Do you remember Biker Mice From Mars? Don’t worry if you don’t, because JPEGMAFIA has the perfect description the early ‘90s cartoon.
“It’s just like, why the fuck are them n—as on bikes?” he says. “Why are they a bike gang? Why are they rats? Like, they could’ve just been men. Low-key, I don’t know, but yeah, I used to watch shit like that, you know? I did not have a normal childhood.”
JPEGMAFIA’s music, like the concept Biker Mice From Mars, shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. During a song, he’ll crash an Ol’ Dirty Bastard sample against an irreverent punchline like “I raise the K like a kid, AR built like Lena Dunham,” and ends it with an outro what sounds like a kid innocently reciting “I’m a real n—a.” In a world that feels like perpetual armageddon, the rapper who likes to go by Peggy makes fittingly apocalyptic music.
At the age 28, Peggy still speaks with the exuberance early childhood, but retains the wisdom someone twice his age. Over the course an hour, he’ll get equally excited to hear the Billboard fice is across the street from a Chick-fil-A as he does when he exclaims, “Is that Daughtry?” It was, in fact, Daughtry, who was performing for a group journalists. As he stood there soaking in the moment a wildly different musician performing for onlookers, it became clear that JPEGMAFIA is a national treasure and should be treated as such.
It wasn’t always like this. Peggy’s breakthrough moment was Veteran. Chaotic, insightful and brilliant, the 19-song album finds the Air Force veteran throwing barbs at the alt-right one minute and setting his sights on neo-liberals the next. In between those moments, pop-culture references to video games like Conker’s Bad Fur Day and Golden Eye or comic book characters like Peter Parker and Rick Grimes abound. Veteran is a paradox. How can an album so indebted to the internet, simultaneously sound like it’s breaking from its confines?
Sitting with a bag skittles in one hand, JPEGMAFIA sat down with Billboard to discuss his latest album, the pop culture references that weave throughout his art, why he keeps dissing Drake, and why white people still think he’s racist for using the word “cracker” in his music.
What’s the meaning behind Veteran? There seems like there’s a double meaning with the music and actually being a veteran.
There’s a lot us who have been making beats and making music for a long time and never gotten recognition for it, even when we were doing it for a long time. I been making music since I was 14 years old. I’m 28. So in my eyes, even though people have just really been introduced to me this year, I been grinding since then and I’ve really genuinely been trying since at least I was 18.
So for me, I’m a veteran making music. Like I’ve been making music for a long fucking time. The way I make music, I know what I’m doing, because I been doing this for so long. This is the only thing I’m good at. So I’m a veteran in that sense and I’m literally like a United States veteran.
On “1539 N. Calvert,” you rap, “Fuck a blog, fuck a fan, hope my record get panned.” The blogs love you now, fans adore you, and you’re what they’d call a critical darling. Did you ever think Veteran would be such a breakout moment when you wrote that line?
If you see the way I had to adjust my life, because Veteran actually doing something, becoming like somewhat successful, it’s like I didn’t plan for this at all. Even when I wrote that song, I wrote that song very long ago and it was just like that’s where my head was at the time. “I was just like I’m never gonna make it. I don’t care. No one’s gonna hear this.” Like I was making music under the guise no one’s going to hear this, so I’m just gonna spill it all out.
You start f Black Ben Carson and Veteran with homages to Drake — “Drake Era” and then you had lyrics like “I need all my bitches same color as Drake” — I feel like you either really like Drake or just hate him? I don’t know which.
Laughs] You know what? Where the Playstation trophy at? This n—a need a Playstation trophy on lock. He the first person to ever finally notice that.
Yeah, I been randomly dissing Drake for like five years. I don’t know why. I guess, because Drake, it’s kinda you know what? I thought before, I don’t actually have a problem with Drake. I really don’t hate him. I guess it’s my fucked up, trolly internet way paying homage to him and just paying homage to how big he actually is. He’s so big that yeah I have been dissing him for five years, just because like he’s big as fuck. He’s like the Omni-king or some shit like that. He’s just like ever-present. So much so that every single person has an opinion on Scorpion whether it’s like bad or good. I was like talking to fucking Flume and he has an opinion. Like why is Flume even listening to this?
I’m fascinated about what your childhood was like. You have punchlines referencing Looney Tunes, Goy Troop, Goten throughout Veteran. What cartoons were you watching as a kid?
Oh man, the same one’s all ‘90s kids you know. Wait how old are you?
So yeah, the same one’s all the nineties kids you know. Voltron, Power Rangers, you remember one called Street Sharks? That might be too old.
Alright, so I was thinking about this, there was that time in the nineties where everything was rip-f Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. So you had Street Sharks, you had the rats or the mice on the motorcycles with the antennas.
Yeah, yeah! It was like Biker Mice from Mars or some shit. What the fuck was going on? It was just like groups animals that are all the same animal fighting crime in the city.
What anime soundtracks were you listening to when creating Veteran?
Oh, man. I can’t pronounce this one, so it’s called Texhnolyze…This anime soundtrack, Music Only Music but Music, like Keiji Urata, is the anime soundtrack for this anime called Texhnolyze or something like that. I forgot the name it, but yeah Wolf’s Rain…Cowboy Bebop, Bubblegum Crisis, there’s one called School Rumble I really like. I don’t know. I’ve been watching anime for a minute, so I know like real weird deep anime that people probably don’t care about. So I be listening to those soundtracks.
I thought one your quotes in an interview was really interesting. You said, “Black people are not a monolith.” Chance the Rapper said something eerily similar in an interview a couple weeks ago. Does that uniformity blackness feel even bigger now that you’re a black rapper people instantly compare to other black rappers?
Yeah, I mean it’s a problem not only in rap. It’s just when n—as do anything in a group. They just love to compare or like group as all in together, talk about us like one. Even when the news reports on us it’s like, the way they report it like at least to me when I look at it, it's less about like “oh this individual black person did something.” And it’s almost like this n—a represents all us. Now we all kinda have to bear the shame one thing this n—a did. That’s how like the news presents it. Like we’re all on a team or something and we plan all these things out like, Break, go!” You know what I’m saying? But it’s like nah Chance is right. Black people aren’t a monolith. We do a lot shit.
I grew up in Flatbush, Queens, Laurelton. These are places where it’s mostly black and there was a lot diversity. I got the diversity that most people clamor for with just nothing but n—as and Latinos around. So like I have a very weird perspective on it, cause I’ve seen n—as who love anime or this weird shit or that weird shit and just thought outside the box in general and it was a normal thing for me coming up. So to move to Alabama and see like the difference and see how things are perceived there, differently. A lot people down there think yeah n—as are a monolith and we all like move as one or some shit like that.
That line you said on “Baby I’m Bleeding,” “Promise I will never go blonde like Kanye,” after the release ye and Kids See Ghosts and him documenting his battle with mental illness where are you at with your fandom with him?
I don’t know, man. I really don’t know. I feel like he said all that shit and then he kinda like ducked back and some people have remembered it and just won’t let it up. But I think most people have just kinda moved on and I think it’s because in a lot people’s mind Kanye has earned the right to just do whatever, because he probably means that much to them. Kanye West is my favorite artist all time, so when I heard him say all that shit it’s the first time I’ve ever had an artist I really like say something that was directly against my own beliefs. I had to really sit and think about it. I’m not sure. I don’t know if there’s anything Kanye West can do that can erase his influence on me, because it’s here. It’s already there. He can’t even reverse that himself, because it’s just so ingrained in me.
As far as the future I mean because how much he means to me as an artist I would love to like sit down and talk to him maybe one day and maybe talk about it. I don’t really don’t know where I stand with him. I still like love him as an artist. You know what I mean? I definitely didn’t forget that he said, “Slavery was a choice” like mad recently.
You use the word “cracker” a lot in your music. I think it’s hilarious, but do people still think you’re racist?
Yeah, but that’s the point, because like we say “n—a” all the time. We talk about killing n—as, doing all kind shit to n—as. Literally, all I did was like when I wrote the song I originally wrote “n—a” and just switched the word and that’s all it takes for the finger to be pointed at them for them to see a problem, because otherwise, they wouldn’t. If I switched the pejorative to like n—a, they just wouldn’t even noticed, but because I switched it to them all a sudden they’re like, “Wait a minute, bro. These lyrics are a little bit like, hold on one second.”
But it’s like you listen to shit like that all the time. You listen to us talk about killing ourselves all the time, but as soon as I talk about, I might want to kill you it’s just like “I’m scared now.” Yeah, you’re scared. You should’ve been scared, n—a. That’s literally the point. I literally do that on purpose, it’s very purposefully done. To elicit that exact reaction , ‘Wait a minute. Why are you saying cracker so much?”