can’t afford it,” just the thought of that is what motivates me and gives me inspiration to make a song, to go to the studio. A lot of things. Women, too, are one of the big inspirations in terms of how I make music, because some of the things that men are going to hear or an aggressive rap track, women ain’t going to feel. You got to have a balance of both the aggressiveness and being on the feminine side. Those are things that I draw from.
BYRNE: What do you like and dislike about touring?
KNIGHT: The thing I like about touring is that you could be a new person every night. I could come to the city and be like, my name’s Dylan today and Bob tomorrow. [laughs] That shit is actually pretty fly, but only until the point where everybody knows your name and it can’t happen no more. Other things I like on tour is that I make a lot of music. “Extortion,” one of my favorite songs called “Pussy Facx,” all of them are made on tour just off the inspiration of the bus. Think about it: you’re 16, 17, touring the world—your thoughts are just going to go crazy. That’s one of the things I like about tours. Also, you’re a star 24/7. You’re at work! This is your job! [laughs] I don’t look at music like that at all, but you’re in the field and you’re doing what you do.
Things I dislike about touring is the long driving and rest stops. I fucking hate rest stops. They suck. It’s not your toilet. I miss my own toilet! [laughs] And then you get lonely, especially if you go on the road for three months, you might not even see family members. Or you go overseas for two months, you ain’t gonna see your family for a minute. That’s some of the things I dislike. Another thing, there’s one major thing: laundry. I already hate doing laundry at home, but doing laundry somewhere else is not easy! [laughs]
BYRNE: You keep buying clothes.
KNIGHT: You keep buyin’ shit and it’s like, when they get dirty, you got a show the next day. You don’t got time to really sit there and do that; you wanna get sleep, you’re tired. And that too—you’re tired and jet lagged. Everything hits you and you get really tired. One thing I like about touring is the shows—that’s everything—and the fans, oh my god, that just makes your whole day. It makes you feel like an artist.
FOR MORE ON KIRK KNIGHT, VISIT PRO ERA’S WEBSITE.