This is “Add to Queue,” our attempt to sort through the cacophony of music floating in the algorithmic atmosphere by consulting the experts themselves. Our favorite musicians tell us about their favorite music—the sad, the happy, the dinner party-y, the songs they want played at their funeral. In this edition, we speak with the Brooklyn-bred rapper KOTA the Friend, whose mellow sophomore album EVERYTHING delivers sun-soaked hooks just in time for summer. KOTA gets by with a little help from friends and collaborators like Joey Bada$$, KYLE, LaKeith Stanfield, and Lupita Nyong’o, but his record is also a product of a lifelong love of music. Here, he tells us about some of the artists who have shaped him.
SARAH NECHAMKIN: What was the last song you listened to?
KOTA: The last song I listened to has been one of my songs, just because I’ve been listening to the album over and over and over to see if I can hear any mistake or error. So I’ve been pretty much listening to the album, making sure it’s right. I haven’t really listened to anything else, to be honest with you. I’m going insane, honestly.
NECHAMKIN: I think you’re not the only one. Do you find that it’s confusing to listen to other musicians while you’re doing your own thing?
KOTA: I’d say Jay-Z. Growing up, my brother was a big Jay-Z fan. My brother’s five years older than me, and so I would always sneaking into his room and taking his tapes so I could listen to them. He’s just always been a major influence musically.
NECHAMKIN: Do you remember who was your first concert?
KOTA: Jay-Z, oddly enough. My brother actually took me to a Jay-Z concert when I was in the fifth grade. We were third row at his Radio City Music Hall show when he did his first album.
NECHAMKIN: How did he get tickets to that?
KOTA: I don’t know what he had to do to get them, but he got them. It was the dopest.
NECHAMKIN: Do you have a favorite movie soundtrack?
KOTA: There’s this new film with LaKeith Stanfield and Issa Rae, and it’s called The Photograph. The jazzy vibe in that movie is just so beautiful. I love it.
NECHAMKIN: LaKeith is on your album, right? How did that happen?
KOTA: Well, we’ve been following each other on Instagram for a while, and Deryck [KOTA’s PR rep] set the whole thing up, because he’s just better with people than I am.
NECHAMKIN: Do have a dream collaborator? If you could work with anyone, dead or alive, who would you work with?
KOTA: Number one on that list would have to be Jay-Z too. Sorry to say it again, but—
NECHAMKIN: All good.
KOTA: Lauryn Hill, definitely. Erykah Badu. I would love to work with SZA. Amy Winehouse.
NECHAMKIN: Do you have a song that you wake up to, that you go to bed to? An alarm at any point in the day—morning, afternoon?
KOTA: I have no alarms. I don’t believe in alarms, and alarms are bad.
NECHAMKIN: If you were to make a playlist for a variety of different occasions, what songs would you put on it? For example, if you were throwing a house party, what songs or artists would you put on that playlist?
KOTA: I would have to go through my playlist. I actually have a playlist. Let me see real quick. Alright, I would have to say “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” by Kendrick Lamar. “Tribe” by Bas, featuring J. Cole. Got to have Drake. “God’s Plan” is one of my favorite Drake songs. “Nice For What,” of course. Let me think. I think I would take it to the ’90s, 2000s, and play some Jadakiss.
NECHAMKIN: What about one for when you’re sad, or you’re going through a breakup? Do you have a playlist for that?
KOTA: Yeah, I actually do. It’s not specifically for that, but it’s in that realm.
NECHAMKIN: What’s it called?
KOTA: It’s called Here My Dear. I got a lot of Daniel Caesar on here. I got some Tyler, the Creator. Man, I even got some Chris Brown. That’s crazy.
NECHAMKIN: Do you have a high playlist?
KOTA: I don’t have a high playlist, but if I did, it’d probably be a lot of C-Note. Probably a lot of lo-fi beats, like instrumentals and stuff like that.
NECHAMKIN: If you were to pick one song to play at your funeral, what song would you pick?
KOTA: Oh, you’re asking some heavy questions. That’s a heavy one. Man.
NECHAMKIN: Some people choose their own song, some people don’t. A lot of people think that would be weird.
KOTA: Yeah, it would be weird to play my own song at my funeral, for sure. There’s this one song that I feel would be great. It’s called “Little Bit of Rain” by Fred Neil. The main hook is like, “If I should leave you, please remember the good times and not the bad times.” That’s basically what it’s about.
NECHAMKIN: Is there a song that you listen to that always puts you in a good mood?
KOTA: “Tribe” by Bas. It’s just this really energetic song about so many things, but one of the themes is being with somebody that you really care about, and just really celebrating that person. Just saying, “I’m so happy to have you in my life, and throughout all of the stuff that we’ve been through, you’ve been there, and I appreciate you. And today, I celebrate you.”
NECHAMKIN: That’s so sweet. Do you have any songs that remind you of your family, or your best friends? Songs that evoke close memories?
KOTA: Yeah, there’s a song by Jay-Z from his Blueprint album, and it’s called “Momma Loves Me.” It really makes me think about my growing up and all the people that helped in raising me.
NECHAMKIN: Especially because your brother was so into Jay-Z.
NECHAMKIN: Do you have a go-to karaoke song? I don’t know if you do karaoke…
KOTA: Oh, my go-to karaoke song is definitely “Stan” by Eminem.
NECHAMKIN: Do you sing in the shower?
KOTA: Of course.
NECHAMKIN: What do you sing?
KOTA: Honestly, I sing a whole bunch of gibberish. Sometimes I just sing random notes. I just sing when I’m happy. Sometimes I’m singing one of my songs, or whatever’s playing on my speaker. Singing in the shower’s actually one of my favorite things to do.
NECHAMKIN: Do you ever come up with lyrics in the shower?
KOTA: Not anymore. I used to, but now I think I’m just so happy to just have that little bit of time to myself, that I just kind of let go.
NECHAMKIN: How do you usually find inspiration for writing music?
KOTA: Well, I usually like to write about things that I want to manifest. I really focus on the manifestation of good things. Whenever I’m writing, I just want to make sure that I’m being responsible in my words and responsible with the things that I’m putting into the world. Life inspires me; negativity inspires me. The bad things in life, just real life. And then I try to filter it out into good things.
NECHAMKIN: On that note, do you think that there’s a song or an album where, if you could play it for the entire world, it would save the world right now?
KOTA: That’s a tough one.
NECHAMKIN: You can pick multiple.
KOTA: Alright, thank you.
NECHAMKIN: I know one is a lot of pressure.
KOTA: Yeah. I’ll give you the reasoning behind why I’m choosing these albums. I’d say by Jay because what he did in that album, I feel like was so vulnerable for somebody that’s not supposed to be vulnerable. And I feel like a lot of men are lacking that vulnerability and that self-awareness because we’ve been conditioned to be a certain way, to be closed off to the world and closed off to our emotions. That album really opened my eyes, and opened a lot of people’s eyes, and I feel like it could open the world’s eyes if people actually sat down to listen to it.
And then, I would say The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill because that album was for everybody, but I feel like, just like Jay-Z made an album that was about him, a male being closed off to his emotions and opening up finally, Lauryn Hill is really just constantly spewing good messages for women. So I feel like those two albums together, everybody needs to hear them.
NECHAMKIN: That’s a great answer. Do you play any instruments?
KOTA: Oh yeah. I play keyboard, I play guitar. The only instrument that I’m classically trained in is trumpet.
NECHAMKIN: Oh really? When did you start learning the trumpet?
KOTA: I was in about the third grade, so I was probably like seven, eight years old.
NECHAMKIN: What drew you to the trumpet?
KOTA: I went to public school, so they just gave it to me. We didn’t have much of a choice.
NECHAMKIN: And did people realize that you were talented that early on?
KOTA: Yeah. I remember the day my teacher brought my parents up to the school to talk to them about how he thought that I was gifted, and how I needed to take it serious. And he put me up into a different class with more advanced kids, and that’s when I found out.
NECHAMKIN: And then when did you start getting into rap and hip-hop?
KOTA: I’ve always been into rap. Watching BET and MTV… there were so many things on TV where rap was the focal point. And so, it was always a thing for me to want to rap and write lyrics. By the time we were writing anything, we were writing lyrics. And it was helping us write. We were doing creative writing before we went to any creative writing class. So by the time we got there, we just loved it even more.
NECHAMKIN: What’s your favorite TV show theme song?
KOTA: The Malcolm in the Middle theme song.
NECHAMKIN: If your life were a TV show, what do you think would be the theme song?
KOTA: Oh, man. I think I got the perfect one. “Drive Slow” by Kanye. The song is just about pumping the brakes. It’s like, chill out, you don’t have to go so fast. You got to relax so you can see what’s in front of you. You can’t be moving too fast, or else it’s going to mess you up. And that’s kind of how I live my life.