“I Can Rap About Politics and Make it a Jiggy Song”: An Interview with JPEGMAFIA

Benj Salkind sits with JPEGMAFIA about his new album, 'Veteran,' his new life in Los Angeles, and his one-sided beef with Russ.
By    March 7, 2018

In an age of digital warfare, even the President slings tweets at GIFs that piss him off. But JPEGMAFIA has a zero-tolerance policy for cybernated bullshit or any other kind. He’s one of the few remaining who will show up at your door with a bat, ready to brawl.

Don’t mistake JPEG (or Peggy, his preferred name) for an uptight artist. He was raised in the polar-opposite locales of East Flatbush and rural Alabama before enlisting in the Air Force where he spent four years touring Iraq, Germany, and Japan. As a result, he’s seen it all. It’s inculcated a rational desire for cooperation, a potential solution to the racism he lived through and raps about, and a by-product of his time spent serving his country.

The idea is to unite his audience against common threats—to instantiate the “mafia” part of his namesake even though he’s a solo act. The idea is to help us all see what’s wrong with 2018 America. That’s the veteran of modern-age justice that I met outside Cafe de Leche last week—the one who was totally geeking out about seeing Drake downtown the other day.

28-year-old Barrington Hendricks is thin, slightly inconspicuous, and loves to talk. By the time we sat down, we’d already discussed how he’d earned a masters in journalism spurred by his desire to investigate all terrain in the here and now. This matched his tendency to cover breaking news and author hit-pieces in the form of politically-geared songs and albums. Like a rap game Snowden, his habit of criticizing our constitution and leaders label him a rebel within the country he once served. But he doesn’t hide. Instead, Peggy begs the Bannons and Christies to come outside so he could leak more than just their secrets.

JPEG established his antagonistic rap persona within the Baltimore underground, his scene of choice after a post-Air Force stint in Japan. In 2015 the rapper/producer released his first two projects, Communist Slow Jams and Darkskin Manson, the former serving as an introduction to his war on white supremacy and the latter as a narrative to the Freddie Gray-triggered Baltimore uprising. The lyrics, “Fuck love and peace, I spit hate crimes” from the track “Stoop” are the theme here: “@darkskinmanson” is three minutes of slamming the KKK, police, and trust fund kids, while “Cops are the Target” hypnotizes with chants of murder. His anger was only beginning to manifest itself at this point via Confederate flags and early El-P styled industrial production; it wasn’t until the following year that we learned just how unrelenting Peggy could be.

In 2016, as the presidential election wore on and Donald Trump became its polarizing figurehead, Peggy released two more albums in response to the shifting political tides. Black Ben Carson and Freaky-collab The 2nd Amendment are characterized by the ex military rapper’s shirtless, tattooed frame and blood red MAGA hat as he explains that, yes, he’s voting for Trump, but only so he’ll have an excuse to bring his Kimber to the White House.

Peggy reveled in our country’s self-destruction because it meant that he was free to terrorize those sitting in high towers with in-your-face lyrical middle fingers over harring Yeezus-like beats. Unafraid, unashamed, and a full-on contrarian, Peggy embraced the raw emotions of political and racial turmoil. Favored track “I Just Killed a Cop Now I’m Horny” slows JPEG’s purge down to an eerie, spectral pace as he illustrates a not-so-far-off world where bloodshed is identical to sexual romance. Somewhere, Ice Cube smiled as the Baltimore resident unleashed hell.

On January 19th, a year into Trump’s attempts to make America great and nearly two years since Black Ben Carson, Peggy released his newest album, Veteran, on Deathbomb Arc. While there are still brilliant traces of Carson’s viciousness (see “Real Nega”), Veteran is Peggy’s most experimental project to date.

Gone are the riotous drums and trap-snares that soundtracked JPEG’s warpath—instead listeners are treated to creaking doors and spontaneous moments of silence. This glitchiness is overwhelming at times, particularly when the haunting instrumental “Dayum”—filled with the sounds of storms and low-pitched monastic prayers—transitions into the rapid-fire rap of “Baby I’m Bleeding.” Though his theme of no-bullshit politics continues on Veteran, Peggy expands his sights to include the likes of right-wing Johnny Rotten, hip-hop enemy Gene Simmons, and Tomi Lahren’s boy toy, all cases that represent a clear disregard for what the veteran sees as righteous. This album is JPEG’s fight against complicity.

When I finally sat down with Peggy, we had the chance to talk about how he’s acclimating to his new life in the competitive landscape of Los Angeles, his grudge against Morrissey, and how such an eternally-frustrated man as himself has managed to find solace in hip-hop. —Benj Salkind


So you’ve been in LA for about a year now?


JPEGMAFIA: Yeah, in June it will be a year. So about eight months.


How does daily life here compare to that of Baltimore?


JPEGMAFIA: Well, I’ll tell you this: I told you I saw Drake across the street. That doesn’t happen in Baltimore. Well, Drake actually came to Baltimore once and it was in the paper. But for real, I haven’t been through LA and all its inner-workings yet, but to me, Baltimore on the surface is grimier. Like it’s dirtier and more unforgiving.

When I’m here, I feel like I’m on vacation, even though I been here for a while now. It’s crazy! Even just driving here, I’m like “What the fuck, where I am?” type shit. There’s nowhere like that in Baltimore. Everywhere is dark and damp and depressing and cold. It affects your mood, so even my music sounds different. So actually the new album sounds different partly because of the move to LA. I mean, it’s partly because I made a conscious choice to do it, but I did finish the album in LA. Baltimore is cold and grimy and nasty, as opposed to LA, which is beautiful and shit. There’s grimy parts of LA of course, but I mean on the surface.


Do you feel like you fit in here yet?


JPEGMAFIA: Not quite yet! I haven’t found a clique yet. In Baltimore there’s a community, and everyone just knows each other. Everyone in the underground community all knows each other so we’d all go to each other’s shows and chill. Here, it’s more spread out, and it seems like there’s little cliques that everyone just sticks to. I had that, ’cause I had a homie that lived here, but he moved. So I haven’t really found true friends here yet. But being in LA has improved my mood tenfold. I’m definitely not as depressed and angry as I was before.


Has it always been difficult for you to fit in? Or are you more used to this after moving around so much?


JPEGMAFIA: I’m used to it honestly. It used to bother me when I was real young. I was in New York and I moved when I was 13, then I moved again when I was 18, then I moved so much that it doesn’t affect me anymore. I’m very used to it now.


How about the LA rap scene specifically? Are you finding you place there?


JPEGMAFIA: Not yet. It’s too big and too wide for me to navigate yet. But I’ve been to some shows, there’s this girl Death By Romy and I went to her show, and some others like G Perico, and shit like that. But again, I think those are two completely different scenes, whereas in Baltimore, if those two artists existed in Baltimore, they’d be in the same scene just doing different shit. That’s just how it is. I haven’t navigated the LA scene just yet, but I will! I just haven’t had the chance.


You’ve probably made at least some connections in the industry, at least through Deathbomb.


JPEGMAFIA: I’ve definitely made friends with some people. I’m good friends with Vegyn, the dude who produces Frank Ocean. He did “Nights,” my favorite song on the album. I’m supposed to chill with him when he’s in LA. There’s people from Deathbomb: Clipping, Daveed. I seen this nigga [Daveed] on the ads on Instagram, he was just rapping with this white lady, like, “You go to State Farm and you get your car,” and I was like “Yo!” I had to DM him like, “You famous as fuck!” So actually yeah, I do know a couple people in the industry, I guess. I never thought I would, but yeah, I know industry people now.


Speaking of the industry, I know you’re a big Kanye fan—


JPEGMAFIA: Bro, the moment I see Kanye I might cry. I’m not even gonna front. I just wanna touch the hem of his garments. Nah but for real, I’m a huge fan, I would love to see him. I already saw Drake by accident. I’d love to see Kanye.


I know you had a lot of pride for the Baltimore rap scene while you were there. Is it different being somewhere a bit more competitive in nature?


JPEGMAFIA: Yeah. It’s better. That’s why I moved. I love Baltimore but I had to move because I was getting complacent. It’s nothing against the city but I had to change my mindset, I knew I had to relocate. If my environment’s not working I just think I should change it. I moved out here because everyone’s working, everyone’s trying to do the same fucking thing. If I stand out here, then I made some shit. I want the competition. I thrive off being better. Jealousy and competition works for me. I make it work.


Do you think Veteran has made you stand out more?


JPEGMAFIA: It’s kinda too early to tell, but maybe. I had a show at Tokyo Beat the other day, and I walked up and I showed my ID to get in like I always do, and this motherfucker was looking at the [ID from the album cover] like “Oh, shit. This is the ID. This is the real ID!” and I was like “Damn.” I didn’t even realize that could happen. A couple people have recognized me on the street, which is cool. So it’s looking good so far but it’s way too early to tell. I hope so.


But you’ve said the album’s “fucking horrible.” Do you still think that?


JPEGMAFIA: Yeah! I mean…kinda. There are parts I hear different from other people, ’cause I made the whole thing—I mixed it, I mastered it and all that. So I know every part of every beat, I’ve heard it from its infancy. So when I say it’s horrible, it’s when I’m listening to it and I’m like, “There’s something I should’ve turned up here…” you know. It’s from a technical perspective that it’s still trash to me. But as a listening experience, it’s good. I can objectively take myself out and see that it has good replay value, which I couldn’t do with my other albums. I would put them out and never fucking listen to them again. But this one…yeah, I’d still say it’s trash, but it’s trash that’s been sprayed with Febreeze or something.


As for the internet critics that you love to talk about, I know Fantano gave you an 8. How do you feel about the yellow flannel?


JPEGMAFIA: Ha! So somebody explained to me what the yellow flannel shit means, but I watched it and I got to the end and I was like, “What the hell was that?” I didn’t know what it meant! But I really appreciate it. That’s really all I can say about it. Of course I’m always hard on internet critics because it’s just the nature of it. Like, I grew up in the projects and my mom had six kids. If she knew all she had to do was listen to a bunch of fucking Flaming Lips records and give ‘em scores, I’m sure she would’ve done that. That’s where I’m coming from. It just makes me upset sometimes that these people have so much power, and they can literally make or break you.

But I appreciate Fantano and he kinda comes from the same mindset as me, he’s DIY. He’s been on YouTube by himself, and he’s the biggest music critic on the planet, individually. So the fact that he gave me a good score, I respect that. I didn’t expect it, though. I thought he was gonna trash it. I was genuinely prepared for him to be like, “This shit is ass,” and I’m like “Let’s go, I’m ready, I’m ready for the hate!” So I thank him. I DM’d him and thanked him and everything. Then he bought like two tapes.


Hell yeah.


JPEGMAFIA: Yo, can I tell you this story?


Of course.


JPEGMAFIA: You can choose to publish this or not, but um…hold up. So Hannibal Buress bought my album off Bandcamp, and I didn’t realize it was actually him. I thought it was somebody trolling me. So I tweeted it out, I was like, “Who the fuck did this shit, yo? Which one of y’all niggas pretending to be Hannibal Buress?” Then this nigga sent me an email that said “Nigga did you just tweet my email out?” [laughs] Yo! You just reminded me of this when I was talking about the DM shit, but that was funny as shit. But then I apologized, and he was like “Great album.” That’s like the highlight of my life, to have Hannibal Buress be like, “Nigga did you just tweet my email out?”


Did you two keep talking?


JPEGMAFIA: We kept talking. He replied like two more times, then…I don’t know, he’s Hannibal Buress. I expect him to be doing coke and counting money. Celebrity shit.


So you’ve kind of already touched on this, but Veteran is mostly a Baltimore album with some LA built into it. What are those LA influences?


JPEGMAFIA: Mostly finishing touches. A lot of those beats existed maybe two years ago, one year ago, and I finished it here. So I was of the LA mindset when I finished it, but I was in a Baltimore mindset when I began writing. I recorded some of the songs here too. So my next album will probably be more LA influenced. But Veteran is definitely a Baltimore album. The first track, “1539 N. Calvert,” that’s the address…oh you already know, huh?


I did my research.


JPEGMAFIA: It’s crazy, man! Some people think that it’s just random numbers. Like, this dude hit me up like, “Hey man, what’s that pad you used on 1539 Enn Calvertay?” And I’m like, “That’s not what that is.”


Veteran is a another product from someone who’s not afraid to talk politics in their music. For your recent albums, have the politics stemmed from being a DC-area rapper, or is it more of a reaction to more recent events like Trump or Black Lives Matter, or even the #metoo movement?


JPEGMAFIA: It’s kind of a response to those things, but it’s deeper than that. It’s more a response to how I was raised. I went from New York straight to deep south Alabama, so I went from being around nothing but Black people to confronting racism head-on at like age 12. It’s kind of a response to that. And then the Black Lives Matter shit, when that shit started happening, it just kind of fell in line with what I was already thinking, and it kind of gave it a platform for people to look at it more and be more susceptible to it.

People will do that now—they’ll call stuff out in the #metoo movement, they’ll call out racists, too. I know you remember a time when people didn’t do that shit. Like it kind of just happened whenever. I’m talking from that perspective. I feel like the world caught up with how life Alabama was for me, at least how I saw it. Not saying I’m beyond anyone, but I was already on that kind of shit. So it wasn’t a direct response before, but it is now because the rest of the world is on that.


Do you think Veteran is as much of a political album as Black Ben Carson was?


JPEGMAFIA: Hm. I think it is. There are songs where I’m actually not talking about politics at all, like I’m talking less about politics, but I feel the overall theme of the album is more political than Black Ben Carson. That album was pure rage. It was like, “I fuckin’ hate how this shit is going.” That was one side of me, but with this one I’m showing a different side. Sure, the rage is built in, but we still have to get on with our lives, and chill, and live this shit out.

I feel like [Veteran] is more political because it shows more sides, but I’m not calling out as many people directly as I was before. Black Ben Carson…I listen back to that shit and I’m like, “Man, what the fuck?” Like with some it I’m like, “Hell yeah,” but with other things I’m like, “Damn. Yo, I really said that shit on wax.” But it’s also how I felt at the time so I’ll never delete it or hide from it.


Getting into some of the relevant song titles, has anyone called you a “libtard?”


JPEGMAFIA: >Me, personally? No! [laughs]


So where does that song title [“Libtard Anthem”] come from?


JPEGMAFIA: This is something I learned studying these types of people, these racists and their history in general. I’m really into appropriation. That sounds weird, but I’m really into taking something that’s used negatively or against me and turning it into some shit. I feel like that’s what the n-word is. It was used for this thing, and now we use it as a term of endearment. I don’t think any word in history has ever been flipped like that.

So, I’m really into rocking Confederate flags and do-rags and shit. It’s the same thing when people say, “I wanna take the power away from the n-word,” but they can’t. I wanna do the same thing to them just to show them how ignorant it is. I’m gonna take the power away from this by rocking it! That term is used negatively against people that aren’t Republican or racist or some shit. So I wanna take it and be like, “Oh, you came with this cute word? That’s nice. It’s mine now.”

My homie Freaky, he wrote that song like a year ago. I was originally [rapping] on it, but I took myself off ’cause I feel like he summed it up perfectly and I didn’t need to be on there. His lyrics fit perfectly. I was like, “Yo, I wanna come up with a song where we’re really talking about some liberal shit.” We came up with this song, and named it that. I just wanna take the power away from the word. Cause I mean, libtard? Really? That’s it? They sat and they were like “How can we…” and then “libtard” came out. Man, fuck that word. It’s my word now. So yeah, “Libtard Anthem.” Own that shit.


How does Morrissey fit into all this?


JPEGMAFIA: So Morrissey…the reason I said that is ’cause that whole song [“I Cannot Fucking Wait Until Morrissey Dies”] is a response to these kinds of people. Like Gene Simmons, last year when he said something like…I forgot what it was. It was a hip-hop artist getting into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame…it might have been NWA. But he was like, “They don’t need to be there, they don’t even play instruments.” And I was just like “Nigga…” If you know the history of Rock & Roll, you know that shit started in the ghetto. People like you got that shit from people like [NWA]! And you’re telling them they can’t even be in there? Hip-hop was started because we had no genres left. They took disco, they took rock, took all that shit, and hip-hop was the last straw basically. And now to see somebody like that disrespect hip-hop, I had to respond.

Morrissey was the main target of that because he made this shirt with James Baldwin on it, and it said, “I feel Black on the inside.” I was so offended by that not because it said something offensive—I mean it did say something offensive—but it’s the idea of it. He’s so entitled. He thought he could just do that. So I was just like, “Cool. I’m gonna make a song called ‘I Can’t Fucking Wait ‘til You Die.’” And I’m ’bout to make this shirt with this artwork where I’m peeing in [Morrissey’s] mouth. I’m gonna sell that shit. How do you think James Baldwin would’ve reacted to that if he was alive? I’m just responding to him with the same disrespect that he showed to someone that I feel didn’t deserve it.

So fuck Morrissey. I did my research on this nigga, and he’s a jackass in general! He says dumb shit all the time! Fuck that nigga. If Morrissey got a problem, he can pull up, straight up. I give no fucks. I will fight Morrissey, bro. I will fistfight him. But I’m just responding to disrespect with disrespect. Eye for an eye. I rarely diss people for no reason. People think I’m just throwing names out there, but there’s a reason. Except like Russ.


Yeah? Why Russ?


JPEGMAFIA: He’s public enemy number one. I don’t really have anything personal against Russ. I just feel like he was being disrespectful to Lil Peep when he was saying all that stuff about Xans. Lil Peep used to come through Baltimore. I respect Lil Peep. He was doing his thing. And the homie just died, so why would…I understand [Russ] is against drug culture or whatever, and that’s cool if that’s your thing, but why did you specifically choose this time to be vocal? That’s disrespectful. Disrespect for disrespect!


How long do you think rock & roll has been dead?


JPEGMAFIA: Lemme do some nigga math real quick. Let me go back in time. So…hip-hop has been the most popular genre since like 2010. It’s hard to think of the 2010s as a decade…but hip-hop has been the dominant genre. There’s been no one in rock that’s been relevant culturally on a wide-scale. There’s no one I can look at and be like, “That guy is rock & roll.” There are a bunch of niggas doing shit, but there’s no defining thing. And that’s their own fault. Like I said with the Gene Simmons shit, people like him or Eric Clapton, they copied these niggas. They copied black people for years and years, they took this genre, and whatever. You’re influenced by it, you like it, cool. A lot of people make great music.

But the problem is they never advanced their shit. So here we are 60 or 70 years later, and they’re still doing the same fucking shit. And that’s why this shit is dying! They refuse to move forward and they’re complacent and they’re bitter and they won’t change. That’s why hip-hop is thriving—because hip-hop is always changing, and it’s changing with the times constantly. Rock is not doing that. Rock is being like, “I’m gonna…grrrr…guitars!” Adapt, my nigga! Don’t be bitter because people are using computers to make music. Learn how to do it and incorporate it into your own shit. It’s dying because of them! It’s boring, and no one cares anymore.


So we’re definitely in a hip-hop era?


JPEGMAFIA: Hell yeah! Hip-hop is number one.


Though you also say we’re in a Drake era, and you take shots at SoundCloud rappers on Veteran.


JPEGMAFIA: Okay I got a good answer, but before I do that, the SoundCloud thing…I love SoundCloud rappers. I am a SoundCloud rapper. So that was more of a battle-bar, more of a braggadocio sort of thing. Like, “I’m the shit” type of bar. It wasn’t really directed at anybody.

As for Drake, I think we’re kind of moving out of the Drake era now. Drake is still the number one dude, but there are a lot more sounds and types of people coming in. And the thing with being in the Drake era—it sounds so funny to say this—being in a Drake era is fine. If you make music like that, it’s perfect. But when I made that song [“Drake Era”] in like 2016, at the time, I felt like everyone sounded like that, and everybody was trying to sound like that. I thought it was weird, man. So I navigated myself out of underground hip-hop and into the SoundCloud, and that’s where I was like, “Oh, this is where the good shit is!” So yeah, SoundCloud is kind of moving us out of the Drake era. It doesn’t necessarily mean Drake is falling off.


Expanding on that, what do you like about hip-hop nowadays?


JPEGMAFIA: I think hip-hop is in the best state it’s ever been, ever. This is the new golden age. Period. Anything you want—if you’re into like hip-hop with jazz influences, you got Tyler, The Creator. If you want Brockhampton type shit, you got that. If you want some cold, New York shit, you got Conway and Westside Gunn. There’s so much shit you can listen to now. And a lot of it is high quality, and pushed by a DIY aesthetic. I love that. It’s DIY, it’s creative, it’s the fucking golden age, yo. How can you argue that? Nothing against the original golden age, but this is the new shit. This is it. I think we need to accept that and accept the present, ’cause in 50 years they’re gonna say it anyways, so fuck it. I love it. I love everything about hip-hop right now. Except Russ. [laughs] I’m joking!


What do you want to be known for in the golden age?


JPEGMAFIA: I want to be remembered for showing people that you can…a lot of people say they take risks, a lot of people say they’re doing something different. I wanna show people that you can literally do anything with anything. Like I can rap about politics and make it a jiggy song. It doesn’t have to be corny or be conscious. I wanna show people you can present ideas in any way. I’m presenting politics from the idea of the everyman. Like back in the day with Public Enemy, they presented it like, “We’re preaching it to you, we’re talking to you, read a book or some shit.” I’m not telling you to do that. I’m just saying I pay bills just like you, and this is my reaction to it.

I think I want my place to be someone that’s remembered like that—somebody that was an advocate for freedom. And when I say freedom, I mean true freedom. Like do whatever the fuck you want, truly. Don’t hold back. I hope what I do stays with people for a long time, and when I’m dead, people will go back and be like, “I like that nigga right there,” and they put me in their little top five rapper list and shit. Like, “But no bro! Jpegmafia is better than MC blah blah blah, like he’s a classic.” That’s what I want my legacy to be like. A political rapper who wasn’t fucking preaching.


Perfect. That’s all I got, man, unless there’s anything else you wanna add?


JPEGMAFIA: Oh. Well…wait. I probably shouldn’t even say this. Not that there’s any reason not to. But I don’t know, the reception I’m getting from Veteran…genuinely makes me, like…I guess I just wanna say that this is the happiest I’ve ever been in my life. For the first time ever, I put a shitload of work into something, and I put it out, and people reciprocated it back to me. I mean it happened before with other albums, but not in a wide-scale like this one. It’s genuinely shocking to have people like Hannibal Buress listening. I just wanna say I’m really happy and as corny as it’s gonna sound, thank you to everyone. Thank you to people like you for interviewing me, thank you to fans, thank you all. I’m in a good mood. If you work hard you can do it. What did Tyler, The Creator say? Find your wings. I found them shits.