Photography by Julian Burgueño
Fashion by Katie Quian
JPEGMAFIA is mid-way through watching a 5-hour cut of Watchmen as he picks up the phone for our conversation. A few joints down, he expresses a slight anxiety about his first UK interview as we made our introductions. Not that any nervousness showed through the course of an hour-long chat that touched on politics, celebrity, success and his military past – his charisma quickly shines through and reveals a big kid at heart with a strong set of morals and a compulsion to skewer the objects of his societal frustrations with devastatingly quick-witted lyrics.
Raised in New York before moving to Alabama at age 13, JPEGMAFIA, aka Peggy, credits being raised amidst a hostile environment with shaping the perspectives prevalent in his work. As a kid, he surrounded himself with music, but his earliest memories of falling in love with a particular track are suprising to say the least: “The first tape I owned was that ‘MMMbop’ shit by Hanson,” he says, “I was like yo, I don’t know if y’all heard this shit called ‘MMMbop’, but it’s fucking raw!” He reflects, “The first album I remember buying with my own money was actually three albums, and I bought them off this guy on the corner who was selling bootleg CD’s. I bought BUILT FROM SCRATCH by The Executioners, THE EMINEM SHOW and a Papa Roach album.”
An upbringing where money was always short lead Peggy to enrolling in the US Air Force, where he served for four years, including a tour of duty in Iraq. “I got recruited from Alabama after moving there from New York. I was basically poor, disenfranchised, and in the Deep South, so yeah, the military just came around one day.” He says, “I knew there was no way of me seriously pursuing music whilst I was enlisted in the United States military. There was just no way. I don’t know any niggas that did it while in, but Jimi Hendrix did. He was in the military too and he was similar to me; he didn’t fuck with that shit at all. He was just like ‘This shit is ass!’”
After serving in Iraq, Peggy travelled to Japan, an experience that allowed him to experiment more with the music he was making. “I was very isolated at points, so I was doing some real weird shit. I was making some weird music at the time, but it was cool. I’m thankful for the opportunity.” Once he returned from Japan, Peggy found himself in Baltimore, which is where he started creating experimental hip-hop under the guise of JPEGMAFIA. Rising to renown through hard graft and spectacular live shows, he now finds himself in Los Angeles with three LPs to his name and a worldwide fanbase. Reflecting on what the prospect of fame means to him, Peggy admits, “It’s not something I can truly grasp, I think. If it does happen to me, if I become famous and can’t walk around and can’t go anywhere anymore, I would stick to making what I love making. Nothing else matters to me except the music.
As our conversation naturally shifts from the nature of fame to a consideration of Peggy’s favourite rapper, Kanye West, he tells me that he was very close to getting a Kanye tattoo at one point. I had to enquire further. He explains, “Because when you’re in the military and you deploy, they give you a shot to make you immune to influenza and other diseases. So anyone in the military has this shot and it leaves a mark, like a weird sore looking thing. When I got out, I was like ‘Oh my God, I don’t want anything to do with this shit,’ so I wanted to cover that mark up. At first I was gonna cover it up with a picture of Kanye’s face and make the pimple one of his eyes. So that was gonna be the tattoo, but I ended up putting a Batman there.” In hindsight, it seems like that was the better choice? “Yeah, I love Batman! He’s such a contradiction, he’s my favourite superhero but some possibly Republican nigga. It’s crazy.”
The Kanye discussion leads us to talk about his much-hyped bid for the 2020 Presidential Election, a topic which finds Peggy in a reflective mood. “There’s a domino effect that’s caused by Trump. I literally think by the time I’m 80, the way people win elections is gonna be like some Big Brother shit. They’re gonna put all these niggas in a house and whoever makes it to the end is the president. It’s becoming such a joke now.” He laughs as he says, “The top Democratic fucking nominee right now is not a Kennedy, not anybody experienced, but fucking Kanye West, the Rock or Oprah. That’s where we’re at in 2018, heading into 2020. This is what the landscape in American politics looks like. I want everybody to just really look in the mirror right now.”
Politics is certainly a prevalent theme in his work – combining searing commentary with his signature playfulness in lines such as “Shawty, tryna give that dick to Kelly Conway” and “Kill Trump, do 'em like Floyd did Gatti.” However, it’s not just politicians Peggy has poked fun at, as he frequently references fellow artists in his work, most notably in “Drake Era”, the opening lines of which proclaim “Peggy, Peggy, I'm the new young Mayweather / I'm just trying to take hip-hop out the Drake era,” before going on to call out Death Grips: “You're like MC Ride / Two crackers call your album ‘Nigga’ and you let that slide, pussy.” I’m intrigued to know if he’s ever met anyone he’s referenced in a song and what their reaction has been. “Nope,” he says quickly, “I’m like 103% positive that Drake doesn’t give two fucks about anything I have going on.”
This right to free speech is certainly a powerful tool when used to call out politicians, other musicians and most refreshingly, those who beat up women, as I think of his line from “Baby I’m Bleeding”: “It’s ironic you hang with a nigga that beat women.” With lyrics such as these, I wonder whether Peggy would consider himself a feminist, and if so what would that mean to him. He says, “I mean, I don’t consider myself a feminist, because I just don’t feel like that’s my thing to say. It’s like a white person being like ‘I’m a black activist’. For me, I just feel like it’s based on a very strict moral code I was brought up with and I just don’t have any tolerance for that kind of shit. I just don’t entertain it, it’s not in my character.” He adds, “I got flack for it in the military, I got flack for it in high school, I got flack for it all through my entire life. I’ve had issues with having this moral code where I just don’t play with shit like that at all. So what it means to me is not so much that it really means anything, it’s just ingrained in me, into who I am. This is who I am and this is my stance on it, and this is how I see things, and I’m going to react to it in this way. That’s how I was brought up.”
With that moral code informing the work he creates, it only seems fitting that Peggy’s live shows are just as powerful as his records. I remember standing outside the tent at Field Day as he was performing – such was the magnetism of his performance that it was too packed with people to get inside. With his shirt off under the blisteringly hot lights, he jumped headfirst into the ravenous audience below him, climbing up on barriers and immersing himself in the mosh pit. When attending his shows, Peggy gives his fans one piece of advice, “I would say do your taxes, make sure your credit score is really high. You know what I mean, just come to me with a clean record. I just wanna see good clean, good fun.” He laughs and says in all seriousness, “Just come with an open mind, and if you’re not about that life, just stay out of the front.”
As he looks forward to returning to London once more, we start to discuss who he’d want to work with from the UK. “You have like Thom Yorke, James Blake, Skepta, you know this is gonna sound crazy but I’d love to get Idris Elba on something, because I didn’t know he was British!”
As our conversation begins to wrap up and Peggy’s attention drifts back to watching the Watchmen, I find time to ask one last question about what JPEGMAFIA’s future looks like. His response is predictably unpredictable. “OK, so check this out, I just bought a big TV, 49 inches maybe, I don’t even remember it’s so big. So I’m officially a dad nigga, ok, so that means I call niggas over and I tell them ‘look, look at my big ass TV.’ I’m gonna get a grill next, and I’m gonna get all this kind of dad shit,” he laughs. So in summation, the next five years for JPEGMAFIA look like this: “I’m gonna smoke more weed, I’m gonna do more old nigga shit, and I’m gonna make more music and I’m probably gonna get fatter. And then the fifth and final thing I’m gonna do is, I’m gonna make sure I always do my absolute best to put out the absolute best product for the people who like my music. That’s my five-year plan, those are the five things I guarantee will happen in five years.”