Rap-metal specialist Hyro the Hero's bloodcurdling screams originated from a not-so-obvious inspiration: Tupac.
"When I was young, I grew up on Tupac, and he rapped with a lot of emotion," says the Houston-raised/L.A.-based vocalist. "But I had mistaken his emotion for rapping loud and screaming as a youngster. So when I was rapping, I'd always be rapping real loud and screaming, coming real hard into the mic. My homies would be like, 'Man, why you always trying to talk so loud?' [Laughs] I think it naturally grew from that, so when I switched over to rock, it wasn't nothing. And even the rap songs I made, some kids would call it rock for some reason, and I never understood that. It just naturally came out that way."
Hyro's natural talent is also his sharpest: channeling the core rage that hip-hop and heavy music share into his own jolting fusion of rap metal. He started off as Hyro "da" Hero, blending the distorted angst of Rage Against the Machine and At the Drive-In with sleek trap beats and electronics. The promise of his unique style was obvious: Months after issuing his debut LP, 2011's Birth, School, Work, Death (which featured former members of the Mars Volta and the Blood Brothers), the vocalist booked shows with both Deftones and Wu-Tang Clan — a perfect summation of his creative breadth.
But "da" only took him so far. After building a following with his genre-blurring style, Hyro dropped the heaviness from his sound, exploring what he calls a "more laid-back" hip-hop approach. But he grew discouraged with the party-centric vibe of modern rap in recent years: "I was like, 'Man, I ain't blending in with all that right now with the party stuff,'" he says. "I like the new rap and everything, but I wanted to get beyond everybody spitting the mumble rap."
He felt a sense of creative urgency (inspired in part from witnessing the divisive political rise of Donald Trump), so he switched gears once again, which resulted in his second album, Flagged Channel — a rebirth in both name (Hyro "the" Hero) and creative focus that amps up both his metal and rap credentials. Hyro crafted the LP with producer Mitch Marlow (Papa Roach, Filter) and beat-maker Josh Collins, working diligently to enhance his sense of dynamics and verse-chorus song structures.
The hard work paid off, resulting in cinematic tracks that seamlessly weave together the threads of his personality. Take opener "Bullet," which begins with a choral flourish and speaker-rattling electronics before veering into a nu-metal riff, or the militant "Devil in Disguise," a torrent of palm-muted riffs and triplet rap-screams with a guest spot from Korn guitarist James "Munky" Shaffer.
"Right now, it's more of a rock crowd," Hyro says of evolving his fanbase. "Right now. And I'm slowly diving over to the other side. I believe with the bigger I get, the more it's gonna split up and I can play to both. Right now I see more rock showing the love, but hip-hop is something you have to slowly bring them into. I'm getting there, but it's a slow process. I think I'm the bridge to go between."
The eclectic artist spoke to Revolver about his artistic evolution, learning to scream, his first love of basketball, and the most important lesson he learned from Deftones' Chino Moreno.
DID YOU HAVE A LOT OF MUSIC IN YOUR HOUSEHOLD GROWING UP?
Oh yeah, I was totally surrounded by music, man. Especially on a Sunday, my mom and dad playing their music — even now, my dad always wants to play his music loud to get on my mom's nerves. [Laughs] They come from Trinidad and Tobago, so I grew up listening to a lot of soca music, a lot of island vibes, reggae, the whole nine. It's always been a part of me. My uncles did music, so it's always been in there. My sister grew up was rapping on a lot of stuff when she was younger, and she used to rap with DJ Screw when he was first starting off. He used to come to the house when I was real young.
I KNOW YOUR DAD WAS AN IMPORTANT FIGURE IN YOUR COMMUNITY AND ALSO KEPT YOU OUT OF TROUBLE AND ON THE RIGHT PATH. DID HE ENCOURAGE YOU TO PURSUE MUSIC?
He's a basketball man. He was pushing us on basketball, but he never pushed me away from anything. It was more that basketball was his thing. In my hood they called him "Big Brother" — he's just so nice of a person and real generous, so everybody knew him. Kids would come to my house all the time; we had food in the fridge. They used to call us the "rich kids," even though we wasn't rich. We had Playstation and all that stuff; we always had some food. My dad would come in and give them all food. Everybody loved him, and they love him to this day.
HOW SERIOUSLY DID YOU PURSUE BASKETBALL? WAS IT SOMETHING YOU WANTED TO DO WITH YOUR LIFE?
Oh yeah, man! I was super serious about basketball. That was my first love right there. I was going to the NBA. [Laughs] I worked on that in middle school and high school, but I had this little edge to me because I always had an attitude. I was more about street ball, not into plays and all that. I just did my own thing on the court, which didn't work out good for me. [Laughs]
COACHES DIDN'T CARE FOR THAT, HUH?
Coaches didn't care for that. [Laughs] I had an attitude. I was a good player, but I had an attitude. My little brother [Jamal Fenton] was the opposite, though – he was amazing even since he was young, so all the schools wanted him. He went on to play at the University of New Mexico under Coach [Steve] Alford at the time. He played four years. He played overseas in Mexico, but right now he's got something called Fenton Fundamentals in New Mexico, teaching kids basketball at this big camp out there. Check him out on YouTube — he's got some dope highlights.
DO YOU REMEMBER THE FIRST TIME YOU REALIZED YOU COULD SCREAM? WAS THIS JUST A NATURAL WAY THAT YOU STARTED PERFORMING? DID IT EVOLVE OUT OF YOUR NATURAL RAPPING STYLE?
It was really just a natural evolution, man. When I was young, I was looking at the screamers, like, "Oh, man, that's kinda dope," but I never thought to scream. I grew up on Tupac, and he rapped with a lot of emotion, but I mistaken his emotion for rapping loud and screaming as a youngster. So when I was rapping, I'd always be rapping real loud and screaming, coming real hard into the mic. My homies would be like, "Man, why you always trying to talk so loud?" [Laughs] I think it naturally grew from that, so when I switched over to rock, it wasn't nothing.
And even the rap songs I made, some kids would call it rock for some reason, and I never understood that. It just naturally came out that way. It wasn't until really recently that I discovered it's an actual talent because my homie Q was listening to the record, and we were messing around with stuff, and he was like, "I'ma try to scream like you, Hyro," and he tried to do it and was like, "How the hell you do that, man? What the fuck?" [Laughs] I was like, "Oh man, I didn't know that was a talent – I was just screaming!" [Laughs]
I'VE READ THAT YOU GOT INTO ROCK MUSIC — INCLUDING BAD BRAINS AND AT THE DRIVE-IN — PARTLY THROUGH NAPSTER. DO YOU THINK HAVING THAT FREEDOM AND ACCESS TO OTHER STYLES OF MUSIC LED YOU DOWN YOUR PARTICULAR ARTISTIC PATH?
Oh yeah, man! Even though, we of this generation, we're still a little old-school in the process because we still had 56K, so when we downloaded the song, we really appreciated the song. When I'd download that song, I'd sometimes wait 30 minutes or whatever. I'd really dive into the music. And sometimes I'd want to sample, so I'd have to wait all day to sample it, so I'd really get into it and sample it and make it right. That's like our version of crate-digging: Napster, Morpheus, Kazaa. Kids today, they tap their thumb and they're done.
I KNOW YOU GOT TO KNOW CHINO FROM DEFTONES PRETTY WELL — HE WORKED WITH YOU ON A TRACK FROM YOUR ROCK N ROLL GANGSTA MIXTAPE, AND YOU OPENED FOR DEFTONES IN 2012. DID YOU SPEND MUCH TIME HANGING OUT WITH THOSE GUYS?
Yeah, I was around them a lot because my old manager was around during that time and introduced me to Chino and everything. Chino was always around. I used to know the band's name, but I didn't really know the people. When I met him, it was just like I was meeting a regular homie. I was like, "Wait, the Deftones — I remember seeing their name on my desk in my class!" I've known Chino for a long time — I've babysat his kids and everything. I've got cool connections, and I didn't even realize until later on how much people appreciate Chino and the legends I've been around.
CHINO IS ONE OF THE MOST UNIQUE VOCALISTS ON THE PLANET. DID HE EVER GIVE YOU ANY WORDS OF WISDOM ABOUT VOCAL TECHNIQUE?
He gave me lots of words of wisdom, but one of the biggest was when I came out [to L.A.] and was rapping. When I think about rapping, some of the rappers just play their track and rap over it. And he was like, "Bro, you can't just rap over the track." And I was like, "How do you do it?" He was like, "I just sing the whole fucking thing!" [Laughs] That really helped me vocally and making sure the live show is amazing and everything. It's different now — so much stuff is layered on there now, but he really helped me along the way.
IN THE INTERIM BETWEEN YOUR LAST ALBUM AND FLAGGED CHANNEL, YOU DID A LOT OF CREATIVE SEARCHING. YOU SWITCHED TO A MORE TRADITIONAL RAP STYLE, AND YOU STRUGGLED PHYSICALLY TO ADAPT BACK TO A MORE ROCK-METAL STYLE. IS THAT RIGHT?
When I first started, I was mostly screaming, but I learned how to make tracks after my first album. I saw the way the hip-hop game was changing, and I learned it was more of a laid-back approach. Over time, my vocals weren't as strong as they were, so I had to get my vocals cords build back up in the studio. I realized, "Hell no, I have to get this right!" Seven years is a long time, and I didn't do hardcore screaming for a long time and didn't do rock shows for maybe four or five years, so it was a process to build it back up. Thank God I've still got it.
DID YOU HAVE A VOCAL COACH OR ANYTHING?
Nah, man. I'm one of those people – I went into the studio with my man Mitch, who worked on the album. I scream good because I already know how to do it. But it's like doing cardio in the studio to try and make it last longer. Some parts I couldn't get, and I'd have to come in the next day so I didn't up my voice – I'd get all hoarse. He told me, "You gotta practice on your voice – you been rapping so long." I was like, "Oh, shit." That's all I needed to know to take it serious, and I was gold from that point on.
HOW DID YOUR SONGWRITING WORK ON THE NEW ALBUM? WERE YOU COMING IN WITH LYRICS AND JUST PICKING AND CHOOSING WHAT RIFFS AND OTHER STUFF TO WORK WITH? DID YOU HAVE STRONG MUSICAL IDEAS TOO?
When I go in, I have to hear music, and then I can write. The music takes me somewhere. Some songs I walk in and just already know what to say when I hear the music. On this album, I focused on choruses a little more. When it comes to lyrics and vocally, once I hear a riff or something, I'm good to go. That was basically the process: Mitch would be like, "I've got something," and I'd write to it and lay it down. It was a cool process because he brought in a dude named Josh who's really good at making hip-hop beats and everything. That's how we blended the styles so good. And you know me, I blend with both sides perfectly, so I feel like the album came out amazing. It's everything I imagined when I was sitting as a youth, sampling stuff – it's that taken to a new level in my own way.
DURING THAT GAP BETWEEN YOUR ALBUMS, YOU ALSO SPENT TIME STUDYING HOW TO DEVELOP YOUR SONGS WITH BRIDGES AND PRE-CHORUSES, LEARNING ABOUT STRUCTURES AND DYNAMICS.
I found out one of my weakness is choruses and pre-choruses, so I wanted to work on that. I can rap all day, but what separates the good artists from bad artists is being able to make an actual song – they're not necessarily "bad" artists, but some rappers are just rappers. They just get on the beat and straight rap but don't know how to make a full song. But I wanted to make full songs that's dope. I learned from that. It's almost like 50 Cent and The Game. When The Game came in, he was just a straight rapper, but 50 Cent taught him how to make real songs.
YOU CAN HEAR THAT ON "WE AIN'T AFRAID," WHICH INCORPORATES ALL THE SYNTHS AND BACKING VOCALS AND THAT HUGE DRUM SOUND – THOSE ARE THE KINDS OF CINEMATIC TOUCHES THAT SHOW YOU'VE REALLY BEEN STUDYING HOW TO CRAFT MUSIC WITH TENSION AND RELEASE.
Exactly, man. My first album, I was screaming all the way through that bitch! [Laughs]
DO YOU REMEMBER HOW YOU CAME UP WITH THAT TRACK?
That's just with everything that's been going on nowadays – I just wanted to get that out. I didn't have to think about that one too much because it was all feeling. It came straight from the heart.
YOU HAVEN'T RELEASED ANYTHING IN BASICALLY SEVEN YEARS. AND NOW THE NEW ALBUM, WHICH YOU STARTED IN LATE 2016, ARRIVES A YEAR-AND-A-HALF DEEP INTO THE TRUMP PRESIDENCY. DID THE VOLATILE POLITICAL CLIMATE SPARK SOMETHING IN YOU CREATIVELY?
It didn't necessarily bring me back, but I knew this was a great time when people were ready to hear some music, you know what I'm saying? When somebody like Trump comes along, it wakes up people to get creative. During the time I was away, it was a whole party era of "turn up" and all that stuff going on. I was like, "Man, I ain't blending in with all that right now with the party stuff." I like the new rap and everything, but I wanted to get beyond everybody spitting the mumble rap. Now we're turning more toward, "Now we have to be a little more lyrical" with everybody like J. Cole and Drake and Kendrick Lamar, and people are listening in a little more. That really motivated me. With Trump and all this stuff, I'm not a real political person, but I have my feelings toward the situation. I'd rather just speak it through the music, and I think people's ears are more open to it now.
IT MAKES ME THINK OF RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE, A BAND YOU'VE BEEN COMPARED TO A LOT OVER THE YEARS. THEY BROUGHT THIS SENSE OF POLITICAL AND SOCIETAL URGENCY IN THEIR ERA, AND I THINK WE'RE AT A PERFECT TIME FOR AN ARTIST LIKE YOU TO TAP INTO THAT SENSE VIBE.
Rage, they influenced my stuff too, man, especially since I get compared to them all the time. It's crazy because they're legends. With me, you see how many words I fit in – but [Zack de la Rocha] is so amazing. He know show to say a few lines that are powerful as fuck. That is hard as hell to do, and it's like, "Bro, how do you do that?"
"LIVE YOUR FUCKIN' LIFE" IS CLEARLY A CRITIQUE ON HOW SOCIAL MEDIA DOMINATES OUR LIVES. AS A MUSICIAN, YOU'RE TRYING TO BUILD A FOLLOWING ONLINE. HOW DO YOU MANAGE TO AVOID LETTING SOCIAL MEDIA DOMINATE YOUR LIFE?
It's a struggle for me, too, man. Your phone's with you all the time. With me, I'm so excited with all the great news I'm getting from my album, so I'm checking it [constantly]. But the song is more of a commentary on people looking at everybody's highlights of their lives and not seeing the bad stuff that's going on. You might see all the Kim Kardashian and Kayne, everybody's good stuff all the time. Even your friends – everybody posts the good stuff but not the bad things. You might be chilling at home doing nothing, but you see your friends at the club and think, "Ah, fuck, I'm not doing nothing with my life." I just wanted to wake some people up out of the zombie state we're living in through my lyrics.
I KNOW YOU WERE PRETTY BLOWN AWAY WITH THE GUITAR STUFF MUNKY FROM KORN RECORDED. HOW DID THAT WORK? DID HE JUST SHOW UP AND DO HIS THING? DID YOU TALK ABOUT THE DIRECTION AT ALL?
I remember being at the Download Festival in 2012, and I looked to the side of the stage, and the whole Korn was onstage watching me. That was insane! I just kept in touch with them and he said, "If you ever want to work on something, let me know." People say that, but I was like, "I'm gonna do it, and I did!" [Laughs] And he actually came through and did it. And it was the same process with the writing. He's Munky. He's a legend. He came in and crushed it. It was a done deal. He just wanted to be around and kick it and chill. That was the dopest part about it. He put the riff down in an hour, but he chilled around two or three hours, just kicking it.
DO YOU THINK RAP FANS OR CRITICS ARE TOUGHER TO IMPRESS OR BREAK THROUGH TO THAN ROCK OR METAL FANS?
Rap is such a closed-off thing, like, "This is my artist. I mess with this. I only listen to gangsta rap. I only listen to conscious rap." It's just like with rap beefs — look at Nicki Minaj and Cards B. It can only be one female at the top. It can't be three females at the top. It's always a battle, and the tough part is trying to get over that a little bit.