Tierra Whack Can’t Be Pinned Down
The colorful rapper and singer on her breakout visual album Whack World and more
Tierra Whack was never boring. Even within the abbreviated context of a festival set, most musicians cannot make that claim — many of her fellow performers last weekend at Pitchfork Music Festival certainly could not — but Whack is not most performers. The Philadelphian rapper and singer is a rainbow-colored whirlwind of ideas with the talent and charisma to actually pull them off.
That much was clear upon the May release of Whack World, a phenomenal audiovisual project that cycles through 15 songs and their accompanying interconnected videos in 15 minutes. Overflowing with hooks and clever wordplay, it’s a full-length visual album reduced to the size of an EP.
Forget pulling a Beyoncé; Whack World is like Beyoncé pulling a Guided By Voices. Whack had been kicking around since her teenage years, previously under the name Dizzle Dizz, but this was a project that demanded — and rewarded — close attention. It announced the arrival of a genuinely new character in popular music, an artful goofball with a very short attention span and extremely long potential.
When Whack, 22, was added to the Pitchfork lineup as a last-minute replacement for Earl Sweatshirt, I wasn’t sure how she was going to translate Whack World’s madcap energy to a giant festival stage. She didn’t fully pull it off — check back a few years from now when she can afford a humongous stage production — but things were off to a great start before she even stepped on stage thanks to her DJ and hypeman, a tat-speckled white guy known as Zach Whack. (Although he later told me he performs solo as Zach!, he has “WHACK” tattooed in tiny letters on his chest just below his neckline, as well as a spiderweb on his left temple.)
A music publicist in the crowd next to me noted that Zach was dressed like he works at AutoZone, his red zip-up polo shirt closed to the neck. Given the red sunglasses perched atop his blonde-splattered hair and music selections that mirrored his appearance, he also reminded me of ’90s Seth Green playing a wedding DJ. Despite a current rap hit here and there, he mostly spun Y2K-era rap singles by Jay-Z, DMX, Snoop Dogg, and Mystikal commingled with lovably corny aughts tracks such as Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” Gorillaz’s “Feel Good Inc.,” and Outkast’s “Hey Ya!” Often, these were preceded by calls to arms such as, “Chicago, you ready to dance?!”
Whack was. After about 15 minutes of this, she emerged in blue and white designer sneakers, an ankle-length button-up denim dress over a T-shirt, and a matching denim bucket hat. “Nothing to fear, the queen is here!” she rapped over an aggro trap beat, stalking the stage with a smile. The song, “Color Blind,” dates back to three years ago, and if it lacks the cartoonish catchiness and hyperactive sophistication of her Whack World material, it still makes for an emphatic introduction. Standing just behind me, Syd from the Internet was grinning broadly and dancing along.
Whack lived up to her self-proclaimed ADHD tendencies from start to finish. One time that meant doing the same “When I say Whack, you say Whack” call-and-response 20 times in quick succession. Another time it meant provoking the crowd to chant with increasing speed, “Crack kills/ If it don’t get ya Whack will!” At one point she told the audience, “This is so overwhelming. This is like the biggest crowd I’ve ever had,” a claim she later told me she cannot vouch for because “sometimes I just say things.” (She’s been opening shows for Lauryn Hill lately, so she’s definitely used to winning over a big audience.)
A few days after the chaos, I caught up with Whack by phone to find out more about one of 2018’s brightest new stars.
STEREOGUM: Most people would view “whack” as a negative term, but you put it right there in your name. Why?
TIERRA WHACK: That’s my real name. That’s not like a gimmick or anything, that’s my government name, Tierra Whack.
STEREOGUM: Whack World obviously has caught you a lot of attention. Did you always know that was gonna be a full-length visual project, or did that come about during the recording process?
WHACK: The idea was to do something new that has never been done, so I was like, it can’t just be audio. It has to be visual, you have to give people something to see and like. I knew that just listening to it people wouldn’t understand. So I needed the visuals to go along with it to make it make sense, for me anyway.
STEREOGUM: I think it helps everything click for the rest of us too. Do you have a favorite scene in it?
WHACK: Uh, “Fruit Salad.”
STEREOGUM: Why do you like that one the best?
WHACK: I just liked having the fat suit on, then they sprayed me with sweat, but I was actually already sweating from, like, working out and having the fat suit on, so it was really cool.
STEREOGUM: How’d you get hooked up with the people who did the Whack World visuals with you?
WHACK: Me and my manager Kenete [Simms], we’re always on Vimeo just watching cool shit, like cool ass videos. We found Thibaut, his page, and we like all the shit that we seen, and we just hit him up. He responded, and we started talking about the ideas that I had, and he liked it. And then we went back and forth with a treatment, and then we shot it in Montreal.
STEREOGUM: Did the vision for the project change much along the way?
WHACK: My original idea for the video, I wanted to be like — you know how the cover shows a crane machine, a claw machine? I wanted to be picked up from the actual claw and dropped into each set, but that was — that just couldn’t happen. The budget was not — we just couldn’t do it. I picture a kid running up to one of those claw machines. And you know how you have to spend your little change to try to win something, pick up something out of the machine, and every time you get close to picking it up and then trying to drop it so that you get it, you just fucking drop it? You get what I’m saying.
So that was my whole idea for the project — 60 seconds, as soon as you’re getting into the song, it’s over. And then you just keep playing it back, so you keep paying your money, paying your money. So that was my original idea, but I don’t really talk about it that much anymore because it couldn’t happen.
STEREOGUM: Some artists who’ve made really great music videos end up working with the same directors regularly. I think about, like, Donald Glover and Hiro Murai, who does his Childish Gambino videos and directs for Atlanta. Do you think you’ll keep working with Thibaut on future projects or switch it up?
WHACK: I definitely wanna work with Thibaut again, but it just depends on the next idea I have. I always go looking — I get my idea and then I go searching. That’s when I go back to Vimeo and I’m like, “Who can do this? Who do I feel like can make this come to life?” So, you know, every idea is different.
STEREOGUM: I saw that you tweeted, “I’m on the phone with my favorite rapper right now.” Have some people reached out to you looking to collaborate?
WHACK: Yeah, definitely. Uh, who’s reached out? Damn, who have I been talking to? Oh, Skrillex, he’s reached out. I’ve been talking to him. Who else? Damn. There’s honestly like, there’s a lot. [Laughs] Yeah, Skrillex, I’ve been talking to him a lot. Um, who else? Can’t think. That’s the most recent person I’ve been talking to. We’re trying to work.
STEREOGUM: If you had your choice of anybody to collaborate with, who would it be?
WHACK: I honestly don’t have like a person that I wanna work with. I’m just always focused on me, and I’m still trying to figure out my sound and what I wanna do. So I’m never really looking for features or something. I’m always trying to do every part myself, you know what I mean? I’m trying to sing, rap, whatever. I’m trying to do it all. I don’t know, I don’t really think about people I wanna work with. Like I met my idol, I opened for my idol Lauryn Hill, so that’s cool. But I don’t know, I’m just happy with being able to talk to her, and I’ve met her, and that’s what makes me happy. I don’t really look to work in like, “Yo, get on this song, gimme a verse.” I’m not like that. I like things to be organic and just like, if it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, that’s cool.
STEREOGUM: Whack World has been getting you a lot of attention. Is there any of your previous material in particular that you would like direct your new fans back to that you are especially proud of?
WHACK: “Mumbo Jumbo,” that’s my first music video. I wanted that one to hit a million but it didn’t. Whack World did, so that’s good. But I thought that “Mumbo Jumbo” would.
STEREOGUM: You think you’re gonna keep doing one-minute songs or was that just a constraint you put on yourself for this project?
WHACK: Nah, I’m not gonna keep doing the same thing.
STEREOGUM: So do you have any idea what your next project will be?
WHACK: No, I don’t know anything.
STEREOGUM: Have you not started working on it yet?
WHACK: Yes, I’m recording. I’m always creating, but I don’t have anything. Just creating.
STEREOGUM: You spent some time living in Atlanta. Did you move there because it’s such a big music hub?
WHACK: No, I just moved there because I needed a break from home, and I wanted to do something new. Me and my mom just went down there and started over. I finished my last year of high school there. I went to Westlake, and then I got my first job at a car wash and saved up enough money to buy my first laptop, and I started recording my ideas on my laptop. And then a year later I went back to Philly and found an engineer that I liked and I just started working and said you know what, I’m gonna change my name, I’m gonna use my real name as my stage name. And then I was Tierra Whack.
STEREOGUM: You’ve mentioned before that you started on the path toward rapping when you recited a poem in school. Do you remember what that one was about or what kind of stuff you were saying?
WHACK: No, I don’t, actually. It’s funny because my best friend, she knows everything and I don’t. I have a really bad memory, to be honest. It was just a freestyle, like a spoken word freestyle poem. So I was talking about anything that I wanted to talk about, just random shit — dinosaurs, ice cream, and giraffes. I really like giraffes.
STEREOGUM: I can definitely imagine a Tierra Whack song about each one of those subjects.
WHACK: Haaaaa. [Laughs] Stereogum is such a cool name.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, my boss Scott who started the site, he took it from a lyric from a song he liked.
STEREOGUM: You talk about being ADHD and getting easily bored. How do you keep yourself interested in the creative process and follow things through to the finish?
WHACK: Man, I still don’t have a specific strategy. I’m still learning more about myself every day, just trying to figure out how the hell do I just like, be still and not get bored. I’m still trying to figure it out.
STEREOGUM: In your lyrics you namecheck a lot of card games and board games. Do you bring any of that stuff on the road with you? I remember reading that the band Pavement would play Scrabble all the time on tour.
WHACK: I have a lot of it in the studio. I have like Bop It and cards, Uno, but I don’t take it with me.
STEREOGUM: Do you feel like the games jog your creativity?
WHACK: Yeah. Sometimes I’ll get a brain fart or something, or a writer’s block, and if I feel like I can’t create I’ll just go play a game or something. I have a bunch of different things in the studio that help me, that I’m surrounded by in my environment to help me create and get the creative juices flowing.
STEREOGUM: Are you able to get out and see much other music in Philly? Are there any other musicians there that you’re a fan of right now?
WHACK: Yeah, I really like the band Ill Fated Natives. Joey Stix, he’s fire on the drums. Who else? I was just at a concert. I love Theodore Grams. He’s a rapper from Philly. Literally all my friends write. I can name like, 10 people right now. Everybody does music in Philly. To me that’s a great feeling.
STEREOGUM: Your DJ, Zach, is wild. Where’d you find him?
WHACK: Zach was just a guy that I would see at events and stuff. There’s always something going on in Philly. And I just knew that he was just cool but he didn’t really do anything in particular. He knew how to dream. We was kind of good on Photoshop. He did a decent amount of little flyers and stuff. Zach just was kind of a freelancer. You would see him places, he was cool. Zach was a person just roaming around Philly. We started talking, and I was like, “Yeah, I want you to be my DJ.” And then he was my DJ. That’s it. That’s the story.
STEREOGUM: Did you see anything you liked at the Pitchfork festival while you were there?
WHACK: Yeah, what’s his name? Saba. Saba was really good. And her name was Lucy D — I don’t how to say her last name.
STEREOGUM: Oh yeah, Lucy Dacus.
WHACK: Lucy, yeah, she was really cool. Me and her shared the same room and her set was really cool. And I got to meet Syd and the Internet and they were cool.
STEREOGUM: Syd was standing right behind me during your performance and she was really feeling it, like dancing and vibing out.
WHACK: Yeah, Syd’s cool. Yeah, so definitely it was just a really good vibe. I really did not wanna leave.