When resolve is low it’s quite possible to find yourself in an X-factor audition videos worm hole on YouTube, emerging hours later with ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ on repeat in your head for days. Quite different to this, in many ways, is James Hinton’s practice. The hours he spends trawling YouTube he does with intention, searching for something raw and real in an unknown bedroom singer or rapper’s performance. As electronic musician and producer The Range, he samples these rare finds in his music, most recently in his album Potential, released this year.
Considering the fact that the results of our online searches are already decided for us, this ultimately rewarding task must be arduous from the onset. Just googling ‘The Range’ from my computer in Cape Town brings up a conference centre, a night market and a home-leisure-garden store in the UK. The Range, in this case, is intent on beating algorithms at their own game to find that moment in a song that connects. For Potential, these moments were found in Jamaica, England and in his own backyard in New York City where his collaborators’ past selves (many of the videos are from years ago) sing their hopes into their webcams. The process and the result speak to a human need to connect, to put what you’ve made out into the world at the risk of ridicule, or indifference.
Here we ask James about making music in this way. With¬†the collaborative nature of Potential¬†in mind though, we’ve also interviewed two of the voices that feature on the album: Kai in New York and Jamaican reggae/dancehall recording artist Naturaliss. Interviewed separately, the questions and their answers are intertwined here to be read in relation to each other.
‘1000 Blessings’¬†by Naturaliss features on The Range’s track ‘1804’ and Kai Mars’s cover of Ariana Grande’s ‘You’ll Never Know’ features in ‘Florida’ both on the album Potential.
What‚Äôs your earliest memory of the internet?
James: My earliest memory of the internet is certainly dial-up. Probably one Christmas one of my relatives got the American Online CD and spent that latter part of the day figuring out how to get on. I think because of that time I still remember the internet as a physical thing – not nearly as stable or as reliable as it is now.
Kai: I would always fuss when my mom had to use the phone because that meant I had to disconnect from the internet. Haha. Good times! But, I remember playing little games at the time or watching videos of my favorite Disney stars! It was a lot of fun, I was pretty young so that’s all I can remember.
Has the way you use the internet had to change at all since The Range has become more well-known?
James: I don‚Äôt know that I‚Äôve changed the way I peruse the internet perhaps beyond compartmentalizing the time during which I‚Äôm recording my time online and not. I‚Äôm aware in a way that I don‚Äôt think I was before that I need to almost ‚Äòclock in‚Äô in order to keep some distance from my work. It‚Äôs not very dire but just the idea that I was in enjoyment mode or not led to a much more healthy process than I had during Nonfiction. (The Range’s first full-length album released in 2013)
How have you seen the Internet change the music industry in your life time?
Naturaliss: The internet changed the music dramatically, back in the days artists had to go around singing on sound systems and now due to the internet you can stay at home to produce your music and it becomes available to the world in minutes. This benefits artists as their content can be easily shared around the world at the click of a button. This can be damaging to artists and labels as artists are not making enough money from record sales and digital downloads.¬†Why pay for a song when you can get it for free?
I spend 90% of my time online promoting my music and networking. As an independent recording artist you have to do everything on your own and if you don’t have the required cash to invest you have to invest lots of time. “By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread”.
Some people find that the algorithms that use our behaviour to serve us online content are helpful while others feel the limitations this brings. Where do you fall on the topic?
James: I tend to lean on the side of pro-algorithm. I think as humans we are nicely wired to dismiss where the algorithms mess up (particularly in delivering ads, looking at you Facebook) while silently benefiting from when they benefit us. I tend to think, because it’s been a slow boil, that, for better or worse, we are where we are and it’s at least interesting to consider the case of algorithms benefiting society instead of presuming a Brooker-esque future.
In sourcing the YouTube videos for Potential, were algorithms a help or a hindrance?
James: They were a help, once I figured out how to use them against themselves. For a long time I was beating my head against the problem that PageRank is really good at giving you the most popular website, or video first but not the best at giving you ‚Äúnormalized‚Äù results. It‚Äôs trivial now but once I realized that starting at page 10 or 20 gets me in a great place per search term I was really glad that Youtube is structured in its current form.
The overarching concept of the album is the idea of participating in internet culture while not necessarily wanting to achieve millions of views.
Why did you start posting videos to YouTube?
Naturaliss: As an independent reggae and dancehall recording artist it is very difficult getting your music out, getting airplay without paying large sums of money with no budget at all.¬†I saw YouTube as a gateway to the world and a platform to showcase your talent and be original in doing so, so I decided to make YouTube my home and started posting videos hoping to gain the attention of the right persons who can make my music work and help to take my music to the mainstream.
Kai: I started posting videos on YouTube because I love to sing and when I saw others posting their singing videos I got the idea to add to that community. Justin Bieber is a huge inspiration in my life and seeing his story motivated me even more because he’s someone who is super talented and got his start on Youtube. YouTube was my audience and my outlet to perform. I guess you can say YouTube served as my foundation for my love of performing.
The aspiration to ‚Äòmake it‚Äô is a common theme (or assumption) for why people post videos like these on Youtube. What drives you to want to make it as a musician?
James: I‚Äôve struggled with this question – particularly since I chose to start out the record with Regular which features the lyrics ‚ÄòRight now I don‚Äôt have a backup plan if I don‚Äôt make it‚Äô. Making music has always been a compulsion for me, and I‚Äôve never felt as if I have much choice in making music. Therefore the idea that success plays a role in what I do has felt a little funny. I‚Äôm a very competitive person in everything else I do but music has always been siloed from that mentality – BUT I clearly resonate with Roger (the rapper in Regular) as that video spoke to me. I suppose then I‚Äôm forced to admit some sort of dichotomy in the way I think about music, one mindset aware and one unaware of the consequences of the work. Currently I‚Äôm of the mindset where I‚Äôm more interested in the more plain path of just wanting to make the music in a vacuum but I‚Äôm sure if you pose the question to me again in 6 months I‚Äôll have vacillated once more.
Was there a person who recognised the potential in you to set you on this path?
James: I did an independent study with a professor I had in college named Jim Moses who I think really believed in me. Were it not for that time spent every week knowing I needed to produce something novel I‚Äôm not sure I would have gotten over the hurdle of where my ear was versus my skill level. That was the first time thinking anything I had made sounded good to me when I turned on a critical ear. That time was absolutely a turning point and I‚Äôm thankful that I had the chance to work closely with such a skilled professor.
How big a role did lyrics play in choosing the songs for Potential? What spoke to you?
James: Lyrics were a massive role in what ended up on the record. Looking back lyrics that spoke to me during the time I discovered the videos were the lyrics with the most staying power. I had just moved to New York at the time that I wrote the majority of the album and I remember feeling each day had a lot of specificity as I was in a new, exciting city. In that mindset I was reaching for anything that was magnifying what I was feeling at the time and I think the album shows that.
Each song speaks to the next, what narrative did you aim to weave throughout the album?
James: I was aiming for a bit of a complex narrative. I wanted the album to have two parallel narratives – one that served the overarching concept of the album: the idea of participating in internet culture while not necessarily wanting to achieve millions of views – and one that told my emotional story chronologically at the same time. Listening back it might be just the fact that I remember all of the moments recording everything but I‚Äôm really happy with the way the album turned out, I think I accomplished what I set out to do!
What message do you hope to spread with your music?
Naturaliss: My music is mostly about motivation, equal rights for all, development, self worth and fun. 1000 Blessings is one of my reggae singles which is about people who are going through trials in life. When you are faced with such situations just turn to the heavens and ask the almighty for “1000 blessings”.
After listening to the album in full, what would you say the take out message is?
Kai: Personally, I interpreted the album as saying that music is universal and can relate to any- and everyone. It can bring people together who may be in another country. We all have stories and we can all relate to having a love and a passion for music. We all used YouTube as our outlet, and even though it may be for different reasons, music is what connects each and every one of us. This project helped me to appreciate different styles of music and really helped me to think about the love I have for music. Potential is an album that we can all emotionally connect to and I think that’s the most important theme here.
Beyond the obvious (YouTube), how else would you say your work is a reflection of the times? Does it matter to you that it is/isn‚Äôt?
James: I‚Äôm happy you asked this one! I like to think of my work as an anti-reflection of a lot of things going on in the current musical landscape. I like to think of Potential as an example of anti-virality, hopefully it serves as a counterexample to the monoculture that currently exists where people puzzle-solve their way to pop music success. Potential is certainly not a protest of the status quo but I do keenly remember worrying about the fact that younger producers would only see a single path in music and I felt like it was important for me to offer up a secondary option during the time I was recording.
Screenshot Artwork by Toru Izumida