An Interview with Jasper Marsalis, aka Slauson Malone

Katherine Hoppe speaks with the former Standing on the Corner member about writing a Sun Ra diss track and being deeply intentional in his artistic choices.
By    September 11, 2019
Photo by Lauren Davis

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Jasper Marsalis is here to add a more nuanced dimension to the eternal conversation that is New York City hip hop. As Slauson Malone, he presents themes that interrogate contemporary black identity on his debut album, A Quiet Farwell, Twenty Sixteen to Twenty Eighteen, a record that brings challenging and complex questions into hip hop’s modern discourse. While Marsalis asserts that the album is genre-less, it nonetheless blends experimental jazz and hip hop production as a vehicle to critique topics within black political thought, consciousness, and existence. The production’s lawless arrangement purposefully reflects Jasper’s refusal to be boxed within the limits of traditional musicianship, rejecting both theory and genre as a movement towards creative freedom. 

Produced entirely by Marsalis, the work spans two years of his life as denoted by the record’s title. During this time, he read Saidiya Hartman’s contemplative book on black identity, Scenes of Subjection, bringing Marsalis to sharp, new conclusions about the impossibility of a truly free existence. Marsalis’s reaction to reading Hartman became musical, catalyzing the creation of the record. He crafted his own narrative to reconcile Hartman’s claim that the legacies of physical and legislative oppression render free will incompatible with black identity. Marsalis’s agreement with Hartman takes shape as a multi-layered musical endeavour: track titles reference paintings of slave ships and old soul samples with melancholic lyrics.

The project, as a whole, is more concerned with thematic purpose rather than being easily digestible. The first track on the project, “Two Thousand and Twelve Into Outro” sets the thematic tone of the record, with a soul sample crooning “The world is coming to an end.” This “outro” of an intro is a gripping preview of what is to come, as it quickly morphs into a mosaic of distorted vocals, non-linear drums, and sporadic synths. The only consistently discernible lyric throughout the intro is “cliche” – more foreshadowing of what’s about to be unpacked on the project. 

The son of famed trumpet player Wynton Marsalis, Jasper was born in Los Angeles and moved to New York City in the eighth grade. Although he always found inspiration in the musical environment that was his home, Jasper’s lane is largely independent from his childhood surroundings. One might assume, given the household he grew up in, that Marsalis has always had the “correct” definition of music. However, he’s dedicated to soundtracking the total abandonment of what’s considered accepted theory and the images of what a true musician should sound or look like. For Marsalis, much of his identity as a musician lies within the unknown spaces where theory is debunked and execution can only be nonlinear. This leftover, self-prescribed impossibility of existence as a black man or a musician comes into fruition on A Quiet Farwell, all to echo Saidiya Hartman’s magnum opus.

Marsalis can’t be boxed in as merely a musician; he’s a legitimate multi-media artist, who attended The Cooper Union for painting. While honing his craft there, he became fixated on examining spaces via paintings of black spectacle (boxing rings, theaters, etc.) Upon graduation, Marsalis became a member of Standing On The Corner, an NYC experimental hip-hop and jazz group. They’ve become particularly influential in New York City’s hip-hop scene and featured on Earl Sweatshirt’s most recent record, Some Rap Songs.

A Quiet Farwell’s deconstructed production style makes the listener actively confront each element in any given track. In a way, this is metaphorical for Jasper’s reckoning with the different variables of his existence, which seemingly cannot add up in any political landscape that has been offered to black people in America. Marsalis’s belief that his community cannot fit into any equation of freedom translates into a record that finds this denied freedom through Marsalis’s commitment to a full departure from genre. The listener becomes enveloped in the intimacies of Marsalis’s atypical music and simultaneous response to Hartman’s book.

The vocal samples and drums, for instance, are freed from the confines of music theory. It almost mirrors the scene-like structure of Hartman’s book, in which she breaks down meaningful images in black history and how these individual aspects translate into contemporary black identity. 

When I sat down with Marsalis last month, we sipped coffee for almost two hours as we discussed his arrival to music, his Sun Ra diss track, and his singular contribution to the critical race conversations happening today. — Katherine Hoppe

How did you find your way to music and carve your own pathway in it?

Jasper Marsalis: Well my sister wanted to be an electronic DJ, like Steve Aoki, EDC type shit, and I was so inspired by her ability to hear music. Like she used to always tell me Katy Perry was gonna blow up and she did blow up. My sister, man, she just always had an ear for that kind of music, and she wanted to be a DJ and I looked up to her, so I wanted to be a DJ. And then it felt kind of limiting and boring, like what am I supposed to do between songs? So then I got into mashups (laughs) which was a crazy time period. There was this software, called Magix, and I remember I did a – I feel so ashamed of this, but why not say it – I did a mashup of Lisztomania and Tupac which was so bad but also so good.

And then when I moved to New York, the same aunt who introduced me to the guitar introduced me to her brother who was a producer who taught me how to use, like, all the MPC stuff and that was the first piece of gear I owned – the MPC 2000 XL from Rogue Music, and yeah that’s how I got into it. But the guitar shit happened because I saw the Bob Marley documentary and then I listened to “Forever Loving Jah” by Bob Marley and when I heard this song I was just like, “yo… I wanna be able to do that”

Do you try to be wary of getting too into the weeds of a particular song?

Jasper Marsalis: I have a series of rules that usually prevent me from getting into that mindset – like I don’t use any VSTs (virtual studio technology) and the digital landscape is so expansive that I try to limit my options. Another rule is that if I’m using a digital device it can’t be a modeling software – meaning that if I’m using a computer, it should sound like a computer, it shouldn’t sound like some other shit.

How much did you use live instruments on A Quiet Farwell?

Jasper Marsalis: Quite a bit, actually. The last song uses a guitar sample, but the rest of it is me playing. There’s this old school technique that a lot of hip-hop producers would use where they’d chop a sample, cut out the bass, then re-sample the bass and play it up really heavy, so I kind of adopted that but played the bass myself.

Do you think A Quiet Farwell is a nostalgic record?

Jasper Marsalis: (laughs) I hope not. I mean, I really have very wonky politics around nostalgia. I just think that the past is such an unforgiving thing – sorry I’m laughing while I say this because it’s so ridiculous to say out loud – I try to believe that the past isn’t real and we have to make up the past to feel stable in our existence. So nostalgia to me is really dangerous because what ends up happening is that you’re fabricating or altering events to your own subjective experience, so that’s why I’m kind of hesitant to call it a nostalgic record.

The past is the present to me it’s not like we can’t go back – whatever thing we make the past to be is just a way to sustain what’s happening right now. Like we can make history whatever we want it to be, but because we live in America, it has to be written in a way so that everything today makes sense. So I guess that’s my point – history itself is pretty absurd most times and we have to make it work and nostalgia is the main agent in that – that’s why I’m so critical of it. I feel like if nostalgia were a house, trauma would be right next to it – like if you’re in the nostalgia room you hear all the screams in the trauma room next door. Like Caleb says on “Smile 1”, “Smile at the past when I see it” and I was just like what the fuck does that mean? Like it sounds like it makes sense but it doesn’t make any sense. But let me be clear, I want people to have whatever relationship to the album – once it’s out it’s out – I don’t want someone to hear the record and think that what they’re thinking is wrong.

How do you want people to understand the titles of the songs? That is, if you want people to understand.

Jasper Marsalis: (laughs) There is a lot of intention in some of the titles. The title of the album was originally a misspelling I thought farwell was how you spell farewell, but then I was like, oh that’s kind of hard, and I like the idea of “far” because it gives off the sense that you’ve dipped – farewell to me is more like you’re saying goodbye but farwell is more like yo, I’m out, like I’m already gone and then the dates just refer to the period of time in which the songs were made – so I guess it is nostalgic so I’m lying to myself (laughs) because it is looking at a specific time period in my life and re-evaluating it.

What’s the meaning behind titling the first track as an “outro”?

Jasper Marsalis: Yeah, it’s because it was actually supposed to be the end of the album, but the reason it’s called an outro is because that explains the whole album. The lyric is cliche, but the end is near which is based on an Andre 3000 song (sings) “Make love, not war…” anyway, that song is everything – it’s chaotic, it’s crazy, so that’s why it’s the outro. Then “Ttrable” comes next and that song, to me, is the deepest on the album for reasons I can’t go into because it’s too personal, but Ttrable is the one… There are two [titles] that are my favorite ones, the ones that are so long that you can’t read it on the phone (laughs) “The Flying Africans Board Mothership to Zong! to Colonize the New Nubian Planet called X and or the World Laughs as it Turns Another Degree Hotter” (laughs) it was cathartic to come up with that title.

There’s a lot of shit that that’s riffing one, but there’s this one painting by J.M.W Turner – and he always had the most crazy titles for his paintings – “Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhoon coming on” and I was just like, damn, I need to step up my game. And the name of the ship in that painting is called Zong, so it’s a direct reference to the J.M.W Turner painting. And then the “Flying Africans” – there’s a Jen Nkiru called “Rebirth is Necessary” and there’s a part in the video where I took the sample of a guy saying “I’m gone” and at that point there’s a graphic that says “The Flying Africans” and I was like the fuck does that mean (laughs).

Did you see that J.M.W. Turner painting while you were making the track?

Jasper Marsalis: Nah, I wrote that song as a Sun Ra diss track.

(Laughs) Why is it a Sun Ra diss track?

Jasper Marsalis: Because I’m very critical of the idea of being a fugitive or the idea of thinking you’ll be able to escape to another place and I think that’s a big aspect of the whole Sun Ra aesthetic which is the idea that black people can go elsewhere and I don’t find that to be necessarily true. I don’t think there’s ever a place of refuge for people who are oppressed, so that song is kind mocking that because it uses the same chord changes as “Space is the Place”, but then the lyrics (sings) “There ain’t no way, there ain’t no way, there ain’t no days, there ain’t no space, I ain’t no slave, I ain’t no spade, there ain’t no way.”

What other painters do you like?

Jasper Marsalis: Oh, [Phillip] Guston. There’s only Guston. All the other ones are like I admire certain technical things, but Guston — the whole history of his art practice I find to be so inspiring. And even the way he talks about his art… Like he has this one word, “dumb” as in the dumbness of things and it’s so true. Like a dumb head, how does a dumb head look? Anyway, that’s how he would describe his work and he was pretty involved in the abstract expressionist movement. People in that movement disavowed him when he decided to do more cartoonistic-style and I just find him to be a fascinating figure in the arts.

How much painting have you done in your own life?

Jasper Marsalis: Well I went to school for painting. I went in a painter and came out a painter I guess (laughs). Painting is everything. I actually have a show coming up in Minneapolis on September 7th.

And do you see overlaps between your painting and your music?

Jasper Marsalis: Thematically, yes. I think in both my music and my art I’m very obsessed with black spectacle and the way that blackness is consumed by people. But installation-wise I don’t ever want there to be overlap because I think that takes away the strength of each medium. But I do see performance as the middle ground. Like two weeks ago I had the realization that there is performance art and I had forgot about that rich history and how performance in music is necessary. I think a lot of performance art challenges the boundaries for a spectator which is something I’m very fascinated by. A lot of my paintings are about stages and people looking at things — I know that’s super vague — but people look at paintings and on a stage you have a lot of people looking at one thing which is like a painting in a poetic way – it’s like you have a rectangle and everyone looks at the rectangle so then it becomes a big ass painting. But I think it’s important to interrogate that relationship between performer and audience.

Could you expand more on some of the themes of A Quiet Farwell?

Jasper Marsalis: I read “Scenes of Subjection” by Saidiya Hartman and it changed everything for me – I thought I knew who I was, thought I knew what I was doing and when I read this shit I had to really re-evaluate my relationship with identity, nostalgia – basically everything we’ve been talking about that book made me reconsider, and it just sent me on this literature tyraid, just like reading all these fucking authors that I joke are the Black Cult (laughs) which is like Saidya Hartman, Fred Moten, Sylvia Wynter, Christina Sharpe – and they all talk about blackness as nothingness as opposed to something and that concept was just like fuck!

I don’t know what that means but I really feel that and this album was me coming to terms with that definition and accepting that definition as something I believe in. Even the cover – my friend Bolade Banjo did the cover and basically it’s a dark room print but without a negative so conceptually it lines up – that’s his bag and I don’t quite understand the mechanics of dark room printing – but its like you’re using white to make black or black to make white and everything is reversed and I asked him, “Can you make me an album cover that’s nothing?” and he’s like “Bet I got you.” And so quite literally that whole – the black part – is some white light being burned into a piece of paper.

And so the concepts you were reading about, do those authors, for you, push-back or complement more traditional modes of political thought such as DuBoisian double-consciousness? And what’s your take on those ideas?

Jasper Marsalis: The way I understand DuBois is that the goal is the creation of a completely separate, Marxist state for all oppressed people and that sounds beautiful but it’s a reality that I don’t really think is possible. So, for me, the next step after accepting your own double-consciousness is to accept the impossibility of your existence – like knowing everyday that your existence makes no sense – like you aren’t a real citizen, your existence is always gonna be troublesome and that’s what;s been fueling a lot of my ideas lately, this in-betweenness of identity. That’s what I think real freedom is, lowkey, because freedom through the law is just law – like you’re a part of the state and you have rights now and your humanity is recognized by the state, which is maybe freedom in the most legitimate sense, but like artistically speaking freedom to me is outside of definition. That’s why when you were asking me how do you define your music or genre I try not to see it like that, because then I have to, like, let go of my freedom. I think A Quiet Farewell was just me coming to these realizations, you know.

Are you still reading those authors right now?

Jasper Marsalis: I’m kind of out there to be honest, I think I’ve read so much of it that the style in which a lot of those authors write in bothers me now (laughs) so I don’t read it as much. But over those two years I had been reading a lot of that shit. There is a book coming out that is a compilation of all those texts that I’m working on. It’s all done and being printed right now. It’ll come out in conjunction with the show that I have in Minneapolis — it’s 200 pages so there’s a lot of shit to be read.

A Quiet Farwell was the last two years of your life, so what do you the next two look like for you?

Jasper Marsalis: Performance is something I’ve been really interested in as of lately and want to explore more and then more painting, sculpture. I’m working on the next album and it sounds good. It’s similar [to A Quiet Farwell] but it’s longer, like each song is longer and i’d say its more accessible because its coherent (laughs) I think the last record was pretty in-coherent and this one you can actually hear what I’m saying (laughs).

Do you like that the last record is incoherent?

Jasper Marsalis: I love it (laughs) there’s no other way it could’ve been.

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