JPEGMAFIA triumphs in his return to Baltimore

By NIKITA SHTARKMAN | September 20, 2018


Courtesy Nikita Shtarkman

Local artist JPEGMAFIA performed at The Metro Gallery on Friday, September 14.

On Friday, Sept. 14 JPEGMAFIA had his first show in Baltimore since his move to California. On his “The Reverse Christopher Columbus Tour,” Peggy stopped at one of his classic venues, the Metro Gallery — with the small Philadelphia band Joy Again. 

Unfortunately, I missed Joy Again’s set. In fact, I think I held the door open for the band as they were leaving with their instruments. I didn’t expect them to play right when doors opened, but soon I realized why their performance was brought forward.

There was another true opener for the show: up-and-coming, hyper-talented Baltimore artist Butch Dawson. With no introduction, he hopped on stage to roars from the crowd. Butch makes aggressive, heavy trap music with booming beats and loud, energetic lyrics. This style fit the rowdy crowd perfectly. Every song was backed by a chest-crushing 808 and rattling drums. After a 40-minute set, out of breath — but eternally cool — Butch left the mic and walked off stage. After seeing his set, I can confidently say: He’s next up in the Baltimore hip-hop scene.

After a small pause, a bandana-clad figure walked out from behind the bar, followed by a camera. He quickly clambered onto the stage, wearing a loose green shirt and sweatshorts. As screams poured out from the crowd, he huddled over the laptop on the stage and ripped his shirt off. Then he turned to face the audience with a beaming, proud expression.

Peggy started the show with a quick monologue about how much it meant to him to be back home in Baltimore. While JPEG is originally from Hempstead, N.Y., he moved to Baltimore after his military service and was quickly accepted into the Baltimore music scene. Through constant work and performances, Peggy rose through the ranks and quickly became one of the city’s most promising musical prospects. He reminisced on how he started with shows for “one person, two people, three people” and how the Metro Gallery was his first headline show he ever sold out. Now Peggy is touring all of North America on the back of his successful, second LP, Veteran, with a cult following and a heap of critical acclaim.

Yet this moment of sentimentality was quickly brushed over when Peggy pressed “play” on his laptop. Suddenly the JPEGMAFIA soundscape flooded the Metro Gallery — a harsh combination of glitchy samples, backed by loud, peaking kicks and crunchy snares that all combine to make an overwhelming wash of arrhythmic, discordant sound. 

The first song he played was “Real Nega” — one of his most popular and polarizing tracks. The foundation of the beat is a loop of Ol’ Dirty Bastard screaming. Peggy layers this with an incredibly aggressive, booming drum break. The crowd was immediately thrown into a frenzy as Peggy screamed the opening adlibs almost incomprehensibly.

This show was one of the rawest musical events I’ve ever been to. Peggy’s music is pure aggression compressed into sound. He performs it frantically, pacing the stage and screaming periodically. The crowd fed off this energy and became a rolling wave of flesh and sweat. People were being pushed halfway across the room. Random moshpits developed throughout the songs. At one point, a random guy dove off the stage. It was absolute insanity.

While bigger artists have crazy shows with loud music and high energy, they will never match what JPEG did at the Gallery. At shows like that, you are pressed in between two sweaty people, craning your neck and jumping just to catch a peek at the dot on the stage a mile away from you. JPEG’s show was a lot more. It was intimate. He would lean over the stage and rap at specific groups in the crowd.

On several of his most aggressive songs, Peggy would step down from the stage and enter the crowd. Moshes would instantaneously appear around him. He would move throughout the whole Metro Gallery, somehow rapping every word between the chaos.

In between songs, Peggy would calm down, bantering casually with members of the audience. Before playing the opener to his album “1539 N. Calvert,” named after Baltimore’s now-defunct artist compound, the Bell Foundry, Peggy explained what that spot meant to him. 

“That place was like a lobby; you ever play Destiny 2? It was a lobby like that,” he said. 

Another memorable moment was when Peggy’s bandana got ripped off, showing his uniquely, ahem... deep hairline. Peggy joked about how this is the only city where he felt comfortable enough to bless the audience with his hairline unprovoked. In the middle of the next song, Peggy stole a hat from a member in the crowd and rocked it for the rest of the show.

After he was done performing, instead of disappearing backstage, Peggy walked down the steps and started dapping the audience up. It was the homecoming of Baltimore hip hop’s Odysseus — returning from his great journey to the west.

If you have the chance to see JPEGMAFIA before he gets even bigger, please do. These kinds of shows are incredibly rare and eternally memorable. This is an artist at his hungriest, just starting to blow up. Nowhere else can you find this combination of raw passion, ambition and aggression.

And, JPEG, when you can, come back again — please do. Baltimore is proud of you, and we’re eagerly watching your meteoric rise.

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