"This isn't just me trying to be a rapper on some rap shit, this is me trying to be the next great American one-man show," says 21-year-old rapper and producer Gabriel Jacob Luansing, who releases music independently under the name mr. master. During an interview, he speaks fast and passionately, sounding almost overwhelmed by the attempt to explain what this music means to him. The California native has gone to great lengths to give context to his music. He's spent hours annotating his album ultra² on Genius, contributes to the /r/mrmastersucks subreddit, and after our initial interview he followed up several times with updates, things he forgot to say, and extra information.
Without any context, mr. master's music is not easy to wrap your head around. He samples '50s lounge music, raps in dense sentences and constantly shifting flows, and weaves humor into everything he does. The most common reaction he gets: "it's too much." But he's not a joke. "I want to be a funny person who makes good music, not just someone who makes funny music," he explains.
Inspired by Weird Al and the nerdcore hip-hop movement pioneered by MC Frontalot, mr. master enjoys popular music of all kinds, but he embraces his quirky, intellectual perspective, despite the fact that he takes his music very seriously. "The way I approach hip-hop is that you be yourself. You don’t go and do what everyone else is doing. And I’m a nerd."
With goals of launching a full-blown traveling circus and the belief that every stranger he comes across is just part of the audience, mr. master doesn't see his music as outsider art—he's aiming to do things on the largest scale, and he genuinely wants to change the world.
You described yourself as a rapper/beatmaker remixing 1950s lounge music. Where did that idea come from?
The initial idea started with one song. It’s a song called “happy go lively,” a song by composer Laurie Johnson. It’s a song where if they try to recreate the 1950s in a show or movie, they probably used that song. You’ll recognize it when you hear it. So it started with that one song, that one joke of, “What if I took that song and turned it into a Bay Area slap?” From there it turned into nine songs. I did it again and I was like, “Oh, I could keep doing this. I’ll never get sick of it.”
Do you listen to that style of music, that ‘50s lounge music, in your personal life?
the way I approach hip-hop is that you be yourself. You don’t go and do what everyone else is doing. And I’m a nerd.
Not all the time. I’m always listening to anything, like any kind of music any time. But I listen to all kinds of music. When I’m home in San Diego, my dad always has that kind of music playing in the background, he’s been doing it since I was in high school, so it was always there. I enjoy listening to it as much as I do sampling it.
Are you seeking new songs to sample, or is it just what you come across naturally?
It’s kind of half and half. Part of it is that I’m just watching stuff from the 1950s and learning stuff about the 1950s. A lot of the dialogue samples are from documentaries that I would watch. I always have that in the back of my head whenever I’m listening to anything. I’m just looking to whatever interests me, and then ultra formed out of that.
Can you break down your name? Where did mr. master come from?
I used to draw when I was a kid in elementary school. I had this notebook full of doodles and I drew a series of cartoon DJs that each had little names. One was named DJ XLR8, one was called DJ Cash Money. I just drew these, and one of them was named mr. master. So when I look back, I guess it started there. It wasn’t like I was trying to think of a name, I would just write rhymes in my head and the name just keep coming up. So I was like, “I guess I’m named mr. master.”
Your music is really outside the realm of what most young artists are doing today. The first time I heard it, it reminded me of Edan.
I can’t believe that was the first thing you thought of. That means so much.
Who were some of the influence on your music?
Obviously MC Frontalot, the founder of nerdcore. I would not be rapping if not for that one person. I found him in middle school, and to me he’s one of the best rappers, period. He should be in every conversation Aesop Rock is in. He's at that same level in terms of of vocabulary. He’s a huge grammar snob, and he made me pay a lot of attention to grammar. The flow is crazy, and if you read the lyrics it’s not just lyrics, it’s like an essay. Edan is somebody I found around the same time. I think I found him because I created an MC Frontalot station on Pandora and one of the first things that came up was “Sing It, Shitface.” So after finding MC Frontalot, I almost immediately found Edan, and it wasn’t weird to me. I was always onto this. I would look at all my other friends like, “You guys don’t get it?”
I want to be a funny person who makes good music, not just someone who makes funny music.
There is something inherently nerdy about your music, and you embrace that. What does that word mean to you?
Nerd has always felt like a name you call someone. It’s not a good thing to be called a nerd. It’s never been that, and it still isn’t. But the way I approach hip-hop is that you be yourself. You don’t go and do what everyone else is doing. And I’m a nerd. If you’re a cool person, then looking like a nerd is dumb. But being a nerd is just being someone who’s into learning and studying by themselves, and what’s so bad about that? To me, it doesn’t even make sense. It wasn’t really a goal to redefine the word nerd, but I hope that in people seeing the way I am, people will think about it differently. People think nerds are just this one thing, but I wasn’t ever like that. I can be a nerd and I can dance, and I can rap better than anybody, and I’m still a nerd.
Do you think your music is a niche, outsider kind of thing, or do you see your music connecting with people who maybe don’t identify as a nerd or don’t relate to everything you’re saying?
It started out as a very niche thing. In the beginning it was about obscure references, like if I could make a joke out of something you didn’t get, I prided myself on that. In recent years, I started approaching things more in a theater, acting, and circus kind of way. So I started looking at circus, vaudeville, theater and once I brought in that aspect, I think now it could appeal to everyone. The thing about the circus is that you can go in, and you can be entertained no matter what. If there’s a clown in front of you and he falls down, you’re going to laugh. That’s human. It’s entertainment, it’s fun.
Before we go further, can you just give me the basics. Where are you from, how old are you, what’s your real name?
My name is Gabriel Jacob Luansing. They call me mr. master because I told them to. I’m 21 years old. I was born in National City, California. I moved to CSUN (California State University, Northridge) when I graduated in 2014. So I’ve been in San Diego my whole life, and then just Northridge recently.
You told me you were a theater major. What have you taken from that and applied?
It’s a complicated situation. I came in as a journalism major, I took some of those classes and realized that’s not what I wanted to do. Then I switched to film and took some of those classes and realized that’s not what I wanted to do. And then I switched to a communications major, and then I changed it before I even took any classes. During that summer I realized theater was what I wanted to do. I still had the mindset that music would be a side thing, but I always thought I’d get another job. Now I know music is what I want to do. Now I know why I’m there. That’s the direction I’m going.
You’ve spoken to me about the circus a lot. Are you going to incorporate that into your live show, or what do you see in your head?
I would love to turn my live show into an actual circus, like physically—an actual traveling circus... And I’m definitely serious about that.
I would love to turn my live show into an actual circus, like physically—an actual traveling circus. I think my top goal in life is to be president, and the step under that is a traveling circus. And I’m definitely serious about that. I believe in the circus so much. Spike Jones was a novelty musician, very famous around the ‘40s and ‘50s. He parodied popular songs and put random sounds in it, like gun shots and car horns. That was his style, and he eventually turned his show into a traveling circus. He was a drum player and he led the band, and it started with them, and it transformed into a literal circus with jugglers and acrobats. He was one of the first person to tour the country with a huge traveling show, and I’m thinking, “Why can’t we do that again?” I could totally do that. Once I get the right people around me who know what I’m talking about, I could do that.
What’s the typical reaction when people hear your music for the first time?
The most recent thing with ultra, I get a lot of, “It’s too much. It’s overwhelming.” Any reaction I get is good to me. When I listen to “Falsehood” right now, I get it. It might be a little too much. The biggest fault in ultra is the mixing. I mixed it all myself, and I think that’s the biggest complaint I get and I can see why. It’s muffled and things get lost, and I’m aware of that.
Is your following mostly on the internet, or are you friends and family also supportive of what you’re doing?
It’s almost entirely on the internet. I always approached my music like, people will find it, and they will hold onto it. I don’t have too many close friends, and I’m not very open. I have the people I live with, and my family, and that’s like 10 people. Those are the people in my life—that’s it. As long as I can post it on the internet and for it to be as good as it can be, people will find it. There’s not too much person-to-person.
Have you performed at all?
The first rap that I ever wrote was in a middle school class in eighth grade, and I immediately performed it after I wrote it. I had this Filipino class, and every Friday we’d have a free day where people could do whatever they want, and I wrote raps. After that, in high school, I used to do talent shows. That carried over into college. The last performance that I did was 2015 and it was a talent show in CSUN, and I got second place in that show. I haven’t done live shows in a while because I was so dedicated to making the music, but I have the chops for it. And now that I have the music, I want to start taking it into a live context. I’m at home on stage. The way I started seeing it is that there’s an audience and there’s the artist. Not to diminish humanity or whatever, but I’m not part of the audience anymore. Anybody I see who is a stranger, they’re part of the audience.
So as someone who’s making music so different from current popular music, what do you think about the overall state of music right now?
I want to be pessimistic about it overall. I don’t want to be a backpacker like, “Oh I hate mainstream rap and blah, blah, blah.” I appreciate all music. If I haven’t heard a song before, I automatically love it, because it’s an opportunity to hear something new. But overall, I would say that things are not good. I think the biggest thing is that I want to make music that’s American. I want it to be undeniably American.
Where does that idea come from? Are you a patriotic person?
In the past year and a half, I was only focusing on the music. Now that it’s out and I have 60 songs up on my SoundCloud, I don’t need to worry about the music anymore. Recently, I’ve just been looking more into politics. When I was making ultra, I was just not aware of anything around me. I need to be aware of what’s going on in my country, and it’s going down the fucking drain, man. It makes me upset more and more every day. The political side of it wasn’t present in ultra when I was making it. It was about cartoony music, nerdy references, theater, circus, all that. Now I’m not making it anymore, I’m looking at it as a listener, and the me now is thinking of this as a very political thing. It’s to the point where I can’t look away. The idea of it being American was there when I was making it, but now that I’ve gotten the time to understand what’s going on in my country, I need to do something about it, and I want to do it through my music.
I always want to remain as humble as I can, but if I get the fucking resources, I can do something huge. If I find myself in the right position, I won’t fuck it up.
So you’ve got 60 songs out right now, what’s the next step? Is it more performances, is it online promotion, are you looking at labels?
Uh, it’s not labels [Laughs]. Completely independent, definitely. The actual thing I’m working on right now is the next step, but I don’t know if I want to announce that yet.
I think the first time we talked, you mentioned Weird Al and I know a lot of people who love Weird Al, but nobody who’s taken him seriously as an influence and as an artist. Can you talk about that?
Oh, I totally could. Novelty music is another pillar of ultra. When I think of novelty music, I think of three people: Spike Jones, Dr. Demento, and Weird Al. I see that as the historical progression of novelty music. The thing about comedy music is that when you start taking comedy seriously, nobody takes you seriously. Weird Al is an incredible musician. You have to be to make the amount of songs he does in the amount of genres he does. I’m not even talking about the song parodies, I mean the style parodies, and nobody talks about those. He has a song where he made a song in the style of Bruce Springsteen, and it sounds like “Born To Run” and “Dancing in the Dark” but it’s an original song that he wrote. He’s done that for so many artists. To me, that is just so high level to be able to do that. I don’t see is as just jokes and whatever. The image that he puts off does that, but he’s put himself into so many genres. He’s a chameleon, and everyone just sees him as a clown. That’s me, I want to be that. I want to be a funny person who makes good music, not just someone who makes funny music.
Is there anything else you want people to know?
I’m the person you should be listening to. I always want to remain as humble as I can, but if I get the fucking resources, I can do something huge. If I find myself in the right position, I won’t fuck it up. I’m so fucking hungry. I want to make change in this world, and I feel like I can do that with my music.