One Beat At A Time: A Story of Depression and Recovery on WaMoo Papez’s Zebra
In 2012, producer and filmmaker Juan Alvarez—aka WaMoo Papez—was in a circumstance all too familiar to millennials in today’s America. Then twenty-two years old, the Dominican-born New Yorker had earned his B.A. in philosophy from SUNY Albany, but could only find work at a Gristedes supermarket. He felt unfulfilled and slipped into depression. He tried to escape his reality by drinking more than he ever had before.
WaMoo’s misery radiated outward and put a strain on his personal relationships. Soon he felt completely alone. It was somewhere in the midst of this low point that WaMoo simply became, in his own words, “bored” of self-loathing. He resolved to not only conquer his depression, but to chronicle it in his latest project Zebra, a brooding, trap influenced instrumental LP that just dropped today.
Zebra is a stark contrast to WaMoo’s previous, fast paced, boom bap-leaning albums. Combining murky samples with elaborate 808 drum programming, Zebra is a textured sonic narrative of a dark time in WaMoo’s life, sequenced to mirror his gradual ascent out of depression. The 16 track LP was created intermittently over the course of the past three years, a time period during which WaMoo first discovered southern hip hop legends such as Three 6 Mafia and DJ Screw.
WaMoo cites legendary producer J Dilla as a major influence on his early work, including his 2012 album We Float. No wonder, then, that Zebra is an intriguing fusion of Dilla’s plunderphonic inventiveness and southern hip hop’s haunting soundscapes.
The project samples everyone from autotune pioneer T-Pain to the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, masterfully melding all of the art with which WaMoo most identified during his depression. The dissonant video installation that accompanies Zebra is just as nuanced, having taken him over 168 hours to edit on Final Cut Pro. The hazy visuals resemble a dream sequence, a smorgasbord of scenes that range from people walking through the woods to clips of Rick Ross’ music video for “Nobody.” In the installation, words and phrases—“abject,” “blemishes,” “love”—periodically pop up, reflecting the thoughts that consumed WaMoo during his depression.
WaMoo is in a much better place now, as evidenced by our pleasant discussion at his Zebra listening party last week. Occupying the basement of Von Bar in NoHo, the party’s financial proceeds benefitted youth art program Art Start, where WaMoo volunteers his time. The event brought out a mixed crowd, no doubt a testament to the dynamism of WaMoo’s music and character. Some people sat and coolly vibed to the enthralling production, while others danced in full turn-up mode.
The album played twice, with the video installation also playing from a large projector. WaMoo DJed the event and gingerly worked the room. At one point, he shared a particularly spirited hug with a woman whom I imagine must know him well. The hug was an expression of elation, relief, and triumph all in one. Once WaMoo and I sat down, he spoke from a reflective, erudite place:
How long have you been making music?
I’ve been making music since I was sixteen, so about nine years. I started out making reggaeton beats because that was all I listened to at the time. Around 2008, my brother Mario introduced me to J Dilla and all that reggaeton stuff went out the window. Discovering J Dilla meant discovering a love for sampling. I find it a lot more fun to manipulate something that already exists than to create something brand new. For a long time, all I was bumping was Dilla, Flying Lotus, The Avalanches, all that beat stuff. I started the WaMoo Papez project in 2009 with the intention of keeping the spirit of J Dilla alive, but with my own spin to it, but it’s become its own unique thing as time went by.
Can you speak on what was going on in your life around conception of the project?
I graduated with a B.A. in Philosophy from SUNY Albany in 2012. No one told me that meant I was going to end up with no job prospects. Aside from a very valuable unpaid internship with a small film company called Camino Bluff, who taught me how to use Final Cut Pro, my only source of income was a minimum wage job at Gristedes, a hard slap in the face if there was one. As my reality seemed to get worse and worse, I felt an urgency to escape. The thing about escapism is that your reality gets worse when you come to, and the urgency to escape comes back and you’re suddenly in a vicious cycle. As a result I became deeply depressed.
At what point did you decide you felt you needed to break your depression and create something?
There was a point late last year where I grew bored of my depression. I got very tired of having thoughts of feeling like a useless, unnecessary, and inconvenient person. Those thoughts take a lot out of you. It took a few life events for that to happen, but when they did occur, I felt a need to break that pattern of thinking and man up to myself.
Having depression is a lot like carrying a really heavy backpack, while it’s on your back, you have to gather the strength to move around with it, otherwise you’re going to fall face first into the floor. I forced myself to do things I was afraid to do and I also forced myself to pursue a career in music, something I felt was worth doing. It was not easy, but I felt I owed it to myself to at least try.
Once things became a little clearer, I felt a rush of inspiration and suddenly, I had an urgency to create, and for the next 10 months I worked on finishing Zebra, a project I had abandoned 2 years ago.
Which song made you realize that you wanted to make a full project?
I made Whiskeystout, the third track of the album, in November 2014. When I was making it, it felt like I was making something special. Maybe it was because it was the first time I used hi-hat drum rolls, maybe it was because it was the first time I sampled T-Pain, but I felt like I was making something new and exciting.
When I make beats, creating a certain vibe or feeling is always more important to me than whether it sounds nice or clean—though that stuff is still very important. When I made Whiskeystout, I felt I was not only exploring new sonic territory, but it seemed like I was finally expressing myself a lot more openly. Because of that, I felt a need to explore this a lot further.
What song represented your lowest point?
“Life After Dinner,” the 10th track, and “Eye for Eye,” the 8th track, are good representations of my lowest points. They were made when I felt abandoned and alone. I sampled a Williams Carlos Williams poem for “Life After Dinner” and a Pablo Neruda poem for “Eye for Eye” because I felt their words encapsulated the bitter feelings I had at the time.
How long did it take to create the project? Were there any gaps in between production, and what spurred you to continue?
I began makings tracks for Zebra in 2012, but I didn’t know I was making something full fledged yet. I realized I had a solid project brewing sometime last year.
There were many significant gaps while making this production as I had to get my life together, such as needing a job and an apartment. I would usually spend about three solid months working on stuff and then stop for another five months, and then I spent the last few weeks (July-September) on post-production.
What I unintentionally did because of this, is that I created a document of my emotional states from days that were months apart from each other. Kind of like how The Autobiography of Malcolm X captures Malcolm’s state of mind when he was in the Nation of Islam, when he became disillusioned with Elijah Muhammad, his trip to Mecca and the epiphany he had there, and what he was thinking around the time he was murdered. Of course my story it a little less grand than his, but I could see myself getting further away from my old, sad self in these records.
Also, I tend to only create things for my own projects when I’m really inspired or feeling a really strong emotion. I may not make something great all the time, but I always have the comfort of knowing I made something genuine. I would rather work with the right ingredients and the right conditions than to phone it in and stick something in the microwave.
Can you speak on why you felt southern 808s hip hop was the best sonic palette for the project?
I listened to a lot of southern—Atlanta, Houston, Memphis—or southern inspired—Chicago, Toronto—hip hop the last couple of years. Like two years ago, my friend played Chief Keef’s “Love Sosa” in his car and I immediately was like “WTF is this shit and why haven’t I heard it before?!”
After that, I was bumpin’ Keef, Durk, Lil Bibby for a long time. Then I moved on to Young Thug, Rich Homie Quan, Future. Then it was Three 6 Mafia, Big K.R.I.T., UGK and DJ Screw. I just couldn’t resist anything that had that thick 808 bass, those stilted hi-hat arrangements, and those weird ass flows. It eventually bled into my work.
Because my project was inspired by the last two or three years of my life, it made sense to base it around the music I listened to the most during that period. While I still chopped samples and worked on creating texture-based music, I incorporated my favorite things about southern hip hop into my work.
It was a struggle at first—as I usually made shit that was similar to J Dilla and Flying Lotus. Check out my last album, We Float as a reference. I never made music that moved that slowly, so the rhythms were hard to get at first. I pushed myself, because I felt a need to change my style a bit as my old techniques for making music felt antiquated.
With effort I was able to make that style my own. To be honest, it’s a lot easier to make emotionally expressive music with a southern hip hop palette, because its dominant percussion style allows you to play with textures and forces you to get creative with the melodies and ways of chopping up samples; maybe it’s because trap and southern hip hop is the most popular style of music in my 20s, an important time in my own artistic development, but I feel more attached to it creatively than other forms of hip hop.
Can you speak on the video installation? At what point did you decide to augment the audio with visuals? How do the visuals, specifically the text, correlate to the project?
After I finished undergrad, I was a post-production intern at a small film studio called Camino Bluff. They were finishing a film called Arizona, which was about the effects that SB1070—the “show me your papers law”—had on the public and the state economy. While I was there, I learned a shit ton about film editing and they even gave me a free copy of Final Cut Pro, which I fucked around with by making little video collages here and there.
Fucking around with it made me want to include a visual aspect to my art. It allowed my work to become a more multifaceted experience. I don’t sing or rap, so adding visuals provides a good way of clearly expressing myself.
Since We Float, I always saw my music as something more amenable to an art gallery than a concert space. Zebra was always going to have a visual component, but I couldn’t quite conjure up a specific idea for a long time. While planning the listening party event, my friend and collaborator, Sara Radin of Cultureisland, suggested making a video installation to go with the album. I thought this was an excellent idea, and I got to work on it right away.
Since the album is essentially a sound collage, it made sense to make a collage for the video. I collected clips from my favorite rap videos, anime, shit from my old camera, as well as lots of archival super 8mm footage to create a short collage film based on my languid state of mind.
How long did it take you to compile the video? where did you find the clips?
It took a three week period of eight-hour days to compile the clips. I primarily used YouTube and Vimeo to find them, using search terms like “campfire,” “neon genesis evengelion,” “that video where Drake is in the Dominican Republic,” “driving on the highway,” “first-person swimming.” I also grabbed footage from my friend Charlie Cole, a filmmaker with whom I’ve collaborated for several of his films.
What do you hope the listener takes away from the project?
You cannot control how you feel, you can only decide what to do with those feelings. What you decide to do with them heavily depends on how strong your feelings are. Like, “I am angry with this dude. Will I talk things out, or punch him in the face?” Become one with your emotions, let yourself be as uninhibited as possible. Otherwise your emotions will eat you alive.
Can you speak on your listening parties’ proceeds going towards a positive cause?
For the listening party, I worked with my friend Sara Radin, who has this passion project called Cultureisland. She started Cultureisland as a way to document her inspirations, connect with other creatives and organize collaborative events. So far, she’s held five events similar to this listening party and has published twenty-six interviews over the course of her project. When possible, she partners with non-profits that serve causes she is passionate about.
For the listening party, we partnered with Art Start, an organization we both volunteered for (I did music, she did art) that (according to the event invitation) “runs daily workshops for kids living in city shelters, on the streets, those involved in court cases or surviving with parents in crisis. These workshops include music, art and dance programs that help instill confidence, hope, and creative thinking in youth who are going through times of challenging transitions.”