In one of the greenrooms at Baltimore’s Ottobar, a music venue in Charles Village, the walls are covered in doodles of the...erm...male anatomy. So much so that the employees refer to it warmly as the “dick room.” On an overcast, muggy day in July, I stand in this room with iconic Baltimorean Justice Tripp—the creative force behind hardcore mainstays Trapped Under Ice and the more inscrutable Angel Du$t—while we wait for our photographer to set up for the big shoot.
We discuss the doodles, choosing our favorites and discussing the artists’ “creative choices.” Justice likes one stylized with a human torso on the shaft, pointing out the artist’s anatomical knowledge of human musculature. It’s clear he knows a lot about it too, naming the muscles on this cartoon dick as he stands there a bit hulking himself in his Gold’s Gym tank top. When I ask him later about his fitness habits, he launches into an anecdote about some shady Russians his mom took in when he was growing up.
“They were gnarly, like, Russian criminals, but they would kind of look out for me, like a big-brother-type thing,” he explains. “When I’d get bullied I would have, like, two steroid drug-addicted Russians with crazy tattoos [looking out for me]. They made me start lifting weights when I got older, like ‘You do this now. You lift weight.’ ‘No, I don’t, man. I skateboard.’ ‘No, you lift weight. You are man now.’”
This is only the tip of the iceberg with this guy, I’d come to find out over the afternoon I spent with him. When my editor assigned me this story on “tall drink of water” (his description, not mine) Justice Tripp, I latched onto it as a way to connect myself with my new surroundings. Angel Du$t were putting out a new record called Brand New Soul, and Justice had recently moved back to the Baltimore area after a stint in L.A. I too recently relocated to Baltimore at the mercy of NYC’s punishing cost of living after nearly a decade there, and admittedly, I had the scaries. When I told people in New York that I was moving to Baltimore, they would make a face and ask why. I was looking for answers.
Angel Du$t became the soundtrack to this new environment. I’d listen to them when I went for long walks on the city’s uncrowded streets or did new apartment chores, like spraying toxic chemicals in my unventilated kitchen to degrease a stove that hadn’t been cleaned since the Eisenhower administration. And given Justice’s unrelenting touring schedule, chasing him down became a worthy distraction from my worried misgivings about the huge life change.
It took about three months all in from when my editor assigned me the story in April till I finally sat across from Justice over biryani at pan-Asian cafe Sweet 27 after our photo shoot at Ottobar. Ottobar made sense as the setting for our meetup, given its status as the epicenter of Baltimore’s musical underground since its opening in 1997. The locals often call Baltimore “Smalltimore,” a nod to the city’s chronic underpopulation—you can’t go anywhere without seeing everyone you know. I hadn’t even met Justice yet when I caught him out of the corner of my eye at the Shame show at Ottobar back in May, instantly recognizable with his He-Man and the Masters of the Universe haircut and gaudy sunglasses. But he left before I had a chance to say hello.
You can tell he feels right at home within Ottobar’s grungy walls. He daps with security guard Mees, who plays drums in emerging Baltimore hardcore band Jivebomb. He goes through the calendar avails with owner Tecla, trying to find a date to perform as his solo-ish project Cold Mega. He has a whole vision in mind, wildly gesticulating in the upstairs bar area as he explains it to me. “The drums will go here,” he says, pointing to a recess in the wall beside the dance floor, “and I’ll be in the DJ booth, just doing my thing.”
“Doing his thing” seems to be high-priority for Justice, who even on first impression appears to be an unapologetically original person. I already mentioned his unusual hairdo and propensity for creative eyewear; he also sports gold front teeth (“I’ve had my teeth knocked out a lot [seven times, I asked. —MB], and I just wanted what’s best for them at this point”) and is covered in tattoos.
“If you’re going to be a Baltimore City rocker, you gotta flex your swag muscle, you know?” he says.
Like any muscle, I imagine, the “swag muscle” adapts and changes when you work it out. So does Justice’s style. I ask him about a meme that circulated recently; it showed a photo of Fred Durst and Noel Gallagher, with Durst labeled Justice in 2009 and Gallagher as Justice today. It’s true—he’s come a long way from the more hip-hop-inflected hardcore aesthetic you might recall from the cover of Trapped Under Ice’s 2007 demo, although he notes that he never wore fitted caps like Fred Durst and says, “You know, everyone says Oasis. But Oasis never had this haircut. Not to my knowledge.”
He lets it grow long and cuts the bangs short when they get in his eyes, and every so often he goes to his barber Frank—he gestures “over there” from our table at Sweet 27—to fix it. It’s a bit of an homage, he reveals, a cross between Iggy Pop and Rod Stewart.
“Something about turning 30 changes you mentally,” Tripp, 37, says of his individuality. “You start to realize that you truly are the person you’ve always seen yourself as. Like when I was a little kid, I remember how I would envision myself as an adult. I would draw myself as an adult and imagine what I would look like. It’s crazy. It’s exactly how I look right now.”
His approach to his personal style is not much different from his approach to music: He just doesn’t want to be put in a box. Take “Love Slam,” one of the singles from the new record; Justice sings, “They don’t like it when I free my mind/They don’t like it when I let go of the past now.” It’s ironic that he chooses this track as the medium for his message, given that it’s one of the songs on the record more resembling something by Trapped Under Ice.
“I used to read things people would say, and it would create doubt in me. ‘He’s just Trapped Under Ice. Angel Du$t is just this,’” Justice explains. “I would wonder if there was some truth to what somebody was saying. But at this point in my life, I’ve just come to realize they’re wrong. Every time someone tries to put me in a box, I can absolutely guarantee that they are wrong, and time will show they’re wrong.”
While he believes “Angel Du$t is far more successful than Trapped Under Ice ever was,” coming from a hardcore band as quintessential as Trapped Under Ice leaves Justice with some big expectations from fans, some of whom don’t totally understand what he’s trying to do with Angel Du$t. The name itself is a joke—“A lot of bands in the ’80s were smoking PCP. I think a lot of them wanted to be rock bands, but they were so high it came out really fast and crazy. So I was like, ‘Let’s do pop rock really fast, like if we’re on PCP’”—and while the band is often labeled a supergroup composed of members of Turnstile and Trapped Under Ice, it’s really more of a collective. Justice identifies Steve Marino, Daniel Star, Thomas Cantwell, and Zechariah (he only offers a first name here, to “keep it mysterious”) as the main band members at this point, but Turnstile’s Daniel Fang and Pat McCrory maintained some involvement in the writing and recording of this record, as well as members of Narrow Head (Kora Puckett, featured in CREEM #1) and Militarie Gun. Justice writes the songs, shares them with the crew, and tells them to learn them and build on them, adding their own perspectives and flavors.
“With Angel Du$t, the mission statement has always been ‘It does not matter,’” Justice says. “It does not matter what people think of it. We’re going to do what we want to do together in this room right now. What record do you wanna make? That’s what we’re going to do.”
The proof is in the pudding, as they say. Brand New Soul is a weird record—a great record, but a weird record. It’s lighthearted and a bit whimsical; it seamlessly transitions back and forth from poppier bops you’ve come to expect from Angel Du$t, particularly since 2019’s Pretty Buff (“Don’t Stop,” “Born 2 Run”), to faster, hardcore-tinged heavy hitters (“Space Jam,” “Sippin’ Lysol”). It’s a record with a sense of humor, and when I say that out loud, Justice beams.
“I like that you said that,” he says. “Because that’s something I always do consciously. Like, I want to be fun. Not goofy. Fun.”
Brand New Soul doesn’t remind me of any other music I’ve heard as much as it makes me think of the blue 1957 Ford station wagon this guy I used to date drove. It was like a Ghostbusters mobile, and when we’d drive it around Brooklyn, pedestrians would grin stupidly at us like we were walking a really cute, derpy dog. It’s a little silly! In a good way! It brightens your day. It might even make you smile. When I explain this to Justice, he says, “Whoa! That’s cool. I love that. Art should be like that. It should influence the way you feel. You know, like, that car is art.”
This open-mindedness about what art is lends itself to the sound, which is, in my estimation, indefinable. And it was meant to be, I think. Justice produced this record himself, and with it, Angel Du$t returned to Justice’s own Pop Wig Records after a stint at Roadrunner for Pretty Buff and 2021’s YAK: A Collection of Truck Songs.
It wasn’t even that he had a bad experience at a major label. As he puts it, “Maybe this is just me being a baby, but I didn’t get my way all the time. And now more than ever, I feel really confident in my way, and when I have a vision, it’s like, that’s what needs to happen.”
And here is the result. He identifies his biggest influence on this one as...Prince. Huh? What? While it isn’t obvious in the sound, really, this articulates itself in the record’s idiosyncrasies. It feels like a rock ’n’ roll circus that emerged out of his id, rife with sonic elements all over the genre spectrum (some weird synth stuff happening, hints of R&B on the eponymous opening track) and vocal samples Justice collects from friends and acquaintances like baseball cards.
He’s always done this—Trapped Under Ice notably sampled the John Waters film Cry-Baby: “You’ve made me the happiest juvenile delinquent in all of Baltimore!”—and Brand New Soul is no exception. He identifies the sample that connects “I’m Not Ready” and “Fuel for the Fire” that begins, “Hey man, I really like your music, your lyrics...” as a five-minute voice memo he received from a Chinese fan who slid into his DMs on Instagram.
While he toyed with the audio to mask the man’s identity, he revisits this message all the time and even plays it for his bandmates in the tour van. “Being like, what I thought my life was supposed to be, you know, and there’s this person in China who understands me more than anybody did in school. I got a chance to express myself and he received it, related to it. And he expressed love to me, and now I love that person.”
When he references what he thought his life was “supposed to be,” he means limited, with few options outside of going to prison or dying from drug addiction. Justice grew up largely in Essex, a suburb in Baltimore County, but also spent a lot of time in Southeast Baltimore neighborhoods Canton and Highlandtown. He comes from a blue-collar Polish family, and while he says his childhood was decent, it doesn’t sound as though it was necessarily easy.
He tells me his father named him Justice because he was conceived the night he got out of jail for violent assault. His mother still works at the Polish bar near where he grew up, and while she was “comfortable throwing her hands,” he also describes her as “profound and very compassionate, [having] sacrificed so much of herself and the comfort of her household for the people in the community.” She’d often let downtrodden folks from the neighborhood crash when they needed to (remember the Russians from earlier?). I say that she sounds multidimensional, and Justice laughs: “I can’t wait to tell her that. She’s gonna get multidimensional on me if I have that conversation with her.”
He references The Wire before I even have to bring it up; we both acknowledge that Baltimore has terrible PR. “It’s the most artistic city with the least. Nobody’s ever advocating for all the beautiful things that could be created here,” he laments. “If you want to build something, you can rent a space, or buy a space, and turn it into an artist loft or whatever. Maybe I’m talking about gentrifying Baltimore. We don’t want to do that.”
Me neither, but I know what he means; whenever I walk through my neighborhood by all the empty storefronts with beautiful architectural details, I see so much potential. I recall, earlier that day, Justice and our photographer Josh Sisk trading tales of homeownership. I can’t think of a single instance in my entire time in New York City when I overheard a musician and a photographer converse about OWNING PROPERTY. Could it be that simple, why Baltimore continues to pump out iconic music? Turnstile were nominated for a Grammy last year, for fuck’s sake—but it’s not even just hardcore. I think of Beach House, Future Islands, Animal Collective (even if I do think they are Phish for millennials). I ask Justice: Is there something in the water?
“Drugs. Broken homes. It’s scary, because you want to see every home unbroken, but like, who’s gonna be making great music in 15 years if nobody’s getting their ass beat by Mom and Dad?”
I think to some degree he’s kidding, but he’s at least a little serious. There is a devil-may-care attitude to the scene that I, having been here only a few months, hypothesize comes from the terrible PR. When expectations for your city are already so low, you can only go up, right?
“One cool thing about Baltimore is nobody cares about what’s cool,” Justice summates. “No one’s insular. No one cares what’s in style. Nobody cares that your band is really popular in whatever city you’re from right now. If you’re not coming to Baltimore and investing in Baltimore, people just don’t give a shit.”
While Justice is doing just that—coming to Baltimore and investing in it—he didn’t always have this perspective. You have to remember, we’re talking about a place that in 2019 had more murders than New York City, but with a population of less than 500,000. He thought he had to be a product of his environment, and this dictated his early approach to his musical career. He describes this euphemistically as “starting a lot of mischief.”
“When I was 17, me and my best friend Chad moved out and got our own spot in Highlandtown, which is the cover of the Trapped Under Ice demo. We didn’t have hot water. We had holes in the house, and rats would come in the house and coexist with us and share our food. We would do bad things, jump people and rob people and hide in our little cold weird house in East Baltimore and start a lot of mischief,” he tells me. “Being young, this was exciting, because a lot of my friends that I met from the hardcore community were interested in being mischievous and doing bad things, which was really the driving force for a couple of years until we got into touring. And touring was like, oh, there’s a reason to not do these things. You can go see the world and do a lot of cool things with your life. You don’t have to be a bad guy.”
This is what “Trapped Under Ice” originally meant to Justice—the ice being the limiting factors I mentioned earlier, that his perceived life paths were prison or drugs. He tells me about an early interaction with Reaper Records’ Patrick Kitzel, who would ultimately sign Trapped Under Ice and change Justice’s life forever. He came down to Baltimore to see the band, and Justice and the boys jumped and robbed someone in front of him. They effectively left a man for dead, bleeding on the sidewalk.
“I remember running away and having these thoughts like, ‘What if there’s a camera? We just killed him and took his wallet. My fingerprints are on the wallet [from when] I took the money from his wallet, took his credit cards. So now my fingerprints are on the wallet of a dead man? I’m going to jail for life.’ I’m not saying that [out loud], I’m too cool to acknowledge fear. I’m too much of a man to acknowledge fear. We got back to my house and I thought [Kitzel] would think, ‘Wow, these kids are so cool.’ You know? That wasn’t it. I grew up with a few positive male figures but nobody who would be bold enough to tell me this stuff straight to my face. He was like, ‘What the fuck is wrong with you guys? This is stupid. Don’t you want to see the world?’ and I’m like, ‘Man, nobody cares about me or what I’m doing. I’m supposed to go to jail. That’s what I’m supposed to do.’ And he’s like, ‘No, I’m planning for you to go to Europe. I’m booking the tour for you. I want you to do this, and this.’
“Let’s try to be good. Let’s try to behave. Let’s not, like, beat somebody to death behind a bar in Baltimore.”
“He had all these ideas, places for us to see and experiences and things that were never accessible to somebody like me, you know? I went to the team and was like, ‘Let’s hear this dude out. He wants us to do all these things that are really cool. We’re gonna see the world and we’re gonna mean something to people. Let’s try to be good. Let’s try to behave. Let’s not, like, beat somebody to death behind a bar in Baltimore.’”
Kitzel made them go back to check on the guy. He was fucked up, but he wasn’t dead, and nobody went to jail. And now, more than a decade later, Angel Du$t are gearing up to tour North America, the U.K., Southeast Asia, Australia, and Japan this year.
“When it first started, it was like, ‘I’m TUI till I die,’ I’m bound to these bleak options, this future. This is what I have, it’s who I am. And since then, I feel the opposite. I can do anything and feel limitless, and it’s ironic that Trapped Under Ice would make me feel that way. It’s the tool that would deliver me to liberation from my own mental prison and the boundaries that were set for me.”
In the end, Justice Tripp just wants to be himself. “I gotta do my own thing,” he remarks again. “I want to be the next Justice. I want to be Justice now and be the next Justice after that. I don’t want there to be other Justices.”
I suggest that in order to be the next Justice, he might need a new haircut. He laughs.