The Range, the one-man electronic-pop act created by 27-year-old musician James Hinton, seeks out a cappella and spoken-word samples from obscure corners of YouTube, then incorporates them into his intricate instrumentals. It requires a lot of time online, watching amateurs sing their hearts out. Some of their unflinching, disarmingly emotional vocals landed on the Range’s critically exalted second album, Potential, which arrived earlier this year, and for which Hinton spent “something like 200 hours on YouTube over about 35 days,” he says. “I’m not ashamed of the number, but that’s a lot of YouTube.”
While making Potential, Hinton wondered about the lives of those performers—all of them amateurs, with videos boasting view-counts no higher than the triple digits. “The classic ‘YouTube success story’ is usually someone who, in reality, has a lot of private support and a lot of backing,” says Hinton. “[The artists I work with] are all trying to make it work in their off-hours. Life comes at them, and by hook or by crook, they’re not going to let their passion for music go away. I really wanted to get to know them, and see what makes them tick.”
The documentary Superimpose—released today, with a Range EP of the same name—tracks down muses like Damian “Naturaliss” Gordon, a dancehall and reggae singer and corrections officer in Kingston, Jamaica, whose “1000 Blessings” was sampled on the Range’s springy “1804”; Kruddy Zak, a London teenager whose five-year-old freestyle rap was employed for “Copper Wire”; and Kai, a 19-year-old Brooklyn student whose cover of Ariana Grande’s “You’ll Never Know” became the centerpiece of “Florida,” Potential‘s lead single.
Their YouTube clips have that strange intimacy that makes amateur performances so compelling: The people on the screen must be overly confident to win you over, but they can’t hide their earnest hope that you’ll connect with them—even over a long distance. And the straight-to-the-camera, single-shot filmmaking allows viewers to catch every sly smile or anxious eye-dart, making it impossible not to connect to them.
“If the performer is jubilant, and I’m into it, it’s probably because I’m feeling the same way,” Hinton says. “And if I’m feeling emotional or distraught, you can kind of tell from someone’s face or vocal timbre that they’re feeling that way, too. You want something intimate and raw and really unique.”
Hinton waits until his finished track—which incorporates his original instrumentation and the reworked YouTube samples—is finished before presenting it to the performers, which often is the hard part. Some of the clips he mines are years old, and their creators can be hard to find. “It sometimes ends up being a massive detective process,” he says. “Most people don’t check their messages.”
When Hinton does finally track down a performer, he sometimes has some explaining to do. “At first, I thought it was a little random [when he reached out],” says Kai. “I had no clue that people were still watching my YouTube videos, because I had been inactive on my channel. I had not heard of the Range before, but once I explored his music, I thought it would give me a chance to explore a genre that was outside of my usual comfort zone of R&B.”
All of the YouTube musicians who wound up working with Hinton get a co-writing credit and a cut of the song’s royalties, and some of them have used the opportunity to further their careers: Naturaliss recently shot a professional video for his “1000 Blessings,” while Kai and Hinton plan to rework their “Florida” track. “I’m currently working on improving my songwriting skills,” she says. “Being a part of ‘Florida’ has been a true blessing. I learned so much about myself, and about my purpose as an artist.”
Searching for New Inspiration on Twitter
For Hinton, connecting with performers via YouTube made the solitary songwriting and recording process “a little less lonely,” he says. “Having people that you could see, by looking at their videos, made me feel like I had collaborators, to some degree.” Although nothing can compete with YouTube’s vast reserves of lost performances and found sounds—”you can’t find that concoction of videos on something like Facebook,” he notes—Hinton is looking for new sources for home-grown samples.
“Lately, I’ve been really considering Twitter,” Hinton says. “There’s a small group of people who post lyrics that are almost freestyles—either one tweet will be an entire idea or they’ll hammer through an idea in poetry form, through a set of tweets. It’s like LiveJournal—pure text, and no context.” Be sure to check your DMs; before you know it, the Range may have turned one of your 140-character missives into a three-minute pop song.