Producer's Corner: Ryan Lewis Explains Spending 3 Years With Macklemore Creating "The Heist"
Exclusive: After "The Heist" was certified gold, Ryan Lewis tells the story behind its creation and using major label resources to promote it while staying independent.
A lot of publications have anointed Macklemore and Ryan Lewis as standard bearers for the changing face of Hip Hop. Not only is it tempting in terms of the traditional elements that sell magazines, and boost ratings and page views, but it’s somewhat true. Aside from the elephant in the room—they’re two white guys from Washington—there’s the fact that their biggest hit is about thrifting and they make appearances on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” to perform a song about same sex marriage. So yeah, they’re a bit different.
But, if you’re able to strip away all the surface elements, you end up with many of the same things that even the most ratchet, allegedly gun-toting emcees (and many self-proclaimed conscious ones) value. They enjoy a historically large platform to create art on their terms without interference from a record label. They find ways to incorporate respected peers into what they do. They still balance their personal lives and appeasing a fan base with a hobby that turned into their livelihood. These are the some of the same things Ice Cube campaigned for when he split from NWA and likely what fueled Q-Tip to coin the phrase, “Record company rule number 4,080.”
During the few days between their performance at Paid Dues—where Macklemore urged a crowd in dust-covered San Bernadino, California to “turn the fuck up,” and the Recording Industry Association of America certifying The Heist as a certified gold-seller—Ryan Lewis took time to explain maintaining their 100% independent mantra and the science behind their sound.
HipHopDX: I saw you guys play Paid Dues in San Bernadino, California and you were equal parts deejay and hype man. I’m pretty sure you even played the cymbals at one point. When you guys crafted this album, how much were you thinking about how it would sound in large venues with tens of thousands of people?
Ryan Lewis: There are certain songs that, as you make them, you recognize that they kind of sound anthemic or they would work well for festivals or other live settings. I think it’s on the long list of things that kind of adds to having expertise in the mixing process and being able to prepare for a live setting for sure.
DX: Between the marching band at the “My Oh My” performance and Owuor, Ray, Mary and the dancers, how did you guys kind of develop this communal aspect to your live performances?
Ryan Lewis: What was cool about The Heist was that it was a unique process for a lot of reasons. We spent three years on it. That in and of itself is unusual, particularly for the Hip Hop genre because people are just cranking out records. We spent a long time on all those songs. And I think you’re spot on; it was a record that had so much collaboration involved from the amount of features that were doing hooks and the vocals on there to the variety of instruments. You have records like “Neon Cathedral” featuring the Seattle Rock Orchestra going in to compose strings. Then you have fuckin’ cowboy boots with banjos…there’s just textures from all over the place. I think spending that much time on a record enabled me to pursue a wide variety of ideas.
DX: As someone that went from live instruments to production software, did you ever experiment with a sequencer like an MPC?
Ryan Lewis: I didn’t. I was always intrigued by it, and I always had friends that their platform was the MPC. Getting into the mixing process, I did expand my analog gear into different compressors and EQs and things of the like…a variety of pre-amps, a variety of mics. And that was my real interest in analog equipment over MPCs or old keyboards and kind of doing a lot of your sequencing in your creative process on outboard gear. I think for me, the fact that I had been on a computer since I was like eight-years-old and spent so much time there, it was a comfortable environment to sequence and very quickly pursue ideas that I had. I think a computer was what I knew the best. Over time, in crafting records, I recognized the benefits of introducing a lot of analog sounds to your beats. So now I’m probably in between both the digital and analog world.
Ryan Lewis Explains His Transition From Metal To Hip Hop
DX: What about the transition from being a live instrumentalist to a Metal Head to Hip Hop? How much of that is a natural evolution?
Ryan Lewis: I think one of the very unique things about Hip Hop music, as well as Electronic music, is that it’s one of the few genres that you’re writing music and composing music and mixing at the same time…and you’re kind of producing at the same time. When you’re playing in a band, it’s a different process. You write out music and then go to the studio and usually team with a producer to mix and craft the textures. So I think that’s what was very intriguing to me going into making Hip Hop music in the first place. I love forming textures and really molding sounds. It’s a genre that allows you to do all of those things.
When I was playing in bands, that’s when I started recording instruments that I was playing a little bit and dipping into production. I mixed all of our records, and for some people that only make beats that’s not a huge piece of it. The mentality is, “There’s the beat,” and it’s passed on to somebody else to mix the song. For me, I care a shit ton about texture. I think that’s what really makes a record sound a certain way. I think the mixing process of a song is a powerful thing; it can pull a song from one subgenre to another. If you think about indie music and indie bands—if you have eight tracks of shit…a piano, vocals and stuff. You can mix it to sound super grimy and put yourself in an indie genre, or you can mix it super clean, and it would be geared toward that singer/songwriter, mainstream genre. So I think that people oftentimes underestimate how effective and powerful the mixing process is.
DX: Aside from just the sonic and technical elements, as a fan, were there certain albums that piqued your curiosity about the different genres?
Ryan Lewis: As far as albums that really intrigued me, I think Immortal Technique was a good reference. It was a point where I was shifting from really being dedicated to harder Rock, Metal and Screamo type of music to Immortal Technique, Jedi Mind Tricks and Wu-Tang…more intense Hip Hop that evoked some of the same emotions that I liked musically at the time. Those types of albums—Revolutionary Vol. 2, Visions Of Ghandi—and hearing how Stoupe chopped up orchestras and made beats out of them, was very intriguing to me. It played into my initial curiosity about making Hip Hop beats.
Later on, my musical interests really expanded, and I think a lot of that tied into sampling records. The beautiful thing about digging for vinyl, when you first start out, is the exposure to genres that you weren’t bumping before and textures and sounds from different decades. Then I started listening to everything, and I got into more modern indie music. A band called Beirut had a song called “The Flying Club Cup,” and I loved the way that it was produced. I think that going in to record violins, strings and different types of instruments that aren’t often recorded for Hip Hop music—Sufjan Stevens, Ed Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, Of Monsters And Men—was very influential in the way that I was mixing violins, cellos and shit like that.
Now, on the Hip Hop side, Kanye is one of my favorite producers. He’s probably been the most longstanding, influential producer in my mind. He’s somebody that has always been one of the most innovative at redoing the genre over and over again with what he chooses to bring in to make beats. [There’s] his classic first three albums, but then you have 808’s & Heartbreak and him shifting over to Watch The Throne and G.O.O.D. Music. His catalogue of ideas is always so widespread. So he’s always been very interesting to me.
ADA & Warner’s Role Pushing “Thrift Shop” To Pop Radio
DX: In addition to the music, you and Macklemore are also business partners. How much did you have to weigh the decision to do business with Warner?
Ryan Lewis: How do you mean?
DX: Well, the way I understand it, you guys maintain your independence, but there’s some sort of partnership where they distribute the project and do some of the legwork. Is that true?
Ryan Lewis: The situation with Warner is so unusual—it’s never really been done—so I think it’s very confusing to people. It’s awesome in that regard. It really is a new setup for independent artists.
What happened with us is, we got offered a wide variety of record deals before as well as after The Heist came out. None of those deals really made sense for us, and we remained independent. Like any independent artist, you have to distribute your record if you want it to be in stores. You have to distribute your record if you want it to be on iTunes, and there’s a wide variety of distributors. You can go the route we went way back in the day with a CD Baby or a Tunecore and just go digitally. But I think we really cared about having a physical CD, and so we did a collaboration with ADA [Alternative Distribution Alliance] who’s one of the bigger distributors for independent labels. And that was sort of step one of this not being really typical—the fact that they would do a distribution deal with an artist as opposed to a label.
That was kind of a reflection that we have this thing that is kind of a label. That’s what it is at this point in terms of what we have our hands on. We did a deal with them, and they’re a subsidiary of Warner Bros. “Thrift Shop” began taking off sort of organically on alternative radio, and we were in the unique position where Warner was willing to push “Thrift Shop” to Pop radio with no record deal. On a project by project basis, we sort of hire them—strictly their radio department—to push a song that we thought would do well on Pop radio. And then it did. But we have no deal with Warner, and there’s no contract whatsoever. We’re 100% independent, but we’re using resources from a bigger label for particular small things and hiring them out. And that shit has never really happened! That shit is just brand-fuckin’-new.
And it makes sense that artists independently have the power to launch something massively through great music videos and organically building their own fan base. And I think labels recognize that and still see an opportunity to help an independent artist get the song to the mainstream through the radio. So it’s an interesting kind of collaboration, and I think it’s interesting for both sides. It allowed us what we find important, which is 100% creative control and the ability to do whatever the fuck we want when ever the fuck we want to. That’s kind of a win-win, but it’s confusing to the public because it just hasn’t really happened. So people are like, “You signed with Warner!” It makes sense that it’s confusing, but it’s dope because it’s so much in the artist’s favor. It’s exactly what we would’ve hoped for.
In terms of Ben [Macklemore] and I being business partners, it’s always been pretty 100% clear that to remain independent was always in our best interests. That’s mostly because we care about all aspects of our brand. We care about what the album looks like, the fonts we’re using and what the gator texture on the deluxe edition is gonna feel like. We care about all the little things. And I think that when you get a record deal, a lot of the creativity within the music and outside of the music gets taken away by the label bringing in a team of people you didn’t necessarily choose. That’s never been of interest.
DX: It seems pretty safe to say The Heist has brought you two unprecedented levels of commercial success and recognition. How can you sustain that amount of high quality output and still keep creative control?
Ryan Lewis: There’s a few variables that weigh into that question. One is, how much content are you putting out? That’s a huge piece. ‘Cause if you want to hold on to your creative control, and things go wild, you either have a choice of putting out a huge amount of content that you don’t have a huge hand in, then your quality goes down. Or, you put out less content, and put a whole bunch of time into what that content is, and your quality remains.
But I think that you’re right. Now more than ever, it’s extremely busy and exhausting. And we’re just trying to hold on with all of the things that are on our plate. Right now, I’m sitting in a little makeshift studio I built in a room at our new office we’re building that’s not done. So I put like a whole bunch of cardboard over the windows so it’s all dark, and I’m cutting a music video. This is in my off time during college shows, and pretty much all that you do is work. But it’s the same exact process that we’ve done for any other music video. Although we’re being tested in terms of how much time we have to still be creative in the midst of all these shows, we’re still 100% making all the calls creatively and investing a lot of time. We spent 16 days on this [upcoming] music video, and it’s the longest music video we’ve done yet. So now I’m here with a ridiculous amount of video footage trying to make something dope. I’m pretty much putting any time I have into that, and trying to get it out to the people as quick as we can. They want it, and you don’t want to disappear. But at the same time, you don’t want to make shitty art. That doesn’t make sense either. We’re just trying to balance it all out.