Falling Forward: In Conversation with DUCKWRTH

Falling Forward: In Conversation with DUCKWRTH

The LA-born hip-hop chameleon will be returning to Australia for Groovin The Moo and headline shows with MØ this April/May.

Jared Lee grew up in a religious South Central household. He wasn’t allowed to listen to contemporary music, but his parents filled the home with selections from their devout songbook. With this in mind, it’s worth asking: just how did Jared become punk-influenced emcee DUCKWRTH?

“I fell in love,” he tells me. It’s a motive befitting someone such as Lee, who holds no expression higher. His music, all at once irreverent and provocative, is built around earnest affirmations of identity, the kind of self-love that empowers and enriches the world. Whether it’s the tenor of his lyrics - “express yourself,” he urges on 2016’s Bernal Heights - or the basis of his fashion line - 2016’s BOY, named for the song of the same name, celebrates the broad scope of identities through unisex apparel - it seems that DUCKWRTH is dedicated to proliferating unconditional acceptance in all he does

He does a lot. A consummate artist, Jared was a feverish skater long before he studied graphic design and art direction, a craft he sidelined to more wholly pursue music. It’s a background that’s helped him storyboard out his ambitious music videos, develop his own fashion lines and design his album art. He’s now dropped two solo records - 2016’s I’M UUGLY and 2017’s An XTRA UUGLY Mixtape - as well as a string of singles, a swathe of guest spots, a song on the Spider-Verse soundtrack and no small amount of positivity. “I didn’t want to be a musician,” he admits with a laugh. “My family were musicians, so I wanted to stay as far away from that as possible.” In spite of his multipotentiality, Jared became enamoured with music by way of a high school affection.

“She was a punk,” he says of the love interest which brought him into the scene. “I just started researching all the t-shirts she was wearing; shit was tight.” That research introduced him to acts such as Charged G.B.H and Death, outfits who proved more than just aesthetically inspiring. “I just kinda started liking the music, and then I eventually became a punk.”

It clearly wasn’t a phase: DUCKWRTH remains a punk through and through. He recalls coming across “a lot of white punk bands” before landing on Bad Brains, who he credits as “the first black punk band [he] found out about.” Everything from the sound to the ethos underpinning it struck a chord. “Not only did I find out that they were black, but I found out that they were tight as shit,” explains Jared excitedly. “The vocals [are] insane, he screeches and it sounds like chaos.”

It’s a chaos to which the emcee is clearly indebted. You can trace the word itself it all the way back to 2012’s Ducktape, his first independent mixtape, which opens with the assertion that “we evolve through struggle, chaos, pain,” but the impact is best typified by recent single FALL BACK, which pairs his relentless vocals with punchy ad-libs and an unforgiving instrumental.

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DUCKWRTH’s punk connection runs deeper than just an affinity for the chaotic sound. “The things that he’s talking about are really spiritual and uplifting,” he says of Bad Brains’ H.R.. “He has a song called Attitude where he talks about PMA, and PMA means ‘positive mental attitude.’ I literally just got it tatted on my stomach.” Not only does Jared wear his influences on his sleeve - or, more accurately, his torso - he also self-identifies as a punk musician. This self-classification is itself quietly radical - see the controversy surrounding Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road - but there’s no denying that DUCKWRTH’s work harnesses that same spirit of chaotic egalitarianism. “It just made me feel good about being a black punk,” he muses. “Now I make punk music.”

If 'PMA' is Bad Brains’ punk creed, then 'uugly' might just be DUCKWRTH’s own doctrine. The cornerstone of both 2016’s I’M UUGLY, his debut record, and 2017’s An XTRA UUGLY Mixtape, 'uugly' flips a negative to a positive, exchanging superficial criticism for earnest affirmation. To be uugly is to accept the qualities that make you different: it’s to be yourself to the best of your ability, to proceed unrestrained in a world that praises uniformity. It speaks tones that DUCKWRTH has built his own life-affirming neologism from an almost-uniformly negative term used to degrade, devalue and belittle. The world DUCKWRTH cultivates is both an escape from and a prescription for our oft-cruel reality: he reclaims slights and scorn as hallmarks of individuality. “Extra uugly, but yet you want me,” he spits on XTRA, leaning into his own uniqueness.

Though uugly has been a dominant motif for some time, DUCKWRTH is busy incorporating a new idea into his canon: the 'fall', a key element of his upcoming release, The Falling Man. He’s dropped two tracks from that record - FALL BACK and SOPRANO - and while the former is built around the word itself, the latter makes a veiled autobiographical reference to “fallen angels.”

“It’s the all-encompassing feeling when everything goes to shit,” he explains, “when things fall out of place, when you become like the disgrace of your family.” If that sounds familiar, then it’s exactly the point. “It’s the whole feeling of not having control,” he summarises, pointing to the universal experience of love and the emotional freefall it entails. “When you fall in love it’s like emotions are everywhere. When you fall out of love, you’re questioning: ‘what the fuck happened? Why is this happening?’”  

The fall is all at once a thrilling adventure and a terrifying ordeal. A loss of control liberates you from choice, but that same loss renders you powerless in the face of disaster. It’s both the elation and the despair, something that DUCKWRTH knows well. “I learned in therapy that if you avoid the situation, that’s what creates a lot of problems,” he offers, frank and forthcoming. “If you state the issue and look at it for face value… then you can start making steps towards getting back up.” 

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DUCKWRTH also knows a thing or two about getting back up. While it was the fall that introduced him into the world of punk, it was another fall that very nearly tore him from his own punk mission. The four years between 2012 and 2016 brought little in the way of success, and Jared seriously considered quitting music altogether. “It wasn't hitting the way it should,” he told XXL, lamenting the thankless years spent hustling. “I feel like things are kinda getting better, but other things are still kind of fucked,” he waxes as we discuss hardship. “It’s not even like the destination has been reached, it’s still an ongoing process.”

His high-profile inclusion on 2018’s blockbuster Spider-Verse OST, for which he laid incendiary Shaboozey collaboration START A RIOT, is just a sign of things to come for the tastemaker.  “It feels like 2019 gonna be insane,” he excitedly predicts. If his momentum is anything to go off, then this might just be the year he turns his acclaim to fame. Even with these dreams on the horizon, DUCKWRTH remains tethered to the scene that helped him hone his craft. “My favourite Bay Area artists are my homies,” he answers, not so much a diplomatic take as an exciting revelation. There’s no shortage of legendary acts from which to choose - take E-40, or Too Short, or Del the Funky Homosapien and the Hiero crew - but DUCKWRTH wastes no time putting a shine on his friends:  “the homie Iamsu!... or Caleborate, or Rayana Jay, or like Elujay... Jay Ant - a lot of Jays! - P Love!” His enthusiasm says more than a rote co-sign ever could.

Things are changing for Jared Lee, and he’s alright with that. “I just chopped all my hair off too,” he tells me, laughing. “I cut all of it off; I had to make room for greater shit!” Between his Australian tour, the upcoming release of The Falling Man and his steady stream of collaborations, it seems as though greater shit is already upon him. Don’t worry: no matter what change the future brings, DUCKWRTH is here to stay.

“As long as there is something to fight for,” he muses, “I have content to write about.”

DUCKWRTH will be touring Australia this April/May on a co-headline tour alongside MØ. Also, catch him on the national Groovin the Moo tour run.