I met up with JPEGMAFIA -- the punk-leaning newcomer to Baltimore's DIY rap scene -- at his girlfriend's studio in the city's Bolton Hill neighborhood earlier this week where we spoke over jerk chicken dinners. A recent transplant to Baltimore, the 26-year-old, born Barrington Hendricks, surveyed the city's scene from his military housing in Japan in hopes of moving back to the states, somewhere close to New York but not as expensive to pursue a career in music. Over the past few months, JPEG has made it a goal to collaborate with as many artists as possible, quickly making a name for himself in underground circles for his candid, yet occasionally satirical take on liberal racism and the tension it creates.
Having moved to Baltimore shortly before April's Uprising, JPEG made Darkskin Manson -- a 40-minute "fuck you" to all anti-black sentiments with track titles like "Cops Are The Target", "Mask On The Masters" and "I Wipe My Ass With Confederate Flags" -- as he watched the city erupt over Freddie Gray's alleged killing by the Baltimore City Police Department. It was a spark to an amber that had been burning inside of him since his adolescence. Born in New York to Jamaican parents, Hendricks spent the bulk of his childhood in East Flatbush, Brooklyn -- a neighborhood deeply rooted in West Indian culture and black pride -- bouncing from place to place due to rough circumstances at home. That experience of Black Utopia was uprooted when his mom abruptly moved them to Alabama when JPEG was 13, where he had his first experiences with overt racism. It was also in Alabama where he first started to study rap music as a genre, having been exposed to mostly reggae for the majority of his life.
After a short stint in prison due to a racially-charged altercation in his late teens, JPEG joined the military where he'd be deployed to different parts of the world, meeting fellow artists and adding new elements to his producing and rapping repertoire. He moved to Japan and formed a group called Ghost Pop where he gained a local buzz in Tokyo before returning to the U.S. As we sat and ate, we talked about how each stop he's made in his 26 years has influenced his artistry, how he now deals with racism and how he plans to inspire fellow black people to act on their anger, instead of suppressing it.
Was your experience of living in Alabama the foundation for your musical content? Because most of it deals with racial tension.
JPEGMAFIA: Almost exclusively. But New York is too because I lived around nothing but niggas. East Flatbush was like Niggalopolis. I was surrounded by black-owned businesses so I came up with a weird point of view when it came to race. At that point, I didn’t feel like I was being held back for being black because my community instilled the whole black power ideology into my head, even though I hadn’t applied it to anything. When I moved to the south I learned what racism truly was and it’s not what everybody thinks it is. It’s not people riding round with the Klan on horses. It’s a lot sneakier. It’s like this quote from Eddie Griffin that I like: “People don’t say nigga anymore. They say ‘We’re not hiriing.’” I went through so much shit in Alabama. My first day of school, some white dude pulled up to me while I was walking and spit on me and drove off.
Your last project is titled Darkskin Manson. Are you inspired by Charles Manson in some way?
Not at all. I’m just appropriating his name. I’m just stealing his shit and using it the way I want, how white people do to us. He wasn’t doing it right. He’s a failure to me. He’s celebrated but he didn’t really do anything but brainwash a few stupid people.
What were you listening to growing up?
I came up listening to a lot of reggae with my dad but Dipset was like my first introduction to rap. My favorite rapper of all time is Ice Cube, though. That’s where I get the inspiration for my delivery and even my lyrical content. To me, he was the first rapper I heard as a kid to talk about black power but not in a preachy way. It was like, ‘We’re angry so let’s do something about it.’ Our anger is always so suppressed. White people can have the KKK and all these hate groups for no fucking reason but when we get angry it scares the shit out of people so they try to shut it down ASAP.
What was your music like when you first started making it?
My music was always about what it is now but it didn’t sound anything like my music does now. Cam’ron is where I got my first rapping style from and my production because he would always use the chipmunk samples. I always wanted to know how he did that then I started looking it up and realized that he was just using other songs. I wasn't even listening to him when I lived in New York. When I first moved to Atlanta, a guy I went to school with gave me the first Diplomatic Immunity like, “Yo, you're from New York. You’ll fuck with this.” So I was on some real hip-hop, soul-sampling, elitist shit. I liked a lot of punk music too like Bad Brains. I really liked punk music for the energy and not the content because most of it is trust fund baby bullshit. I wanted to harness that energy and put something to it that was actually worth being angry about. That’s why I liked Ice Cube.
Did your military experience make your music different?
Yeah because I came across a lot of artists there. I met a guy named Enso who’s on some of my stuff and we lived in Japan together and made a group called Ghost Pop. But my music changed mostly because being in the military is a stressful environment. I made a lot of beats overseas when I was deployed in Iraq, living in really small spaces where people were throwing little bombs at us nonstop. I really had to time when I made beats because of the environment and also I couldn’t record so I was writing a lot. But having so much time on my hands, I really got to harness my skills from practicing and studying people. Ghostface for the flow. NaS for lyricism. Ice Cube for delivery. Wayne for his non sequiturs. Jay for his wordplay. In the military we only got one day off which was Saturday for me so on Thursday I would download albums because the internet was slow it took a whole day to download an album (laughs).
How did you navigate through the Tokyo scene to gain recognition? Was that difficult as a foreigner?
I had lot of help. We had two Japanese people in the group and they were already connected within the scene. One of them was in the military so, based on that, I had a place to stay. Plus, a lot of stuff in Tokyo is in English so it wasn’t hard to get around. If I’d went there by myself and hit the ground running, I would’ve had a harder time.
You moved to Baltimore just before The Uprising. What effect, if any, did that have on your work?
I recorded the whole Darkskin Manson the week of The Uprising and put it out the week after. It had a profound effect because I was actually proud that people rioted and got angry. A lot of times they want us to shut up, hold hands and pray.
You were studying the Baltimore scene before you even got here but who’s been your favorite to work with since you came? Who are you learning from?
The first person I made songs here with is :3lon. I’ve made so much music with him. We actually have an EP coming out together. I really like working with Butch Dawson because we both are one-take kind of artists when we make stuff. I’ve probably learned the most from Abdu Ali; the way he records is really interesting. He doesn’t know much of the mechanical aspect of recording, but it comes together so well for him. It’s like a gift.
What does an :3lon and JPEGMAFIA project even sound like? Individually, your music is so different.
We hang out all the time and like the same kind of music so we wanted to create. We’re using my kind of production which is more industrial with his input and voice. We’re completely different but the same all at once. But it’s really genre-bending, which we both like. It’ll be bouncy but industrial. I also have an EP with Grey Dolf coming and another solo project called Black Ben Carson.
What experience do you want to create for people who listen to your music?
The only people I ever talk to is niggas ‘cause nobody ever talks to us. I talk about a lot of liberal racism. I just want people to get out of this turn-the-other-cheek mindset. I’m not saying I want niggas to kill people but don’t be a bitch about it. That’s the goal right now. But artistically, I just wanna create an environment like a Death Grips or a metal show, but with black people and shit that we’re angry about. I wanna create an environment for us to come get loose and say "Fuck all this shit." Death Grips is cool but they make music for hipsters. They talk about abstract shit that don't mean nothing. So I wanna take that energy and infuse it with shit that’s relevant to niggas in the hood.