Ash Riser Talks New Project 'Ghosts' & Working With Kendrick Lamar

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Helen Perez
Ash Riser

Ash Riser is a multi-talented artist whose expertise spans from singing to production and more. The Los Angeles native got his start as a young man in an indie rock band called Pistols Pistols. As the singer and guitarist for the band, Riser caught the attention of major music industry players and eventually set out to have a solo career.

Riser rose to the top of the underground dubstep scene in L.A. under the alias Ashtrobot but later decided he wanted to get back to his roots of writing and singing. Riser mentions the importance of  getting back to songwriting, saying, "I wanted to express myself lyrically and make more than mediocre bass lines."

Simultaneous to his own career, Riser has worked with the hip-hop community, most notably forming a longtime relationship with rapper Kendrick Lamar, whom he worked with long before his acclaimed To Pimp a Butterfly album. His work has led him to also work with other hip-hop artists, including Ab-Soul, Tae Beast and up-and-comer Jay IDK.

Riser hopped on the phone with Billboard to discuss his upcoming project Ghosts (due July 7), what it's like to work with Kendrick, and what he hopes people will take away from his music.

Who were your musical influences growing up?

My mother is pretty much the reason why I do this. I fell in love with bands like The Clash. Obviously The Beatles, Led Zepplin, you know, rock 'n' roll bands. When I really started listening to music on my own, Gorillaz and The Strokes and just that whole indie wave of rock. You know the rock invasion that happened around 2005? All those groups really shaped me into the artist I am now.

Did cross-genre collaboration at the time also influence your cross-genre work?

Yeah, I remember watching [the Gorillaz video] "Clint Eastwood" debut on 106 & Park when I was in sixth grade. And I remember they played the Gorillaz video on TRL. I watched it on there and everyone loved it. I watched it on 106 & Park and everyone hated it. But I thought it was the best representation of genre blending done. Because before then it was like Aerosmith and Run-DMC. And then Wu-Tang Clan and Limp Bizkit. And I loved Method Man. My genuine love of hip-hop has definitely kept me on that side of things.

How did you come up with the album title Ghosts?

I had started on the album, and "Ghosts" is the title track as well. There's a song I wrote called "Ghosts," and it was the last song I made for the album. And then literally two weeks after I made that song, my house was broken into and my laptops were stolen, and my hard drive was broken. And I almost lost everything. And I was listening to the pre-mixes I had, and the original name was going to be And the Villains Keep Winning, and I just felt like at the time that was our motto, and it was a negative portrayal of what we were doing. So when I went back and listened to the album cohesively, and I realized the last song I had written summed the whole entire album up in one word, I felt like it made the most sense. Ghosts represents the people that come in and out of your life. It represents fighting your demons and conquering your fears. The whole album has a lot to do with my relationship with God and how I've grown apart from religion but still kept my faith. I constantly find myself talking to a higher power in my music because it's my therapy.

Was there any song on the album that almost didn't make it?

Yeah, there's a couple songs that almost didn't make it. I made about 30 tracks; we only used 17. Probably my most favorite that almost didn't make it is "Hell's Waiting Room." I felt like it was a little too experimental compared to the rest of the project, which had a lot of borderline pop. But that song in particular was a little too left. The more and more I listen to it and I put it in the place it is on the album, it sets a good tone for the rest of the album. It kind of surprises you in the middle of it. Sonically, what I'm saying in that song is really important.

Aside from being a producer and a singer, you're a writer. Why is that so important for you to emphasize?

A lot of people out here aren't writing their own shit. And case in point why Quentin Miller is on the intro because I have respect for a lot of writers. I think that the written word is one of the most powerful things we have. And I think when it's done correctly, those are the people who deserve the shine. They are the people who are the brains behind the operation and not just the face of it. I've written a lot of things I didn't get credit for. So being a writer, being someone on the side of how that plays out, if you don't stand up for yourself, you're not going to get what you deserve. I just feel like people should know I really do this, been doing it damn near half of my life. I just want people to realize I'm not a puppet.

How did you first link up and start working with Kendrick Lamar?

I've been working with Kendrick since [2010 mixtape] Overly Dedicated. So I met Kendrick through MixedByAli, who I went to junior high with. I was just cool with him. And then my band was playing at Troubadour that night, and I got a phone call. It was Ali saying he had an artist he wanted me to work with and asked if I could stop by the studio in Carson. I said, "Yeah, for sure." We had sold out that show, so I told him to come out to the show. So I pull up and that night I did "Barbed Wire" and "Determined," then Kendrick just kept calling after that. I worked on every project except for DAMN. I was in the studio at least five to six sessions during [2012 album] good kid m.A.A.d. city. When we were working on [2015's] To Pimp a Butterfly, I was there a lot. He would just call me an Uber every single day, and I'd be there eight hours every day for like a week straight. [Laughs] So my relationship got pretty good just based off mutual respect for each other. And then he blew up. I had no idea that he would be as big as he is. He had just dropped [2012 mixtape] Compton State of Mind when I first started working with him. So to see where he is now is insane. 

What will fans learn about you on this album that they didn't know before?

That's a good question. I talked a lot about personal stuff on this album. I talk about the death of my best friend, Furoche, all the way to love and having your heart broken all the way to my home being broken into. I've always been very honest. Because part of my brand as an artist is people being able to relate to me on a personal level and know that they're not alone and that a lot of people go through these rough times. You can't pick who your family is. All you do is take the wheels of your own life and drive it. Two years, I was a wreck. My friends were worried. It's been a long journey for me getting my life together because of everything I've gone through that I used to let define me as a man. But then I realized those things don't define me. That's really what I want people to realize: Hardships you've gone through don't define who you are as a person. You go through those things and become a stronger person because of it.