Interview: Inside Kota the Friend’s ‘Everything’

It would make sense for Kota the Friend to be feeling the pressure right now. With a loyal fanbase and standing on the cusp of the mainstream hip-hop industry’s radar, it would be normal for the 27-year-old artist to get jittery that this next project could change things significantly for him. But for someone with a lot weighing on his next move, Kota the Friend is unbothered.

(photo by @RaganHenderson)

Well, maybe that doesn’t come as a surprise after listening to Kota’s music. He often favors humility over arrogance in his lyrics, and his melodic flows tend to roll off the tongue with a constant sense of self-assuredness. Kota’s natural knack for hip-hop that’s laidback in its tone yet motivational in its content has allowed him to build organic hype around his music, engaging an audience drawn to his charismatic persona through self-produced records and self-directed videos that have amassed over 34 million Youtube views.

Today, Kota opens another chapter of his discography with his new album, ‘Everything’. The title alone suggests some grand vision, but for Kota, everything is pretty simple now. 

“It’s kind of like a painting,” he says. “After I painted the picture of where I want to be and the things I want to do, I just put myself in that picture and it wasn’t so blurry anymore.”

This level of clarity doesn’t come overnight, and Kota credits much of his outlook on life to his role as a father. It’s only right, then, that parenthood and family exist at the center of ‘Everything’. The album literally begins and ends with the voice of Kota’s son, and the verses in between come from a man who’s locked-in to the things that matter most to him.

As he joins me on a Zoom call from his new apartment (the same one he records music in), Kota talks to me about the new album and what ‘Everything’ means to him. He shares the same kind of wisdom in our conversation as he does on the album, and it’s difficult not to take his pieces of advice to heart. Read our interview with Kota the Friend below:

Part I: Making Everything

MDR: How are you doing?

KTF: I’m good, you know, just staying in the crib, like everybody else. It’s not that much different, except it’s just harder to like go to the store and, you know, everything is like a job now.

MDR: Yeah, for sure. Everything feels like it takes so much energy to do… So, I want to get into it and get into the new project, and I want to start by talking about the single, “BQE”. How did that track come together? Joey and Bas aren’t necessarily artists that do a whole lot of features, so what was it like working with them?

KTF: It’s cool. You know, I got on there with two of my favorite artists from New York, you know, so it’s like, I feel like we did something special with that record, you know, and even, I think Ebro played it on the radio and I was just like, okay, so it’s, it’s it’s I think it’s just good for the city, you know?

I met Bas in Vegas a few months ago and we kind of just connected like “yo I seen you from somewhere” and he looked at me like “I’ve seen you fro somewhere.” I was just waiting to send him something that I felt like would be good. And Joey, we’re both from Brooklyn. And so I remember seeing him back in the day and recently we got reconnected through Statik Selekta. I wanted to make a record that really connected New York City artists, but not necessarily the ones you hear on the radio all the time. And so I thought it would be a great song because they’re two of the greatest.

MDR: That’s cool that it came together pretty organically. Is that true of the other collaborations on the project? Tobi Lou was one that stood out to me right away. What was it like working with him?

KTF: I sent him the track. He loved it and he was like, I’ll send my verse over. A few months later he sent me the verse and I was like, perfect. I’m a fan of Tobi’s, so it made sense that I would try to get him on a project. We’ve never met each other in person … We just have a mutual respect for each other as artists.

MDR: And the features on the project aren’t just limited to rappers. Like Lupita and Lakeith obviously stand out with their two skits. What was your intention in getting them on the project and what did it add to the album?

KTF: I was on the phone with Lupita. She actually said that she was a fan of my music and I was like, “whaaat, crazy.” And Lakeith has been following me on Instagram for a while. I think that they’re very influential people, you know, like people are interested in what they have to say and like their footprint on culture. On this album, all the interludes and skits are pretty much people answering the same question: What does everything mean to you? Fans answer the questions, I answer the question, and I figured it would be great to get two people that are just so important to other people. We get a sense of what everything means to everybody on different levels. 

MDR: There’s a lot of features from live musicians and vocalists as well. For example, I think it’s “Away Park” that has the really nice viola solo. How do you know who you want to add to a song to take it further?

KTF: I just hear it. Like Braxton Cook for example, I shot a video for him back in the day, and he’s one of the best saxophone players, period. I don’t even give him any direction. I’m just like, “bro, I need you to get on this track.” Because I know people are going to do what they hear and what they feel, it makes no sense for me to try to tell one of the greatest saxophone players I want specifically this, this, and this. I’d rather them go by feeling.

It’s just a real organic way of connecting with people and that’s how it all came together. I met Alex [Banin] while she was working for a media outlet, and I didn’t know she sang at the time. Hello O’Shay is one of my best friends from high school, we’ve never lost contact. Even Joey, I remember when ‘1999’ came out almost 10 years ago and I saw him on the Q train and I was just like, “yo, the mixtape is fire.” … I’m a big fan of every single person that is on the album. 

MDR: The album itself is 10 songs and two skits. How many songs did you make in the process of this album and how did you cut it down to those 10?

KTF: I don’t think I finish every song. You know what I mean? I might record a verse and a hook and decide I don’t like it. That happens a lot. So I probably have like 30 unfinished tracks. I wouldn’t even be able to tell you exactly how many beats I have that I didn’t use, how many verses or hooks. 

MDR: Tell me more about your writing process. Are you someone that works really quickly or do you kind of take your time on songs?

KTF: Sometimes I’ll revisit things. It really all comes from the beat. Sometimes I’ll just switch out the sample or I’ll add something to a track and now it’s easy for me to write to it. Sometimes I just need to tweak one thing and then now the whole thing makes sense. I could be going through a mental process all day for like 10 hours just trying to write the first sentence. And once I get the first thing, then the whole thing comes out like vomit. 

The first song that I actually made for the album was “Mi Casa”. And I’ll never forget, it took me all day to finish that song, to make the beat, write it, record it, and do a little mix of it. That was the most excited that I felt during the whole album process, because that was the song that propelled everything else.

MDR: What is it about that one that you think set the tone for the rest of the album?

KTF: Cause for me it was just like the perfect feel-good track you know? … When I was writing it, I was picturing my perfect day. The perfect day when everything is kind of quiet and people leave you alone and let you be you. It’s  like I’m taking a day off today from all the bullshit from all of the negative people, negative energy. I’m chilling in my spot. Everything is great here. People never get [to have] that. It’s hard to really be in that space because life is messy and things are always happening and problems are always coming at you. So “Mi Casa” is really just like, “yo, all of that is gone. Come through to my crib if you want to experience a good vibe.”

MDR: That feel-good energy resonates through the whole project for sure. How long were you working on this album? 

KTF: I think I put out ‘Lyrics to Go’ in January. I think I started working on [‘Everything’] in March.

MDR: That’s crazy. So it moved that quickly for you?

KTF: Yeah, it’s been like a two-and-a-half month process. But it was like every day, all day, you know what I mean? Like I was seeing my son maybe like every few days. And other than that, other than seeing him, I wasn’t doing anything, I wasn’t seeing anybody. So I was already used to the quarantine thing because I’ve been doing that. I’ve been doing this for months. 

I had just moved into my new spot, and it came already furnished so like the chi was all fucked up, you know what I mean? I didn’t design it the way I wanted to. So I kind of just got used to it and I made this album here in this really weird environment for me–it is what it is.

MDR: Did working from your own place have an effect on the album sounding so intimate to you in a way?

KTF: Hell yeah. I don’t like studios; I’m going to be completely honest. I recorded ‘Anything’ in the studio, and I didn’t like it. I mean I liked the project, but I feel like I didn’t like the process of going to the studio to record. I’ll go to a studio to mix and master, but when it comes to recording, I always do my best stuff when I write and then I go straight into the booth. You can’t do that all the time in the studio because it takes too much time and it’s not always that comfortable. Sometimes I have an idea at one in the morning, two in the morning. I would hate to lose that momentum being at a studio.

Part II: What does Everything mean to you?

MDR: How do you get to that point where you’re so focused on the project that you can go in and work on it every day and not get distracted by other things? Is that just how you are?

KTF: It’s not. I don’t record all year round. I only record when I’m making an album or if I’m specifically trying to make a few singles or something like that. Some artists would say you’re always supposed to be recording. But you know, I have a three-year-old, so I have to be present for him. I work when I’m working and when I’m not working, I’m not working. So that’s that.

MDR: Do you ever worry that you’re not working enough? How do you balance things for yourself? 

KTF: I’m always worried about if I’m being a good enough dad. That’s where the worry lies, because I know what it’s like growing up when your parents are struggling, they always have to work. I’m always thinking about my childhood and how I want to be better, you know? So I’m going to work. That’s without a doubt. Cause I’m a person that gotta do their thing. But I’m more focused on making sure the balance is there for my son. I’m always gonna have to go on tour and make some money–obviously everybody gotta eat–but making sure the balance is good for the family is more important.

MDR: I was wondering if you could relate that to the significance of this project’s title. Specifically the progression from your earlier project, ‘Anything’, to ‘Everything’.

KTF: I think ‘Anything’ was when everything was kind of new. It’s like people noticing that you’re talented for the first time. I think I was really naive about a lot of things. And ‘FOTO’ is the kind of midpoint where you’re in it and you’re learning how to balance music and life and your family. And then ‘Everything’ is kinda like a painting. After I painted the picture of where I want to be … I just put myself in that picture and it wasn’t blurry anymore. The naive went away and I understood exactly what I needed to do in order to make sure that I have a balance. Make sure that I’m controlling my destiny and I’m not being moved by money and by fame and by other people that want to further their career but don’t care about me.

MDR: I feel like on ‘Everything’ you come off as wiser and at peace. I was wondering what impact has being a father especially at a relatively younger age had on you developing that mentality.

KTF: Being a dad has changed my life in every way, because all the things that used to be important to you are just not important anymore. You kind of see the bigger picture and you think long term. Your decision making becomes more efficient. The way you move, the way you use your time, everything. A lot of people don’t really a hundred percent get to the point where they’re able to manage their time effectively and really prioritize the right way. But I feel like because of how much I care for my child, I’m able to make those decisions.

MDR: What do you hope your son takes away from hearing this album, let’s say like 10 years from now?

KTF: I hope that he hears it and he understands that I don’t want him to be moved by things that don’t matter. I want him to be in control of himself and in control of his destiny at all times. I want him to have integrity. You need to be stubborn in that way with the things that matter to you. Cause if you’re not, then everybody can do whatever they want with you because you’re easy to figure out. 

I remember watching this Dave Chappelle interview and he said one of the greatest things. He was like, “my dad told me before I got into acting to set your price in the beginning. And if the price ever gets more expensive than that, then get out.” I keep that with me. And I would want my son to have that. Always set your price and never bend.

MDR: As you’re getting bigger and more popular and more opportunities present themselves, does it get harder to stick to that?

KTF: The hardest part is when the people around you are just really excited about a certain opportunity and you have to say no because it doesn’t fit. Like I might not want to be on tour for another three months, but it would be good for everybody else’s pockets and everybody else wants that experience. I’m very content with having little or not being super famous. I don’t have to take every opportunity just because it’s gonna bring me up the ladder of success. But for everyone around me, it’s kinda holding them back in a way, you know? And I notice that and I want them to succeed just like I want myself to succeed. How can I be there for everybody? That’s something I’m working on. 

MDR: Would you say that’s a mindset that you’ve always had? Have you always been the kind of person that just doesn’t get hyped by fame or success?

KTF: I used to get overly hyped and it never really did anything good for me. It doesn’t do anything good when you’ll take any opportunity and you’re down to be a part of anything. That was the grind, but when I found out I was going to have a child everything changed. That’s the first time you actually start thinking about somebody more than yourself. Obviously you care about people, but it’s not until you have a baby that literally shits on himself and needs you to feed him. When that came around, that changed my whole mindset.

MDR: Do you also feel pressure at the same time to be setting an example as someone that’s working hard and being successful for your kids?

KTF: Well, he knows it though. I realized that he’s going to grow up differently than a lot of other people, because he understands what I do. He understands that I make music and I go on tour and I perform for my fans. My son sees me working all the time and that I’m busy. It’s so strange that he really understands all of it. But I think it’s important for your kids to know both sides: you as a worker and you as a parent. I want my kids to understand that you don’t sacrifice one for the other. You work for the family. Everything is for each other, you know, work for the family and it should be balanced. If you don’t have a balance, then everything is just fucked up.

MDR: That makes me think of the line where you talk about “retiring by 30”.

KTF: When I say retire by 30, I don’t mean retire from everything. I definitely want to chill more on the pressure of making music and putting out albums. I’ve been doing this music thing for probably almost five years. And so in a couple years, I may just want to play in the background. I want to put on some other artists. I want to start a company that promotes independent artistry. Do my clothing line, you know, maybe start a a film company. There’s so many things you could do in this life. 

Also man, I don’t know if maybe it’s just me, but making music can be stressful sometimes. Having to be creative all the time with this music and sit down and put your hopes and dreams and demons on a record–that shit is hard, bro.

MDR: Would you say you still love doing it and how do you keep that fresh?

KTF: I love making music. There’s nothing like when you’re making a song and it just comes out the exact way that you wanted it. There’s nothing like making a song and then playing it back in the car, and then you giving it to the people and then just embracing it seeing it mean a lot to them. It means everything to the people that are listening. It’s a spiritual thing. I take that seriously and you know, I love making music. I love performing music. And I think I always will.

Part III: A win over Everything

MDR: Does having a background as a filmmaker and a director influence your approach to music or vice-versa?

KTF: Whenever I make a song, I could see a visual. It’s hard for me to make a song and not see something. Being able to do videos really propelled my career, cause my whole career is based on creating those one-minute visuals that was playing on Instagram for years, you know? So I owe my career to the fact that I know how to set-up a camera and I know how to edit and color a video the right way.

MDR: I think why a lot of people like you and what you do is because it’s all yourself for the most part. And also just your status as an independent artist. Do you have any advice for other independent musicians coming up?

KTF: I think it’s really important at the beginning of every independent artist’s career to audit yourself and figure out what you need. You can’t do everything by yourself. It’s not practical and it’s not sustainable. Unless you’re this perfect person who knows how to do everything perfectly and you just miraculously know everybody in the booking agent world who can just get you all the shows you need, you have to build a team around what you’re not good at.

MDR: What would you say to independent artists who feel pressure to change up what they do to seem more marketable or more successful?

KTF: I feel like there’s ways that you can break into another audience but still remain yourself. The moment that you feel like you’re changing who you are, you’re on the wrong path because you’re never gonna be happy. Even if you do blow-up being somebody else, you have to live up to that facade every day of your career forever. You have to be yourself. Even if you switch up the flows to get in a different space, make sure that you don’t switch up who you are, and your sound and what you like to talk about. What means something to you. You have to continue being you in every space.

MDR: Were there points in your career where that was threatened?

KTF: Nah. Never. I never thought to just make something that wasn’t me to make other people happy. I talk about the stuff I like to talk about and if you don’t like it, then so what? I just kept going. It’s taken me a while to get here. I’ve definitely taken the steps rather than the elevator. I took the long way. I’ve been doing this a few years, and at the end of the day I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my art for some views because it’s so fickle. You can’t move with the current, you gotta do your own thing.

MDR: What do you hope listeners take away from the album?

KTF: I want people to listen to this in the shower, in the car, just in the living room chilling and having fun. I want people to feel good when they hear it. That’s the reason I made this album. I specifically did not put anything too dark or too deep on it because I wanted to make something that uplifted your spirit from your core. Like something triumphant. Like a win over your demons or over everything negative. That’s what this album is for me: a win over Everything that tried to bring you down.