Duckwrth Finds His Groove in the Margins

Duckwrth Finds His Groove in the Margins

It takes a long time before Duckwrth and I are able to get back on track. Nearly an hour has passed since we ordered our food and all that sits between us is empty glasses and an appetizer as he explains the concept of galaxies colliding. Incoming patrons and waitstaff alike pause before approaching; even if you don't recognize him, he has an aura that makes you second-guess.

The Los Angeles-based musician, whose real name is Jared Lee, passes through the New York City streets with silent confidence, quick to flash a smile nestled underneath his coiled beard. Moments after our chat, he took to the legendary stage at Webster Hall. It was like a switch went off. Underneath the soft stage lights, Lee transforms into a boisterous, magnetic performer.

Every hip movement and toe tap earns raging applause as he navigates choreography with ease, still leaving room for spontaneity. Not quite like a boyband member or a rage rapper but a secret third thing. Maybe that third thing is just who he is.

Over the past year, a coveted Billie Eilish cosign (which landed him a spot opening for her on her most recent tour) has dubbed Lee a "rising star." His story begins much earlier: a decade ago, to be exact, when his humble debut DUCKTAPE dropped on Bandcamp. Dizzying electronic beats and crashing instrumentation collapse around his calm and calculated raps, reminiscent of Kid Cudi, Lupe Fiasco and Vic Mensa. Much like all those artists, Lee saw hip-hop as a blank canvas meant to be ripped, rearranged and reinterpreted.

The Lee that sat before me still possessed the same drive and spark of his early rap days, now armed with an arsenal of experience and excitement as he seeks to satisfy his hunger to outdo himself. His latest offering, Chrome Bull, is a dazzling contender for some of his best work. Lee croons and commands over body-rumbling house beats and jittery drum and bass production. Most notably, he has transformed into something of an underground sex symbol, a form he fills fully onstage and throughout his latest project. On the knee-buckling single "Ce Soir" featuring The Internet's Syd, for example, he creates a blush-inducing funky dance number with lyrics waxing on the temptation of passing glances and overwhelming desire. Whether bragging about money on "Power" or embracing a slick-talking cockiness on "Super Saiyan," Lee's expanded sonic palette still leaves lots of room for his hip-hop roots, which are, as always, wrapped up in his hypnotizing aura.

As he embarks on a UK/EU tour this month, Duckwrth is ready to bring his infectious groove to new soil. Ahead of his NYC show, he chatted with PAPER about labels, survival and what makes him tick.

Chrome Bull is stunning, but it got pushed back! Why?

There's one song that I worked on and it's like the perfect intro to the album, to my tour, for everything! I've rewritten it eight times. It's delayed my process and everything.

Is that the whole reason why it was delayed? Because of that one song?

One song! One song! Rest is done. Been done! One song delayed the whole thing. I make music that I want to listen to.

I normally hear from people that they avoid listening to it after it gets released.

When it gets to that point, I don't know, maybe because it's no longer “mine” or maybe I've also heard it from mixing and mastering. I think when it's in the mixing and mastering process, it becomes a job because you have to stay on top of it as far as timing goes. You have to send notes. You have to really examine, listen and pick apart, you know, and then it goes to mastering. And I'm also disgustingly critical, so I will do like 20 mixes.

You’re your own biggest critic. Do you self-produce?

I can, but I like working with other musicians. For me, I'm literally in the studio at three in the morning. I'm still up at five in the morning listening to the song because I love it so much. If I don't do that, then it's just not worth it. It's not hitting.

It’s always what you least expect to pop off that ends up popping off. You'd better release what you like because you’ll have to tour it, sing it every day, all that.

I'm not going to release something I don't like. My most commercially successful songs are my most commercial songs. I have a song called "Crush," and "Crush" is super crossover. And then I have a song called "Kiss U Right Now." It's like an R&B song. I'm not even an R&B person! I just casually did this sorta R&B song and it took the fuck off. I love it. I feel like that's sexy, but I'm a rager, so the fact that my R&B song went off is funny.

A lot of people still consider you to be a rapper, when I can clearly see you’re doing so much more.

It sounds awkward. I don't even really be rapping that much!

Even online, people still dub you as a rapper and I'm like, "Are we listening to the same thing?"

Maybe because of my roots, I was rapping more. I was doing hip-hop. I'm singing way more.

I don't even know how to explain it — it's singing but it's like talking.

Crooning? Yeah, I like that!

I love Channel Tres, for example.

That's my cousin!

Is he your actual cousin?

He produced one of my main albums. He produced I'M UUGLY from 2015.

Lots of people call him a rapper, but I feel like he’s more than that.

It's just vibes! He's an extraordinary producer, and, being a producer, you know how to “dress” your production, you know? For him, he's so great at knowing how to dress house music. It's just the minimalism! He has a couple of statements, couple quotes, and he does it in that format. He arranges in such a beautiful way.

You have a lovely through-line of house, funk and disco in your music.

Yeah, I mean, as far as Chrome Bull, it's definitely more house, drum and bass, soul, dance, UK garage, but I'm leaning more into it because I started off like that with "MICHUUL." and "I'M DEAD." I feel like "I'M DEAD" is total dance-rap, and I've veered away from it for that long. I don't know why.

It’s a natural progression to move forward and then look back and take stuff with you to experiment with once again.

I took everything I learned from then and I'm bringing it back here. I'm grateful for the process, but it kind of makes it confusing. They call me an amorphous artist, which is, it's casual, I guess. But, they treat you badly if you don't stay in one place or if you don't have the same story the whole way through. There's so many artists.

People love to put labels on others. It’s human nature. But when you venture out of it and they get mad, it’s like, you didn't ask to be put in one!

In the first fucking place! Period! For me, I just do what feels good, do what feels right. If making this type of record feels good or if I want to make a dance record, if I want to make an R&B record, if I want to make a fucking trap record, if I wanted to make a heavy metal record, I do it.

I just do what feels right. You shouldn't be prosecuted, especially because it's still in the realm of art, and art is so vast. It's like, "Why are you trying to box me in? Why are you making it like, 'Oh, you're not boxing yourself in so we're not gonna include you in this playlist?'” You will have a song that is a pure dance record or an R&B record, but because the rest of your discography doesn't match that, they wouldn't include you in the playlist. That's so fucking weird.

We're talking about human behavior at this point. We're talking about understanding the minds of humans in today's society. It is very much like, "I need to box you in. I need to categorize you for my own comfort." We never knew if Prince was gay or not. He said, "I'm not a woman. I'm not a man. I'm something you'd never understand." Nobody could figure out what sexuality he was, but that was the best thing about it. There's so many things about Prince that was so mysterious, but that created lore. It's like, what in the entire fuck?

Here at PAPER, we had to publish a million articles addressing accusations that Harry Styles is “queerbaiting” when, to me, it just looks like he’s embracing his feminine side. What does looking or acting gay even mean?

Humans don't know what the fuck they want. They just go with what's popping and what's trending. They go with the algorithm. If everybody says this, and they're just like, "I don't want to be against that. I don't want to be canceled. I don't want to be not a part of the marching band, so I'm just gonna grab my drum and I'm just gonna march with everyone else." Have your own fucking opinion. For Harry Styles, yes, dress how the fuck you want to dress. If it's queer-leaning, who gives a fuck? I wear heels all the time, not like stilettos but I wear shoes that have a nice heel to them. I don't think that's reflective of my sexuality. I just want to fucking wear heels. Leave me the fuck alone.

I was googling your name and one of the recommended results asked if you were gay.

I guess people speculate. I like that people don't know my sexuality. I mean, I say “she” in my music a lot, so people can go by that. But then, maybe because of the way I dress, they think it's something else. I just think it's really backwards. Everybody's pushing to be progressive, but we're still trying to capture people's sexuality based upon their garments. Quit being weird. At the end of the day, who gives a fuck who I'm fucking? What does that matter? How does that affect your experience with my music? Weird.

You like that ambiguity?

Yeah, exactly. It's a sign of the times. It's gonna balance out. It's gonna equal out. Right now, our generation is very responsive to the immense amount of fuckery that this society has allowed, so I get that completely. I totally understand from a reactionary standpoint, but it has to be a moment where we figure this shit out and not be as sensitive and allow people — it needs to be conversations. You're not going to ever have a good conversation and the person's never going to understand you if you're screaming at them. Allow a person to have a space to speak. You don't say anything. Let's not be each other's enemies. Let's have a conversation.

Social media expedited the process so there’s less nuance.

Very much so, very much so. What's getting reacted to? I feel like we're bouncing. It's still so new. It took so much time for anything to be manufactured. If a person is a celebrity and has something to say or has a certain opinion, you would either hear it in an interview, in a magazine, or on the album, and that will take how long? But like you said, they can just tweet it.

Before, everything was filtered through the media. Now, you can just go right online and say whatever you want.

People don't know what real looks like, man.

And everything at the end of the day is still fake in some way.

What does “real” look like? Feet in the soil? It's about what we want people to see. It's very stimulating. Even just us as humans and how we are in society, our most natural form is the soil. Imagine how many peoples' feet actually touch soil or don't touch soil in years. Even if they're in nature, a lot of people will not take their shoes off. No shade or nothing like that, but that is our most natural form, and we just kind of create our realities in these certain simulations and shit. I don't think people really understand what “real” really looks like. I love both sides. I know when I need to log out for my sanity. I'm feet to soil for sure. Not everybody operates in that way, but that's what it is for me.

So your mother recently saw you perform for the first time?

During the Billie Eilish tour.

Was she shocked?

She was more so like, just astonished. She couldn't believe that was me, little Jared. I was giving big Jared, I guess. [Laughs] I'm trying to explain it from a perspective that I don't have, but I guess it maybe was a bit surreal or just a bit of like, "Damn." Maybe from her standpoint, she birthed me, so she now saw me as this organism evolving to grow into this person.

So often, we forget our parents are people. Same way we forget our teachers have lives when we see them outside of school. Sometimes we forget our parents probably experience that with us as well.

It's wild, very wild. I can only imagine what it feels like as a parent or as a mother. What's so crazy is that it's so natural. When you become pregnant, you don't think about like, "Okay, today, I'm gonna give my baby this and that and that in order to grow,” and stuff like that. It's just all in there.

Why did it take her so long to see you perform?

She's a Pentecostal Christian and I make secular music.

Did you grow up religious?

My whole upbringing was a Christian household, Christian environment, Christian music, Christian everything. To veer that far away from religion and be most of the things that religion says not to, you don't want to make your parents feel they failed you or feel they didn't raise you right. I didn't want her to feel that way, so I just kind of kept her distant from what I did. I'll tell her like, "Oh, I'm about to go on tour. I'm doing this. I'm doing that," but I'm not sending her music videos. I'm not sending her music.

From not seeing it for so long and then to see me performing this music in front of like, 17 to 20,000 people and seeing these people respond to me? I was like, "I gotta do it. I gotta do it." Also her husband, my stepfather, he's very adamant about keeping up with what I'm doing. He would know. Also, it was advertised in my auntie’s neighborhood because it's at the Great Western Forum, or just The Forum now. They had the advertisement. It said “Billie Eilish” and under it, it said “Duckwrth.” My godmother saw it, and she was just like, "I'm pretty sure I just saw his name on the billboard. I'm pretty sure he's performing in April." She told my mom.

Did your mother tell you she was going or did she just pull up?

My mom told my manager, and my manager wasn't supposed to tell me that my mom was coming, but also it was close to my mom's birthday. That was the first time she'd ever seen me perform, so in the middle of the show, I shouted her out. But it totally ruined the surprise.

So tell me about your upbringing a bit more. I’m guessing you were in a predominantly Black and Brown neighborhood.

South Central. Inglewood. So, it was only Black and Brown, that's it.

Growing up around people who look like you, it’s easy to sometimes not be aware of who you are or how you’re perceived until you leave that area.

When you’re Black, growing up in South Central, you get reminded all the time that you're Black. All the time. They remind you really quick. My mom and I would go to The Grove when I was younger. That's a very little ritzy walking thing that we have, like a plaza. It's a lot of great brands. They have a movie theater, a Cheesecake Factory. It's really beautiful actually. I love going there. In those environments, or any environment that was more north of South Central where it was predominantly white people, you would just get a different talking to, and it's gotten better. In the '90s, it was different, but it's gotten much better. Now, the only time I really experience it is if I'm in a high-end boutique. They hit me with a certain tone. They don't know that I can really buy this whole store up.

It's that annoying sneaky rack-sorting they love to do where they’re clearly staring at you.

[Laughs] Yeah. We still here. It comes with the climate. The biggest stress that we had was gangs or police, which is another gang, so it was all gangs. Keep your ass cheeks clenched, be fucking nervous for life. In LA, you get pressed in a place you wouldn't think you'd get pressed at, like Hollywood on the strip. I've seen so many people get pressed because it's a lot of Bloods that hang out.

Even with Nipsey, I forget that was in Los Angeles.

There's the LA that everybody knows, and then there's the hood. That's 60s. If you were from South Central, they'll tell you where they’re from by what gangs are in the area. I was raised on 96th and Hobart, so it's like, "I was raised in the 90s," because that's the 90s street. If somebody's off of 59th, or 63rd, they'd be like, "I'm in the 60s." That's 60s Crip, that's 30s Crip, that's 40s Crip. They'll let you know. It's all gangs.

It's somewhat chilled out. You don't get pressed as hard as you used to. Nipsey, that's the 60s. That block is so hot, but it's gotten better. People went to the Marathon store all the time before he got killed and everything, but you go there knowing that this is 60s. It's also Crenshaw Mafia, so it's Crips and Bloods. It's always something.

You were asked in an interview about if you’ll ever include lyrics about Black Lives Matter in your music and you said you didn’t want to remind people of that stuff. Did you feel pressured to incorporate that into your music because you’re Black?

To tell you the truth, I have my blinders on a lot when it comes to social media. If they were calling me out, I probably didn't see it. I don't care as much. I'd rather be educated on something and be well-versed than be pressured to be an overnight activist, misquote, look stupid and then lead people in the wrong direction.

Social media has made it so that everyone feels like they need to include their thoughts, and it’s a double-edged sword. Not everything needs to be commented on.

If you're going to spread this message, they want to get the people who have the most social impact and have the most followers. Usually, that's musicians, influencers, blah blah, blah. I understand that but, also you got to be careful. Who's saying this?

Just because you have a lot of followers doesn't mean you should.

Exactly. Not everybody is an activist. If you have an opinion, cool. That's great that you have an opinion, but not everybody is supposed to be Martin Luther King out here. That's not it.

Do you manage your social media or have burner accounts to post whatever you want?

I got my close friends. Mainly, it's TikTok at the moment. It's an addiction, man. You can literally just swipe. Instagram is changing their format to be more like TikTok. I've always believed in the Matrix [laughs]. I really believe in the Matrix. We already lived a meta life before Meta was even introduced because we live these identities on social media. Like you said, you don't post everything. You don't post your ugly. You post what you want to show people. In this existence that you have, it communicates all these different things. The internet is not real. If all electricity goes out and there is no internet, this whole life is gone.

It's like what Tyler the Creator said: "Just walk away from the screen."

It's meta, but we're just going further and deeper into that stuff. To tell you the truth, I got really anxious when I was told to post on TikTok. I can't neglect that thought process. For example, if there was AI that would have come from all this, it would be accumulating all these social media posts together and learning from it. We put so many of our emotions, thoughts, feelings, ideas, constant theories, human behavior, everything on the internet. All it has to do is download and be like, "This is the current human," and imitate it.

I went viral once and it was terrifying, because I felt like I lost control of how people see me. Do you feel like that?

It's wild. But also, there's a certain freedom in that sense. You can't control how people see you, but it's your mind that's creating this false connection with people that you can't even fathom seeing them. It creates this whole, "Oh my god, what are they thinking about me? How are they feeling about this or that?" These are things that we're creating in our mind. Even fear, it's totally imagination. It doesn't exist. We're creating these scenarios in our mind and anxiety and everything, but it doesn't exist. It's purely survival. Our bodies, our minds are trying to do everything to survive.

Speaking of survival, we talked about global warming before I started recording. We talked a lot about teaching people survival skills.

Yes! I wish there was more classes, especially in high school, on survival. It's not enough! There's a lot of things that need to be taken into account like teaching kids how to have the tools to deal with your emotions.

I feel like we're in a place now where we're ready to evolve. The whole school system is just so weird. I'm surprised we've gotten this far because everything is demanding of change, from the school systems to drilling into the ocean for oil and how that's affecting our whole fucking Earth right now. I'm surprised we're not making more drastic changes. I don't know what happens. It's sad if it gets to that point, but humans are like little kids, and they don't really move if something's in danger. I know for myself, I don't make certain changes unless my whole livelihood is at risk, and then I make the change. It's sad that it has to get to that.

What is your biggest fear? It could be as irrational or as existential as you want it to be.

I have two. One: being alone. Not finding somebody to share my life with and share these moments with. That's so important. I think how we're designed as a species is we’re meant to connect. We're literally meant to connect. It'd be a torturous life to not have somebody. It's very scary. Now, I know there's somebody out there in essence, but, in the back of my mind — I'm pretty sure it's not gonna happen — is, "Damn, what if I don't find somebody?" It's the funniest shit.

And then two: not being able to create my highest potential. I've only scratched the surface with my capabilities and what I can create. There's so many new innovations, so many new ways of manufacturing, and, as a society, we've only scratched the surface. If I pass away today, I feel like I've done a lot of great stuff, but my drive in creating lies in my curiosity of what hasn't been made. My greatest song is a song I haven't made yet, and I want to make it.

We only know as much as what exists right now, which is kind of crazy to think about. Literally every single moment, everything's already in the past. It's crazy to think about.

[Laughs] It's beautiful though. We're always veering toward the future. It can be amazing, the whole construct of time and everything.

Time! It’s a social construct. Daylight Saving Time is a scam.

[Laughs] That shit is wild as fuck. All this stuff like time, religion, all these things, man, it's just to keep people in order because we're animals.

Filthy animals.

[Laughs] In a sense. If you watch how an animal operates, it's very basic, very, very basic. We add so much. We are cognitive beings, so we can do much more than animals in that sense. But, once again, if you go back to what is real, feet to the soil, it's very simple. It's very simple. We just add all these things to it. That's what civilization was. Going from tribes to civilization, it was very much shaming tribes in that way. We wear our napkins on our laps and we wear clothes.

And in fashion, a lot of these rules are arbitrary.

And not even knowing where it came from in the first place! But it's usually the people who don't give a fuck. It's so crazy how much we will shame our next Alexander McQueen out of being Alexander McQueen, in that sense, because we're like, "No, you're not following the rules. You can't do that because this whole structure has been built this way," and they will be the ones that will innovate and bring a whole new look, feel and everything into fashion. It's weird, but it's beautiful because I always love that. I always love seeing the underdog or the person who didn't give a fuck come in and rip it all apart.

I know you are working on a fashion brand. What is next for you?

What hasn't been discovered. Right now, within my music, I'm looking to make a new genre not from a superficial level. Because of social networks, because of DSPs, we listen to the same things. We digest the same things and regurgitate the same things. I really want to dive into the deepest parts of myself. I want to go as far away from everything as possible.

Test your own limits?

Mostly just break myself down to my most minimal form and then take the essential pieces and build from there. Get rid of all the blood. Let's just get down to the bones that hold up the structure.

It must be difficult, especially since I feel like I’d subconsciously make something sound like something else. There are only so many combinations.

That would happen a lot in music. Just making music, you end up doing a melody that you didn't even realize is fucking Beyoncé. It's in your subconscious, and it will come out.

On the flipside, Black music is so self-referential, and you do a fantastic job.

It's amazing. I love it. That's why Black people have gotten so far. It went from just being motherfuckers taking a funk record and looping [it] and people rapping out of the Bronx and then — to be a billion-dollar empire? It's beautiful to see it grow. Even within that, it's just what's natural. Hip-hop just wants to take everything that's been around it and then bring it to the surface and mold it and form it into something new and expanded. For so long, hip-hop has been a very hetero, masculine art form. At the same time, in Louisiana, you have bounce music, where the MCs were queer. Being queer has been a part of hip-hop for so long. Now, hip-hop has to look within itself and expand itself, inevitably.

Photos courtesy of Duckwrth