Jean Dawson Pixel Bath Interview
Photos by S1rsuave, Illustration by Dessie Jackson

Jean Dawson Made a Record for His 17-Year-Old Self

When the 24-year-old artist set out to soundtrack to his teenage life, he had nostalgia—not genre—in mind.
Ashwin Rodrigues
Brooklyn, United States
October 29, 2020, 3:38pm
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Jean Dawson is selective about where he gets his advice. He's soaked up gems from Rick Rubin and A$AP Rocky, the latter of whom he now calls a friend. 

"Don't ever lose your heart," he says Rocky told him when the two met to hang out and make music earlier this year. Dawson says he wasn't sure what this meant at first, but after mulling the advice for a few days, something clicked. "There's a certain thing in people's eyes when you're new. It's like this little glow, where everything is fascinating, where everybody's conversation is meaningful, where the little things matter the most. And I think that's what he was talking about." He took that wisdom to heart as his own career took off this year, with his debut studio album, Pixel Bath, released on October 23 by P+, his independent label. 

The album is a full-circle moment for the 24-year-old-artist, who remembers watching the 2011 video for Rocky's "Peso," and thinking it was the "coolest shit ever." Now the A$AP Mob rapper is featured on the album, in a verse on "Triple Double," an airy track with an infectious, simple hook. 

In the past year, Dawson's profile has increased significantly, after getting cosigns from A$AP mob, premiering a track on Zane Lowe's radio show, and signing a publishing deal with Rick Rubin. It's a drastic change from his time in high school, he says, when he wasn't a popular kid worth a double-take. "Now I'm more under a microscope, there's Reddit forums about me and shit," he says. 

Addressed to his 17-year-old self, Pixel Bath sounds both new and nostalgic, a polished and focused follow-up to his 2019 EP, Bad Sports. On the 13-track project, Dawson blends distorted guitars with vintage drum machine sounds, switching between singing, chanting, and rapping. Listening to it feels more like flipping through different radio stations rather than one distinct project—it's sometimes pop, sometimes punk, sometimes hip-hop. There's a distinctly Yeezus-esque industrial dissonance on "06 Burst." On "Shiner," Dawson raps over Tame Impala-like synths. A native Spanish speaker, he disses law enforcement in two languages on the punk track "Policía," but perhaps his greatest talent is creating instantly irresistible melodies like those on "Clear Bones" and "Triple Double." On this album, Dawson sought to recreate the feeling of being invincible at night.

"It just became an ode to my 17-year-old-self," he says. "I wanted to have a soundtrack, like here's the highlights of what I remember of you."

On the cover of Pixel Bath, Dawson, who played high school football, is wearing a helmet with a rainbow visor, which is a saturated color lens through which he's reflecting on his memories. The title of the album is a reference to his friend Redford, or "Red" who Dawson met in his freshman year of high school in San Diego, who once wanted to change his government name to "Pixel Bath." Redford taught Dawson how to count bars and rap on beat, and Dawson still calls Redford his "sensei." Upon having their first session, which started with a trip for fish and chips, Dawson felt like he'd known Red forever.

Though he's eager to glean guidance from people like Red and A$AP Rocky, there's also a distinct rebelliousness in Dawson. "I hate when people try to kick knowledge," he says. "It's an ego thing. It's nothing that somebody can tell me that I haven't already thought of." 

He can still recall a high school acquaintance telling him to stick to hip-hop, instead of experimenting with "whatever the fuck" it is he does now. Now, he says, that person is "watching me succeed, doing the exact opposite thing he prescribed to me to do." He's grown up since high school, back when starting a fight for simply looking at him would be par for the course. "Now, my words have to be stronger than my fists." he says. 

Dawson has been called "Britpop-inspired" and "alt-pop," as well as "emo" and "trap," and even he has difficulty classifying his sound into a single genre, which he feels can be to his own detriment. He says he knew emo kids in middle and high school, and he insists his music is not that. "Don't get me wrong, I enjoy a MCR song every now and then," he says. The "trap" label makes even less sense, but he gets this one because he's Black, and he doesn't have a clear or concise way to describe his music yet, besides "pop music that's just not normal."  

Though Dawson doesn't really care about his music's genre designation, the lack thereof does affect where his work gets placed. "I don't get on the rap playlists because I make shit with guitars, but I don't get the rock playlists, because I'm Black," he says. "And I say 'ni**a' n my songs. So I'm in this weird space that doesn't exist yet." (He is featured on Spotify's "Anti pop" and "my life is a movie" playlists.) But absolutism is boring to him. 

"[Genres] are a disservice to people that live in a gray area," Dawson says. "But then again, how the fuck do you describe something that has never existed before?" 

Far from the first artist to deal with genre classification issues, Dawson points to Tyler, the Creator's last album, Igor, as a project mislabeled because of the artist. "Tyler's last project was a fucking pop album," says Dawson. "But the thing is, it doesn't get considered pop because Tyler's Tyler." Igor won a Grammy for Best Rap album, which Tyler himself said felt "like a backhanded compliment." Yet there is a long history of Black artists defying genre conventions. "I still have this conversation with homies all the time," Dawson says. "What was Prince? Was he soul? Was he rock? Was he R&B? and they're like, 'Prince was Prince.' And I'm like, exactly." Dawson is trying to eclipse traditional genres, something his idol-turned-friend A$AP Rocky did in both music and fashion—which is part of the reason Dawson looks to him for wisdom. "That's somebody that when they talk, I shut up and listen," he says. 

"[Rocky] calls me a fucking weirdo, which is great. Because I think he considers himself a weirdo as well." 

Dawson credits his parents for his expansive taste in music, which directly informs his genre-agnostic work. His mom, originally from Tijuana, immigrated to the US, where she went to a trade school in San Diego, and her only friends were Black. "They were the only people to accept her fully," he says. "She essentially learned English through Black culture and Black music." His father, a Black man originally from Long Beach, was known in the neighborhood as a gangster rapper. "I would've been a crip if I had followed dad's footsteps," he croons on "Shiner." His late paternal grandmother was also a rapper, Dawson says, and he's still trying to track down the VHS proof. In the car, his father played Snoop Dogg and the Eastsidaz; while his mom played Madonna, the Smiths, Scorpions, and hair metal. As a result, Jean Dawson's been trying to bridge that gap ever since: a "Black Björk" making "shoegaze with some golden fronts," as he chants on "Pegasus." 

Dawson has been called an industry plant, he says, but he'd be happy to play the role. "Dude, I fucking wish. Give me money to be an industry plant," he says. "I'll be an industry plant tomorrow. Let me buy my mom a crib." But the reason for his ascendance is simpler: he's hungrier. "I'm actually working. That's why I don't drink. I don't smoke. I walk my dogs, I drink water, I exercise, and I make music. And that's pretty much how my days go." The only drugs he takes, he says, come in the form of antidepressants and cigarettes. 

Before he pursued music full-time, he attended Cal State Los Angeles on a collegiate scholarship, though he used that money to buy studio equipment. Dawson switched his major several times; from classical piano, to Pan-African studies, and then finally film, before he dropped out in his senior year. "I was like, I can't. I'm going into debt, not going to class, because I'm working on music." He might go back to college to finish his degree in a couple of decades, "just to get it off his chest." While he considers himself a student before anything else, he isn't one for following traditions. 

"That's why I didn't want to do classical piano performance," he says. "Because it's based on the rules that you have to follow. You need to follow specific things, but my existence isn't traditional." 

Dawson is unsigned for now, but he's bringing his student's approach to record labels, as he entertains propositions for a deal.

"I've gotten legit offers. I think I'm scary. There's something about me that's a little daunting, because I'm a learned kid," he says." Any information anybody gives me, I'm going to take it, soak it in, learn more, and then come back with more information. I've asked a label to give me a percentage of their entire label before. They ended up offering me a JV [joint venture], but I was like, Nah, I didn't ask for that."

For a curious and information-hungry person like Dawson, it's an opportune time to be shopping for a record deal. But he already sounds tired of the industry side of the music business. 

"I appreciate business for what it is. It's ugly, it's sad. It's immoral, but it's a business nonetheless. If you're a little bit inquisitive, you can learn a lot," he says. He's open to signing to a major label. "But I have no interest in taking a big-ass loan. Partnership is something that I've been preaching, it's what Kanye West has been talking about, but I'm not Kanye West. So when I talk about it, people look at me fucking crazy. I'm just like, I should own my masters, correct?"

On Pixel Bath, Dawson uses both English and Spanish. That's also how he thinks: when speaking English, he often mentally translates to Spanish before responding, and vice-versa. He recalls one vivid dream, in a combination of English and Spanish, where his uncle told him his grandmother died, only for Dawson to find her alive, surrounded by a gold aura, in the next room. They danced to "Mi Gusto Es," a song Dawson's grandfather used to sing to her. "I woke up crying. It was the most beautiful dream I've ever had in my life." The advice from Rocky might've been a reminder, but it's been with him since he first heard this song. "It's basically saying the things that I love are the things that make me happy, and nobody will take them from me."

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