One of the hardest things about being an artist is that it conflates creativity with productivity, but for Jerry Agbinya—a Collarts Music Production student and producer in his own right—won't force his art to be anything but authentic. When we talk at the Wellington St campus upstairs, he immediately laughs when I press him about his moniker, Crooked Letter. "I get tagged on Crooked Colours' stuff and get excited every time. I'm like: oh my god, am I playing this? Oh no, that's not me."
Raised in Western Sydney, Jerry relocated to Melbourne a few years ago with nothing but a degree in architecture and a few year's worth of experience self-learning music production in his bedroom. Integrating quickly into the Melbourne music scene, it was in his own work—particularly his 2017 single 'Heretics' that landed him on Triple J's rotation within 24hrs—that brought Jerry's effortless flow and production to wider recognition that had Zan Rowe asking for "more please."
For his performance at Peel Street Festival, we caught up with Jerry to chat about his work and how he's not afraid to embrace his roots.
Hey Jerry, thanks for chatting to me. Tell me a little about yourself.
I grew up in Western Sydney, where I went to high school and uni, completing a Bachelor's Degree of Architecture at UTS. I did finish my degree, but I was always dabbling in music along the way. From both my degree and music, I met an amazing group of friends and begun making music in a duo known as Spirals. When I finished uni, I fluttered around for a while, naturally immersing myself in music. I started to teach myself to produce, and that’s when I realised I didn’t want to pursue architecture anymore—my passion was in music.
So did you jump into music straight away?
At the time, I got a pay-the-bills kind of job so I could move out, working 9-5 at a law firm doing admin. Ironically, I then couldn’t do music as well as I wanted to because I was working 9-5. I found myself asking: why am I doing this? After a year of working, I decided to take music seriously. So I looked up a few different courses, I spoke to people I knew and found Collarts.
"Like Kendrick’s work... you can create something that represents the streets, the pop, and the complete left of field and still be accepted.”
It' so strange how things come together sometimes. What happened next when you decided to make the big move to Melbourne?
After deciding to study, it was an easy move, mainly because my Dad had already lived here and so does my brother. I remember I went into Collarts for my interview and I immediately knew, just like that, I wanted this. Lauren, the person who interviewed me asked, “you don't need to think about it?” And I'm like grinning, “no thanks—give me those forms.”
I love that you had a moment like that when you knew exactly what you wanted. Was there a turning point for you when you knew you wanted to produce your own music and rap?
Yeah, I never actually rapped in high school. I just didn't want to ever be tokenised, so I was always holding myself back. Because of it, I was really into emo music, especially Fall Out Boy.
I think all the best people have gone through an emo phase. Fall Out Boy, Alexisonfire, Panic! At The Disco, Saosin, Paramore—it goes on.
Yeah totally, I then got into really hardcore music from that, like Memphis May Fire, A Day To Remember and more.
Same here. Remember Chiodos?
Yes, oh my god. Shit.
I find it interesting that emo has had such a deep influence on hip-hop and vice versa, as both can be very poetic forms of art. I’ve also noticed—at least for myself—that growing up in a predominantly white neighbourhood in a way could be a reason I found solace in emo, punk and hardcore.
Yeah, definitely. I feel like maybe second generation immigrants already felt like they're on the fringes and I wanted to fit in. Growing up, we were literally—my family and my Uncle's family—were the only black people in our town for at least a decade. We were recently talking about how when I was really young, I didn't see all the blatant racism that was going on around me. But sooner of later, people just knew us—my parents worked hard to make the community know our character.
Being aware of this, my parents were very prominent in our school: we did everything, we played sports, we did debate and shit—they made my family very active because they knew the rough things going on. At the time, there was this weird divide between new developments and housing commissions—my Dad was one of the first people who bought those new developments—so he kept us busy, and that included music for me.
I understand completely. With your music in mind, when did you get past that stereotype you were holding over yourself?
I think it was a mix of things and just the fact that rap/R&B since the ’90s has had a slow progression into the mainstream. It’s now everywhere and now it’s pop. Like Kendrick’s work on good kid, m.A.A.D city and To Pimp A Butterfly was crazy. Those albums in particular were inspirational, like you can create something that represents the streets, the pop, and the complete left of field and still be accepted. So I was like, “okay, apparently I can do whatever the fuck I want.”
"Don't be worried about other people's expectations of you because the passion's there already... you should just back yourself and it'll work out, definitely."
Did tapping into the past in terms of music and culture help you shape Crooked Letter?
Yeah, once I gave myself permission I begun looking to specific music from my culture, like Nigerian funk, Afro-beat and even psychedelic rock. I just went deep into sampling and it just made me feel better about myself, making me appreciate my differences a bit more. Letting go of stereotypes gave me confidence to really back my tastes and recontextualise my roots, you know?
It’s awesome music has made you feel that way. Do you feel Collarts gave you the tools to take these parts and make it your own?
At Collarts, I’ve learned a lot about music production and engineering; stuff that's really connected to me and really fielded my music to get better. I’ve learned to trust my ears and that attention to detail is everything. The degree here is serious… I now know that my studies can facilitate me eating for the rest of my life if I put enough work in and my family now believes it too which is dope.
What advice would you give to people I guess who are thinking about studying Music Production but hesitate doing music full-time or that they don’t have the right skills?
If you're the type of person who’s voraciously watching YouTube clips, watching interviews of your favourite artists, and if you know you're hungry for it, then this is the place of you. Don't be worried about other people's expectations of you because the passion's there already and you just need to assess whether it's right for you. If you have that passion then you should just back yourself and it'll work out, definitely.