A trans-Atlantic collaboration between the Harlem-based rapper and London producer WilfMerson yields an album of depth and beauty.
The Internet and the portability of sound files can open up the world for anyone who wants to find like-minded artists across the globe with which to collaborate. Social media allows musicians to find each other on platforms where artists congregate. Artists can connect, share, create, chop, edit, record, rinse and repeat. Art gestates, and then it is shared.
In theory, any artists, anywhere, can create together; all they need, minimally, is an internet connection, a microphone, GarageBand, or other software to record, edit and share files.
But just because something is relatively easy to do in theory does not mean that it is easy in practice. Art requires not only the right tools, but also talent, chemistry, the free flow of ideas and something intangible, too, a kind of divine spark that can transform something ordinary, into a work of beauty and depth.
On their new album which dropped this week, What You Need Ain’t What You Want, Harlem-based rapper Jay Cinema and London producer WilfMerson have done just that, but their creative encounter was more than kismet. As Merson tells it, a connection to other artists lit the creative spark that resulted in their virtual meeting, their decision to work together and the new project itself, all facilitated by the social media site Discord.
Discord, which started as an on-line community primarily for gamers, received negative publicity in the past as a popular meet-up spot for right wing extremists, a hub for revenge porn, “drawn porn,” and communities that engaged in racist and sexist behavior and abuse, as well as groups that spread misinformation. Today, after efforts to clean it up, Discord now hosts communities of artists who chat, collaborate, create and form art collectives, functioning as a kind of salon for the Information Age.
Merson says that he “got connected with Jay when TheBrilliantDan [Delaware based artist] got me connected to all the people at #illnevadie [an art collective] and I wrote a verse as a feature on their group project,” Merson, who also raps, then heard Cinema’s music and the two began to work on what would become What You Need. Merson subsequently produced, mixed and engineered all the songs on the record.
“We cut a few songs here and there,” Merson says, “but for the most part what you hear is what we made. It’s all honest; it’s not pretending to be anything more or less than just some art.”
At first, Merson says he sent three beats to Cinema, which later became the songs “Desolate,” “Gravel” and “Margiela,” song titles that the producer picked himself. “I knew it was gonna be more than a few tracks after I heard his verse on “Gravel;” his style of rapping was perfect for what I was making at that time.”
Eventually, the two artists picked ten songs for the album, and most clock in at less than two minutes. One of the longest songs on the project, “Undeveloped,” features a verse from a like-minded artist, Charlotte, North Carolina’s Shawn May, who has influenced both men, and helped them form their partnership for the record.
To those familiar with Cinema’s art, the album stays lyrically true to form. It contains penetrating lyrics, and profound universal reflections about a young man’s place in the world, a young Black man, and it holds up to repeated listening. Merson bends and stretches the sounds underneath Cinema’s bars, distorting the music to create a sense of both claustrophobia and urgency. The album frankly addresses Cinema’s mental and emotional health, as well as bigger social issues, but it is also hopeful and poetic, the work of a writer on top of his game.
Cinema is introspective but not self-absorbed, personal, but not parochial. Like much good art, his music is born from pain, but he transforms that pain into something universal, true and aesthetic.
The album opens with “Desolate,” a fever dream of doubt and fear, with what sounds like a looped vibraphone carrying the melody: “I see my blood on the ground/what if I bleed out,” Cinema spits, then “I was about five when I learned about death/I was about eight, thinkin’ I was next.”
The title cut begins with a saxophone and chunky percussion, and Cinema drops bars that sound sludgy and sticky, “what you need ain’t what you want/I need them dollars, baby.” “Gravel” samples Bulgarian music from the 1970s, and Cinema speeds up his flow to ride the beat. “Undeveloped” includes unmoored voices and a martial throb, with Shawn May handling the second verse. “Heart,” the brightest song on the record, speeds up the pace, but Cinema still raps with confidence, gliding over the loop. “Margiela,” the last cut on the record, features a disembodied voice in the background, over which Cinema slows down his delivery, as if he’s submerged in molasses.
Cinema is currently working on new music and Jacob Barlow, who manned the boards for Peace of Mind, Mind of Peace, is in the mix once again for a new project featuring the two artists. Last October, Cinema released the equally fine collection BrwnCinema, featuring producer Brwnsounds. Merson mixed and mastered nine of the eleven songs on that album.
As for Merson, he says he is creating new music everyday, and his extensive catalogue is evidence of his prodigious work habits. Creative collaborators and rhyme artists, take notice.
Recently, Jay Cinema spoke to Backseat Mafia at length about the album and his art.
This interview has been lightly edited for publication. Picture of Jay Cinema by Caleb Callahan. Picture of WilfMerson courtesy of WilfMerson.
Backseat Mafia: When did you become an active listener to music? Was there a point in your life when you became obsessed with a particular artist? Or, was there an event that transformed music into an important aspect of your life?
Jay Cinema: Growing up, music was not a big part of my life. It wasn’t until 2011, when I first heard of Tyler, The Creator, that [an artist] sparked my interest and eventual love for the art form.
BSM: What was it about Tyler’s music that drew you in?
JC: I was drawn to Tyler mainly because he was the first person I’d heard that I was able to relate to. Hearing him be open about his depression and other emotions most teenagers felt was beautiful to me, and made me feel like I belonged in the world. I don’t have a favorite Tyler song because they’re all immensely important to me.
BSM: Did anyone in your family influence your musical taste, or the artists you grew to love?
JC: I can’t say for certain that any members of my family have really influenced my love for music. The most I could say is that my father and mother did put me on to New Jack Swing artists, but for the most part, everyone I listen to I’ve found myself.
BSM: When did you decide that you wanted to create music? How did music change for you, from something you listened to, to something you needed to create?
JC: Since I was about 14, I had the desire to create and to make music. It wasn’t until I was in college that I decided to take that step in creating. The freedom college gave inspired me to go all in. Music went from something that I only enjoyed to a means of expression and fulfillment that I will always be grateful for.
BSM: What’s your artistic process? Can you explain a little bit about the process of creating the lyrics for one of your songs?
JC: Each song is created differently. Some songs, I will begin in my journal and take weeks to complete, others will be written in five minutes while I’m out walking. Real spontaneous for sure. I need to have the urge and inspiration to create; I can’t force it.
BSM: Many of your songs are intense and introspective. You seem to reveal a great deal about your inner life and your struggles, your emotional health. Does the process of creating a song with such intense emotion in it feel cathartic? Can you talk a little about this?
JC: Everything I say is completely from my own perspective, my own experience. When I first started making music, I did make songs that were not based on anything, but it didn’t feel right to me, I didn’t have that connection to my songs like I do now. Making my songs and putting them out into the world is a very therapeutic experience. That is what I equate it to, a therapy session. It keeps me sane.
BSM: I’ve spoken to you, and written about the song “Realize,” and how much it means to me, both my younger self, and my current self, as a parent of two adults and one almost adult. Did your mom really say to you, as you rap: you’re a smart kid, go back to school and finish? I’m curious about that. How does your mom feel about your music career now?
JC: Yeah, college is still a difficult conversation with not only my mom, but with pretty much everyone in my family. I honestly only went to college for them, so it definitely hurts them a lot. However, I feel like they’ve come to terms with my decision, especially with how serious I am with music. Even if they didn’t, I don’t care. I do this for myself at the end of the day. Looking back, “Realize” is definitely a song that means so much more to me then it originally did back when I first made it. All love and respect to Jacob Barlow [producer of the song] for masterfully putting that track together, and trusting me with. That song still opens many doors for me.
BSM: The new album, What You Need Ain’t What You Want! is a collaboration with WilfMerson.Tell me a little bit about him and how you came to work together.
JC: Me and WilfMerson connected through our fellow friend, rapper Shawn May, peace to him. [May is featured on the song “Undeveloped.”] Wilf was the first British artist that I had the opportunity to connect with, and he always stood out for how different he is. Wilf actually approached me to create this project together around the same time as both Peace of Mind, Mind of Peace and BrwnCinema [two previous projects] were being created, and I knew I had to make something with him when I heard the abrasive, wild beats of his. He told me he’ll produce, mix and master the whole thing, and I was sold.
BSM: Are there advantages to using one producer for the entire project?
JC: I love working with one producer because it is so cohesive. You get to fully explore the art of that producer and make something amazing, the result of two minds coming together. Additionally, more bonds are made as well.
BSM: Why is the project called What You Need Ain’t What You Want!? What’s the significance of the title?
JC: Wilf was the one who came up with the title. For me, I view it as us humans will look at something that we think we need, when really what we want is actually what we need all along. For example, I used to think college was a necessity, while music was a want. Now I understand that I needed music all along.
BSM: Most of the songs clock in at 2 minutes or less. Is this by design?
JC: I look at it like this: if I already said what I had to say in two minutes or less, why continue? Sometimes less is more, and that easily applies to music.
BSM: Can you pick one song on the new record and explain a little bit about the process for creating the song?
JC: One song that was fun to create was “Shit Ain’t Easy.” That might have been one of the first beats he sent me. Immediately the beat made me feel like the world was going to end, and I think I did my job of conveying that.
BSM: “Desolate” is an intense song (and title) and your rapping on the track is emotionally raw and wrought. Was the song difficult to make? Do you listen to your own music? How is it to listen to this song? Does the song (and other of your songs) express what you are going through now or are you kind of exorcising difficult feelings/emotions from other periods in your life?
JC: “Desolate” was a beat that gave me a ton of emotion. Writing that song was heavy, but real easy, everything just came out of me. It was one of those spontaneous songs that you can write in 10-15 minutes. I listen to my own music frequently. I say everything that I want and need to hear. Listening to this song reminds me that no matter what, I need to try. Nothing is given for people who look like me. We have to try harder than any group of people in this society. Hopefully, that will change within our lifetimes.
BSM: “Heart” is more upbeat than the other songs on the record. What does this song mean to you?
JC: “Heart” was actually supposed to have Wilf on it, but he didn’t get on it. But for me, I do view it as an optimistic song. It gives me a triumphant feeling, knowing that I was (and still am) an underdog, but I’m always making progress.
BSM: The last song is “Margiela.” What is the significance of the title? What does this song mean to you?
JC: “Margiela” was just what Wilf named the beat when he sent it and we didn’t bother to change it. However, I view the song as me understanding that I need to have a sense of urgency, as time will never stop. Time is valuable, like a Maison Margiela [French fashion house] piece. That’s how I view it.
BSM: Upcoming projects/collaborations/shoutouts?
JC: Man, hopefully 2021 is filled with all the projects I’m working on. Many projects have been started, and excited to get them done. Plenty collaboration projects on the way! I don’t want to say who, but a lot is being worked on. Shoutout to everyone I’ve been blessed to connect with last year, everyone who inspires me. Oh, I will say this though, me and Jacob Barlow are working on a followup to Peace of Mind, Mind of Peace. Super excited about that!
BSM: Now you’re based in Harlem, but you grew up mostly in Yonkers, a city just north of New York City. Any shout-outs to your favorite spots there?
JC: Man, shout-out to Yonkers for real! I can’t bring myself to shout-out one singular place because everywhere in Yonkers gave me the perspectives that are put into my art today. Got to shout-out the whole town in general for real. Wouldn’t be the man I am today without it, and I like to think that I’m a pretty good person.
Purchase the digital version of What You Need Ain’t What You Want!
Purchase Jay Cinema’s music on Bandcamp.
Purchase WilfMerson’s music on Bandcamp.