You’ve heard the name. You know the face. You’ve probably heard about some of his misdemeanours too. But in case you’re not familiar with Jonathan Lyndale Kirk – better known as Charlotte, North Carolina’s own DaBaby – now is the perfect time to get familiar.
DaBaby has enjoyed a prosperous 2019 in which he has peaked at #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 with ‘Suge’ (going double platinum in the process), scored a slew of guest features and was inducted as a XXL Freshman earlier this year off the strength of his versatile, hard raps and his debut studio album ‘Baby On Baby’. On a gloomy Friday afternoon in London, we sat down with the charismatic rapper and chopped it up about travelling, his work ethic and creative process among other topics in our latest Cover Story.
Walking into the Universal Music building in King’s Cross, I feel sweat leave my forehead as I enter new territory. My dying thirst and the humidity aside, my immediate thought is that I have never interviewed a XXL Freshman in two years of holding interviews with artists. That would all change today as I went up the lift with Aliyah, my photographer for the day.
We both highly anticipated this interview for different reasons – I reference his infamous interview with Nardwuar and his humour – while Aliyah drew on the hype surrounding him. Around 10 or 15 minutes later, we finally meet the larger than life character. Dressed in a neon green Stone Island tracksuit, a low, white pair of Air Force One that looked fresh out of the factory and a smile accentuated by his iced out permanent grills. He walks with a swagger about him and exudes quiet confidence off camera. The small entourage he came with includes his security guard Charles, Spicy Rico and James Rico (two-thirds of the Reel Goats film-making trio) and Baroline Diaz; Interscope’s Senior Director of A&R.
He greets us warmly and is surprisingly chill given that he was scheduled to have 13 interviews today. Upon meeting him, I notice a grey cast around his right hand “I just broke it. The doctor said I could take it off in about a week.” A keen listen to his debut album ‘Baby On Baby’ should let you know that charm, confidence and conviction define his raps. While his technical prowess is clear for all to hear (he also doesn’t write – see ‘Off Top’ from ‘Baby Talk 5’) and he is direct in his raps, his words, these mean nothing without the 3 C’s that encapsulate his personality.
On his time here in London thus far, the 27 year old could have no complaints. “I love it man. The scenery, I love the culture. I love the way the people talk” he laughs as the last sentence leaves his mouth, hinting at the storied cliché that Americans love the British accent. DaBaby speaks with a Southern accent that is akin to a relaxed drawl, in spite of this, the rapping upstart is one of the most engaging artists I have interviewed. “I’ve been working so much that I haven’t seen too much” he says admittedly. “I gotta be at a club tonight, so I get to see a little bit of the night, but other than that I’ve just been working. Radio stations, office buildings, you know how it goes.” Even though he is officially in London on vacation, Baby never shies away from an opportunity to promote what he’s doing.
My work ethic comes from kicking the door down. Me coming from where I come from, it ain’t a city where you got any other rappers from.
That work ethic is ingrained in his DNA, culminating in the North Carolina rapper releasing six mixtapes in 2017. “I don’t know about that, I don’t think I did that” I’m unsure if he’s trolling me but a quick scroll on his Wikipedia shows that Baby was quite prolific. He dropped the first ‘Baby Talk’ mixtape in January that year, following up with sequels – ‘Baby Talk 2’ dropped in April while ‘3’ dropped in August and ‘4’ on Christmas Day. Which is fitting, given the play on his former rap moniker, Baby Jesus (‘Billion Dollar Baby’ and ‘Back On My Baby Jesus Sh**’ dropped in June and November respectively). When asked about his work ethic, rather than brag about the work he puts in, he invites his peers to do as he does. “My work ethic comes from kicking the door down. Me coming from where I come from, it ain’t a city where you got any other rappers from. So I did what I had to do to get me out of my city. This is what I’m used to and I feel like everybody should be moving like this. When people are taken aback by it, I just think this is how it’s supposed to be. I could really turn up a little more though.”
Thinking about North Carolina on a whole, you’d be hard pressed to name a plethora of acts within the entertainment industry from there that have gone on to be household names. When Baby asks if I know any famous people from his state aside from himself and J. Cole, my utterance of the Hardy Boyz drew a light hearted laugh as I appear to be the sole wrestling historian in the room. But it ultimately proves the point that he was trying to make. He is unfazed by his camera crew and Aliyah taking photos of our conversation, as he details the ‘how’ in his work ethic.
“I just grinded it out. The first time I got in the studio and made something, it was better than this stuff all the local rappers had going on. I recorded a mixtape and just put it out. I got the CD’s with the sleeves and a lil’ cover and just handed them out to anybody. Everybody I know was riding around with a bunch of ‘em. I was already riding around all day anyway. Everybody fucked with me anyway so it really wasn’t hard. My city was popping too so there was a club that was popping every night so I would come fuck with the DJ’s. Toss ‘em a lil bread, buy ‘em a drink, kick it with ‘em for a minute, he’ll play my shit a few times and then I would leave. Like every night, just me. I had stickers that I would put in every driveway. Bathrooms. Posters, just going crazy with the promo.” I told him that I admired his work ethic and that little touches such as trying to sweeten the deal with the club DJ’s reminded me of the strip club culture in Atlanta.
Throughout the years I’ve heard how acts such as Ludacris, Migos and T-Pain among others have broken bread with DJ’s and other artists in the strip club, giving their music the platform to be heard by people with influence within the music industry. You could say that the strip club was like a conference for A&R’s, only they’d be surrounded by dollar bills, Hennessy bottles and chicken wings if you’re fancy. DaBaby offers a key difference in his grind though. “The difference with me though, is that I was paying the cameraman to film everything from the start. From before I even put out the first mixtape, I was paying them to document everything.”
And document is what they do very well. Reel Goats, his trio of filmmakers and photographers, stay real close to Baby and help him actualise his creative vision. Everything from music videos, to BTS footage from his tours and even his Instagram posts. DaBaby has content for days and he insists that he is hands on with his creative output. “Yeah, absolutely! I give ‘em [Reel Goats] my idea and they turn around and create the world for me! That’s how I shoot all these crazy videos, all the videos you’ve seen I’ve put out with them.” He says this while pointing out the Reel Goats, as if you couldn’t miss them holding their equipment. “But you know, I get my input, my thoughts, the message. They bring my character to life, so we create a world for the audience to live in while they watch the video.” After watching the videos for “Blank Blank” and “Baby Sitter”, the latter of which I told Baby was my favourite on Baby On Baby “I appreciate you”, you can see that he is a master at marketing himself with wacky yet memorable music videos.
Speaking of videos, you could say that part of DaBaby’s popularity stems from some other clips that have gone viral. A number of videos come to mind – the confrontation with the Atlanta goons at a video shoot, the fight with fellow Charlotte rapper Cam Coldheart, the footage of him walking around at SXSW 2017 in diapers. He maintains that it’s not a struggle to balance different facets of his personality “I mean I’m just me. I wouldn’t even call myself a tough guy, I’m just me. I remain myself and I respect everybody, you know. Other than that, you know how it go.” I reckon that Cam Coldheart knows better than most! Despite the past antics and controversy surrounding his name, he quietly acknowledges that his induction into the 2019 XXL Freshman class will help keep his name relevant for the right reasons. “Yeah, for sure. I mean it’s definitely an accomplishment. It’s a way to see you know, who people think it’s most likely to become hot. People always check for the latest XXL list. So it’s always dope, you know, I’m adding to my accomplishments and shit.”
As we get to know each other better, I opt to take a blast in the past and ask him about his adolescent years in Zebulon B. Vance High School. “Shit… I was that nigga! [laughs] you know. Vance was really lit, it was lit lit. My freshman and sophomore years were lit. In my junior or senior year, a new school had been built and they took all the girls from my school. They took all the life outta that school.” He states that gym and drama were his favourite subjects at school “I just did what I wanted” and he enjoyed Flag Football in his school heyday.
There is the air of an awkward silence when asked what his favourite song on Baby On Baby is. “Man… you’re killing me right now!” He laughs when I suggest that he probably likes all of his music. “I do, I do. Aye that’s a tough one bruh! All of ‘em bangers to me, I don’t even got a favourite.” I guess it’s a blessing that I didn’t ask what his favourite guest verse was! This year alone he has featured on tracks from the likes of Chance The Rapper, Young Nudy, fellow XXL Freshman Meg Thee Stallion, YG, Dreamville and his own artist Stunna 4 Vegas.
We talk about how he locked in with Stunna 4 Vegas, which links in with how Baby and Young Nudy linked up. “I had done a song with him, so when we recorded [the song] I got a chance to see his work ethic. When I seen that, I felt like he needed more of a light shined on him. So I asked him about his situation, took him under my wing and said “let’s turn up!” and we did just that. He’s on his own tour right now.” As our conversation rolls on, I play devil’s advocate on the topic of artists signing to other artists. Baby doesn’t see the issue though. “I believe it depends on a person’s situation. But I don’t have any problems with an artist signing to another artist. I just know what my campaign got going on. The type of things that I stand on… anything I do is genuine. I like a genuine situation, that’s what I like to be a part of.”
On face value their relationship looks similar to that of Young Dolph and his artist Key Glock; however Baby is more than comfortable to let Stunna be his own boss. It was also Stunna that created the link for Nudy and Baby to collab, culminating in ‘Dispatch’ from Nudy and Pi’erre Bourne’s impressive collaborative album Sli’merre. “Nudy sent the record for me and we got it done. I knocked it out. You know Stunna also done a song with him before. So through him doing a song with Nudy, that connection was made. It was dope that he sent the record through; I didn’t even know he would send that one. When I heard it, I was like “this shit hard!” So yeah, we made a dope record.” Although Baby was mute on upcoming features, one can only hope that he has more in store for the last stretch of 2019.
Baby laughs when I ask about his grills, he thought I was taking my turn to troll him after his earlier mixtape blunder. He debunks the myth that grills make your breath stink “Nah, hell nah. I don’t know where that came from!” He plays with his grill when he doesn’t talk and licks his lips as if he’s practicing for his female fans. On not being distracted by the groupies, he keeps his advice very simple. “I just stay focused. I love all my female fans, we gotta create some type of name for ourselves. I love ‘em, but I just try to stay focused on the music so I can continue to deliver for them.” I wonder if he would consider calling them “DaBaby Mommas”…
Not long ago, the North Carolina artist was issued his American passport, which led to him uploading another humorous video in which he keeps the passport on his hip like a Skytel pager. The excitement was plain to see and the importance of this moment was put plainly for anyone that didn’t understand. “So I could come here!” We speak on the enriching benefits of travelling as he dusts off his wish list. “I gotta come back to the UK, I gotta go to Dubai… I think I land in Dubai in a week. Paris; anywhere nice! I gotta do some research. Now that I got a passport, I’m gonna go wherever I can. All the top notch places, I’m going! Iceland… I gotta do some research!” As he prepares for his dinner reservation, he concludes the interview with a ray of hope for any UK fans that wish to see him perform live soon. “Yeah I’m performing at a festival in August. I forgot the name of it [Leeds Festival] but I’ll be out here in a month’s time.”
In the short 20 minutes of our conversation, the most important thing I learned was that it is crucial to not judge a book by its cover. I was unfortunate enough to hear about Baby’s antics before hearing how adept he is on the microphone, but a sit down in a neutral space showed me aspects of Jonathan Kirk that we will hope to see in his music for a while yet. He is an ideas guy who can conjure up treatments for music videos quicker than Frank Lucas could get Blue Magic into America. He is a marketing director’s dream who had the smarts to promote his brand in numerous ways long before he had a label meeting. He just happens to be the first XXL Freshman I’ve interviewed for a Cover Story.
DaBaby will be performing at Leeds Festival on 25thAugust. Stream ‘Baby On Baby’ at all good digital outlets.