By Noah Sollinger | July 22, 2022
Raised in Brooklyn, Kota the Friend has been rapping since he has known how to put words to paper. “Pretty much by the time I could write, I was writing raps. Like as I was learning how to write, I was writing raps,” he told us.
Although it may have come first, hip-hop is far from the only musical part of Kota’s upbringing. In fact, he was an incredibly talented trumpet player from an early age. “By the second day that I was playing the trumpet, the teacher pulled me aside, and he called my mother up and everything and was like ‘your kid is gifted, he can really take this all the way and go to college with this instrument’ and stuff like that,” he said.
This was in the middle of elementary school, so the trumpet was far from the front of Kota’s mind at this point, and practice was not a priority. Nonetheless, his talents were strong enough to get him admitted to a special creative middle school. His time playing trumpet at that middle school led to him attending a similar creative high school, and eventually even attending college for trumpet. Although these programs were focused on the trumpet rather than hip-hop, they were still invaluable for Kota. “If it was a different program, maybe I’d be someplace completely different than I am now,” he exclaimed.
Kota’s time in school hugely bolstered his musical mind and talents. Eventually, he learned to levergaged his musical abilities for hip-hop and began producing his own beats. When he first began making raps at an early age, it was just him freestyling over a beat, but today, he makes the entire track from scratch. This means he can make beats that fit the vibe of the song he is looking to write, and can make every part of the track exactly to his liking.
Kota’s process undeniably works, as he has released several incredibly successful albums over the past five years. This includes FOTO and EVERYTHING released in 2019 and 2020 respectively, both of which have garnered over 100 million streams on Spotify alone. In addition, the music video for his hit song “COLORADO,” which features his trademark yellow lyric captions, has amassed over ten million views on YouTube.
Regardless of these accomplishments, Kota has kept his priorities in the same place. Multiple labels have come calling to get a piece of his success, but the fame and riches that come with signing with a major label were never his goal. “Even from the beginning, I always said that as long as I’m able to feed my family, and I’m able to put a roof over my head, I’m good,” he explained.
From creating his own beats to establishing his own unique music video style, Kota does it all and has no need for a label. In fact, each of his studio projects so far has been released under the label of his creative collective, Flight Boys (stylized as fltbys), which he formed along with several other young New York City creatives when he was a teen over nine years ago. Earlier this summer, Kota played two “Flight Night” showcases at Sony Hall, which are shows in which several members of the collective perform.
We caught up with Kota in his green room just prior to the first of these two shows where he answered some questions for the groovement:
Let’s start from the beginning. What was your musical upbringing like?
My brother liked Jay Z, so I was a Jay Z fan. I was trying to listen to what he was listening to, so I used to steal his CDs and his tape cassettes. I remember stealing in particular, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. He also had a Kanye album, but Kanye is actually somebody that I appreciated by myself. I was in a store called VIM, a sneaker store, and I heard Kanye West “All Falls Down.” And from that moment, I was a Kanye fan. But as far as stuff I was listening to in the house, it was like Marvin Gaye, Commodores. And as far as rap, it was Jay Z, and as we grew up, it was Ja Rule, it was 50 Cent. But at the same time, we had albums like Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. So it was versatile.
How has your creative process evolved as you have grown as an artist?
I think my process is very detailed now versus what it was before. When I first started, I would just take a beat, and write to it. Now, my process is different because I produce and write lyrics. I start with making a beat to create the vibe…I do the kick, the snare, a hat, and a sample…I’ll loop that for like an hour and then I’ll write the first verse, the hook, second verse, third verse. After I finish writing the verses, I record that then go back into the beat. After I finished the production, I bring in vocalists to do background vocals, just because I feel like nothing is absolutely full without some background vocals. Some songs are good without it. But one of my favorite producers is Kanye, and Kanye doesn’t do anything without background vocals. I learned that from him, it’s just the cherry on top.
Then obviously, you dropped Lyrics to Go, Vol. 1 like January 2020, just before Covid hit. What were your experiences during that time, and were you focused on your music?
Covid was just as challenging for me as it was for a lot of people. I was dealing with other challenges, personal challenges, so it’s just like, now that I think about it, I didn’t even care about the creative side, I was just trying to be okay, just like everybody else. And I was making music, for the same reason I’ve always made music, because it’s the only way to express myself. I really don’t know what I would do, or what I would have done in my life if I wasn’t able to express myself through art and music…I was just thinking “I have to put this in on wax, put this in a way that I can understand it.” Because I’m in a different space when I’m making music than when I’m talking to you. It’s a completely different thing, a different part of my brain. So I’m grateful that I had the ability to have a home studio and make music from something.
Can you talk a little about your music video creation process, how you make sure your musical personal identity comes through in those videos?
Style is interesting because it came out of just desperation, I didn’t have money to make music videos when I started out. What I did have was a background in cinematography.
Two years before I started shooting videos for other artists…I would be in 20 degree weather, 90 degree weather, 100 degree weather–whatever–shooting videos, sometimes for free. Just because I wanted to do it, and I wanted to get better. I was like “I don’t have money to get somebody else to do my videos, but I can figure out a way to make my own.” The cheapest way I knew how to make videos was to just put the camera up, I would stand at an angle, I would look into the camera, be completely still, and just spit the verse, because it was all about the lyrics anyway. I came up with the idea to put the lyrics at the bottom of the screen here, because I wanted people to focus on the lyrics. But at the same time, I realized that I could screenshot the video and post it on IG, and people would share it just because they like the lyrics. So let it be known that I started the yellow subtitles.
I know you have turned down multiple major label deals. What makes you want to stay independent?
Why sign a bad deal? That’s not a dig on other artists who do sign deals, because sometimes it might just be a situation where it’s the only opportunity…My thing is, even from the beginning, I always said that as long as I’m able to feed my family, and I’m able to put a roof over my head, I’m good. So I never felt desperate. I never felt the need to get on the label. Because I always felt satisfied with where I was at. I still feel the same way, I’m still feeding my family, I’m still putting a roof over my head. So there’s never a need. I don’t see the need to get super rich.
Can you tell us a little bit more about flyboys, the group performing tonight?
Tonight is really full circle. Flight Boys started in New York City, obviously, because I’m from New York City. Pretty much everybody on the bill tonight was on a flight nine years ago. Flight Night is something I started when I was 15. We used to host a showcase at this place called the Five Spot, it was like a 300 capacity venue. It was a club, but they used to let teenagers in for some reason.
We used to throw shows, because it was the only time where kids could get on a stage and perform. Usually kids [in high school] get to do the talent show…but in this space, we were able to really express ourselves, with no censorship. It was a whole bunch of 15, 16, 17-year-olds at a club, expressing themselves, bringing their bands, bringing their dance groups and stuff like that…Flight Boys the company, didn’t make money at the time because I was in high school, I wasn’t thinking about that. We were all just having fun. Iif we could have fun and break even for the night, it was a great night. Now we’re doing one with 1,000 tickets, and another 1,000 tomorrow. It’s really full circle.
What was the first live gig your performed?
My first live gig was at this restaurant that I worked at when I was 15 years old, Two Steps Down. The owner really liked me and she was great. She was almost like a second mom to me, and she let me do a show. So I took my band and we performed there, and that was my first time performing.
How would you describe your music, either by genre or general vibe?
I would describe my music as art.
What’s your pre-show routine?
Every morning, no matter what, I try to do my skincare. That makes me feel good. I do my skincare, I go to the show, I feel good.
Who or what do you draw inspiration from?
I draw inspiration from real life.
Do you have a bucket list venue?
What’s next for you?
I don’t know what’s next, we both will find out together.
📸: shot by Sarah Schneider