This is Worth What It’s Worth: A Conversation with Curbside Jones

by Nick Hanover

Curbside Jones

With his enviable eye for detail and well-honed aesthetic, Curbside Jones has quietly become one of the most disciplined and talented musical figures in Austin. Though that has mostly manifested in his solo releases and production for other artists in Austin hip hop, over the past few years Curbside Jones has embraced his photo and design sides, releasing everything from hardcover books to zines to fashion. We chatted with Curbside Jones about his latest photo collection, SXSBlack, a stylish and topical street photography work that slyly comments on representation at SXSW and Austin gentrification issues at large, while also catching up with him on his music, including his ever expanding Adventure Time-influenced series Milk Tea Chronicles.

Ovrld: It’s been a while since we talked, so I guess to kick things off, tell me about the new photography projects you have. You’ve just put out a collection of SXSW street photography, right?

Curbside Jones: Yeah, SXSBlack.

Ovrld: I know you’ve done street photography of your Japan trips before, so what made you decide to bring it back home this time?

CJ: So after doing stuff in Japan and everything, I started actually studying it more, because I wasn’t really studying it before going to Japan, it was more like knowing I wanted to put everything I shot there in a book. Once I was able to do that I started looking more into street photographers and I started seeing people who inspired me through their work.

I started to get into podcasts really heavy, which isn’t new to me, but specifically podcasts about art and things of that nature. The one I’ve been listening to most has been The Collective podcast and on there I came across two photographers who have inspired me a lot, one of which is Cody Ellingham, he’s a street photographer from somewhere in Europe, and he lives in Japan and does street photography there. And there’s also Liam Wong, who frequently visits Japan and does street photography. Seeing the stuff they’re doing inspired me to do it in Austin.

It was tricky at first, because Austin you don’t think of in the same way you think of Japan, where they’ve got all the crazy architecture and neon lights and all that. So at first it was kind of hard trying to figure out what angle to attack it from. But once I found my angle and started shooting things like mundane buildings but catching them from different angles it kind of evolved into doing street portraits. Because I want to be well-rounded, I don’t want to just do, like, rooftop shots or anything like that.

So after doing my studying on YouTube, one of the hardest things they were saying to do with photography was walk up to a random person on the street and ask to take their picture.

Curbside Jones SXSBlack

One of the photos from SXSBlack

Ovrld: I imagine that’s especially true for something like SXSW…

CJ: Actually, SXSW I feel like was easy. Without something like SXSW, without having a reason for all these people being in town, it can be a little hard, just because you have a random guy trying to take a picture of you and that’s weird. Sometimes you may get more nos than you get yeses but it’s making the most out of the yeses that you get. So SXSW, to me, was easier because to me, it seemed like everyone that was in town was there to be seen. Everyone wants to feel like a superstar during SXSW.

Ovrld: That makes sense.

CJ: I could walk up to people and be like “Hey, can I take your portrait?” and I didn’t even really have to say what it was for. They would just be like “Yeah, for sure!” And afterwards they’d be like “Yo, when can I see it?” And I’d hand them a business card and say “You can follow me here, and I’ll post it, I’ll have it up by whenever.” It was really easy.

The reason behind why SXSBlack was to highlight the kind of demographic that goes to SXSW now. From what I’ve noticed over the years, there has been an influx of African-Americans being in town for SXSW and with that, I think the climate of SXSW has changed as far as the type of music that is being pushed. I feel like hip hop, rap, R&B and soul has taken the front stage in terms of what I’m hearing when I’m walking past venues.

Ovrld: I wanted to ask about that, because you’ve titled the project SXSBlack and there has been a lot of talk recently about how entities like SXSW and the brands that come out for it have co-opted a lot of hip hop culture without necessarily paying it back to hip hop. I’m sure you saw the conversation that broke out after Fader claimed they were the first to bring hip hop to SXSW which erased the work of figures like Keir Worthy and Matt Sonzala, who actually originated hip hop booking at SXSW.

As an artist, were you wanting to reclaim some of that? Both as someone who works in local hip hop and as a photographer?

CJ: Yeah, it was kind of one those things where hip hop has always been at SXSW. No doubt, it’s always been there. Where things got a little messy was when you have these venues downtown who typically don’t play hip hop at all, nor do they try to cater to that specific crowd or demographic, start to profit off the music of the demographic that they shun and dismiss during regular downtown hours. That, right there, was what kind of inspired the whole thing. Because to me, it’s crazy.

I’m not gonna compare it to Afropunk at all but that’s kind of what it seemed like seeing all these fashionable black people out, seeing all these black people performing, seeing all these black people in attendance at these shows. I was like “Man, this isn’t normal,” but to the people who come from out of town, they may think this is what normal Austin looks like. That’s what I wanted to highlight, that this is not normal Austin, this is just because of SXSW. You won’t see this many black people in one place at one time any other time, ever.

So I wanted to shine a light on that. Like, okay, you want to profit off this market but you don’t want everything that comes with it during normal times. That’s what I really want to highlight with this piece.

Curbside Jones SXSBlack

Ovrld: It also seems like you’re commenting on how street photography, at least in the US, tends to focus on “white spaces,” like Coachella, which is a big event for scene photography. Or things like EDM festivals, or even Burning Man. I was wondering if you were also making a point about how scene photography, and fashion at large, appropriates a lot of the personality and style of black culture.

CJ: That’s exactly what it is. I try to capture more than just the “artsy fartsy” black people at SXSW. That would have been too easy in a sense. I was trying to go up to people normal photographers probably wouldn’t want to approach to ask for portraits. Because this is a part of it too, there’s a spectrum of people who are out at SXSW. Yes, you had your artists and your artsy fartsy types but you also had your people who were just here from out of town and were just coming down to see performances and stuff like that. And then you had your other end of the spectrum, where there were people who were literally just down there to flex and promote themselves on the street.

To me that’s what embodies what SXSW is, the hustle. It’s that one time of year where you can come to get your name out. You can put on your best outfit, you can put on your best whatever, have CDs pressed up, have t-shirts with your logo and business and whatever on there and you’re out there promoting yourself. I wanted to capture those people as well because I feel that’s a very important piece to what makes SXSW what it is.

I think because of how those individuals are dressed, or how they carry themselves or the stigma that’s attached to those people, most photographers wouldn’t want to approach them and ask for a portrait. So I wanted to definitely highlight those people because they are living the spirit of SXSW.

Curbside Jones SXSBlack

Ovrld: And there’s also the difference in how the city responds to SXSW versus, say, Texas Relays, which happens right after…

CJ: Uh huh!

Ovrld: For people who don’t live here and don’t see that shift, it’s pretty strange how it gets talked about. Even things like the belief that more shootings go on during Relays, even though this year at SXSW alone we had at least five shootings, including one resulting in a death. But the view in Austin is that Relays brings a crime wave, which I don’t think is statistically true.

CJ: Yeah. Let’s see, how can I put this? It’s like one of those situations where everybody wants to be down until shit gets real. When you’re pushed out of your comfort zone it’s all of a sudden like “Oh my gosh, this is a problem.” Shootings and stuff happen all the time. Obviously I’m not trying to minimize the fact that people got shot and people got injured, but I feel like it’s something that people who aren’t coming from these areas it’s shocking, but for me it’s like well, it happens.

Ovrld: Right. And violence can happen at any event where you get a lot of people crowded together in a space.

To shift gears a bit, I wanted to talk to you about how you seem to be developing yourself as more of a general artist rather than an artist in a musical sense. You’ve especially stepped up your merch game. You’ve put out books, a backpack, and for your Milk Tea Chronicles, you put out a photography collection to accompany the release. You’re probably the only artist I’ve seen in Austin doing this consistently, rather than just as a single thing. I want to talk about the origins of that and how it’s working out for you and whether it’s more fulfilling to you as an artist to go about things this way rather than just putting out endless digital releases.

CJ: Man, I think what really inspired it all was having a conversation with my wife when we were doing Wolves’ Clothing and I did the whole box set. We were sitting down, and I have what I call “Kanye moments,” where I just start ranting and vomiting these streams of consciousness at others, so I was having a Kanye moment and I was talking to her about how art has shifted in a way where the consumer is no longer getting what they used to get. Before with music, someone would drop a boxed set and you’d get like a t-shirt or a concert DVD or whatever the case may be with the album or some type of photo booklet.

Curbside Jones Another Sip

An example of Curbside Jones’ incredible merch options

Rihanna did it recently with Anti, where she dropped the deluxe edition that came with a poster and a picture book with pictures of her and everything. She didn’t have to do that, because the reality of what we’re in with music is that you probably lose money making these things when you can just throw the album up on iTunes or whatever for basically nothing and people can buy it or stream it. But I feel like that experience of being surprised or knowing “Hey, I’m gonna go buy this person’s album and I’m gonna get something beyond the album” is what helped propel me forward with doing the merch with the music.

Once I did Wolves’ Clothing and it was a hit, I was like now that I know there are people who are willing to spend their money to support what I’m doing, outside of just the music but also with physical things, then I should probably pursue this more often.

So I did another book, this time for Milk Tea Chronicles called MTC: The Book. That one was a 7”x7” hardcover book for my first trip to Japan and I dropped that on my birthday with Milk Tea Chronicles. I only printed three of those and they sold out in ten minutes or something like that. That was cool. At first I was going to do the book with the PDF version but I figured I’d wait and do the PDF version later. Then it was the bag, where I thought “If I’m making this music that’s all about my travels, why not make a bag?” So I did that, dropped the bag and it sold out in ten or fifteen minutes.

Once I saw that I could do this and people were hyped for it, then I can take it a step further and build on what I had already done. The first book was about 30 pages, so the next thing was to give them a 100 page hardcover book and release it with a beat tape that shares the same title. You get the beat tape and you get the book together. At first I was like “I don’t know, this is a big commitment,” because it’s 100 pages, so I actually started on that on the day we got back from Japan. We flew in got, home, I unpacked, took the laptop out and started working on editing the picture.

Ovrld: Yeah, your timeline seems super compressed. Every time I see you do a project, you announce an idea and then it’s executed pretty quickly.

CJ: I sat and I literally worked on that every single day up until about maybe two or three weeks before the book came out. From August to November I worked on that book every day. Editing, studying up on editing, trying to create a style. That’s where people like Liam Wong came into play, because I was studying their photography and the whole cyberpunk trend that’s going on right now in photography, and I was trying to apply it to my style.

I put it out, it sold out, to my surprise. I didn’t think it would because of the price point. I was like “Ooh, it’s pretty steep, it’s $70.” But it is art, you know what I mean? I feel like music is the only realm of artistry where people feel like artists shouldn’t be paid prices they’re asking for. This goes back to the photographers I was studying. Cody [Ellingham] sells his prints on his website and I think the cheapest print is like $300. Everything else is $400, $500. When I was looking at it, at first I was like “Wow, the balls on this guy! Selling a print for $500?!” [laughs] But then it hit me. Why shouldn’t he ask for $500? He bought his equipment, he went out and scouted his location, he probably staked it out for several days waiting for the sun and light to hit at exactly the right moment. There were so many things that went into play. So I thought “You know what? Maybe he’s doing it so it’s not accessible to everyone because it doesn’t have to be accessible to everyone.”

There’s no rule that says I have to put out a single and charge 99 cents, just because that’s the iTunes price. I could put out a single that’s $50, and whether you buy it or not, that’s up to you, but you can still appreciate it from afar. That’s what museums are. You can’t just go into a museum and go “I like this Monet, let me buy that.” You could pay your fee and go in and stand and look at it all day if you wanted to, but in order to really appreciate it later, you’d have to come back and look at it again. Especially back when we didn’t have cellphones, you’d be like “Well, cool, I gotta come back tomorrow and look at this painting again because I really like it.”

Curbside Jones

Ovrld: Right, you could maybe buy a museum book featuring it or a print of it, but you wouldn’t have the real thing. Like you said, the real thing would have a very high price on it to own.

CJ: Yeah, and I feel like with music, people don’t take it seriously. Especially within the realm of rap. They’re not going to take a rapper selling his album for $100 seriously. Not at all. It’s like this artist gave you eight, nine, whatever tracks, they went to a studio and got it mixed and mastered, someone took the time to make the beats, to write it and record it, do all the promo. And then they say “Hey, I think this is worth what it’s worth.” But then people don’t see music as collecting art.

So to bring it back, putting out the physical things, like the books and all that, with the music is like giving you the best of both worlds. I’m giving you the single with the book, so it’s like you’re really only paying the price of the book, or whatever the case might be. As musicians, I want to see more people do that. I want to see more artists give people an experience. The beat tape I put out falls directly in line with the book, so it’s like you can listen to the tape and go through the book and understand why the beats sound the way they do. You listen to certain beats during certain chapters of the book and get a feel for where I was, and understand these were emotions I had at this particular point in time and was able to capture.

Ovrld: That’s an approach that is becoming more common in the book and comic world, too, with creators releasing soundtracks to go along with their releases. So it makes sense to me to bring that back to music.

You touched on this a little bit, but it seems to me that in the indie and folk and punk scenes, the physical artifacts are coming back to a place of prominence. Cassette releases and vinyl are especially popular right now. But it seems like hip hop artists, for whatever reason, are usually less interested in having physical releases at all. It’s rare that you see an independent hip hop artist sell a CD or a tape or vinyl let alone what you’re doing. Why do you think that’s the case?

CJ: Honestly, I can only speak for myself, but I feel like people just aren’t buying music anymore and hip hop fans especially don’t buy music. Streaming has become such a thing that for artists to appear successful, they have to get the streams. I have to get people to play this song over and over and over and over again and hope that with those streams comes clout and a bunch of other things. So with indie and DIY, the focus has shifted to instead of getting experience; I have to get those streaming numbers as quick as I can. I’m not going to waste my money, as an artist, with getting merch made.

I don’t know how it is with other artists, but for me, I pay for merch out of pocket. I pay for everything I make. That’s the gift and the curse of having a full time job– I still have money to live and to put into music. I know going in that there’s a chance I’m going to lose money. It is what it is. You hope the money comes back. But for someone who doesn’t have a full time job and music is all that they do, they’re not going to take the risk on merch because they might not make that money back. They put the money into playlists or promotion or in the hands of someone that’s gonna get the music to where it needs to be so that they can get the streams.

Curbside Jones

Ovrld: It also seems like with you, while your audience may not be as huge as some other artists’, it’s very passionate and willing to put serious money into what you put out. What was the process of cultivating that audience like? Because it seems like it works pretty well for you. What is it about you that connects with the kind of audience that’s willing to pay, say, $70 for a piece of merch you put out?

CJ: I think it just comes with time. Some of the people that are out here really supporting were listening to my music since MySpace, which is really crazy to think about [laughs]. I don’t think I made the transition to Twitter until 2009 or 2010. Once I hit Twitter, those people stuck around and I think it’s because they feel a connection with me as well as with the music.

It’s kind of like how things are with Tyler, the Creator. We were able to grow up with Tyler, the Creator. We were able to see him in Odd Future being a knucklehead teenager to now where he’s…I don’t know if I want to call him a fashion icon, but he’s on the way to fashion icon status, like a GQ, Esquire type of person. And we were able to see that whole entire transition, sonically and visually. I feel like it has been the same with my music, where people have been able to see me as early Curbside Jones, doing everything DIY and the progression of everything. For some people, or so I’ve been told, it’s inspirational. I inspire them to do things, I inspire them to get out and travel, I inspire them to pick up a camera. I’ve had people tell me “Yo, man, you inspired me to buy a camera and do photography.” And that’s crazy, because I haven’t been showcasing my photography as long as I’ve actually known how to do photography.

I think for some people it’s about having someone to believe in, like when you have your favorite artist and knowing “Yo, he’s gonna keep it real no matter what. This dude is gonna be him no matter what, so when I’m buying into him and listening and supporting, I know what I’m getting up front and there’s not gonna be any surprises. It’s gonna be quality work every time and it’s gonna be something I can connect with.” The crowd that I have, they know that. They know I’m gonna drop something and it’s gonna be a piece of merch and there’s only gonna be x amount available in the world and they’re gonna be first in line to get it.

I don’t want to say it’s like making it into a game but I see people support my music go back and forth with each other, jokingly, and say like “When Curb drops that merch, I’m gonna buy all three books” and go “Nah, fam, don’t do that, I want one too.” They have these conversations with each other and they end up connecting. They learn about artists that I like and connect with them, and they end up being in contact with each other just through supporting me. It’s like building a family, almost.

Ovrld: That makes sense. You spoke about growth and development and it feels to me like the music you’ve been making for a long time is finally having its moment. Like the whole lo-fi hip hop scene is exploding, in some ways because of the digital streaming avenues you talked about earlier, through things like that YouTube channel “Lofi beats to relax/study to.” As an artist, what is that experience like, of seeing something you’ve done, and that has been your aesthetic for a long time, finally pick up, if not mainstream, then at least wider recognition?

CJ: It’s interesting because there was actually two waves that hit that kind of made me have a “Really?” moment. First was that whole anime reference rap wave. I had been doing that since 2009. And it wasn’t, like, Goku or anything whack like that. It was me taking series, breaking them down, finding plot points or character flaws or something I could take and use as a concept for a song or album.

That was what “Pink” was. I was watching Tenchi Muyo in Love and I sat with that on mute and I made the beat to “Pink” while watching that. The writing with the whole “falling awake” and the dream world and all of those things, that was what the movie was about, with Tenchi falling in and out of these dreams and his consciousness was skipping to different timelines and universes where he existed. So then a couple years back when people were doing anime references in hip hop songs, I was like “Wait a minute, I’ve been doing this all along” [laughs]. I was happy it was coming back around, though, because I love anime. It is what it is.

Then with the whole lofi thing and people doing boom bap and flipping the soul samples and jazz and everything, there was a period of time where that wasn’t happening. I’m happy it’s happening again, I like that style of music. Not to say I don’t like, say, trap stuff. I like trap as well. It’s just not what I do on the regular. But I like that people are going out and flipping samples again and challenging themselves to push the boundaries of sonics. I heard some people putting Three 6 Mafia acapellas over Ahmad Jamal chords then having it in trap BPM and making it lofi and I was like “Whoa, what the fuck is this!” Had someone told me years ago “Hey bro, someone’s gonna take Three 6 Mafia and put it over piano samples and then on top of that it’s gonna sound gritty and grimy but then on top of that, it’s gonna be trap tempo, not boom bap…” I never would have guessed that would even be a thing. But it is a thing in 2019.

Ovrld: It’s like music Inception.

CJ: Yeah! People are really pushing it. 9th Wonder just had this debate with all of producer Twitter about the fact that lofi is undergoing what he called “genre-fication,” where the people who pioneered it aren’t getting their just dues. I kind of agree. 9th Wonder was the first producer, besides Soulja Boy, to openly say “I make my beats in FruityLoops and I don’t own gear.”

Then you have your Mad Libs and your Dillas and your Pete Rocks and your RZAs and these cats who were like “Yo, I’m sampling from cassette tapes and I’m running it through tape to make it sound this way,” those guys did pioneer it. I don’t think they get enough credit. There are a lot of cats who are new and who came out and got a lot of credit for “starting” lofi hip hop or whatever the case may be. I don’t get into the politics of that, though. I’m just happy it’s back. Well, not back but…

Ovrld: …is having a moment?

CJ: Yeah. People are more accepting of it now. Before, I feel like people didn’t get it. Like “I don’t understand why you would want to make this beat sound crunchy.”

Ovrld: On the music front, what are you working on right now?

CJ: Right now I’m still continuing the Milk Tea Chronicles universe. I’m really happy with this universe because it’s giving me more focus. I think my issue before was that I was always making what I would call “sad boy raps” [laughs].

I always had music I’d make that people would be like “Yo, this is it, this is the one” that I don’t listen to frequently. People will ask me if I listen to my own music a lot and I tell them it depends on what mood I’m in. Like Digital Boogeyman I can only listen to at night or on days where it’s overcast or rainy. Really moody days. It’s almost the same with Wolves’ Clothing. But Milk Tea Chronicles is the only one where I can listen to it at any time of the day. I can listen to it in the morning, I can listen to it on the way to work, I can listen to it at night, I can listen to it in my headphones while doing whatever. It puts me in a good mood. I think that’s because I was finally able to take moments in my life and put them into a snapshot and put that into a song.

So I’m continuing that universe. I put out Voicemail Blues last year, the day before I went to Japan. I dropped it that day as I was packing and stuff. I’m not sure how into Adventure Time you are…

Ovrld: It’s been a while but I used to be into it quite a bit.

CJ: Okay, so in Adventure Time there are mini-arcs that are about a specific character or incident that happens. Milk Tea Chronicles Vol. 1 was about different emotions, but Voicemail Blues was about CMO, the little cellphone character, who is BMO’s counterpart. So I’m introducing this character and I’m removing myself from the project and I’m having other people rap on it to represent other characters and emotions and things that I’m feeling. That’s what Voicemail Blues was. Out of the three tracks, I’m on two of them, and I only do the hook on one of those. I wanted it to really be about this character so it would be like it’s not a world that exists with just me.

Right now, I’m working on Milk Tea Chronicles: Madsheepery, which is a play on Madvillainy. I’m rapping from the perspective of the sheep character, which would be like the main character’s Jake [from Adventure Time]. This character, Sheepington, is like that side of me that is…how do I say it…more braggadocious? More animated with the wordplay, like [previous single] “Sitting Gorgeous in My Fortress.” The first two lines are “Skkrrt/Hopped out the Camry, pull the octopus out the water/Fire up the grill, eat ikayaki ‘fore I slaughter.”

Ovrld: You’re leaning into your inner Dr. Octagon, basically.

CJ: Yeah, doing different characters like that. So that’s what Mad Sheepery is. It highlights Sheepington and goes on an adventure with him, then I have the finale, which joins all the pieces and it’s me rapping as me, the main character, and me rapping as Sheepington, and then having the person who is CMO, who is making the beats for me, my homie Dejohn. And then I have the homie Brandon, who’s going to be producing the whole final piece. He’s also a composer. You mentioned comic books including soundtracks and he’s actually scoring a graphic novel and he also apparently just got picked up to score a Samurai Champloo fan film. His style is very melodic, but the drums definitely have a swing and a bounce to them, a lot of heavy, melodic basslines and all that.

I’ve also got a new single, “Lupin.”

Ovrld: To continue the anime references…

CJ: Ha, no.

Ovrld: So not a Lupin the Third tribute?

CJ: It’s kind of, but not really referencing anything about Lupin. It was actually kind of an inside joke because with “Sitting Gorgeous in My Fortress” I was rapping as if I was Action Bronson and Dejohn said “Ah bro you got the sharingan,” like when they can imitate whatever. So when I did this track I took Dejohn’s flow, because he raps as well, and used it on the track and was like “Yeah, bro, I borrowed your flow for this track” [laughs]. So it was kind of like Lupin stealing things. I’m adding my little twist on it but if you break down the layers you can see where it comes from. So it’s kind of an inside joke and I was just like “We’ll call it Lupin, and no one else will really understand why it’s called that.”

And of course I’m working with Crystalface again, for all the artwork. I’m also working with Crystalface on something else. What I’ve been wanting to do for a while is a magazine series, SXSBlack is the first that I’ve put out. And now Crystalface and I are working on a magazine that he’s started called Crystalface and Friends. It’s all these characters he’s made, kind of like the Hello Kitty universe. And we talked about doing a Quasimoto style art piece where I take a bunch of pictures on film and then he draws over it and includes his characters and everything and we’ll be putting that in the magazine. And then I’ll actually be interviewing him at the end of the magazine, talking about his art style and how he feels about the current state of illustration and things going digital. I just want to be making an all-around creative hub.

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Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Ovrld as well as Loser City, where he mostly writes about comics. You can also flip through his archives at  Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with his friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover