The feeling you get when you hear that one song that instantly rises to the top of your most played list can be summed up to one, simple facial expression. It’s the constipated frown that turns your face into a temporary state of “ugliness.” You know, the expression you get when your favorite track comes on and the beat is so crazy you have to cut up. It’s in that moment that you’re so overwhelmed with happiness on the inside that you can’t help but hit the stank face externally. That’s the power of music. Unfortunately, aside from a few hits here and there, that type of fulfillment is lacking. But rapper Duckwrth plans to bring that and the funk back to the industry.
Duckwrth strolls into the VIBE headquarters with an entourage of two, visibly less than other rappers who have graced these wooden floors. He’s seemingly soft-spoken, which is pretty interesting considering his his loud fashion sense, which includes a pair of leopard-printed pants (he stitched the patches on himself), tattered boots and a safety pin for an earring.
In a matter of minutes of sitting with him in a glass-enclosed conference room, you can tell that Duckwrth carries that same contradiction that comes with hearing your favorite jam. On the outside, he looks like this rebellious misfit, who could be a tad antisocial. But although his story includes many nights in his own bubble, he tells it with a fun-loving, energetic spirit that is nothing short of infectious.
Duckwrth, born Jared Lee in South Central, California, was fenced in by gang bangers and the hustle of the West Coast in the 90s. At the time, Snoop Dogg and Tupac were reigning over the radio stations. And while Pac often sprinkled in messages of black empowerment and consciousness, it wasn’t enough to sneak past the Pentecostal Christian censorship of his mother. “She pretty much didn’t want me to be involved in what was going on,” Duckwrth says of his mother’s child-rearing. “A lot of the music was Tupac, Snoop Dogg, Eazy-E and DJ Quick. All she heard was gangsta sh** because we was in South Central. She didn’t want me doing drugs, having sex and gang banging.”
He describes the adversity surrounding his home as opposite of his own upbringing, with some of his homies grew up in a house of gang bangers. Other kids he went to elementary and high school with were affiliated with gang-related activity—a situation that almost got him in trouble one day in junior high when he was thought to have called a Blood “a slob” (a blatant insult to the gang). So as a way to escape the madness, the rapper often barricaded himself in the house, building up an X-Men fantasy as a fortress from reality. His only break from Wolverine, Storm and Rogue, came when he listened to the forbidden sounds of hip-hop and rap booming from his sister’s room when he was thirteen.
“When [my sister] would leave to do what she was doing, I would raid her room and find all her CDs and just start playing them,” he remembers fondly. His sister seemed to have good taste though, putting him on to Ahmad’s 1994 jam, “Back In The Day,” The Roots and “B.O.B.” by Outkast. “Those were the first songs that I remembered hearing, but I didn’t know who they were or what they were about. Some of the lyrics stayed in my brain,” the rapper says. It may seem a bit peculiar that he hadn’t heard a lick of hip-hop’s driving forces, but up until that point he had only listened to classical music, gospel and a pinch of reggae (thanks to his dad). Actually, Jerry’s first recollection of music was Phantom of the Opera, with other influences from Nina Simone, Bach, Mozart, Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix trailing close behind.
Although unconventional in the typical rapper narrative, it’s that story of navigating his classical and gospel upbringing while digging into the thriving sounds of hip-hop that helped him find his own aesthetic. He’s hesitant at first, but he thanks his mom for that. “My mom, she knew what she was doing. There’s definitely certain parts of it that I would’ve liked to have known earlier, but it kind of made me the person I am today,” he confesses. “I naturally didn’t fit in. Even if I tried to, it didn’t click. I still have that detachment, but I don’t mind because I can go to any ethnicity [or] group and be able to speak their language and vibe with them versus my homies who may be limited.”
And all praises to his social disengagement because it’s that awkwardness and odd-ball quality that makes it possible to coin his own sound. “I call it funk wave or psych rap. Funk wave because I try to give that experience that makes people respond to it. Not everything I’m doing is funk, but within funk there’s this deep spirit in your stomach and your chest [when] your head starts rocking and your face gets all ugly,” he explains. “And psych rap because I really like those ambient, psychedelic sounds.” While the sound is his own, Duckwrth wishes to continue the blood line of idiosyncratic music that was pioneered by N.E.R.D, Outkast and punk band, Pink Floyd. And to say the least, he’s definitely doing the family lineage justice.
His singles like “Do You Mind,” speak to those 70s psychedelic waves, and his newest, dual tracks “Rare Panther + Beach House” bring out the rhythmic and danceable quality of funk. These defining singles are an introduction to his forthcoming project, I’M UUGLY. But it’s more than just a title.
Duckwrth paints an image of his hour and a half commute to the studio in Hollywood as a map to how he came up with the title for his forthcoming album. The rapper illustrates 12-hour days in the studio, recording and collaborating with other impressive talents like Wale, Wiz Khalifa and Travis Scott, who were merely down the hall from him. That experience, he recalls, is crazy but as soon as he wrapped for the day, he’s back on the bus to South Central, which is nothing like pow-wowing with rap’s elite. “I’m hopping on the bus at 1 o’clock in the morning for an hour and a half trip. And as you go from Hollywood to South Central, the areas starts to change; the people that are hopping on the bus start to change,” he explains. “It just gets grimier and grimier. It’s a quick reminder of reality. It kind of gave me this realization that a lot of sh** ain’t pretty.”
And while Duckwrth may have some of the charm of being an artist, he admits his lifestyle isn’t entirely pimped out and dripped in gold. “I’m not driving a Lamborghini or flexing. My music is my flex; my livelihood. I’m still up and coming. But within that, I’m going to make it beautiful as f**k,” the rapper says. And that’s exactly what I’M UUGLY is conceptually. “[I’M UUGLY is] painting this scene of euphoria while everything is still ugly around us. It’s kind of saying that’s not the end all to be all.” Sonically speaking, he says that type of elation on the album can only be represented by that same funky expression that arises every time you hear a sick beat.
But while his current up and coming lifestyle doesn’t come without hints of grime and ugliness, it definitely has it’s beautiful moments. Probably the most radiant of them all would be hopping on tour with standout talent Anderson .Paak on the Malibu Tour. As Duckwrth delves into what touring was like, you can tell it was one of his greatest highlights. Some of the partygoers might’ve came to see Anderson, but they left with a newfound obsession for Duckwrth. And that’s because of his competitive drive that made him want to be more than just an opener. But while the “Milk n’ Honey” singer may have put him on to the rock n’ roll type lifestyle (he recalls one wild night in a hotel room full of naked groupies swinging from ceiling pipes), .Paak also put him onto a couple of lessons to hone his craft. When all the groupies left and the ear-piercing noise of a wild crowd died down, Anderson told him, “You can make songs, but it’s about the records.” “He said, ‘I want to die and be reborn by your music. It’s about the records.'” He laughs, remembering how he played Anderson some of the tracks that he put so much effort into creating, but his mentor was still not all the way impressed. “He’s like, ‘the drums can come up; that can be a little better. You cool bruh, but you still got some more work to do.’ I needed that in my life. He’s like a older brother.”
Duckwrth won’t have to worry too much about making the hits, however his music will speak for itself. But remember, I’M UUGLY is more than an album, it’s an all-around feeling, a state of being. It extends into everything Duckwrth does. His dress code is a testament to that. The rapper dares to be different, mixing androgynous styles sort of like his colleagues, Young Thug and Jaden Smith. His Instagram account floods his feed with vibrant patterns and even a skirt, which he notes just seemed cool. While it might be on trend and even iconic to double-dutch on the lines of gender norms, he says his initial intention was never to break boundaries; he’s just doing what moves him in the moment. “I’m not trying to be revolutionary. I’m just trying to do what feels right,” he admits. “I appreciate Frank [Ocean] in his [“Nikes”] video. He was on some David Bowie sh**. That was dope. I appreciate Jaden Smith and Young Thug because they’re not dressing to impress. They’re dressing because it feels good, and that’s how people should do it. So if it’s breaking boundaries, so be it. If it makes you feel right as a person, then that’s what it is. “
The conversation is nearing an end, and while he doesn’t have much more to say about the music, he cracks open his journal full of doodles and sketches. As he quickly flips through the tattered book, showcasing each sketch more breathtaking than the first one, he reveals that he has drawn all the singles art for his forthcoming project. It’s been over forty-five minutes, and it’s too late to go into a whole other story about his other artistic abilities, but it’s pretty clear he has a lot more to offer. As he shuts his book, loose pages flying out, he hints that he’ll be around to tell that part of his story another day. But for now, his first offering I’M UUGLY will serve plenty.