Vermont, And Listening To DJ Premier, Freed The Range

Things have changed since the last time James Hinton and I spoke, at and around his Brooklyn apartment back in the winter of 2016. Roughly two years after our lengthy in-person chat, the producer known as The Range decamped to a small town in Vermont.

"It was just impossible to make any noise," he says now from his home, over Zoom, one of many things that didn't exist six years ago that we've all come to take for granted. Citing concerns about unwelcome angry knocks on his door from displeased New York neighbors over the volume of his music, he adds, "I was hitting a wall where, if I couldn't get out of headphones, I couldn't really experiment with timbre in the way that I wanted to."

Frustrated by urban limitations on his craft and concurrently bewitched by the technological promise of self-driving cars facilitating interstate travel (Hinton now owns an "aftermarket" model that can do "three of the four hours" and provided him another venue in which to listen to in-progress songs), he relocated farther north in the summer of 2018. In retrospect, he concedes that move may have been a bit too impulsive. "I was an idiot, but now I love it here," he says. "I look outside and I see mountains every day."

Due out this Friday, Mercury marks The Range's first full-length made during his post-Brooklyn New England residency, as well as his first to be released since 2016's critically-acclaimed Potential for indie Domino Records. Choosing to name his new album that amid an indefatigable miasma of retrograde social media memery has less to do with astrology than astronomy and, perhaps, alchemy. Ivy League educated with a degree in physics, Hinton apparently appreciates the confluent chemical and planetary characteristics behind the record's title, mind-mapping the emotional havoc wrought by mercury poisoning and the inescapable cosmic fate of Mercury's physical proximity to an expanding sun.

Beyond that intellectualized macro level view, Mercury captures what has long made The Range such a captivating artist, this ability to synthesize elements of U.K. grime, Baltimore club, classic New York boom bap, and old-school rave music, among others styles, into something distinctly Hinton's. More than mere genre amalgams, his technique-refined songs further benefit from a correspondingly askew approach to vocal sampling, drawing largely upon uploaded YouTube clips of global aspirants and amateurs whose rapping or singing appeals to him for reasons obscure yet undeniable. "It was kind of like breathing for me, my path towards sampling," he says. "It's always been a very intuitive thing. Until Potential, frankly, I don't think I thought I was doing anything unique."

In jarring contrast to the oft dismissive way contemporary electronic music and hip-hop producers may treat the human beings behind their samples, Hinton employs a consent-based approach to his found sources online, an empathetic practice that informed Potential and refreshingly persists here. "It was a lot more challenging from a time perspective this time, for whatever reason," he says of the laboriously personalized outreach and approval process with the individuals whose voices ultimately came to populate Mercury.

"I'm basically on their side and I want them to be excited, but I know that it's hard to get that level of trust right away."

Below are edited excerpts from our conversation.

How did having this newfound space in Vermont change the way you started to approach creativity?

There's probably some implied, and also explicit, changes. Simply being able to, for instance, have a drum kit [and] have a piano, that changes a hell of a lot about your inspiration process. Whereas before, a lot of that was coming from, by definition, either being in a Logic session already and going to YouTube. So I think it, for better or for worse, opened the palette slightly. I'll confess, I got really interested in mixing my records and having that ability to really dive in on a nice setup where it was well calibrated. I had the acoustic panels and all that. Just simply to have the space for the audio waves to form changes a lot.

In some ways, it's more maximalist compositionally [than] Potential. They're just very different palettes, so it's hard to compare, but it feels to me like my music is coming together much more fully formed a lot more quickly. I can kind of hear the forest for the trees, as opposed to getting really dialed into reverb structures and that kind of stuff.

My own listening happens on a number of different systems. We have the Sonos at home, but I listen on the subway and the bus a lot. Did the listening experience change for you in this new environment?

Absolutely. The most dramatic was having a car to be able to listen in. That's so different. I think the New York subway listen is incredibly valuable and I really deeply miss that, something about the subway noise as well as the way your attention is directed. It's hard to replicate that. But the car is different, right? There's something about being in motion that lets you really focus on only the most glaring or the most positive things of a piece of a mix, as opposed to being really mired in this soup that you can get into if you're just sitting somewhere. And then having the speakers, like you said, the Sonos in the kitchen, I never would've had the room to have a separate sound system in that apartment. The kitchen was probably like 20 square feet.

Sometimes I think it's maybe a negative, because you're not necessarily reminded that your music is reflecting in people. I've become very insular and maybe like too self-serving in some ways, like all that matters is my opinion of something. Being in New York–being out and also just being around people–reminds you that music is fundamentally a music for enjoyment from everybody, not just your own opinion. The most interesting thing is you really do understand that environment changes you just as much as you change the environment. And your music can't help but be changed by that, whether you like it or not.

When I go somewhere that's not New York, I fall into one of two categories with music. I either embrace the place that I'm in and suddenly I'm listening to what seems appropriate to that place, or I pull in the comfortable stuff I'd reach for at home. And for at least some part of your Mercury process, you've been looking towards hip-hop, particularly older stuff like DJ Premier. Tell me a bit about how your relationship to hip-hop applied in this process.

I grew up in quite a rural place and hip-hop was this immaculate sound that just felt so different. And then, when you're in New York, the first time when I was there, I knew it was the sound of the city, and my memory of what the city was is very much defined by that. But then leaving it really installed that in my brain like, it is a comfort in a way that it wasn't. It used to feel kind of aggressive, like bombastic–and that's what drew me to it. Now, just the rhythm and thinking about how that makes you feel walking down the streets with brownstones or walking on Atlantic Avenue, there's just a different sense memory that you have, that I deeply miss.

So, all of a sudden, it became nostalgia, which was quite an interesting memory to have, because obviously I was never there for that period, particularly Gang Starr, DJ Premier. But something about that simplicity of the process now deeply resonated with me in a way. That's still difficult to explain. I think you maybe understand a similar feeling, that nostalgia feeling, when you're outside of the city and you just wanna be surrounded by that energy that you now miss.

Beyond the nostalgic, what did you glean from listening to these older hip-hop records as an artist that you didn't realize before, or that otherwise informed or impacted Mercury?

Now what reads particularly in Premier is just this prodigious musicality that I don't think I quite registered, like the sample choices, the melodic choices, the timbral elements. Almost like the same way I find Bill Evans to be this extreme simplicity, Bach-esque, hiding this wild complexity and deep thought. Premier is 100% that figurehead for me, in terms of that time. I find that infinite kind of musicality is what comes through. Again, it's not what I originally went to with that music. I always went to the drums, same with Dilla. But something about Premier, the sample choice and the selection and the deep understanding of how it's going to feel with some sort of a rhyme scheme already in place in his mind, that's really what comes through, especially given the history of sampling. Obviously, whether it's the current style or whatever, I am invested in that sampling history and trying to be some sort of a steward, and recognizing I'm not in that same lineage, but that I wanna participate in that kind of historicity. He's on Mount Rushmore for me.

You do seem to have a propensity towards U.K.-based emcees. I wonder if that's a vocal or a timbral thing. What is it that's drawn you to that?

I've always been drawn to drum n' bass and jungle, so it's certainly coming from a sense memory of deeply liking that music. But the arrival on the one and the three in all of the rhyme scheme–even now in drill, you still hear that kind of forward momentum that's given–as opposed to the U.S. where we're very much leaning into the two and the four. Sometimes I wonder, like it might be productive to make a U.K. kind of relative record and make a U.S. record so that they're a little bit more cohesive. I really like that in other people's work and I like that in my work that it's even handed. And in some ways, then, it kind of shows the commonality that I really like.

I think "Urethane" is a great example. That's pretty much the rawest grime thing I've ever made. And you just can't imagine that song without that propulsion that you're gonna get from someone that's in the culture like M.I.C. That track "Ice Rink" has been sampled many, many times, but I can't imagine that with someone that's not engaging in that field. So it's mostly a feel thing. Then obviously, lyrically, there's just a total difference. There's word play, but it's very different in kind to the U.S., whether it's the jargon or anything. The rhyme scheme is the most interesting piece to me.

Compared to how things went on Potential, how was the process different or unique this time around with securing the sample sources, if you will, to use on Mercury?

The thing that I noticed is there's always an excitement. I think we talked a little bit about this last time. Imagine if you had some random person, blue check mark or not, hit you up. It just feels like it's a scam, right? [laughs] It'd be hard not to. No matter how delicately we try to put it, you're over the internet and so it's challenging. We always got to a place–I still knock wood–where everyone's excited at every stage, but you're forced into this thing where, whether it was a songwriter side or... For instance, on "Bicameral," that process took probably like six months, from first contact to get it across the line, just because there's uncertainty about what the song means. Also, I think people perhaps wised up and know now that it's something to be protective of.

With TikTok and Instagram, we've gotten more into that creator mindset as individuals, which is compounded by our increased reliance upon or consumption of everything on these smaller devices. What is your perspective on that?

Right when I started The Range was the genesis of me thinking about YouTube essentially as the sample library. And I think, in a lot of ways, particularly the dream of Potential has largely come to pass. It feels kind of trite now to make the claim that just because someone's not Justin Bieber doesn't mean that they're not talented, which essentially was the conceit at that time. I mean, pop has experienced such a resurgence in terms of mindshare. It did feel like, if you weren't aiming for that platinum level, it felt, at that time, that the world was gonna forget you. And so in a relatively short period of six years, I think we've come very, very far. The pendulum has swung very, very far on the other side, correctly. Not that that was a deep mission of mine. Kai from [Potential's] "Florida," she straight-up has a music career now. She's shooting videos; she's on a kind of talent search show. It's there and it's happening, and I don't think that that was a reality, let's say in 2014, when I started making that record.

So in some ways I'm happy. In some ways I'm feeling slightly now drowned by that kind of creator economy. I'm feeling slightly listless. I'm excited about the fact that everyone has access to it, but now, instead of having this kind of propulsion and this culture-wide narrative, we've really opened up into this amazing diaspora of like, everything's happening all at once. I'm excited. It just feels like sometimes there is something nice as well about feeling part of a trajectory. The individuals always have a place, of course, but it's nice to be part of a collective. I think the pendulum has not swung too far at all. I think it's just arrived at this amazing place now where everybody feels excited and everyone feels valued to a much, much larger extent than certainly six years ago. But I guess I'm wondering now, like, okay, what's next? It's a little cloudy at the moment.

Photo Credit: Elizabeth Weinberg

Namir Blade, Metropolis (buy it / stream it)

Aphelion's Traveling Circus took listeners into deep space and the L'Orange-aligned follow-up Imaginary Everything took them around the way. But the latest from the multi-talented Nash-Villain splits the difference, letting past, present, and near-future collide freely in a liminal space between dystopia and utopia. A relative timelessness reigns instead as the romantic overtones of synth-swaddled opener "Award Speech" give way to the skincare sermonizing and Southern straight-talk of "Mephisto." In effect, Namir Blade is a one-man Outkast–albeit one undoubtedly informed by Cudi, Kendrick, and Ye–with hip-hop superpowers evident on "Dance Hall" and the clamorous "Hypercar." Beat switching becomes expected before long, allowing for full-blown trap soul release on the single-worthy "Monday Michiru" with The Adoni and a mindfully hypnotized homage on the bipolar "Cain And Abel." But he still surprises somehow on the atmospheric and exorcising "Guts Vs Griffith," an initially drum-deprived blur that yields big rewards in the end. If this were released by a major label, a lot of people would jump to call it album of the year. At this point in 2022, they wouldn't be wrong.

mary sue, VOICE MEMOS ACROSS A COUPLE BODIES OF WATER (buy it / stream it)

Singapore's mary sue dipped to NYC for a couple weeks, but he went home with more than a mere souvenir. A matter-of-fact lyrical jardiniere of jazzy glitches, bap warble, and incidental chatter, VOICE MEMOS ACROSS A COUPLE BODIES OF WATER documents his productive time stateside better than any iPhone photodump or old-fashioned slideshow could. Linking with the city's Planet Locale and PTP crews, he shares their penchant for credibly cool chaos on the beats, prevalent on Tony Bontana numbers such as "Journey To The West" as well as self-made productions like "Listening To The Bug In NY." His subtly stoic rhyme style aids in grounding the tracks, flowing mad monotone yet lissome over "Cactus Tacos" and c0smon4ut's crackling tumult of "The Things I Settle."

Theravada, My Own 2 Hands (buy it / stream it)

Far more compact than his 91-track Xennis Rodman song cycle, the self-produced My Own 2 Hands succinctly sums up why Theravada doesn't miss. The New Yorker's fairly fractured beats gleam with repurposed melodies, voices looping and grooves warping under the wry delivery of "Equipment" and the Roc-A-Fella-esque "I'm Focused, Man." A highlight of this highlight reel, "Information (Final Jeopardy)" finds him reliably namedropping basketball stars, critiquing Joe Budden's two "NBA" versions, and rhyming Movado with Mavado, all within a taut two minute span. The rocksteady "Biomechanics" leaves him wide open for braggadocio while borrowing a T-Pain refrain, whereas closer "Water Vapor Feedback" lets him blithely rock the mic over some orchestral soul maneuvers.

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Gary Suarez

Gary Suarez