When I picked him up for our interview, Jonwayne was wearing a soccer shirt, athletic shorts, and flip-flops. And he was wearing that same getup when he performed an excellent set to a mix of stoned teenagers and OG Jonwayniacs that same night at Echo Park Rising. That’s not entirely true, I guess: he’d judiciously added a Biggie towel to the ensemble.
Point is: Jonwayne may be signed to a cool label [Stones Throw], but this isn’t fashion rap.
In our hourlong conversation over burgers and Cuban sandwiches, we talked about his upcoming full-length album, Rap Album One, for Stones Throw, how he feels about John Wayne as a dude, and how, at least sometimes, he’d much rather just make great rap music than a grand statement. — By Jordan Pedersen
So you started out as a rap and spoken word artist?
I was doing like poetry and stuff in high school. I really didn’t get into the spoken word stuff as much as I’d like to. That was my transitional phase. I was trying to figure out how to perform that stuff, and in the pursuit of doing that, I met some other people who were rapping and stuff. And through meeting them and seeing how they did it, it kind of inspired me to go home and start recording lyrics and stuff. I think the spoken word thing is much more of a moment that it was a prolonged passage [for me].
Did you start out, like, writing poetry because you were into certain poets, or because you were into rap?
I did it because I was really into a girl. And [we were] MySpace talking, and she was really into poetry. And she wrote it. And I was like, “Well fuck yeah, I can show her.” [laughs] I started writing a lot and putting up my shit, hoping that it would like…I don’t know what the fuck I was thinking, I was 14.
The things that you do when you’re 14, to get a girl, they’re not strictly logical.
But I ended up falling out of lust with her, and started counting on art to get me through shit. I didn’t necessarily enjoy myself, but I did play sports. And it was a form of releasing anger and tension and stress, which is something that I use music now for. But I didn’t start finding my passion in it until I stopped doing sports. Because I needed to fill that void. And it was out of that need that I gravitated towards what I wanted to do, which is that shit [i.e., music].
I was looking at your bio on the Alpha Pup site, and it mentions this night you had at Low End Theory that transformed your life. Do you remember that, or is that blown out of proportion a bit?
It wasn’t necessarily one night. I started going because it was an 18 and up venue, and I was 18. And I was working with [Los Angeles producer] DiBiase at the time, and that was the only time I could see a show and have it be a dope show, was at Low End Theory. Being a regular there, it really made me think twice about what I was doing. They really provided inspiration for future prospects. It wasn’t necessarily one particular night, it’s not like that, that’s very fairy tale-ish. I’m sure that happens to all kids. It didn’t necessarily click for me [at first] that I could do that. I was like, okay, I’m rapping, I made beats on the side all the time, but I didn’t take it seriously.
I went from not knowing anything, and I just really plunged deep into. I made [Oodles of] Doodles and Bowser and shit, which is no samples. It’s all melodies and stuff.
[On Bowser], I was trying to make a heavy metal beat. That was before everybody was trying to do, not necessarily trap shit, but just slow hip-hop stuff. That’s the MO now. But when I put that out, people were just like, “Weird. This is 50 BPM. That’s weird.” And that’s why people played it, because there wasn’t anything like that within the beat shit.
It seems like your production MO evolved over time. You were doing just your own melodies on Bowser, and then your sampling style seemed to change, and you got into the kinda “Passing Fancies” type shit. What changed your mind about that?
I just started thinking about making beats for myself. That’s really it. My drive is very forward. My style of going abouyt things is very poor in terms of investment. I do put all my eggs in one basket. With confidence that can work. But I realized that if I’m not on game, I’m basically just wasting my time. If I think about something, if I get something in my head, I’m just gonna work on that, and that only. That mixtape [Cassette 3: Marion Morrison Mixtape], I did that in like three weeks.
If it were regular investing it might not be a good strategy, but I think artistically you have to put all your eggs in one basket.
I trust myself. It’s something I have to do. The moment I stop trusting myself, that’s the moment I stop doing what I need to do. But yeah, the production styles for those cassettes are very different, as to what I usually do, because I wanted to make something that was very hip-hop. All that material wasn’t concerned about, like, “What is this saying?” I didn’t wanna be that dude. I just wanted to make some good rap shit.
I wasn’t trying to achieve a greater importance among my peers. It wasn’t a statement or anything. All that material on those cassettes is just like, “Hey I like hip-hop, I’m gonna make some hip-hop. You like hip-hop?” If I was ever slinging on Venice Beach, I’d be trying to push those. There’s no pretense.
“Altitude” is a really unique song lyrically: it alternates between straight-up surrealism and more grounded meditations on mortality. How did you establish that lyrical style?
For that song in particular, I made that a day before I had to leave for New York. I’m currently trying to overcome my fear of flying. I do it. I just get really fucked up before I fly. But I was really nervous, and I was trying to replicate my thought process in the song.
When you have anxiety, there’s really no logic. It’s just very jumbled and I was trying to figure out how to approach those emotions within a song. So there’s a lot of things that I allude to that aren’t necessarily true…or that are true, but are just irrelevant. And that’s how I feel about anxiety. It’s very irrelevant. There’s really no reason that any of us should be anxious other than that we’re not okay with something that’s going on. It’s not justified.
On that you were trying to replicate a feeling or an anxiety, but is that what you’re trying to do on all your songs?
For some of it, yeah. “Ode to Mortality” is almost like a poem. I started writing it, and I didn’t have a beat. But I wrote it as if there was a rhythm to it. Then I just made the beat and kinda finished the song. There’s a recurring theme of death. I’m very romantic in that way. Like Edgar Allen Poe romantic, not The Notebook romantic [laughs].
I feel like most of my narrative [is] a battle of trying to successfully be a man. You battle with your ego, but at the same time you have shit you have to worry about. There are these over-looming thoughts you can never get rid of, regardless of where you’re at in life. I really don’t remove myself too far from what I write. There could be some crazy shit that I say, but it’s not necessarily true, but it’s something I definitely feel. The entire thing is shadowed with a very primal battle for remaining a decent man despite things you have to go through. Sometimes I tell a story, it really depends on the song. But for the most part, that’s what ties everything together.
You’re trying to deal with yourself.
It’s very therapeutic for me, all that shit. I’m pretty sure as soon as I have my two feet on the ground, and I feel good about everything, I’ll probably stop writing.
Dudes like Eminem and Jay-Z, I think their problem at this point is that they have a lot of stuff to rap about, they’re just not willing to sacrifice the persona that they’ve established, and take a new approach to their own understanding of their life. I don’t think Jay-Z is a particularly happy guy.
They’re in prison, straight up. Where they’re at in their career, how people view them? They’re in prison. They can’t escape that. Their reputation precedes them. That’s not good for someone who’s trying to display a narrative. You become a product. That’s probably their own fault, but it’s also the fault of the people. Because they’re not letting these guys be who they were. What people need to understand is that, like, Eminem was Slim Shady before you liked him. He made that shit before you knew about him. So why are you in the equation? He shouldn’t be making shit for you; he should be making shit for himself, that you happen to like. People don’t get that. Once people adore somebody, they invest stock. And that’s not healthy for an artist like that. People make art initially to get away. They have something they’re running from usually. That’s how I see it at least.
Who are the artists who you think have aged gracefully?
It’s kind of a weird answer, but Roc Marciano’s probably aged the most gracefully of any rapper ever.
The thing is, he wasn’t that good back then. He was good, but he wasn’t Roc Marciano. Because he was part of Flip Mode Squad. I don’t remember hearing him on a record. And [somebody was like,] “He was on ‘Anarchy’ from Busta,” and I was like, “Really?!” And I went back and heard it, and it said, “Roc Marciano,” and I was like, “Holy shit.” That’s how you know. I didn’t even know this dude was there, and he’s on the song.
It really depends on how this next album turns out, but I think Busta, [too.]
I mean, I’m not gonna defend “Twerk It.” I think it’s a tight-ass track, but I’m not gonna defend it.
A$AP Ferg always talks about how he never listens to rap, which is a weird think for a rapper to say, and also I think is not really true. Are you primarily inspired by rap, or are you big into novels or TV or film or poetry?
It really depends on where I’m at. If it’s in the car, I’m either listening to standup comedy or hip-hop.
I’m really into this dude Rory Scovel right now. That dude’s killing it right now. He just did a record with Jack White on Third Man Records.
I like folk music and stuff. When I was making my mixtapes, I was listening to like, Daniel Johnston only. I’m trying to get him on my next record. With him, I think it’s gonna cost me either five bucks or fifty thousand dollars. Nowhere in between. Either or. Because he’s that crazy. Maybe I catch him on that day, where he’s like, “Yeah five bucks.” That’s what I’m hoping the price is gonna be.
One thing that I pulled out of a lot of tracks off Marion Morrison is that it seems like there’s a bunch of either direct stuff or veiled stuff on fatherhood. Is that something you’ve been thinking about a lot?
It’s a very weird connection. Fatherhood doesn’t necessarily mean between biological father and son. I mean, I’m not having like a kid or anything [laughs]. I have my mentors and people that have taught me things. I’ve had friends and stuff that we’ve had a falling out recently. Things change. I feel like that’s definitely a very profound example of the seasons, like “Cats in the Cradle” shit. Everybody can feel that. Everybody’s had a dad, I’m hoping. Fuckin’ science.
There’s definitely a universal appeal to that. My relationship with my dad was great. It’s not about that. Maybe some other relationships I’ve had in the past that haven’t turned out as well as I’d hoped because of either of our shortcomings.
You named an album Bowser. How are you influenced by video games?
I only had one VSC [virtual instrument] that I could use multiple times on my computer and it wouldn’t crash. I used Frooty Loops to make that album. And different VSCs require different amounts of memory. And the only VSC I had that would work properly on my computer was a sim chip emulator. It basically emulated the Commodore 64 sound chip. It was 3 voice polyphony. I could open up five instances of that, and there wouldn’t be any lagging. Because I had a shitty ass laptop. So really that’s why I started using that and started making that sound, because that’s really the only way I could make big-sounding productions, because it didn’t take any memory. So I started making all these beats that sounded like video games, and I just kinda ran with it. There wasn’t really an initial consciousness where I was like, “Hey I’m gonna make shit like this now.” It was just like, this was the only thing I could use, so let’s do it.
It was an adaptation.
Yeah. As soon as I got a new computer, and I was able to use other instruments, I did that. That period of time, that was definitely out of necessity. I needed to have that much memory so I could make bigger compositions. Because some of those songs on Bowser, there’s like 50 things going on at once. And I needed all that extra space.
What video games are you playing now?
Dark Souls. You ever heard of that? It’s really hardcore. I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody who doesn’t wanna spend like a hundred hours.
How do you feel about John Wayne as a dude?
I don’t like him as a person, I feel like he’s a racist bigot who is over romanticized in our culture. He didn’t do a decent acting job until The Quiet Man.
I thought he was ill in Stagecoach.
Stagecoach. True. True. Alright, alright. You got that. Stagecoach, McLintock’s tight. I mean, he’s definitely got his movies. But how are you gonna praise somebody who had like ten good movies out of a thousand? I get it, but I definitely have a grudge considering the circumstance. Maybe if I talked with him, it wouldn’t have been as crazy.
But I have to assert the difference between me and him, because John Wayne isn’t necessarily seen as a decent character in hip-hop. There were people, like good friends of mine, who went to [Peanut Butter] Wolf when I first signed [with Stones Throw] basically telling him to tell me to change my name. Because they didn’t wanna see me go down because John Wayne is the devil in rap music. But I was just like, “Nah fuck that.” That guy fashioned himself after my family, why should I change for him? [Wayne’s referring to the fact that John Wayne was a stage name that the actor Marion Morrison took from a Revolutionary War general named “Mad” Anthony Wayne, and Wayne – the rapper – claims he’s descended from that general.] I never was gonna address that. It was never a thing I wanted to bring up, but I think with this last mixtape, it was definitely something I had to talk about. Because at this point, I’m no longer just trying to do this shit just to do it. I’m trying to make moves. If I want people to know where I’m coming from, they need to know who I am, who I am in relation to people they may think I’m with. That definitely has to be cleared up before I’m able to move in and stake my claim.
So you’re working with Scoop Deville. Can you talk about what you’re working with him on?
He’s got two beats on my [full-length] record [coming out this fall on Stones Throw.] He’s the only guest verse on my album. We’ve been working since like 2011. Scoop was in Valencia at this point, so I just went out there. I started going up there regularly and making beats whenever we were up there. Very pretty, easy process. We’d just make like two or three beats a night, just vibin’ out. Sometimes we’d go to the studio. I had a studio in Highland Park for a bit, and we would work out of that a lot. He’s been doing a lot of stuff recently. He’s out of town; he’s been fucking with Travis Barker and his people right now. I feel like it’s that time again where we need to start getting back in the studio and working. It’s been a minute. We kinda had a little bit of a break, and pretty soon we’re gonna start making some shit again.
Even though being a producer isn’t strictly speaking what you said you wanna do, but you’re not opposed to it, you wanna make shit that you can rap over. But what kind of rappers would you wanna work with if you could produce for other dudes?
I dunno, I never thought about that. I’ll make beats for Busta! Man, I wanna fuck with Dre, production team-wise. I don’t think people will realize this until the album comes out, but I definitely have a firm grip on that clean production. My whole album is kinda like that.
I definitely have different production styles for different rappers. There’s some rappers where I’d look at them and be like, “Okay I have this loop I just made. Take this, go rap on it.” Or actually no. That’s what I wanna do, I wanna tailor myself to whoever I’m working with, and I wanna record them. I love engineering sessions. I love having a rapper in the studio with me, and I get to give him direction on how to take it. I don’t like it when I give somebody a beat, and go to their homie’s studio, and they record it, and I’m kinda like, “That doesn’t necessarily fit. That’s cool, it’s a good verse, but the way you recorded it isn’t really how the dynamic of how the rest of the joint feels.”
It doesn’t feel like a unified whole.
I’d rather be there to dictate how they fit in with it, because the voice is just another instrument. If it doesn’t correlate with the rest of it, it’s gonna sound off. I think I would definitely going about working with people on that tip, rather than what kind of rapper I’d wanna fuck with. I would take it as a challenge and as a pleasure to adapt.
Tell me about being on Stones Throw.
It’s been great, man.
[Stones Throw art director/webmaster] Jeff Jank is the dude. He’s the guy that did all the Cassette covers, and did my album cover. And he’s just the man. It’s been a pleasure working with him.
I see the other guys on the label all the time. I never see Madlib, and that’s a travesty [laughs]. He’s a hermit, man. I’ll see him maybe three times a year. And I know where he works, I just never see him. He’s working. I can’t be mad at the dude. He’s doing his thing. It’s frustrating, though, because I would definitely like to work with him. I’d like to rap on some of his beats and shit. All in good time, I guess.
What’s your MO within the industry? It doesn’t seem like you want to be 50 Cent.
I feel like real recognize real. I feel like this is definitely a climate where anything can happen…it’s like the Wild West out there, you just have to go out and take it. [Underground producer and Low End Theory founder Daddy] Kev told me that like three years ago. It made total sense. The industry’s collapsing, labels who just put out records are starting to mean less and less now. It’s definitely an unprecedented era in our lifestyle. We can’t look to the past or even the present to see where we need to be.
You gotta make it up as you’re going along.
And hope you’re doing the right thing. I’m not really looking at it like, I could be this dude or that dude. Maybe production-wise. I’ve been in the studio with Scoop recently, we’ve been working on stuff for other rappers. But that’s not necessarily where I wanna be as a rapper. But I feel like I can definitely balance those two worlds. They’re not so different from each other at all. The more I’m face to face with the industry and the people that are within, the more I see how similar everything is, just at different intervals. Underground shit prides itself on its uniqueness and its ability to fly under the radar, even though they’re trying to make it, they still have pride in it. But really, more mainstream shit is really the same lane, it’s just in a different light. Therefore, with that knowledge, I don’t feel like I’d have to change too much if I wanna be more successful. I just have to find an audience that’s willing to accept me for who I am and are willing to listen to what I have to say. Because I do have things to say, and things that could be seen as a betterment to people’s lives. Because I’m not talking about bullshit. That’s kinda how I see it. Just keep going.