[INTERVIEW] Henry Canyons on Chasing Beats and Trusting Yourself

Endless flow, tight rhymes, and eclectic-cultural hip-hop craft from rising MC, Henry Canyons.

2018 has already been a hell of a year for LA-based rapper Henry Canyons. In January, he released a sublime EP La Cote West; the product of a two-month artist residency program completed a couple of years prior in Biarritz–a small coastal surf town in the Basque country of Southwestern France. A month ago, he released his second full-length LP, Cool Side of the Pillow and then promptly returned to Europe for a whirlwind tour.

Cool Side Of the Pillow Covers

In between all of that, he generously took time to connect with WtMM and answer some questions — eleven to be exact. Before we get to them, some introductions.

First, to the man himself. Drawing on roots in Brooklyn and the NYC underground rap scene, his mother’s French heritage and the French language, early training as a jazz saxophonist, teenage years spent spitting ciphers in Prospect Park, and more recent years marinating in the West Coast/LA vibe, Henry Canyons brings a diverse musical background to his craft.

Second, to the new album, which is straight dope. Canyons’ low-toned vocals and easy flow belie his highly elastic delivery and densely packed, elaborate rhyme schemes — all of which he rides over tightly crafted jazz samples and head-nodding beats. The lyrics are highly autobiographical, which lends an intimate feel. The overall vibe of the record is super-smooth, jazzy, and chilled out even as it features Canyons’ fresh, smart wordplay and some pretty adventurous beats.

What Comes First

[WtMM] I love the honesty of introspection on this album. What comes first for you: the mood/vibe of the music or the lyrics?

Everything starts with the beat. It’s where I develop my cadence, melody, vibe, approach, and mindset that ends up writing the lyrics. I keep a bank of ideas and turns of phrase, some couplets that I come back to, but everything is a reaction or negotiation with what’s happening musically. It’s always been that way for me. It’s what propels me to write.

Your mother and grandmother are both artists, right? What do they think about your work? What have you learned from them about making art and expressing yourself creatively?

My mother is not actually an artist, but a curator/art dealer and has been involved in art her whole life. She’s extremely supportive and, though she doesn’t pick up a lot of the lyrics while she listens, she asks me to read them and then she understands what I’m going for.

My grandmother is really someone I admire mainly because of her ability to always stay working. She’s done a lot of photography, still life drawing, painting and maintains a routine of going to her studio every day. She explains painting as giving. There are many days she doesn’t produce, but she explains it as there needing to be moments of silence in order to say something meaningful. That struck a chord with me and allows me not to psych myself out if there is a period where I don’t write a lot. It’s always an ongoing process of having the balance of self-discipline and understanding when you need time/space to let things build up a bit.

You’ve spoken about finding your outlet in music in high school, initially through jazz and playing saxophone. What about music made it then — and continues to make it now — the right creative outlet for you?

It’s hard to say what it is about making music that pulled me in. Something definitely clicked. The best way I can describe it is that at the pinnacle of writing, recording, or performing where you are fully entrenched in the world of that moment, and nothing else matters, except for that world, that is a very powerful feeling. I first felt that playing Duke Ellington in jazz, and the first time I felt that rapping was spitting an actually decent freestyle in Prospect Park. I’m lucky, I still get the feeling working on my current projects or when I’m on stage. The moment that changes, I will need to rejuvenate something about my relationship with music.

When and how did you start rapping? Who helped bring you up as an MC?

I started rapping when I was 15. My friend and I would go to Prospect Park after school and smoke weed. It was late 2001, and I was doing a lot of catching up on studying hip hop. We would trade KRS, Big Pun, Biggie, Nas, Jay-Z, Big L, Black Sheep, Beastie Boys, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Gang Starr, Das EFX, and spend hours listening to records. One day my boy played Afro Man’s Colt 45 (I know, but we were teenagers smoking weed) and the line “As the marijuana burns we can take our turn / singing them dirty rap songs” came on, and a light went on in my head. “I go to the park, I smoke, why can’t I rap?” The both of us started. And, once I got the validation of spitting something decent in a cipher full of other cats, I knew I wanted to do this.

In high school, I hung out with a lot kids outside my school that I met through smoking and rapping. My boy E and I really hit it off. He could rap forever, and his flow was impeccable. We would roll around with his boom box and just rap. He’s someone who pushed me just to be able to keep up. As for writing and creating songs, I was lucky enough to meet billy woods in 2007. I booked him for a show at my school, we did the show and from the beginning, he was very encouraging and supportive. We kept in touch and I kept showing him my work until one day, he was like, “How would you feel about putting something out with Backwoodz?” It’s funny how things play out sometimes, but I am very lucky and privileged to be working with the label, but more than that, to be able to collaborate and rap with someone like woods is a blessing.

How do you manage the tension of making a profession of your personal passion in music? How do you keep the business in balance with the passion?

Well, in all honesty, I’m not a full-time musician yet. Music is my fuel to push through to the other side so to speak. The tension for me lies within how I manage my time. I work late and maintaining the energy to write, record, do shows, go on tour, make videos, manage the site, social media, produce merch, etc. can be a challenge. It’s really about prioritizing. When I feel a spark to create music, that takes precedence. More than anything, I’m still figuring out the balance. The business element is still a learning process. It takes time.

Cultural Appropriation or Doing Your Own Thing

Do you identify as white? No matter the answer to that (but specifically referencing your perspective however you do identify), how do you feel about white artists doing black music? 

I do identify as white, also Jewish, but yes, I do. I think it all starts with respect and intention. The origins of rap music, no matter how far you go back are rooted in the black experience in America, and the struggle of that experience. From slave spirituals to the blues, to jazz, to funk, to rap, those roots are inherently black or African American. I am not black, yet this style of music, the culture, the mode of expression, the repetition, the messages, the power from this music, etc all struck a chord with me and called me to participate. I always did so knowing I was white, not pretending to act a way that was not true to who I am.

Respect comes first. You have to respect the culture, it’s history, and where you stand in it. You have to have an understanding of its history and do your homework. Learn it and study it. If you absorb something and it penetrates to your core, in some ways it becomes a part of you. All of that is a practice of respect. Then with respect, comes intent. With all that knowledge you acquire, it allows you to understand yourself and how to articulate yourself within that tradition. The masters of rap are always true to themselves. Their intention cuts through the record.

In the same vein, how do you feel about the issue of cultural appropriation in broad terms (including or even beyond music)?

At the base, many would say that I am committing cultural appropriation. That is not for me to say. It is a black culture and I am not black so I don’t have that authority to claim what is and what isn’t appropriation. I do believe respect and intent are huge factors in determining who is and who isn’t culturally appropriating. In jazz, I don’t think many would think Bill Evans Dave Brubeck were culturally appropriating. For instance, on the album on the track Special Blend, I say,

“… [we] need that mo’ better blues / critical of its roots, like what is he doing? / that stance that you choose, the way you place on the groove. like who are you fooling? / Nah, though you’re not very far, some strongly feel that the origin has been robbed /appropriating a historical cultural collage. Voila!” 

In many ways, I’m admitting that this culture is not inherently mine, that it’s fair for people to question where I’m coming from and what my intentions are, and “voila”, here you have it: this is me. It all boils down to where that respect and intention comes from, and then how it is articulated. From there, you can measure the rest.

How do issues of race impact your work and how you carry yourself as an artist?

Specifically, in where the political and social climates are in this country, it is nearly impossible to overlook the impact of race. The constant acts of violence, police brutality, Black Lives Matter and other movements are all over the news, though they confront me in a completely different way than someone who is not white. There are so many elements of race and racism I do not and cannot directly understand because of my white privilege. What I can do is listen, read, and make my mind accessible to what some of that experience consists of. That being said, those experiences cannot become my experience, but they can promote awareness and in order to bridge the gap of race as much of possible, that awareness is crucial. In my music, I try to reflect that where I can, and do so with that awareness of being a white artist in a black art form, but also being true to myself. At the end of the day, I love rap music.

About The Tracks

What track off this album is most exciting to perform?

There are a few, but the undeniable one is I’m On It. Once the beats drop, people get into it instantly. That gets me fired up and it’s on after that. Not Today is also awesome live. It takes people a little more time to get into it, but as it continues you see the energy build and by the end they’re really on board. It’s a lot of fun.

What are some of the things you learned in making this album that will most stick with you?

Having made this album in two waves, I learned a lot about being patient artistically and allowing myself the time to complete a vision even though when I made the first half I wasn’t sure what the vision was.

The post-production process for Cool Side was eye-opening. I have to give a major shout-out to Bones (Ed. Note: Matt Bowen) who produced and mixed the album and Willie Green for mastering it. They were extremely patient and understanding when I was particular about the details. As I progress, the overwhelming lesson is: trust yourself.

Having just turned 40, I’m thinking a lot about milestones in life — how we identify them, make them important (or not), make sense or truth out of them. What’s the next personal milestone coming up for you?

I’m still making sense of this project. You know, the funny thing about milestones is that the whole time you’re so focused on getting there. All your energy and mind space is committed to getting you there, but once you get there, you seem slightly lost. I felt that way when the album just dropped and was lucky I went on tour right after because I had the tour to focus on. Thinking back on the process of making and producing the record, this milestone took me on quite a ride getting here. Now, that it’s out, I want to maximize it and elaborate as many iterations of it as I can. If it’s through videos, interviews, shows, tours, other style of events, I don’t want to just leave the milestone behind. It took a while to get here, I want to enjoy the view for a sec! haha.

As for the next one, I’m not sure what the product or destination of the milestone is yet. For the moment, I’m trying to focus on the process and the journey and wanting to learn from the detours I’ve made pursuing passed milestones and keep it moving forward.

Awesome. This is great. I really appreciate your thoughtful and candid responses.

Thanks for taking interest in the record and the time to cover it, man!

Thank you, Henry Canyons, for this interview. Where the Music Meets are big fans of your work. Get to know more about Henry Canyons by following him on the sites below.