Knowledge the Pirate is true to his name in more than one sense. Overt references to a lifestyle of plundering and smuggling aside, the rapper broadcasts his signature brand of streetwise, brutally honest storytelling directly to the people—operating outside the jurisdiction of music industry regulators. By offering the digital download of his debut album, Flintlock, exclusively on his website for a full month before making it available on the major streaming services—and physical copies through an array of small, yet influential independent labels—Knowledge has surgically removed corporate middlemen and gatekeepers from his business model with a cutlass.
Loyal to his small band of affiliates and preferring to collaborate organically, Knowledge only includes less than a handful of producers and one feature on his studio debut—the latter being Roc Marciano, New York City’s poster boy for raw, gritty, vivid street rap (who also produced a few of Flintlock’s tracks, alongside Elemnt, Mushroom Jesus and Knowledge himself). Having made memorable contributions to all of Marci’s projects since 2012’s Reloaded, it’s not hard to see why he considers the UN standout a best friend and brother. In addition to the ominous, yet soulful and descriptive, almost cinematic quality of their music, the two share somewhat similar stories as disenchanted mainstream music industry castaways who found independent success on hip-hop’s high seas.
Marci, of course, came up as a member of Busta Rhymes’ Flipmode Squad—and his 2004 UN album, UN or U Out, was originally released on Carson Daly’s 456 Entertainment. Knowledge, on the other hand, got his big break after Will Smith’s former bodyguard, Charlie Mack, witnessed him battle. He eventually signed a deal with Teddy Riley and went on to record with Wreckx-N-Effect, Blackstreet, Nutta Butta and even Pharrell Williams—staking his claim as “the first gangster to rap over Neptunes’ beats” in his Twitter bio to this day. He has also stacked some major writing credits, working with artists like Will Smith. Recently, however, Knowledge mostly collaborates with Roc and a few other players in the budding renaissance of grimy New York shit.
Marci has implemented similar strategies when rolling out albums in the past, releasing them completely independently for a limited period of time before making them available on other distribution platforms—and Knowledge seems to have taken this approach to heart. With a Complex video premiere for his song “Long Gaze,” great reviews, a limited tape run that sold out within 24 hours and a special edition gold vinyl pressing that already sold out before its October drop date, the strategy has proven itself bountiful.
UGHH chopped it up with Knowledge about Flintlock and its independent release, his relationship with Roc Marciano, the state of New York hip-hop and his history as a ghostwriter.
Seems like Flintlock has been getting a great reception. After decades in the game, how does it feel to finally drop your debut album?
I feel like a proud father when his baby is being born.
Why the wait?
Because there wasn’t no money in it. The sound that we grew up on wasn’t relevant. Shit shifted down South, and I didn’t come into the game to give my art away for free, so I fell back until me and my brother Roc Marciano figured a way to monetize it and get money.
People say the reason New York fell off in the mainstream is ’cause cats don’t have unity here. Others think it’s ’cause a lot of New York artists started jackin’ other regions’ sounds. What’s your take on all that?
Both reasons—but we’re here to show the opposite, which is unity and staying true to our roots. That’s hip-hop.
You guys are often credited for bringing back that authentic New York sound. What do you think about the state of New York hip-hop, right now?
It’s looking great, ’cause we’re giving the people the blueprint to an authentic sound that is infinite. The future looks great.
A lot of your newer fans know you for your work with Roc Marciano, but you originally came up battlin’ cats in the ’90s… Any crazy battles worth mentioning?
Nah, a few famous niggas ducked me, but I won’t mention any names. My brother Rich brought me to meet Cassidy when he first signed to Swizz. We spit a few lines. It was around the end of my battle era and he was just coming in the game, and the boy was hard. Definitely one of the best to do it.
After you were discovered by Charlie Mack, you eventually did some work for Will Smith—which you’ve been pretty candid about in the past. You’ve also worked with Teddy Riley, Wreckx-N-Effect, Blackstreet and Nutta Butta, to name a few. What’s it like writing with or for dudes whose music is pretty different than your own?
Working with one of the world’s greatest producers like Teddy Riley was an honor and is one of the reasons I am the versatile artist that I am today.
Do you have to get out of your own mindset?
Nah, I just go to that creative place.
How did you get into ghostwriting? Did cats just hit you up like, “Yo, I like your flow. Can I buy some tracks?” Or did you go out actively looking for folks to shop tracks to.
Mostly unreleased music that they heard—or through word of mouth, and then we would end up collaborating together.
Write for anyone else you can mention?
Nah, I’d kind of like to keep that anonymous.
You’ve credited Roc Marci for kind of getting you back into the rap game when you took a little hiatus after the whole Teddy Riley situation… What is it about Roc that inspires you (and vice versa)?
Besides him being my brother [and] best friend, he’s one of the best lyricists [and] producers. I told him many moons ago, the only way I was gonna do this music shit was if he started producing more—and here we are. We have been inspiring each other to strive for greatness.
I notice y’all keep a tight circle, musically. Anybody you got your eyes on workin’ with in the future—whether producers or other emcees? Who, besides y’all, do you think is holdin’ the torch for New York right now?
I like to let things happen naturally, so you never know. As far as producers, I’d work with Alchemist, DJ Muggs and Large Professor. As far as names holding it down and pushing the culture forward: Westside Gunn, Conway, Benny, Mach-Hommy, Tha God Fahim, Action Bronson, Meyhem Lauren, etc. Keep up the great work.
You and Pharrell still in touch? Would you ever work with The Neptunes again?
Pharrell is my brother. We came up together. I haven’t spoken to him in a while, but that’s family and you never know what the future holds.
Can you tell us about the web series you’re about to drop?
No doubt. It’s called PIRATES… Briefly, it’s about the disenfranchised youth that come from dysfunctional homes and how they have no guidance except the streets and gangs because of the generation gap. The water flows under the bridge, and this is the birth of the PIRATES. Coming soon. This will be an epic, life-changing web series.
Why have you decided to only release the Flintlock download on your website?
Because artists get robbed for their art by streaming platforms and we like dealing directly with our fans—no middle man—so the whole experience becomes personal. We have the best fans in the world and it’s a blessing that they will go where we say to go buy our music.