If you cringe when you look back on past fusions of rock and rap, you won’t necessarily get any argument from L.A.-based hip-hop screamer Hyro the Hero, who has long made it clear that he’s no fan of how “corny” the combination can be.
After releasing three mixtapes from 2007-2009, Hyro (born Hyron Fenton) opened his proper debut, 2011’s Birth, School, Work, Death, by taking shots at Lil Wayne, whose rap-rock album Rebirth Hyro considers the epitome of what not to do.
As Billboard learned during a phone chat, Hyro the Hero likes a little substance with his music. His new album, Flagged Channel (out June 29 via RED Music/Sony), is an empathetic portrayal of the impact that social conditions have on urban neighborhoods like the one he grew up in. Working with producer-songwriter-TV/film composer Mitchell Marlow (Papa Roach, Butcher Babies, All That Remains, Filter) and beatmaker Josh Collins, the album’s rhetoric is actually less about militance in a literal sense and more geared toward imploring his audience to stay mentally sharp. As he says on leadoff track “Bullet,” it’s your brain that Hyro has in his sights.
Billboard is exclusively premiering the video for “Bullet” today (May 24). Watch it below, and check out our interview with the rap-rocker.
You grew up as an avid fan of both Tupac and Bad Brains.
Yeah, man. I was the dude in the hood that changed the station a lot.
How much did that set you apart in the Houston neighborhood where you grew up in?
People nowadays are listening to everything, but back then, guitars scared people from the hood. They didn’t really want to listen to anything heavy. But Bad Brains were brothers, so it was cool to see some black people out there rockin’ out.
What local station was playing underground bands like Bad Brains?
Well, I’d hear more mainstream stuff like Nickelback on the radio, and that gave me a taste of rock. But then I decided to dig a little deeper, and I got into Bad Brains and Fishbone. Like, At the Drive-In is one of my favorite bands. Them muhfuckas is dope. And I was able to have Paul [Hinojos] play on my last album. But back in the Myspace days, I would take rock songs, sample them and rap over the breakdowns. With Napster and stuff, I’d start seeing different tracks come up, and so I started checking stuff out.
You mentioned Paul Hinojos. You’ve also had members of Quicksand, Failure and The Blood Brothers in your band.
Yeah, Kellii [Scott] from Failure has played drums for me before. Tom Capone from Quicksand played guitar at one point. I’ve been in the scene, man! For my new album, I was able to get Munky from Korn to come through and rock on a track, “Devil in Disguise.” Mixing the hip-hop beats and the heavy rock with Mitch, it was basically a graduation from me sampling on Myspace and turning it into my own little crazy sound.
You’ve often talked about keeping your rock and your hip-hop output separate.
When I do the rock, I always have my little hip-hop edge to it, but when I do hip-hop for real, it’s more of a thing where I just want to show muhfuckas I can rap. That I can get down with the best of ’em. When I spit on the rap tracks, I’m mostly talking about parties, fun and bullshit like that. But when I get on these rock tracks, I’m going to speak the real stuff.
They seem to merge on Flagged Channel, but you’re saying you consider it a rock album?
I actually consider it a mixture as well, with the electronic beats it has. It’s almost like a trap sound. But I just made it so heavy. With this album, everything I’ve been through in my life and all the fuckin’ around with the music I’ve done — it’s like, “Bruh, I’ve found the perfect blend.” And my man Mitch, he had the same vibe and idea too. He blended it beautifully.
With these lyrics, well…there’s a lot on your mind.
[Laughs] Yeah. I’ve always been a fan of people like Tupac who go against the grain and try to fight against the system and what they see is going wrong in society. Lyrically, I’ve always wanted to wake people, up — not being Mr. Preacher Man, but more like, “Hey, wake up and see what’s going on.” Like, on [“Bullet”], I say, “Fuck a picket sign or a protest/Feelin’ of unrest has got a ni**a upset.” We’ve been protesting; we’ve been doing picket-signing, and that’s not really getting the point across. So we’ve got to find a different route.
How does Flagged Channel point the way?
It’s nothin’ where I could tell people what to do. It’s more of a “Hey, let’s strategize and think of a way we can do this” — economically, etcetera. I’m not always a person for physical [methods], no riot type of shit. But just any other way we can go about this, because these protests and things like that aren’t always the solution. And with these protests, they might come through with somebody to shoot a gun purposely to mess up the peaceful atmosphere. Whoever runs this stuff, they’re playing chess. We’ve have to stop playing checkers and start getting to the chessboard.
You mentioned what you’ve been through. How difficult was your upbringing?
I’ve got my stories, you know, but my mom and dad worked hard. I was always the dude in the hood who had a dad, so everybody wanted to hang with my dad. My dad took everybody out. He was like the father to everybody. They called him “Big Brother” in the neighborhood. Instead of people going out there to sell drugs, he’d bring everybody together, and we’d walk to the park to play basketball.
You actually just made your childhood sound fun.
[Laughs] It was the same ol’ hood story. Nothing too crazy. I was just trying to work out a way to make it happen for myself in this society. I had the same trials and tribulations that most of these cats go through, but I don’t like to be makin’ that the focal point of my music. People kind of kept me away from going too hard into the streets and selling drugs and all of that, like, “Hyron, don’t be doin’ that shit.”
After Birth, School, Work, Death, you were talking about following up with a hip-hop album. What’s the status of that?
I just wanted to keep exploring my hip-hop roots and get that out of my system. It was more just me experimenting until I felt like coming back and making a rock album.
So we’re still waiting for your hip-hop album.
Still waiting. I’ve always been a hip-hop cat forever, but I dove in so hard with this rock shit, man. I love rock so much, and the emotion I can get out with performing rock. When someone plucks a string on the guitar, the emotion comes across — how hard they do it or how soft they do it. I feed off of that when I’m making tracks. I never even knew I had a talent for screaming until I had some homies try to sing along to my songs and they were like, “What the fuck? How do you do this?”
How do you take care of your voice?
Shit, I don’t, to tell you the truth. [Laughs] I just try to chill and not talk so much if I go too hard in rehearsal or whatever. I’m still learning. I looked at a Mariah Carey YouTube video the other day, and I practiced that a little bit.
I love music so much. I learn from everything.