Why Zebra Katz Waited Seven Years Before Dropping His New Album 'Less Is Moor'

Zebra Katz
Ian Wallman

Zebra Katz

Even in the title of his new project, Zebra Katz has a lot to say.  His debut album, coming seven years after the release of his Drklng EP, is titled Less Is Moor (out March 20 via his independent label ZFK Records), referencing the Muslim people who inhabited North Africa in the Middle Ages.

Katz, born Ojay Morgan, is familiar with the moors. As a theatre student at The New School's Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts in New York, the rapper was told that as a black person, he would likely only get to play the moors in Shakespeare's plays. That led him to create a one-man show titled Moor Contradictions, where the character of Zebra Katz was born. 

But as Katz tells it, Less Is Moor has so much more to say. "It's an ode to the minimalism that brought me here," he tells Billboard. "It also has to deal with the fact that brown people are mostly given less and expected to do the most with it."

However you choose to interpret it, one thing is clear: Less Is Moor is a project worth waiting seven years for. On Katz's stunning new album, he shows off each and every skill that got him to where he is today, with sickening beats, on point lyrics and a mastery of musical moods. 

Katz chatted with Billboard about Less Is Moor, his artistic evolution since 2013, and how Little Richard has served as an inspiration of his for years. 

This is your first full length since 2013, and you've been releasing occasional singles in the time since. What's changed for you since then that led to a new full length in 2020?

I think there's been a lot of overall growth as an individual, a label head and a musician. When I first released "Ima Read" back in 2012, it was shortly after the release of my mixtape Champagne. And then the next mixtape was Drklng, and that was my way of taking a long-form mixtape and removing all the samples I couldn't clear and making an EP. 

I think the growth and time that I've had since then, it makes a world of difference. A lot of my confidence, I've had to kind of gain throughout the last year. As someone who is a musician and coming from a theater background, it wasn't the easiest transition, but one I met with grace and I'm really glad to have had.

My ear has also changed a lot, I know what my sound is. I have a lot more restraint with what I will do and what I won't do. And the most important thing was finances as an independent artist in order to get your music out there and to be able to keep the level of artistry I keep putting into my music videos as an executive producer and director. So yeah, all around madness. 

There's a significant amount of anger on this record ...

See, I think it's just really abrasive. You know, James Baldwin said that "to be a negro in this country is to constantly be enraged," and I feel like with this album, I'm dancing with that rage. Nina Simone said, "It's an artist's duty to reflect the times we live in," and I think we live in very desperate times right now. I wanted to take the experiences I've had within the last seven years and try to distill it into one full length, and that's what that project is to me. 

Alongside James Baldwin and Nina Simone, were there any other artists in particular you felt inspired by?

Yeah, I would have to say Little Richard as one of the archetypes of rock 'n roll and as a character in rock and contemporary history. We overlook him a lot, and I think it's because he's actually alive, and he's outlived a lot of his contemporaries like Elvis and the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix and Chuck Berry.

We live in a society that won't really give you your roses until you've passed, and I think it's really clear to see that. On songs like "Lousy" I speak about that: "They all love you when you're dead and you're six underground." I look at him as an archetype, because I look back at the early '70s -- he was very ahead of his time, and very ahead of the language that we use to describe people who are outside of the binary. He is an icon.

You've spoken about how in the process of making this album, you isolated yourself in order to make music that is purely original. Why was that important for you?

Well, yeah. I just didn't want to be heavily influenced. It's one thing to hear something and feel like you want to pull pieces or elements from that. But I think a part of the nature of what I do is trying to create something that sounded new, and that doesn't sit necessarily on one pocket. A lot of my work is meant to feel disorienting and abrasive, because with the zebra, one of their main defense mechanisms is the dazzle camouflage, which disorients their predators. So I feel like that was my approach to a lot of these songs. 

Along with making your own music, you are also an independent label head. In the past, you've talked about getting offers from labels, but wanting to grow more before taking them. What made you decide to start your own label rather than signing to an existing one?

It's partly due to my inability to find good help. Because of that, I've had to self-manage, and in the process of self-managing, I had to learn mostly by the mistakes that I made, or the naivety that I shared in experiencing what it's like to be independent versus having the support of a major label. I would have to appease a table of people who don't necessarily know where I'm coming from, or be able to empathize with your background and/or your story.

So I wanted to make sure I wasn't following the same horror stories I saw happening so often, where people sign a deal at the first opportunity and don't look over their contract. I didn't want that to happen to me. I wanted to keep control of a lot of what I was doing, and hold on to the ownership I had of that. 

Your music ultimately refuses to fit into any concept of genre. Over the last few years, genre has started to become less and less important in mainstream music. Why do you think genre is falling to the wayside?

I think it's a two-sided coin. Being put into a genre is something that mostly happens to people that have a choice. Most people that are in a genre don't get to say, "I want to make a punk song, or an industrial song." It would always have to attributed to someone else.

It's especially hard for brown bodies to explore genres outside of urban music. The same goes for a lot of times when the media will hear a song that I make, and suddenly go 'This is a ballroom song!' It's like, 'This has nothing to do with ballroom! Why are you labeling this ballroom? Is it because you have so few black references when it comes to music?" It's just a problem that a lot of artists face when they are unable to excel in certain things.