Jason Graham is an incredibly engaging speaker. Marked by rapid-fire thought and an infectious warmth and enthusiasm, the cadence of his voice almost implores listeners to perk up and join in. So even though he joined a recent interview with OPB remotely from nearly 200 miles away, at times it sounded like he was tucked away in the back corner of a neighborhood pub having a spirited conversation with an old friend.
The Bend-based emcee, who performs along with producer Colten Tyler Williams under the stage name MOsley WOtta, had a lot to say. The topics shifted effortlessly from his love of songwriting craft to some of his favorite rappers (Aesop Rock and Run The Jewels came up) and eventually to Wake Records, the creative label he co-founded last year. He even touched on visual art, as Graham is a talented painter and animator who created the complex animated music video for the group’s latest single “Just Like Them.”
But as the conversation turned to his experience as a Black artist living and working in Oregon’s high desert, the gregarious musician turned contemplative.
“I wonder, is this more a consequence of knowing that I’m in danger as a Black man and a mechanism of survival?” Graham said of his outgoing personality and the need to be liked. Like many Americans, the past few years have made him question everything; even the fundamental ways in which he once moved through the world.
Those themes are increasingly present in the music he makes. MOsley WOtta’s recent EP release, “This Is (Not) All There Is,” touches on concepts of identity, code-switching and racism. And according to Graham, he doesn’t intend to stop pushing boundaries and asking tough questions of his listeners or his community.
“This is the thing in the United States right now,” Graham said. “We cannot land in some comfortable spot of arrival.”
Jason Graham of MOsley WOtta joined OPB to talk about the group’s recent record, his unique place in Bend’s music scene and his hopes for DIY music in the wake of the worldwide pandemic.
Jerad Walker: You’re based in Bend in the high desert in central Oregon. It’s a beautiful place with all kinds of really cool things going on. I think people think of world-class outdoor sports and the incredible brewing scene there, but it’s not known as a hotbed of hip hop music.
Jason Graham: Yeah.
JW: What is your scene like?
JG: The hip hop scene here is always in this perpetual fledgling state. And one thing that happens here in Oregon a lot is folks get sold on the idea that it can’t happen here, which in this colonial-settler paradigm is kind of a little bit ironic because this was [once] a destination for people in so many ways. And now this is very much the place that you don’t want to be if you’re a creative. Portland has helped to change that narrative drastically. But oftentimes the perception is once you get to a certain spot, now you have to leave for Austin or LA or New York or Chicago or whatever. But I think you’re going to see—like Run The Jewels is a great example right now of a [musical act not tied to a scene with a] cult following who are breaking the mainstream understanding and idea of what a hip-hop artist is supposed to be, what hip-hop even means. There’s some people that are so good at what they do, I don’t think it matters so much where they are.
JW: You put out a seven-track EP early last year called “This Is (Not) All There Is” that really caught our attention, and it featured a song called “Just Like Them.” I love that track. It sounds like you’re almost having an internal conversation with yourself.
JG: It jumps around between sort of contemplating self in a community and self within self. But it’s also talking about big picture stuff.
I think I’ve been so thoroughly pushed into categories and thoroughly rejected from categories without ever getting to say anything about how I felt about the group I was being put in or pushed out of that. This song is a reflection of thinking that comes from the labels that are assigned to you or that are taken away from you.
JW: You collaborate with producer Colten Tyler Williams quite a bit, whose style I think compliments you very well. There’s another song on that EP called “TTKM (the top)” where y’all just kind of show out. When Colten brings you something with a certain mood, do you try to write or adapt lyrics to fit that sound?
JG: Okay, well, that’s actually a good point. This is a place where craft has shown up, and we did have more time to work on the art.
These kind of issues came up where Colten was actually saying it’s time for you to mature in terms of being in this dance with me, being in concert with me, being in tandem with me. Rather than the younger version of often any artist, but certainly in my artwork where I would just hit like 16th notes for the entire song, which speaks to the kind of rapid pace that you have in your youth where you meet somebody and you just touch tongues all the time. It’s all orgasm. It’s all high. It’s just jackhammer. But then at some point, you have to, as Jack Black says, you have to kind of slow down and be a little bit more gentle here.
What he was asking for in this very intimate way was to listen to the music that I’m creating, as it came through me. Really hear the nuance and the less than nuanced parts, the more obvious parts where you can change up the rhythm where you can tell the listener that you have also been listening, which will encourage them to do the same. And that’s a pretty powerful suggestion and insight. So, when he comes to me with these kinds of things, it’s been less about like let me see what I can just slap on top and more [about] wow can we really make some gorgeous sort of umami together. It’s very homoerotic. He’d never admit that.
JW: Is that song kind of a critique of the recent American experience that has been splayed out into the open in the last two or three years?
JG: Yeah. I mean, in some ways, this American experience has been going on for a long time. However, right now we’re having a reckoning where we are admitting that we’re seeing it. We’ve been saying it for a long time, but the key difference is that there’s an admission and a recognition, and with that, an ownership and responsibility. We hope, we pray, we trust, right? So yes, absolutely. And this is the thing in the United States right now. We cannot land in some comfortable spot of arrival.
By the way, this song does not do well live. [Laughter]
JW: Why is that?
JG: I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s probably the emcee.
Some of these songs, I think, really are much more for listening — to be walking and contemplate, the shoegazer thing or whatever. And then with popularity, if I had more followers on Instagram, this song would always do well live at the shows regardless of if we changed anything. [Laughter]]
JW: Living in Bend, making art in Bend as a Black man, what has been your experience the last few years? Do you feel like it’s been any different than another artist would have had?
JG: Well, Bend is so interesting this way. It is mellowing out very slightly, but only recently where being Black doesn’t come with a kind of instant celebrity and pressure to be a representative of all that is Black, which is both a requirement and an impossibility. But the temperature here has been really interesting.
When I do something that is deeply questioning inside of music that doesn’t pander to what I perceive to be the mainstream in Bend or Central Oregon, it doesn’t get shunned. We’re really good at passive-aggressive, so it just gets ignored…
But if I create some sort of all sorts band where we have this eclectic variety of all these different genres and smush that together and if we can play seven-minute jam-like songs with raps interspersed in some sort of core, relatively simplified message that you can drink beer to at a pre-COVID festival setting, then we’re the biggest deal ever. Is that message actually being heard? Are the content of those lyrics, are those actually reaching anybody? Or are we just contributing to party scene that is good at empowering escapist culture and denialist histories?
And I think that for a long time I questioned so much about my ability to get folks to like me or to get along with other people, I wonder is this more a consequence of knowing that I’m in danger as a Black man and a mechanism of survival? Is my ability to think about code-switching, which is brought up in “Just Like Them,” a mechanism of survival? Why is it so important that you feel comfortable? Why do I have to create music that betrays who I am to make you feel more at home?
JW: What do you have planned for the new year?
JG: We started WakeRecords.org, which is a creative house for diverse mediums we are releasing — within that, a small group of artists will be doing a variety of releases from here on out. The music industry is in such an interesting place right now, where the DIY artist who isn’t beholden to anyone else really has this wonderful niche to flourish within. Being able to cut out the middleman and interact directly with people — and that’s become very common now as we have all these Zoom meetings and everything — this is a phenomenal paradigm. And this is a really great time to do it and to just find those folks and to trust the artwork that you’re making. This is an important time to have that confidence.