Dazzle-Camo: An Interview With Zebra Katz
, July 25th, 2013 04:06
With his recent DRKLNG mixtape, New York rapper Zebra Katz followed up last year's freakily infectious 'Ima Read' in similarly sinister, sub-loaded style. Laura Snoad met up with him to discuss investigations of language and the eternal appeal of bass
When I meet Ojay Morgan, the 26-year-old multimedia artist behind brooding New York rapper Zebra Katz, he's busily gearing up for an onslaught of shows, Twitter-takeovers and trend forecasting stints as part of London's Men's Fashion Week. Hip hop and fashion have long been bedfellows, but for Morgan it's a playground he's particularly versed in - and indebted to, as his big break, and the point that he could give up his catering job to pursue music full-time, came when cutting-edge designer Rick Owens pumped out his now-famed track 'Ima Read' throughout the entirety of his 2012 autumn/winter runway show in Paris.
The self-produced track, characterised by sparse and subby rhythms, Morgan's menacing baritone and a sense of heightening dread most akin to early dubstep, immediately prickled hairs on the back of the crowd's necks. Not only did 'Ima Read' snarl the word "bitch" an impressive 87 times, but its charged vocals played with the vernacular of New York's ball scene, a form of slang experiencing renewed interest since fellow New Yorker Azealia Banks sampled Jack & Jill's vogue culture homage 'Work It Girlfriend' in her track 'Fierce'. The desire to "read" someone, or cut them down verbally, however, is something that stretches far beyond the confines of the ball scene or fashion industry - which perhaps testifies to the track's broad appeal far beyond those worlds. "There'll aways be that bitch at school that needs to get read," attests Morgan.
The track itself was born some six years ago, when Morgan started experimenting in making music during his liberal arts degree at NY's Eugene Lang College. Frustrated with typecasting due to his skin tone and a general aversion to colour-blind casting, Morgan's senior thesis project, 'Moor Contradictions', was a performance piece featuring monologues (or in Zebra Katz's case, improv raps) from a series of different identities, including the surly rapper himself. But just as Morgan found himself trapped in one box during his time at college, his initial success has seen the openly gay rapper fighting against another form of typecasting, having found him linked by many commentators into New York's so-called 'queer rap' scene. As he explains in this interview, it's a pigeonhole he's strongly resistant to.
Both the Zebra Katz character and 'Ima Read' have ended up long outliving Morgan's college days, with the track finding a home both on his first mixtape Champagne and on Katz' latest offering DRKLNG (albeit substantially re-worked by hip hop stalwart Busta Rhymes in the latter). The intense, charged atmospheres of 'Ima Read' recur throughout DRKLNG: the stark minimalism of the Loefah-like 'Josephine Effect' makes for refreshing listening at a time of lush and lean-drowsy cloud rap, while both 'Blk Wiccan' and 'Dark Binder' are encoded with the possibility of genuine crossover appeal.
Still unsigned, Morgan is spending most of the summer touring alongside fellow rapper and his foil on 'Ima Read' Njena Reddd Foxxx, in support of Die Antwoord and playing at Lovebox, Melt! and Dour festivals. The Quietus met him in London to discuss the origins of the Katz character, connecting with Busta Rhymes and why he's still not fed up with 'Ima Read'.
Zebra Katz is a nickname that you picked up in college. How did that come about and how does he differ from Ojay Morgan?
Ojay Morgan: For my solo performance piece for my senior thesis I created several different characters, and I wanted his name to be something very animalistic. Zebras all have stripes but none of them are alike. They also blend together to disorientate their predators, it's like dazzle-camo: you never know where they're going or whether they're coming for you. That's something I play with a lot with tracks, you don't know if Zebra Katz is in the same room or whether you're running from him. Zebra Katz enables me to explore the darker sides of myself that I don't necessarily understand. When I write and make music through this character it has this really organic trajectory.
I was watching some of the Moor Contradictions plays and there's some really strong personas in there - what was it about Zebra Katz in particular that made you want to take him forward?
OM: As a piece it was much more a happening rather than a scripted event. I did a lot inspired by audience participation. Zebra Katz's initial raps were mostly based on shout-outs from the crowd. I'd be like: 'What should I rap about today?' and you'd get back 'Darfur' or 'the economy' or 'money', and then I'd create these comical freestyles. The reason why he outlived the other characters was mainly because of the internet. I put up on YouTube some of the early videos I made as him, such as ones for 'ICU' and '100' (that one's very DIY – my nephew helped me film that on an iPhone camera). It was the start of some very basic visuals for the character.
'Ima Read' was the one that got the big break, you can see that in the journey of the video. I had it on my MySpace, then Soundcloud, then I added another voice in Njena Reddd Foxxx and it got taken up by Diplo. I shot another video, which you can still see – it was made on my MacBook in my bedroom! But that video wasn't as thrilling, dark and beautiful as the video Rueben XYZ did for us. Ruben's video definitely helped hone where the track was. For me the track's very tongue in cheek, but for a lot of people it's pretty dark. He really saw the darkness and helped bring it out in me.
What about sonically - how did you get interested in that kind of beat-making?
OM: I went to art school but I wasn't that versed in music making, I didn't study choir or anything. I failed keyboard with a D! But my thesis was a multimedia project and I wanted to branch out from the sort of soundscapes I'd already created. I wanted to start simple, so I just did it with a kick beat, that kick was reminiscent of a lot of the tracks in the early '80s and '90s that I was really into.
You're from Florida, were you inspired by the Miami bass scene too?
OM: Definitely. It's a huge influence in my work. Dem Damn Dogs – they're a local group of artists from South Florida – and the hip and urban radio stations, 2 Live Crew, Uncle Luke - those guys are definitely influential for me. It's what I grew up listening to and what was played at the dances. Booty dancing and Turn it Out were a huge part of my upbringing. I really like bass because it's something you can also feel. It helps me feel the character more, because it helps me vibrate into the darker places that I wouldn't necessarily shine light on.
What about the name of the mixtape, DRKLING? That's a reference to Shakespeare, right?
OM: Yeah definitely. A lot of my work makes that reference. 'Moor Contradictions' was a play on Shakespeare and the Moor characters that he wrote. As someone who will typically only ever play Moors in his career, I became fascinated with how those characters were portrayed. But at the same time, the title also expresses 'from the darkness'. For many of these tracks I used the same method as my first mixtape Champagne – a lot of experimenting. With that there are all these projects that just sit on your computer, so I wanted to bring them to light.
What was the thinking between releasing it as one continuous track rather than breaking it up?
OM: Because I know how the internet works. People already broke the mixtape up, it's not hard to do. I felt that if the people that had the initiative to do it would, why not make it one continuous track. It's not really supposed to be listened to out of that order because it's a little story. We've put out a paid-for EP too, but there are tracks that are on the mixtape that aren't on the EP. It's my way of putting out a piece that I felt that was on the same trajectory as the other work that I've done while also taking another step for owning that music. I released it all for free, and the audience can purchase it if they want to.
Do you feel like your success is a product of the Internet?
OM: I really like the feeling of thinking, 'I like this, I want to share this with my friends'. It's far better than some PR telling you to listen to this new scene, 'Listen to this because everyone else is'. That experience makes it so much more enriching to the audience because they have an affinity with it. It's so much stronger than a big media push. It might not necessarily get it to everyone, but it means I'm playing to so many different communities. How they interact is amazing, you can see that from YouTube comments alone. It's really insightful to see how different people take your work.
Talking about fans in different communities, can you tell me about how the Busta Rhymes collaboration came about?
OM: Diplo emailed me and said that I should go see Busta in the studio. Njena [Reddd Foxxx] and I went to see him in LA and he said he was a fan of 'Ima Read' and was listening to it a lot. It was so surreal, I couldn't believe it was happening. A few months later he sent me the track and I didn't know what to do with it. I couldn't let on to anyone, I just let it live on my computer for a while. I really didn't want to tell my friends about it, because sometimes the more you talk about something, the more it's jinxed, or not going to happen, or not going to happen in the way you'd originally set your mind on. I decided I wanted it on the mixtape, rather than release it as a a whole track like I did the Tricky or Gangster Lou remixes. It was a personal thing for myself.
What about some of the other producers on the mixtape?
OM: Mike Dextro produced 'Pulla Stunt', he's now following me on tour. Triple Six Sound Club are a bunch of kids I would always talk to on Soundcloud, and I finally got them on this mix. There's Jepordise, who I met in London, and Visionist who was my DJ before. A lot of the tracks are made in home studios, it's very simple, not over-the-top production. What's different about this mixtape to Champagne is that I didn't produce much on it. I'm giving myself a bit of time to go back and do that. The album I'd like to produce myself but it's good for me to work with other producers at the moment to see what I can do with my voice and experiment what I can do with he character.
Something that I really love about your live show is your chemistry with Njena. How did you guys meet and how do you work together?
OM: We met randomly in Brooklyn one night. I had this track ['Ima Read'] and thought she'd be perfect for it, so she came over to my house and recorded it and it went up online. Mad Decent [Diplo's label] said they wanted to release it about two years later, so we shot the DIY video and then the one with Ruben XYZ. We were both working at a catering company at the time. When the track was released from Rick Owens' runway, it handed me this opportunity so we both quit working at the catering company and just went from there. A lot of these tracks were never written to be performed live, so we had to really translate them for the stage.
What I found really surprising about your live show is how much humour there is in the tracks compared to on record, where they're quite serious and controlled. Your live show's got a real house party vibe - is that Ojay's personality sneaking out?
OM: Yes, I think it must be. What I love about it is that it's not too rehearsed. I really like the energy you get from being onstage and what you get back from the audience. At the beginning Njena was doing backing, but now it's a lot more tag-team. It means it can sound really different each show. She's going to keep touring with me as long as we can. We're both putting out separate music but she definitely very much part of the Zebra Katz brand. I'm so excited about her mixtape. She's a breath of fresh air compared to the other artists out there.
You mention 'Ima Read' got its big break from the catwalk. I wonder how you feel about the appropriation of the New York ball scene, especially when used for a very different type of walking?
OM: It's interesting, because when everyone thinks about otherness or black otherness, you can say queerness if you want, they associate it with the ball scene in New York as a reference point, but it's also about the black vernacular. To read someone or to school someone and what that means, that's the parallel that makes it work so well universally and resonate with so many different of people. Calling someone a bitch can be shocking to some people, but hearing it 87 times on the track, it's about owning it. It's about desensitising people to idea of that word coming from a stronger other. It isn't that offensive if you get the context of it.
Did you feel like you had a duty to make a comment on the hip hop scene in terms of the language it uses and how it portrays gender and sexuality?
OM: It's language generally. It happens in all the scenes, not just hip hop. People have big ups about the word 'cunt' and the word 'n**r' or 'nigga' and how that's acceptable, and how people gain ownership of it. Now, there's this weird ownership where white people can say it. It's funny because it's such a charged word, used so frequently in hip hop, and yet there's so many people that won't use it. It's like Azealia Banks using the word 'faggot' and still getting targeted for it even though she's bisexual. I think that there's a lot of sensitivities towards words that as a culture we need to deal with. I don't think I wan't to take the responsibility to change that, nor do I have the power to, but I definitely want to investigate it in my music.
How do you feel about this so-called 'queer rap' scene? For me it seems quite reductionist to link musicians that are doing different things because of their sexuality.
OM: I've been saying the same thing since the first time someone asked me about it. I feel like I can't even talk about it in an interview without it being the first thing journalists quote in the title of the piece. That's not who the character is, so I feel very resistant to that. I find it really belittling and it's just odd. Sexuality isn't a genre. There isn't heterosexual music, there isn't 'other' music. Come on! Calling it that is just reiterating the fact that there are issues around homophobia in urban music.
What people forget is that this handful of artists - however many people they want to put into the scene at the time - are making music and happen to be brown in non-traditional forms, and people keep reiterating that fact because they're shocked by it. It's good to be shocked, but let's try to say that this is a movement, like The Black Arts Movement or the [Harlem] Renaissance, rather than just a queer rap 'scene'. It's deemed different and belittled, because there might be a problem with it being part of the hip hop world. I think that's the conversation that people aren't having because it's a much bigger conversation.
Isn't it just about being something new in the hip hop 'canon' that means journalists keep reiterating it?
OM: Things are hot one second, and not the next. I think that's partly what been happening with this 'scene' - people are trying to market it. But it's just a rebirth of people that are doing things in New York City and that's far more interesting than sexuality. It's far more about the location, but people have got hung up on the fact that some people are brown and other. I don't identify as a queer person, that word doesn't resonate with who I am or the way that I live my life, or for Zebra Katz either, he'd be the first to tell you about that.
Language can be a problem. You can can refer to someone with a word that they don't identify with it because it's just not in their rhetoric. Some people never had to come out of the closet because they never saw themselves as a closeted individual. That's something people need to start realising. Being 'in the closet' is very belittling, to say, 'You're going to find yourself'. I've been who I am to my family and everyone I know my whole life, and that puzzles people. I've never lived in a world where I've had to worry about it, but it seems that there are a lot of people worrying about it for me!
'Ima Read' was produced six years ago. Feeling claustrophobic yet?
OM: Not at all. People think I am, so they say to me: [condescending tone] 'Ima read, Ima read, Ima read' and I'm like, yeah, [with enthusiasm] 'Read that bitch!' It's such a strong project, It's changed my life. I'm so happy to stand next to it.