|Breaking through: Ryan Hemsworth
The Canadian hip-hop producer is experimenting with emotional samples and melodies to stunning effect.
Whether it's producers making their own boom-bap beats, or simply incorporating the "real stuff" into their DJ sets, hip-hop seems to be enjoying an incredible upswing in underground dance music circles. But it's not all sample-heavy slurry, soulful jazz retakes or Brainfeeder mind mush. There's a whole variety of artists incorporating the top-heavy assault of modern mainstream rap, from those meshing dubstep tropes with southern rap to make trap to a group of producers making laid-back, synth-heavy beats.
Canadian Ryan Hemsworth is one of the latter, and his unflinchingly pretty tracks share an understated flair with previous Breaking Through stars Supreme Cuts, though his are more homespun than the theatrical brooding of that Chicago duo. His work is packed with hummable melodies, soaring refrains and a heavily emotive perspective, with his just-released Last Words EP already proving one of the year's most exciting releases.
Hemsworth grew up in Halifax, the capital of Atlantic province Nova Scotia not known for its electronic music (or much of anything else, really). "It's not really a party city," admits Hemsworth. "It's just like a lot of folk and rock music... people trying to live on grungy rock scenes. So it wasn't necessarily the ideal place for my stuff." How does one become interested in hip-hop in a mostly folk town? "I think what introduced me was my cousin... he kind of surprised me because he knew a lot about rap. He introduced me to Wu-Tang Clan and all that classic '90s stuff, that really opened my eyes because I would really only listen to stuff like Stone Temple Pilots and Radiohead in junior high. All this grimy, dirty rap was kind of exotic and different."
Hemsworth started out with the classic '90s canon rap before moving onto dirty south hip-hop, latching onto mid-'00s names like Gucci Mane. It's a style that's proven incredibly influential on this new generation of producers. "There's a lot of seriousness in their production, but everything they are rapping about and the way the music sounds... it's kind of goofy," he explains. "I try to bring that into [my own music] a little bit, a kind of moodiness but also a sense of humour." That lightheartedness shines through his own productions, like "Charly Wingate" where gruff Max B samples about "money music and family" clash with the heart-in-mouth march that Hemsworth builds out of chimes and what sound like timpanis.
Humour aside, there's something distinctly melancholic, even mournful about Hemsworth's music, which stands out in a world of triumphant, gaudy racket. "I haven't really made a song in a major key in a while," he says with a chuckle. "It just kind of happens naturally. I started playing guitar in high school and have always been attracted to songs that are in a minor key, and slower."
It's not as if emotive melodies are a new thing in hip-hop. "I love when rap is in a kind of depressing place. Like if you listen to [Waka Flocka Flame's] Triple F Life, the outro is so sad and almost made me cry when I first heard it, it's reflective but not 'lyrical.' That's why I love Waka Flocka Flame so much, because he finds a good balance and he's more emotional than most artists. But at the same time he has this image of a scary rapper dude. I like having that weird balance in music."
The dichotomy of image and music is not alien to Hemsworth, a kid from one of Canada's smaller cities making rap beats increasingly latched onto by the hip-hop community. But Hemsworth realizes he's an exception and he's embraced it: "It's kind of funny, I mean, right own to using my real name and not a moniker. In the long run I think it's easier if you use your government name, not hiding. A lot of producers are using triangles in their names... I just think you can develop more if people can see you, know you, know that you are a real person and have something to hold on to. It definitely looks weird when you have a mixtape with tracks produced by 'Big Balla' and then 'Ryan Hemsworth.' Working with people like Main Attrakionz, who are so open-minded, we are all coming from different places and music is the thing that can bring us together. It doesn't really matter at all where you're from."
Main Attrakionz has been a major force in getting Hemsworth connected in hip-hop, bestowing upon him a hefty bit of rap cred. The remarkably prolific Oakland group have released a stream of mixtapes with a laconic stoner flow and cloud-rap beats, stuff suited perfectly to Hemsworth's talents. It was a relatively simple hook-up. "I sent [fellow Oakland rapper] Shady Blaze a couple of beats and he immediately returned them [with his raps on them]. That was over a year ago, and he's part of the Main Attrakionz crew so I just naturally started talking with them as well."
His relationship with the duo wasn't quite the simple producer/rapper dynamic though. "I was mixing their stuff because it sounded horrible, so I just said 'let me do it,'" he explains, laughing. Hemsworth has since become the Main Attrakionz' de facto mastering engineer, making their music sound that little bit more professional, providing them with artwork and even programming the tracklists of their mixtapes. Hemsworth has also been working with North Carolina rapper Deniro Farrar, whose clever and socially conscious raps mesh well with dramatic beatscapes.
"It's starting to come together where people are reaching out and asking for beats, so I'm finally putting beat packages together to send to people," he says proudly. "Instead of remixing rapper's songs it's nice to get original stuff coming in." Hemsworth's not afraid to tailor his beats to a given rapper's style—their usual BPM range, their mood, their subject matter—but admits he's happiest when he can work with rappers that are more versatile, so he can get them on his "weirdest sample or unexpected rhythm," a trait he clearly values in his own music. He cites Danny Brown as his current dream collaboration, noting that he still has quite a way to go when it comes to ascending the ladder.
Hemsworth's work with rappers has helped make his name, but his instrumentals hold their own as well. He's part of a cohort of rap producers whose instrumentals receive almost as much acclaim as the raps they often soundtrack. Those artists all have a slow-rung, low-slung aesthetic running through their music, and it's not entirely a coincidence. "I think we've all influenced each other; I'm friends with the Friendzone guys and a lot of us produce for Main Attrakionz. I know that Keyboard Kid and those guys were all coming from similar places, we were all attracted to the sound of that really pretty ambient stuff but we also love rap. It's just meshing the two together, it somehow works right now. It probably wouldn't have worked five to ten years ago, but it's perfect right now, because of this huge emergence of weird rap. There have always been weirdos, but now they're in the forefront, and with Lil B and his producers leading the pack, it just helps all of us [who are] trying to experiment with more emotional samples and melodies."
While Hemsworth already has a distinct style, his productions are varied enough that he's not too worried about being swept up in trends. "I've already been associated with a bunch of different sounds—like the Spin thing that I got was top R&B album, which I didn't understand at all. It's just nice to be recognized. I've been called trap and cloud-rap and then the next person is going to write something different about me again. I'm just going with it and I'm happy as long as people are saying good things."
He shouldn't have that much to worry about: His latest EP, in addition to being his most prominent, is easily his strongest work to date. Released on Wedidit, the digital label and collective run by LA screwed hip-hop figurehead Shlohmo and like-minded friends Groundislava and RL Grime, Last Words is at different turns majestic, humble and ambitious, showing off his ability for rumbling rattlers as much as near-symphonic weepers. Both "Slurring" and "Overthinking" have unapologetically bombastic build-ups yet retain their aggressiveness, a delicate suspension of the gentle with the quaking all wrapped up in a package that's so much more than your average two minute hip-hop loop.
His pairing with Wedidit is a logical one, coming after a long-line of self-released missives on Bandcamp. "RL Grime was the first one I started talking to, and I think that just happened through a Boiler Room chat or something. I didn't know, but he had been sending my songs to Shlohmo, and in April they reached out and said they wanted to do a release." He says the Wedidit camp was a huge influence on his own sound, and the Last Words release, with a grip of remixes from compatriots like Baauer and Supreme Cuts, further highlights this new wave of producers doing interesting and unconventional things with rap.
So what's next for Hemsworth? He's made it out of Halifax recently, settling in Ottawa. It's not much more exciting than Halifax, but it's a hub of sorts, and brings him closer to Toronto and Montreal where he can play out more often. Not being distracted by a bustling local scene also allows him to hone his productions in relative peace. He's using that time to work on a forthcoming album, though he doesn't quite know what shape or form that will take just quite yet. But he's not too concerned about it either. "I'm a lot more into my element now," he says, in his new home with an ever-growing circle of friends and colleagues. As a burgeoning name in an international scene, it seems like a lot of other people are in his element too.