CRAM SESSION: An intro to the genre transformations of Dev Hynes

From dance-punk to indie-folk to R&B, Blood Orange's Dev Hynes transcends boundaries.

June 29, 2016

Few could have predicted that a teenager in London named “Dev Metal” would become one of music’s most important songwriters, musicians and producers, but Devonté Hynes has continually pursued a vision that transcends any boundaries when it comes to genre or even gender.

From thrashing around in his absurdly named, bratty dance-punk trio Test Icicles, to going solo as a floppy-haired folkie named Lightspeed Champion, to giving R&B a major refresh with his Blood Orange project, Hynes has become a master of musical reinvention.

At the same time though, Hynes is an important figure beyond his music, becoming an iconoclast for his generation in so many different ways. He wears many hats – both figuratively and literally (the guy likes his hats) – and continually takes on new roles, be it as a songwriter/producer for some of the biggest names in the business, a voice for the Black Lives Matter movement, a consultant for Jay Z and Dame Dash’s Rocawear line, a TED talker, or simply an outspoken enthusiast of both football (the soccer kind) and ballet.

This week Hynes released Freetown Sound, his long-awaited third album as Blood Orange. Here is a look at how he arrived at this very moment.

Test Icicles (2004–2006)

Hynes began making music as a teenager in London, joining Rory Attwell and Sam Mehran in their band, Balls, which later became Test Icicles. Nicknamed Dev Metal, he shredded a hot pink guitar, worshipped Slipknot, and wasn’t shy about calling their music “the worst thing you’ve ever heard.”

The drummer-less band were the the noisiest and arguably most juvenile representatives of the dance-punk movement. But while every other band was aping Gang Of Four or PiL, Test Icicles were busy genre-hopping, giving MySpace its favourite band by somehow fusing nu-metal, no wave, thrash, and screamo into their bratty sound.

Test Icicles released only one album via Domino, 2005’s For Screening Purposes Only, before breaking up the next year. Hynes seemed ready to move on, reportedly telling the NME, “We were never, ever that keen on the music. I understand that people liked it, but we personally, er, didn’t.” A posthumous EP called Dig Your Own Grave came out the week after they called it quits.

Lightspeed Champion (2007–2010)

Few could have predicted that a dude named “Dev Metal” would next trade in his Poison tee for a Mr. Rogers cardigan and call himself something twee like Lightspeed Champion, but Hynes managed to pull off a refresh as a whimsical, indie-pop folkie. Immediately, Hynes began demonstrated this was an outlet for his prolific urge, self-releasing a handful of digital mixtapes with titles like Bad Covers, I Wrote and Recorded This in Less Than Five Hours, and Album In A Day 2.

Most notable of all were the covers he recorded with Florence Welch as Team Perfect: the entirety of Green Day’s Nimrod and the sobering Blink-182 single, “Adam’s Song.” After moving from the UK to the USA, Hynes relocated to Omaha, Nebraska, where he worked with producer Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes) and a select cast from the Saddlecreek roster to help him record his debut album, Falling Off The Lavender Bridge.

To perform the album, Hynes accumulated quite an impressive list of rotating band members, including Florence Welch (Florence + the Machine), Alex Turner (Arctic Monkeys), Faris Badwan (The Horrors) and Emmy the Great. A throat infection forced Hynes to have surgery, which sidelined him from performing, but encouraged him to begin using falsetto, a key part of his music to come. Another Lightspeed Champion album arrived in 2010, Life Is Sweet! Nice to Meet You, but not long after he began to pursue his next project.

Blood Orange (2010 – present)

When Hynes began performing as Blood Orange it was pretty obvious this was his true passion project. Both his debut single “Dinner” and album, 2011’s Coastal Grooves, felt like an artist coming into his own, composing slick, minimal indie pop arrangements that borrowed heavily from the sexuality and sensuality of ’80s post-disco and R&B.

While the album (produced by future collaborator Ariel Rechtshaid) didn’t quite catch fire upon its release, Hynes began developing his repertoire by writing and producing for other artists. It was during this period Blood Orange began to take off. His second album, 2013’s Cupid Deluxe, was written as a love letter to his adopted home of NYC, expanding his scope to include music bred from the city he loves: new wave, R&B, disco, funk, hip-hop, and jazz.

Featuring guests like Clams Casino, Skepta, Dave Longstreth (Dirty Projectors), Despot, Caroline Polachek (Chairlift), Adam Bainbridge (Kindness) and Samantha Urbani (Friends), Hynes lyrically explored race, gender and identity, themes he’s delved even deeper in with Freetown Sound.

The new album arrives at a time when Hynes is voicing the emotions people are feeling. Last year he released two politically charged tracks – “Do You See My Skin Through The Flames?” and “Sandra’s Smile” – which set the tone for the much more personal Freetown Sound. It’s also his boldest work as a producer to date. Not only did he once again bring in a jaw-dropping list of guests (Debbie Harry, Empress Of, Zuri Marley, Carly Rae Jepsen, Ava Raiin, Bea1991, Starchild, Kelsey Lu, and Nelly Furtado), he also sampled the work of De La Soul, Vince Staples, late trans performer Venus Xtravaganza, and author Te-Nehisi Coates.

Hynes described Freetown Sound to V Magazine, saying, “It’s inspired by old Dust Brothers records, very cut and paste. It’s like my version of Paul’s Boutique. It kind of plays like a long mixtape.”

Songwriting, Production, and Guest Vocals

Even if you can’t name a song Dev Hynes has released under his name, there is a very good chance you could name one he’s released under someone else’s name. He’s been writing and/or producing for various artists since 2007, when he co-wrote the Chemical Brothers’ “All Rights Reserved,” which featured vocals by Klaxons. He also contributed vocals as Lightspeed Champion to Basement Jaxx’s “My Turn.”

After co-writing “Bird Song” for Florence + the Machine’s debut album, Lungs, Hynes began turning up all over the place. He produced a song on the debut by X-Factor finalist Diana Vickers, as well as UK indie bands Bleeding Knees Club and Spector. And then in 2010, a vocal guest spot along with Solange Knowles on Theophilus London’s “Flying Overseas” opened a door.

That collaboration earned Hynes a job co-writing and producing Solange’s True EP. But his contribution was so much more. The EP went on to make Solange the star she was born to be, but it also established Hynes as a visionary with a signature sound that could be applied to just about any artist’s music. And so the work just kept coming: Sky Ferreira’s “Everything Is Embarrassing,” FKA twigs’ “Hours,” Tinashe’s “Bet,” Jessie Ware’s “Want Your Feeling,” Kylie Minogue’s “Crystallize,” Kindness’ “Why Don’t You Love Me,” Emile Haynie’s “A Kiss Goodbye,” Carly Rae Jepsen’s “All That” and a number of tracks for Laura Welsh.

In addition to all of this, Hynes also performed a “Bringing Ultimate Blackness” concert with Grace Jones this year at the Greek Theater in Berkely, released a collaborative EP with Connan Mockasin and 46 minutes of an unused score he wrote last year, and scored Gia Coppola’s James Franco-starring film, Palo Alto, the year before that.

But perhaps more significant than any of those is Hynes’ best kept secret, that he sang a duet with Kristen Wiig on “Rock My Body,” from the greatest movie ever made, MacGruber.

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