Since releasing his eagerly anticipated "DRKLNG" mixtape last week, Ojay Morgan hasn’t done much talking. The 25-year old, Brooklyn-based darkwave rapper and multimedia artist, the force behind mischievous alter ego Zebra Katz, opted to lay low while fans and critics dissected his first collection of songs in two years. He’s been eavesdropping on the conversation occasionally via Twitter, and we called him Wednesday (May 22) for some background on the 29-minute project, which includes a standout remix of his breakthrough single "Ima Read" by Busta Rhymes.
"I didn’t release a statement or anything at first because I felt like the music should be able to speak for itself," says Morgan.
During our conversation, he talks about the recent spate of darkness in hip-hop, not belonging to a sexuality genre and the "Trading Spouses" episode that inspired "DRKLNG." This weekend, Zebra Katz heads to Europe on a two-month tour, including a few opening slots for Die Antwoord.He’s releasing EP versions of both "DRKLNG" and his previous mixtape "Champagne," retitled "XXMMII," on June 4 and June 11 via iTunes. He’ll also appear on Icona Pop’s debut full-length out this summer.
Let’s start with the elephant in the room: The Busta Rhymes remix. Where did that come from?
Diplo actually told me he was working with Busta and somehow “Ima Read” came up and he expressed an interest. So last year when I went to L.A. with Njena [Red Foxxx] we went over to the studio to meet him for the first time, which was incredible. I was so star struck and am still. It was just surreal that I was actually getting to meet him and that he had heard the track and liked it. About four months after that he sent me the track and I just exploded a little bit because I didn’t know what to do with it. I wasn’t sure if he was gonna release it on his new mixtape or something, but he just gifted it to me, which was amazing. To have a hip-hop legend on a track that I produced six years ago was mindblowing to me after Tricky and Gangsta Boo and Azealia Banks had already made versions of their own.
It sat there on my computer for a while until one day I felt like it was time to release new music and I felt that I was ready for it since I was getting ready to go on tour.
Was it hard to keep it a secret all this time?
Yeah. I let some friends know, but I didn’t want to tell too many people because it wasn’t like I was trying to boast or brag or anything. “Oh, by the way, I was blessed by a legend.” I just held onto it until I had a larger project.
The EP is all one file on Soundcloud. Why didn’t you break up the songs?
I think it works better that way. To me, those tracks all line up and tell a story. I released the "Champagne" mixtape the same way two years ago, and I wanted to continue that. If people are interested in having the individual songs, I prefer that they buy them.
What’s going on with the character of Zebra Katz now, x number of years after "Ima Read"?
He has this identity of the dark rapper, the dark villain, the dark lord of the fashion world. On "DRKLNG" he wanted to celebrate that and sort of embrace this persona that has been pushed in the media. I think a lot of people are frightened or creeped out by Zebra Katz from what I’ve been reading, which is fun. I actually don’t think the music is quite as doom-laden as a lot of people say. It’s dark, but I find a lot of light in it. I think it’s lighthearted in a lot of ways.
We do seem to be on the precipice of a really dark moment in hip-hop. There’s your EP, the new Kanye tracks, Travi$ Scott’s tape, too.
I heard "New Slaves" and saw the performance on 'Saturday Night Live' and thought it was genius. I love all those performative aspects and I think it was something different for Kanye. I know he’s been working with HudMo [Hudson Mowake], who’s a good friend of mine, and I felt like I could hear a little bit of him in there. But I don’t really think too much about these things. It’s hard for me to listen to new music while I’m making music and still keep a clear mind. I just listen to the beats that I’m working with over and over again. I want to develop a sound fully before I expose myself to everything else out there. Musically, I’m really doing the same thing that I’ve been doing since "I’ma Read"— just keeping things really minimal and trying to hold back from doing anything overproduced.
I read a tweet recently from someone that said "Zebra Katz is all of the drugs in one rapper," and I felt like that was reassuring. I wanted to make music that felt like you were on something or having an out of body experience, to create that atmosphere sonically without just talking about molly all the time.
Where do you think Zebra Katz fits in hip-hop and the wider culture?
I don’t want to fit. I just want to explore. And I’m still exploring and experimenting. I’m wandering and I don’t want to fit in one genre or one sexuality group that isn’t even really a thing. I want to be larger than that. I want to break boundaries sonically that haven’t been broken before. That’s what I’m trying to do.
Where do you go for your dark inspiration?
I was really inspired by a lot of clips on YouTube, specifically "God warrior." A lot of my friends know it because I play it on a loop and just think it’s so hilarious. It’s from "Wife Swap" ["Trading Spouses"] and there’s this woman who goes crazy and starts screaming about gargoyles and psychics and vampires and all these really fantastical things with great imagery. I like it because she seems to be losing her mind, but I think a lot of people have a similar thing going on when they’re faced with certain things they can’t wrap their head around. They build all of these false beliefs and ideas about it before they actually understand it.
The "I Think We’re Alone Now" cover is one of the darkest tracks on the EP, but the original is almost the polar opposite. What made you think of that?
I’m a big fan of music culture and I feel like Tiffany was the break of monoculture. When I think of her, I think of the music video and the days when artists were selling millions and millions of records and making tons of money, and that shit’s kind of died. The monoculture of the ‘80s and ‘90s is dead now.
There are a lot of covers I’ve wanted to do over the years, but I liked the idea of doing this one first because I feel like it can have different meanings depending on the perspective that the person listening to it is coming from. For me I think it kind of works as a statement of how I feel in this industry. Zebra Katz is very much alone, but he’s alone with his audience and his fans. That track is for them.
Are you looking for a label deal for a full-length album?
I’m looking to see what comes my way, but at the moment I’m completely fine releasing my own music. I see a lot of people get big deals and then they have this pressure over them to put out an album. Ilike the mystique of just putting out music whenever I want and being able to be as creative and weird and dark as I can. That’s fun and I don’t have to wait on the opinions of a team or a company.
Check out Zebra Katz' "DRKLNG" mixtape below: