you think you know me: a conversation with jpegmafia
By Brandon Callender
October 2, 2019
Outspoken rapper and producer JPEGMAFIA is “mentally bulletproof” because he has to be. After more than a decade of making music in relative obscurity, the Baltimore experimentalist’s 2018 breakthrough release, Veteran, not only put him on the map — but also in the crosshairs of music critics and internet trolls alike. Peggy, as he’s called for short, knows that criticism — both fair and unfair — comes with the territory, but his bulletproof mentality means that he’s not just thick-skinned, he’s also ready to fire right back at his detractors at all times.
Rap’s biggest punk star is committed to expressing himself without compromise. Being an artist in an era when everyone has a platform and an opinion means that baring one’s soul for public consumption can be fraught, but Peggy remains undeterred from antagonizing those who would antagonize him whether that means telling music writers to “step into reality” when they don’t laugh at his jokes or venting about people who complain that he says “cracker” too much.
Peggy and I spoke over the phone a week after the release of his new album, All My Heroes Are Cornballs, to talk about life post- Veteran, separating the person from the persona, and the creative process behind AMHAC.
How has life changed for you since Veteran?
Imagine you’ve been doing something your whole life and one day, all of a sudden, a bunch of niggas who never gave a shit, all of a sudden super-duper give a shit. It’s like they think the art belongs to them. They build narratives that don’t exist. They make up [the] intentions I have been behind songs and lyrics that don’t exist. The thing that’s changed [most] is just having people who have no context of who you are at all give their stupid ass opinion all the fucking time. You’ve gotta be bulletproof mentally. I’m dealing with that because I be wanting to slap the shit out of all these niggas … It doesn’t affect me at all usually, but in large amounts, and after I’ve put something out like just now, that shit will annoy the fuck out of me. I don’t know where these niggas came from ‘cause I’ve been here the whole time and they wasn’t here ever. [laughs]
In the past you’ve said that if you weren’t doing music, you would probably be writing about it, do you still feel that way?
It was definitely a backup idea for me. Do I see myself writing [about music] now? The only reason I would do it now is because there’s not enough niggas doing it who do the correct research. They just come at it from a weird angle. In a lot of music journalism now, niggas make it about themselves. Nigga, nobody cares. The entire idea of music journalism is dependent on the fucking artists. If all the artists went on strike, what the fuck would everybody do? Fucking nothing.
The only reason I would do it now is to introduce some sort of neutrality to it, cause it just seems to me like it’s just niggas trying to get shine on themselves vicariously through all the artists’ work or something. A lot of it is goofy-ass weird fucking… “Look at me! Look how cool I am because I like this shit!” type shit.
What do you think music critics’ function should be?
The point of the music critic is the same as it’s always been. A lot of niggas have lives and most people don’t have time to sift through a bunch of artists or a bunch of music. Sometimes they want to see someone whose taste lines up with theirs and like, “Hey, tell me what’s good, fuck it.” I would assume that’s the point of a music critic. Just to put a shine on people who don’t get a lot of shine but are really good [and to] give your opinion on whatever is going on. People are gonna look back at reviews, think pieces and shit like that. It’s going to be a snapshot of time. So it’s just like, what are you saying? Because like in a hundred years niggas going to look back at it and they either going to be like, “this was brilliant,” or they’re going to look at you like a corny motherfucker. Like, what you want to do? [laughs].
What do critics get wrong about you as an artist, or as a person?
White men have positioned me as kind of “weird” and “edgy.” Like I’m just some goofy art school student who be on Reddit all the time and be arguing with niggas or something. That’s such a mischaracterization of who I am as a person. It’s like taking like me as a rapper literally and making it my real personality. I hate that shit. But it’s expected, it’s gonna happen. It’s part of the job.
I just wish it was OK for Black people, in general, to step outside the box and it not be like, “Yo, get back in the motherfucking box real quick, nigga! What the fuck are you doing?” Like niggas can’t do anything? Niggas have to do one thing or nothing. It’s like we can’t do many things at once. There’s no room or margin of error with niggas to step outside the box.
I just wish that characterization was not put up as like my real personality because now I’m seeing people talking about me like I’m not even here. I have a Twitter nigga, just ask me, it’s 2019. I’m reacting to it right now and it pisses me off but two days from now, I probably won’t give a shit. This happens to every artist, so I’m not unique and I’m not even trying to be like, “woe is me.”
Everyone labels you as the “extremely online” rapper. Do you think that boils your identity down and puts you in that box you’re talking about?
I don’t know if it’s done on purpose, but this is what happens when you put your art out there. It’s some kind of way to put me into a box that they understand so they can attack it from that narrative. Because I’m not some nigga that’s just sitting here doing all this dumb shit that they’re saying. If you were to believe what these niggas say, I’m just the angry nigga who just be screaming at YouTube all day. It’s this weird dumb white people shit they just made up. It’s a way for them to put me into a position so that I’ll stay still so they can talk about me in some kind of way that they can understand. I don’t understand why they have to sacrifice who I am as a person.
Can someone explain that last sentence to me. Is he dissing everyone that came from Fantano and saying that he only got new fans because of him or am I reading too much Into this?
— hollow (@souldarkheart47) September 21, 2019
You recently tweeted, “I’m going to make every last one of you fake-ass closet racist hip hop fans expose yourself one by one” What inspired that tweet?
Niggas be in my mentions and just saying dumbass shit to me. Niggas in my fucking DMs like, “Bro, why you ain’t make Veteran 2?” I don’t know what people want from me. I also see a lot of people coming at me with this whole edgy characterization and I’m trying to trace where it’s coming from. It seems a lot to me like it’s coming from niggas just butthurt at what the fuck I’m saying about them. Like it’s just hitting too close to home.
If you don’t like me, just say you don’t like me and let it be known but don’t say “the snares don’t sound good,” ‘cause you racist. The kick drum sounds how it sounds, my nigga, if you don’t like Black people that is what it is. If I say “cracker” too much [for you] that is what it is, but me saying “cracker” too much did not change the kick [drum], my nigga. A lot of it seems like thinly-veiled racism. I might be wrong, but you can’t leave shit up to chance ‘cause white people are crazy — especially racist white people, they the most crazy and they do real dumb shit. Them niggas be online pretending to be Black all day. I wouldn’t put it past them to thinly veil their racism into like some criticism about my music I just wanted to let them know [that] I see that shit and I don’t give a fuck and you’re pussy and you’re not going to do anything. These people live in anonymity and I am determined to make them come out into the light.
How do you think people’s proximity to whiteness affects how they receive your music?
White people mischaracterize anything. It’s like working at a job where you’re like the only Black person and just like, you know, you just don’t do certain shit cause you already know white people are gonna either take that shit out of context or call the police or something. It’s the same feeling. I put my shit out there and I know what my intentions were behind it and I did my very best to try to explain it beforehand so that the niggas who really fucked with me could understand it. The niggas who do fuck with me, they fuck with me and they get it. But when you put art out there, it’s meant to be misunderstood really by anybody, not just white people. That’s for any artist.
Though you aren’t as “extremely online” as people believe you are, your music is still dense with references to various internet subcultures. What kinds of websites did you browse in the past?
My earliest interaction with like any internet websites was in the ‘90s when I used to go to the library. Niggas used to just go to the library and go on like websites and get like cheat codes and shit. Niggas in the hood would print out “Dragon Ball Z” pictures and shit and like drawings and shit. Also, I used to just be on racist websites. Just looking at them niggas like, “what is these niggas talking about?” If you look on my Instagram, I used to post shit I’d see on there. I seen one nigga was like, “Why isn’t there any white nationalist reggae, man? Is there anything like this? We need something like this for the white brotherhood.” And I’m like, “Yo, what the fuck world are these niggas living in?”
That shit is pure entertainment. That’s why I don’t feel no type of way talking about white people, bro. I literally saw what these niggas be saying when we’re not around. It’s so crazy ‘cause they think they think niggas in the hood can’t see shit like that.
Also, it’s funny because like these niggas say “nigga” so much and pretend to be black online so much [that] they’re being black in real life. Every time I see white people fighting on WorldStar, they’d be like, “fuck you, nigga! Let’s go nigga! I’m with the shits!”
Can you just talk about how you found ways to weaponize irony and the language of incels and these other internet subcultures?
It’s what they do to us. They watch us, they copy what we do and throw it back at us and twist it and turn it in every way. When I do it back to them, I just watch them squirm and they say “Don’t do that.” And I’m just like, the irony. It’s ironic because I watched it and I did it right back to them. I learned how to weaponize irony from white people. That’s really it. They weaponize anything to push a narrative. They’ll kill each other to push a narrative. As a matter of fact, the only time they ever unite is when they want to kill something. You learn a lot just looking at them niggas and just watching them cause they’re just crazy as fuck and they just do weird shit. When you do this shit right back to them, they just can’t deal with it. So I’m going to keep doing it.
When you look at your shows or the people at festivals coming out to your sets, it’s a lot of white people and some of them are the kind that you’re fighting against. How does that feel?
Again, it comes with the job. I watched an interview where somebody asked Public Enemy the same exact thing in 1988 or something. I don’t really know how to feel about it because I reciprocate the energy of anyone who likes my music no matter what they look like, to be honest.
The specific type of white people I’m coming at, I’m completely aware that some of them or a lot of them probably come to my shows but I kind of have this scattershot, like ricochet approach [to dealing with them]. This “bomb first, ask questions last” kind of approach because I don’t have time to cherrypick the good white people from the bad white people. I’m Fox News’ing that shit up. When Fox News talks about niggas, they don’t say ”that nigger, that nigger, that nigger,” they just wrap them all up and we [Black people] all get offended. So like fuck it, scoop it up. White people make up the majority of people in this country and they have the most expendable income. They’re always going to be the ones at the shows. This a question that doesn’t have an answer.
It’s something you accept. It’s something Kendrick Lamar accepts, [something] J. Cole accepts. Anybody who raps, anybody who makes music has to accept that. Until that changes or like there’s more niggas around or niggas all become like extremely rich and can go to concerts. [laughs] This is just the way it is.
What’s the story behind the title, All My Heroes Are Cornballs?
It’s just an acceptance. Let’s be real, all these niggas that we worship and look up to, you know, they’re doing some corny shit. Corny shit can be anything. I think it’s time for people to wake up and be real with themselves and be honest and say that we as a whole are selective who we bring this hammer down on, like straight up. I guess that was just my way of being like that. [Let’s] admit that all our heroes are cornballs. It’s not even just some of them, it’s literally all of them. It’s just like whether you can see it or not.
It was just bringing everything to like a flat acceptance. It’s the only phrase I can think of after like all the things that have happened this year and last year. I like it because it can be applied to me because I could’ve said all your heroes are cornballs, but I’m saying all mine, it’s about me too. I could be somebody’s hero too. I’m not absolving myself in that. I’m saying we all are.
Throughout the album, it feels you’re trying to make sense of your own thoughts and your life at this point.
That’s pretty much exactly what was going on. I wanted to be that vulnerable on a large scale. This the largest amount of eyes that have ever been on me. I wanted to give people a good entry point that’d be like, “This is who I really am, this is what I like to do. This is me.” I just thought it was the right time. It’s 2019, we’re about to be in 2020, nigga.
It’s like it’s either now or never type shit. Fuck it. I was trying to make sense of my own thoughts and my own mortality. Like how I exist in the music industry as a Black person, as a Black person who mixes and masters and produces all his own shit. I’m just looking around and trying to make sense of all these things. I’m seeing people like Rick Rubin, I’m seeing all these famous people I never thought I’d meet.
The song “BBW” really speaks to your feelings about mortality and your place in the industry.
That song only actually had a few iterations. For some reason, a lot of the beats I made sounded real gospel-y. I don’t really know why, I wasn’t trying to do that, but that was one of the ones that sounded gospel-y. For some reason, these gospel-sounding, weird-ass beats gave me like a bed, to be honest. [laughs] It just makes me feel like I need to confess a sin on it or something. I just wanted to let people into my mind. I think about that shit, like what I say on that shit: “When I pass, I hope everything I did mattered to you, baby/ If it didn’t /fuck it, when my body frigid/ all this music gon’ keep Peggy living.”
It may be a cliché [to say this] but I never thought I’d even see 30. The idea of growing old and passing away was a thought that was on my mind a lot in this album because it’s not something I thought would ever happen to me. So like, you know, I started thinking about like, “what’s going to be here when I’m gone?” It’s going to be this. So this is what I give a shit about.
Do the names of those tracks matter? Could it be “Black John Travolta?”
[laughs] Nah, I can use that [”Black ____” prefix] mask interchangeably. I’ve used it to attack people and I’ve also used it to show people admiration. When I say “Black Brian Wilson,” [on “BBW”] it’s not so much me comparing myself to him from a technical aspect. I looked back at Brian Wilson when he was writing [Brian Wilson Presents] Smile and he was so overrun with expectations from his last album that it destroyed his creative process. The industry did that. This is somebody who loves making music, I can tell. I could tell when I listened to that shit. It’s like he was talking to me through the music or some shit.
I named it that because I felt not specifically what he was going through, but I can relate to it because it’s just like that shit will make you hate your work if you let it. That’s an example of somebody who made something really fire, which was that album Smile, and never released it. The man’s genius man, I just wanted to compare myself to him on that aspect. The passion that’s so harsh, that’s so passionate, that that happened. That wouldn’t happen to a nigga that’s in it for the money.
This man had the most beautiful harmonies in his head. The idea that he would listen to something that he made that came out of his head and say that he does not like it. That’s some fucking fucked up psychosis shit. I don’t even know what the word is for that. That should never happen, you know.
Can you tell me about the skits on this record? It feels like you just recorded candid moments from your life.
I mean it kinda is. I was coming from this aspect: think about what music sounded like before it was recorded. It was like movies, you had to like pull up and listening to a song had a whole different context. It was like, I’m going to put on some clothes and go listen to some fucking music. I wondered what it sounded like, what did it feel like? What did music sound like in people’s heads then? I tried to think of that and there’s no way for you to know really know. The fun is going through the creative process of trying to figure that thing out. I wanted the songs to sound communal. So like when I had people over or friends over, I just would record them like, “Yo, put some adlibs on this thing I’m recording,” and that’s really it. Or I’d be like, “I’m about to throw this shit on and we just gonna like record and just capture whatever we do.” I wanted it to be a complete snapshot of where I was at and what I was feeling. Like a jam session or some shit like that.
Do you feel like there’s a song on here that you’ll have to retire like “Morrissey?”
Maybe “Beta Male Strategies” in the future. That and “Grimy Waifu” were the oldest songs on there. That’s a good question. The rest of it? It means something to me. Maybe it’ll sound dated in the future. “Beta Male Strategies, “ just like the intention I had behind it. Like I don’t care about the niggas enough to really like, you know, be screaming at them every show.
That’s why like some of those kinds of songs, I don’t do them every show or like I retire them after a while cause it’s like you can’t give them niggas energy. That’s literally all they want at the end of the day, attention. The only time I see myself retiring anything else is maybe like when I’m 50 years old and I can’t get in the pit no more.
What do your parents think about the music career and the gender fluidity in your visuals?
People have asked me that before. The second part [gender fluidity] is ignored and then the first part, they, well, at least, my mother doesn’t understand [my music], but she supports it. She’s like, “get this robot shit out of my face, but I really love you.” The shit I’m making right now, it’s supposed to disarm niggas. I’m over here cutting a promo on my mom. [laughs]
It’s supposed to disarm people who aren’t used that, or not like older people, but people who had this idea that your music has to be this way or they won’t let people evolve. Like people who claim to like nineties hip-hop or some shit. It’s supposed to disarm them. I’m not comparing myself to him, but that’s what Jimi Hendrix did back in the day when they heard that shit. They said the same shit and 40 years later everybody on this nigga nuts.
I’m with all the motherfucking robot noises. I hope y’all niggas hate that shit. As long as I got the niggas who fuck with me, I don’t give a fuck what none of these other niggas think. I’m out here bro. I’m going to keep doing what I do because at the end of the day, my legacy is going to be left behind and like nobody else is in control of that but me.
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