North Carolina based artist Austin Hart, aka L'Orange, has become a mainstay of independent hip-hop, part of an underground vanguard of exceptional producers whose work rises above that of the genre's legion of workaday beatsmiths. He's previously partnered with rappers such as Kool Keith and Mr. Lif, and his latest album is Imaginary Everything, a collaborative effort with Mello Music Group labelmate Namir Blade.
In 2013, you dropped The City Under The City with Stik Figa for Mello Music Group. Prior to that, you'd been self releasing your music. How did that shift over to Mello happen?
I was in North Carolina and I was making just a bunch of random music and working with local people whenever they would let me, and making some really weird beats that people didn't really fuck with, to be honest. Locally, I kinda weirded people out, because I was on this tip where I didn't have a whole lot of experience with instrumental music, but that was where I wanted to go. I guess it was a slightly different time, like 2008, 2009. You know, there was Donuts and Madlib—and there was a lot more. But in my little circle, I'm making all this super weird Prince Paul type, out-there, silly style instrumental hip-hop. And people were not fucking with it at all.
I wanted to sign with Mello. At that point, they had put out some of my favorite albums in underground hip-hop. When I first heard The Left, I remember exactly where I was. My mentor KON Sci from North Carolina put it on for me. My brain—all my synapses were firing, because I, for maybe the first time, saw a path for my weird music to be heard by a bigger audience. And so I released The Manipulation and Old Soul. I was working on The Mad Writer and I had pitched it to Mello and Stones Throw. There were a couple others that I was talking with, and the responses back that I had gotten were like, good, not great. They were sorta like, yeah we might be able to work with you sometime.
Mello offered me what at the time was called an instrumental deal. The idea was that it was an instrumental showcase for a producer that would maybe not be on the label, but would demonstrate that. And I don't know where out where my head was at, but I said no. Because I was like, you're not going to sign me as a producer. If you're going to sign me, you have to sign me as an artist, because that's the only thing I want to do.
You didn't want to be background. You didn't want to be somebody in stable of producers who might be on an Ugly Heroes album or something.
No, that's exactly right. But it wasn't so much about the background or the foreground for me. It was about knowing myself musically and knowing that I would be put in a position to fail if I was on The Soul Council with 9th Wonder or if I was producing on the Ugly Heroes records. I'm going to continue giving people beats and they're going to say, oh, this is really cool, but I think I'd have to tell a story over this. You know, these kind of canned responses that you get when you get a weird beat. I knew that the only way for me to succeed in the way that I wanted to, which is just to get it to people's ears, was to create my own context. You had to know what you were hearing when you were hearing a L’Orange album and that needed to come together. That was really important. So I held out. After The Mad Rider came out on Jakarta, I circled back to Mello, emboldened by some numbers. They saw that and they brought me on to work with a rapper named Stik Figa. That was how I did that first record.
You've been putting out records with Mello for eight years now, more or less. To what do you attribute the length of this run you've had there as an artist?
To some extent, it’s like Wile E. Coyote going over the cliff, right? I'm really worried to look down, because, if I ever do, the ground might not be there. To be honest, without going into any details, my sales aren’t—I’m not like a big artist. But what I have done that I'm extremely proud of is sustain. These albums do consistently give people that are interested something to sink their teeth into, and that's the most important thing for me. I have no delusions of being the best musician in the room. It doesn’t really interest me to be competitive musically. And to some extent, even the act of becoming a better musician does not really spark me in the same way that finding new creative avenues or new ways to tell stories does. The songs that make the cut on my albums are the ones that just send chemicals to my brain the most, the ones where I'm super proud of this key change or whatever. It’s not a musical accomplishment, but it's something that can go directly into your veins. And I do think that telling stories has a part in that too. There are always going to be people that think what I do is probably kind of corny, or that just don't fuck with me. But if you do like what I do, specifically, I might be the only way you can hear that.
The bulk of the projects that you've done with Mello have been in tandem with a rapper. You’ve worked with some real legends, with some seasoned underground folks, and with previously untapped talents like Solemn Brigham in Marlowe. What is it that you bring to these projects as an artist that allows you to work well with this range? I mean, it's not as if you're working with one particular type of rapper.
No, it's very true. I think it goes back to that same thing, which is that my goal doesn't change. I have a very obsessive process where it's revisions upon revisions. It's my beat, the beat I make after that, the beat that they eventually rap to, and then me changing the beat—not completely, but changing it to make what they do make sense. So like on this new one, “Point To Point,” Quelle [Chris] has like a really unique flow on that didn’t sort of go with the rest of the song. But it's so unique and so cool that now I want to go back and change my beat to make it in a way that makes it seem like he rapped like that because of my beat and not the other way around.
Even beyond like the craft parts, I am constantly, singularly, listening to what I call my lizard brain, the thing before my stupid human brain that has all these complicated thoughts and opinions. It doesn't really matter if it’s Skyzoo or if it's Solemn. I'm tuning out—like, Solemn often gets frustrated with me when working on albums cause he'll be like, hey, did you hear that lyric? That was pretty dope. I'm like, nah, I didn't hear a lyric. I'm not going to hear lyrics until this album comes out, because it's just not my job. My job is to make me feel the way I think the song should represent, right? Keywords are getting through, but the lyrics as a whole? No, I'm not going to study this song until it accomplishes the goal, which is to make me feel a very specific way. Every draft homes in on that.
I don't necessarily fixate on lyrics on a first listen. A lot of times for me, my first listen to a project is very focused on, for lack of a better term, the beats. There's a sonic textural mix, and the voice is there. It’s not like I'm ignoring the voice, but I'm not necessarily going to pick up on a really good bar at first, because my first listen is much more about the overall presence.
Well, I think a lot of where you get people having these very deep, emotional connections to music comes in that same process. When it's the first time you listen, you almost don’t even know what you're listening for. There’s some sort of quality that this music has or something that it's communicating to you that is going to be the foundation for your opinions on it from that point on. The most passionate arguments I've ever been in are defending that intangible little thing. The most time I've spent on songs, it's not like, why can't I get this bridge to work after the thing; it's because I'm sitting there going, like, why doesn't that make me feel what it started to when I first made this beat? Why have I not been able to get there? Then it'll just be draft after draft, trying to home in on that same thing. It’s really difficult to defend something that's as intangible as that to an artist that is thinking very practically, or a label that is asking me why it's not in. It doesn’t make me feel like strawberries, and the first time it did! [laughs]
It makes me wonder, like, when you worked with like Jeremiah Jae, who has rapped and produced entire albums on his own. Is it different working with an artist like him, as you did on two full-length records, where you can convey that feeling a bit better? Are you able to explain it to somebody who's been in that same situation, versus a rapper or a singer?
Oh, 100%. But not even just the producer connection. Jeremiah Jae is a musically spiritual connection. I just feel like that dude gets me and gets my music. He and I have not spent a ton of time hanging out. We don’t, you know, go to parties together. I can legitimately say it’s the only time in my musical career where I've felt like, this guy understands exactly what I'm saying–which is why I go back to working with him every chance I get. He loves the messiness and the weirdness, how you have to make something real ugly to show something pretty. We even kind of operate on the same page in terms of what we like lyrically. We’re very focused on the way the words sound, and the images that the words put into your brain—which is really rare for a rapper. Rappers typically want to tell you something, which makes a lot of sense, right? They should. It’s a rare breed to come across the same thing that I've always wanted in a rapper, which is just like, put images into my brain, make this an experience. That's the kind of hip-hop that works best with me. Working with Jay especially, we're in step with each other all the time. I invited him to my wedding! I've hung out with this dude five, six times, There’s just something there. At the end of my career, that’s one of the names that I definitely want people to remember, that association. That's a very special musical relationship.
One of the names that is very obviously associated with your career is Kool Keith. He has this devoted fan base—whatever he does, they're going to check it out. You did this record with him, Time? Astonishing!, that was framed as a concept record. What was that experience like?
It is a humbling and a distant experience working with Kool Keith. It is not as if Kool Keith and I were going back and forth the whole time on that record. We had about two or three conversations on that. From that point on, I just kinda took it and ran with it. I pitched him a concept that I adapted to what he ended up doing. When I say concept, at the beginning of an album, I have a story. And it’s basically one, two, three; there’s not a lot of details. The concept that I pitched Kool Keith was, I want to do an album about a guy who in the 1940s wakes up and eats breakfast and thinks, what should I do with my day? And then he thinks, maybe I'll listen to the radio. And he goes, no, and he says, maybe I'll go to the grocery store. And he goes, no. And then he says, actually, you know what, today I think I'll just time travel. As if it were an equal option with those other things. It was, for some reason, really mundane time travel. He’s just going about his day, like it's something to do. I love this idea of bouncing around, not bored, but just ordinary, you know? And [Keith] goes, okay, cool, cool. You know, that was nice.
I talked to him again later. And he said, working with you reminds me of working with Dan [The Automator], which at the time I took as a huge compliment. I still take it as a huge compliment. Dan The Automator is one of my favorite producers of all time. Deltron, Handsome Boy, that's my wheelhouse. But now, knowing his interactions with Dan, that may have been less of a compliment than I thought it was. Then I get it back, and the whole album that he recorded was about space travel. I don't know how interesting this is, but I worked harder on this album than maybe any other album I've ever done. There was so much I needed to do to take what he had given me, knowing that we couldn't go back in the studio. I can't just call up Kool Keith and be like, hey, this track, I don't really know where you were headed with this, this kind of didn't go with this, there's no hook here. I just had to make that shit.
I took what he gave me as a guideline, almost as if they were samples and just made these songs. Out of the beats that I sent him to rap to, I think one, maybe two of them appeared on the record. All the other ones I made for these songs that I pieced together and created. My friends, while I was working on the album, they would come in and be like, hey man, you remember that famous time traveler, what was that dude's name? Buzz Aldrin! Like, it was the concept of confusing time travel with space travel, which is apparent through that entire album. You'll hear it—time and space are just interchangeable on that record. I didn't know what to do with it, so I doubled down on that weird sci-fi vibe.
But you found ways to bring your original concept back in, like the track with MC Paul Barman, for example. But, having interviewed Keith at length last year, and talking specifically quite a bit about his feelings about working with Dan The Automator on the second Dr. Octagon project, he’s got some real thoughts about the “concept album” concept.
Even though I feel slightly attacked by a lot of the things he says in that interview, it's really interesting. I don't think he's wrong about everything there. Even though I disagree with a lot of it, I see where he's coming from, having made like a dozen concept records. I feel that I have a good handle on how you do it well, and how you don’t. You want to make something small into something big, not something big into something small. That's a really weird distinction, but it's important. The times that I’ve felt most successful on my concepts are when I can take a concept that can have details that I can distill into little emotional tidbits, something that you can latch onto as a human, that you don't have to have traveled through time to understand.
Working with Keith is always a trip, but also, it's such a huge honor. That experience was so, so difficult, but such a positive thing. I'll never experience something like that again, because there just aren’t more Kool Keiths. It's like [Igor Stravinsky’s] The Rite Of Spring; it’s so dissonant but so beautiful at the same time. I don't know how to even categorize it. So, yeah, it was a pain, but it was one of the best experiences ever.
I'd like to shift a working relationship that feels far more intimate, namely your work with Solemn Brigham in Marlowe. You guys have really made this thing that's very distinct from the rest of your records. What is it that you feel makes this partnership work so well?
The first time that I met Solemn was when I referenced when nobody was fucking with my instrumentals. I was making a lot of beats, I was recording a lot of people. and I was in beat battles. I certainly was a part of the scene, but it wasn't like I had anyone that was wanting to work with me. I found Solemn on campus at UNCW when we were both going there. And this dude that I had met in class, we went to a Smoothie King and the dude stole like a display pack of caffeine gum. Like just took it off the desk. And I remember thinking like, who the fuck is this guy? Weird as hell, never met him again, but Solemn swears up and down he introduced us. I met Solemn, we went in the car, and he started rapping to these instrumentals. I actually don't even think they were my instrumentals; I think they were Damu The Fudgemunk’s. And he was freestyling to it and I was like, oh shit, we need to work together forever.
You know, I'm so hesitant to give this answer because what I think really makes this so unique is how much history we have and how comfortable we are communicating. But I almost feel like that answer takes something away from Solemn where I don't want it to. He’s such an incredible emcee that I want to say it's because he is, you know, the dopest emcee that ever lived. But my real answer to what separates us in the catalog is how comfortable we are together. If we have a disagreement on the way a hook should go on a thing, I am going to call Solemn and we might end up yelling at each other. Like, just me telling him, look you motherfucker, you don't know anything, you never known anything, I’m done, this the way it's going to be, fuck you, love you, see you tomorrow. Right? But if I'm working with Kool Keith, there's no one for me to call! And I'm certainly not going to talk to him like that. But Solemn's my oldest friend, he was a groomsman at my wedding. He's one of the closest people in my life. He’s like a brother to me. So when you're that close, it allows us to have so much fun and go to so many different places, because we can be vulnerable with each other.
The way you describe your relationship with Solemn, it speaks to something you were talking about earlier, about how you feel in the artistic process when working on an instrumental, what it does for you emotionally. I'm positing that there's something about the way Solemn operates that maybe elicits a parallel or related response for you. Does he evoke something in you like the instrumentals that you work on do?
Yeah, he definitely does. It's such a strange dynamic too, because ever since we first met, it's been like, I am a collaborator, I can not do anything he can do. I am just in awe of what he's capable of. At the same time, it's been true from the very beginning that I've had a little bit more experience doing these things. Oftentimes, I really enjoy being able to take on both that friend / collaborator / partner / mentor, and all these other things and pivot in these dynamics when we can. We’re both extremely grateful for one another.
One thing that Solemn does is he raps about my life. I think that's sort of unique. A lot of the stuff Solemn is rapping about in the songs is about him and I. And I've never experienced that before. I have a kindred spirit with Jae, but we're telling fiction. But Solemn, he likes to hide things behind some metaphors and do all this. I think he's increasingly becoming a little more vulnerable and a little more honest than the records. But songs like “Same Team,” the whole song is about him and I. And “Tales From The East,” from the first record, that ended up being one of the more popular songs and I didn't think it would be. There was like a part in that song that I love where he says, L pay bail, then wait for my release. That's such an intimate detail from a time that we were not speaking to each other and we were not on the best of terms. But even when he got locked up, I was the first person he called and I was the first person to bail him out and wait for him to get out. And then, you know, it was immediately all love. It speaks to me on an emotional level very specifically, because I know everything he's rapping about. These are real stories. These are real things about me, and that’s so new.
I appreciate that answer because you're quite eloquently conveying the complexity and the depth of the relationship that you guys have and how that manifests in the music. I don't feel like I can go back and listen to the two Marlowe records the same way, knowing what I know now.
Can I mention one more thing about Marlowe? One of the main reasons that I made Marlowe in the first place was because I was so I was very tired of that distance. There’s nothing wrong with it. I work very well with distance. I enjoy the distance. A lot of parts of my life, I'm in my own little world, and so I need to be good with distance, because there are a lot of people out there that I care about. But after I made Time? Astonishing!, The Life And Death Of Scenery [with Mr. Lif] and The Ordinary Man, I had two surgeries on my ear and I had just gone through all this stuff. I had gone deaf. I recovered, met my future wife, and moved to Seattle. The music felt like the least like exciting part of my life, even though I was doing all these cool things. I got to work with Del The Funky Homosapien, I worked with Oddisee, I got to work with Elzhi, all these people that should have been really amazing. And they were, but it should have felt really amazing and it just didn't feel like that. It felt like I was doing something that I had done before. It didn't feel real to me. That felt like a really big sign to me that I needed to adjust my process.
So I pitched Mello on the idea being like, hey, I used to work with this guy who rapped in my bedroom studio when I was 19 and I want to do an album with him now. And they're like, okay, is he a rapper? And I'm like, I mean, kinda. Is he making music? And I'm like, no. Has he made music lately? And it's like, I think he's been rapping, but not on anything. He’s like, does he know how to record? None of these questions are going to be what you want to hear, but I want to make an album with him. He was on The Ordinary Man as sort of a way for me to show Mello like, dude can rap. But it was as a direct response to all of that. You can even hear a lot of life in the Marlowe 1 beats where it was just a joy for me to be contributing these to someone that I love and someone that I care about and I know.
I do want to talk about Imaginary Everything—not just because it's the new project, but also because I was so blown away by Namir Blade’s project for Mello, Aphelion's Traveling Circus. That sci-fi fantasy concept was so well executed and I felt like he arrived fully formed. How did you get turned on to him and his work?
We both lived in—he’s still in Nashville, but I lived in Nashville for about seven years. What I knew about him was he was a dude that raps about anime. Once I moved to Seattle, that was when I started to actually follow the music he was making. When he was posting about these beats that he was working on, and I was like, is this for something? It was for his Aphelion’s album. So I actually put Mello onto Namir. I really pushed for that, because I really believed the guy. The first songs that he sent me were “Dragonuv” and “Stay.” I was going over Christmas with my in-laws and I'm putting it on the car and I'm like, this dude just made this, it’s just him, it's incredible. I was so impressed with that. I really felt a very close connection with that, made the album art for it and everything. I feel very protective of him, in a personal way. I hadn't really planned on working with him specifically, but over the fall after Marlowe , I was settling down to make beats. He and I were talking a lot, mostly just because he's a really fun dude. I'm much more deadpan, a little more on the sarcastic or dark side. And he's bombastic and big and laughing all the time. I really enjoy our dynamic, just in talking to him. And so I sent him a couple of beats, like maybe we could work on an EP. And he sent back the first draft of “Pipe Dream.”
My entire concept for Imaginary Everything was, I think you are so good at music that I think you need to figure out how to trust yourself, because I would like to hear what you sound like if you weren't refining your process so much. My concept for this was that, instinctively, part of what creativity is developing your instincts and taking less time to get to the thing that you want to make. And so what your first instinct is, or the first thing that carries you musically starts from, that’s what I want to hear the most off of this record. And I don't really care if it's stupid or weird or doesn't make sense. I just want it to be fun and I want to hear you having fun. I want you to genuinely have fun. I want you to send me recordings on your phone while you're in the drive-thru of a Wendy’s. I'm not looking for perfection. I'm not Christof-ing you in like a Truman Show here. Just send me something. I want to hear what your instincts sound like, and I'm going to do the same. I made an absolutely ridiculous number of beats, sending them to him every day. Once we got closer to ten tracks, I was like, man let’s make this an album. I like working with him a lot and it gave me an opportunity to step outside of my comfort zone and do something that's a little bit more sleek, and a little bit more clean, and not as bogged down in concept and story and narrative. It got to be more about this music and how it plays through, having fun. That's been a real important part for me.
Purchase L'Orange’s music, including the Imaginary Everything album with Namir Blade, here.