Picking a single starting point to introduce Duckwrth is an undeniable challenge. Does one begin with his music career that is actively redefining common conceptions of hip-hop, his fashion that is reshaping gender norms, or his surprisingly vast depth of knowledge surrounding Japanese animation? Wherever one may choose to start, Duckwrth is an indisputable talent emanating the ability and vision to rise to the upper echelons of the hip-hop world.
Jared Lee, the man behind Duckwrth, grew up in South Central where he would inevitably find himself enmeshed in the world of hip-hop, despite his parents’ best efforts, but hey, if it’s to be then it’s meant to be. Since, then Duckwrth has steadily been making waves with his flamboyant fashion sense and funk-filled, impossible to resist hip-hop tracks of which he’s coined “funk wave.”
Recently, Duckwrth has taken the hard-to-perfectly-define sound present on his last album I’M UUGLY and his upcoming one, XTRA UUGLY, on the road. On the way, we were lucky enough to catch up with the renaissance man himself for a quick and particularly enlightening chat.
OTW: Growing up as a self-proclaimed grand-pastor’s kid, how did the transition come about to producing music, and particularly hip hop?
Duckwrth: Music just runs in my family. Hip-hop is just an environment, you know? I was raised in South Central, so all you mainly heard was hip-hop or soul… R&B. It kind of just was like a language understood. And when I wanted to speak a similar language, it just kind of worked.
And it was also my way of protecting myself in high school, because I didn’t exactly fit in, but I was for some reason good at freestyling.
So i would find my niche within like, battling people and everything. It was fun.
OTW: We did a little bit of stalking and found out that your favorite anime is Fooly Cooly? What about it makes you like it so much?
Duckwrth: I like it; it’s a very coming-of-age, done in a very anime style and it’s perverted in times, too. Very anime style. But it’s like, unlocking this kid’s potential. He got knocked in the head by an alien girl with a guitar, and he grew a robot out of his head, and it just comes out at random moments and stuff. It’s a real coming-of-age, and I love coming-of-age type stuff. But the whole animation is super exaggerated and in a perspective super deep and crazy. I love that type of shit. My favorite anime of all time is Akira, though. Akira is a movie, it came out in 1988, it’s about these bikers – these rebel bikers that battle against other biker crews in Neo Tokyo, like postwar Tokyo. And then this one biker runs into this kid who’s like, a God kid. And he crashes into him, and the bike explodes, and he gains the kid’s powers – but it becomes too overwhelming for him, so he becomes a god himself. But he can’t control it, so his body starts mutating. And his other homie, his best friend, has to fight and kill him and shit. It’s intense.
OTW: Wow, very intricate stories! Cool. So, how does your graphic design influence your music or vice versa?
Duckwrth: It’s this other language that makes sense to me. You know, you can see in color, you see in characters. So when I hear a certain song that I create, I’m like, “Okay, this could work well in this type of film, or this type of character” – or even playing characters within the music. So it’s already a movie within itself, it’s just… no visuals. So you try your best to make the visuals within the audio. So, actually having that in a form that people can observe–besides me just talking about it and hoping people connect to it–you can make the visual side of it. And I love Gorillaz, especially while I was growing up. So they really pushed me to bring the whole graphic side into it. It’s important.
OTW: What would you say your general aesthetic is in terms of design?
Duckwrth: It’s everywhere. I like minimalism but then sometimes I like–not gaudiness, but just like, just too much. It just depends, you know? For me, it’s more about hierarchy. Like, knowing where to place something, and just finding that balance. Like, if something’s too heavy on this side, I’m gonna find something that balances it, you know? But do it still in my own weird way. But balance, I would say, is the most important thing. More so, organized distortion. Yeah, that feels…. kind of cool to say.
OTW: So, from singing, rapping, graphic design, dropping your own fashion line… obviously doing a lot, where do you pull the energy/inspiration for all these things?
Duckwrth: The hunt for the next, and the hunt for better and greater. Every show, I’m hunting to have a better show.
Every product and every design has to be better than the last. Just battling myself and seeing, what is the unlocked potential? And how do I get to unlocking it?
It’s a satisfaction, but it’s also a dissatisfaction, and that’s what kind of keeps me going. It’s just like, fuck! I know I can go harder than this! So, that and then also…. it’s like being a living example, you know? For me, I come from South Central, so I want the kids that come from my same area to know… you don’t have to choose to do the gang thing. Or, you don’t have to choose to be misogynistic –just like, doing all the shit that’s “cool”–the norm. Or what’s based upon how society’s trying to rope you down and shit. I feel like all the worst situations are in the hood, you know? I lived in South Central for a good amount of my life, and the only thing that was close was a McDonald’s, a soul food spot, and a liquor store. And a Ralph’s, which was 10 blocks away. And Ralph’s is shitty as fuck! It’s so much GMO! And it’s the hood; you’re gonna get all the crud. They don’t care, they don’t make the effort, to have nutritional value there. So I’m just pushing a lot of this to take it back and be like, you can do it too, you know?
OTW: So have you gone back there?
Duckwrth: Oh, fuck yeah. Right now I’m staying with my family over there, until I move into this next spot. So I’m in there right now again. After all this is said and done, I’m going back to South Central, where I got to look over my shoulder every moment because there are still drive-bys.
OTW: Do you tone down your style when you go there so you don’t stand out?
Duckwrth: I have to. It’s not so much in fear but more so… there’s just no reason to flex. Not that this is flexin’, but… I peacock, you know? There’s no need. You’re walking down the street.
Photo: Asato Iida
OTW: So about your fashion line – you were saying it’s very gender neutral, which is awesome. How did you land on that particular style?
Duckwrth: I shop in the female section a lot. I don’t want to feel uncomfortable shopping in the female section anymore. I just wanted to be like, “Why can’t you just do both? Why does this have to be pink Vans for the girls and blue Vans for the guys?” I mean, they have that now, of course, but still…stop separating it, dude! Just let it be! There are times where a guy wants to wear that version, or a female wants to wear that version, you know? And I guess, too, with dudes it’s kind of harder because like, there’s a boyfriend jean for women, but there’s not like, a girlfriend jean for dudes. So it’s being able to give that safe space to the dudes and be like, Yo, it’s cool, you can pretty much wear whatever.
OTW: Is it relating to sexual orientation at all?
Duckwrth: No. It’s not a sexual thing. It’s literally just, what makes you feel good, what makes you feel comfortable, you know? And being able to kind of expand. It’s not based upon anything sexual. Some people may even take it that way. Like my other friend, she dates this girl that’s transitioning into a guy, and she’s like, “I listened to your song and now I’m definitely gonna do it.” And I was like, “Yeah, that’s dope, I’m glad that that empowered you!” But like, it’s not really about that.
It’s literally just being comfortable to express yourself however you want to. But it’s not specific to sexual orientation.
OTW: So, did you pull anything from living in South Central versus San Francisco? Do you think that all comes in with your music?
Duckwrth: Oh yeah.
South Central gave me a backbone, and New York thickened that backbone. But San Francisco just gave me my ways, man. It helped me vibrate. It gave me colors and textures and stuff like that.
OTW: You’ve lived in the best cities!
Duckwrth: Exactly. I try to hit the most essential ones. San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles.
OTW: So, your last project was I’M UUGLY, and then your upcoming one is XTRA UUGLY. Why “ugly?”
Duckwrth: I always get that question, that’s so funny. I love it. And I made it like that too, because it’s a very trolling generation. I guess it’s funny – it’s a joke! It’s just an ongoing chuckle, pretty much. It’s moreso a feeling that you get when you’re listening to a song, and it makes your face frown up. I feel like that usually comes with funky shit, you know? And for me, I call my genre funk-wave, so I always make people want to be like, “Oh, shit!” So it’s just like, “I’m ugly,” you know?
OTW: Amazing. Do you have any idea of an ultimate goal for Duckwrth? What’s your definition of success for the project?
My version of success is peace of mind, and the feeling that I contributed something to society –or to humanity–that challenges, that helps people grow, that destroys and creates, you know? And the destruction is important. Because sometimes you have to destroy the fungus in order to make room for more artists.
I’ve really been inspired by Elon Musk, but I’m scared of him too. Because he’s really pushing for electric over gas and fuel, but also I was scared of my car getting hacked! And then spending so much time submerging yourself in LCD and technology, it kind of creates a separation of humans. I never dealt with anxiety before I had a smartphone and now it’s like, everyone’s depressed. It wasn’t like this before. And everything’s accessible now, you know? The world is accessible now. So why is depression on the rise? I’m not blaming it all on smartphones, but I do feel like the lack of being a human is weird. I just feel like that’s not the best for the human experience. Especially being on Earth. I don’t live on a ship, I live on ground.
OTW: So how do we advance without getting sucked into technology?
Duckwrth: I mean, hopeful wishing. I would hope that we wouldn't… I don’t know. Just with the way things are going, it’s kind of inevitable in certain ways. They want cyborgs and shit – that’s weird to me. I get it of course; I was listening to this TED Talk the other day It was talking about stem cells, about taking your stem cell and cloning it. So, if you need a piece of your heart, or even the full heart, they would take a stem cell from your heart and put it in an incubator, and grow it for an amount of time, and then they replant it back into your body later on. And I don’t imagine a heart takes a week or two to grow and shit. And that’s interesting, I’m still fascinated by that. But then, that versus having a robotic heart? I don’t know, it’s interesting. I know some people will use that for other shit. Like, you may not need a new arm, but a motherfucker may wanna like, flex and have a super arm!
Anyway, I don’t know. I guess for me the whole thing is just… In biblical terms, the whole Adam and Eve thing? I feel like it was a parable for greed, because they had everything they needed, and the whole crux was don’t eat from this tree, and they ate from that tree! So, I feel greed is the issue. Being able to have access to so much – how do you not have more than what you need, in a certain sense? And I really like the whole minimalism movement that’s happening. It’s pretty much putting focus in on only having what you need, not so much what you want. And being okay with that, not feeling like you need to have so much more. So I feel like, re-training yourself, re-conditioning yourself… with technology, it makes things a little bit too easy and too accessible, and it’s just making this whole separation of humanity. So I guess that’s my main concern. But there is a way to balance it of course, and that’s living within your means, you know? And not feeling like you need to have more, you know?
And also… I don’t know, visit the fuckin’ woods every once in a damn while! You know, hug a tree! Buy a plant!
OTW: Any favorite camping spots or cool hideaways you have?
Duckwrth: San Francisco. I just go to San Francisco and just run around. That’s my hideaway. I don’t know if there’s anything in LA, really, but I just love LA in general. But yeah, San Francisco for sure.
OTW: And finally, what up and coming artists are you excited about?
Duckwrth: Charlotte Dos Santos. She’s amazing, her music can be very whimsical and very soulful and beautiful. I love it. And Ty Segall. Ty Segall’s a fuckin’ rockstar. And the White Reaper! More like, classic rock. I mean, shit, Tame Impala too. Everybody knows Tame, man. And Raury. I feel like Raury is super heavy and he makes really great music. The first song he came out with ended up in a film, in the end credits. And I just feel like that was a really amazing song, and then everything he’s made after that has also been really amazing.
I feel like this generation is so heavy-trapped out. Even Frank, with Blonde… I feel like people love Blonde, but it’s a certain demographic that really fucked with Blonde. I feel like Blonde was a worldwide type of situation, but the fact that he was using ballads and stripped-down percussion – he was only using maybe like, a guitar riff and then a kick? And it wasn’t Channel Orange, but it was a ballad and it was fucking beautiful, you know? And maybe it’s just re-adjusting people’s ear. He does that in the same way as Raury; it’s not super turned up, it’s folk and it’s beautiful. And I feel like there should be a space for shit like that.
OTW: The simplest things are the most powerful.
Duckwrth: They’re amazing, yo! I’ve never felt any way like how I felt after Frank Ocean’s show.
OTW: Were you at FYF?
Duckwrth: Yeah. And we were stuck. We just sat there after the show like, “What are we gonna do now? We’re fully fucked up, emotionally.” Like, my emotions were all over the place. It was exceptional. And it had to do of course with the visuals too.