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JPEGMAFIA in HawaiiPhotography Clare Bogle

A conversation with JPEGMAFIA, the MC who raps like the internet feels

The provocative noise-rapper holds a mirror up to the dark side of the web – the trolls, the racism, the nihilism – to satirise American culture and politics at large

Few artists channel the internet quite like JPEGMAFIA. On 2018’s stirring Veteran album, a breathless, frenetic plunge into a divided America where policies are decided in 280 characters or less, Barrington Hendricks, or Peggy as he likes to be called by his friends, uses his music to hold a mirror up to the world wide web, taunting its users with their own ugly reflection.

Like comedian Andy Kaufman before him, Peggy trolls his audience like some kind of human behavioural scientist, condensing controversial trending topics (for example, on the head-nodding “1539 N. Calvert”, Peggy, in-between thick bursts of distortion, jokes: “I’m trying to give this dick to Kelly Conway!”) into sing-a-long rap anthems (one of Veteran’s more poppier highlights is a song literally titled “I Cannot Fucking Wait Until Morrissey Dies”), and seeing how much people can take before breaking.

Take his use of the racial slur “cracker”. Some years back, Peggy made the conscious decision to start replacing the n-word with cracker in a lot of his rhymes. Aware that white audiences like to raucously shout the n-word right back at black rap artists during gigs, Peggy wondered what they would do if the spotlight was suddenly turned on them. On the potent “I Might Vote 4 Donald Trump”, which parodies a culture that voted for a demagogue as a dare, Peggy raps: “I just popped 20 Xans so the crackers wouldn’t find them.” This is just one example of a repeat usage of the ‘c’ word, inspiring dozens of anti-JPEGMAFIA threads on Reddit.

“White people get so offended by me saying ‘cracker’ all the time,” Peggy tells me down a crackly phone line, which he half-jokes is being monitored by the FBI, “but every single day they will sing along to x amount of black rappers talking about killing one another or doing Xans with their niggas. They don’t even flinch, bro. When the hypothetical lens is pointed at them and I say ‘cracker’ rather than ‘nigga’, they can’t take it, not even for one second. They don’t like it when the power dynamic is reversed. I was trying to make this point and it worked so well that it terrifies me. There’s white people out there who really want to crucify me!”

There’s rarely a month that goes by in America without footage of a black man being killed by a white police officer emerging, uncomfortably normalising the idea of a black person taking their last breath on camera for a whole generation. So when Peggy sampled the last moments of deputy Kyle Dinkheller, a white cop, shot to death on camera in 1998 by a white motorist annoyed he had been stopped for speeding, on the mournful “I Just Killed A Cop Now I’m Horny”, the aim was to once again push the boundaries of what’s acceptable.

Reddit users were once again outraged at the provocative track, where Peggy spits: “My momma told me I’d be dead when I’m 25 / jokes on you, bitch / I’m still alive!”, yet something tells me this would have felt like victory to its creator, who has more than earned his right to satritise America’s political discourse as a literal veteran, having served in Iraq with the US military.

The 29-year-old’s music captures the black heart of the internet, with tracks such as “Whole Foods” built around a vibrating phone and “Real Nega” taking glitchy drums and an unconventional vocal sample of Ol’ Dirty Bastard howls to represent the sheer noise of social media. Peggy makes riot-inducing anthems, which are routinely interrupted by distorted bass that pops into focus like electrodes ringing through a fibre optic cable. His production, just like his lyrics, works best when it satirises this internet wasteland that we’re all so hopelessly consumed by.

Peggy’s vocal delivery is also exhilarating, mixing the blunt ethos of punk rock with political rappers such as Ice Cube and Chuck D. On his recent performance on Colors, which already feels iconic, he raps like no one you’ve ever heard before, sometimes screaming to pierce through the bullshit. While some rappers like to boast about driving Maybachs, Peggy fists bumps victoriously at the idea of being 26 and not having any kids. Yet just when things threaten to get too intense, Peggy is capable of switching things up with a heartfelt falsetto that’s more Carly Rae Jepsen than Public Enemy.

His unconventional style of rapping feels like it could be a real turning point for a genre perhaps too comfortable with lazy lean references and pumping out melodic trap music. Just like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” broke down brittle musical walls in 1991, JPEGMAFIA wants to kickstart a new era (before, he has tellingly rapped: “I’m trying to take rap out of the Drake era!”). 

“I think there’s a need for an antithesis of what’s going on right now. People perceive rap as stagnant, so I believe it needs to be the opposite.” Could that be him? “I’m just going to do the best that I can,” he replies, laughing uncomfortably.

Before he plays London’s Field Day festival on June 8, and in-between washing the dishes in his LA home’s kitchen and taking a morning hit of kush on his bong, JPEGMAFIA spoke to Dazed to discuss why rap needs to be liberated, his experiences serving in the US military, and why he wants to kick the absolute shit out of Morrissey.

Whether it’s dissing Bernie Bros or questioning Drake’s dominance, I love that you’re so unfiltered lyrically. For me, JPEGMAFIA says what other rappers are afraid to say because he isn’t concerned about losing a multi-million dollar endorsement deal. Is that accurate?

JPEGMAFIA: I think a lot of people are afraid right now. You can be a public figure and say a lot less then you could before. There was a time, even in the 2000s, when you could say some wild shit, but that wouldn’t fly today. Society is definitely more politically correct and, by extension, rappers have become more PC too. There was an era in the 1980s with Chuck D and Ice T, where it was literally cool to put political content in your music and to push societal buttons. That used to be the wave. That just isn’t the case any more as rappers don’t want to talk about those issues.

Yuppyism is controlling shit again. My hope is that there’s a pushback. I might just be the only person who is like “hold the fuck up!” I want there to be a whole new era where rappers call out the fucked up shit that is happening.

Has there been enough of a pushback from rappers against Donald Trump? I don’t think rap has done enough, personally…

JPEGMAFIA: I don’t think rappers have a responsibility, but for me, I gotta say something. I can’t just look at injustice and keep quiet. For me, this isn’t a gimmick. I am used to experiencing so much trauma, that when I see it, I have to speak out. I don’t think rappers have a responsibility, but if you don’t say something or be silent or avoid it, I believe it shows your true real character to the world. It’s like, if no one wants to rap about gentrification then I am going to fill that void!

“Am I being edgy? Nah, I’m reflecting what’s real, you’re just offended by the truth” – JPEGMAFIA

My friend says you remind him of Eminem in his Marshall Mathers LP days in terms of how brutal yet smart your lyrics are, but I don’t like that comparison because Em benefitted from a certain level of privilege. As a black man in Trump’s America you’re really putting your life on the line by being a provocateur; there’s a big difference, right?

JPEGMAFIA: There’s a big difference. Eminem is white. He got a head start on me, period. I am going to have work ten times harder in my genre to get anything he achieved. Sure, he worked hard, but I state facts and I am nothing like that nigga. When he would scream, he would exorcise personal demons, and it was revolutionary at the time. But I am less into saying shocking shit for the sake of it. I am not a nigga that will go on a track and rap about killing puppies and all that stupid ass shit. Anything I say that you think is shocking is just shit that is shocking in real life to me that no one else fucking cares about. When police pulled up and shot Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black kid, I sampled that on my record and put it right in white people’s faces. They then said: “Oh, he’s being edgy!” Am I being edgy? Nah, I’m reflecting what’s real, you’re just offended by the truth. What is edgy anyways? It suggests I am using black issues as a gimmick; as if I have not been black for 29 years and not seen all types of fucked up shit!

Your song Williamsburg is a great critique of gentrification. How white people almost build coffee houses over homeless people’s bodies. You’re from New York, right? How much has it changed over your lifetime?

JPEGMAFIA: I was originally born in New York City, but moved around a lot. When I left NYC to join the military, it was like a warzone, but when I came back it was like an episode of Will & Grace. Sure, we have better buildings now, but you pushed out all the original people! You didn’t really improve anything, you just added white people and erased all the black people. Where I grew up in Flatbush, Brooklyn, I didn’t see white people. I came back though and they were everywhere trying to sell me $10 coffee. They were on bikes, walking their dogs. They don’t realise they stomped out a lot of people to get here. I wanted to point that out with that song.

How did being in the military impact your artistry? I think the tone of your music sometimes draws up the same kind of uncontrollable chaos of armed combat… particularly songs like “Try Me”.

JPEGMAFIA: The US army is pretty terrible. Never join it! The military affected me in the sense that it gave me a vigorous work ethic. I’ve been making beats for 14 years, but when I was in the Middle East, I made beats in extremely stressful, bad situations. I worked under crazy pressure so nothing phases me no more. When it comes to the military, if you aren’t white frat boy ass nigga, you have a lot of problems! And I had a lot of problems.

I remember in the military, they had a policy of ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ for gay and trans people. So like I knew a lot of gay people and trans people in the military, and they couldn’t be open. They had to alter who they were in public. They had to be more conventionally white. There’s a very bad culture there. If you don’t fit a certain mold, or get with the program, or listen to Eminem every fucking day, you’re toast. If you’re not a big burly insecure ass man nigga then you won’t last a day.

Your Colors performance of “Thug Tears” was crazy, you were like a thugged out Iggy Pop. Your flow really showed how closely aligned punk and rap could be. Is that something you want to make clear with your music?

JPEGMAFIA: Punk is all about doing what you want and being yourself. And that’s what rap is too. When rap came up, rappers couldn’t play at the boujee places in the 1970s or 80s, so the punk venue were the only ones who would let them play. Punk and rap were linked from the get-go. It isn’t out of the ordinary for me to rap like this, it’s just our history. When that Colors video dropped, people said it was horrible. I had tweets like: “Go kill yourself, nigga!” A week later though and people said they loved it. In the first take I did, I was running around, bouncing off walls. They were like: “You can’t do any of this.” Those first two takes were the wildest shit imaginable. I hope they do a director’s cut!

I believe music goes in cycles. In the 1980s, rock was full of synths and felt cheesy but then Nirvana broke down the walls with “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. You could argue that DMX did the same in the late 1990s, freeing rap from the softer Shiny Suit era and taking it back to somewhere raw on such a huge level. Does that need to happen again to rap in 2019?

JPEGMAFIA: In 1998, in rap, you had Diddy rocking trash bags and flying around. That’s what pushed rap into the 2000s and DMX, who was the complete opposite of what was going on. So yeah, I agree (that rap absolutely needs a “Smells Like Teen Spirit” moment). We need the antithesis of what’s going on right now. When things get stagnant, people need the opposite. DMX smashed the doors open by just being himself and we’re ready for a rapper to do that again.

Are you the one to liberate rap from its excesses?

JPEGMAFIA: No way! (laughs uncomfortably) I am just going to do all that I can do and see where this shit goes. If it’s me, that’s great, but I just want to keep on making music. I will never retire. My hairline has gone away, my back is fucked too; maybe I need to start rapping about that shit instead...

“When rap came up, rappers couldn’t play at the boujee places in the 1970s or 80s, so the punk venue were the only ones who would let them play. Punk and rap were linked from the get-go” – JPEGMAFIA

I love how you turn the mirror onto your audience. Like on the brilliant “The 27 Club, where you deal with the idea of fans creating false idols. Ultimately, where do you want this music thing to go?

JPEGMAFIA: With that song, I wanted to take people that are beloved and try to point out the fact everyone is human and no one is infallible. I like the idea that you shouldn’t worship idols. I wrote it when I was 19. It was a weird thing. When I wrote it, I didn’t think I was gonna be alive at 27. It came from a dark place.

Look, I recently met Rick Rubin in Hawaii and spoke with him. When I saw him, my ass literally almost fell off. This nigga produced Adele and Johnny Cash, but also made “Baby Got Back” and “99 Problems”. It makes no sense how talented he is! This man has been on top for four or five decades. He can sit back now and enjoy the fruits of his labour. He doesn’t have to work, he has nothing to prove and can chill forever. Now is the only time black artists can get to the same position as Rick. Remember, Jimi Hendrix died locked into a 360 record deal in a pool of his own vomit. Historically, black artists only get respect, but don’t have the money to back it up. However, white artists like Mick Jagger get both! Well, this is the only time in history where we’ve had a Jay-Z or Diddy, who have both the money and the respect. I wanna be like that too! I produce, rap, I record myself, and I want to one day to feel like Rick feels.

And it sounds like you don’t mind pissing off Morrissey in the process…

JPEGMAFIA: Fuck that nigga. Here is someone who says a bunch of dumb, goofy shit. He’s a certified asshole, yet he is still applauded by people who cancel other niggas for less. Why does he get a pass? Because he makes good music? It is okay to be racist if your music is fire? I want to make people see the hypocrisy of it all. I want to knock him out to show the old white niggas, you can’t talk shit for 40 years and not have consequences. I wanna slap the shit out this nigga ’cos he doesn’t feel like he can get slapped. His white privilege makes him feel invincible. You niggas stole rock and all the other genres from us, then you talk shit on the last genre we have left! If I slap this racist motherfucker, it will show the other rock bitch ass niggas they need to go sit down and stop talking shit about rap!

JPEGMAFIA plays Field Day festival at Meridian Water, London on June 8