As a comedian, Jaboukie Young-White is best known for his work on Big Mouth and The Daily Show, as well as a provocative and hilarious Twitter presence that has led to multiple suspensions over the years. An aversion to earnestness and sentimentality made Jaboukie a comedy star. But, as a vehicle for more complex feelings, he found jokes to be limiting.
Around the same time he was looking to stretch his intellectual and emotional side, Jaboukie was offered the kind of opportunity that only really comes along to those already doing well for themselves: While he was working on a scripted project inspired by Juice WRLD’s music — announced in 2021 but currently on ice — demos and beats Jaboukie had quietly spent years making and posting anonymously on SoundCloud made their way to an Interscope executive. Impressed by what they heard, they offered him a record deal.
All who can’t hear must feel, Jaboukie’s entirely self-produced debut album, feels both playful and carefully curated. It’s a collection of songs that speak to a music obsessive having fun with lyrics, beats, and instruments while also fleshing out feelings that can’t be neatly condensed into five minutes at the Comedy Cellar.
“BBC,” showcasing Jaboukie’s breathless flow and steamy hip-house beats, is a love letter to rap’s queer history. While “not_me_tho” is anti-capitalist sentiment adorned with pop hooks. Field recordings captured during Jaboukie’s first trip back to Jamaica, where he was born and raised until the age of 5, add depth. And a scattergun approach to genre pushes the album into hyperpop, dancehall, and shoegaze territories along the way.
In the run-up to the new album’s release, Jaboukie told me about what he wants to explore through his music, shed light on his influences, opened up about the trepidation he felt making a record in the first place, and discussed the similarities between music and stand-up comedy.
The following Q&A is the full transcript of The FADER Interview’s latest episode, lightly edited for clarity. Find the new episode and The FADER Interview’s full archive at this link, embedded below, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
I feel like it’s a very modern trait to have a hobby or an interest, a talent even, and immediately be thinking, “How do I monetize this? How do I take this and make it something bigger?” Have you kind of resisted that urge for a while? How long did it take you to want to fully go for it with music?
Honestly, it wasn’t even up to me fully. I’d been working on music for a long time, and it had always been a passion of mine. I know it’s almost rote for a musician to say this, but I did grow up in a musical household. There was a lot of music. My dad was a DJ. My mom sang in the church choir.
Honestly, I really hope my mom doesn’t listen to this, and I hate to put her on blast, but I was fighting for my life, defending my mom and her singing in the church choir. I was getting into tussles with people being like, “Your mom cannot sing,” and me being like, “Shut up. Yes, she can.” It was bad.
We grew up around music constantly. Music never really felt like this world you had to enter and have these qualifications and have to approach it in this sacred way. It is beautiful and it is sacred, and it’s one of the coolest things that human beings do. But at the same time, it just felt like such an extension of being alive that I didn’t see it as this big, ceremonious, heavy thing. With that being said, I was always doing it in the background, and I was keeping a foot in the door, keeping the door cracked — “Maybe one day…”
When I first moved to New York, doing stand-up, I was making beats during the day and was just posting them on SoundCloud and shit and then doing open mics at night. And then the $1,000 that I moved to New York with ran out, and I was like, “Alright, I can’t be double unemployed. I have to do something.” [With] comedy, there was so much community built into it. And electronic music, the way that I was making it, was so insular and hierarchical.
Fast forward years later, I was working with Interscope Films on a project. It was gonna be animated, based off of Juice WRLD’s music — not necessarily his life, but his music. They were trying to float me as a writer-director and were like, “Well, you don’t really have directing experience. Do you have music experience? Have you ever made stuff before?” And I was like, “Well, yeah, I do.” I sent them some demos, and they passed them along internally, and they were like, “Do you wanna go for it?” I was like, “I cannot say no to this.” I saw the logic for not doing it so I could continue to position myself and my image in a certain way. But A, that just felt dishonest, and B, I knew I would regret it if I went down that road. So I was like, “I have no choice.”
But yeah, it is something — that impulse to be like, “There’s something beautiful that I really care about, and it’s bringing me so much joy. How do I make money off of this?” I was genuinely kind of scared. I was like, “When this becomes like work and I have to start doing things for it that maybe aren’t on my terms or aren’t on my schedule, or I have to start making sacrifices for this like you do for a job, will I still be in love with it?” I still love music, so that hasn’t gone anywhere.
“I’d love to do a slight remodeling or add another little room to the house that I’ve built. But if I have to level it and then go from there, then that’ll be OK too.”
One of the tensions at the heart of the album is the push and pull between sentiment and irony. How do you kind of expose yourself without feeling like you’re fully exposed? Did you have any fear of releasing music when you were already established as a comedian? Did you ever think, “There’s a situation where this ends up hurting me on both sides of the fence?”
It’s funny because I didn’t feel that way until things were actually coming to fruition. Because when I was making the music, I was like, “Okay, there’s this new virus out and we all might die, so fuck it.” So when the songs were actually coming together, that wasn’t at the front of my mind. But then, as things started to take shape again and on the other side of 2020, then I was like, “Okay, I’m kind of in an interesting position right now, and the fear definitely is there.” It’s not something I’ve totally written off. It’s something I still think about and grapple with. But then, what I came to realize is so much of what I was trying to put into the music was subject matter or feelings I couldn’t readily express in the comedic voice that I had already set up for myself — knowing that I was already feeling a little restricted with the frame I had created for myself comedically. I think being at risk of leveling everything and having to rebuild from that is kind of exciting. At the same time, I knew I needed to change something. I’d love to do a slight remodeling or add another little room to the house that I’ve built. But if I have to level it and then go from there, then that’ll be OK too.
It’s interesting that the music world offered you a space to express things you couldn’t fit into comedy. Music historically has been much more open and accepting and defined by Black and queer artists in a way that comedy perhaps has less examples of. Could you talk about the feelings and ideas you wanted to express but maybe couldn’t get into the comedy that found a way and a home in the music?
There was so much. At the heart of it was this feeling of disillusionment, but also growth at the same time. Being first generation, being queer, my parents being Jamaican immigrants, there was a bill that I was sold about what America would be like. And I’m the first born child, so I didn’t have anyone who was above me day to day telling me, “This is what they’re saying it is. This is what it actually is.”
When I started working on this project, just after turning 25, I went back to Jamaica for the first time since I was like five years old. I gained perspective. I was able to close the gulf of what I experienced the world to be and what I was told the world was and what the world was gonna be like. That sort of thing was something I was having a hard time exploring in comedy, because at the core of it, even underneath that, comedy is so defined by who you’re performing it for in a way that music is not always, especially if you’re like a bedroom act.
[When] the album is coming together… [it’s] like a conversation between you, yourself in the computer, and whatever medium you’re working in. Whereas with comedy, the medium itself is defined by the audience’s reaction to it. If you’re performing a set and no one’s laughing, that’s not necessarily comedy unless it’s, you know, a Kaufman sort of situation where down the road, this will be funnier when you’re watching it on video or it’s in conversation with an audience. I was having a hard time finding that audience where I wasn’t having to over-explain and overextend myself. And I felt like with music, I could just say it, put it out there, let it exist in its own right. Whether or not you see it, when you engage with it, it’s still there. I was able to at least get the idea across.
That trip to Jamaica was your first time back since you were a child, and I know you captured a lot of field recordings and snippets of audio there that have made their way into the album. I wondered if you could talk to me a bit about what you captured and the ways in which you used it.
There were a few different field recordings that made it into the project. On “hit clips pt ii,” there’s a conversation I was having with my brother where one of our childhood friends had been killed, and we were unpacking the entire situation. This was also someone who was my first love in many ways.
The field audio in Jamaica was incorporated as a way to pull real heart and skin into the album, in a way where — like how you were saying earlier, that struggle between sentimentality and irony and detachment — pulling in these grounding totems rooted it in something that’s real and physical and tangible and honest in a way that maybe I might struggle to be. I found those [recordings] to be almost like emotional infrastructure for the project, where it’s like, “Alright, I can be irreverent toward myself. I can be self-effacing. But when it comes to pulling in the voice of someone I care about or a moment that meant a lot to me, I have to approach that with a little bit more respect.”
In “solid states,” I have a clip of talking to my cousin who has stayed on the island his whole life and made a great life for himself. He’s a psychologist, does really well, but he was unpacking how he sees the American and the Western state of being and how, to him, it’s built on this concept where you’re just constantly trying to distract yourself with entertainment or shiny objects.
I thought it was interesting to go into the track with that, and then also bring into the mix this conversation that my aunt, who passed away during COVID, and my grandmother were having about this friend they have, who… A common thing in my family and with so many Jamaican women of a certain age is, like, you’ll go to Canada, you’ll go to the U.K., you’ll go to America, and you’ll look after a family. My grandma, when she came to Chicago to stay for a while, was taking care of this old guy who was maybe, like, a few years older than her. She really was not in a place where she’s like this strong, strapping young woman — like, no, they were just kicking it. There was really no real caretaking dynamic that was clear there.
There was a lot to peel back after I’d gone [to Jamaica]. I had watched Black Girl by Ousmane Sembène on Criterion — it was part of Scorsese’s collection — and the entire plot was this woman who is taken to France and made to work for this family, and the idea of labor in exchange for the promise of prestige. When she gets the job, she’s like, “I’m going to France. I’m going to be in France. This is gonna be amazing. I’m gonna work for these white people in France.” She’s so excited. [My aunt and grandmother’s conversation] immediately called me back to that.
Then I had this other conversation with my mom about how, when she was a kid, she was sent to work for this super rich family and they sent her to school and stuff, but in exchange, she was like an indentured servant to them, essentially. It made me think of the idea of having to work for less than what you’re worth in order to get this shiny object. And in terms of the disillusionment and everything that I was feeling, it’s like those field recordings immediately materialize it in a way which, like I was saying earlier, I literally don’t know how I would explain in a stand-up set without it becoming a one-person show — which is cool, but I also do love stand-up and I do want to just be funny sometimes. But I still want to express those ideas and give them what they’re worth and the weight they deserve. To sum it up, I would just say they were like grounding techniques, the field recordings.
“The soundtrack of a Star Wars sequel mapped onto a rocksteady version of Dua Lipa… That exists somewhere.”
The album is titled All who can’t hear must feel, which is a saying adapted from something your parents would tell you as a child, a kind of warning to listen to advice. Why did you want to take that proverb and use it as the title? Why was it the right name for this project?
When I’m writing lyrics, I love a good double entendre or a little saying that has so many layers that you could just peel back and look at it from all these different angles. I just felt like that was so juicy. It was charged. There was a lot to mine from it, one interpretation being the one you just mentioned. On top of that, I was working on this project at a time where I was learning a lot of stuff the hard way, through lived experience, and having to go through the thing myself. Even if someone told me it was going to be this way, I never would’ve been able to fully appreciate it as much as I did having lived it and experienced it and felt it for myself.
Even just sonically, the project… My dad was really into sound clash culture when he was growing up. When he came to the US, he would do all these DJ nights. I was like nine years old, having to move these gigantic-ass subwoofers into a box truck and shit. He would play music in the basement, and it would rattle the foundation of the house. It was such a sensory experience. I remember when “A Milli” came out, and it was like I knew that song, not even necessarily by the lyrics but by how the windows rattled when it would be playing in a car that was driving by.
It was those tactile experiences that influenced how I make music and how I enjoy music, so the low end on this project is jam packed. Every song has this huge, almost bursting feeling, and I thought [the title] played really well with that too, so there were a bunch of different layers to it.
Your dad being a DJ is obviously a foundational thing for you and your relationship to music. What are your memories of growing up with a DJ as a dad? Was he out every weekend? Was he playing music around the house a lot?
It was music around the house a lot, out on weekends, weeknights too. [I have a] terrible relationship with the guy, no contact with him. But one thing I did get is that, from a young age, he was always like, “You have to listen to every kind of music. You have to listen to everything.” That kind of gave me a genre agnosticism where I’m looking for something I don’t really know I’m looking for until I see it in music. I don’t really have a preset rubric. There were so many different genres, so many different styles being played in the house.
I also learned from a young age that it does not matter what the song is — there’s a rocksteady cover of it. I promise you: Any conceivable song, there’s a rocksteady or reggae cut of it; any song in the world with a bunch of lasers in the background; the soundtrack of a Star Wars sequel mapped onto a rocksteady version of Dua Lipa… That exists somewhere.
He would always be like, “I haven’t even reached my full powers yet. I’m not playing at the loudest volume that I can, and I was like, “Okay, yeah, sure.” I remember he was playing this outdoor festival maybe 20 blocks from our house, and you could hear the shit loud as day. I was like, “You’re actually actively harming people who are near you if they don’t have on protective gear and you’re playing music this loud.”
A lot of that was foundational to how I see music and how I enjoy music now, to the point that I think electronic music to me has never felt inorganic. Some people have a hurdle to the whole “real instruments” thing. I get what it means, but on a feeling level, I don’t see how you could put that on a hierarchy. They’re just two different vibes. I don’t think one is less than the other. Growing up around electronic music and someone who was so dedicated to electronic music, that was really influential.
“The sound of a thing being pushed to its limits is such a part of electronic music. It’s harder to capture that vibe in acoustic stuff.”
You say the album is kind of genre agnostic, and it really is. It moves all over the place and track to track — even within songs, jumping from sound to sound. But is it fair to say electronic music is your home territory, where you feel most comfortable?
I think it’s where my taste and my skill level match up the closest. When it comes to acoustic shit, we’re in two different universes. Some of the songs that use acoustic instruments, like “GONER” or “INCEL,” I just played the melody very badly, corrected it, and then sampled that. I feel like even if I were to buckle down and really learn guitar or really master an acoustic instrument, I’d still be running it through so many granular synths or sampling it or reversing it. That’s my favorite thing to do in the studio. When I was doing re-recordings, the engineer on the project, Alex Popul, immediately knew when I would do something. I’d be like, “Yup, flip it, flip it, reverse it, stretch it.” The sound of a thing being pushed to its limits is such a part of electronic music. It’s harder to capture that vibe in acoustic stuff. So, yeah, short answer, definitely.
Were there any artists or albums that you were listening to while making the album that kind of acted as a guiding hand through the process?
I built up so much time of not cutting vocals or writing lyrics to anything that I was doing. I was just making instrumentals, and in 2020, maybe like summer, I was like, “Okay, I’ve got this time. Let me actually try to make songs. I’m not just gonna do sound experiments or mood loops. I want to make something that feels more concrete.” When you’re doing it, you’re so caught up in the thing you’re selling because you’re so committed to it in the moment. Then I would take a step back and be like, “Oh, that’s who I got that from,” and immediately be like, “Okay, that was clearly my take on this thing.” These were all things that were so in my bones that when it came time, they were the things I was pulling from.
During the project itself, I was listening to a lot of Afro-psych, which ended up being folded into the project: “Kahla my Friend” by Amanaz, I sampled that on “LA.” “Incel” kind of has an Afrobeat-inspired drum. I can’t even catch myself. I’m just not selectively permeable enough. Shit gets in my head, and I’m just like, “Oh, yeah, that’s cool. I like that.” It’s really sponge-like.
“I’ve always been obsessed with entering an arena where I’ve been told that I’m not allowed.”
“26” is a play on Buju Banton’s famously homophobic dancehall song “Boom Bye Bye.” What did you want to achieve by taking on that song?
In comedy, I love joking about things that feel a little spicy. There has to be a twinge of something in me where I’m like, “This feels like a little mischievous.” Some of the tweets, the impersonation things, stuff like that, I’m like, “Okay, this feels fun and exciting and genuinely kind of dangerous. What happens next?” But it also came from the fact that “Boom Bye Bye,” the instrumental is so good. It’s just so terrible that he chose that song to truly sow one of the most effective hate campaigns in the history of music.
The frustration of being like, “Damn, that’s a good song,” being angry about that but also being able to look at it with a reverence kind of felt like growth, too. It already took up space in my mind, the frustration of catching myself humming that song sometimes. I’m not gonna do that and then also be mad that I’ve been denigrated or excluded by the song.
One thing I realized with that and with the project is that I’ve always been obsessed with entering an arena where I’ve been told that I’m not allowed. I remember when I was starting stand-up in Chicago, I was 19, queer black kid, and it’s literally just like a bunch of early-to-late-30s, white, alcoholic, Irish Catholic dudes at some of these open mics that I’m doing. And the momentary delusion I experienced where I’m like, “You can’t tell me I can’t do — not even can you not tell me, there’s nothing weird about what I’m doing at all,” and truly believing and feeling that… This is so much to talk about in regard to a song that is 36 seconds, but it stood for a lot for me.
We’ve talked about some of the heavier sides of All who can’t hear thematically, but it’s a funny album as well. I was wondering if you had a particular joke on the album that you’re most fond of.
The one that I laugh at still, it was a freestyled line. I was just doing a pass over the beat, trying to find the flow and then maybe get a sentence out here or there. But, “Just met a Middle Eastern guy / He came twice, that’s Jesuslike…” It’s so stupid, and where it falls in the album, too… I always laugh to myself, not even necessarily at the joke but just the fact that I really ran with that and made a meal out of it. There’s also like a follow-up punch after that that a few people might get that I don’t want to give away. But it’s just the little things in there that I tickled myself with.
And the fact that there’s a lyrical joke and then a sonic joke after it — I love trying to put nonverbal jokes in the music… Not even necessarily jokes, just like a little twist of something. That was another really exciting thing: being able to get a joke off with a sample or a sound.
As someone who clearly devours a lot of music, are there any musicians who you think are particularly funny?
Danny Brown. Some of the punchlines, even going back to XXX, are amazing. And Vince Staples. It’s one thing to have really great wordplay and really clever writing and puns and punchlines, but he also has situational humor in his lyrics that I think is really impressive and understated. Those are two people, for sure, where I genuinely could see them doing stand-up. I feel like it would translate really well.
“There’s a level of connection with audiences I’m trying to get to, and I don’t know if stand-up is the right vibe for it.”
Have you ever done stand-up at a concert, opening for a band or a DJ?
I did a Pitchfork benefit a while back and did some stand-up and then Frankie Cosmos went up. And then Frankie Cosmos closed out a show I did not too long after that. And I’ve done stand-up on lineups where it’s like a variety show kind of thing. I often find that those are the best shows, when you’re able to break people out of the expectations for what they should be getting from said medium, when you can do a full palate cleanser. People are engaging with what is actually in front of them instead of comparing what they’re watching to the person before and the person before that, or even other things that they’ve seen. When you get the same medium over and over and over again, you start to kind of see the Matrix a little bit, which is valuable. Then you can really hone in on craft and technical stuff. But the vibe of those [variety] shows is always great. Even doing stand-up on my own, I love performing at music venues. There’s something about the energy. Performing at comedy clubs can feel very sweaty sometimes.
Have you thought about performing the album live? Is that an ambition you have, to do a proper headline show?
I’ve been cooking up some stuff, and I’m gonna announce something soon. Even before 2020, I was like, “Loving stand-up, so much fun, but there’s a level of connection with audiences I’m trying to get to, and I don’t know if stand-up is the right vibe for it, but I didn’t really know exactly what to replace that with.” Now I’ve got the music, and I’m really excited to at least do a few shows in the foreseeable future and then just know that I have that in my back pocket and could plot towards that down the road.
Are there similarities between sequencing an album and, say, an hour of stand-up?
There’s a lot of similarities, and I actually would conceptualize stand-up sets, especially my hour sets, in terms of music before I was doing music. [Stand-up] is kind of inherently musical because of the timing that’s involved with certain jokes. I’d be like, “Okay, so this joke needs to come right here. If the laugh is this long, then the joke comes at this time. If the laugh is this long, the joke has to come right here. [There’s an] almost improvisational musicality of it: “This laugh has to hit this timbre. It needs to feel like this. And if the laugh isn’t this, then you’ve gotta recover and do that.” You start to understand the sound of your set and the audience essentially being an instrument that you’re interacting with, trying to play to get a certain reaction.
When it came to music, I found stand-up and writing really inspiring too, in that it’s like, “Okay, if we start here and we’re at this note, then, narratively, it would make sense to end at this note.” Or, “If we’re at the midpoint and we’re feeling this, then, narratively, it would make sense later to give it a little twinge of this.” So yeah, I don’t think it’s possible for me to fully separate what I’m doing right now from everything I’ve done before. It’s just everything informing everything. It’s hard to be that split brained.
You said the origin of this album was coming off the back of a Juice WRLD project you were working on where you were writing something inspired by his music. I remember that being announced and thinking it was very interesting. I was wondering what the current status of that is.
Right now, it’s on ice indefinitely. The thing with getting the rights to music is that [when you’re] working with so many different entities, it’s difficult to get everybody on board. It got to the point where they were like, “Okay, so no music, but we could still do the movie!” And I’m like, “But the movie is…?” At that point, just write a movie. I definitely learned a valuable lesson. Moving forward, I’ll be doing the score and the soundtrack for every movie I’m developing.
You mentioned earlier how you like to push the boundaries of comedy and keep things a bit dangerous. You were famous for being banned from Twitter, and I was curious as to your thoughts on its current status, Elon Musk’s reign. He’s very keen to bring back people who’ve been chucked off the website in the past. Are you tempted to find your way back in, or have you moved on from that now?
I have the account and everything, but it’s just a shell of what it used to be, and I think it’s really indicative of the change that the internet has gone through in the past 20 years. Even when you go back and look at those little e-shops and those little websites of someone being like, “This is my page dedicated to the black-footed ferret. I really love the black-footed ferret.” It’s like some third graders class project or something; there’s a slice of internet that’s dedicated just to this eight year old’s little passion. We’re so far from that.
I think [Musk] buying out what was once about to become a national utility — like, there were people who were like, “Maybe we need to nationalize Twitter; maybe this is a utility and a public item that should be treated as such” — the fact that this guy just bought it out and is essentially trying to turn it into a strip mall is so indicative of where we are on the internet and how all of the things about the real world that we were potentially escaping and sublimating through the internet have now seeped in and poisoned the internet entirely.
We’re in the phase of the internet being a social gathering place. It was like this weird little enchanted forest in the ’90s and the early 2000s with some strange dark corners, and now it is literally just a strip mall with a bunch of security guards asking you, “Are you buying anything? If you’re not buying anything, you need to leave,” and like 10 million cameras in every direction. It’s crazy.
Honestly where it all started to go down… the quote tweet function. That had irreversible damage, low key, the concept of call-outs and dunking on people — quote tweets invented that and changed the way we interact with people online in general. It turned everyone into, “Cameras ready [clicks], gotcha. I’m about to put you on blast. You’re stupid as fuck for saying that, and this is why: XYZ.” When that became the mode of interaction, we were cooked.