Despite his loud social media presence – he makes fun of himself just as often as he does his favorite rappers – Ryan Hemsworth is a very quiet guy. Today we're sitting in his 56th floor hotel room at the W Hotel overlooking Times Square, just one floor below the penthouse that his Boiler Room set will be filmed in a few hours later, and even his zingers are delivered shyly. He says he's both weirded out and thrilled about playing a show billed alongside legends Cam'ron and Kenny Dope, and is sure he'll be starstruck by Solange.
Like the night's other up-and-coming underground DJs (Brenmar and Mike Q), Halifax, Canada native Hemsworth has proven he's an artist to keep tabs on. The 22-year-old's music riffs on Waka and Juicy J, gets comically emo (see his remix of the Backstreet Boys) and thrives on nostalgic detritus spanning from old-school videogames to indie rock of yesteryear. He's worked closely with Oakland duo Main Attrakionz, making his synth-laden and overly-emotive instrumentals often associated with "cloud rap." And with his latest EP, the seven-track Still Awake, the producer keeps this refreshing, cinematic daydream going.
We talked to the producer about headphone dance music, emo-rap, Nintendo and what to expect from his full-length album (supposedly due in November).
Is it fair to assume that Halifax doesn't have a booming dance scene?
Yeah, imagine that. I think that's why I became so into trying to find new music all the time. And probably why I was interested in journalism when I was. I studied journalism for a while. Music discovery, that was all that I cared about. Even when I was in journalism, I was always more interested in actually finding something amazing – an interesting record or band or sound – than writing about it. Because it was really hard to see live music I was interested in in Halifax.
I've read some older interviews you've done with musicians. Are you self-conscious about being on the other side of the recorder now? Do you find yourself wishing that people would interview you in a different way?
It's interesting and also weird. Though I enjoy the journalism world, I enjoy music a little more. So I'm glad that it's working! But I'm also not that kind of a person that would analyze this that way. I hate talking. Really, I don't like talking in general. I think I get most excited to talk when people ask me nerdy stuff about movies and videogames. I've definitely realized over a period of time that [before I was] using journalism discover music, and now DJs and friends and musicians do that for me instead. But, yeah, I'm gonna judge you as you interview me and talk so much shit about these questions once you leave! [Laughs] No, no, no, I promise I won't. I'm not at all judgmental. It might actually be a problem that I'm not. I wonder if people think not being judgmental is the same as not having opinions or taste or whatever.
Do you feel an obligation to remind your fans that you can be weird or put people onto new things after you release a couple of remixes?
The thing is that I started as a producer. I guess I call myself a DJ now because that's how I perform but I started out making music. What I like about being a DJ now is that you get to be a kind of curator, you're presenting. That's what I love about making mixes; I can put all the stuff that I like into something for an hour. I try to put a lot of my friends on my mixes so I can help put them on. Whoever I'm a fan of really.
Lately I've been listening to a lot of Japanese producers. There's this totally crazy scene out there that I relate to musically. This guy Taquwami is an amazing musician whose stuff is really beautiful – it sounds like myself or like Cashmere Cat but it just sounds Japanese. This dude Seiho too. They all run their own labels and put each others stuff out for free. Everything is free over there which really appeals to me. I like the idea of everyone being down to just share with each other and give each other access to their work. It's more of a communal vibe than Internet sharing too; everyone's really supportive and wants to talk music without any reason other than to talk about it and share ideas.
You met [WeDidIt co-founder] Shlohmo on the Internet, right?
I think it was Boiler Room. I was on the chat room for one of the live streams and Shlohmo was also on. We just exchanged info and I sent him some of my stuff and we traded back and forth for a while. This was before anyone really knew who they were yet. Trap in general had not gone off. So he sent my stuff to all the WeDidIt guys and we hooked up from there.
I've seen people describe your sound as "populist" and "R&B electronica." How would you describe it ?
Genre doesn't matter to me, though I understand why it does to other people. It's important for being able to talk about music at all. That's why everything I release I try to do something different. The Outkast remix I did was dark and slow. And I was afraid that was going to pigeonhole me so I did the Backstreet Boys track, which was like a Jersey Club remix. I just want people to know I can do different stuff. Being pigeonholed, especially by micro-genres like "trap" or whatever, is a really scary thing for producers. Trap music in general is not very deep. It's made for one setting, really. I'm trying not to be stuck with anything so that I live beyond the six months that whatever trendy sub-genre lives through.
Do you have pop production aspirations?
Totally. We actually had a bunch of meetings while I have been here in New York. I've talked to a couple of different places and it's all very overwhelming but cool. That's something I'm really interested in. I've done a bunch of remixes that got noticed and I think some people are like, "Okay, if he can make remixes he can probably produce original instrumentals too." I'm trying to use that as a gateway into commercial work for bigger artists.
You've worked heavily with Main Attrakionz. What do you think about the rise of cloud rap?
I'm just so happy about all the really emotional music coming out. Future "Love Song" and Drake and all of those guys. That's my favorite kind of music, I guess. No, it really is. Rap with emotional samples that kind of just turns everyone on their head. I love aggressive rap too but there's something refreshing about these dudes. Main Attrakionz have been the posterchild for that, I think. These dudes that look like typical rappers who don't have much going on in their head but then they rap about what's going on with their family, people dying, real stuff. It's good to have substance that, when it matches sonically with the music they're rapping over, feels right. Clams Casino is obviously very good at that too.
I think people really want dreary rap just as much as they do club rap. I think it's a great time for rap in general. Rappers and producers have never had a better time to just be themselves than right now. I would love to work with Future or Drake or Gunplay or Danny Brown.
Do you have particular rappers in mind when you make rap instrumentals? Do you listen to music as you're working?
I listen to music and then I make music as a response to it a lot. Let me open up my ITunes here and look....
Yeah, give me your Top 10 most played!
Oh man, that's not cool. This feels like a trick! If I look at my most played tracks on iTunes it's gonna be, like, the Rugrats theme song. Yep, there that is. Most recently added was a bunch of N'Sync and Backstreet Boys.
So you're on a boyband kick?
It's more that I've been listening to a lot of Jersey dudes. This guy Mike Gip and all these guys who are making really awesome club music and sampling goofy-ass shit. And I was listening to the original Backstreet Boys song "Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely" and there were these three string stabs and I just thought it would be awesome to chop those up.
Is the Rugrats theme song going to end up in a future track?
Yeah, maybe! A lot of the time when I'm thinking of textures or samples, I go to videogame music. That's the perfect combination of sounds for me. A lot of Super Nintendo, the Mario Brothers, Zelda, the Final Fantasy series; all the stuff that's actually well regarded for its composition. It can be this cheesy videogame music and it actually carries a lot of emotion. When it's 16-bit music it's so limited in terms of what you can do with it – so how they were able to make really catchy and emotional music from that seems really difficult and interesting to me.
The age at which we were consuming Nintendo music probably has some emotional impact too.
For sure. I found myself sampling a lot of Donkey Kong just because that's what I was playing when I was a kid. And I really loved the music. There's definitely nostalgia there. But it's also like... I was playing a random song from the Donkey Kong soundtrack and these dudes came up to me and were like, "O-M-G WHAT IS THIS!" It sounded like really current and forward-thinking dance music to them. I just think there's something very cool about that. I'm definitely not the first person to do that, I'm just trying to figure out how to work with it since it's something that appeals to me. A lot of rap draws from similar sounds too. That one Meek Mill song sounds very Nintendo-y. I've been trying to figure out why that's working right now.
What's the best way to listen to dance music?
I like listening to music in my headphones, even dance music, because it feels that it's right there. I like to be alone a lot, maybe that's it. I obviously love hearing it in the club on a really great soundsystem too. But being by myself in my house with headphones on is the best way to consume dance music for me. I also think dance music is really intimate in a way that people disregard sometimes.
So what can people expect from your full-length? Is it done?
It's done, yeah. We're just trying to figure out where it belongs label-wise. All that shit is very new to me still. The album is five instrumental tracks and five with features. We have Kitty Pryde, Sinead Harnett who has worked with Disclosure and some others. The track with Sinead I actually originally sang on it but wasn't super happy with it. My voice is on a few of the tracks but it's hiding; I distorted it and messed around with it. I like using my voice more as an instrument. It's really all pretty melancholy. I wanted to make it feel like an album I wanted to listen to in junior high. A lot of the songs are in minor key and can easily feel sad. I didn't want it to be dancey. I wanted people to listen to it on the train or alone or in headphones.
So not at all like your DJ sets?
I get to be behind my computer at least when I DJ, so it's not very different. But, yeah, playing live means playing a lot of rap and tracks by DJs that I love. I definitely rep Shlohmo, RL Grime and that crew hard. Obviously I want the experience to be fun. Playing Boiler Room is funny, really. I went to the Nicolas Jaar one and it was totally a different vibe. You didn't dance at all, you just kind of stared at people as they drank their PBR. If I can give a disclaimer for my Boiler Room set [with A$AP Yams], it's that I don't usually do a B2B set and DJ for Cam'ron and Solange.
What happens when you meet someone like Cam at a penthouse party? Do you slip him a business card?
If I'm drunk enough maybe I'll tell him that I really respect his work. [Laughs] Solange is the scarier one for me. I wouldn't even know what to say to her. I would probably secretly and quietly snip a piece of her hair and run away. Man, I hope Solange doesn't read this.