Art + Rap + The Internet = Yung Jake

This story was produced in partnership with Storyboard, Tumblr's home for original journalism.

He was supposed to look directly at the interviewer, not at the video camera, please. But Yung Jake — internet incarnate, rapper, memester, artiste of the online world — found it frustratingly difficult to make eye contact. As he was talking, his gaze kept shifting back to the lens, then down to the iPhone nestled in his palm. He sighed. “I’m just more interested in interacting with the virtual world than I am with real people.”

Yung Jake won’t admit his age (“I’m young yung”), where he grew up, (“all over”) or how he should be artistically categorized (“I call myself whatever world wants to accept me”). Something like 10 years ago, this might have been a freakish way to publicly define oneself. But today, in a world in which screens are hot and people are, well, not, such a proclamation is legitimate, on trend, and, increasingly, more normal than not.

Indeed, trying to label Jake’s work is a round peg-square hole situation. After all, how does one categorize someone who draws from established genres like rap and writing and whatnot, and combines them with emerging trends like “datamoshing” (a compression technique in which an image or video’s frames are deleted to warp playback), hacking and using the audience’s computer screen as canvas?

Title or not, Yung Jake was brought to Sundance this year, during which he performed (from behind a wall – the audience never actually saw him IRL) and created a Sundance-exclusive app, in which a 3D Jake gets into your iPhone and makes moves on your computer.

The CalArts grad — he received his BFA just last year, although he’s quite reluctant to admit it — has been hanging out in front of screens for years, uploading outlandish videos and catchy songs (most notably, Datamosh, a meta rap about, you guessed it, datamoshing) which garnered him a small but loyal following. Then, last March, the internet (or, parts of it, anyway) exploded when he released e.m-bed-de/d, a music video (but first, get ready for all those tabs) that traces the life of a viral video: YouTube counts, Google+ hangout circles, a tweets from Justin Bieber (true story) and beyond. It’s magical.

This – and all of Jake’s previous work – was brought to fruition with the help of his friends: coding extraordinaire Vince McKelvie (a programmer by day who carries out Jake’s visions on the side), music producer Max Barabria and cinematographer Temra Pavlovic, each fellow CalArts grads. They’re all in it for art’s sake — or so they claim; Jake, despite employing the tools of the future, remains the epitome of the struggling artist. (When Sundance came to a close, he sardonically tweeted, “#Sundance was great. Now back to working at Jamba Juice!!!”) But perhaps it’s the rest of his fans on the web that he relies on the most: images, 3D graphics, video footage, beats – it’s all stuff that Jake found in the recesses of the Internets and combined to create something strikingly fresh. “It’s all just found stuff put together in interesting ways, and anyone can do it,” he tells Tumblr. “We’re all artists these days.”

Sky Dylan-Robbins