“By the end, I was a borderline digital detective.” I’m sitting in a bustling Williamsburg coffee shop with James Hinton, the electronic musician known as The Range. He’s telling me just how difficult it was to find the vocalists that appear on his new album Potential, not because they were pop stars with busy schedules and layers of management surrounding them, but because they were the opposite.
Hinton’s intricate compositions are largely built on samples of unknown YouTube artists: civilians with sparsely viewed videos in which they sing or rap for non-existent audiences. To get the OK from them to use their music, he found himself trying to track down dozens of “normal” people. “With all of this security and privacy stuff, everyone tacitly assumes that everyone can find your stuff [online], while hoping that isn’t the case,” says Hinton. “I can make the case that it’s actually pretty hard to find people.”
Hinton would start by messaging people on YouTube, an opening gambit that often fell short. (It’s telling that I didn’t know I had YouTube messages until our conversation.) He’d email addresses that had gone dormant or completely inactive, and he’d search for linked Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook profiles. In some cases, he was trying to track down users who’d uploaded their videos half a decade ago, people who could’ve moved halfway around the world and left that part of themselves — the tentative, amateur musician — behind. Hinton’s most intense sleuthing involved multiple layers of guesses and inferences, the kind that would’ve left less determined people in the dust.
Consider the path that led to working with Kruddy Zak, a young rapper based in London featured on the twinkling "Copper Wire." "We knew his name was Kruddy Zak, so we guessed it was spelled Z-A-K," says Hinton. "We knew he was in London, and we just started putting that into search engines. We found out that he was on a soccer team, and then I knew he was in a certain part of London. You go to Facebook and guess based on that: put in the part of London, the name Z-A-K. He was 13 in the video and he’s 18 now. He’s a man now, and his face is just similar enough that I said, ‘Oh, that’s him!’"
Finding him was only half the battle: Hinton had to make contact and convince him to participate in his project. "We had to find a way to message him even when we weren’t friends, and then when we finally got to talk to him, he said, ‘Wait, are you joking? Is this a scam? What are you trying to do?’" Zak eventually came on board, but Hinton had to earn it. "Translating a digital identity into getting in touch with a real human being isn’t as easy as you might think."
Potential is Hinton’s second full-length album, and it's being released on March 25th. It’s a massive leap forward over his 2013 debut Nonfiction, which introduced Hinton’s chief influences — British hip-hop, drum & bass, turn-of-the-millennium R&B — but feels like a training run in hindsight. The seeds of Hinton’s creative fascination with YouTube are embedded within Nonfiction on highlights like "Metal Swing" and "Jamie," both of which use samples of anonymous vocalists. He found them by trawling through YouTube’s immense library with specific qualities in mind. The performers had to be singing or rapping directly into the camera in an intimate, isolated setting, and their videos had to be obscure: the lower the view count, the better. Hinton’s vocalists had to occupy a nebulous space between public and private. Their videos were available for widespread consumption, but that wasn’t necessarily the goal.
Working on "Metal Swing" and "Jamie" was an energizing experience, and Hinton chose to build on it with the album that would become Potential. Part of his motivation was musical — he wanted to work with longer, more robust samples — but he also wanted more space to explore the stories of the people he was sampling, these amateurs who were becoming featured guests by happenstance. He wanted to make them active participants in the song and see them benefit from his work’s spread, and he wanted to develop relationships with them instead of pilfering their talents and abandoning them. That’s why he worked to secure the consent of the vocalists featured on Potential, and it also drove his decision to include them in the song’s publishing. "If I sampled some tune from a record in the ‘70s, that’d be cool, but someone would just give me props for knowing what that record was," says Hinton. "It would be all about me. With these songs, it’s more equal. It’s less transactional."
It’s clear that Hinton’s put a ton of thought into not only what draws him to these YouTube non-stars, but how best to use them. Take "Falling Out of Phase," one of the several off-kilter break-up songs that stud Potential. "The way [the sampled vocalist] hit the ‘fall’ of that phrase was just so musical — the exponentiation up to the note and the transition," says Hinton. (The vocal is pitched and processed enough to make it unclear who’s singing.) "You’re looking for this musical quality to come out. It’s my favourite thing: everyone sounds nervous when you push play, and then their musicality naturally comes out. That’s what I’m looking for. You want the nervousness to fade."
About half of the songs on Potential sprung from Hinton’s chosen samples, and he made the other half by slotting vocalists into existing compositions. "If you’re writing without a sample, you’re inclined to be more harmonically driven, and then you try to find some sort of line that complements that," says Hinton. "With a song like ‘Regular,’ the voice came first, and the song is sparse as a result. I think it helps the balance of the record."
Hinton’s decision to use YouTube as his dominant sample source didn’t just change his workflow, it impacted his entire compositional strategy. "YouTube’s audio compression really forces this grittiness into the frequency spectrum," says Hinton. "You don’t have a lot of choice. It’s on the music to really fill that space." Bright, airy piano and synth melodies serve as lattices for the songs on Potential, and some of the album’s most exciting moments involve miniature eruptions of light and sound that verge on the neoclassical. "Retune" builds from a single cycling pattern into a chaotic, tumbling climax, one that sounds like a bunch of toy pianos being thrown in a blender; closer "1804" fades out with hopeful, pointillist bursts.
There’s a contemporary paradox at the heart of Potential: by sampling all of these videos, Hinton is robbing them of the very obscurity that made them appealing in the first place. The proof’s in the comments on a video like Kai Mars’ cover of Ariana Grande’s "You’ll Never Know," a performance that serves as the core of Hinton’s single "Florida." The reception is uniformly positive: "I came here because of The Range but I stayed ‘cause you’re great," writes one commenter. Another writes, "The Range did real well in sampling your cover. You have a great voice, keep at it!" When someone tells her that being featured in "Florida" must be "like a dream," Mars replies, "Yes, it still seems like [a] dream. I can’t believe the amount of love and support I’ve received." Flipping through the comments is a heartwarming experience, but also indicative of the video’s changed nature.
"I think deeply about it, and you can’t get away from the trade-off," says Hinton. "That was part of the magic for me, specifically — that they weren’t gems, right?" It’s like a musical version of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle: you can’t precisely observe a particle without changing its direction, and you can’t unearth one of YouTube’s hidden talents without drawing attention to it, for better or for worse. It’s a dilemma Hinton’s trying to resolve by exploring the topic in greater depth. He worked with director Daniel Kaufman on the forthcoming documentary Superimpose, which is described as a "look at the human stories behind the unknown artists featured on the album" and their strange connection to Hinton’s music. Our ability to share things that used to be private pursuits leads to the potentially erroneous assumption that everyone wants to be a star. "It’s an inquisition: why do people post on YouTube if [they] don’t want to be Justin Bieber?" Is our natural diaristic impulse better satisfied if our transmissions are made public in some small way instead of being kept on a desktop folder or a hard drive?
Potential is more than an album title to Hinton. He’s enamored with the concept, and it shows in the stories captured on the album and within Superimpose. And when he talks about potential, he’s often talking about it as a scientific concept: Hinton studied theoretical physics at Brown, and he’s still passionate about the subject. We talked about the recent discoveries of the Higgs-Boson particle and gravitational waves in between questions; his Netflix and YouTube queues are filled with lecture series and videos about physics and cosmology. In a physical sense, potential is just stored energy. Imagine an apple hanging on a branch a few feet above the ground, ready to drop. There’s potential in that moment, and it’s reached when the apple falls: it hits the ground with a certain force, it experiences friction from the air around it, it makes a sound with a certain volume. Everything ends up balanced. "I love the way you can encapsulate so much about the world in an energy statement," says Hinton. "You imbue an object with [potential], and then a lot of the physics is just seeing how it’s going to spill out into the world."
"the work is the only thing you should really care about. The results matter less."
Potential represents an immense amount of time and labor on Hinton’s part, and it’s all going to be released when the album’s made available. "All you can do is walk this thing up the stairs and then release it," says Hinton. "We don’t get to choose what happens, but the process — the work is the only thing you should really care about. The results matter less." He’s aware that the album will mean different things to everyone involved in its creation. Some of Hinton’s featured vocalists are content with their lives as students and employees, and others have seen their dormant interest in a career in music revived by their experience with Potential. Some of them may put together EPs or a string of club gigs, and others may just have a fun anecdote to share at parties. The possibilities are endless.
Hinton’s standing at the edge of a precipice alongside all of his Potential collaborators. He’s releasing the album on Domino Records (home to bands like Animal Collective, Hot Chip, and Arctic Monkeys), which represents a major leap in both resources and expectations for his work, and he’s relegated physics to a hobby rather than a career path. He’s committed to music, and that means taking on some risk. He knows as well as anyone else what it’s like to take a step into the unknown, hoping for the best. The feeling bubbling in your gut when you take a new job or move across the country links you to the amateur performers singing in their bedrooms, their cursors hovering over the "Upload" button. The music on Potential — humane, optimistic, and versatile — is propelled by that same sense of possibility. "Everyone you know in your life has to make big decisions," says Hinton. "There are shades of that in every part of your life, because you don’t get to test anything. You just have to do it."