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Only in New York: H31R’s music and friendship is the result of the city’s creative culture.

New York

JWords and maassai. An innovative music producer and a poetic, rapping raconteur who met at a low-key gig in New York, embody what’s good about the city’s underground music culture.

Known collectively as H31R (pronounced heir/air), their self-described ‘weird and groovy’ take on Hip Hop embraces the traditions of self and social consciousness found in the heralded East Coast rap of t2he mid-nineties, intermingled with an ethos – sonically and holistically – to never go backwards.

H31R – ‘Backwards’ (Official Video)

maassai was born and raised in Brooklyn and takes great pride in being from the city where rap originates from. Directly influenced by the culture of Hip Hop, the artist grew up around vocalists and got her first experience of taking part in music through church. But by the time of maassai’s EP C0n$truct!0n, released in 2019, it was clear that she was taking on influences from far and wide. With production from the influential keiyaA on that debut project, a composition from South Carolina’s Contour on 2021’s With the Shifts – and an ability to freely weave singing with raps or sub-genres with scenes – maassai’s music galvanises different pockets of ‘what’s what’ in underground music, whilst remaining avant-garde.

Grace Jones | maassai

Which makes JWords the ideal partner. Raised in New Jersey, JWords cut her teeth as part of a band in Union City’s comparably small music scene before following her growing production credits across the George Washington Bridge to New York. It should be a challenge to cut through the noise in a city where beatmakers are ten-a-penny and everyone and their housemate has an SP-404, but JWords does so with sped-up, club-ready drums and the embracing of synthesisers and drum machines that few are experimenting with. A monthly residency on New York’s crucial creative touchpoint, The Lot Radio, has become a space for JWords to experiment with music in real-time, inviting friends on air for broadcasts that champion New York’s new wave of expressive underground music.

JWords and Keenyn Omari @TheLotRadio 02-19-2024

The duo’s friendship extends beyond the studio and stage, acting as the cornerstone of their latest collaborative album HeadSpace. The record touches on self-acceptance and authenticity, themes that unravel organically thanks to the comfort of creating amongst those who care for each other.

Released at the tail end of 2023 by London-based Big Dada Recordings, an independent level run by people of colour for artists of colour, HeadSpace has further built an audience for H31R outside of Brooklyn where the beatmaker and lyricist originally met. They are soon to tour Europe for the first time off the back of the record, whilst a collaboration with UNCLE will ensure their album is fittingly plastered all over New York – the city where their record came together and a city where life-changing friendships can be made at the next gig you attend.

HeadSpace – Album by H31R | Spotify / https://h31r.bandcamp.com/album/headspace

TELL US ABOUT THE TIME YOU TWO FIRST MET…

JWords: We’ve known each other since the beginning of Fall in 2017. We were both performing at a showcase event. I was playing a beats set and maassai was doing a live set with a sax player and a drummer. She was singing and doing poetry. I didn’t even know maassai was a rapper until after – I thought she was a singer because her voice was so amazing. Then I heard her rap and they were even more amazing.

maassai: Well, that’s because… JWords didn’t see my whole set.

JWords: I was actually upstairs smoking. But when I came down, it was just amazing sounds.

AND YOU TWO HAVE NOW VERY MUCH BECOME FRIENDS OUTSIDE OF MUSIC. WHAT EFFECT DOES THAT HAVE ON THE MUSIC YOU MAKE? AS A RAPPER CAN YOU BE A LITTLE MORE VULNERABLE ABOUT A PRODUCER YOU’RE CLOSE TO, OR AS A PRODUCER, ARE YOU MORE LIKELY TO TAKE A FEW RISKS?

maassai: I generally don’t like to make music with people I don’t like. To be in a group together is a relationship of sorts. We have to get along, care about each other and respect each other to make it work. And make the commitment to working together, too.

JWords: It was probably four years until we started making music together. We made songs together that were used on each other’s solo projects, but even then we knew it was like ‘We need to make an album, we need to make a group.’

maassai: We cultivated our friendship more so first before we got into the weeds of being in a group together.

WHAT IS YOUR CREATIVE PROCESS AS A GROUP LIKE?

JWords: I make a lot of music on my own, but there are specific beats that I will make with maassai in mind. I know what style she wants and what she tends to like. Stuff that is a little unorthodox. Let’s say I make a real good beat, the first person I often want to send it to is maassai, and usually, she feels it.

A perfect example of this was the Backwards beat. We had an upcoming studio session booked in and so I showed her the beat, and she had written that song to it within fifteen minutes.

maassai: She’ll send me packs (of beats) too. I’ll go through them and see what speaks to me.

AND WHAT BEATS DO SPEAK TO YOU?

maassai: I like the gritty, weird beats and the really groovy beats. So somewhere between the two where they have a kind of Hip Hop or housey groove to it, mixed with a load of stuff. All of J’s beats are weird.

JWords: I think the ones with a bassline and some thumping kicks are the ones maassai gravitates towards. Although I think she’d be able to rap on almost all of my beats, even the really fast ones.

HEADSPACE IS NOT H31R’S FIRST RELEASE HAVING RELEASED VE​·​LOC​·​I​·​TY IN 2020. HOW IS THE NEW ALBUM DIFFERENT FROM THE PREVIOUS ONE?

JWords: ve​·​loc​·​i​·​ty was a case of us just compiling all of the songs that we have together, whereas this one feels a little more organised and thought out with a theme in mind. Mutual experiences. Since we’re friends and hang out a lot, we go through many similar experiences. This one was more tied to growth

maassai: And I think sonically this one is more cohesive. It all sounds like it fits whereas the album was everywhere – which was also cool. We were younger on the last album too so there’s more angst and anger. I think HeadSpace is more grown and more mature. We’re more at peace with the world around us.

Even though parts of that are fucked up, it’s about understanding that and accepting that and being like… ‘we’re here.’

ANOTHER DIFFERENCE IS THAT HEADSPACE WAS RELEASED WITH A RECORD LABEL AS OPPOSED TO COMPLETELY INDEPENDENTLY. HOW DID YOU FIND THAT EXPERIENCE?

maassai: It was great to have that support system. We released ve​·​loc​·​i​·​ty on Bandcamp, real quick out of nowhere, a lot of people liked it thankfully. Working with Big Dada on this album, like J said it has been more thought-out, we’ve been able to get feedback on things.

And we’ve still had complete creative control. All of the concepts and creative direction are all us, but the label has been there as a support system to support us do what we want to do. As artists who haven’t had that in the past, to be able to have this experience is great.

JWords: Having the label push it, helping us to get more international press, bringing us into new ears and getting us new fans… the team have been great to work with – and they’re mainly women as well who have been helping us out, which is important to us.

WHAT WAS IT ABOUT BIG DADA THAT MADE THEM AN APPEALING OPTION TO WORK WITH? WERE YOU AWARE OF THEIR HISTORY AND THEIR IDENTITY BEFOREHAND?

JWords: The fact they approached us rather than the other way around was important. And then you look through their history and iconic artists releasing with them – MF DOOM, for example. That kind of approach to Hip Hop is a good fit for our sound.

maassai: It seemed like they were approaching things from a very ethical standpoint. They are run by People of Colour (POC) for POC artists. It seemed like they cared. If we were going to be a part of any label, it felt right that we would be a part of a label like that.

JWords: They care about us, as humans.

maasaai: And they stand for something that we also stand for. That’s cool.

BIG DADA HAS RELEASED THE RECORD ON VINYL AS WELL. IS THAT AN IMPORTANT LANDMARK FOR YOU BOTH?

JWords: It’s important. I feel like our work exists well in physical formats. The last project we released together sold out on cassette, so to have people be able to support this one on vinyl is big. Especially because of how costly it is, so that’s another way the label helped. It’s a dream come true.

maassai: This is my first time on vinyl, ever. I feel like the cover is iconic as well. Our friend Yatta who is a photographer took those pictures of us. It’s the front and back of the record sleeve is one picture. I’m really pleased with how that came out.

ON THAT ‘PHYSICAL’ THEME, THERE’S GOING TO BE A FLYPOSTING CAMPAIGN FROM UNCLE PUTTING THIS PROJECT ALL OVER THE PLACE IN NEW YORK. WHAT ABOUT THAT PROSPECT APPEALED TO YOU?

maassai: First of all, it’s sick. Everyone wants that!

JWords: These social media sites, it feels like they’re dying. I think being able to see promo in real life will be so sick to see. Having that in-real-life connection is going to feel so great. Sometimes it be feeling like so much work to post on Instagram. So doing promo work like this feels good.

maassai: The way the algorithm works online as well, our music is shown to a specific demographic of people. So random people just walking down the street being able to see what our music stands for, to be able to expose our ideas to a whole new demographic of people, that is exciting.

THERE IS AN EXCITING CLUSTER OF PEOPLE MAKING ALTERNATIVE HIP HOP IN NEW YORK RIGHT NOW. PEOPLE LIKE AKAI SOLO, NAPPY NINA, STAS THEE BOSS, MIKE AND ARMAND HAMMER. MANY OF THESE YOU HAVE COLLABORATED WITH OR PERFORMED ON THE SAME LINE-UP AS, SO WHAT IS THE COMMON ETHOS THAT YOU SHARE?

maassai: Everyone that you just named, it’s an honour to be on a list with them. They are all artists who are doing their own thing, breaking boundaries and not following the status quo.

JWords: Yeah they’re all super unorthodox, creating their lane. It’s super cool to be associated with each other because, we don’t really make similar music but we’re able to be a community still. There’s no competition, no one is stepping on each other’s toes. We’re able to co-exist with each other and love each other. It feels like in 20 years we’re going to be able to look back and be like; ‘Wow, we’re iconic…. Legendary.’ (laughs)

STICKING ON NEW YORK, WHAT’S THE BEST THING ABOUT NYC AS FAR AS BEING AN ARTIST GOES?

JWords: The access to so many things, such as the random opportunities and random gigs that are so helpful when it comes to income. And being able to hang out with so many amazing people.

maassai: I’m not gonna be cocky but New York is one of the best cities in the world. If I was feeling a little more cocky I would say it is the best city in the world. It’s also changing a lot, so there are pros and there are cons. It’s very noisy. You’re constantly active but, you’ll never be bored. 

AND WHAT’S THE WORST PART OF NEW YORK CITY?

JWords: Gentrification. All the apartments are super expensive right now. It feels like they’re trying to kick us out of there. I love it so much though, I wanna spend all my little coins there and that sucks.

maassai: Yeah it’s also changing a lot. It’s super expensive.

MAASSAI, ON SHADOW SELF (TRACK 7),YOU SAY THAT ‘WE DON’T FEEL SEEN.’ WHAT WAS THAT LYRIC ABOUT?

maassai: That was a play on community. It is a play on this act that sometimes is put on. Sometimes with visibility comes a spectacle, a performance of sorts. And that, if you are performing rather than being authentic, you’re not giving yourself the space actually to be seen.

But it’s difficult to not perform sometimes. Being vulnerable is difficult, so the lyric is not there to condemn those who conform to the spectacle, it’s just a testament to how I want to be in my life – and how Jen wants to be in hers – based on the conversations that we have had.

IF THERE WAS ONE LESSON YOU HOPE LISTENERS TAKE AWAY FROM THE ALBUM, WHAT WOULD IT BE?

JWords: Mine would be about authenticity and staying true to yourself. In this life, we’re going to go through a lot of growing experiences and that’s okay. You don’t have to guilt trip yourself. There are people out there who love you for you and it’s important to gravitate towards those people.

maassai: Self-acceptance. Being on your own vibe and being unapologetically okay with that.

WHERE DO YOU IMAGINE PEOPLE LISTENING TO THE ALBUM?

JWords: A long drive. Time to get into your thoughts, your feelings. Or at the club. Get real emotional in the club and start crying with your soulmate. Or get emotional and meet yourself at the club… what about you maassai?

maassai: I think HeadSpace works at a house party. Not too many people, more of a G2G (get together). With people who you actually like. Y’all are getting lit, but you’re having conversations. That’s perfect.

AND FINALLY, WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU BOTH?

maassai: We’re going on tour in Europe for the first time which is so exciting. Last time I checked, our biggest location for listeners was in London, so it’ll be great to take the music there. And we gon’ turn up for these performances.

JWords: To sell the vinyl to people in person, to meet some of the fans out there, is something I’m grateful to have the opportunity to do.

maassai: And we gon’ turn up for these performances. This album is a lot of fun to perform – there’s a lot of different energies. At some points, it gets introspective and at others, it’s really dancey.

JWords: The beats sound amazing live. And maassai will be rapping her ass off.

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