Following an incendiary year, which even saw this Los Angeles native incur the legal wrath of the tobacco conglomerate Philip Morris Inc., Jonwayne is finally cementing himself at the head of an incredibly fertile scene with the release of his new record Rap Album One. We spoke to the Wayniac following the album’s launch to gauge how he felt in this turning point of his career, the immense pressure when associated with a storied label like Stones Throw and his excitement about finally stepping onto European shores.
So you’re coming over to the UK for Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide Awards show in January, are you excited about that?
Oh absolutely man, it’ll be my first time over there, I’ve never been across the Atlantic before…
Is music from the UK a source of inspiration for you, in your own work?
Yeah, for sure man, like, a lot of what I love, especially electronic music, was at the very least, pioneered over there you know what I mean? A lot of people bringing really fresh sounds from overseas kinda fuck with our heads over here in Los Angeles.
Would someone like Gilles Peterson, considered an influential tastemaker here, ever pop up on your radar?
I mean, I don’t really pay attention to like, the radio stuff; I realise how big of a deal it is, and I realise Gilles Peterson is the man, and I’ve tuned into his shows every now and then, but as an individual I keep to myself, I don’t even go to a lot of shows out here, I kind a stay home and work on my own stuff. I can’t really be bothered with shows and stuff. It’s a great honour though, the fact that he’s fucking with me and my music, it’s awesome that he’s taken a liking to it. Those Brownswood compilations were probably my first introduction, he had a part in that right?
Yeah, it’s his label.
I remember getting those CDs and there being good stuff on there.
How important does support from outside of the US figure for you? Does it even cross your mind?
Yeah man…actually, the way I see it, because of the Internet, it seems like a big melting pot to me, I don’t favour someone’s support over another person depending on the region that they’re from, the way the Internet has it worked out, there’s really no difference to me, if someone’s from my city or someone’s from France, if they’re into the music and they’re showing support, that’s what matters.
With that said, of course I appreciate it, and I make an effort to like, shake hands and kiss babies, wherever I go. Yeah man, I’m a big fan of getting involved with people who support me.
I like my own space, but on a level of being an artist and stuff like that, I like to make sure that people know they’re being appreciated…on a scale, I don’t want to be spending two hours after every show talking to people about the fact that I use Fruity Loops or anything like that, but letting people know that I really appreciate support regardless of where they’re from or who they’re with, shit like that.
Yeah, someone in Norway, for example, could be checking out everything that’s happening on the West Coast at the click of a button, compared to say 15 years ago, where they might have to wait until some magazine wrote about it.
The thing is, I started through the Internet, so I don’t have that A and B comparison; starting out the way I did, through MySpace and stuff, I was already connected with that idea of everyone kinda being in the same place in terms of being able to reach out and get new music that they want. I never experienced beforehand, for me it’s just a passing thought, the fact that someone’s from somewhere else, in an instantaneous moment they can get things that we’re making over here, you know what I mean?
So you think Internet culture has definitely helped your career?
Absolutely, I have great support over in Europe and it’s kind of a shame I haven’t been there yet and I’m curious to meet all of the people that are making it possible over there. I’ve yet to go to Germany or France or the UK, which kind works in that people, some people, want to see me perform. I’m excited man, it’s unexplored territory for me, I’m curious.
Talking more about Internet culture, your first two EPs, the cassettes, had particularly provocative artwork, was that a specific draw for websites to pick up on? Do you think that distracted from the music, or helped put you into the spotlight?
The way the music journalism world works, there needs to be a story already written, and no offence, but a lot of music journalists are very lazy and they don’t want to create a story, they’d rather have the story already there and more or less copy and paste from the mind and get it over with.
So when you have story like “Hey, this cassette looks like a cigarette pack”, that’s an easy sell, and it’s not just like the music journalists, it’s the people that run the magazines, and y’know it’s easier to get a go if there’s already a story there that people want to hear about and that’s saddening in the sense that it’s becoming less and less about the music and more and more about whether someone is able to drum up some kind of unique drama. If I’m someone who’s making quality music, or just making like rap music, and what I’m making is not like hot, it’s not like trendy or anything, the only way I’m going to feel like I’m going to get heard and I’m going to be put in the situation that I deserve to be put in is to kinda trick myself into getting there; I don’t trust the masses to pick up on good music anymore, I just don’t. It’s maybe a little negative for me to think that, but I’m impatient.
I’d rather take it upon myself or upon people who work with me, to establish a reasoning for people to check out the music, and it did, people wrote about the cassette, people started figuring out about it and maybe people who wouldn’t have heard it otherwise got put on my radar, and it helped that, so no complaints.
That’s a good way to look at it, so did you have much creative input into the artwork then?
It was more or less Jeff Jank, he’s the art designer over at Stones Throw (and responsible for the cover design for issue 03 of Bonafide), and from the beginning I was pretty adamant about letting him know that I wanted him to take full direction with all my art, as long as I’m here; with that just said, he came to me with a few covers, I don’t think there was any grand scheme or anything, and that was one of them. Except I think it was like a dark green, like an ugly colour to me and I asked him to change it to blue, not for any particular reason other than the fact that I like cool colours and it ended up just working out, for me at least, maybe Jeff liked the green more.
I saw you tweet recently about not being able to read reviews of your album, do you think the Internet makes it harder for you to avoid hearing or reading what people have said or think about your music?
Absolutely, having a PR also makes it hard, because they go “Oh, by the way, in case you haven’t seen, there’s this, this and this.” It’s requiring some self-discipline, because on the one hand, I want to know what people are thinking, but at the same time, what good is it gonna do me? I’ve been waiting for this album to come out for a year, and it’s very therapeutic that it is coming out, and I’m receiving closure and I’m able to move on, and maybe do another project now that this one is out in the world, and it’s not just mine anymore, it’s people’s. That might take me a little while to get used to, the fact that this album is no longer a piece of me that no one else has, now it’s out in the world, whoever wants to listen to it can listen to it, and considering it’s personal nature, the transition is a little dramatic. So yeah, it might be healthy for me not to look at reviews for it, I’d rather not get torn up over what someone’s gonna say about it, because they don’t know, they don’t know where I came from to do that, or they might not fully understand the context of the record, just because you have a job to organise your opinions onto other people’s minds, doesn’t mean you’re right.
It’s like the Death of the Author, when someone approaches or studies a text, the author’s intentions are laid by the wayside; no one will ever know what those original aims were, that’s why today we get so many different interpretations, and I think rap music has been going that way as well, especially with the rise of websites like Rap Genius. Do you ever check that out?
Well, ’cause I want people to realise that I’m not just saying gibberish and that there’s levels to my lyrics, there are a couple of annotations that I created and put on the site, and I was hoping that those examples would kind of settle for people, prove to people that I’m not going to just walk you through it, like, pay attention, I’m not just blowing smoke out of my ass, I’m actually trying to say something.
But yeah man, I try not to listen, it’s hard because I do respect music journalism and music criticism, because I participate, even if I don’t put it out there, I participate, I’m keen to picking apart music and stuff, but I think as a necessity I am unable to take music criticism of my own stuff seriously, ’cause, I forget who said this but, “If I believe you when you say that I’m great, then I have to believe you when you say that I’m not” and it goes either way, even praise and stuff. I can’t listen to that shit (reviews), because it’s so far away from how I feel about my own stuff, my music is very therapeutic for me, and to me, it’s not good or bad, it’s just part of me. It’s not like something I can grade, it’s a thing that’s very factual for me. It may be fantastic or fantastical for somebody just to have it as a piece of work, but for myself it’s almost like a statement, so in that sense I can’t look at that stuff.
Having the Stones Throw set-up behind you must be kind of inspiring, what was it like coming up through that world?
Honestly, [it’s been] more stressful than inspiring, inspiring for sure, but having to fill the shoes of such a legacy is a maddening process. When I first came here, I was very shaken up, I was working on music but wasn’t coming up the way I thought I would, and I was kinda running myself into the ground, trying to accomplish something that would never happen, which was to do something that somebody else wanted me to do rather than me discovering myself through my music, which I’ve always done. I kinda forgot that for a bit and there was a period of resurgence where I had to hit the reset button and look at myself and try to figure out what I wanted to do. That was all because I was pushing myself to meet the expectations of a label that has already done so much for hip-hop.
One thing that stands out is the amount of releases you’ve done already, over a really short space of time, you’re probably one of the most prolific rising rappers, was it always your aim to have a berth of material available and then to encapsulate with Rap Album One?
No, not really, I was trying to keep it as minimal as possible, that’s why when we came out with the first cassette there’s only like twelve minutes of rapping on one side, I wanted to keep it short and simple, but as that kind of mythos grew and the controversy stirred, I guess we just kind of got caught up with it. With the second cassette, we had not planned that, but as soon as we got the cease and desist, it felt like it was a good idea to have a rebuttal, but that material is actually born of early sessions of the album, like songs that didn’t make it for whatever reason. The third cassette was made after the album was done; I moved my stuff from the studio to a new spot and felt very inspired to record the third cassette in like a month or so. That format has been very useful to document the course of leading up to this album, but I think I’m done with the cassettes, I don’t want to do anymore, though it was fun whilst it lasted, it provided a cohesive rising action.
It’s a good format to build up around, especially as it not many people use it anymore, it’s nice how it panned out.
I mean, it did a lot better than I thought it would. It started as a novelty, a cassette, that format and having it cassette only, it’s kind of like putting all my music into a time capsule for fifty years from now, like no one’s going to buy it. No, it’s selling really well, which kind of turned it around for me.
Jonwayne’s Rap Album One is out now on Stones Throw
Words: Nathan Roberts