INTERVIEW: AFROPUNK contributor Lightning Pill virtually sits down with rapper/producer/beatmaker JPEGMAFIA
By Sound Check
March 7, 2016
If anyone had been following me and my reviews of JPEGMafia’s pre-BBC albums, you’ll know that rapper/producer/beatmaker Devon Hendryx has no problem being controversial. Not even controversial to the point where it shocks its most sensitive listeners. But Black Ben Carson’s controversy lies less in the need to simply address black issues and more into the fact that he has figured out that as a black man, he is seen as a silent problem. And so, Black Ben Carson is JPEGMafia’s (nee Devon Hendryx) real introduction to the world, for better or worse.
Black Ben Carson is described by the artists as his Death Certificate, and with this album, he goes after more targets than intended from his last few projects. This time, wrestling fans (“Black Steve Austin”), uneducated liberals (“You Think You Know”), Drake imitators (“Drake Era”), and Kid Cudi get confronted (“This That Shit Kid Cudi Coulda Been”). Even black people who cheer on the confrontation of white people while not expecting their own whipping get some of Hendryx’s tongue lashing (“Try Me”).
Over Twitter, I interviewed JPEGMafia not only about his past work (which I covered here), but also his point of view about the black community, Kendrick Lamar and how it is time we retire the need to compare every lo-fi, noise rap artist/band to…that group.
By Lightning Pill*, AFROPUNK Contributor
What inspired you to start making music? A very vanilla question, but…
Rappers inspired me. I never wanted to make music until I saw niggas like myself doing it. I used to be into rock when I was younger, but I listened to it purely as a fan. No part of me wanted to be like Linkin Park. But when I saw Cam’ron with the pink Range and the fur, I was like “nigga, I gots to do this!”
I noticed in one of your old albums, you mentioned how much you can’t stand hip-hop. Mostly because it seemed degenerating or that it was trendy (citing your hatred of people’s sudden hop aboard the Trap bandwagon). What specifically is your beef with how hip-hop is now?
I hated hip hop at the time because I was frustrated with its tendency to be sheepish. When I made that particular album (The Rockwood Escape Plan), it was around the time that Kanye was doing 808s and Heartbreak and Kid Cudi was getting big. There’s was this underlying pretentious undertone to these artists coming into rap and denouncing it as a whole in favor of indie bands with funny names. I hated this, HATED IT! It was disrespectful as fuck that all these dudes were shitting were they ate. I BELIEVE Kanye said he didn’t listen to rap in his apartment or some thing like that around his time. These NIGGAS went out of their way to talk down on the genre that gave them life, and I decided as a 19 year old I didn’t wanna be associated with that, but I also loved hip hop too much to truly ever let it go. So I basically became a disgruntled old teenage rapper and shook my fist at everyone telling them to get off my hip hop lawn.
Since then I’ve made amends with hip hop, and I just love it unconditionally. I take the good with the bad and accept it because hip hop is the best thing that ever happened to me. When I was younger, I was blinded by vitriol. So, I was unable to think it through rationally, but my feelings then haven’t really changed much. I was just more reckless with my words back then, if you can believe that. But like I said: “good with the bad”. I think hip hop is in the best state it’s ever been in ever right now. There’s something for everybody, literally!
Oh and yea, the trap bandwagon? I lived in the South around 2003 and on, so I literally watched niggas go from hating everything about the south to dickriding every aspect of it. Fake as fuck. Like I said years ago, where were all these trap rap fans in ’06? Because I was down there and we don’t remember y’all.
I take it when you created Communism Slow Jams, you had just moved to Baltimore. What made you want to migrate there?
No. Communist Slow Jams was done by the end of 2014. I just didn’t release it until I got to Baltimore. Most of those beats and lyrics were recorded made in 2013 – 2014. I moved here because I wanted to get close to New York without having to deal with the cost of living at first, but I began to be fascinated with Baltimore in general and decided I wanted to go here over New York. it’s a black city with a thriving music scene. I did my research on the scene before I got here and loved the artists here. So, that sealed the deal for me.
How did you and Abdu Ali link up for the production of one of his tracks? I hit Abdu up after hearing his music online, and we had a mutual liking for each other’s music. We were in the same scene, so we were bound to run into each other eventually. We clicked almost immediately and have made some genre-bending shit together. It’s a match made in heaven. I always liken it to being two sides of the same coin. Superman and Batman. He’s very positive about uplifting black people, whereas I embrace the negativity and use to it my advantage to uplift us.
Almost like a Martin Luther King/Malcolm X kind of thing?
Let’s talk more about the album that broke you out of obscurity and was one of the albums that bore the JPEGMafia name. On Communist Slow Jams, you have a track named “Once They Build a Starbucks It’s Ova”. In this very track, you condemned white people who took over black culture. From my perspective, I notice that we used to sing love songs and songs about heartbreak. Now, we don’t really do that. The closest we get to that is Adele and Sam Smith. If there are still artists like that, they are either underground or mostly not about truly real stuff. Do you think that while males in the music industry specifically set things up, so that music can only make black people seem more ignorant than they are?
I’m positive there are some out there who are set out to keep us ignorant for sure, and from a financial perspective, putting a white face on something black is a surefire way to sell shit. See Elvis or Eric Clapton. But as a whole, I don’t think they do it on purpose, but they all do it, even if its unintentional. Sam Smith and Adele are probably not out to sweep rhythm and blues up from under black people. But them getting accolades and record sales for doing a watered down version of some shit black people mastered in the 40’s is just proof of their own mediocrity prevailing over the brilliance of someone like Jasmine Sullivan. It’s like Omarosa said to Bethenny, “they’re allowed to be mediocre and still be rewarded with things. We have to be exceptional to get anything in this business.” Its the way it is.
On the same album, you gave a eulogy for Ismaaiyl Brinsley. Explain to Afropunk who he is and why you chose him to mourn exactly.
Ismaaiyl Brinsley was a man who shot and killed two NYPD police officers in late 2014 after posting on Instagram that he was going “make pigs fly”. He was not a good person by any means, but I didn’t know him or anything about him at the time. I gave him a eulogy because the mindset he had to do what he did is what I feel is needed in our community. He murdered two police officers and although most would shame that, I appreciated the fact that he didn’t beg for empathy from people who were showing us over and and over again that they had none. He took matters into his own hands.
I’ve been fucked with by police my entire life, and one of them locked my brother away. At the time, the Mike Brown situation had renewed tension with police and everyone’s response to the police murdering black men and women was to beg for empathy. Brinsley did what they do to us routinely.
Black people as a whole are too forgiving. We would rather beg people to stop killing us then fight back, and that’s a learned mindset.
Let’s discuss the “Lee Daniels Freestyle”. In this track, I hear a lot of anger mostly directed not at homosexuality, but rather at the emasculation of black men, especially in entertainment or, if you were to look at Madea a little further, the study of more masculine femininity. Do you also subscribe to the idea that a lack of true father figures can lead to the emasculating of black males? What exactly was going through your mind when this was performed?
The black family in America has never been stable. From the moment we were stolen and brought over here as cargo, we were separated, split up and sold off. Mothers and fathers were separated from sons and daughters. I am not someone who subscribes to the tumblr social justice version of what masculinity is. Being a man is not going out fucking your wife, hunting meat and oppressing women. Being a man is about handling your business and making the tough decisions when the time arises. Lee Daniels is a gay male. As a straight male, I don’t know of the struggle he goes through as gay man in America, but I do know of the ones he might go through as a black man in America. Listening to what he says in interviews and comments he’s made overtime, I don’t like the way he generalizes black men as homophobic demonic assholes.
It’s not just one or two off-hand comments. He consistently uses his platform to shit on his own people whenever the opportunity presents itself. He made another comment saying that he saw so many black women at an AIDS center that he though it was a welfare office. To me, it seems like not only does he look down on his own race and have a lot of self-hate but he is choosing his sexuality over his race as well, and that some fucc BOI shit. You’re black, period, and we need to stick together! If you’re one of the few voices with a platform to speak on issues, and you use that platform to attack black people, then I lose respect for you.
Now, enough about the past, on to Black Ben Carson. On Afropunk, we premiered “You Think You Know”. In the booklet, you let us know you were arguing about what it was like being in air forces. Tell us a bit about your time there.
The Air Force is a horrible place and I don’t recommend that anyone ever join. There are people in the military who truly love their country and want to defend it. Props to them! But that’s maybe 20 percent. The other 80 percent are just people who joined simply because they are not mentally equipped to do anything else but follow orders. It’s not a reflection on the military but on opportunistic lazy-ass people who don’t know how to be a functioning adult in society so they let Uncle Sam be there meal ticket.
Photo: Christopher Bynes
What was it like, and how has it influenced your politics and your music?
The military is one of the few places you see people from all walks of life working together for a common goal. But because of these differences it creates much conflict. I was a part of many conflicts while I was under contract. But my time in there was mostly spent saving money for musical equipment and plotting my next move afterwards. I was a shitty airman. I knew what I was there for and they couldn’t brainwash me with their bullshit. I went to the desert, I went Germany, I went to Iraq. I saw things I could never understand and I’ve heard things I would never repeat. But the experience was worth it for me because I got what I wanted and got the fuck out.
In the Desert, I made beats religiously. I couldn’t record, so I just wrote every night and perfected my craft. As far as politics go, it had no real effect on it. I already lived in the Deep South. I knew what was up before I got there. Nothing surprised me.
Of the tracks you had released before, why did you choose “The 27 Club” for Black Ben Carson? I chose to rerelease “The 27 club” because the song from the beat to the lyrics and the concept was so ahead of its time, I feel it would never truly get appreciated if it stayed hidden in my old music. The song deserved to be heard properly.
I read an interview with Noisey, and you didn’t seem impressed with Kendrick Lamar’s performances.
Naw, I love Kendrick, but he def plays it safe. That’s all I was really saying. Like I felt like he was going in, but it’s like a safe going in, you know? But Kendrick is the best rapper in the planet and he’s doing something with his fame that effects people in a positive way. I love Kendrick Lamar!
While typing this, I was thinking how America took it easier on Kendrick than they did on Beyonce. Unless I am ignorant of the stats of people watching TV, I imagine the same amount of people who peep the Grammys also peep the Superbowl. Why do you think people are more against her than they are against Kendrick?
Also, do you also think that Beyonce not getting the respect for her “Formation” track had more to do with timing also? Kendrick Lamar released To Pimp a Butterfly smack dab in the middle of a controversial year when people, especially black people, needed it the most. Beyonce released the song this year when it seemed like things had slowly eased up, for a lack of a better description.
Well first off, way more watch the Super Bowl than the Grammys. In fact, the Super Bowl is the most watched event on the planet, I believe. So, more people were exposed to Beyonce in 5 minutes on the Super Bowl than Kendrick’s performance, but that’s beside the point. I think Beyonce gets more flack because there is hierarchy in this country and the world in general. A totem pole, so to speak. It’s goes like this:
- White men
- White women
- Other POC
- Black men
- Black women
And you could argue the specifics of that forever, but that generalization is widely accepted by our society.
Anytime black people begin to love themselves openly and embrace the qualities that American has deemed negative, it it’s seen as a threat. They can’t take it. It’s why they bombed a church full of little black girls. It’s why they tore town Black Wall Street. it’s why they hate Cam Newton. It’s why the Black Panthers are mentioned in the same breath as the KKK even though they’re nothing alike. And now, it’s why Beyonce is under under attack. “Formation” is seen as a call to arms. It’s basically white people in butt fuck nowhere being scared of something they don’t understand. When niggas don’t understand something, they walk away or just leave it alone. When white people don’t understand something, they destroy it. History has proven that. So to answer your question, Beyonce is a black woman and it comes with the territory.
But also I don’t think Kendrick’s album is unapologetically black just because it doesn’t fit certain criteria. On that album, he is clearly doing him and he’s putting us on a pedestal. That’s all any of us can really ask. I don’t think it had to do with timing she would have got that reaction anyway.
At the time of the Grammys, I saw a few people disappointed that Taylor Swift won Album of the Year. But I had made various points. One: Taylor Swift had the edge because of what she did with Apple. She banned the album from getting streamed and because of this, she was able to sell a lot of records. Not to mention she has an incredibly loyal fanbase. On the other side, Kendrick is a rapper who your favorite rappers like, except for Drake. Heh! When he was performing at a concert with artists like Waka Flocka and Future, multiple people left the concert. People had initially thought “i” sucked, and there were as many people who didn’t understand TPAB as there were people who really loved it.
Now, if Kendrick were to have pulled the same shit Taylor did with the streaming, I doubt it would have made sales. Not to mention that some of the people who have heard the album would have illegally downloaded it anyway. My point was that Kendrick might have won the night, if only his people went out and bought the albums, assuming that the Grammys or that specific category WAS based on record sales.
Were you one of those who were disappointed at Tay’s win, and what is your take upon the whole thing? Also, do you feel like THIS exact thing is an example of multiple black artists saying that black people don’t support each other, especially in the arts?
I wasn’t disappointed. I knew she would win TBH. But I think begging for awards from the elites is not the way to go about getting what we want as black people. In the late 80s, rappers boycotted the Grammys because they wouldn’t showcase hip hop. Then we started, The Source awards. It’s easier said than done, but we really need to pool our resourses together and stop waiting around for these people to acknowledge us. It’s pathetic and it’s never going to happen.
To answer the second, the “black people not supporting black people” thing goes like this. This country is 14% black and like 67% percent white. You break that percentage down into people with money to buy shit, and you have your reason why black people supposedly don’t support one another. It’s a numbers game.
Addressing the whole DG thing. I may be a little guilty of doing this with your first Black Ben Carson single, but it seems like everyone who uses noise and lo-fi production in their music keeps getting compared to Death Grips, which you addressed head-on with “I Smell Crack”. Do you think this is merely lazy journalism on the part of most reviewers and listeners? Or do you think this is just what comes with the territory when a genre such as noise rap or experimental hip-hop is still fresh upon the mind of those listening?
I think the Death Grips comparisons are partly lazy journalism, partly ignorance. I speak on politics and racism, things that effect real people in real life. Why am I being compared to a band that screams abstract bullshit for shallow hipsters? I’m channeling Ice Cube. I’m speaking from the perspective of my grandfather who slaved away in Jamaica to make my life here good. I’m speaking from the mind of my dead ancestors from people who died trying drink water from a white-only fountain. Why am i compared to them? A band with dicks on their cover? I came from nothing. I produce my music, mix it, master it & I record it. I’m a self-made nigga and I worked extremely hard to get the little bit of nothing I have. My sonic palette stretches much further than noise rap. The entire “Peggy” side of Black Ben Carson is a realm Death Grips would never dare to step in because its too real for memes and ironic hipster bullshit. As a rapper, as a producer and as an artist period. Death Grips is not in my tax bracket. So the real question is not why am I being compared to Death Grips, but why is Death Grips being compared to me?
You had recorded a soundbite about The New Black (on CSJ), which in some minds translates into light-skinned black. I was thinking a bit about The Weeknd’s success and how Tyrese or Tank wouldn’t have gotten away with either writing “The Hills” or “Can’t Feel My Face” or receiving a No. 1 place on the charts for it. Do you think the dissolution of skin color allows people to get away with anything or do you think things are a little more nuanced than that?
I do absolutely I think about that sometimes. I don’t think it lets them get away with anything, but the margin for error is much lower with a Tank-colored brother than a Weeknd-colored one. At the end of the day, we’re all black so it really don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. It’s a slight advantage, but I’m not into playing oppression olympics. So, I’ll just leave it there.
A question about Afropunk. I assume you haven’t been to Afropunk much outside of your feature, and if you have, my apologies. But what would you say Afropunk means to you?
Afropunk is one of the best outlets for black artist in the country and one of the most consistent. For me, I already read the blog and followed the Afropunk festival and I always wanted to be a part of it in any way shape or form. So, to be able to get interviewed now is an honor. Afropunk means a lot to me as black man in the art world.
What things do you have planned in the future?
For the future, I plan to release an EP later this year in the same vein I did with Darkskin Manson after the release of Communist Slow Jams last year. I’m going to be playing a lot of shows in new cities trying to get my music to a broader audience. I have Merch coming this year so people can take a little bit of Peggy everywhere they go. And I plan on watching every episode of Thats So Raven so I can figure out what the fuck went wrong with her! Black Ben Carson out now for free of charge at jpegmafia.net. You can also either download it for free or buy a cassette tape from Memorials of Distinction Records. Black Ben Carson, by JPEGMAFIA *Lightning Pill, Boston’s 93rd favorite polymath. I write songs, compose music in various genres, make beats on occasion, write articles for IHeartNoise and Afropunk, write poetry, edit and direct videos, and drop science that most people would rather not hear. Oh yeah, I’m also an Aspie. Very important information. You can reach him @ www.twitter.com/LightningPill or visit his Afropunk website. His Soundcloud can be found here and his main Bandcamp found here. Also here for the new agers.