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Credit: Derek Perlman

RL Grime: play hard

Experience is everything. Without it, any well of inspiration eventually runs dry. Henry Alfred Steinway, the producer and DJ better known as RL Grime, is well aware that all work and no play makes art a dull form. On his three-part ‘PLAY’ LP, he puts the listener’s experience first, a sentiment that goes hand-in-hand with how the Los Angeles artist forges creative paths, both for himself and the members of his Sable Valley imprint

Henry Alfred Steinway loves his work, but refuses to let it overshadow life’s great interludes. Over time, this perspective has paved the way to formative experiences, and lasting friendships — both key ingredients to the recipe behind his successful career. “Ultimately, I think you kind of need that as an artist — taking time away from the hustler mindset, and the grind, that feeling of, ‘I have to make 100 beats a day,’” says the producer and DJ better known as the bass music sensation, RL Grime. “I never really subscribed to that mentality, because I think it’s good to step away, live life and focus on other things.”

There are creators who exist on the other end of that spectrum, who become so immersed in their livelihoods that they lose touch with what matters most. They forget to find their “grounding-rods'' and subsequently flounder — jumping ship before they reach a creative peak. That’s just not how Steinway rolls, though if one were to telescope outward and peer at the Los Angeles native’s output in map form, you might assume he’s never once come up for air. And you would be mistaken. It's the less flashy moments between each milestone that have enabled Steinway to level up, and always invent from an authentic place.

In a little over a decade as RL Grime, Steinway’s checked off a full list of flagship festival appearances while releasing a trio of trap-tinged long- players, the latest of which is another smash hit. Since its September 15th arrival, the ‘PLAY’ LP has been described by entertainment outlets as “a masterclass in innovation” and “revolutionary”, largely due to its conceptual presentation. Designed with modern behaviour in mind, the 21-track behemoth is curated as three distinct “experiences” dubbed ‘APEX’, ‘GRID,’ and ‘RUSH’, giving listeners a chance to tune in and vibe out entirely on their own terms — just as Henry recommends.

The first movement, ‘APEX’, is for the RL Grime heads. Its seven bone-rattling bangers are brimming with the drops that define the DJ’s headlining sets. Kicking off with menacing synth stabs and gruelling builds in ‘Ultrawide’, before careening into the stirring ‘NME’ and onward, this high-energy introductory chapter proves the producer is at the top of his game. Meanwhile, ‘GRID’ is home to exceptional lyricism and emotional melodies. In selections like ‘Pour Your Heart Out’, featuring 070 Shake, RL Grime and the New Jersey-born rapper weave rhythm and rhyme into a tale of naive love gone sideways. ‘Borderline’ with Montell2099 and a crystalline-voiced EMELINE is another scorcher that depicts potential romance beyond earthly realms. In line with past releases like ‘Stay For It’ alongside Miguel and ‘I Wanna Know’ with EDM songstress, Daya, ‘GRID’ serves up another batch of story-forward grooves that hit straight to the heart.

Photo of RL Grime wearing a black puffer jacket in front of a green and black background
Credit: Derek Perlman

“Working in groups and collectives goes a long way for me. I like having people to bounce ideas off of and get inspired by. I think I’d struggle if it was just me, solo.”

The final section, ‘RUSH’, takes a hard turn into Steinway’s lesser-heard oeuvre. “It’s the deep house, techno, breaks, kind of thing, which I’ve always been into,” he explains of the last seven cuts. “It was cool to finally have a space, which ‘RUSH’ was, to really explore that.” For those who’ve been craving more of RL’s leftfield offerings, this night cap hits the spot. Together with close friend and creative director, David Rudnick — who’s been the right-hand man across all three albums — Steinway delivers “a choose your own adventure” package to fans, not unlike those sometimes found in the popular Goosebumps books from which his moniker is derived (and yes ICYWW, he’s good pals with author R.L. Stine, too.)

“[David and I] discussed the idea of what the album listening experience is in 2023 and what that feels like,” Steinway says of the unique structure behind ‘PLAY’. “We were toying around with having different sections where the listener can decide what they want to get into, based on what kind of mood or vibe they are interested in, and that really opened a lot of doors for me creatively.” Wanna rage? Pop on ‘APEX’, Sing your heart out? The vocal-forward belters on ‘GRID’ are the signature sauce. If it’s simply a soundtrack for pensive, post- midnight drives that you desire, well, the deeper shades of ‘RUSH’ should do the trick. A vast collection of unreleased demos served as early building blocks for the project, but the eclectic nature of ‘PLAY’ is far more than just a happy accident. A near lifelong love for relationship-building and genres as divergent as classic rock, hip-hop, electro and UK bass went on to shape RL Grime’s musical prowess, and in turn, his most expansive release to date.

When DJ Mag catches up with our cover star on a video call, he’s back home on the West Coast following an 18-date run in support of the envelope-pushing collection. With a calm and down-to-earth demeanor, he recounts his busy month with a wistfulness in his voice. “[The tour] kind of just flew by, and now I want to do more, and I think that was very surprising for my booking agent and managers to hear,” Steinway laughs, admitting he pushed for a selective schedule this time around (the tour for his 2018 ‘NOVA’ LP stretched weeks longer in comparison.) “But, I kind of regretted it, honestly,” he adds, as though longing for more nights in sold-out arenas among his head-banging fans. He recognises the lighter load is best for his psyche, and for the good of his other professional endeavours, such as being the best mentor he can be to his growing list of Sable Valley “members” — a communal title he bestows to each new signee on his independent record label.

As we chat, a few stray curls peek out from the bottom of Steinway’s beanie, framing a face that looks more mature nowadays. “I’m a little older now, so I’m much more responsible on tour, I’m not really drinking and staying up late,” he says, hinting at bygone shenanigans. “I’ve learned that taking care of yourself goes a long way, and I feel great.” While a healthy mindset and a near-daily Peloton regimen surely didn’t hurt, Steinway credits on-the-road wins to the close-knit circle of friends who are always nearby. “I’m kind of introverted, as most DJs and producers are, I imagine. I mean, we all sit in front of computer screens for 10 hours a day,” the 32-year-old instrumentalist tells DJ Mag. “But working in groups and collectives goes a long way for me. I like having people to bounce ideas off of and get inspired by. I think I’d struggle if it was just me, solo.”

Photo of RL Grime wearing all black and standing in front of a truck
Credit: Derek Perlman

“There were so many events I could go to that really changed the trajectory of my life, like going to see Ferry Corsten and some of those trance guys on New Year’s Eve in 10th grade...”

RL Grime may be a one-man act, but he’s hardly a lone wolf in this life — a fact that’s indirectly propelled his profile in dance music. Steinway’s manager is his best friend, and has been since middle school. One of the ‘PLAY’ tour's openers is JAWNS, a frequent collaborator with lasting ties to his discography and imprint. And to this day, Steinway shares group texts with experimental producers Henry Laufer (aka Shlohmo) and Nick Melons (aka Meledandri) of WeDidIt, the LA-based music and arts crew that dropped RL Grime's debut EP some 11 years ago. “Those are people I came up with in New York, and who I still talk to everyday,” he adds. Last year, he reunited with another Big Apple bud — the Grammy-nominated producer, Baauer. They took the stage together as HÆRNY at HARD Summer in July where they unleashed their dancefloor drum & bass collab ‘Fallaway’. And the list of ride-or-dies goes on and on. It’s those people, those connections, and the experiences they’ve garnered, that lend depth to the RL Grime project, far more than any amount of extra screen time could.

Steinway spent his youth in Los Angeles, where his mother worked as a fine art photographer and his father as an architect. “I didn’t really grow up with much music in my childhood, but when I was young, I think I recognised there was some connection to pianos,” he explains. This is perhaps the most nonchalant way possible to acknowledge that he is the great-great-grandson of Heinrich Steinway, founder of the famous Steinway & Sons piano company. The business remained in the family until the '90s, around the time of our subject’s birth. “They were all East Coasters — lived in New York, grew up in Manhattan,” he says of his grandfather, who was the last owner in the blood line. “They had a very old-school apartment with some pianos and stuff around, but it was never a big part of my childhood — my grandfather and grandmother didn’t play either.”

Family legacy notwithstanding, Steinway discovered music on his own. “I was obsessed with classic rock once I found out about Led Zeppelin and AC/DC in, I don't know, seventh grade?” he says, trying to pinpoint where the flame first ignited. “I just remember the feeling it gave me to walk around listening to them — it felt so cool and badass.” Steinway took up drums (and, okay, a little piano as well as guitar, but he was “never any good”), a hobby that led him to participate in bands recreationally, as well as perform in a more formal jazz band setting. Outside of the classroom, he soaked up Southern California’s vibrant music scene, regularly attending big affairs like Coachella and HARD festivals where he would lose himself at hip-hop sets. These experiences sparked a love for modern masters like the late J Dilla and MF Doom, as well as Madlib and The Diplomats. “Juelz Santana is one of my favourite rappers ever,” he shares, his eyes lighting up in admiration.

Photo of RL Grime performing on stage

In the heart of LA, he also had his pick of mid-’00s-era raves. “There were so many events I could go to that really changed the trajectory of my life,” he continues, “like going to see Ferry Corsten and some of those trance guys on New Year’s Eve in 10th grade — my mind was just blown being in these warehouses and arenas seeing this music being played.” In middle school, Steinway got his hands on a copy of Reason, forcing him to learn production the old-fashioned way. “It was not very user-friendly, just horrible to use,” he says. “There weren’t really YouTube tutorials back then either, so it was all kind of fuck around and figure something out.” That fucking around led to some “really shitty” Justice and MSTRKFRT bootlegs. “All of the blog-house stuff really set the tone for me early on,” he shares of the musical styles he tried to recreate in the beginning.

Frequent visits to Hype Machine kept him abreast of emerging sounds, and he connected with like- minded folk from around the world via the Erol Alkan forum, a message board helmed by the British DJ and producer. “I’d be on those forums every day, just shooting the shit with people and reading about upcoming electronic news, and that was all incredibly formative,” he explains of carving an online community. After graduation, Steinway moved cross-country for his college education, where he studied music business, first at Northeastern in Boston before transferring to New York University. It was there Steinway and his managers coincidentally moved into an apartment next door to Henry Laufer and Nick Melons, the founders of WeDidIt Records, a left-of-center imprint known for its uniquely branded releases, and boundary-pushing bass and hip-hop infused roster.

But they didn’t exactly break him. By the early 2010s, Steinway had already built a name for himself, producing big-room house as Clockwork. Riding the waves of that time’s most commercially successful genre, Steinway became a main-stage darling, but the thrill soon turned to disdain. “It was definitely bubbling up that the big room house stuff I was making, I just didn't really feel connected to it anymore,” he shares candidly. “I remember I was playing EDC 2014 as Clockwork, and was just having a full-blown panic attack on stage. I had an existential moment, and was thinking, ‘I don’t know if I can do this anymore.’”

Immediately after, he told his managers it was his last set. “This was around the time we were all hanging out, sharing music, listening to early James Blake, Night Slugs and Girl Unit — all this cool stuff from the UK that was totally the polar opposite to the big-room house stuff,” Steinway explains of spending time with the more discerning WeDidIt collective, and how his musical affinities began to evolve. “That was the stuff that really pulled me in and I feel forever connected to that — and obviously Hudson Mohawke, a lot of the Lucky Me stuff, Rustie, Lunice and the TNGHT project,” he says, rolling off key acts of the time. “That was all incredibly influential.”

Photo of RL Grime wearing a black puffer and white shirt in front of a pink light
Credit: Derek Perlman

“I think I did learn a lot from them, at least for Sable Valley, about the power of a collective of people and building a sense of community. That really does go a long way for a record label.”

Before Steinway retired Clockwork, he debuted his first RL Grime grooves with WeDidIt. The 2012 ‘Grapes’ EP is home to four RL originals that feel raw compared to the vast, cinematic soundscapes he’s known for today (‘Amphibian’, with its lush bass swells and melodic progressions, is perhaps the most obvious bridge), plus four remixes from fellow members of the collective (Shlohmo, Salva, LOL Boys and 2KWTVR, to be specific). As a whole, the extended player is indeed very fucking “cool”, and certainly not what his kandi-covered PLUR crowd craved at the time. “Most of the great dance music — or just electronic music in general that I can think of — came out of the UK,” Steinway says of the subby, downtempo textures that shaped his preliminary bass productions. ”Of course, I have to show love to the people that paved the way up there.”

Following the success of the ‘Grapes’ EP, and a bit before his big room break-up, RL Grime performed anonymously. “I hadn’t officially announced that I was behind both projects,” he explains of that stretch wherein his two aliases shared space on the same line-up posters. “I’d play as Clockwork from like four to five, and then go change my shirt and play as RL Grime from six to seven, or whatever.” By the time he went on the Infinite Daps tour with viral hitmaker Baauer (in support of their percussive single of the same name, and hot on the tail of ‘Harlem Shake’ mayhem), it was more than just trap fiends who recognised RL Grime was no fleeting side hustle — Steinway saw it too, and soon put all his chips on the bass play.

By the mid-2010s, it proved to be a safe bet. He racked up releases with well-known labels like Fool’s Gold, and shared tracks alongside scene-shaping names like Skrillex and Flume-era What So Not. And in 2014, WeDidIt released RL Grime’s ‘VOID’ LP, which was home to ‘Core’, a trap anthem that decimated festival fields for years on end. Its wailing drops and rallying cry, “WHO DO THE SHIT THAT I DO,” turned crowds from amped up to full-on feral. Drenched in blown out chords and skittering drum lines, it cemented RL Grime’s sinister sound — the same one that accents his rowdier records, and of course his annual Halloween mixes, which are still coming strong after 12 years.

For RL Grime fans, Halloween release day is a holiday in itself. Spooky and unexpected, the once-a-year mix always features famous cameos — names like Pharrell, T-Pain, Tony Hawk and Guy Fieri have all lent voices to its intro, while R.L. Stine is on every edition so far. “He’s a very cool guy,” Steinway shares of his friendship with the writer. “All of the early RL Grime graphics were literally just me photoshopping a Goosebumps cover and he could have been like ‘no’, but we hit him up every year and he’s always down to do a DJ drop.”

But the mix is more than just a device to catch up with celebrities. It’s helped Steinway spot fresh talent, too. “I’ve always loved curating an hour-long mix of music from what’s come out that year that I think is really cool,” he explains. “Over the years, people continued to send me music, and I thought, ‘this is so good, people should hear this even beyond the Halloween mix’. And so that kind of started as the launching point for the label in a lot of ways.”

Photo of RL Grime performing on stage

Like a pillowcase full of sugary sweet treasures, a typical Halloween mix generally includes a hodgepodge of unreleased RL Grime IDs, contributions from Sable Valley members, and a few unusual tunes Steinway stumbled upon online. “A lot of the artists that I’m into, that I’ve put into the Halloween mixes, are people I just find on SoundCloud,” he says. “I’ll follow them and reach out, that’s where I’ve had the most success.” Steinway isn’t sweating their streaming numbers either. When the algorithm hits him with a soul-shaking cut, he slides into the DMs. By this method and other personal outreach, he’s discovered producers and watched them seemingly blow up overnight — ISOxo and Knock2 are among that flock.

Taking a hands-on approach, Steinway hopes to empower the next wave of bass artists, the same way his early champions pushed him. “Shlohmo, Groundislava and all the guys on WeDidIt, not only are they great friends of mine, but I still listen to their music all the time — I’m a massive, massive fan of theirs,” Steinway says of the group who put his career into focus at a pivotal moment. “And yeah, I think I did learn a lot from them, at least for Sable Valley, about the power of a collective of people and building a sense of community. That really does go a long way for a record label.”

Soon, listeners will become acquainted with even more of the Sable Valley roster via ‘PLAY: THE REMIXES’, a 17-track package featuring a swath of imprint signees, plus a handful of Steinway’s longtime favorites. From the former, there's an immersive treatment of 'Pour Your Heart Out' by WINK and nikko's rattling-rework of ‘Keep You (Close)’ that trades in the original’s four-on-the-floor structure for something hard and heavy. From the second column, there’s an absolutely resplendent, breaks-laced remix of the ‘RUSH’ track, ‘Around Me’ from Night Slugs regular Jam City, alongside an absolutely relentless rendition of ‘APEX’ standout, ‘Breach’ rinsed and reloaded by hardstyle disrupter, Lil Texas. Perhaps intentionally, the remix package proves to be as diverse as RL Grime’s 2023 album, and to a greater extent, his circle of friends, collaborators and contributors that seems to grow stronger every day.

“I’m forever grateful for this record label because it’s given me so much creatively,” Steinway says, taking a moment to acknowledge again the connections who’ve kept him soaring. “It’s provided so much inspiration over the years, and just being able to cultivate a community of producers that are doing things that I’m into, that I think the world needs to be hearing, that’s all I’ve ever wanted.” These are the fruits of life not just lived, but experienced, full send.

Megan Venzin is DJ Mag North America’s deputy editor. You can follow her on X @Meggerzv

Pics: Derek Perlman