Mass Appeal Issue #54: Jonwayne, The Rapping Duke
Stones Throw’s Jonwanye embraces the art of imperfection.
Mass Appeal Issue #54 is on its way. In the meantime, peep an excerpt from our interview with Stones Throw producer/emcee extraordinaire Jonwayne, The Rapping Duke.Words by Jeremy Shatan Photos by Zach Wolfe
In the classic documentary, “Dogtown & Z-Boys,” there’s a moment in Sean Penn’s voice-over that grabbed me the first time I watched it and beacame something I anticipated during subsequent viewings. It might seem minor, but it was radical: Penn clears his throat in the middle of a sentence. In most cases, this flaw would be edited out or they would rerecord the segment, but director Stacy Peralta left it in. It’s a great example of the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, which embraces imperfection as a central component of beauty. According to Wabi Sabi Simple by Richard R. Powell, the aesthetic “nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.”
Though he had never heard of it before, California-based rapper and producer, Jonwayne, could be said to be a practitioner of wabi-sabi. “I think mistakes can bring emotion into a song,” he says. “When something is too perfect it can be hard to get into it.” On his breakthrough song “Smoke” (featured on the mega-posse Quakers album), there’s what can only be called a perfect moment of imperfection. On the line “I think forward like a mortician,” he comes in early at first: “I think for — ah shit.” Turns out he wrote the “mistake” into the lyrics, as an internal pun on the folly of looking forward too far. Imperfection, impermanence, wabi-sabi. So how does a “basement-dwelling virgin” — as he refers to himself at the start of “Smoke” — (“I wish I was still a virgin when I wrote that. It’s a comment on what people think when they see me,”) in his early 20’s wind up on the radar of Geoff Barrow (of Portishead) and his British compatriots? And not only to be merely included on Quakers, but chosen out of 34 other rappers to lead off the promotion of the album with a video? Like some other parts of Jonwayne’s journey, it’s a bit of a rabbit-hole story, with stops, starts, and double-backs.
Growing up in La Habra in Orange County, CA, Jon quickly displayed more of an affinity for music than his parents, burning through their collection of about 100 CD’s (“Mostly ‘70s rock. I think there was a Metallica album in there”), and getting hooked on KROQ, the local – and legendary – independent station. “They played a lot of bands from the area, like Sublime,” he says, “I got hooked on their song, ‘April 29, 1992 (Miami).’ I would tape songs off the radio and I listened to that over and over.” Jon’s first proper records were cassettes of the debut albums by Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Busta Rhymes. “I didn’t even know hip hop was like this deep thing. I related to the ODB album like it was a comedy record.”
In high school, his listening travelled all over the map, to rock, prog-rock, jazz, and acoustic stuff like Daniel Johnston. It was while playing Tony Hawk’s Underground on his PlayStation that he fell hard for underground hip hop, tracing tracks by Quasimoto and others back to Stones Throw, where he found a wealth of sounds to explore. It was also the PlayStation that led Jon into making beats: “It was like Tetris, but you had music at the end of the game.” However, when I asked him about his early steps down the path he’s on now, he told me the words came first. “I could say that I started writing poetry first, that there was a girl I liked who liked poetry. And that I really got into writing, even when I wasn’t into the girl. That’s one possible answer to the question.”
To read the full story on Jonwayne, cop the next issue of Mass Appeal coming soon.