South Central LA. native Duckwrth longs to be the next hip-hop iconoclast. The rapper, singer, and graphic designer went to art school in San Francisco, and he credits the city’s creative community with helping him develop his style. Taking heavy influences from pioneers like OutKast and N.E.R.D, the MC aims to further explore such experiments funk rock and electro.
On “MICHUUL.,” from his new project, An XTRA UUGLY Mixtape, Duckwrth finds his ideal groove, staggering repetitive raps inside a percussion-led offering dedicated to Michael Jackson. Produced by Alexander Spit, another rapper orbiting the Los Angeles and San Francisco art scenes, “MICHUUL.” clomps about on blocky drums accented by buzzing synths and faint piano playing. At the center, Duckwrth runs down his list of things he’s chasing. “I just want an art school chick, that really like foreign flicks/Boyfriend jeans and Vans for the kicks, that’s still dumb thick,” he sings, somehow making a list of insipid clichés seem endearing. Slowly the song morphs from a stargazer into a come-on: “I just wanna jig like Mike/I just wanna spend my night, with you girl/I just wanna be your type.” It comes off as a little try-hard, but on “MICHUUL,” Duckwrth covers his raw raps with fluid melodies and a singular charm.
Born to an Indonesian-Chinese family in Jakarta prosperous enough to keep him out of the city’s violent public school system, Brian Imanuel spent much of his time in home school wandering online. He learned English by watching YouTube tutorials. Through social media he made friends with Americans who educated him in youth culture by sending him links to memes and rap videos. Imanuel built up a presence on English-language Twitter, Vine, and YouTube as a comedian. His ultimate goal was to move to Los Angeles and study cinematography, but he had a long way to go. He was only 16 years old.
It was February 2016 when Imanuel released a self-directed and self-edited rap video on YouTube titled “Dat $tick.” Produced by a local EDM artist named Ananta Vinnie under Imanuel’s guidance, the beat matched trap hi-hats and bass with a spacious, menacing, and exotic synth loop; on top of it, Imanuel delivered crisp lyrics about cop-killing and poverty with a voice that could only be described as very — and very prematurely — low. Figuring out the tone was more or less impossible: Though the video had elements of straight comedy (Imanuel was dressed in a pink polo shirt, khaki shorts, and a Reebok fanny pack) and straightforward rap, it was clearly something novel. Not to mention problematic: Displaying the pitfalls of learning about rap culture purely through online engagement, Imanuel thought it fitting to use the N-word in the song; following callouts, he learned better manners. Amplified by Imanuel’s already considerable fan base, the video went viral almost instantly: Currently, it’s been viewed over 73 million times. Imanuel had succeeded beyond his wildest skits and memes. He was no longer himself. He was a musician. He was Rich Chigga.
Less than two years later, Rich Chigga is headlining his own tour in America; last night witnessed Irving Plaza packed to capacity for the first of two back-to-back shows. His ascent from the isolation of home school to a crowd of over a thousand has been as dizzying as his catalogue is small. With no more than a dozen tracks to his name, the line to see him stretched well over a block. Trekking to the back of that line, you could tell that the audience was primarily, though far from exclusively, Asian-American. Once inside the venue, the crowd’s anemic response to the preshow DJ playing System of a Down, coupled with an ecstatic response to “XO Tour Llif3,” indicated that it was overwhelmingly young.
After a few songs from opener Duckwrth that received a hospitable welcome, Imanuel emerged wearing a black tour T-shirt, black jeans, and black sneakers, and sporting a fresh side fade. Whatever awkwardness or stage fright he might have experienced earlier in the tour had clearly vanished. Aided by a jubilant crowd response, Imanuel was radiant with mischievous charm. Much like Chigga himself, his set was compact and forceful. Even after a surprise visit from native New Yorker and fellow SoundCloud phenom and 88rising signee Joji and encore repetition of “Dat $tick,” there were only 13 songs total, none of which were long; still, confident stage presence and impeccable beat selection ensured that the show, though wiry, felt substantial nonetheless. Imanuel’s taste for globular synth bass and driving rhythms complements the roughness of a concert venue sound system well. Both leading hits like “Dat $tick” and “Gospel” and lesser-known songs like “Seventeen” and “Back at It” had the crowd readily bouncing, though not bumping; despite the floor being packed and the tunes being amped, no mosh pits emerged. (Chalk it up to audience culture, perhaps: aAter all, East Asian societies, with their high population densities and their resulting need to minimize overt strife, are as antithetical to moshing as it gets.)
All brevity aside, the show felt like a milestone for artist and audience alike. East Asian youth are as voracious as it gets when it comes to consuming culture online, but lag behind when it comes to producing their own music. For many in the crowd, it was the biggest show they’d attended in America, where the main attraction was a hip-hop artist who shared their background. In Imanuel’s coming of age as a performer they can see their own arrival: Though other Asian-Americans have tried to make inroads into the rap world with minor success, Rich Chigga’s mainstream potential is unprecedented. It’s bigger than just him; the further he progresses, the easier it is to prove to the nation’s cultural gatekeepers that this overlooked demographic has both the economic clout worth catering to and the creative energy worth amplifying. Imanuel isn’t just the first Asian millennial to hit it big in America; he’s helping to ensure that he won’t be the last.
THIS NEW AUSTRALIAN ARTIST HAS ALREADY TOURED WITH THE LIKES OF STORMZY & YG
words by Jodi Taylor
photos by Connor Langford
Meet Manu Crook$. A Sydney-based rapper who is a prominent player in the Australian rap and hip-hop scene. We were first introduced to Crooks by way of his single “Ridin’,” a chill song with a trap vibe to it that is complete with Crooks’ autotuned voice. The single is off his latest EP, Mood Forever, and was quick to be added to our playlist.
Many are already well-acquainted with Crooks, as he supported Tory Lanez, YG, and Stormzy on their Australian tours, and his singles have been a constant on Zane Lowe’s Beats 1 Radio. The artist recently announced his first-ever headlining tour (in Australia, of course) and will start this off tomorrow in Perth. Ahead of his tour, we chatted with Crooks about producing, creative freedom, and touring with Stormzy.
He taught himself the basics and from there, the rest was history:
“After learning the basics of how to use a DAW [digital audio workstation] at college, I reached a point where it was just a matter of getting creative and actually creating my own music. I bounced from college, didn’t really finish, and started doing my own thing. One thing I took away was that no one can teach you how to be creative! I’ve had a passion for music since I was a teenager, and only when I actually started to learn and produce my own music was I like, yeah, I could do this shit forever.”
Producing his own music gives him creative freedom:
“Freedom to make whatever the hell you wanna make, no restrictions—it’s just you and your ideas! You also don’t have to rely on producers to send you beats, sessions, etc. You can just go in and make your own from scratch. I think that’s one of the main reasons I started producing, to not have to rely on anyone and just do it myself.”
Other musicians’ work inspires him to be better:
“Some of my inspirations range from family and friends to strangers, my mums, my friends, the people around me. When I say strangers, I mean bigger artists that I’ve never met [whose] music inspires me to do better: J. Cole, Kanye, Pharrell—just to name a few. Music moguls like Diddy [and] Dre.”
He feels as though most Australian bars and clubs are behind with hip-hop music:
“I couldn’t categorize ‘Australian Rap.’ It’s different, we all don’t sound the same. There are sub-genres in terms of rap/hip-hop and the culture—it’s still growing. Depending on what DJ is playing at a certain club, most bars and clubs play a lot of old-school hip-hop and it’s like, ‘Bruh, where’s that new shit?’ Generally, most bars and clubs are behind in terms of the hip-hop music.”
Post-tour, the next stop is Europe:
“I get a lot of people here [in] Aus telling me to head to the States to pursue the music, and I will definitely head out there soon, [but] for now I feel like most of my listeners are out in Europe, and I gotta get out to them ASAP! Going to the States for an artist like myself is the cliché thing to do; it’s almost expected, and anyone that knows me knows I don’t like doing the expected. As an artist, you gotta keep it interesting in all aspects of your life.”
The fan love can feel very surreal at times:
“[I’ve had] a couple surreal moments really. From getting my music spun on Beats 1, doing shows, touring off the music, and people literally yelling your songs or messaging me about how much they love my music—it’s everything to them! It’s humbling and, at the same time, madness.”
“Wild” is the word to describe touring with Stormzy:
“It was hands-down one of the wildest tours I been on! The energy from the people in every city was surreal. It was also his b-day during the tour, and we got to head out and celebrate—we got litty! Shout out, Stormz and his team for putting us on the whole tour.”
His rider is liquid-heavy, of course:
“Bottle of Hennessy, bottle of champagne, fruit platter, water, towels, chips, Doritos, bottles of Gatorade.”
Upon watching Duckwrth’s ‘Michuul’ clip, and seeing its “I’m lost, send nakies” subtitles, we needed no further excuses to be completely frothing. But he’s just released a new record, An XTRA UUGLY Mixtape — which is of course home to a couple of already-released tracks, ‘Michuul’ and ‘Tamagotchi’ — and it features a whole heap of huge, good-feeling tunes.
He managed to slip away from his tour with Rich Chigga long enough to answer a few questions we had about the record, and we managed to slip away from Stranger Things long enough to ask them.
So, tell me what your new mixtape is about…
It’s a continuation of my project from last year, I’M UUGLY. The whole concept of ‘uugly’ is funk. The face you make when you hear a really good song is kinda ugly, so it’s based off that. It’s also being super transparent with your life, you know, and being ok with the ugly parts of life. It’s a continuation of that, but the sound is bigger, funkier, there’s more dancing, there’s more moments. The moments are very intense, synth and guitar driven. Then we have songs that are more rock-based, more 80s ballad anthem songs. A lot of it sounds like it could be synced to movies.
You’ve said before that Andre 3000 and Pharrell really influenced you for I’M UUGLY — what were you listening to or watching while you were putting XTRA UUGLY together?
Stranger Things. I watched a lot of Stranger Things.
True. I’m in the middle of watching the new season…
It’s already out?! Oh shit. Ok cool. I’m on tour right now so everything in life has been shut off. I don’t know anything that’s going on right now, but that’s fire.
It’s real good. So, you’ve also said that you’re not into putting yourself into a genre, but you put yourself into a feeling. What’s the feeling on this mixtape?
Basically, I’m in the feeling of ugliness. I mean, there’s pretty moments, there’s a lot of pretty moments, but it’s moments that kind of take you away and make you go “damn…” It’s a feeling that’s in your stomach, it’s a feeling that’s in your ass, it’s in your thighs and it makes you want to get up and dance and shake something. It’s a feeling that hits you like a nostalgia, like remembering when you were 5-years-old drinking lemonade in the summer time — kinda sad because you know you’ve got to go back to school.
Why are you declaring ugly? Is it a positive or negative thing?
We live in some weird times right now, and people have to be able to take it on. If you hide away from it, then it festers, and when it finally shows its ugly face you’re going to be fucked up. It’s better to just accept that things are ugly, and then figure out how we transmute that.
Where did you grow up and how has it influenced your life?
I grew up in South Central LA. It took a lot of looking behind my back. Every time you see an old car driving by, it could be a possible drive-by — somebody putting their gun out the window and shooting up the whole block and skrrting off. It was a weird time. I spent a lot of time inside, by the time i got outside I was 16 and I didn’t get a chance to acclimate to it at a young age. So that’s hard, but it gave me a spinal cord.
I can’t believe that’s real life.
It is. It’s crazy. I want to raise my kids in a better neighbourhood, but then they don’t get the experience and I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Maybe good, because they wont have certain triggers or traumas…
So where are you currently based?
Right now I’m back in LA. I moved to San Francisco, I moved to Oakland, and New York. I came back to LA because everything I need is there, musically and inspiration and weather. When I feel like I’m older, I’ll probably move to Paris.
That’s definitely a later date! Until then, I’m just kicking it in LA.
Did you do a bunch of artwork again, like you did for the record?
I worked with my boy Mancy Gant, he’s an amazing photographer. I got the chance to smash a lot of shit and I got to wear a cool 70s helmut to protect myself. The front cover is more chill but, if you look at the back, I’m smashing some big ass floral vase.
You studied graphic design right? Do you do all your own artwork because you don’t trust anyone else?
You’re damn right, I don’t trust anybody. I’m too particular, too analytical, I will rip somebody’s shit apart. Even when my manager pics certain promo pictures, I will debate her down. It’s a problem, I know. But it’s some Taurus shit, I’m stubborn as fuck. And the best results come from it.
You seem pretty into clothing, what’s you favourite thing to wear right now?
Very much so. Band shirts, cool button ups and very nice tailored slacks. I love furry sweaters.
Oh, and I wanted to talk about your dancing — you’re so good at it! Who taught you?
I don’t really know how to dance, dude.
Are you kidding? It’s so good.
I just be doing shit. I’m really just trolling. I’m literally trolling. It’s fun. It’s the whole point — just let loose and let whatever comes out… but it helps if you’ve got some rhythm with it.
Totally. What’s your favourite song to dance to?
That’s a good question! What is my favourite song to dance to? Oh! Parliament Funkadelic, Knee Deep. That’s my favourite song to dance to in the world.
Good one. And, aside from the release, what are you most excited about right now?
Going bigger. I wanna touch more hands, internationally. People who don’t even speak my language, who don’t understand a damn thing I’m saying but just know the feeling. I don’t know, smelling new air, being in a new place, getting lost and being anxious as fuck because I don’t know where the hell I’m going, having new currency. I need that.
By now, the story of Joji is internet lore. The Australian-Japanese artist became an online sensation through his Filthy Frank and Pink Guy characters, creating a world of absurdist, gross-out comedy that resulted in a chart-topping album, Pink Season, earlier this year. Calling his fan base “passionate” would be the understatement of the year, so when Miller began moving his creative attention towards his lo-fi, piano-driven trip-hop project as Joji, we half-expected uproar.
Instead, the public has embraced this new sonic chapter. Joji’s music is easy to love—the rabid comedy of Miller’s earlier work has been channeled into hyper-detailed, textural instrumentals like “Rain On Me” and “Will He.” Joji’s upcoming EP In Tongues drops this Friday, and it has quickly become one of the year’s most anticipated releases.
“The reason I made the transition was because of overwhelming support,” Joji says. “I knew I had to do it. People were stopping me on the street to tell me I was wasting my time and my abilities… there’s no set plan. I just want to test myself in all creative mediums.”
Watch our Music Life doc with Joji above, and check out the story behind Pink Season below. Pre-order In Tongueshere.
Pop star Kris Wu is a host of The Rap of China and one of the country’s most influential celebrities when it comes to streetwear and sneakers, and he joined Joe La Puma at Stadium Goods in New York City for the latest episode of Complex’s Sneaker Shopping.
During the episode, Wu talks about how hip-hop culture has started to blow up in China and how he’s influenced by celebrities such as Travis Scott and Drake. He also has a love for O.G. Air Jordans, and he talks about how he was able to track down a pair of Air Jordan 1s from 1985 on eBay and geeks out about the shoe’s details and history. Wu explains how basketball became popular in China, due to Yao Ming’s success in the NBA, and says that LeBron James and Steph Curry are current favorites in the country. He goes on to joke about how he was once scouted to be a basketball player as a teenager, but he never grew as tall as people thought he’d become and never got to play professionally. Wu also says that he’s not feeling Yeezys right now, because there are too many fakes in China. He goes on to spend over $6,700 on hyped Nike and Jordan collaborations and even picks up a pair of “Galaxy” Foamposites.
Chinese-Canadian artist Kris Wu first built his name up as a member of the K-pop groups EXO and EXO-M. He then set out on his own, releasing singles where he both raps and sings. One of his newer songs is “Deserve,” which also features Travis Scott. The track is a clear online hit, logging over 6 million plays on Spotify, with the accompanying video crossing the 2.3 million view mark. The Louis Bell-produced song is Kris Wu telling a girl how he feels, offering everything he has in the process.
“Imagine we’re in front of a club and I see this girl in the line,” Wu explained to Genius. “Eye contact. You know something’s about to go down. I’m Kris Wu. I come here. I got the money. I’m at the top of my game. I’m good. I see this girl, she’s right there and I know that she might think I’m just a stuck-up artist, but she’s probably interested.”
Kris Wu recently sat down with Genius for the latest episode of Verified and broke down his flirtatious track. Watch him go line-for-line with “Deserve” in the video above, then check out past episodes below.
Earlier in October Chinese singer Kris Wu shared his single “Deserve” featuring Travis Scott, and today he comes back with visuals. In the video, Scott and Wu link up in a dimly lit club setting surrounded by women before posting up on a monster truck.
In an interview with Beats 1, Wu said he and Scott got together in the studio one night in L.A. to make the record. “We threw out this idea of collaborating and [Travis] was really down,” he said. “He flew out from New York to L.A. and then we met in the studio, kicking it, vibe out a little bit, and then we just got on the record and made this amazing record.”
One of hip-hop’s most promising new acts, IDK, emerges with a new record off of his upcoming album IWVB, titled, “17 Wit a 38.” Premiering exclusively on Billboard, the Chief Keef-assisted song addresses the lifestyle that comes with living fast and on the wild side of life.
In a statement to Billboard, IDK noted how he got Keef on the record. “I connected with Keef through his uncle who had been watching my growth since day one,” he said. “I thought Keef would be perfect for the record so I sent it to him and he sent it to Keef. It took a while but I finally got the verse back the day the announcement of who is featured on the album was made.”
Known for an aggressive and intelligent lyrical style, the artist also notes the biographical nature of the song: “The inspiration of this song comes from my past experiences. Although most people now a days wouldn’t really brag about a 38 revolver, it was reality for me. Let’s just say, it got things done.”
IWVB features the likes of Swizz Beatz, DOOM, Yung Gleesh, Del the Funky Homosapien, Mother Marygold along with production from Kal Banx, Tae Beast, Thelonious Martin, Lo-Fi, Daniel Worthy, and more. The project drops in its entirety today (Oct 12) on Adult Swim and is available everywhere tomorrow (Oct 13) . Pre-order here on iTunes.
Kris Wu, a former member of top Korean-Chinese boyband EXO, has made himself a household name amongst Chinese youth through numerous blockbusters and songs for their respective soundtracks. He dipped his toes into the American entertainment industry through his role in xXx: Return of Xander Cage and an English-language track titled “Juice,” and now he’s looking to fully establish his international solo music career. He kicked it off today with the Beats 1 premiere of “Deserve,” featuring the reigning king of featuring spots Travis Scott. The two make a formidable duo over a club-ready beat courtesy of Post Malone producer Louis Bell. Kris Wu revealed in his Beats 1 interview that his debut album is slated for a 2018 release, which he hopes will make him “a face of youth of China.”
Formerly known as Jay IDK …now he’s gone and dropped the Jay. Now goes by IDK. We talked about the change in his name, how prison shaped his music, the meaning behind his album cover, how he ended up working with Swizz Beatz and he world premiere’s “No Shoes On the Rug, Leave Them At the Door” from his forthcoming album ‘IWASVERYBAD’ dropping Oct. 13th.
IDK on How Prison Shaped His Music
IDK discusses his multiple prison experiences and how they effected his life and contributed to his pursuit with music. Tune in today 7pm NY/4pm LA/12am LA for the full conversation!
IDK Premiere “No Shoes On the Rug, Leave Them At the Door”
Premiere from IDK | October 11, 2017
Maryland native IDK has been “ignorantly delivering knowledge,” as his stage name suggests, since 2014, but following a streamlining name change—from Jay IDK to IDK—the rapper is finally ready to deliver the rawest and most uncut version of himself. Enter IWASVERYBAD, IDK’s cinematic, wonderfully rancorous, and tear-jerking new album, which displays an unwavering allegiance to honesty.
For IDK, IWASVERYBAD is a moment where his artistic intentions finally line up perfectly with his execution. Where past records had flashes of brilliance and tragic flatlines, IWASVERYBAD is one of the most well-tailored and moving projects of 2017. Consider the roll-out of this album: three installments. By looking at this project as a series of episodes or a soundtrack of his life from middle-class Maryland native to serving jail time, IDK was able to hone in on his storytelling and develop a body of work that is as fulfilling as it is succinct. His attention to detail is clear from the first track, “Mrs. Lynch, Your Sun Is The Devil,” where a storm of concerning voice messages swell into an ominous choir singing: “N***a, you gon’ be bad, forever.”
The risk-taking is admirable here: opening with a skit can make or break an entire listening experience, but these voicemails paint the album as a wellspring of honesty, and IDK delivers. In the same way that I can’t listen to DAMN. without hearing “BLOOD.,” IWASVERYBAD would be otherwise incomplete without the swarm of worried voices guiding us through the opening. The transitions between tracks are near-seamless, and each beat sounds as if it was made with the next beat in mind. Even the host of diverse features on this record—from Yung Gleesh to MF DOOM—all work well together and build upon each other in service of the album.
At the heart of this project is IDK’s five-star rapping. It’s one thing to effectively pen your life story, but a whole other skill set is required in order to deliver your words in such a way that the listener is able to feel for you as if he or she was along for the entire ride. IDK’s flow is focused and thoughtful. He can pack syllables together without sounding garbled and can take his time on a verse without having to zone out. His voice has an aggressive boom that can flip any track into a trap banger for the ages (“Baby Scale”), but he’s learned how to control his delivery and tender moments like “Black Sheep, White Dove” are proof that IDK has grown more than most rappers in his class.
IDK’s vocal versatility also has a profound effect on the album’s momentum. The rabid energy, backed by sirens and well-timed claps, of “Dog Love Kitty” isn’t lost once the “Venus Symbol” interlude arrives. Instead, the energy is incubated and spread across the dreamiest section of the record. So many albums run out of steam when slower cuts are introduced, but there’s a sustained energy in IDK’s voice as he holds out notes and lets the keys take over on “Birds & the Bees,” keeping the smooth-jam portion of the album from getting sleepy.
At the same time, “Birds & the Bees” doubles as the album’s problem child. For all of its fun and disco grooves, it’s the one moment on the album where IDK gets stuck. Blending the track into the first few seconds of “17 Wit A 38” doesn’t sufficiently bridge the sonic themes. As the album becomes a letter of gratitude and atonement to his mother, the final seconds of “Birds & the Bees” appears more awkward upon subsequent listens. With the amount of storytelling and world-building that IDK is able to accomplish narrowly skit-free, another voicemail or two to stitch the two portions of the album together would not have taken anything away from the overall listen.
In the final third, the album truly comes together as IDK raps to and about his mother. “No Shoes On the Rug, Leave Them At the Door” is a master class in manipulating our emotions. As the track cuts off before IDK—rapping from the perspective of his mother—can utter an “I love you,” listeners will feel heavy and hollowing sadness. The repetition of “Who would have thought it would be Julia’s bad son?” on “Black Sheep, White Dove” enhances IDK’s guilt as he attests that his mom is his inspiration and his hope. The final thirty seconds of the track is unfiltered adoration for IDK’s mother before the album proper ends with the same choir that began his exploration.
We always ask artists to be their open and honest selves and throughout IWASVERYBAD‘s 35-minute runtime, IDK checks this box and then some. If IDK lost you in the midst of polishing his potential on his previous release, Empty Bank, IWASVERYBAD should grip you and strap you in for the remainder of his very promising career.
3 Standout Tracks:
“Mrs. Lynch, Your Son Is the Devil”
There would have been no better way to kick off this album than with a potpourri of voicemails from principals, teachers, and law enforcement. They insulate us within the chaos of IDK’s life growing up and foreground the storyline and subject matter for the rest of the album without giving the entire arc away as an exposition dump.
“Pizza Shop Extended”
Bringing together Gleesh, DOOM, and Del, all while writing this track at the level of a major motion picture, deserves its own award. IDK’s verse stands tall next to OGs and his contemporary alike. A video for “Pizza Shop” is on the way, but thanks to an immaculate pen game and a gripping delivery, the visuals construct themselves the moment you press play.
“No Shoes On the Rug, Leave Them At the Door”
Turning something as small as leaving his shoes on the rug as the platform for guilt and redemption is a sign that IDK is a natural-born writer. When the perspectives switch and his mom’s call into the jail is cut off, it’s crushing. But the genius comes when you realize IDK throws us right into the next track on purpose, demonstrating the fleeting and fragile nature of relationships.
Following up on last month’s tripped-out visual for his track “Babywipe,”Ski Mask the Slump God links up with “WeChat” rapper Keith Ape for the official “Achoo!” vignette.
Reconnecting with past, close visual collaborator and renowned director Cole Bennett, Ski Mask joins Keith Ape for a rather unorthodox hospital visit. Matching the record’s vibrant sound, Bennett, Ski Mask and Keith Ape deliver a pretty unique spin on the traditional rap video with today’s drop. Whenever he cooks up something new, the always-creative Ski Mask the Slump God never goes by the books.
You can check out Ski Mask the Slump God and Keith Ape’s “Achoo!” video — co-presented by 88Rising — above. Along with this collaboration, Ski Mask also has plans to drop a new joint project — possibly Timbaland? — in the near future.
Previously, Keith Ape joined forces with Yung Gleesh, Thouxanbanfauni, Moe and AR for the new “Drop” single.
We partnered with Reebok Classics to tell the stories of people who defy classification. This three-part series across GQ, Vogue, and Teen Vogue features creatives who push boundaries in their industries and embody Reebok Classic Leather’s multi-dimensional spirit.
How did Jazz Cartier become the best-dressed rapper you never heard of—yet? Ask his mom, a former personal shopper and an apparent fount of sage life and style advice.
“She was always like, ‘Fuck everybody else,’” the 24-year-old rapper born Jaye Adams recalls, sitting in his Toronto condo on a recent August afternoon. “Carry yourself with confidence. Don’t let anyone try to tell you what you’re wearing isn’t right. Don’t let anybody try to give you side eye for being black and trying to come up. If you feel good doing it, rock with it till the day you die.’”
It’s obvious Jazz Cartier feels good a lot. Peruse his Instagram and you’ll see him making almost anything look good, from streetwear to suits—his day-to-day style is impossible to pin down or classify. He’ll pair Givenchy and Alexander Wang with a white do-rag one day, then make an all-beige outfit from Canada Roots, the up-north version of The Gap, look shockingly non-basic with a pair of Reebok Classic Leathers, the next. He might twist rainbow pipe cleaners into his dreadlocks or boldly sport an elaborate flower crown.
He’s often dressed way, way down, in S.P Badu sweats, Number (Nine) Jeans or Neige hoodies (“they’re just all comfortable pieces, and I love to be comfortable at all times,” he explains), but he can still clean up and outshine bigger-name stars on the red carpet. Like at the iHeartRadio awards in June, where he rocked daringly high-waisted slacks, a shirt unbuttoned nearly to his navel, and his mom as his date (she looked stunning, by the way).
“When it comes to fashion, in Toronto, no one’s really touching me,” he says when asked about his unpredictable style. “Even before the rap shit was popping, I was 19 rolling around the city in a black mink coat, shitting on everybody. I don’t have the energy to get done up all the time, but even on my chill days, I still look like I’m dressed up.”
Jazz is having fewer and fewer chill days. In April, his 2016 mixtape Hotel Paranoia won Rap Recording of the Year at the Junos (Canada’s equivalent of the Grammys), where he made waves with a speech demanding that Canadian radio “stop bullshitting” and start supporting home-grown hip-hop. A few days later, he announced he had signed to Capitol Records. Led by the bouncy single “Tempted,” his upcoming debut album will be titled Fleurever (can you tell he’s really into flowers?).
Like his style, Jazz is making rising rap stardom look effortless, even if it is anything but. He doesn’t have the traditional hip-hop background. His stepfather works for the State Department, which meant Jazz lived all over the globe as a kid, including Kuwait, Barbados, and a boarding school in Connecticut. “We had to wear a suit and tie every day, so I was always trying to find a way to stand out,” he recalls of the latter. “I was like the Fresh Prince at my school, literally.”
Jazz loved rapping but never thought he could succeed—he had a speech impediment. Instead, he worked at a flower shop and considered becoming a lawyer or psychologist, until he made a huge discovery: “When I started rapping, my impediment would go away. The motion, the melody, the flow—it really helped.”
Now Jazz is traveling the world again—on tour, where he’s known for performances that are both exhilarating and terrifying. At almost every show, he climbs the highest thing he can find, whether truck or two-story building, and dives into the crowd. His antics have left him with bruises, cuts, and pulled muscles. But those things can heal—unlike his coveted wardrobe.
“I’ve ripped so many pants on stage; I can’t wear my shirts again because they get soaked and stained with sweat,” he says. “But I’m not worried about my clothes—I’m worried about giving the fans an experience.”
Stylist: Savannah White
Makeup Artist: Allie Smith | Bridge Artist
Hair Stylist: Lizzie Arenson | Bridget Artist
Tailor: Wesley Nault
Higher Brothers Are Rapping Their Way To The Top Of The Chinese Music Scene
words by Emily Hulme
photos by Victor Marvillet
The following feature appears in the September 2017 issue of NYLON Guys.
On the surface, the origin story of rap foursome Higher Brothers sounds rather typical: friends cut a mix tape, start touring, find success. But remove that narrative from the context of Atlanta, Los Angeles, or New York and transplant it into central China, and suddenly it doesn’t feel so familiar. Needless to say, China is not necessarily known as a bastion of free expression, let alone as a hotbed of hip-hop, but Higher Brothers have not let that discourage them. In the past year and a half, the group—made up of Masiwei, DZKnow, Psy.P, and Melo—has released two mixtapes and gone on three countrywide tours. Now they have their sights set globally.
“We wanna go to America, let the world know us,” says Masiwei, in English, via WeChat, China’s all-encompassing social medium. He’s flanked by his bandmates and Lana Larkin, a master’s candidate from U.C. Berkeley who is their translator and longtime friend, as well as an anthropologist. Does your crew roll with an anthropologist? Didn’t think so.
The music of Higher Brothers pulls from a variety of influences: Masiwei cites artists such as 50 Cent, A$AP Rocky, and Migos. Much of the attention they’ve already attracted focuses on their “Chinese trap” style. But there’s definitely a nod to the mid-’90s and early 2000s in their songs like “7-11”—about the convenience store—and “Without You,” both of which feature melodic crooning over loungey loops that are themselves a throwback to ’70s-style R&B and soul.
This pastiche may be a reflection of how each of the guys came to hip-hop in the first place. These days in China, using a VPN to access the outside world via the internet is commonplace, but it wasn’t always easy for them to consume foreign culture. Both DZKnow and Melo, separately, remember that their first time hearing rap music was on CCTV-5, which is China’s national sports television channel. (It’d be akin to having your mind blown by new music on ESPN.) “It was over for me,” recalls Melo of the experience.
You’d be forgiven for being wary of a gimmick. The guys themselves nod to this in one of their latest cuts, “Made in China.” Over the opening pentatonic hook, a female voice asks incredulously in English, “Rap music? China?! What are they even saying? … Sounds like they’re just saying ‘ching, chang, chong.’” (That voice, by the way, is Larkin’s.)
But young China seems to think it’s the real deal. And increasingly, Western outlets are taking notice. “They’re very well-received,” says rapper Bohan Phoenix, a Chinese-born, U.S.-raised friend of the band. “They’re definitely the first native-born, mainland group to break through to the West, and it makes a lot of young Chinese people proud.”
People who’ve worked with Higher Brothers also give them props. Andre Alxndr, a British musician currently working in China, says, “I think that when they make it to the States and people meet them—just other hip-hop guys—they’ll be like, ‘Well, this is actually genuine!’” Alxndr, who produces and performs under the name HARIKIRI, relocated to Higher Brothers’ hometown of Chengdu himself.
The capital city of Sichuan Province, Chengdu is smack in the center of China and, over the past half-decade, has been incubating a surprisingly vital hip-hop scene. Beijing and Shanghai, the country’s capital and cultural center respectively, are traditionally where artists go to pursue careers. But many agree that there’s something about Chengdu that is just more conducive to hip-hop.
Its distance from China’s other megacities may be part of that charm. “Chengdu has had a unique opportunity to find its own flavor, its underground culture cooking up without interruption from authorities or Western influences,” explains Phoenix. The center of the Chengdu scene is the rap crew CDC (also known as the Chengdu Rap House), a collective of the best in local hip-hop talent. This is where the four Higher Brothers met. DZKnow says that he moved from his hometown of Nanjing, on China’s east coast, just to join. “At the time I was a fan of CDC, so I thought Chengdu was a better place for aspiring rappers,” he recalls.
“It’s more of an island mentality,” adds Alxndr, whose family has Jamaican roots. “I feel like the hip-hop that comes out of this city, if it ends up in the hoods, people will fuck with it as well. For sure.” Part of the feeling of authenticity that may resonate with audiences, even if they don’t know it, is the fact that many Chengdu artists—Higher Brothers included—rap in a local dialect which isn’t easily understood even by other Chinese people. Masiwei explains that they were inspired to embrace their local tongue after watching rappers from the Southern U.S. in the Vice documentary “Noisey Atlanta.” “We realized that [using Sichuanese] is an advantage. It’s actually really cool to do it,” he says.
As Masiwei notes, there are a lot of words in Sichuanese that have a sound and flavor that just don’t exist in Mandarin. The tones and the cadence are specific to the area, and they have a certain amount of hometown pride in being able to share that with the world. “Local language is the biggest influence [of Chinese culture on our music],” Melo says.
Each of the individual members of Higher Brothers has been rapping for years. Masiwei says that in high school his mom bought a computer and he would just play around making songs. Similarly, DZKnow started out while holed up at home, recording his own voice over other artists’ beats.
Then there were the public rap battles, which in Chengdu were friendly but competitive. “Only the strong survive,” says Melo, who believes the experience motivated him to hone his skills.
But for Higher Brothers as a unit, things have happened fast.
Less than two years ago, Masiwei, Psy.P, and DZKnow rented an apartment together, and brought in their friend Melo. Masiwei says, “We thought, ‘OK, we could make some songs together, make a mixtape, sell the mixtape, then we’ll be able to live off this money.’” Lo and behold, the plan panned out, and they’ve been selling out clubs all over China ever since. It’s gotten to the point where they can now all devote themselves full-time to Higher Brothers, no shitty day jobs required.
But this doesn’t necessarily mean mega-riches. “The living cost in Chengdu is super low compared to other bigger cities in China,” says Phoenix. “Artists can live here purely off making music and performing, and not have to worry about getting a second job.”
Masiwei and Psy.P have never had other jobs. DZKnow sold insurance for a short while. “I like it, but it’s so boring!” he says in English with a chuckle. And Melo worked at a zoo until this May. “It was fun, but it cost me time to do what I wanted to do, rap, so I quit the job,” he says. He’s reluctant to discuss that job further, but Larkin is more forthcoming: “He wrote a song called ‘Ode to Uber,’” she says, alluding to an incident which saw Melo take some heat from the government for provocative lyrics. “Melo’s dad is actually a government official, so he kind of, like, gave Melo that job.”
This is the reality of being any kind of artist in China. Rock and popular forms of music only found a foothold in China in the late 1980s, and even today, the government regards public expression as dangerous and something to be monitored. “[Making music] is still not what the authorities want people to be doing,” says Jonathan Campbell, author of Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll. “This is not contributing to the economy in the way they conceive [of] contributing to the economy and society.” It’s common even for big festivals to be canceled at the last minute by the authorities, and all artists performing live must submit their lyrics for approval to government officials. Masiwei says that they have to change some of their lyrics when they play out in Chinese clubs.
“Mafan,” Masiwei says, when asked how the group feels about censoring themselves, using a common Chinese phrase that means “bothersome,” but also has the connotation of something “annoying but inevitable.”
Generally, however, life for the Higher Brothers seems pretty normal. The group is praised for their hard work and devotion to their music. They practice, they record, they battle, and they tour. And when there’s some downtime, they hang out.
Melo and Masiwei live with their longtime girlfriends, while DZKnow and Psy.P still live in the group’s recording studio/living space. The tiny bedroom, with two sets of bunk beds, looks more like a large closet by American standards, although this sleeping arrangement would be familiar to anyone who’s lived in a Chinese dorm. “Then we have a cat,” Masiwei says fondly, gesturing to the litter box. The main room is dominated by a giant TV with two PlayStation 4 consoles side by side.
“We don’t really go out to party in Chengdu,” Psy.P says. “We just kind of stay at the studio and play games and stuff.” On the road, they can be a little more wild. But just a little. Outside of China’s first-tier cities, it can be hard to find something that to Westerners would be recognizable as “nightlife.” “I’ve been going on tour with them, too,” Larkin says, “and [sometimes] you show up at the bar and there’s nobody there on, like, a Friday or Saturday night. So you stay 10 minutes and you have one drink and you leave.”
Instead, a “crazy night” on tour might be something elemental, such as at a July show in Changsha, where three people ended up fainting from the heat. Or you have instances of petty theft, like in Shanghai, when a fan stole Masiwei’s headband as he was crowd surfing. “The tour manager got super pissed,” Larkin says, “[and] was yelling at the audience.” Alas, the headband was never returned.
For those who are wondering, Higher Brothers is absolutely not a weed reference. “No!” says Masiwei immediately when asked. When pressed, Larkin adds, “In China, that’s like…not OK.” Instead, it’s a play on the national Chinese electronics brand Haier, whose success the guys wish to emulate. It was a happy coincidence that Haier is a homophone for “higher,” which they’ve taken to mean improving and succeeding. “Go higher and higher,” says Melo when asked about his plans for the future. “Which means getting closer to my goals. I think my perfect song is always the next song.”