Interview: JWords on Fusing Jersey Club & NYC Hip-Hop With Electronic Hardware

JWords' reputation is gaining momentum faster than the swift melodies she creates. As the electronic and hip-hop music industry continuously evolves and cross worlds, she's carved out a space for herself that is uniquely her own.

JWords. Photo by Sam Mckenna.

Hailing from New Jersey, JWords unexpectedly found her way into the music scene. Influenced by her Dominican heritage and the vibrant sounds of Jersey club, she brings a unique flavor to her beats and effortlessly weaves intricate rhythms, drawing inspiration from bachata, Latin jazz, merengue, and salsa—a true reflection of her cultural roots. This fusion of diverse musical influences showcases her ability to embrace the entire spectrum of music, seamlessly blending it with elements of experimental music and hip-hop to create a diverse soundscape.

In recent years, Words has been on a prolific streak of solo projects and collaborations. Their 2020 release, Velocity, showcases this fusion in full force. Building on this momentum in 2021, Words teamed up with Nappy Nina for the captivating collaboration, Double Down. Currently, she is on the cusp of releasing another collaboration with Brooklyn-based rapper Maassai following their successful joint effort, Ve·Loc·i·Ty, in 2020. Their upcoming release, Headspace, promises to be a mesmerizing exploration of the human psyche. Set to drop on November 17th, this album represents the duo's second collaborative project, it showcases their continuous artistic growth and visionary approach.

JWords' beatmaking process incorporates a diverse range of electronic hardware, including her Roland SP-404, Eurorack modular system, and an array of equipment from Teenage Engineering. Notably, she became associated with Teenage Engineering in 2019, leading to her utilization of their gear and securing a tour with the brand.

In this interview, we delved into her journey as a musician and how she has tailored the Teenage Engineering OP-1 to fit her unique style. She shares her experience with equipment and live-performance setups, highlighting the evolution of her sound from high school to present day. With her vibrant energy and passion for mixing things up, JWords is certainly an artist to watch in the electronic music scene.

I want to jump right into the OP-1—how did you tailor it to being something that you could use?

So, I quickly realized that you can make drum loops on it. I started using mostly the recorder. You know how it's a little dial and stuff? So, I used that to forward my music making. But also, the OP-1 has great drum sounds, so I started sampling the drums into the SP-404. I quickly realized that it was a main source of creating, and being able to get sounds through it. The radio feature was so cool. You'd sample the radio and make cool songs like that.

So, I felt like it was more than I expected. I just had to get in it a bit more and try it out. It has great sounds for leads and melodies and stuff like that, too. So yeah, that was my little journey. I fell in love with it really fast after. I think I felt disappointed at first, just because it didn't do exactly what I wanted, but then a week or two later I was like, "No, this shit's fire."

For sure. Yeah, you got that TX-6 mixer. When it came out, it was a hot topic amongst the gear scene on whether or not it's useful. How has your experience been with that mixer?

I was actually talking to my friend about it on Saturday because he has it, too. We both were like, "Yeah, this is worth the money, every single cent." Because I use it every single day, every performance is on point, and it sounds clear. It's portable as hell, it's so small. The quality is top-notch. So yeah, I think it's worth every penny.

I think at first, because it's small and it cost the amount that it costs, people were freaking out and stuff. But I think it's worth it because I use it every single day, even with my gear at home. When I'm at home, I just plug all my gear there and I'm able to always practice my performance and create music with it. It also has a synth inside that I made an amazing song with. So yeah, you can't go wrong. All the things that you could do with it. And it's one of the best mixers I ever had, actually. I never even felt this way about a mixer.

Then the other mixers are huge or annoying to carry. My thing is, since I perform live and I have to travel, I love portable gear. Teenage Engineering has provided that for me throughout my whole career, so I'm just like, "Yeah, I'm going to stick with them."

How does the New York electronic music scene—which is burgeoning right now—influence you?

My first show in New York in 2017 was at The Glove. I would always go to New York, too, to go to shows and get inspiration and meet new people and stuff like that. I would put myself out there more around that time—the workshop that I did with Teenage Engineering was in New York. I love Jersey, but there's really no opportunities to push you forward here. It's more on the mainstream level. And I'm from Sidney, New Jersey, so it was also a little far from New York as well. It was a little ride over there. So, going to New York was just the quickest thing to put myself out there and stuff like that.

The show at The Glove was where I met Amani. We were all so young, you know? When I played that show, me and Maassai, we really connected. At the time I wanted to work with vocalists since I was making the beats and stuff. So, when I met her, I was just like, "Oh, snap." I really love what she was doing. She sings amazingly and raps amazing. Yeah, after meeting her, we knew we wanted to start a duo together and we did in 2020. That was such a great experience. Just meeting other new people and just getting more involved in the underground scene out there. I was also part of Half Moon when I first came out. I had a residency there, and I feel like that's where the electronic music for Black people out here blossomed. We was just like, "Oh, we're doing this for ourselves." We all wanted The Lot Radio residencies and we didn't have one. What we had was the Half Moon, and that was a great way to start being part of the electronic scene at the time.

Your live setup seems like it's how you're feeling at that point in time. Is it always what you're working with. or is it a constant thing that you use? Tell us about your live setup a little bit, if you will.

Yeah. My live setup has been an evolution. It's been getting better and better throughout the years. Because I always wanted to focus on performing live and being able to have my equipment be portable for me to carry to any performance. So, it's been a journey. At first, I would perform with so many different things. The Digitakt, my MinilogueOP-1. That was a lot to carry.

Then it kind of became the OP-1 with three Pocket Operators connected all through the OP-1, which was okay. It was cool. It was like, "Oh, I'm getting there." Then the OP-Z dropped, and then I was like, "Oh, I can just make a whole beat and perform with the OP-Z," and I did that for a minute with the OP-1. That was one of my best. That was in 2019, that was my best. It was a journey. Because my thing is I don't create music on the computer at all. I make all my music on my gear, and then I want to be able to just perform it live the way I made it. Now, my setup is the Digitakt. I like the Roland AIRA Compacts, the J-6 and T-8, because it's like a drum machine. So, that's super useful. Then my OP-1 and then my mixer. All that fits in my bag and it's been the best set yet.

The time we're living in right now is crazy, there is so much accessible electronic hardware out there. Could you elaborate on your experience with being able to go, basically from high school right into hardware, and how important it's been to be able to access these tools?

I knew from when I first got my first synth, I knew I wanted to make music like this. At first, I don't even know how I was able to afford any of this stuff. Just working hard and just spending all my money on gear and stuff like that. Also, I knew when I was younger that it's an investment and I was okay to invest in it. But yeah, I'm grateful that there is more affordable gear that people could buy because I wasn't even able to afford most of the stuff when I was younger. I think it's needed for these companies to make more affordable stuff that everybody could use and have access to. Because even with a modular rack, it's expensive as hell. Not like everybody could afford it, which sucks. I'm grateful that I'm able to get equipment for free or work with some companies to get some stuff so I can perform with. Other than that, I wouldn't be able to afford most of the stuff.

I think at the time, too, seeing a lot of white men be able to get stuff for free, I was just like, “No, I'm going to get shit for free, too”. I made that a point in my life because, if y'all could do it, I'm making better shit than you, I'm going to get in with these companies as well. Luckily, they've been coming through. I just believed in myself enough to know that I was able to get stuff, and I was going to be able to be good.

Speaking of that, could you share a little bit about some challenges or obstacles that you may have faced over the course of your career, just due to your gender or your ethnicity or both?

Not getting paid correctly for a lot of stuff, and having to go the extra mile all the time. Personally, I feel like I have to do so much to be able to receive just even a little bit. I knew at the time when I was starting, I didn't know many women producers that were doing their thing. The other women producers I knew were white and stuff like that. So, I was just like, we need more of us. That's why I started teaching. I've taught [workshops] with Building Beats that focus on more lower income neighborhoods and stuff like that.

Being able to teach Black kids was such a big important part. Just teaching people that don't have the means to in general. I just did a workshop on Saturday and I was able to bring gear and put people on how to use it. So, I always try to give my knowledge back because I don't feel a lot of people do that. At least a lot of white people. No white person has ever taught me, so I've made it a point to be able to teach and give back and stuff. Because information is gate kept, so I didn't want it to be gate kept anymore. I basically just taught myself how to use everything and how to maneuver through the scene, or just the music industry. Or even working with companies and them acknowledging me.

It's been challenging. It's been challenging, but worth it. A few weeks ago, there was a festival out here and I met Georgia Anne Muldrow. She performed. When I went up to her and I was like, "Hey, I'm JWords," whatever, she was so happy to see me, which made me so happy because we had a moment. She was just like, “Oh my god!”. She was thanking me for doing what I do and stuff like that. So, she felt like what she did wasn't taken for granted. Because she was a direct inspiration for me. It made me feel likeI have to keep going because it's not even about me anymore. It's about who I am inspiring and the next generation and who else is going to come in and produce amazing music. That it's not just a guy or a white guy or something like that.

The official video for "Backwards" by H314, JWords' collaborative project with Maassai.

You produce both hip-hop and electronic dance music. You got it all blended in together seamlessly, which is dope. But can you talk about how your creative process may differ when you're trying to make, let's say, a hip-hop track for Nina, but then you're also trying to work on your new solo material? Is it like, I'm making hip-hop today and I'm focusing on house music the next day?

I guess I never thought about it. Whatever how I'm feeling, I'll make something in that vibe. If I'm feeling like I'm going to make some crazy shit today, I'm going to do that. But usually I never go sit down and be like, "Oh, I'm going to make a hip-hop track today." I never even try to make songs, tracks that my friends, the beats that they usually get on. They usually just get on what I like.

Luckily, they trust me enough to know that I'm going to give them something that is going to challenge them. They also like the challenge. Let's say if a beat is up tempo. Because even Nina, she got on some 160 BPM beats. Sometimes I'll make a fast BPM song but I'll add slower, like half-time some things to make it groove a certain way that they could rap on and stuff. I'll just go in, make however I'm feeling and then I'll be like, oh, this reminds me of Nina. She'll probably want to get on this. Or this one reminds me of Maassai. I think she'll get on this nicely. I also learn what kind of music of mine they like, so I'll send them that type of stuff. It's just natural. However I'm feeling I'll just do it.

Has there been any resistance you've faced trying to bridge those genre scenes together?

No, not at all—because even with the electronic scene, it could be really white sometimes. Adding a rapper in, that shouldn't be so left field. It's Black music, so it's not like we're doing something extremely crazy. I feel like a lot of electronic music gets whitewashed and stuff like that when it's not even white. So, me bringing in a rapper, me doing a [rap] album on the side, I feel like it's needed to elevate and grow the genre. I love fusion. When I was in the band, it was a psychedelic fusion hip-hop band. So, I was always used to incorporating hip-hop because I feel like that's how I fell in love with music and stuff like that. So, I never tried to neglect it. I felt like it has always been a part of me. I learned something huge from J Dilla and Madlib, they were my main inspiration. What they did was create their own sound. So, I have to create my own sound. That's what I have to do. I never felt like I needed to make beats like J Dilla or Madlib. I felt like what they taught me was to make your own shit. Study everybody, see what they're doing and do the opposite. So, that's what I did.

Your latest solo project is Moods. Could you share a little bit about your process in creating that album?

I've been experimenting with making more techno stuff lately, so I just wanted to showcase what I've been working on real quick. Because me and Maassai are actually dropping our second album in November. I like to keep my fans like, here, have some music. And then I love that little EP because that's what I sound like now, so it sounds super like what I want it to sound, you know what I mean? Whatever I drop on my Bandcamp, I guess, it is serious, but I consider it more just growth here.

So, you and Maassai, this is taking things back to how you first started, with your group H3IR. Whats it like being on your second album when the first project was right at the start of your career?

Yeah. That year, 2020, was the first year I started releasing music. I started off with SIN SENAL, my first album. Then it went through little Bandcamp drops, three songs each, which boosted my stuff. Then working with Maassai, we always wanted to start a duo, like make an album together. Once we dropped that, I really feel like it pushed us forward, too, because so many people were so excited to hear it, so many people bought it. We made merch. We did our thing for a self-release. It did really well. It was kind of impressive. It was like, "Oh wow, okay." From then, we were just like, "Okay, word. We're going to continue." We got hit up by a record label that we spoke with, and they're like, "Yeah." So now, we're here with our second album so I'm excited. It's been a journey.

Working with Nina, too, that was in 2021. That was another big album. I was just so grateful to be able to even just produce for my friends. I was just like, "Wow, I'm really doing this. I'm grateful. They believe in me, we believe in each other. Just making timeless music that's going to last forever and stuff. So, I'm grateful.

Even with this latest album with me and Maassai, I still sent her beats. Because I'd be in the crib just making music, and if I make an amazing beat, I would automatically send it to Maassai. I'd send her all my best beats. And Nina, too, of course. But since me and Maassai have to do it together, I'm just like, "Yeah, she'll get on this crazy." You know what I mean? Yeah. And I work with Nina all the time, too. I was just on her latest album. I produced three songs there. Pretty grateful for that, for the opportunity.

Since it was during the pandemic, we were in the crib and stuff. I was already making so much music, so I would just send them packs and they'd be like, "Yeah, I like this and I like that, and I like this." They're both on each other's, on the albums, too, which is pretty cool. I'm grateful. We're kind of starting our own little vibe over here.

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