AN INTERVIEW WITH H31R
H31R is composed of Brooklyn rapper maassai and New Jersey producer JWords. H31R recently released their amazing first project, ve·loc·i·ty on bandcamp, with a cassette version from the Purple Tape Pedigree. maassai and JWords talk to Teresa and Sam about their relationship as friends and collaborators, pushing the boundaries of musical genres, and learning about the business side of the music industry.
Sam: I know, maassai, last time we talked was right after your satellite syndicate set, and we were wondering for you and, really for both of y’all, have you gotten any chances to perform since then? Is it feeling a little more normal or does it still feel kinda weird to perform during this time?
JWords: After that - so I haven’t really done much shows like that outside. That was the first show, and kind of the last. We’ve performed the albums live in my friend’s backyard - there’s like three people there. And we performed at a social event last week, but that was like an outdoor vibe, you know. So nothing’s really back to normal at all.
maassai: Yeah. It’s called a really intimate vibe, where it’s not like… a lot of pressure. But yeah, performing… Honestly, I feel like the focus right now is not so much on performing, but more so just like making stuff and figuring it out as artists.
Teresa: Can you guys speak to us a little bit about how y’all met, and what has it been like growing out of the same scene together?
maassai: We met in 2017 at a show that our friends put on and it was cool. You know, JWords was a dope ass producer. I fucked with her set, she fucked with my set. Crazy.
JWords: After we checked each other’s numbers the same night, we were like “Aw, let’s hang out and work together.”
maassai: Right, yeah, exactly.
JWords: We actually clicked right away, which was fun. Met up a couple times. She liked the beats that I thought were a little bit more complicated, which I was like “Oh”. She was able to get on this.
We always wanted to do a duo, but it kind of happened over time. Our friendship, we kinda marinated it to this point where we’re able to work flawlessly with each other.
Sam: In talking about those more complex beats - when I first heard the project, pretty much every song when it started out, I was like “Oh wow, I can’t imagine anyone rapping over this.” And then maassai came and killed it.
JWords and maassai: *Laughs*
Sam: I was wondering. I heard a lot of footwork music and juke music in your beats, and I was wondering is that an influence for you?
JWords: I love footwork music, actually. When I first started performing, I was getting inspired by a lot by people from Teklife and Juke Bounce Werk, getting inspired by them, befriending them and seeing like - I just loved it. One of the guys I was introduced to was like “Wow, this is so dope.” It’s black music, it’s uptempo, funky fire. And it sounds like hip hop to me.
To me, crossing over the two worlds of footwork music and hip hop is easy because footwork is at 160 bpm and then, hip hop is usually at 80 bpm so it’s like half time. For me, I’m able to add footwork drums to like a hip hop sample easily because of that double time. That’s how I thought of it, you know. And I just love hearing samples over footwork music - it feels like hip hop but just a little bit more uptempo.
Sam: Yeah. We’re [me and Teresa] both from Chicago, so we definitely grew up hearing a good amount of footwork, and especially juke like around [unintelligible], so it’s dope to hear that kinda in a different context.
Teresa: I used to play the piano. For me, I’ve always had trouble with matching different rhythms, especially if they’re not straightforward. So, for you, do you think that’s something that you’ve grown to have an ear for, or do you think you always had a beat for kind of knowing what types of rhythms go well together?
JWords: I started playing piano too, actually. I was playing piano in a band, and then it kind of crossed over to making beats. I guess when I make a beat, usually I use a sample or play everything out like keys, bass, whatever. I’ve been getting some modulators so sometimes I use weird Aztec sounds to create, you know. And I always try to add some nice lead over that, to make it, like, mesh well together.
I don’t really have a process for it, it just kinda just always happens. I always just end up playing key or leads over things. I just love playing piano, so it’s kinda like… I dunno, I never thought about it actually.
Teresa: Yeah, I wish that I was good at practicing. ‘Cause I used to play so much piano, and now I just don’t.
JWords: You could probably be good - I didn’t know how to make a beat at all. I thought I would never make a beat, you know what I mean? The music that I make now is kinda like “Oh shit.” Just getting into sequencers - sequencers are cool because you can just lay it out and not have to be like a crazy drummer.
Sam: I’ve seen videos of your setup on twitter, it looks sick!
JWords: Yeah, I love my setup. *Laughs*
Sam: maassai, I know Unsounded Points of View and the Construction AP were very kind of - or I guess more Unsounded Points of View - but like very laser focused on a specific theme or topic. It seems like on this project it was like a little bit more of you talking your shit. Was it fun to have that different type of experience?
maassai: Yeah, I mean… I felt like something about JWords’ beats makes me kinda wanna talk shit. But also, I think that in the process of creating this project, I was definitely feeling those types of emotions. Just like, you know - dealing with social anxiety, dealing with “not really fucking with people” - those were major themes in my life so I think that was just coming out a lot in what I was writing. I also felt like the contrast of talking about not fucking with people, for real, on mostly more uptempo music, I felt like that was cool. It’s a party song, but we’re still talking shit.
Teresa: One of my favorite lines is the one where you say “Don’t know loyalty, why you tatted for?” Was this line a shower thought or did it come from specific experiences or things that you’ve consistently thought about?
maassai: I don’t even remember, honestly, when I came up with that line or how I came up with it. But the idea behind it was just like, you know, there’s so many people with that “Loyalty” tattoo, like everybody has that Loyalty tattoo.
JWords: That’s so true.
maassai: But they are fully cappin'.
JWords: I feel like you have crazy metaphors, too. I feel like you’ll be just thinking about shit - I don’t know. Your way of writing is pretty crazy, like the metaphors in there are fucking fire.
Teresa: I appreciate that.
Sam: My favorite line was “pull up to someone’s mom and tell ‘em their baby ugly,” that one got me.
Another question we had was what is it like for y’all working in the studio? Do you write separately and then come together? What’s the process like?
maassai: I feel like we don’t have one uniform process, like we’ve done a lot of different things. Even in the creation of this album - mostly it’ll be like JWords will send me a beat, or send me a pack of beats, and I will kinda choose out of those which ones resonate with me most. At least for this album, either we linked up to record it together or, especially during lockdown, which a lot of the project was created during the lockdown even though we started before that, it was just her sending beats to me from home.
JWords: And then she’ll write to it at home and then record it in her house, and then send me the stems and I’ll mix it in my house. It’s like a back and forth type of thing, but it works. Some of the songs we had to make up and further to actually record.
JWords: For the next album, I definitely want to be able to be in the studio more, not that everything’s easing up.
maassai: Yeah, for sure. I like the process of being together and… yeah.
Sam: Is this definitely going to be a duo that does more albums together? Are y’all still cooking stuff up?
JWords: Yeah we are. We recorded a song, actually, in the studio. The feeling of recording a song in the studio was so great - like, wow. Definitely want to do it again.
maassai: Right, exactly.
Sam: I know, also, every song sounded like it was going for a different style. And, actually, at the beginning of Toxic Behavior, my friend walked in and asked “Is that Death Grips?” It seemed like there was a lot going on.
JWords and maassai: *Laughs*
JWords: There was a lot going on that day.
JWords: It kind of calms down when maassai comes in, though.
Sam: Yeah, it calmed down and then it was pretty clearly not Death Grips. What keeps you guys pushing towards new styles? What keeps you innovating and looking for new sounds?
JWords: I think both of us in general, we like a lot of different styles of music. We grew up listening to so many different styles, you know, that I personally wanted to make a fusion like… Kind of like not locked in a box type of one vibe album. That’s what I wanted to do. I think I tried to.
maassai: I think that we’re definitely about pushing away from what’s, quote unquote, “normal”, and just experimenting with different sounds, different ways of doing things. That’s what I really like about this duo and like ongoing project - it’s just being able to do that with someone else is also really cool. Off rip of us working together, that’s already like a fusion of some sort, because we both fuck with so many different types of music - [JWords] grew up on so many different types of music. What’s coming together is bridging all of those things.
JWords: Really, yeah.
Teresa: Coming from different backgrounds and experiences, how did y’all come up with the name of your duo?
JWords: We’re both air signs. The project, the duo name is called “H31R”. She’s [maassai] a Gemini, I’m an Aquarius. We’re just some thoughtful-ass people. Just being in our heads, just thinking all the time. And you know, heir to the throne. So we just try to play on words.
Sam: I know you guys have been working with Geng a bit and PTP, and they’re doing distribution for the cassette, right?
JWords and maassai: Mhmm.
Sam: What’s it been like to work with them? I know we talked to them a couple weeks ago, and it seems like they’re doing really dope stuff.
maassai: Geng is cool as fuck.
JWords: He’s like a big brother vibe, helping us out with everything. My first cassette, album one cassette, he’s kinda like… hooking it up and just being super supportive towards us. Super excited too. If I know him more than me, I just kinda let him.
Teresa: Y’all should ask Geng for his smoothie recipe.
Teresa: There’s a video of him on Youtube making smoothies. I was like, this is not happening.
JWords: I’m gonna have to check that out. I love making smoothies too.
Sam: We have a question, just about the general New York area music scene. It seems that quarantine has just shifted around a lot of what people were doing. I feel like there was this narrative coming out of New York, and it seems like the last couple of months have destroyed that narrative. And it seems like so many people are doing such dope, different things.
Where do y’all see the New York scene going in the future? Do you still feel like it’s that camaraderie, or do you feel like everyone’s doing their own thing right now?
maassai: I feel like, ideally, everyone should do their own thing, you know? Community is important, and this idea of a New York sound, or whatever that is - it’s very boxing, or - what is the word - pigeonholing. ‘Cause it’s just like, everybody should be experimenting and be free to not confine themselves to a place.
But yeah, everybody’s doing dope shit. I feel like because of quarantine, too, everyone’s just in their bag, like, with themselves. Just learning what they like, without the influence of other people.
JWords: That’s so true, definitely. Especially for me, there was just a lot going on in New York. All the fucking time, every night, it was too much. To the point where I didn’t even wanna go out, I didn’t even wanna perform anymore. I would be like “Ah, I have to go finish that.” Then, I would wanna leave, I’ll be in the middle of my set, like “I wanna go home.” I don’t wanna feel that when I’m performing.
I feel like it was a good shift. We needed a break. It was too much. Now everybody’s focused on themselves, and if we do come back, it’s I feel like it’s gonna be more intimate, more sacred, more just like an experience again, you know? Not just “I need to perform, ‘cause I need bread.” Now we know how to make bread with just our music, you know what I mean?
JWords: We shouldn’t be using every show just to make a quick buck, and that’s how I was performing. I’m talking about myself, too. I was just like “I need 100 bucks, let me play this set even though I don’t want to.” It was so degrading to me, you know? And I would wanna be home to make music, and then quarantine came? It gave me the ability to stay home and write all these albums, you know what I mean?
Sam: I think you said something really interesting there. Do you feel like over quarantine you’ve gotten a better idea of how to make money just from your music? Do you think it’s forced you to get better at that?
JWords: Yeah, you know. Just dropping even this album was kinda like - yeah, we were able to drop this album this year. I didn’t think we were gonna drop this album this year, like in general. If I was doing what I was doing before quarantine, then I wouldn’t have any time. I was working, performing all the time, not making music that much. So it really - you know, the Bandcamp days really came through for me.
maassai: The Bandcamp day has really been revolutionary, honestly, in so many senses. Bandcamp is honestly really doing it for the culture, just in terms of getting artists paid for real. And even without the Bandcamp day - I mean the Bandcamp day definitely helps for giving all the fees straight to artists and also for promotion that Bandcamp is a thing and is a way to support artists - but even outside of Bandcamp day, you know… the bread still comes to us rather than getting a fraction of a cent from a lot of other streaming platforms.
JWords: Yeah. Regardless, even if we weren’t able to release this and Bandcamp didn’t even exist - Bandcamp days didn’t even exist - I feel like if we just drop it on this platform only for this amount of time, you’re able to see some revenue, you know.
maassai: Right, exactly.
JWords: You just gotta feel confident in yourself and able to fund yourself, you know. And people are out here to support too.
Sam: Pivoting back to the album, what do y’all want - if there’s one thing that listeners should take away from the album, what do you think they should take away from it?
maassai: Hmm… That’s a good question, I like that question.
JWords: Yeah, that’s a good question. Actually, I would want the listener to just take and - you know, just listen to different types of music and not being so constricted to just “I love hip hop” or “I love dancers.” You know what I mean? You can even put it together. You don’t have to be locked in a box.
It’s definitely like - I don’t want people to feel so locked in a box, you don’t have to be in that box, you can just expand your mind.
maassai: I agree. I think that is kind of like the main message is just to push the concept of genres and… stressing the fact that we’re all multidimensional and we all are made up of so many influences.
JWords: And also just a new vibe for people to listen to, too. We weren’t really trying to make an album that sounded like anything easy, you know? That was not our goal.
Sam: On that note, let’s say that someone that only listens to hip hop checks out this album and they’re like “damn there’s so many cool different sounds.” Do y’all have any recommendations for albums that they should check out to go on from here?
JWords: Honestly, I got more influenced by performing and seeing other people perform or meeting people that make dance music. I would say a lot of my peers in music, like all their fucking music is amazing.
Tom makes great music, Chris Jones, you know, DJ Swisha, they’re all big influences, and we all were able to play together or hang out and influence each other. Even being cool with hip hop people - it was like being around both worlds and just getting inspired by everyone and everything.