There is just one place that can light my face
Gary, Indiana, Gary, Indiana!”
— The Music Man, 1962
“I’m goin’ back to Indiana!
’Cause that’s where my baby’s from, yeah!
OK Tito, you got it!”
— The Jackson 5, 1971
“I’m comin’ live from the G, A-R-Y
Good or bad, right or wrong
Where the young boys die”
— Freddie Gibbs, 2009
A palpable odor of molten metal announces that you have arrived in Gary, Indiana, which began life 111 years ago as a company town, firmly anchored by U.S. Steel. Elbert H. Gary—the company’s key founder and the city’s namesake—is immortalized in a statue outside City Hall, holding his hat in his hand. In 1960, Gary’s population peaked at around 180,000; just a few years later, as the city’s African-American population climbed, U.S. Steel initiated a series of layoffs.
Gary elected its first black mayor, Richard Hatcher, in 1968. Decades of white flight followed, and as the city’s numbers plummeted, so did its fortunes. In 1994, after a record spike in homicides, The Chicago Tribune named Gary the murder capital of America. These days, U.S. Steel’s Gary location remains the company’s largest domestic facility, but the 2010 census tallied just 80,000 residents; though the city has seen less violent crime since the worst “Scary Gary” years, nearly a fifth of its homes are vacant, and 28 percent of its families live below the poverty line.
Bordered by Lake Michigan and the Indiana Dunes to the north, Gary lies 30 miles east of Chicago and 250 miles west of Detroit, to whose decline it draws frequent comparison. Unlike those hubs, Gary never laid claim to a music scene of its own, though it has birthed its share of notable musicians. The Jacksons, undeniably the city’s most famous sons and daughters, left Gary decades ago. In the early aughts, Freddie Gibbs began rapping about his hometown’s corruption and economic despair with the swagger of a born and bred native. And, for nearly a decade, working from her parents’ house, the electronic music producer Jerrilynn Patton, aka Jlin, has been rigorously creating a battery of fiercely original beats that challenge any obvious narrative about where they came from.
Jlin: “Nyakinyua Rise” (via SoundCloud)
It’s a sunny day in April when I pull up outside Patton’s home. This quiet, secluded house couldn’t be further from the news headlines that regularly chart Gary’s urban blight, or the chaotic nature of Patton’s music. There’s a well-worn basketball goal by the carport and a path of hosta lilies on the verge of blooming. Signs printed “Pence Must Go!” are staked into a couple of neighboring lawns—a reminder that we are in the Vice President’s home state.
The current administration has a dubious past in Gary. In the ’90s, Donald Trump sailed a megayacht dubbed the Trump Princess into the city’s harbor, stuffed with slot machines, card tables, and promises of urban revitalization. He staged the Miss USA pageants in Gary in 2001 and 2002. Trump was later sued by then-Mayor Hatcher for failing to abide by a promise to hire minorities, and in 2006, the Trump name was removed from what is now known as the Majestic Star Casino. In 2010, the casino grounds became a filming location for Transformers: Dark of the Moon—an abandoned cement plant stood in for a reactor in Chernobyl.
In Patton’s neighborhood there are little kids riding bikes, and every yard looks to be in the throes of early spring. She greets me with a wide smile. She looks younger than her 29 years in a maroon hoodie and matching Jordans, olive pants, and a black headscarf over her braids. I follow her deep in the backyard where a few willow trees border marshland. Her father is making careful paths over the lawn with a push mower; he pauses, waves. Below the willows, Patton gamely poses for a photo shoot as her neighbors, repairing their chicken coop next door, steal the occasional glance. “I know they’ll ask me about this later,” she says with a shy laugh.
Since her acclaimed 2015 debut, Dark Energy, Patton has come a long way from her childhood home. Just days ago she was performing in Bangalore, India, one of her favorite newfound locales; her India to Indiana commute is now such a frequent one that she stashes a pair of speakers there. India is also where she finished the last songs on her upcoming second album, Black Origami.
Patton’s music is propelled by the sheer force of her percussion, her ornate, radical progressions, her shape-shifting sounds, an undercurrent of menace. Listening to Jlin tracks is like watching the horror movie heroine open the door into a vast unknown—and yet, she turns out to be completely in control, morphing and bending the rhythm, changing up the narrative again.
“I want to surprise me as much as I want to surprise you,” she says. “I love when I hit a person like a tornado. There is no easing. We just go straight in.”
Two years ago, when Dark Energy came out, Patton was working swing shifts at U.S. Steel in East Chicago and then, in Gary. She was in the break room when she found out that album made year-end lists at The New York Times, The Wire, and Pitchfork. “I would be banding together these massive pieces of steel and then I would open Facebook, and everyone’s saying, ‘Congratulations, congratulations, congratulations,’ and I’m just like, ‘What are you talking about?’”
Within months, Patton, who had never been to a big concert in her entire life, was being flown to perform her own: at a museum in New York City, at a festival in Poland, in Barcelona, Moscow, Australia, India, in Los Angeles. Headlines capitalized on the Flashdance-esque narrative of the steelworker with an inner artistic drive. When famed designer Rick Owens asked her to soundtrack his fall 2014 show, she put in a request for time off to go to Paris Fashion Week. Her supervisors weren’t buying it.
“But when I came back and I showed them pictures, they were like, ‘Oh! This is real. Are you serious?!’” Patton says. “My life just started not to make sense.” She quit her day job more than a year ago to focus on music full-time.
Jlin: “Challenge (To Be Continued)” (via SoundCloud)
A Panera Bread on a suburban strip is not where I had expected to interview a musician whose work is motivated by confronting her darkest fears, but after Patton’s photo shoot wraps, she steers us away from Gary, to the nearby town of Schererville. James Taylor songs ooze out of the restaurant speakers. We are only 15 miles from downtown Gary, in an atmosphere so generic it could be anywhere.
“It would be a lot easier if I lived in Europe, wouldn’t it?” she says, with the acknowledgment that her first move out of her parents’ house might, eventually, be overseas. Nearly all of her creative partners exist in far-flung time zones—her dance collaborator, Avril Stormy Unger, in India; Mike Paradinas, owner of her label, Planet Mu, in the UK; experimentalist Holly Herndon, who teamed up with Patton on Dark Energy’s “Expand” and Black Origami’s “1 Percent,” in Berlin; the rapper Dope Saint Jude, who contributes vocals on a track from the new record, in South Africa. Right now Patton is busy composing the soundtrack for British choreographer Wayne McGregor’s next work, Autobiography; when it premieres in London in October, the girl from Gary who has forever longed to go to the opera and the ballet will get her wish. “My first ballet will be my own.”
Patton has hourlong conversations with minimalist composer William Basinski, whom she instantly bonded with at a show in L.A. last year; recently, they collaborated on Black Origami’s “Holy Child.” “Oh, I just love her to death! She’s like my little sister!” Basinski tells me by phone from London. For “Holy Child,” he emailed her a loop of female Baltic folk singers—“I just sent her this potion and, you know, she made magic.”
Over salads and grilled cheese sandwiches, I tell her how the first time I heard Dark Energy it seemed to strike me from all sides, like I was inside an explosion; how in Black Origami you really feel the energy of distinct, opposing forces.
Patton nods vigorously. “I wanted to have that duality,” she says. “I used to love hearing Prince do that. Or Frankie Beverly. Sade’s notorious for it—all of her songs, they have that Sade feel, but everything she made was ahead of its time. Dark Energy is chaotic, but I think of Black Origami as a refined bold.”
Patton references the people she refers to as her ancestors, living and dead—Igor Stravinsky, Eartha Kitt, Marina Abramovíc, Alice Coltrane, Nikola Tesla, Serena Williams, and the Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut, for whom she wrote a song on Black Origami. She consults these spirit guides as often as she does her contemporaries.
“I hope this doesn’t sound crazy, but I talk to my ancestors a lot,” she says. “I talk to Nina Simone ’cause she said when you have a gift you have a responsibility to create and reflect the times. In this day and age, it’s ridiculous for an artist to make something and not have a reason for it. ‘I made it ’cause it sounds good.’ You made something ’cause it sounds good? For real? You’re not doing enough.”
When Jerrilynn Patton was 4 years old, growing up in Gary, she went over to a neighbor’s house one day, drawn to the strange sound she heard leaking out of a pair of headphones: dark, twitchy, syncopated rhythms, songs firing at 160 beats per minute. It was her first taste of footwork, the hyperspeed dance music descendant of Chicago’s house scene. “It was like nothing I had ever heard before,” Patton remembers. It would be years before she would encounter footwork again, but that day would make a serious dent, marking a place in her to which she would one day return.
As a child, Patton was so baby-faced people called her Gaga—“like goo goo, ga ga,” she says. She loved watching documentaries, especially about ancient Egypt or elephants—as an adult, she once skipped her own birthday party because the National Geographic Channel was airing a special about woolly mammoths. She took piano for a while, but it never held her attention the way drums would. On weekends at home with her parents, Roberta Flack, Earth, Wind & Fire, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis records were all in heavy rotation. She was into basketball and played on the school team. Until, abruptly, she stopped.
When Patton talks now about working from a place of darkness and turmoil, that means a few things, but mostly she means the years of sustained bullying she endured as a teenager, a thorny combination of mean girls, verbal abuse, and shaming. It’s a painful legacy that followed her into adulthood. “They turned everyone against me,” she says. One day, no one on the basketball team would talk to her. Her self-esteem plummeted. Her mother wanted to know why she always seemed sad and withdrawn. The only times the mean girls stopped bullying her, she says, were when they needed help with their math homework.
“I’m sure you notice when I talk to you, sometimes I don’t look at you,” Patton says, managing to meet my eye most of the time as she says it. “I can spot a kid who’s been bullied just by their body language. For me it was no eye contact. I used to grip the soap bar in the bathroom until you could see my finger marks. I wouldn’t hug my mom. Your whole countenance just changes. You don’t like anything about yourself. And I’m just starting to come out of that.”
What brought her out, years later, was footwork. For a high school talent show, she reluctantly agreed to take part in a group dance routine based on a footwork track. Though the idea ended up getting shelved, Patton found herself hooked on a sound she’d first encountered as a little girl. “It hit me in that spot again like, oh my god,” she says. Instead of the brightly colored cassettes that had drifted down the road from Chicago into her neighbor’s collection, she downloaded tracks from the song-sharing site Imeem.
“By the time I was in college, I was listening to footwork heavy,” Patton says. “I started messaging people on Myspace like, ‘Hey, I really like your work.’” Even though she lived at home and didn’t go to clubs or footwork battles, she began chatting with DJ Rashad, the late pioneer of the Chicago scene, who was the first producer to respond to her MySpace queries. Another footwork DJ sent her the music-making software FL Studio. “I just sat there trying to get it to make a noise,” she says. “And when I could finally hear the drums and the high hats and everything, I thought, Man, I’m going to make footwork!”
She was attracted to the style’s percussive qualities. “Being of African descent, you feel it,” she says. “You have rhythm and drums in your blood. My sound is not a bite, it’s a grab—it takes hold of you and it doesn’t let go.” At this, she tightly grips her left wrist in her right hand.
Jlin: "Nandi" (via SoundCloud)
In recent years, teenage bullying happens online as much as it does in the real world, amplified on social media. But for Patton, in the days “when Facebook was still for college kids,” an online community was first an escape, then a portal into a life as an artist. Sitting at her computer, she discovered a virtual universe of people equally obsessed with this music. They became her mentors.
“When I was first starting out, DJ Rashad told me not to go out and buy a whole bunch of gear,” Patton says. “He said, ‘I know some of the worst musicians who have the best equipment and I know some of the best musicians who have nothing.’ You have to find your space and what makes you comfortable creatively, and then build from there.”
Patton was a thriving architectural engineering student enrolled at Purdue when she started skipping class to sit in the library and construct footwork tracks. She loved math—even now, her face lights up when she describes the thrill of learning to solve problems forward and backward, of conquering proofs, of deconstructing formulas. It’s not a stretch to discover the parallels; when Owens asked her to remix her single “Erotic Heat” for his fashion show, she took her song apart and rebuilt it.
“Math is music,” Patton insists. But math couldn’t take her where music did. And even though she claims not to be proud of her decision to drop out, she is adamant that college was not for her. “I hate the way we’re taught in the United States,” she says. “You go to to school, but are people taught how to be a human being? You are taught to feel accomplished just because you work for a big company. You’re making someone else rich. Something felt very wrong about that.”
It was in discomfort, though, that she had her first breakthrough. She’d just played her mother a track that featured a sample of the 1981 song “Portuguese Love” by soul singer Teena Marie. Patton’s mother looked at her. “Well,” she said, “I know what Teena Marie sounds like. But what do you sound like?”
Patton was devastated. “I was scared, angry, all these things. Like, Oh, it’s not good enough?” From then on, she vowed to use original samples only. On Dark Energy, the only vocal samples came from her collaborators, or from films—Bruce Lee; or Faye Dunaway’s famous “No more wire hangers!” line from Mommie Dearest, a film that had terrified Patton since she first watched it with her parents as a child. “If a sound can give me such an eerie feeling that I don’t want to hear it again, that’s a sound I’ll probably use,” Patton says. Her mother’s query, sharp and pointed, triggered a turning point.
“It meant: You have the skill, you have the gift, lose the crutch,” Patton says. “Taking away that Teena Marie sample meant I was in that dark space, that I had to draw from nothing. Even now, 90 percent of my music is not about sound, it’s about being aligned with myself. Before you even hit the creative spot, you need to deal with the personal. Don’t even worry about the music. That’ll be there. You have to deal with you first. You have to face things about yourself you don’t even want to face. I have to go into a space that makes me cringe every time I go there.”
Jlin: "Black Origami" (via SoundCloud)
The next day, while Patton works on her ballet score, I head out to explore Gary alone. For all I thought I knew of the city, nothing has prepared me for the sight of its downtown, which feels not just forgotten but absolutely gutted, its heart ripped out.
On Broadway, the main artery, theaters and storefronts stand empty, near ruined shells of nightclubs and hotels. The newspaper is shuttered. The water tower, painted “Gary” in a 1980s-esque typewriter font, looks like a cartoonish, deflated balloon, held aloft by tall stilts. Lake Michigan, and the Indiana Dunes along its shores, are mostly pristine except for the smoke billowing from the mills to the east and west, and a pregnancy test discarded on the beach. I tune into the city’s talk radio; on 1370 AM, there’s a long, lively discussion about first white flight, and now black flight, to the suburb of Merrillville.
Back downtown, I pay a visit to Michael Jackson’s birthplace, a house so tiny it is hard to picture how all the Jacksons ever fit inside it. It is easy, though, to picture those early band practices spilling out of the windows. An iron fence surrounds the house, and there’s a granite monument in the startlingly green yard, with tributes chalked and markered on every available surface. Behind the house, a plastic raised emblem of a glove has been affixed to a recycling bin.
Driving down Jackson Street, I try to count houses and give up. At least half of them are boarded up; at the end of the block stands an abandoned school. I had assumed the street was renamed in honor of Michael, but this is not the case. On the east side of Broadway, the roads are named after states; on the west, for presidents. The president streets end with Taft, who took office in the city’s early days, and who tried, unsuccessfully, to break up U.S. Steel, once the largest mill in the world. The street names only underscore the looming metaphor and irony of this city, deliberately aligned with and conceived in American capitalism, and now living with a legacy of racism so obvious that it cannot be blamed simply on Gary, or even on Indiana, but on America itself.
It is approaching sunset when Patton and I take a drive to Gary Works, her old U.S. Steel jobsite. We have been sitting outside at Panera Bread—a different one, in Merrillville. It’s the only place Patton claims she can think of, on this balmy, 70-degree day, with outdoor seating. “I have my spots,” she says, laughing. As far as she’s concerned, there is nowhere to go in Gary. If there was, she says, she would go there. “I wish I knew the Gary my mom grew up with,” she says. “You see it in pictures, but I want to know what it felt like. Now it’s like the abandoned child.”
I make the newcomer’s confession that I visited the Jacksons’ house that morning. “Oh, good!” Patton says. “You know, my first drum teacher was Michael Jackson’s cousin, Johnny Jackson, a drummer in the Jackson 5.” When she was 12 and saw Johnny play in a band with her neighbor, she couldn’t take her eyes off the drums. Later, he agreed to teach her. “He gave me my first set of drumsticks,” Patton says. “If he hadn’t passed on, I might still be taking lessons.” Johnny Jackson was stabbed to death in Gary in 2006, at the age of 54.
“I’m sorry,” I start to say, but we don’t have time to dwell on it, because we realize we are a little lost. It’s been over a year since Patton worked at the mill and already, she can’t remember the way. “It’ll come back to me,” she promises, though she doesn’t seem terribly sure of this. We drive down wide, mostly empty streets as the sky turns orange. In her rearview, Patton eyes the car behind us.
“He’s going into work, you can tell,” she says. “The hat, the glasses, that steel mill look. People drive from all over to work at the mill. It’s good money.”
When she started at the mill, she found instant camaraderie with her coworkers. “Nine times out of ten, if you live here, someone in your family has worked at Gary Works. Michael Jackson’s dad worked here!” she says. “Everybody knew each other somehow, and at nighttime it would completely encompass me. I would think, Did my grandfather set foot in this building?”
We pull up underneath the low railroad bridge and into a vast network of warehouses and mills, a place that feels like its own sprawling city. Factory smoke puffs out over the rows of electric transformers and into the sunset. We aren’t allowed to go in the mills, and it wouldn’t seem right if we did. Looking at Patton, long freed from her steel-toed boots and protective gear, it is clear how far away that life is for her now. Though she’s rooted in both Gary and the mills, she’s no more bound to her hometown or the job she left than her music is to the footwork scene that bred her. Sticking to her creature-of-habit routines grounds her, and allows the kind of wild risk-taking that guides her songs.
Pulling into her driveway a little later, Patton says, “Doesn’t it feel like a totally different world here?” For a moment after she cuts the ignition, we are both silent, listening to the engine flicker and come to rest. Before we go, she says, she wants to talk about failure. It’s a topic that’s come up repeatedly over the last of couple days—Patton openly acknowledges the slow tedium of her process, the bouts of writer’s block she has suffered.
“I know every time Serena Williams goes out on that court she’s in an uncomfortable place and I think about Igor Stravinsky being booed out of a symphony because he was ahead of them, because they were expecting something that he didn’t give them, that’s hard,” she says. As someone whose self-confidence was repeatedly shattered, who for years was made to believe she didn’t fit in, Patton is adamant that the only way for any artist to find her own voice is to be willing to fail while trying: “I’m telling people not to follow me, I’m telling you to find you. My path does not diminish your path.”
Yesterday she’d rattled off a list of some of the major ills in the world—police brutality, discrimination, the environment, “the crazy person in the White House”—none of which are things she speaks to in a literal way in song. If anything, her music strikes me as too abstract to be obviously political. But at the same time, it’s something that can’t stand for anything but the deeply personal act of recognizing and confronting your own fears, summoning your own strengths. Even when she’s operating at the head-spinning velocity of 160 beats per minute, the greatest challenge may be to simply learn to breathe.
I ask her if she has ever wondered whether bullying is part of what propelled her to become an artist, if she ever lets herself imagine that, if not for that trauma, she might have taken some other path. In the distance a train passes and sounds its whistle as Patton considers her answer.
“That’s why I call it Black Origami,” she says finally. “All those folds and bends that you go through in your life, that is what folds you into that piece of origami. You start off as this blank sheet of paper, this innocent thing. And then life starts bending and folding, bending and folding. And you become this beautiful thing. I’m still being bended and folded. We all are.”