Photo: Mancy Gant
Duckwrth On His New Project 'SG8*,' Where Rap’s Been & Where It's Going: "I Want To Be A Historian Of What's Happening Right Now"
Did anybody predict that trap beats would last this long? That’s not a slight against the subgenre, just an awestruck admonition that it's had such staying power. The rapper Duckwrth, for his part, didn't think it would still be a thing come 2021. "It's kind of funny — it's called trap, like people have been trapped," he tells GRAMMY.com with a chuckle. "I thought it would be in its hair-metal phase — like it's the corniest right now and people want to move on."
Again, he's not trying to diss the tsk-tsk-tsking sound omnipresent on the Hot 100. With his last two releases and one on the way, the rapper born Jared Lee positions himself as a Janus-like considerer of music.
Like that Roman deity of beginnings, transitions and endings, he’s absorbed in the future and the past — specifically, where rap's been and where it may be going. To the latter point, he thinks it's headed in a dancier, more electronic direction with a gallon of soul. Because Kaytranada engages both the heart and nervous system, Duckwrth evokes him as a bellwether.
If Duckwrth's 2020 album SuperGood was nostalgic in tone, his next project, SGX, will home in on the future. In between lies his latest EP, SG8*, which was released on Sept. 2. The title stands for "SuperGood" and refers to its eight songs, like "No Chill," "Link Up Time" and "4K." It's about the present — which, admittedly, isn't the most pleasant place to be.
"I've never dealt with anxiety before. It's a very new feeling for me," Duckwrth says. "I'd heard about it, but I just didn't feel that heaviness in my chest and erratic thoughts, that overabundance of fear." A mysterious and deadly contagion, randomly besieging the world, reaping widespread paranoia even among the well-adjusted? Who would have thought?
Thankfully, Duckwrth made it through the COVID nightmare, healthy and creative. A month out from the EP's release, he's currently cooking up the future-leaning SGX, his mind is on a post-COVID era, perhaps one where we can finally hurl Zoom into the ocean. (Which is, well, unlikely.)
But for now, we have SG8*, a succinct and mesmerizing portrait of where Duckwrth is today. GRAMMY.com rang him up on Zoom to talk about the project, which reflects all the gradients and colors of modern life as a pandemic winds down and Big Tech looms ever higher.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How have your gigs been lately?
They've been crazy. Last year, dropping my project, I didn't know the reach it had. People singing the music word-for-word kind of lets you know you did something good.
Give me the rundown of what you wanted to say with SG8* that you hadn't before.
I think for SuperGood, the sound was at a point where it was like nostalgia. So, I put a lot of sounds of the '70s within the instrumentation. And the subject matter was heavy on roller skating — "World on Wheels" and stuff. With this most recent project, I wanted to do something that was more present. Present-day soundscapes and subject matter.
I want to be a historian of what's happening right now. Not just like a newscaster, but speaking my feelings and other people's feelings we have together during COVID and s**t.
When pulling references and signifiers from the past, what did you specifically feel nostalgia for?
I basically just made a playlist of some of my favorite music from the '70s. Mainly, songs that had beautiful bridges or these really amazing keyboard progressions. I listened to that a lot. It had Blue Magic on there; it had Stevie [Wonder]; of course, it had Michael Jackson. It had Tame Impala — that's more recent — and Mac DeMarco.
Read More: Tame Impala Checks In From Hibernation
There are certain songs I can't even describe. I would say it's more synth-heavy with crazy jazz chords.
Do you consider yourself a nostalgic guy in general?
No, I consider myself an all-around person. I like to grab things from the past and the present, and from the future as well. It's kind of the middle ground between it all.
The specifics of COVID aside, what's your mood been like over the past 18 months?
I think in the past year and a half, we were forced to go inward and examine the deep things. It's like the surface of the ocean and the gunk. COVID was a chance for all the gunk to come to the surface.
What trips me out is that work was on screens and recreation was on screens, so it was just 24/7 screen immersion.
Yeah. We were off the grid because we didn't have to work, but we were on the grid because they were saying, "Stay inside and stay on your phone and watch movies." It was like the perfect ploy for going into the future, because everything's going to be technologically driven. It's crazy — very serendipitous. I have to really work to detach myself from technology.
How did these feelings bubble up in SG8*?
One, I've never dealt with anxiety before. It's a very new feeling for me. I'd heard about it, but I just didn't feel that heaviness in my chest and erratic thoughts. That overabundance of fear. I know so many people who dealt with that during COVID.
I was trying to illustrate what it would look like if the mask mandates were pulled back a little bit and I was at a party having a good time, wondering, "Do I feel safe right now?" It gets to the point where it's awkward, when I was just trying to have a good time.
Were you mostly feeling health anxiety or some other form of it?
It was that I didn't know what was going to happen. It was a very new virus, so it would hit different people in different ways. One could be someone who just had the sniffles, then somebody else who was in perfect health could be hospitalized.
There was no promise to your safety. And I think when that happens in a society where your safety is a promise, you go, "Aaahhh!" At every moment [when] I got a little bit hot or a sneeze or a cough, I was scared s***less. That was the reason I had anxiety, pretty much.
With this project, you said you're more interested in the present than the past. How did that affect the music? Which tools did you use to evoke the here and now?
As I was saying, everything's intentional. Once again, SuperGood was nostalgia; SG8* is very present; the next project I'm working on after this is going to be minimal and electronic, more like the future.
I'm intentionally putting myself in these places, but it's hard to talk about the present so much because of how the world is and how I feel and s***. But how it ended up in there was not just the subject matter, but soundscapes in some of the songs.
"4K" and "Link Up Time" have hi-hats and melodies that you'd find more in trap music today. Or even textures and tones: I even play with Auto-Tune a bit. Not because I couldn't hit my note, but because I like the texture and tone. So, just playing with modern tools and rhythms.
There isn't even that much analog on this one. There was [analog] instrumentation as usual, but it's a lot of modern sounds and techniques that we used in this project.
Duckwrth. Photo: Mancy Gant
Speaking of trap hats: Those were really popular for a while and still are, but we might be moving somewhere else by now. As a whole, where do you think the rap idiom is going?
I don't know. I didn't expect trap to last this long, but it's kind of funny — it's called trap, like people have been trapped. I thought it would be in its hair-metal phase — like it's the corniest right now and people want to move on.
My thought is that it's going to go back to dance/electronic and stuff. It's going to find its way back, because I see different artists really conquering [in that space], going hard right now. It may not be big as f***, but they have cult followings. People really respond to it in a different way.
I feel like house is going to find its way back. Not house as in EDM — classic house. You know what I'm saying?
I think I'm with you on that. Culture operates in 20-year cycles, right? In the early 2000s, that was all the rage. I think of Daft Punk or the dance-punk scene back then.
Hopefully. I think it's going to be kind of an intersection, because we have people like Kaytranada, who plays with disco and house, but is still very soulful, you know? I feel like the common person could hear it and they wouldn't be distraught. They wouldn't think, "Oh, this is something you only hear in Europe."
Kaytranada makes it very level and grounded for everybody. I feel like people are going to run toward that sound in making their own records, but we'll see.
Now that we're about to head into the "future" portion of this project, what can you tell me about the music or lyrics within SGX?
All I know is it's probably going to be playing with minimalism in the best way. Everything's going to have a purpose. It's going to be grooving heavy. It's going to be nicely stripped, but tight. Even vocally.
The song I feel would be closest to that would be "Clueless." Not specifically for the sound, but the performance of it. There were no extra ad-libs or dubs. They were very short phrases. I kind of like that because it makes me rethink song structure. I have to make sure this song is as powerful as a song that has a thousand layers.
Can you tell me about your collaborators on SG8*?
I was in the [HBO show] "Insecure" writing camps and that's how I met a good amount of these people, like the producer WaveIQ, who did "4K," "No Chill" and "Link Up Time." I met him there. We just caught a vibe and kept working.
I knew Phabo and Destin [Conrad] before. They literally worked in the same studio, so I would go from my room to the next door and say, "Whatchu working on?" and we'd just f*** around. We would just create, and had a flow.
Jordan Ward I knew for a while because I know him through my other homie, Ru AREYOU, who's a producer. He always came into the sessions and said, "Who are these kids?" with this smoky voice — this crazy rasp. I heard his music and was blown away.
I was making sure everyone who came into the circle was coming together and finding new colors, if you will.
Before we jump off, can you tell me about how the album art came to be?
I'm very excited because this is the first time I got to design a cover in a long time. I got to design the whole thing — the whole layout of it. It's very much midcentury modern shapes and stuff — colors and gradients and stuff. I tried to make this album feel very dimensional in that sense.
But, press play. That's all I can tell people. Press play.