Photo credit: GL Askew II
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We were really happy to speak to Dev Hynes — finally, but also now — as with Negro Swan he exercises a very clear vision with the understanding that more people than ever will hear him.
He’s a giant Tribe fan, which makes all the sense in the world if you think about it, and that provided me with a few opportunities to turn the tables on Ali.
This was a good day, and we hope listening to it puts a smile on your face.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Thanks for having me. Yeah. I've been wanting to do this forever.
FRANNIE: Shut up!
ALI SHAHEED MUHAMMAD: For real?
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Yeah.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Because I love this show.
FRANNIE: Shut the fuck up.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: I've been wanting to do this forever. I, like, said it as a thing every time that I want to do.
ALI: That's crazy.
FRANNIE: Ain't nobody tell us.
ALI: I know, right?
DEVONTÉ HYNES: I think maybe it's just that people I work with are just so shocked at me wanting to do something that their minds just, you know, eradicate everything.
FRANNIE: That's funny. I'm blushing.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Oh no.
FRANNIE: I always think that people don't – it always makes me really happy when people who don't make very old school hip-hop listen to our show and are interested in the interviews.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Yeah, I mean, this is my shit. The people that know me know this is my shit, cause kind of – maybe it's different now, but I always felt like a lot of people that listen to hip-hop are people that study. And I'm, like, such a studier with everything I do. So people that know me then, it makes sense, cause I'm always just going down holes musically.
FRANNIE: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, that's definitely why we do the show. I mean, it started because I made a mistake and Ali reached out to correct it, so we're all about – and the reason that he did that was NPR's big platform. "You should get it right. I can help you get it right."
And the way that I come into hip-hop is just as a fan from living in the Bay Area in middle school and stuff. But it's really important that I don't fuck up. I really don't want to do that, and I don't ever want to let anybody down that comes on to the show. Because also I see musicians get mis-covered all the time or sort of –
DEVONTÉ HYNES: That's for sure.
FRANNIE: – not get the opportunity to – I don't know. I was actually telling Ali this earlier: I feel like – and correct me if I'm wrong – in the interviews and sort of profiles that have come about you, especially around Negro Swan, are you saying things that aren't making it into print?
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Hm, interesting. Not really, but I guess – one thing that's been happening is that people have been wanting me to explain things, like, thematically, I guess. And my thing is that if I could explain it, then I probably would've written a book. Cause the music is me explaining what I'm kind of trying to think. So I think maybe there's been – depending on who I'm talking to, there's been some – I've just not been able to even answer.
But also I don't know. Press for me is always really interesting for me to kind of see the different conversations that can happen, cause – I don't know what it is. Maybe I could work it out, but I kind of get interviewed like a writer.
FRANNIE: A songwriter or a text writer?
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Not even. Yeah, like text almost.
FRANNIE: Yeah, like a chronicler of something that –
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Right.
FRANNIE: Yeah, I see that.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: And it's interesting, and I'm kind of – you know, I'm down, but I'm never – it's like the fact that I recorded every instrument, mixed it, did all that stuff, kind of doesn't exist. So that's kind of always been interesting. I feel like maybe that is a gap that happens.
FRANNIE: Yeah, I also feel like people don't really know how to talk about – I mean, people really want to genre you, and then don't have really the language to talk about –
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Yeah. And I guess that stuff is only interesting to a real niche group of people, making – the act of making music.
FRANNIE: Right. There was this moment in the interview that you did with Craig Jenkins when all of sudden you guys were talking about Slime Language, and I was like, "There it is." Like, that's what actually is happening.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: I love that conversation. That was really –
FRANNIE: Yeah! In real life, that's what it is. And then I was talking to my friend, and I was like – cause then later we were listening to Negro Swan, and I was like, "Oh my god. Can you hear – do you hear Slime Language different now?"
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Wow. That's interesting.
FRANNIE: I mean, it was like, to think about what music is actually in conversation with what music is not what is in the press.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: No. Yeah.
FRANNIE: So that's why we wanted to talk to you.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Oh, that's perfect. Yeah, that's – yeah. I feel that.
FRANNIE: Cause also I figured that – I don't know what exactly the connection between you and Tribe might be, but it feels like it's there.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: I'm a crazy fan is the connection.
FRANNIE: Can you – please continue and embarrass the shit out of Ali on my behalf.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: I'm like an obsessive fan is the connection you're hearing. Me, making like –
ALI: I'm kind of like, "Please don't."
FRANNIE: Yes, though. It's happening.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: No, it's real. That's super real. I mean, it's crazy.
FRANNIE: So how does that happen growing up in Essex? Is it from taping off the radio-type –
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Yeah. Straight up.
FRANNIE: OK. Nice.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Taping off the radio and stealing records. That was –
FRANNIE: You stole a Tribe record is what you're saying?
DEVONTÉ HYNES: I definitely stole a Tribe record. Are you kidding me?
FRANNIE: This is great.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: I definitely did. That was my upbringing honestly. It was – I don't – how old are you?
DEVONTÉ HYNES: OK, yeah. So I'm 32. I think it's the same thing where it was being young and the ways you got to hear music –
FRANNIE: Totally. I used to tape off the radio.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: – right – was so specific. It was taping off the radio, and I would – and going into record stores and looking at artwork. There was no – that was it.
FRANNIE: Cause you had to decide how to spend your $17.99 or whatever. It was a big deal.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Yeah. It was a decision.
FRANNIE: Or not. You know what I mean?
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Right. Yeah, so that was it. And it was kind of interesting my household, cause – so yeah, the first thing I ever learned was cello, so I played in orchestra, and then piano. So I was doing that. My dad would listen to classical radio in his car the whole time. My mum was deep into that British soul world; Simply Red, Sade, you know, that whole thing. And then my sister –
FRANNIE: Older or younger?
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Older. I'm the youngest of three, and so my older sister, who's the oldest, she was into Prince and Madonna and that kind of thing, but she was also really into Blur, Nirvana, those bands. And then my brother was listening to Tribe and DMX and Pac and Bone Thugs. He loved Bone Thugs.
So I was just walking around hearing everything, and it just – I just took it all in and so it's all – I think it explains me now, cause hearing all those things, I just see them as all the same. It's just music to me, and the idea of them being in conversation is so natural to me.
FRANNIE: Yeah, there's something about – I feel like when we were kids, that is how we listened, was to everything all at the same time, and somehow I think even though everything is super accessible now, things are a little bit more regimented. You're like, "OK, what am I going to listen to next?" Or all the playlists are super conformed; all the songs are too closely related, like, the algorithm is too good-kind of thing.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Right.
FRANNIE: But yeah, I mean, all the music that you mentioned does have the groove in common.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Right. That's true. That's very true. I think I've always been somewhat rhythmically driven. I mean, you know what? For a lot of the music I make, even the tracks that don't have drums were started with drums.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: I tend to start everything with a beat. I can't write music without a beat. I could maybe on one hand in my life tell you songs that started with chords, whether it's guitar or piano or keys. It's rare. I don't know. I just – I need some kind of rhythm, just to get things going.
ALI: Even for a sketch or something, a melody or something, a riff in your head, you need to –
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Yeah.
ALI: That's a challenge!
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Maybe it's cause it's – I find it fun, but I don't know what it is. Also, maybe I think a lot of my melody lines are kind of rhythmic, so I need to play off of something.
FRANNIE: Well, it's cause it also – it's kind of physical.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Yeah, yeah. Exactly. But it's funny though, cause I do always – I have a joke that my beats tend to start off as either fake Dilla beats or fake Tribe beats. They tend to –
FRANNIE: That's actually – that is – you just dated yourself. That's very –
DEVONTÉ HYNES: I know. Fully. That's literally how my music starts.
FRANNIE: That's our generation.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: They just start as a weird, bad copy of that, and then –
FRANNIE: And then what do you do? How do you –
DEVONTÉ HYNES: And then hopefully I turn it into something, but they start off as – like, if you heard it, you'd be like, "Yeah."
FRANNIE: That's – I mean, that was true for you guys too, right? You would start –
ALI: Yeah, trying to get to the level – hearing drummers like – anything that was James Brown-related. Obviously we weren't playing our programming to that level, but it was just trying to find players and sounds that were very similar to that. So yeah, it's, I guess, looking for what you feel is the best at the time, you know, to have a starting point.
And then from a non-player way of doing that was looking at production from the Bomb Squad, and that was the top – or what Marley Marl was doing. And so it was like, it has to smash and just sound big and enormous. The drums just gotta knock like those records that they were putting together. So yeah, it's definitely a similar kind of approach. And not being able to do what they do –
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Right. Exactly.
ALI: – but it's like, well, we found our level of – "Yeah, we kind of – this is – we like this. This is us."
DEVONTÉ HYNES: That's where I'm at.
ALI: And also we didn't want to completely copy what someone else was doing, so then I think that's when you begin to tailor it more. Like, you have a starting point, but then you –
DEVONTÉ HYNES: – kind of add your –
ALI: – make it more bespoke to you, your voice and, yeah, what you're doing.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Totally.
FRANNIE: Yeah, I think that's a thing when people who don't make music – things don't often, as far as I can tell, come out of nowhere, right? They're all sort of – maybe I should ask. So your musical ideas, they're related to your roots kind of?
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Yeah. If you're going deep, deep into where they come from, yeah. It's usually though – I write in a – I write pretty – the way I end up having songs made is such a weird trail, but it tends to be almost like I'm thinking about imagery and things, but more as a group of – for example, I've had the title Negro Swan since my last album. Since around the time my last album came out, I always knew the next album was called Negro Swan.
And then from thinking about that, I would see things and just imagery, and I would take note of it. And from that, it was kind of creating the mood, and I was thinking of just different music things, other people's music that was filling up that mood, but it was almost – it's in a way where it's, like, things that hint towards it. And then from there, I just create the music that matches all those thoughts. I mean, so it's a weird – even before that though, there's actually words written, and then at the end, the music – the picture's already there, and I just need to do the music to match what it is.
I guess that's kind of a weird thing, but it's – there's certain songs – I wonder if I have any examples. Yeah, actually. Maybe track one and track three. Track one is a song called "Orlando." Track three is a song called "Take Your Time." And honestly, those two songs, I knew they were going to exist, even before there was a single note of music made. I knew exactly what I wanted.
ALI: Based off of what? What word or what image did you have?
DEVONTÉ HYNES: It was so many things. I guess track one, so "Orlando," I knew that – it could be so – for example, one thing that informed it was that the album Tusk by Fleetwood Mac opens with a song that I've always felt was so wild to open with. Because it's not intro, and it's not loud bang. It opens up with – like you're already in the record. You're just already in the groove, and it's happening.
So I'd always had that in my mind, but then I think about, well, what is my steady groove that kind of is in between everything. And I started thinking about tracks on Here, My Dear, Marvin Gaye, and so in my mind, I was like, "OK. Something like that is a good vibe." And then I'd always wanted to write a vocal line in the way that I'd read that Marvin had done that, where he would – he has a refrain that he'll go back to but essentially have the lyrics and just sing however it is – and then come back to the refrain and then sing whatever it is.
So I tried it. I got the groove, and I started thinking of these chords. And I knew kind of the picture, and then tried that vocal thing. Like, I knew that song existed, and it was track one, and I just filled it up. It's weird. I know. But.
FRANNIE: No, it makes sense. What I'm thinking about is that the groove that you've identified as going through all of your work is Marvin Gaye's divorce album.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Yeah, pretty much. God, I love that album. I mean, I know a lot of people love that album. But god damn, I love that album.
ALI: But it's enormous and very creative. And I think – what it sounds like to me is you find the purpose, and what I try to ask artists often is what's your purpose? Like, you want to record. Why? What's the vision? And it's funny having been in the studio with other producers and all the people that come through the doors, and I may – I admit I try not to hear other people's creative offerings and give people their privacy. But you can't help when the words are just traveling down the hall. And I don't want to ever embark and get in someone's head like, "Yo, why you doing that? Are you really thinking about this?"
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Right.
ALI: And even we've interviewed a couple of people, and they've shared like, "It just kind of came out that way," without real thought, which is cool if it works out.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Totally.
ALI: Sometimes it's coincidence, and there's beauty in coincidence, and you don't want to dictate it. But I often think that when you really – you know what the purpose is, it makes it more long lasting, and it sustains. And so what it sounds like, what I'm hearing, is that you found a way to find purpose in all of your art, which – that's the ultimate to me.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Yeah. Cool. Thanks. Yeah.
ALI: Like, we all don't know what our purpose in life is yet, and that's the journey, trying to figure it out. But at least as an artist, I'm –
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Yeah. I always try – I mean, it's – yeah. My general rule – it's not a written rule but just a theme of everything I do, especially Blood Orange-wise – is that if it's not something that I'm just over-the-moon in love with and makes sense, then you won't see or hear it. Everything that comes from me that is Blood Orange-related has just kind of – it's – there's no – I can tell you everything about it, and it's because I love it. And I will never release something that there's a thought in the back of my head about. It just won't – when it's my own work, it just won't happen.
I can't say the same when I'm collaborating, but that's a whole different mindset. That's almost like a, you're seeing what can happen. But yeah.
FRANNIE: Yeah, I mean, that's hard to do, and a lot of people struggle to do that and also support themselves.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Yeah. I did for a long time.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: I remember kind of thinking to myself kind of like, "This is – I'm going to just work on making it, so that I'm happy in what I'm doing. So that it's just things that I can actually stand behind, and yeah, that definitely – that will definitely will force you into some hard years. It's almost – I think there's obviously maybe some exceptions happen, but it can – for the most part I think if you have that mindset it can – at some point, it'll be rocky.
FRANNIE: But it's a long game.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Exactly.
FRANNIE: Yeah. So I have this question – I don't know. I wrote this in the car on the way.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Perfect.
FRANNIE: I don't really know what I was thinking. But I think it kind of relates to this. I wrote down: "Relevancy. How can you tell? Who cares?"
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Oh, that's amazing.
FRANNIE: And I think that relates to the work that you do for other people, and how you, in the lean years, put bread on the table, but also – and we were talking earlier about the ways in which the timing of your releases have seemed to just sort of line up with the zeitgeist, which we've seen happen before and can often be coincidental or just, we're all caring about this thing right now, so of course it would happen.
But do you think about that? Do you want to be relevant, depending on your definition of that?
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Right. That's interesting. I guess I – so you know what? This album is maybe the first time where I couldn't trick myself into thinking that no one will hear it.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: This was maybe the first time in my life where I realized that even if it was five people, there are those five people that will choose to listen. They will be like, "There's a new Blood Orange album, and I'm going to listen to it." Cause even with the one before Freetown, I didn't even think that. It's all just me by myself.
And you know, I don't know if you know this, but the last time I read a review of my music was like eight years ago, so I haven't read a review of my music in eight years.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: What I know is people coming up to me on the street. Now it's a little different because of Instagram, just how people interact is different, but before that, it was like, I played a show, and I'd be like, "Oh damn. They fuck with this."
ALI: How has that then, being conscious of that, affected the outcome or your process in writing and recording?
DEVONTÉ HYNES: I think it did affect it, really slightly and in a way that was connected to I think where I was moving anyway. But it affected it in a way, now when I look back, where I was really obsessed with getting to the point on this record, whether it was musically or production or words. I hacked away at this thing while mixing, just cut out chunks, like huge sections, and really took out a song – and remixed things even after it was mastered, which I'd never done before.
Like, things were mastered, and then I was listening and – there's a song called "Saint" on the record. After it was mastered, I was listening to it, and I was just like, "I'm hiding my vocal, and I'm also hiding these drums. And I know I'm doing it because it's natural to me, but I shouldn't."
ALI: I'm glad you brought that up, cause I love that your music has such a vibe. And I often find myself going back, and I'm like, "I didn't hear. I missed it. I know there's a point to what's being said." And I'm like – I'm so now lost into the lushness of how your voice just lay on top of everything.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Right, exactly! Thanks.
ALI: It's like, "Wait a minute. Go back. Go back." Cause I'm into lyrics. I just want to know what is this person talking about. I want to know. I want to be in on the secret. And I wondered if that was really such a conscious thing, or was there a shyness?
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Yeah, I think it's a mixture, a mixture of that and just naturally that's just how I was doing things, because, as I mentioned before, I do work based on mood. And because a lot of the times I have these words, but then I'm creating the music, and I'm trying to create this mood.
But I think in one way of realizing that, you know what, people are going to listen to this, and it's not that I'm trying to make them listen to it, but I think it would just be a better experience if I just dried these vocals out, put them up like a couple db, and made this kick and snare actually hit, and made these chords like, "These are the chords. You can hear where these movements are going," and kept the pace going. I was really into that for this album, and I'm not sure – I mean, I can never say, but I'm not sure if I would've been as into that as an idea if I didn't have a realization in the back of my head that there'd be some people listening.
ALI: Well, before that realization hit you, do you want people to listen to your music?
DEVONTÉ HYNES: My thing is: if they want to. And I've always had this dream of being able to – well, I guess streaming has obliterated that in a weird way. But I've always been into the idea of if people want to hear it, they can hear it. There's something about that, which I love.
FRANNIE: Like, they don't have to do what we did, which is go the store and debate. You mean like it's just sort of available?
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Yeah. But I think also just because now it's seen as a sport. People release music as a sport, and it's a reviewed as if it's a sport performance.
FRANNIE: You're talking about first week numbers and –
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Yeah, numbers and, like –
FRANNIE: Knocking somebody off the top spot or –
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Yeah, all of that kind of stuff. And I get it.
FRANNIE: – five star.
ALI: Just the entire exercise of making a record is like a sport now.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Right. Right.
ALI: Yeah, yeah.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: And it's kind of funny, cause before – the last record I didn't drop anything before it came out. And this one I kind of had some ideas, and so actually I put out two videos the same day, before the album came out. And that was – everything I do is super intentional, but I did that as a – so people could see I don't care about numbers. "Here's two fucking dope videos I've made, and watch them if you want, but I don't need one video that has tons of views." It literally means nothing to me.
FRANNIE: The way that those videos were received in my phone was that people kept hitting me and were like – it seemed like you cared very much about black people, and black women and black queer people especially. And that was – a lot of people told me that that was super meaningful to them.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: That's cool. That's amazing.
FRANNIE: Yeah. I mean, I just – yeah, we could name names, but that would be weird for the people. But I think that sometimes when you make a statement that's like, "I don't fuck with you, industry," or whatever, you're also making a statement about who you do fuck with.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Right. And you know what else? I was really into the idea of accessible quality with this. I really – that was so important for me, for it to be like, "Anyone can grab this, but also this is a quality thing that you're going to get." I mean, I think it sounds easier than it is, but I think nowadays that's – I think that's difficult, and I think that's missing.
And there's a lot of sense – god, I really didn't want anything to feel exclusive. I didn't want anyone – I was trying to work out a way for it to appeal and to be speaking to everyone you just said, who I feel kinship with, but I wanted it to be all inclusive. I wanted essentially that to speak to the people that I felt kinship with and that I felt attached with and wanted to have a conversation with. I wanted it to be in that way.
Even things in those worlds – and I get why. I get why that things would need to feel exclusive for black people, for queer people, for queer people of color, and I think that is really important, because there's a lot of things that exclude all those people. But I also wanted something that felt like everyone can have a piece of this.
FRANNIE: Can relate to –
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Can relate to it. That was so important for me.
ALI: When you say that, it sounds like it was definitely conscious effort, and so, in doing so, do you think that it was easier for you to do that because you already had a body of work that you felt already served –
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Yeah.
ALI: I don't want to say – that served your vision for the time, but now that you've paved a way, and now you feel like, "OK. There're people actually paying attention, so now that I can" – cause you used the word quality, and I receive that in a lot of different ways. And I feel that your music always has quality to it.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Cool. Thank you.
ALI: But for you to state that, that means for your process there was a level that you wanted to make sure existed in the body of work. And so in doing so – I'm just wondering is it easier to do that after you've already bulldozed and plowed the mountain down, and now there's a pathway where people can see – you can see them; they can see you now, where before they might not have been able to, because you didn't bulldoze your way through.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Right. That's really interesting. I think you're right. I think – yeah, it kind of was easier. Or I guess what – the path to attempt the things I wanted to attempt was easier, was clearer. Yeah. I felt like I could – kind of for myself even, just in making stuff and in making imagery and videos and music even. Yeah, like I knew how to get to where I needed to get to, and the level it needed to be at.
FRANNIE: Is part of what you're saying that, like, in a certain way you have to – I'm thinking about Test Icicles. You have to make something that says, "No. I'm not doing any of this for you," before you can later say, "OK. But I'm going to make this for you, this other person."
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Yeah, maybe. You know, a part of it is that – and also with this album – the whole process is so interesting to me, just cause I've done this for – I've made records for so long, but it's funny seeing the different – especially how fast everything's been moving the last decade in terms of how people consume music. So every time I – the last three albums, the last four albums, has been such a different landscape every time I've released.
FRANNIE: Yeah. That's also what I was thinking about with relevancy. It's like, "What are you even relevant to?"
DEVONTÉ HYNES: And it's so wild to me. But even more so because since from before Test Icicles up until now, I've made music the exact same way. I never switched up how I actually created music. And it kind of changed towards the end of working on this record where I kind of – I don't know what it was.
For example, I'd never made a record by being like, "Oh, maybe I'll book a studio for like a week and just work with some stuff." I'd never done that. But I work and produce enough people's records, and their label will book studios, and I go in and I'm doing all of those things. But for some reason for myself, I'd always be like, "Alright. OK. Here's my tape machine and my Logic session." You know, I just never had that thought.
And so this record, I kind of went past those things and was like, "Oh, I'm going to book Westlake for four days, and I'm not going to bring anything." I'm just going – and then at the end of the day, I would just take the files. I did shit like that.
And another moment was actually when I was mixing "Orlando," and I was trying to get the kick – this will show how my brain works right now, this story. And it may sound super simple to everyone else, but I was there trying to get this kick, being like, "What is happening? Why can't I get it to sound like this?" And I was listening to – what the fuck is it called? "Chicken Grease." And I'm just like, "Damn! This shit." I'm, like, getting the record. I'm like, "Should I just take this kick?" I'm thinking to myself, "Should I just do that?" So I'm there, and I'm cutting it.
And then I'm just thinking, I'm like, "I'm sitting in my studio in Chinatown that is – what – a ten minute bike ride from Electric Lady where I can definitely book and go in and record a kick drum." You know what I mean? Like, just things like that. And so I went to Electric Lady, and I re-did the drums, and I was super happy. But I never let myself have those – go to those places, before this record.
FRANNIE: Yeah, I'm working on this other podcast at the moment, and it's about entrepreneurs. And this thing I was cutting today was they were talking about this moment when basically you've been an artisan for a long time, and that has become really successful.
And then you start being able to raise money, and you do, like, a series A or something. People are pumping money at you, and you're like, "Great. Cool. Now I have all this money. I'm not going to spend any of it. I'm going to continue to penny pinch forever." And then those people that gave you the money are like, "You know, you have this money now. You could for 20% risk get 80% return."
And it's just – it's not a sob story, but it is actually a really hard transition to make.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Right. Yeah. It was weird. It was a funny one.
ALI: I'm just wondering if that – cause I'm hearing this as a old school record maker. I'm like, "That's how the records were made, actually." And it's just funny. I'm wondering if it's because the time period that when you're activating yourself as a career artist, because of technology and the way that things are actually made, that's just kind of – for an example, what I mean, anyone that's born now forever will identify with their smartphone as being whatever association with the world is as is. Anyone prior to that has other ideas of how things were actually done. But for those who are here now, that's it. The start of everything is –
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Is that.
ALI: "This is a must. It's an absolute. We need it." So with regards to technology and just where things are, is it because of technology and the ease of writing and recording that kind of led you – not that it became a crutch, but it's just part of the process. It's easier to make from that perspective.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Yeah. It is. But it's funny, cause I'm on that cusp of it. Cause when I got signed in Test Icicles and stuff, we were making music on eight tracks, digital eight track. That was – it was pre-laptop or pre-computer. People had computers. I remember it was like, "Oh, there's this guy who has Pro Tools."
FRANNIE: I was just about to say it's pre-laptop Pro Tools.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: We were like, "What?"
So I fell into the home tape machine kind of portal, and then was young enough also for the home making laptop vibe.
ALI: Yeah, see, but even the home tape machine, cause that was definitely an error and people were like, "Nah."
DEVONTÉ HYNES: But even that before –
ALI: Even that. But just saying home tape machine, there's still an ease of that. Whereas what you were speaking about, going in, booking a room for a week at Westlake –
DEVONTÉ HYNES: That's how people –
ALI: – that's expensive.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: – made records.
ALI: That's how people made records, but it's also an expensive thing to do.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Yeah.
ALI: And so what I feel is that because the technology has made it easy for creatives to be creative. You can just be in your headphones in your grandma's house, and wherever you are in the world, go to a coffee shop and just start banging out music, right? That's what people do, which is a great thing.
But when there's a greater stake, a greater cost, I think you step up whatever it is. It's like a life or death-kind of situation, because it's like, now I'm really accountable for this, which is slightly different. I think it's a hell of a motivator to make you go, "How much – at the end of the day how much is this session going to cost me? Ten thousand dollars." That's like walking in and going to Yves Saint Laurent and being like, "Yo, I'ma buy a jacket and pants and be cool with that." Like, you might, but –
DEVONTÉ HYNES: But.
ALI: But. For ten thousand. But you might be able to do a lot more with it, and so – but you might look good, and maybe you needed to spend that kind of bread, because it's going to open up –
DEVONTÉ HYNES: I think you just hit it right on the head. I think that's totally it.
ALI: I mean, I just think that, hearing you say that, that's – it's motivational, and I hope that it's motivational for other aspiring artists out there. Because – well, there's a lot more that can happen when you're actually in the studio too, especially if you invite some really talented friends. You guys walk out of there in a week with a couple albums if you do the right thing with it.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Right. For real.
ALI: Which will sound way different than what's happening in your bedroom or in the coffee shop – on so many different levels. So –
DEVONTÉ HYNES: That's my plan for the next record. I've always been a fan of – I think anyone that is a music head or crate digger, whatever, is a fan of those albums that are created in a place. And it's like, "Yeah, they just went in for like two, three weeks and made this thing." I've always loved that. So I think the next – I mean, I have so many records just ready to go. But the next one I make, I'll say that, is I want to rent a place and, yeah, invite people down.
ALI: Have your friends. Yeah, I can already see it.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: And just go ham, see what goes down.
FRANNIE: Damn. That's wild. Yeah, I was thinking even more about that, the idea of accessible quality, and that's kind of a good description of Tribe also. How do you feel about me saying that?
ALI: I'm like, "I gotta turn off your Tribe meter."
FRANNIE: I'm not trying to get you to tell super secret Tribe stories right now. I'm just –
ALI: I already know you're not trying to do that, cause we know there's –
FRANNIE: Uh-huh. It was a lead-in to another question.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: I see what you're – I can see what you're saying.
FRANNIE: Thank you.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: I see it. I get it.
FRANNIE: About hip-hop and the role that it can play in making quality music in the absence of infrastructural and institutional support for it, for those musicians. And as a fan yourself, I've just – it's kind of a philosophical question, but what do you think of the state of hip-hop? I mean, the way that I was thinking about it is how did you think about it when you were a kid, how did you think about it when you moved to London, how did you think about it when you moved to New York, and how you think about it now. Did it change?
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Right. Honestly? No.
FRANNIE: Great. Cool.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: In my mind, it's still just escapism and relatability. I think, to me, it's both those things, and I get different versions of those from every single different artist that I listen to. And I think it's always been that for me.
FRANNIE: So how can you tell who is relevant now, and how can you tell if you yourself are relevant?
DEVONTÉ HYNES: That's interesting. I don't know if I'm relevant. I can't answer that.
FRANNIE: You're on the road, right?
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Yeah. Yes. Started last week.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Is that relevancy?
FRANNIE: I mean, you're playing the Greek, right? I think you hit a certain capacity, and that's a sign.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Wow. But I think about that stuff. I think about it as a fan of other artists a lot.
FRANNIE: Yeah, that's how I mean it.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Yeah.
FRANNIE: So how can you tell with other artists?
DEVONTÉ HYNES: I think – for the most part, I think most somewhat intellectual people can sense the zeitgeist of – I shouldn't say intellectual. I think aware and self-aware can sense a general zeitgeist. But I think there are levels that you can't hit. Like, I can't necessarily – I mean, maybe slightly, but I'm not sure I could tell you what is relevant to a 15-year-old right now. I could guess.
FRANNIE: Yeah, tell me about it.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: I could guess via my – I don't know – explore page of hip-hop meme Instagrams I follow, but I couldn't necessarily.
FRANNIE: Yeah. And I also think what does it matter? What is really going on with that? When it comes down to your private life and your creative, like, muscles, who the – does it matter at all? I mean, it kind of matters as just a person moving through the world, but –
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Right. It's weird. I guess we'll see. Because I do think – I do fall in account that as sticking to my own situation these days, but I think people – this may be the first time where people can be super super super super super influenced, and it also feels like the first era – I don't know. Maybe it was like this in the '50s. But it seems like the first era where people want to be like everyone else. People want to look like other people, and people want to sound like other people, and that's cool. It's not necessarily cool, quote unquote, to rise above the crop or stick out.
FRANNIE: To be an original. Yeah, there's no real repercussion for biting somebody else's style.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: It's like a pack mentality.
FRANNIE: It's like you iterate it. It's cool. Yeah, that's a change –
DEVONTÉ HYNES: So I wonder what can happen.
FRANNIE: I think that's a cusp thing. You're on the cusp of that. It's not even about the phone. It's more about an attitude of like, biting is acceptable.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: I mean, that's cool I guess.
FRANNIE: I don't know. I don't know. I feel like it's not acceptable, but I don't have a very good argument for why it's not.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: I do think though – which is funny, cause I had a conversation yesterday actually a little bit like this, with Tyler actually. I don't – has he been on this show?
DEVONTÉ HYNES: OK.
ALI: If you can tell him you had a great experience, and we can edit that part out, but –
FRANNIE: Tell him to – yeah.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: OK, word. Yeah.
FRANNIE: Thank you. Appreciate it.
ALI: Or you could tell him it was the worst, most horrible thing that ever happened to you, and you strongly advise that if you want the absolute most worst thing ever happen to you, you should definitely go see Frannie and Ali.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: No. Oh my god, no. Oh, man. But yeah, I was talking to him yesterday about this, cause it's like, it seems it's really easy to stand out if people want to now.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: But it seems like people don't. But it seems like it's – I don't know. Maybe I'm just –
FRANNIE: No! And I think that goes back to what we were saying about the long game. It does seem like there's a lot of value, if not actual cold hard cash, in standing out.
ALI: You're right. And that could be one way of looking at it, and one thing that I – from just my own experience, and I try to say this is, is – you were asking, and I'm thinking, what's relevant through the years? I'm like, love is relevant. Hate is relevant. Pain is relevant. Overcoming adversity is relevant. I don't care what time period you want to pick. And so I think if you can kind of frame whatever your voice is in the world at the time you're making your imprint, and you're aware of that, then you will be relevant if you happen to be a person who broadcast your voice and your ideas.
But it's funny, cause then you were saying that, and I'm like, yeah, it is real easy to stand out. And I'm like, "Why are people not really going for that?" Cause I know that's certainly what we were going for. We looked like – people hated us for just everything about us, from the look, the attitude, the style of music we was sampling. It was like, "You guys are" – but look, 30 years later I can say, "Well, hey."
So it's a matter of being original or just finding your own identity and finding the beauty in your uniqueness of just whatever your imprint, your DNA, just being OK with that, loving yourself.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Exactly. Exactly. Right.
ALI: And then not only are you loving yourself, but you're loving your community and you're embracing someone else because they don't look like you. They don't express themselves like you, but, hey, you're beautiful too. I love everything about you. And I think if we could get back to – if people can really love themselves, which might be hard to do if you think of – let's just take IG for an example, and people who are trying to mimic these things, or like you were talking about.
I'm pretty sure that was happening when The Beatles stepped on the scene or Elvis stepped on the scene or Jimi Hendrix stepped on the scene. People were idolizing, and it's cool to be influenced. But it's also so much cooler to just find your own uniqueness and be in love with it, not in a narcissistic kind of way, but just like, "Yo, this is good. My voice is my voice. I don't sound like someone else, and I'ma venture out. And it's not about if someone else like my voice. I like my voice."
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Exactly.
ALI: Now I'm saying that cause I personally don't like the sound of my voice.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: I hate the sound of my voice.
FRANNIE: I'm fine with the sound of my voice.
ALI: But at the same time, I love who I am as a human being. And so – and I try to use that as the starting for whatever creatively I tend to do.
FRANNIE: That was a free therapy session for all of our listeners.
ALI: I'm here all day. Come see Frannie and I on Microphone Check and sit on our uncomfortable couch.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: It's great. I missed my session yesterday, so this works out for me.
ALI: You want to join our team?
DEVONTÉ HYNES: I'm with it.
FRANNIE: Oh, man. So when you perform – and you perform in really different contexts. So I'm thinking about the Apollo show. That was something that you had really wanted to do.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Yeah, I put that whole thing together with ten people, this girl named Imogene Strauss, and Nick Harwood, and Malcolm Hill who's here. But yeah, we just – it started off from a conversation. Cause I don't play that often, and it's a few years ago. And I was talking to my girlfriend, and she was like – asking about me not playing.
And I was like, "Well, just like, the context is always weird. It always odd, the staging and stuff. And then it's like, I feel weird that people are giving me money, and I feel even more weird that they're giving the venue money. And then I don't want to play for people I don't really like." I was just listing all of those things. I was just full giving it, all my reasons. And then she was like, "Well, why don't you just like change all of them?" I was like, "Huh."
FRANNIE: I love girlfriends, man. They always have the answers.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: "That's – what an idea." And I was like, "OK." So I thought all of those things and was like, "OK. I would love for money to go programs that help kids be able to work on music, get instruments, or the teachers, help them." Cause I'm only – I'm sure I would've ended up playing music, but I only – I started playing cello because someone came round with a form asking me as a kid, and my classmates, what instrument we'd like to learn. And then there was some kind of funding program, and then we had to rent the instrument and stuff. But that started everything for me.
So I started thinking about that, and I'd lived in New York for so long, so I wanted to – felt like New York had been good to me. I wanted to do something there. And then I thought about, you know, it's the fucking Apollo, so – although that was a whole thing.
FRANNIE: What do you mean?
DEVONTÉ HYNES: But it was great. We got it.
FRANNIE: Cause of the Union Hall?
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Yeah.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Cause they're charity also. So it's –
FRANNIE: I have tried to do an event at the Apollo too.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Not giving money to a – saying I'm going to give money to another charity, but they're a charity-sort of thing. But we worked it out, and it was great. But yeah, that was a thing, where it was like, "What do I want to do?"
FRANNIE: Right. And that audience was – that was – how did you sell those tickets?
DEVONTÉ HYNES: So I actively – oh, man. I mean, I just – essentially I just paid.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Cause I wanted every ticket to be super affordable, and there's just only a certain way that can even exist, and it's a union venue. So I essentially just put my money and some advance money into it. And yeah, that was it. And then it was online.
And it's kind of funny. I did a song called "Sandra's Smile" that came out just around that time. And I'd written those words down around the time of Sandra Bland, cause that's what the song was kind of about. I'd written the words down around that time. But essentially I put that together and released it for the Apollo show, because I wanted it to be a thing for people. And so, to get attention, I was like, "I will put this song out."
FRANNIE: When you say you wanted it to be a thing for people, you mean when you played that song, you wanted people to know it and –
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Not even that song, but I wanted – nowadays more than ever, I think, it – well, maybe that's not so true. Maybe it's more just to do with me. But I think if you're not releasing music, you don't exist. And I didn't have music out.
FRANNIE: Right right right. OK. Yeah.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: It was directly in between things happening, and so I put the song together. Honestly I mixed, mastered, and edited the video the day and a half before it came out.
FRANNIE: You sleep like as little as he does. That's ridiculous.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Yeah. And also it was just kind of funny – that we even got to this story is kind of insane, because the inspiration for the video was "Electric Relaxation."
FRANNIE: Oh shit.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: That was the influence for the video. I think it was that song.
FRANNIE: That makes sense.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Does that make sense?
DEVONTÉ HYNES: OK. Cause I'm trying to –
FRANNIE: It's black and white, and they're in the diner.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Right. Yeah. That feeling. So we got there.
FRANNIE: Relevancy. Yeah. Well, I mean, I asked it – I asked – I started to ask that out of the therapy session, because I was thinking about now you're going to play the Greek, right, and then I don't know what other venues you're going play on this. But I'm assuming it's sort of that size, that price point.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: That's the biggest – I mean, there's Central Park SummerStage. Yeah. It's crazy. I did want to play smaller, but yeah, I don't know. It's a crazy one. It's weird. It's weird for me. I don't know if people think it's normal for me.
FRANNIE: I don't think so.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: But I find the stuff weird, and –
FRANNIE: I think they think you think it's weird.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: OK. Cool. Maybe I shouldn't –
FRANNIE: Talk about it so much?
DEVONTÉ HYNES: – want them to think that actually, but I don't know. Yeah, it's wild.
FRANNIE: But so within this idea of actualizing yourself and saying. "I deserve to hold this stage. I deserve – my work – it makes sense that you want to pay attention to my work, and want to give me your evening or whatever," there's a difference when you do something like what you did at the Apollo, and then when you kind of hit the road in a more traditional sort of routed situation. So how do you sort of – do you feel pressure from paying consumers or whatever?
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Right. Yeah, I definitely do. I do. That's why I've always felt weird about it.
FRANNIE: So how do you protect yourself?
DEVONTÉ HYNES: By just trying to make it the best situation I can. I try and – I realize it's a different world, and that's why it's hard for me to play a lot. Because it's – I have to shift my brain, cause entertaining someone for an evening, even if that person is the biggest fan of your music, is still a different thing from them listening to the record. It's just different.
FRANNIE: Ali is nodding in assent for people listening.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Yeah.
ALI: They will see this, but yeah, I am.
FRANNIE: Not everybody.
ALI: Well, maybe they won't see it, but yeah. No.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Yeah. So I've had to shift my brain, and this tour is me – I've embraced it before, but I'm really embracing it. And it's like, this is a show that people are coming to see live music. And you're going to hear the song you like, and it's going to be entertaining, and – you know what I mean?
FRANNIE: Yeah, totally.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: And there's going to be some surprises, and it's going to be visually appealing too.
And I've just had to – and you know, part – one of the ways I actually switched into that – you can even actually tie this into the "Orlando" drum story, cause I think it's actually the same mentality. But the guy Mikey that I was with before, crazy – one of the craziest musicians I've known in my entire life, and I've known him for years now, and we've never done anything together. I don't even know why. But I hired him as the music director for the live show, which is something that I never did before.
But I was like, "No. I'm going to take this seriously, and have someone whose job it is, that isn't me who made it all, but someone that can take this music and be like, 'Alright. Let's turn this into a real live show.'" And that's helped me mentally do that shift too. Cause when I'm working on it, it's hard for me to do that switch. It's so hard. I'm like, "Agh, but I know how this drum sounded in those moment in the record." But it's like, nah, it's not even about that. It's about delivering it.
FRANNIE: Right. I don't know how you guys do it.
ALI: I'm just hearing that, I'm wondering when you find – it's almost an internal obstacle, but then it's not wholly, because there are other logistics that come in when you're thinking from that level, especially about caring and thinking about other people, that's big. But it also becomes stifling for someone who's – you really want to present something really special.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Yeah.
ALI: And so when you find that you're having this own internal stopping points, what is it that you use to help you get around that? Because I'm pretty sure – we're talking in example of just the live performance. I don't know if any other area of your creative process that you've experienced being in your own head, how do you overcome that, to your advantage, where you see like, "OK. If I just get out the way."
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Right. I overcome it, because I think luckily, I think for my entire life, I'll always be such a fan of things and people and stuff that I can very quickly put myself in the position of a fan and just think, "OK. What would I like to see? How would I like this to be exposed to me?" And I always say, if there's a show and it says Blood Orange and there's no other disclaimer, then you're going to get what you want – and more, hopefully. But you know what I mean?
DEVONTÉ HYNES: You're not going to come to my show, and I'm like, "Alright. Here's this twelve track reggae album I made two days ago. Hope you enjoy it." That's not – I will never be that guy.
FRANNIE: Better not be a salty diss right there.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Unless on the ticket it says: "Playing the reggae album I made two days ago." That's when it would happen. I would do that. I would definitely do that, but – you know what I mean?
FRANNIE: Yeah. You're never going to show up and turn your back on the audience.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Right. Exactly. Although that's tight. But I'm not going to do it. I like that stuff.
FRANNIE: Oh my god.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: This is also, like, opposite day because – well, not opposite day, but I just went to Power 106, like, first time in my life.
FRANNIE: Holy shit! Really?
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Can you believe that?
FRANNIE: Did you really?
DEVONTÉ HYNES: That they let me in that building?
ALI: That's great!
FRANNIE: That's really amazing. That gives me a lot of hope for 106 actually.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Pretty out there, right? Kind of –
FRANNIE: So what happened? Did you do an on-air interview?
DEVONTÉ HYNES: I love that we're going to talk about this. I did. Oh my god. But it's just crazy to me –
FRANNIE: No, that's crazy, objectively.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: – that I did 106 and then now I'm doing Microphone Check. And I'm just like, "Fuck. I'm living my fucking hip-hop dreams right now." Like, what the hell? This is crazy.
FRANNIE: Oh my god.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: So anyway, love 106. All love to them. Respect. Thank you for having me on. But the questions were not that, so just – you know what I mean?
FRANNIE: I get it.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: It was opposite of it.
FRANNIE; Well, we have more time with you to be fair.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: This is amazing. This is a dream. I mean, this is fire. I'm –
ALI: I'm glad you said that because I'm pretty sure – I was speaking to a friend earlier, and they were just like, "How you doing? I know you busy." And I'm like, "Yeah. Things are good." And they're like, "That's just such a short answer." And I thought about it, and I was like – and it's someone that I know for a long time, so they know me know me. And I said, "You know what? The thing is I barely sleep, and there are a lot of stresses I deal with, but at the beginning and close of every day, I'm still doing what I love to do." And so I'm good, when I say I'm grateful, I'm thankful, and I'm really good.
So there's a lot of things I probably – if I hated everything going on in life, but then I'm not doing what I want to do, I don't want to know what that feeling is. I can't even answer that.
So to hear you say that – cause I'm sure it's not easy being in your shoes and living out your dream. I just know, as I've been there, I'm sure the things that you face sometimes in just trying to just to be you and happening to be an artist, it may not always feel like you living the dream –
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Right. Exactly.
ALI: – in the moment. But then to hear you say that, and you genuinely mean it.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Yeah. It's fire. Yeah, this is a great day.
FRANNIE: Well, thank you so much. Thank you for coming. Thank you.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Thank you for having me. Honestly, I've been trying to get on this show. And I don't want to do anything. I actively don't want to do anything, but this is one.
FRANNIE: Well, thanks. Made my day.
ALI: Yeah. Thank you.
DEVONTÉ HYNES: Thank you.