H31R are the new thing out of the Big Apple – and they sound like they’re from the UK

Foto: © Kenyatta Meadows (Big Dada)
Bet you didn’t see that coming, did you? H31R, the new queens of hip-hop, don’t really follow anyone’s footsteps. Because the Big Apple has never sounded like this before.

On the second attempt, the call connects to New York. »Uh, were we supposed to be here at 9?« asks Jennifer Hernandez, aka JWords. The Dominican-born producer for the hip-hop duo H31R is late. Two days late, to be precise. But, it happens, no big deal. »You can call me J,« she grins, rolling a joint while emphasizing the merits of the New York tobacco substitute Grabba with her eyes downcast.

Then Maassai pops into the call. She’s the MC and J’s partner in crime at H31R. Before you ask: it’s pronounced like »heir«. But more on that soon, because  H31R have just released their second album. It’s called »Headspace« and it’s out on the Ninja Tune offshoot Big Dada—exactly three years after their début album »ve-loc-i-ty«. Heads celebrated the blend of footwork, Golden Age and jazz vibes back then as an underground trophy. With »Headspace« —a »more mature album«, as H31R call it— the spotlight is likely to be bigger this time around.

Space between the zodiac signs

It’s just past noon in New York. Maassai, who identifies as a night owl, is calling in from Brooklyn, while J is smoking in New Jersey. »It takes us the same amount of time to meet in Manhattan,« says the rapper. »But these days, I always have to go to Maassai,« says the producer. Neither of them has a driving license, so it takes a while. »But that’s okay, we live far enough apart that we don’t get on each other’s nerves, and we each have our own space.«

The two met in 2017 at a showcase for Suzi Analogue’s label Never Normal. J played a beat set. Maassai performed with a band. When they saw each other on stage, they both knew immediately: these beats, these vocals, this could work! »Plus, I’m a Gemini and J is an Aquarius—our zodiac signs are in resonance,« says Maassai. »That’s why we think a lot, but we’re also relaxed because we go with the flow,« adds J, and says: »Headspace, you know.«

Bookkeeping, throne following

Maassai was raised by her grandmother in the late 1990s in Brooklyn. Her uncle is a producer and her mother is a rapper. »Everyone in my family was creative, but they all eventually gave it up,« she says. »I only started expressing myself artistically when I went to church with my grandmother.« Maassai hasn’t been seen at Bible study for a while now, but her creative urge has remained. »I have something to say, and my approach is a bit revolutionary. I see myself as the heir to the throne. And as such, I represent my roots, my ancestors, and my hood.«

»My whole family was creative. But but they all eventually gave it up.«


In contrast to Maassai, J’s family had no connection to music. »We lived in a two-bedroom apartment with five people. My parents fought a lot. It wasn’t so great.« As a teenager, J found an escape from the cramped family reality: music. She started smoking weed, listening to instrumentals, and retreating into her own world.  J didn’t think about making music for a long time. After high school, she set her sights on a typical office job.  »I was good at maths, so I thought, hey, I’ll become an accountant. It wasn’t until later that I realized that producing music is also mathematics. So somehow I became an accountant anyway, did I?«

»Sure,« says Maassai. »Your beats are mathematics, everything is mathematics if you think about it.« That’s why H31R also works like different equations. »We add here and subtract there,« says J, referring to her beats, which are often described as »experimental« in industry publications. »Because they are already complex and challenging in themselves, it becomes really fire with my vocals,« says Maassai. »But I have to figure out exactly where to put them. I’m constantly experimenting when I write—sometimes it’s just a word that I change to hit the beat.«

In any case, they have hit the Zeitgeist with their video for »Going Backwards.« It was shot on Wall Street, also known as the largest financial district in New York or the world. »There, everyone switches to autopilot and follows a routine imposed on them by capital,« says J. »While as a society we should always be moving forward, we are actually going backwards. That’s why we’re throwing around counterfeit money. That’s why it flies back into our suitcases in the end. We’re moving backwards without realizing it—we’re just showing it to people!«