Initially coming across more like an unenthusiastic videogame store employee than the creator of one of the year’s best rap albums, it doesn't come as a surprise to discover that Jonwayne (real name, Jon Wayne – a descendant of the general that Marion Morrison took his stage name from) first discovered music-making via a PlayStation game.
“I used that for a little bit, and it was really intriguing to me. I moved on to computer programs and found out about FruityLoops, maybe when I was 14. I was making terrible, awful music until like three years ago.”
He'd also been exploring poetry at school and began to combine it with his beats around the age of 17, realising that what he'd been doing wasn't a far cry from making rap music. However, when his instrumentals began attracting attention at Los Angeles Beat Music epicentre, Low End Theory, lyrics took a back seat.
At the age of 18, the La Habra, California native got a car and began to drive into LA for shows.
“I wasn’t allowed into a lot of venues. The one place that was really nice and crackin’, that I could get to, was Low End Theory, and the first show I saw was Mr. Dibia$e playing there. He was just playing beats and I’d never heard of that before, so it was really fascinating to me.”
Becoming a regular at beat music’s mecca, Jonwayne would attend weekly, passing out demos and building relationships throughout the scene, which he describes as “a laborious but fascinating process”.
Despite having previously not taken his beat-making seriously, choosing instead to pursue his talents as a rapper, Low End Theory opened his eyes up to an alternative route and he soon became known for his instrumentals.
“I like to practice on making my weaknesses my strengths,” he explains. “I wanted to figure out if I could make beats like that.”
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Jonwayne, ‘The Come Up, Pt 1’, from ‘Rap Album One’
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He spent the following few years working almost purely on beats and allowing writing and rapping to take a back seat. “I still wanted to do the rap stuff. But at that time, that was what I wanted to get done.”
He soon signed to Alpha Pup, the label owned by Low End Theory founder Daddy Kev, and put out his debut album ‘Bowser’ in 2011, describing the process as: “A culmination of a curiosity that stems from seeing people playing beats every week.”
It was around the end of 2011 that he began to put out rap again, putting out mixtapes ‘This is False’ and ‘I Don’t Care’, which compiled previously recorded work that he chose to release with the plan to return to a similar vibe. “I kind of got tired of making beats and stuff around the end of 2011,” he explains. “And that was around the time that Stones Throw started showing interest in me.”
Fast forward to the present day and we are discussing his debut LP as an MC, ‘Rap Album One’ (Clash review), which has recently been released via Stones Throw records.
Handling what he describes as "two sides of the same coin," Jonwayne is able to balance the rhythmic elements required of a producer, as well as the atmospheric elements required of a rapper.
“When you’re making a beat for a rapper and you don’t rap, maybe you don’t know what to leave out in order to make the MC comfortable to rhyme on it. So when you’re making hip-hop and you do both, you’re being sympathetic to both sides.
“Hip-Hop works best when the MC and the producer have equal share and they complement each other, and that’s a communication that is lost when they don’t do both. When I work with others I usually work with somebody that does both, because it’s a lot easier to work with somebody that has that understanding, so I don’t have to explain it to them.”
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Jonwayne, ‘Black Magic’, from ‘Rap Album One’
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On the album’s no-nonsense title: “Understatements are cool to me. I wanted the album to speak for itself. Plus, ‘Rap Album One’? People don’t know what to think. It leaves the content to make the impression.”
The title is both a stark contrast to the experimentalism and unorthodox nature of the record, as well as a reflection of the very focussed nature that the body of work has after the several drafts that it underwent before it was turned in.
“I’m very appreciative of minimalism,” he expands. “If you really want to flare on something as a rapper, you need something that’s very minimal so you can put your voice at the forefront. If a song is too busy for me it ruins it for me, it hurts my ears. I like things to be focussed.”
The catalogue-like title also refers to Jonwayne’s love for the format of physical releases, something that he also experiments with in his work, having preceded the album with a series of mixtapes available on cassette only. With fans so used to being able to listen to everything for free on the ‘net, and most artists making their work as accessible as possible, this was an interesting statement.
“I felt like the culture as a whole needed something to stifle themselves. Like, here is a release that you can’t have! I think people are so spoiled now. I was getting, like, threats and stuff because I wasn’t putting it out digitally. But I like that about music, the fact that it’s a piece of art and people have to look for it. It’s not just a commodity. That’s rare.”
The releases bring back a nostalgia surrounding early hip-hop releases, when things were harder to find and weren’t taken so much for granted. “I still have an old ODB cassette and I broke it,” he reveals. “It was a rare press and I never found that cassette again, I had to wait until I got the internet and was able to get a copy of it from iTunes. I just wanted to pay homage to the physicality of the format.”
In a time when we’ve become used to hearing about rappers celebrating deals with established labels, it’s easy to forget the pressure attached. Adding a record to a seemingly flawless catalogue like Stones Throw’s, alongside the likes of Madlib, MF DOOM and J Dilla, is an undoubtedly daunting task.
In the liner notes of ‘Rap Album One’, Jonwayne expresses the feeling of self-doubt that he experienced when faced with this mission, and explains when quizzed further: “A part of my personality on and off songs is self-deprecation. People like to think that I’m big-headed and stuff, but it’s really just I have too much concern with my responsibilities. For me to be somewhere like Stones Throw and make a rap record, it’s important for me to know that I’m going to be able to carry on the legacy.”
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Words: Grant Brydon
Photo: Nathanael Turner
An edit of this article appears in the new issue of Clash magazine – get all the details you could ever need on that, and buy a copy directly from us, here.