Music editor Carter Moon got a chance to talk to JPEGMAFIA, a Baltimore based rapper with a pointed, political edge. They talked about race, hip hop, and more in the conversation below.
I want to start with the thing that I think initially drew me into your music. You moved to Baltimore about a year ago; can you talk about what that’s been like and how it’s influenced your sound?
Moving to Baltimore has been a life-changing experience for me. Initially I was interested in the music scene because it was so unique I just wanted to be a part of it. I was going to go to New York at first, but the artists here stuck out to me more. I don’t think it’s necessarily influenced how my music itself sounds, but it really just heightened the powers I already had musically.
The other thing I think is especially fascinating about you after hearing your music is that you used to be in the Air Force. How’d you end up there and how’d that change how you see power and your own relationship with power?
That is a weird-ass question, lmao. When I think of the Air Force I don’t automatically think of power, so I don’t see the connection. But the Air Force made me realize how stupid and lazy people really are, because this is an organization that’s supposed to hold the warriors that defend our freedoms. And these people definitely exist in the Air Force, but for the most part most of the people I met in the force are simply people that can’t be functioning adults in society, so they take orders for a living — it’s an easy way out. But the military can really fuck with your head if you’re not careful. I joined because I had no choice but to, and I was able to [make] my music so I thank them for that. But other than that I’m good.
Something I think is unique about your sound is how little you seem to change your voice when you rhyme. It adds another layer of you seeming more real than any other MC out there. Is that intentional, or did that just kind of happen as you were figuring out how to rap?
I’m glad you noticed that. I keep my flow steady and I study flows because the voice is a beautiful instrument; it can be used in crazy-ass ways. It was definitely developed over time as I started figuring out who I really was as an MC. But there are a lot things I do with my voice that’s intentional, like I don’t ever double my vocals even when I sing because it gives a lonely feeling, almost an intimate feeling for the listener. I want you to really hear what I’m saying and feel me. I also don’t do that fast rap Eminem flow that all the suburban white boy rappers use, because unless you’re really ‘bout that fast rap life, it never comes across good live. I write all my verses with the intention of spitting them live so I try to make sure I can rap my shit live in person, no backing track, because people come out and pay money to see me live, performing songs they can download for free on the internet and listen to at home. I need to make sure I give people a fucking show and I’m on my shit. They deserve it.
How do you write normally? Is there a process to it or does it just sort of happen?
It usually happens spontaneously. Sometimes I’ll have an idea and I won’t be in the studio, so I record it on my phone to remember it. Other times I write shit down. But most times I just freestyle everything; just put the beat on and say exactly what I’m thinking at the moment. My songs are random bursts of creativity trying to give my audience lightning in a bottle. I never read anything off paper when I rap either, even if I write the verse beforehand. I commit it to memory and then spit.
Are you as confrontational in real life as you can be in your music? There’s also a pretty great sense of humor and irony to a lot of your tracks, so I guess the real question is how much is the character of JPEG who you are day-to-day?
Jpegmafia is just an exaggerated version of who I really am. It’s not an act. I’m not going around yelling at people and shit, but it can get that way if the situation calls for it. I don’t really look for problems, but being a nigga in America you have to have an edge to you no matter what your background. I will defend myself in a heartbeat. And I’m not speaking hyperbole when I say I’ll kill a cop. If I’m in the situation and it’s my life or his/hers, I really will send a nigga to heaven.
This might be an irrelevant question, but do you find yourself doing a lot of drugs? So much of hip hop is based around drug use in one way or another, and your music seems to reject a lot of those tropes in some ways while still talking about crack and heroin. I’m curious how much drugs do or don’t influence you.
On the advice of council. I Invoke my 5th amendment. And respectfully decline to answer your question.
As you start to do more shows, who’s showing up in your crowds? When you make music this radical, you’re bound to get a mixed bag of people whom are drawn to it. Does it seem like the people you want to be listening are listening?
My intended audience definitely shows up to my shows. It depends on the space, though. They range from liberal white men and women to young people of color. I have a diverse crowd; you would think that it would only be white people coming, but no, I get a lot of unique people of all ages. I love it when young niggas come out, though. I feel a special connection with them, yo. It’s beautiful. I love my fans so much, yo.
I guess that leads to a more complicated question. For the kind of hip hop you’re trying to make, is there room for white liberals like myself to appreciate it, or would you rather we stayed home?
Absolutely there is room. I do not hate white people. I hate racism. Anyone who hates racism as much as I do is welcome to my world. My goal is not to make white people feel uncomfortable, it’s to make racists rethink their entire existence and second guess their entire way of thinking. I don’t hate white rappers or white liberals. I’m speaking in general terms. I don’t have time to cherry pick good people from bad ones, so I just fire into the crowd and hope I hit my target. I know there are going to be some civilian casualties.
What place do you see whites having in hip hop as a whole, if any?
If you’re white and you love rap or want to be a rapper, the only thing you are required to do is respect the art form, where it came from and who originated it, and then be yourself; do whatever you want. I don’t want you guys to be scared away from a genre you love because of people like me. I exist as a guard against people like Gene Simmons and Burzum, and liberals who see rap and black people in general like a zoo exhibit. If you don’t fall into that category, [then] you know you don’t. Then you have nothing to fear from me. Paul Wall will never hear a diss track from me cuz he respects the art and does his thing. That’s all I ask.
Do you think we’re seeing productive conversations about race happening right now? Or do you think that as race becomes an issue whites are aware of once again in the United States, more or less the same bigotry that’s always been there is just surfacing along with it?
I think we’re seeing productive conversations, for sure. You’re right about the bigotry though; Donald Trump is a personification of how a lot of people in this country think. It’s a sad truth. Where do people think slave owners went after it was abolished? They all just floated away? No. They become police officers, doctors, teachers, etc. They took that money and stayed wealthy. And niggas never got a dime. It’s the exact reason we are in ruin as a race now. Because we were never payed anything, and my ancestors built this country and fought and died for it. Every race that has ever had an atrocity happen to them has be compensated — Jews, Japanese, even Native Americans. But niggas built this country and we were treated like property for 400 years. We never got a dime. Basically, racism will never die because this country was built on it. So that’s a battle that will never end. The conversations are happening, but I hate that young black men have to die for them to spark up at such a high level.
If you could change one way everybody talks about racism in America, what would it be? Or is that too broad a question to even seriously consider?
It’s a pretty broad question. But I wish people would really listen to different perspectives. Like… really listen. Listening is a lost art. People like to talk but not listen. I feel like a lot of bad situations can be avoided if there wasn’t so much miscommunication. I don’t agree with anything the KKK or Aryan brotherhood preach, but I can see how they think the way they do from their perspective. I listened to them and decided it was bullshit. But I listened.
Thanks for talking to us, and please keep challenging us with your music.