Interview: Rapper DUCKWRTH and the Concept of “Uugly”

“Let’s get ugly.”

In his rebellious nature, Jared “DUCKWRTH” Lee is equal parts punk rock and hip-hop. The founder of his own “funk wave” movement, DUCKWRTH has been going against the grain since he was a kid: Growing up in a pastor’s home in South Central Los Angeles, he would sneak into his sister’s room to listen to her records, a world that was off-limits to him. He dove into a space that spanned across funkadelic rap, neo-soul and rock, what would become a foundation for his own aesthetic.


Like so many artists, DUCKWRTH’s music encompasses all the sounds and colors from his upbringing. A way with words and a taste for the weird eventually had him gravitate toward making music despite having spent four years at a San Francisco art school.

He collaborated with producer/singer The Kickdrums on his last project titled “Nowhere,” that traipsed through an assortment of hip-hop subgenres ranging from Southern hip-hop to experimental. Now with his first full-length album, “I’m Uugly”, the bass is a little more bouncy, with lyrics exploring what it means to make something out of nothing; to recognize the beauty in everything, even when it’s deemed ugly.

The 5th Element Mag: What’s the story and concept behind “I’m Uugly?”
Background story with “I’m Ugly” is that it was a whole different project that was coming from a different place – a more vibrant, positive place. I was starting to notice aspects of my life (and the world in general) didn’t have that (positivity). I wanted to make something where I can express those darker ideas, to be able to speak the language, but then make something positive from that to help people transmute into a better place.

5TH: So the idea of “uugly” is about self-acceptance.
Yeah, exactly. Pretty much just accepting the uglies, the flaws, the knacks in your life. Once you accept it then you can elevate from there. It also comes from the idea that people of color are rarely seen associated with the beauty standard – we’re always set on the back burner. Basically I wanted this project to tell them they’re the shit.

5TH: That concept reminds me of Afropunk, more so that it’s one of few spaces where black culture and identity is wholly celebrated in all shapes and forms.
I’ve gone the last three years and it’s something amazing every time. It’s so dope to see so many people wear their colors and textures, and to have a sense of pride. It took a long time for these people – our people — to come together and recognize that we are the shit. Afropunk is definitely making waves of pushing culture and we’re just going to keep making them.

5TH: Is it true you were forbidden from listening to hip-hop as a kid?
I stumbled upon it by hearing my sister play it secretly in her room and I always used to wonder what that bass was coming from. I used to sneak in her room and steal her CDs, play them while she was gone and then place them back ever so neatly when she came back. (Listening to hip-hop) was such a taboo and I was naturally rebellious. It kind of became a defense in high school too; it was my way of guarding myself. I didn’t exactly fit in like everyone else – I was the “other” type of black kid in high school. But the one thing everyone had in common was hip-hop. I was used to battle dudes; people used to question me all the time until I opened my mouth.

5th: Who was she listening to at the time?
The Roots, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, Outkast, Common, D’Angelo. Pink Floyd too.

5TH: I feel like certain rock subgenres – prog rock and punk especially — might be made by people of different skin tones, but the motives are more similar than different.
That’s why I was able to go back-and-forth between both. For me, punk was a complete rebellion against what was I was expected to look and act like as a black person, something I could connect to. The whole freedom and liberation aspects of the music too, the perspectives on politics boggled my brain because you’d have lyrics reflecting that but then you’re moshing at the same time. That spoke to me, it still does today. But hip-hop did the exact same thing too and you can see it more now; groups like Flatbush Zombies, Odd Future, Death Grips have a punk sense to them now.


5TH: When did you start making music?
I was in a choir when I was younger, around 5-years-old. That’s when I learned how to understand music – harmonies, tones, rhythm. Later on, I started in college because my homie had GarageBand and would make music and he told me to hop on a beat he made and from there I’m here now.

5TH: Compared to previous projects, “I’m Uugly” has a different, more funk-based sound, how did you land on on this approach for your first full album?
It started with environment, really. For my earlier stuff, I was in Oakland and San Francisco, in this vibrant art scene so my rhyming patterns and subject matter was more spacey. Fast forward to “Nowhere”, I was living in New York with more nature, fruit and weed. But being in New York, you’re in the city with industrial buildings, so the “Nowhere” record definitely had an edge to it. For “I’m Uugly,” I wanted it to be the total opposite, but I wasn’t there quite yet. It wasn’t until I moved back to LA that I knew I’d find that sound I was looking for. Within that process, I was able to be open. Whether it’s all the LA nature or the sun, I don’t know, but I knew I had found my sound.

5TH: How many songs did you originally write for this record?
I might record 200 songs so I can perfect and release the ten songs on the album. It took that practice and work to figure out what I do and don’t like about my voice and delivery, what can I do better and you just fine tune it, polish it and present it. And that’s how that lasts, that’s where quality comes from. I bet Frank (Ocean) got hella songs that he isn’t going to release.

5TH: You went to art school to study graphic design, do you still apply those skills when it comes to your music and brand building?
I handle all aspects of my album, creatively. Type, colors, illustrations, branding, logo, any of that, that’s on my side. I make all my covers. You can’t come through with some simple shit, especially these days. You have to come up with a whole lifestyle package to a point where people can’t even spend all their time on their music because they have to come up with and uphold a brand.

5TH: When did you start getting into fashion?
Again, through my older sister. When I was younger, I couldn’t leave the house looking like a mess, so she always made sure I walked out looking right. The other day she shared some of my music on her Facebook and I thought she would’ve written something like, “Check out my brother’s music” but instead she wrote, “He got it from me.” (laughs)

5TH: What are some of your go-to pieces or looks?
Black denim and Docs. If I’m performing, I’ll wear Chucks or Vans, otherwise if it’s an ordinary day, I’m rocking my Docs. I’m really into hardware too, like rings, stones, metallics and brass. And I also wear a safety pin in my ear.

5TH: Fashion is becoming so intertwined with hip-hop, do you think it should be considered its fifth element?
Well, there are tons of other things that could be added as an additional element to hip-hop; You could probably include skateboarding into that mix too. But I know older hip-hop heads might be against it, but I think they’re safeguarding the old testament of hip-hop, which is what they should do, but at the same time they also have to let that shit grow.

Listen to DUCKWRTH’s “I’m Uugly” in full below:

Nina Tabios

Nina Smoove aka Champagne Ninang. Certified hooligan. $F Bay Area born and bred.

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