Pro Era came to be in a cafe in Brooklyn in the spring of 2011. Capital Steez (stylized Capital STEEZ) had a show that night, and a few of the future Pro Era kids — Joey Bada$$, Dirty Sanchez and Powers Pleasant — showed up for him. By the end of the night, the kids were reeling; the night had gone well. The next day at school, Steez and Powers gathered everyone and told them that they wanted to start a rap group, and they had already come up with the name: Progressive Era, or Pro Era for short.
“I actually didn’t really like [the name] at first, but it was more their thing at the time, so I was like OK, I can either dislike it and be out, or just be down and get used to it,” Joey says, laughing. “Pro Era just gave us a community to work in and just be inspired in and influence each other.”
After making waves with the now-famous Joey and Steez collaboration “Survival Tactics,” recorded when Steez was 18 and Joey only 16, the group released their first full-length on Dec. 21, 2012: PEEP: The aPROcalypse. This was Pro Era’s moment; everything they had done led up to this.
But just two days later, just before Christmas and the new year, that moment was shattered. Steez committed suicide on Dec. 23, jumping from a building in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. Initially, the details surrounding Steez’s death were unclear. The next day, none of the city newspapers covered the incident, and only a few music outlets reported it — and those that did weren’t able to substantiate exactly what had happened.
To honor Steez’s memory, Pro Era launched the first annual Steez Day in New York in 2015, which is held on Steez’s birthday, July 7. This year, they’re bringing the one-day festival — which features A$AP Mob, Danny Brown, Raury and other special guests — to the Novo at L.A. Live in downtown Los Angeles.
The festival was moved to L.A. this year because of a “radius clause” that Joey and A$AP Mob had with the Governors Ball Music Festival, which prevented them playing in New York on July 7 (radius clauses are an increasingly common tactic that festivals use to prevent artists from playing competing gigs in a market). Though Joey’s set was rained out at Gov Ball, they still see the joy in hosting Steez Day on the opposite coast. “Now people in L.A. can leave with that feeling of relating to Steez,” says Pro Era member Kirk Knight.
Steez’s death is still, of course, a difficult subject for Joey and Knight to broach. For Knight, who met Steez through Joey while they were still in high school, the bond was almost instantaneous. The two initially met at Joey’s house. Knight says of that day, “They were like rapping the a cappella to ‘Survival Tactics.’ And then it was at that moment that I was watching them go back to back, and I was just like, damn. That was like a moment that fueled me [to] come out of myself and make my own music, and just bringing my own aesthetic.
“Steez, like, he grew fond of me. He was like, ‘OK, I like Kirk, Kirk Nasty.’ That’s why I go by Kirk Nasty sometimes. He’s the one who gave me that name. Kirk Nasty, nasty on the beats.”
Steez was one of the first people to use one of Knight's beats and put it on a mixtape: the song “Hype Beast” from Steez's solo debut, Amerikkkan Korruption. “It was just a lot of love and support at that point,” Knight says.
In many ways, Joey and Knight follow a set of guidelines outlined by Steez — a sort of path to enlightenment. For Joey, Steez opened his eyes to spirituality, something that Steez was himself turned on to by Underachievers member Issa Dash. Steez also introduced Joey to the chakra system, and the concept of the third eye. Knight saw Steez as equal parts free spirit and free-minded thinker, and rebel and fighter. Both he and Joey carry and wear crystals that remind them of Steez, whose favorite crystals were tiger’s eye and malachite.
Steez was fascinated with the number 47, which he saw as speaking to his ideologies: The fourth chakra represents the heart, and the seventh chakra represents the third eye, or the mind. He created the 47 movement around this idea, around the unison of the two chakras, exemplifying balance, peace, love and truth. He also made his 47 logo resemble a swastika; he was purposely controversial.
“I literally just had to pay a parking ticket — it was $47,” Joey chuckles.
Both Joey and Knight attribute their success to the late rapper; Steez was really the one who lit a fire under them, the spark that showed them they can reach outside their home borough and relate to people on a wider scale. “He was just such an innovative thinker. I take that with me every day, like I try to think like he does,” Joey says, “For all of us in the crew, he was the best rapper — he forever set the bar high when it comes to lyricism.”
Steez pushed Knight forward, too. The rapper/producer says his debut project, Late Knight Special, wouldn’t have happened without Steez. “Steez always wanted me to express myself in a way that articulated how I think. … [Late Knight Special] showed my stripes and it showed that I can stand on my own two feet. It’s something Steez always did. Steez would always stand on his own two feet no matter what the cost.
“You never really feel like [he's] gone,” Knight continues. “It’s just physically gone. I can’t give [him] a dap, or I can’t really tell [him] how I feel about certain things in life or really politic about advice that would further my progression in life. But he never really dies. The lessons that they leave don’t ever really leave you. Mentally, that person is still there with you.”
Steez Day Festival 2016 is at the Novo on Thursday, July 7. More info.