If you've spent much time lately in the music blogosphere, or happened to attend designer Rick Owens' Fall/Winter show earlier this year, you've likely already heard or heard of Ojay Morgan, aka Zebra Katz—the rising star's bass-heavy, ballroom community-inspired hit "Ima Read" was dubbed the song of Paris Fashion Week, and since then the 25-year-old has been on a fast rise to relevance, with a slew of South by Southwest gigs, a huge co-sign from indie star-makers Mad Decent, and an impending European tour. We spoke to the multimedia artist about his breakout hit's long history and unexpected success, and how he plans to top it.
ALEX CHAPMAN: Have you always been working with music as a medium?
ZEBRA KATZ: I'd always been making music on the side, and Zebra Katz was a character that grew out of my solo performance piece, "Moor Contradictions."
CHAPMAN: So how long has Zebra Katz officially been apart of your repertoire?
KATZ: I've been making music for the last seven years, but it really didn't take off until the release of "Ima Read" on Jeffree [an imprint of Mad Decent]. It's always just been me making music for fun, as opposed to a professional career. I was doing a lot of performance work before this, and I've also managed a catering company for the past three years.
CHAPMAN: Wow, I had no idea you were working as anything but a performer.
KATZ: I couldn't really be a starving artist, so I had a full-time job as a staffing director. I never thought that people would listen to my music—I never thought it'd be as accessible as it is now. When I made most of the tracks, they weren't meant for release.
CHAPMAN: You put some new music out recently—how new is all this material?
KATZ: I just released another EP called Winter Titty, and that's the most up-to-date music I've released—"Ima Read" is five years old.
CHAPMAN: Oh my gosh! I had no idea it'd been around for that long.
KATZ: I'm always like, "Yeah, it's great, it's been out forever!" But it took that little push from being on the label, and having Rick Owens hear it and play it.
CHAPMAN: Was it a phrase you'd use on a regular basis?
KATZ: The song has always been my self-mantra—it's just something I would always say to myself as a joke, because I took this class called "How To Read A Play," and I couldn't stand the teacher, so I was always like "Ima read that bitch." A few years later, after having that be my "thing," I started messing around on Garageband, where most of my songs were recorded—in the confines of my bedroom.
CHAPMAN: Is that how you created all the production for the song? Tell me about that.
KATZ: When I laid down the beat, I wanted it to be really minimal, and I'm not a trained producer, so I didn't want to make an elaborate beat that was all tweaked out and not really my style. So I came up with a simple kick and started layering the song. I thought, "This is kinda like a lesson, so how can I break it up so it's the song?" So I came up with the chorus, the intro and the hook in like 2005 or 2006, and then I met Njena Reddd Foxxx [who's featured on the song] about two years later, we became really good friends and I decided I wanted to go back and work on "Ima Read."
CHAPMAN: How big of a part did she play? She's pretty incredible.
KATZ: I had her add her verse, and then we did the back-and-forth—it gave the song more character and depth, and then there was a female and male voice on it, which made it more universal. I sent it out on MySpace—shout-out to MySpace—and I sent it to people, but it didn't really go that far.
CHAPMAN: So what was it to you?
KATZ: It was just a song I listened to with my friends—it was our song, and that was okay. Then I got fed up with MySpace and joined Soundcloud, and a couple years later I had a collection of other songs on there with DJ Teenwolf, who introduced the track to Diplo and Mad Decent. So that was three years in the making.
CHAPMAN: That's insane. Can you go into the context of the track?
KATZ: The song has a lot of influences in ball culture—if you've seen Paris Is Burning, there's a section with Dorian Corey where she says "shade comes from reading, but reading came first." Basically, "reading" is an elevated verbal insult—the fine art of insult. Being that "Ima Read" is the song it is, it is a boasting song with an attitude—that's why I used the word "Bitch." I tried to desensitize it, but also empower it, similar to what Missy Elliott did with "She's a Bitch."
CHAPMAN: That's a great song.
KATZ: She killed that song and she really empowered the word "bitch," and that was a part of her whole album—having ownership of that, which is why I felt it was so important to get a female voice on the track, which is why I featured Njena.
CHAPMAN: And the song can be taken literally too. The depth is sort of optional—it's great to know where it came from, but you don't need it.
KATZ: That really helped make it a song that you can pay reference to, even if you don't know anything about ball culture—hopefully you went to school, then college, then at that point, hopefully you would write a dissertation so you can excuse your shit!
CHAPMAN: How deep does the literal vein of the song affect people?
KATZ: Schoolteachers love the song. I'm getting e-mails about how great the song is, and how important it is to talk about literacy in hip-hop. It does have a lot to do with that—look at our education system in America and what we're going through. With that in mind I started the Ima Read Foundation through Room To Read, and it's just a small campaign where we're trying to get people to give back. I did that because of National Reading Day.
CHAPMAN: So it really is a song for everybody.
KATZ: That's the great thing about the song—no matter where you're coming from, anyone can relate. To some people it's a comedy, to some people it's serious, and I'm happy that I created a piece that opens up a dialogue.
CHAPMAN: I was surprised to realize that your press contact is actually you. Is that something that's going on for a reason—you handling Zebra Katz yourself?
KATZ: Self-managing the project wasn't necessarily intentional, but it's just the way it happened. As soon as the song hit the Rick Owens fashion show, it took a life of its own and started making a path. I am still working a full-time job, but as soon as I quit that job, I'll have to commit myself fully to Zebra Katz, and hopefully I'm going to be making a living off this.
CHAPMAN: But right now you're in the in-between, which is a weird place to be, I'm guessing.
KATZ: It's an interesting transition from making music as a hobby and a pastime to now making it as a creative outlet.
CHAPMAN: I'm just surprised you aren't signed already. Are a lot of people courting you?
KATZ: I think people sense the buzz and energy, and I think everyone thinks that someone is else is trying to sign me. I'm not signed, but I'm meeting with a bunch of agents, which I think is the first step, and planning a European tour that will hopefully start next fall. For me, I'm gearing up for next Fashion Week, because I need another song on the runway!
CHAPMAN: And when will that next track be crafted?
KATZ: When I do have a little bit more time, I'm gonna go back in the studio and make music from a different place. It's all extremely exciting, and I'm anxious to see what comes out of it all.
CHAPMAN: Well you're super busy with all that—you recently went to South By Southwest, and got really great reviews.
KATZ: It was my first time in Texas, first time going to SXSW. I went on Twitter and said, "Hey, we're coming to Texas—anyone want us to jump on any shows?" Before we knew it, we were doing eight shows, and one big show with Mad Decent.
CHAPMAN: That's a great reception.
KATZ: People—especially the kids—really reached out and tried to get us involved, and it was really great. Now we have that [experience], and a year ago I never even would've thought of going to Texas.
CHAPMAN: Any favorite showcases?
KATZ: The Mad Decent show was really fun, and we also did a sidewalk party during the day that was great. I would go back to Texas in a heartbeat. We got to meet a lot of people in the music industry—I met the whole Mad Decent team and had never met them before. Making those connections is really important this early.
FOR MORE ON ZEBRA KATZ, VISIT OJAY MORGAN'S FACEBOOK.