the range makes sparkling electronic music from ariana grande covers and grime samples
Producer James Hinton spliced videos by unknown YouTubers with snippets of 90s house, jungle, and Baltimore Club to create his transcendent second album, ‘Potential.’ We asked him about his secret YouTube search terms and his alternate career as a...
Photography Alexandra Gavillet
James Hinton's Brooklyn apartment looks like the room in which a villain in a Speed movie surveils a runaway vehicle. A grid of monitors forms an articulated wall above his desk. They're all blank when I walk in, because the system is down, James says, but usually they're lit up with YouTube clips. He looks wholly un-villainous in round wire-frame glasses, Air Force 1s, and a beanie, carrying two cups of tea. But there's a quantum mechanical equation scrawled on a nearby whiteboard, which isn't reassuring.
The screens — like the equation — are clues to James' process as a producer. As The Range, he creates the kind of dazzling, moving music that makes you willing and able to listen to a track on infinite repeat. This is certainly the case with his second album, Potential. Not only are tracks like "Copper Wire" and "Florida" euphoria-inducing (shoutout to the liberal use of house piano), but the record as a whole is a beautiful collage of samples that continues to unfold over frequent relistenings.
James mined YouTube for every vocal on Potential. It's not the first time he's used samples so pervasively — listen to his debut album, Nonfiction — but "I feel like it really came into full fruition, conceptually, on this album," he says.
"I knew I wanted to highlight things that were underviewed," he explains, "So I wouldn't click on anything that had, like, 10,000 views." Using a specific set of search terms ("maybe I'm being weird but I just want them to be a secret for myself") he found videos by London rapper Kruddy Zak, grime artist Ophqi, and Jamaican reggae singer Naturaliss, as well as total unknowns. The composite sound is polyphonic, non-genre-specific ("you can exist on the spectrum," he says, which also explains his name), and laced with echoes of familiar voices. It's also, surprisingly, quite British.
Hinton, who was born in "the most rural of rural places" in Pennsylvania, spent time in the UK after graduating from Brown, and "obviously loved grime." He built the first track on the album, "Regular," around a lyric by artist S Dot Star. "Right now I don't have a backup plan for if I don't make it," he intones in a South London monotone. The line struck a chord with Hinton, and became the thematic backbone of the album. After studying both music and physics at school, and being unsure about which to pursue as a career, signing with Domino in 2014 was a make-or-break moment. "It was the first time I was like, it's do or die, I have to do this — which is a scary thing. We don't get to do trial and error. Coming to terms with that is an important thing and something that I think all of the people are experiencing on the record, in certain shades."
Some samples didn't come as easily, though. For "Florida," the album's plaintive, magical first single, Hinton had a skeleton of a song but no vocal. "I calculated that the whole record was like 200 hours of just watching , and [working on 'Florida'] was a lot of those hours." Eventually, he found a cover of "You'll Never Know" by Ariana Grande sung by an unknown YouTuber named Kai. "People cover that song all the time, but the way Kai sang it was so radically different. You could tell she meant something different than the original song. She means it in a really serious way." The resulting song is an emotive interplay of intense bass, twinkling high notes, and a yearning vocal. Like "Copper Wire," another standout, it sounds like a firework display looks: sparkling, epic, and laced with both anticipation and nostalgia.
Each song on Potential is a tightly controlled emotional unit, and, strung together, they form a clear arc across the album. "It's certainly intentional to put you in a dark place, and then by the end it's anthemic," says Hinton. The darkest place in the album is "Falling Out Phase," bang in the center of the record. It acts like a pivot, or as Hinton explains, like the pause when you have to turn over a record halfway through. After the reflective, instrumental-heavy "No Loss," things pick up again, with quickening drum and bass that builds into something triumphant.
All of this meticulous arrangement owes a lot to Hinton's parallel life as a physicist. While he acknowledges the cliché that mathematical geniuses are often also musical geniuses as being true in some cases, for himself, he says, "it's much more like the study of physics gives you such a nice framework about the world." Solving problems, he says, helps him approach arranging music in creative ways, and it helps him stay sharp. "It's the equivalent of doing crossword puzzles when you get older," he jokes. "So I read up a lot on black hole physics."
Somehow, between making music, touring, and contemplating string theory, he also found time to make a documentary to accompany Potential. Directed by Daniel Kaufman, it follows Hinton on a mission to meet all of the YouTubers he sampled on the album in person. "I started to get really curious about who these people were. So it tells the tale of me finding them, and being with Damien in Kingston, Ophqi in London, and Kai in New York." As there is on the album, he says, there's a strong thematic thread that connects the people he met. "In myself I call it a workaholism, a compulsion to be constantly making new stuff, and these people are also all really, really driven."
"They're so talented," he continues. "I think people have a very specific idea of what someone who posts on YouTube is about. They're going to assume you're either a vlogger or a person that wants to be famous, like Justin Bieber. And I think this collection of people doesn't share that trait. They're compelled by something that's not fame, they just need to get their work out."
YouTube now, says Hinton, is like the town square. It's a democratic forum. "It's a self-publishing platform, and people do that for all sorts of reasons. The reason someone sings in the shower is the same reason they post online. And I think there's something wonderful about that that we've forgotten." Listening to Potential, and hearing reggae, grime, 90s house, Baltimore club, mid 00s electronica, and Ariana Grande making beautiful, magical music together is exactly the reminder we need.
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Alexandra Gavillet