The first time I heard Ash Riser’s voice is likely the first time most of you reading this did too, even if you can’t quite place what that voice sounds like by reading his name.
“We’re far from good, not good from far / 90 miles per hour down Compton Boulevard.”
The booming baritone that delivered those iconic lyrics at the beginning of Kendrick Lamar’s Section.80 classic “Ronald Reagan Era” is an uncredited Ash Riser. It's the same voice you'll hear on “Keisha's Song,” “Determined,” “Barbed Wire” and “Wesley’s Theory.” For years now, Ash has been one of the most frequent collaborators amongst several members of hip-hop's favorite label; his vocals and influence are all over TDE’s discography, such as the distinctly grandiose, swirling chorus on Ab-Soul’s “Beautiful Death.”
During the GKMC studio session days, TDE label boss Top Dawg offered Ash a record contract that would have entailed signing a management deal with Dave Free (TDE's president and Kendrick's manager) and getting a project distributed right after good kid dropped. Unfortunately, that deal ultimately fell through due to a financial disagreement over how Ash would be compensated for his previous collaborative work. In the time since, however, Ash has steadfastly remained independent, focusing all of his energy on crafting a sound that will break through without the constraining “help” of signing with a label.
This decision illustrates a very important point about Ash Riser, and one that people are just starting to catch on to; take the LA artist at surface value, and you’re missing out. There’s a lot more to the 27-year-old than that booming, raspy voice and all those TDE placements.
All of Ash’s work is intensely layered, a sound that has been changing and evolving constantly over the past decade-plus, reflecting wide influences and a deep understanding of what music he wants to make and how to make it. Dive in, and it’s easy to see why Kendrick, Ab and Q have been enamored with Riser’s eclectic style and distinctive voice.
In the lead-up to the July release of his debut album as Ash Riser, Ghosts—which was preceded by several vocal-driven EPs, a handful of trappy dubby EDM projects as Ashtrobot, and work as the lead singer of LA indie rock group and cult favorite Pistol Pistol—I was able to chat with Ash about his artistic path, his creative process, depression the importance of vulnerability, and the funniest moments making musical magic with Ab-Soul.
Your music thus far has been all over the place, but your voice has been the unifying factor. When did you realize the importance of your voice?
I wasn’t singing at first. I was a bigger kid, and it was just embarrassing, you know what I mean? No one wanted to be doing it. No one wanted to be singing even in the bands I was in.
That's funny because your singing is how you caught the attention of TDE. Walk us through how you first started working with the label?
It was cool man, at that time I was in my band, and Kendrick was really into the indie rock shit. [Laughs]
I knew Ali since way back, I went to junior high with Ali. We were both kinda like, the bigger kids at the school, we didn’t fit in. Fast forward a few years, I get a call from Ali and I’m about to play a show, and he tells me to come over. So after the show, I cruise over to Top’s house. I’d met with him once before, and I knew who Kendrick was but only because of Ali. I’d never really heard of "Kendrick" or K.Dot back then.
But going over there, we just got to work right away, I think we did “Determined” and “Barbed Wire” in that first night. And I had no idea what was gonna be going on, like when “Barbed Wire” came out I was like “OK this is a dope song,” but I had no idea what the impact would be at all, or what Kendrick’s impact would be.
I bet you have some crazy stories from those TDE sessions.
Dude, when Ab-Soul came to my house? We smoked a looottttt of fucking weed. [Laughs] The last time Ab came over, he came by and we worked all through the night, he made me layer like 80 vocal tracks. And all of the sudden the sun rises, then all of a sudden it’s like noon.
And Ab’s vision is baaaadddd man. Like really bad, he can’t see shit. So he gets up to leave at some point and we have this big ass fake bookcase in our apartment, and he’s walking over towards it like he’s trying to open it like it’s the door. And he just starts smiling, like, “my bad man, Soulo vision.”
Besides a ton of stories, what has been the biggest takeaway from all of these monster collaborative sessions?
Honestly bro, when I’m working with people like that, that are obviously further along in their career than me or have all these accomplishments, they’re asking me my opinion on shit, you just have to get to the point where you’re like, "OK, all of these people want to work with me for a reason. I’m onto something here.”
That confidence is evident on your forthcoming album, Ghosts. What did it take to get this album finished?
Man, working on this album has been the most draining thing I have ever put myself through in my life.
It was all at the tail end of this really intense spiral. One of my friends, I call him my brother usually because it’s stupid to explain how close we were, he passed away three years ago. June 5 will be his anniversary, actually.
And that shit fucked me up. I was making EDM music at the time, and I just put myself in this really deep crazy drug-induced mindstate. And that all happened because I didn’t know how to deal with this tremendous loss, you know?
Trust me, I know.
[Laughs] Yeah that kind of went on for a few years really. I ended up leaving the label I was managed by and kind of just doing my own thing. I’d drink all day just trying to forget shit.
When I started to gear up for this album, I’d done a bunch of dumb shit that had kind of burned some bridges with people. And I’d done a lot of cool stuff musically, or stuff that was cool at the time, but it kind of derailed my original process of what I wanted to do as an artist.
What happened with your music?
I had let the drugs and alcohol really take me into a different place, where I was trying to make music that was just cool at the time. And right around the time, my current manager started managing me, we came to this conclusion like, "OK, I gotta clean up."
At this time, I realized I had subconsciously already started writing this album, and I was maybe five or six songs in. I guess by the time that light hit, and I was ready to tackle this thing, I was already in it and it was this blues album.
The album that would become Ghosts?
Yeah, exactly. And I was having people coming through my crib every night, people from Atlantic and CAA and places like that, and they were really fucking with this blues shit. So once I kind of got my head out of my ass and started cleaning up my shit, I was like "OK, this is what I’m supposed to be doing, clearly."
My voice just really suits this bluesy kind of indie rock, hip-hop... I don’t even know what the fuck to call it, “contemporary art?” It’s just modernized music, and it’s just very much a kid from LA who grew up in a skatepark listening to literally everything.
And I realized that the music I had been making early [on], I was really just appropriating these different things to try to appeal to people more, and really it was just turning people away.
Your music feels very honest. Was that a conscious decision?
Where it’s at now, it really does tell the story of that period in my life when I snapped out of all the depression. It has a lot of pain and apologetic undertones, I think.
I dunno man, it’s funny, sometimes I’ll be listening to a song six months after I recorded it, and I’ll find myself in the same predicament. I’ve realized how powerful written words can be, and these songs when there’s all this passion and energy behind it, it’s crazy to me the effect that has on you.
It’s really important to me with Ghosts that I was able to express all of these things, and really being able to put a positive spin on it all by moving forward isn’t something I expected I’d be able to do. This album really was my therapy. Documented therapy sessions.
That kind of vulnerability is rare and incredibly important.
I definitely try to be pretty open about it all too, man, 'cause I know there are other kids out there who might be going through the same shit that I went through, and they don’t know how to talk to people about it.
The only reason I was able to get help is because I was able to talk to people. And I’m not perfect, you know. I still smoke a lot of weed, but I’m not out here just trying to get fucked up every night and that’s a big deal to me because there’s always an undertone to that shit.
There’s always a reason why these kids are out here trying to get smashed. And I think a lot of people don’t realize how common this all really is—the drug abuse and addiction and depression.
What is it about making music that’s so therapeutic?
As artists, when you put in all this time at getting good at your craft, after a point, it’s just like, "Alright, I’m not good at many things, I might as well just do this 'cause it might get a positive reaction or whatever." But there’s something else there. Music is able to bring light to dark places. And it gives you a disguise, to go out there and be more and more vulnerable.”
What pushed you to make music that you can’t even classify?
People are just hungry for an organic kind of music again. And like—straight up, I love Playboi Carti. I’ve been listening to a lot of Playboi Carti lately, but that can only be the soundtrack for a very small part of your life. I feel like you need music for every different part of your life, and people need music they can listen to to get them through everything, and there’s a lack of that kind of soundtrack-for-your-life music right now.
Playing off the concept of a “soundtrack,” what type movie would your music accompany?
My music is definitely for when you’re skating and driving. I’ve always made music that’s perfect for the long road trips. You know that montage when you’re driving to a new place and they show all of your memories and everything in your life? I think my music is for that kind of moment.