The Ace Hotel is a grand old place in Downtown LA, but not such a great place to find parking. I circled it for what felt like hours in the June heat, but must have been about 20 minutes. Finally I gave up and pulled into a paid public parking lot. After a futile search through my glove compartment (coming up with only $4.25 in mostly quarters and nickels), I realized I was going to have to ask the construction workers posted near by for some change. God bless the man who took one look and me and passed me a 20 dollar bill and a sympathetic smile.
As I walked the one block down the Olympic Boulevard, I got catcalled twice, watched a haggard-looking man inject a needle into his ankle, and skipped the whole line to the Flatbush Zombies meetup. I was greeted with a smile by Nyck Caution, one of the core members of the Brooklyn hip-hop group Pro Era. I had met him while shooting the Flatbush Zombies concert in San Diego (he was one of the openers, alongside longtime friend and collaborator Kirk Knight), and he invited me up to show him around LA before their show at the Novo. The Flatbush Zombies pop up merch shop had a line around the block of people buying merch, most of whom said hello to Nyck and he graciously accepted their compliments. After realizing the AC was not exactly working, we headed downstairs to the Ace Hotel’s cafe to cool off.
As we sat there, Nyck used our silverware, his cappuccino, and my iced tea, to explain how close his hometown of Mill Basin was to Flatbush Avenue, Kings Plaza, and Barclays in New York. When I asked him about how he became a part of Pro Era, he laughed and adjusted his black Yankees hat, “There was so much chance involved.” When he was a freshman in high school, he was put in a six-term geometry class, a class for the kids who needed a little more time to learn things. “I was so mad; I fought with the school to put me into the four-term geometry class,” stirring his coffee, “I was really good at math.”
But things ended up working out when he met Capital Steez in that six-term geometry class. Their friendship started off as an acquaintanceship but then grew when Steez saw Nyck perform at a local show. The next day at school, Steez asked him if he rapped and if he had a studio. At the time, Nyck was in another group that didn’t end up working out, and he and Steez both ended up in Pro Era before long. He laughed as he showed me a video of a wrestling dance he had choreographed years ago - how he met Joey Bada$$. “This part’s my favorite – look at me deck him,” and sure enough on the grainy Facebook video was Jesse (as he’s known to friends and his high school yearbook) sprinting across stage and steamrolling one of his friends.
When I asked about what being on tour with Joey Bada$$ was like, on the 2013 Beast Coast Tour with The Underachievers and the Flatbush Zombies, he smiled and looked out the window behind me. “It was crazy,” he licked his lips, “especially in Australia, we were flying from city to city...just absolutely nuts.” He continued, “And we were like brothers, you know, we were doing our first everything’s together in music. That’s a special bond.” I complimented him on his Vapor Maxes, which he sported again that day, and talked to him about how I loved the Sean Wotherspoon Nike’s. When I asked him about how his body felt after such energetic shows, he admitted rappers could definitely use masseuses on tour. “So the whole jumping into mosh pits thing isn’t great for your body?” I asked. “After some scientific research and some trial and error,” he responded, “I can presume it is not, but fuck it I will continue.” He looked at me for a little, cocked his head, and said “Let’s get out of here.”
We walked back to my car; the path now mercilessly free of needles and catcalls. When we hopped in my car, we struck a deal - I’d do directions if he took the aux. As I queued up the directions to Melrose and Fairfax, he queued up a mix of new Kanye and Kid Cudi songs from Kids See Ghosts while sprinkling in a couple 070 Shake songs. I asked him about his music making process, and he mentioned how he has to switch things up - sometimes he’ll think of a couple bars in his head and write them down or sometimes he’ll be in the studio and hear a beat and try something new. Watch any of his interviews, especially Sway in the Morning’s Five Finger Salute Freestyle one, and you’ll be blown away by this 24-year-old’s lyricism.
When I talked about my brother making beats on GarageBand, he animatedly began showing me an app called BeatMaker on his phone and explaining how he had used those very same beats in projects. “I was so mad,” shaking his head for emphasis, “when I got a new phone it deleted the 40 or so beats I had on there.” I asked about any new music he’d been working on; he glanced sideways at me with a mischievous look and said “it’s a little different,” and started scrolling through his emails and notes.
The unreleased music he played me was absolutely beautiful - there’s something so great about driving down the 405 with your left leg getting crispy in the afternoon LA sun, speakers turned all the way up blasting songs no one will hear again for months (or maybe ever), and having their artist explain to you how he feels about each one. He narrated each one, sprinkling in comments like “Oh it’s not fully mixed yet, it’ll hit so much harder after,” “this one’s an album piece - maybe an interlude,” and cracking up when I called one of the tracks "lightskin". He admitted, “I was feeling myself when I recorded that one.” We were interrupted by a FaceTime from Kirk Knight, waving hi to us and requesting to Nyck, “If you go to Round Two, get me some off-whites. Size 11.”
We parked on Fairfax and walked past the Girls Tour sign before I stopped and teased him into taking a picture in front of it.
I pointed out the shadow of a tree obscured the G in girls; Nyck just laughed and jokingly replied “I am the G.” We strolled down Melrose, poking our heads into Ikon LA and Joy Rich, admiring all the art, vintage clothing, and people watching. In Wasteland, a stop suggested by Kirk, we looked at vintage band T-shirts before getting overwhelmed by all the choices and heading to Round Two Hollywood.
Usually sporting a line out the door, the sidewalk in front of Round Two was surprisingly empty. Walking in to Vintage by Round Two never gets old - they have such a cool selection of vintage colorful windbreakers mixed with the latest street fashion sneakers. Further past those is a wall of Supreme, racks of vintage Guess, and a tantalizing wall of sneakers. As Nyck FaceTimed Kirk to show him the off-white selection, I heard someone say, “Hey Sean, can I get a picture?”
No way, I thought, I was just telling Nyck about how much I loved those shoes. And sure enough, there was Sean Wotherspoon. I pride myself on not fangirling, but I was so excited to meet him! I asked to him about his iconic shoe design, and he talked about the development of Round Two by Round Two, their new in-house brand.
I introduced Sean to Nyck, who complimented Sean on the shoes. Sean in turn complimented Nyck on his tie dye Flatbush Zombies shirt, which sparked a conversation about Nyck opening for Flatbush Zombies on tour.
It was approaching sound check time, so we headed back towards Fairfax. We both agreed that traffic signals were overrated and compared crossing traditions in New York and Europe (both places where a red hand is a suggestion). Driving back to downtown LA, I asked Nyck who his favorite non-rap artist was and he started to play me some Tame Impala. As the opening chords unraveled, I snapped a picture of his Disguise the Limit tattoo, a tribute to his late friend and collaborator Capital Steez.
“It’s from one of his lines,” running a finger down the length of it, “The sky’s the limit that’s what they told the fucking fool, I disguise the limit now I’m aiming to the sun and moon.”
Back at the tour bus, he grabbed his pass and gave me a quick tour of the Flatbush Zombies official tour bus, pretty messy after two months on the road. The floor was littered with expensive sneakers, fan art, and backwoods foil wrappers. Nyck proudly showed me his bunk and explained how brutal life on tour could be: “We play a show, we leave the city at 2amish, we go to the next city, we sleep for a couple hours, we perform, and it starts all over again. But it’s worth it to be able to do what you love.”
We parted with a hug; he headed off to sound check and I headed back to reality.