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Pop CultureSeptember 20, 2019

People over everything: JessB on making bops and being political at the same time


Auckland rapper JessB has just released a new EP and wraps up a national mini-tour tonight in her home town. Jogai Bhatt talked to her about her world travels, performing at Ihumātao, and how her community and her music intersect.

It’s only been two years since JessB entered the public radar as the first woman MC on a gripping 64 Bars. But in a short space of time, the Auckland rapper’s cultivated a strong name for herself – and her endeavours don’t stop at music.

Since 2017, Jess has been involved in a myriad of projects. She’s been releasing her debut EP ‘Bloom’, running a week-long workshop with homegrown talent at Roundhead Studios, and co-curating the popular club night ‘Filth’, to name a few. She’s been on the lineup of every major festival in the country, and more recently spent some time with creatives across America and the UK. It seems like she’s everywhere at once, and with boundless energy.

Now she’s released her newest project New Views. The seven-track EP chronicles a new way of looking at the world – new perspectives and new pathways. It’s considered but unshielded, with slower tracks taking charge where tempo-heavy numbers might’ve previously been the norm. New Views embraces change with open arms. On the eve of its release, I met up with Jess to talk about it.

What’s changed for you in the past two years?

Pretty much, like, everything? Probably every aspect of my life has changed. I mean, two years ago I was still at my job and I was still playing netball. My life’s changed quite dramatically since then, but it’s shifted in an organic way. Specifically for my music journey it’s felt very aligned, it hasn’t ever really been a struggle or really questioning anything, so I’ve kind of just been going with it. 64 Bars was the first introduction to a bigger audience. I feel like that was really when I kicked off properly, you know? But yeah, I’ve travelled in that time, recorded heaps of music and collaborated with people, had a relationship, ended it ⁠— I mean, I didn’t end it, it ended. There’s just been a lot squeezed into a couple of years.

I saw on Instagram you were travelling around quite a bit in London and New York. How did going to those kinds of places inform your sound?

I think my sound has kind of been informed by those areas even without me having travelled there. But travelling there specifically and meeting people who are doing music in those scenes, seeing how they do stuff and just going to gigs, seeing how much more shit is out there in the world, I think was just super inspiring. I was overseas about a year ago, this time last year I went to LA, New York and London, and then in May I was in Italy, London and LA, so I think both times I came home really motivated and inspired by the connections that I’d made.

You performed at Ihumātao recently for (one day festival) Redemption Songs. What was that like for you?

That was cool. I guess my love of Aotearoa and having grown up here, I feel very strongly about supporting indigenous fights because at the end of the day we’re all able to live here because we’re on stolen land. Personally, I felt very strongly about wanting to go and support in the way that I could and I think that the way that I can help is by doing my craft in a way that’s going to help, hopefully, bring awareness and people to the cause. I was pretty humbled to have been part of it in that way, and I guess just on the kaupapa really. I’m just into it. I’ve been down [to Ihumātao] quite a bit aside from that Saturday, and it’s just such a beautiful example of community and kind of coming together for a common love and passion. Even though the reason that it’s all happening sucks and it should never have gotten to this point, being able to hear stories and talk to people and that sort of thing has been so special.

Are there any tracks on New Views that hold a special place in your heart? Obviously the whole body of work is going to be close to you, but if you had to pick?

I think it’s one of those projects where one of the reasons I’m so happy with it is because there’s no track that I’m unsure of. I am personally happy with all the tracks; I can’t say I felt that way about Bloom. They all mean something different to me, and they actually all kind of represent slightly different times as well, because it’s been nearly a year and a half since I started writing some of this stuff. I guess the more sentimental ones like ‘So Low’ and ‘New Era’ hit different for me at the time that I wrote them, and they became a part of my own healing process so that means something to me. But that’s different from what my favourite track is, you know? The rest of them are all bops. I really like ‘Time Out’. It’s like asking me to pick my favourite child. I hate them all equally. [Laughs]

What was it like making a song like ‘So Low’ where it’s quite sonically different to the rest of the EP?

To me, it wasn’t super different because I’ve been writing on beats for a long time, but that doesn’t mean that’s what’s coming out. So since people have started hearing it, I’ve realised how different it sounds from a lot of the others. I typically like to go with more up-tempo bops you wanna dance to. Even if the topic of discussion is more serious I’d say the tempo of the beat still has energy to it, so this is definitely a different vibe. And it was a really cool creation process. It took a lot of work, because we went from the guy who produced it — his name’s Tia Drumma — having an original beat idea, to being in-studio and re-recording everything live with actual instruments and getting a guitar player in to do the guitar parts which were originally a loop. It was a big process both logistically and emotionally. Out of all the songs that one absolutely had the most effort and work put into it so it’s pretty cool to have a finished product. And then obviously we did the video for it as well. That one was pretty special to me, I think.

How did you go about choosing your collaborators?

Everybody that’s on the EP, except for Big Zeeks who’s obviously from the UK, they’re all my peers. So I’m seeing them all the time and I’m obviously familiar with their music and I’m a fan of them as artists, so I knew the types of people that had a sound that would gel with mine in a way that would be cool collaboratively.

And then I did a week in studio in February and during that time I was just getting producers and people down in studio to create stuff. I invited Gino, Abdul, and Church all down during that week, so I guess the seeds were sown in that first week. Me and Church made ‘Bump Bump’ the first day we were in studio, so that one happened the quickest out of all of them. ‘Time Out’ I recorded in Sydney myself and could just hear Abdul on it so I hit him up, and then had Gino in mind as soon as I heard the beat for the other one. I feel like people just come to mind, it was same with Paige on ‘So Low’. Very early on I thought it was her sort of vibe, based off her own musical content and her sound as well. And yeah, they’re all my friends so it’s easy to hit your mate up and be like, do you wanna do a verse?

A couple of things stand out to me on New Views thematically. This idea of working hard and excelling and lifting your people up along the way. Is that a fair assessment?

I’d say that’s a pretty fair, pretty accurate guess there. Even when I was kind of choosing the tracklist, I tried to order it in a way that was like loosely storytelling in itself. And I chose to put ‘POE’ (People Over Everything) last because I feel like that’s kind of the endpoint for everything for me personally. The most joy I get out of doing music ultimately comes back to the people I’ve been able to meet and the connections that I make in realms where I just find people that I relate to so heavily. It’s such a big reason why I do it in general. And it’s not just artists, it’s people who connect to music. Yeah, I’d say that’s pretty accurate.

I always said this with the Bloom EP: I feel like as a person I’m so multi-faceted, and there’s so much shit going on in my life so I wanted to include every part of that in the EP. Fun party songs or me talking shit about something or a political song like POE or talking about personal stuff, those are all just parts of me that make up the whole. They’re just little snapshots into the particular vibe that I’m on at the time that I sit down to write.

When you say people over everything, who are your people?

My people are my people. My communities, the music community, my friends and family, I would say my people are people who relate to me and I relate to them, in whatever way that might be. It’s not necessarily about defining that, but I’d just say the communities that I belong to and am active in. 

Do you have an ultimate goal in mind?

No. I think as long as I’m staying aligned with what I’m doing and I’m happy and excited about it, I’ll keep working hard and I think if you keep working hard for the right reasons then things fall into place. Who knows, I might become some whole other thing, but that’s the exciting thing about life, you don’t really know where you’re going but as long as you’re doing the things that sit right with you, I don’t think there’s a wrong turn. 

Keep going!