A DIY dude riding high in the minimalist techno sphere, Ryan McRyhew has been playing music in some form or another for more than a decade. From his early synthetic beatmaking explorations as half of the duo BDRMPPL to the deeply personal work he created as Hideous Men with Kristi Schaefer, his collaborator in music and life, McRyhew's sound has always been laced with a deep reverence for hip-hop.
His latest solo incarnation, Thug Entrancer, began several years ago as the continuance of McRyhew's evolving, lifelong musical act. Recently, he decided to drop the "Thug" from his moniker and move on as Entrancer. Westword caught up with the artist to find out more about this name change and what it means to be a musician in an age when the social and political are simultaneously public and personal.
Westword: I know you posted about changing your name last week on your website, but could you reiterate why you've decided to change your name from Thug Entrancer to Entrancer?
Ryan McRyhew: It stemmed from a lot of things. Since I've had the name and it started growing outside of my own close, personal circle, I could tell there were some people who were hesitant about it. It's interesting to me: Most of those who addressed it were white academics who already had an assortment of assumptions about who I am. It's weird when you make public art. It can get far away from you.
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I ran into this article ("When White Producers Co-Opt Black Identity," on Vice's THUMP channel) about this Dutch label that was putting out house records, but they were making music under the guise of a persona [of someone] who lived in Gary, Indiana, and had died of a drug overdose. It was really fucked up. They were painting this crazy picture of a person who never existed and using it as a marketing tool. I feel so far removed from that, even regarding issues with my name, but I thought, oh, my God, I don't want to ever be misconstrued as something like that. The article really digs into artists who are appropriating marginalized people and culture.
It's hard when you're working within what influences you. How do you define that in your own terms and make something new, while also contributing back to the cultures that influenced you? It's a slippery slope. For me, personally, it's easy enough to see that the name could be problematic and know that whatever reasons I had for using it, they are minor compared to the weight of the word "thug." I've seen the word come to light in the ways conservative people whip that word out. I don't know — maybe when I started, the word didn't have that weight or it wasn't as apparent. But now that it has that weight, I don't want to be anywhere near it.
Every artist has reasons behind what they do, and we don't know those reasons immediately when we hear their music or see their name. I personally have been following your music for a long time and know you to be a person who was raised in hip-hop and are a wealth of knowledge when it comes to the social, political and artistic realms of the genre. Thug Entrancer made sense to me when it comes to the inspiration behind your work, but that doesn't take away from the ramifications of the word "thug."
Totally. Even the sci-fi narrative that I've been immersing myself in — the word "thug" is used by [science fiction writer] William Gibson. But it's almost like a lifestyle. I've been having the conversation with anyone willing to have it with me about the word. But ultimately, seeing that article made me really reflect on the weight of language and how easy it was for me to kind of co-opt it and make it my own thing, but not be affected by the weight of it.
In the age of instantaneous response to popular culture, it's great that you could get in front of it and think critically about these questions around your name. It is easy to appropriate and not be affected by it, even when you don't realize you're doing it, even as you may be doing something with your art that is meant to honor your influences.
I think it's really hard to constantly be on guard as an artist, because you want to be able to work in these autonomous terms. It's difficult to not dig a hole and continue to justify why we continue these horrible traditions of co-opting and distorting and ultimately hurting the people who influence us. There were definitely times when I said, 'Whatever.' If someone who was marginalized, or someone I respected confronted me about it, I would have welcomed that conversation. But even that stance is dangerous. Just because x, y and z haven't talked to me about it doesn't mean it's still cool.
It will be an interesting transition for me, because it may be hard for people; people like names and brands and identities. I am interested to see if it will affect that side of things, but ultimately, I don't really care. That's the other side of being an artist: You get to be malleable, and we have the power to change these things.
Using a word like thug could be whitewashing it in a way that can affect so many people. There have been a couple of promoters who told me they wouldn't book me because I was a white dude who goes by this name. The tricky part for me there is like, okay, that's fine. I get that, and I'm not going to justify it. But I guess as I make the change, I want it to have more of an impact on other artists who may be flirting with this distortion of context. I'm less concerned about getting booked; this isn't a PR strategy for me.
My hope is that I can add to a history of artists who realized they were on a wrong path and got off of it and helped others move away from it, too.
I think about musician Jenn Champion's transition away from the name Jenn Ghetto, a moniker she recorded under for decades. There's a lot of power in publicly confronting these things and working toward change. Coming out of the ’90s, when segments of hip-hop became a commercialized entity sold to white kids like us — I don't know, it's not an excuse, but I've certainly been in this place myself with artists I like and how I express that fandom.
That's the other thing: rap music and rap identity and poor whites. I mean, I grew up in a trailer park. These are words that surrounded me and were part of my history. But I transcended from that, and I'm so far away from it now. It's hard, because we live in a weird time where media and pop culture are easily accessible and we can create our own relationship with it. It will be interesting how all of this unfolds generationally.
How we grew up — that's something we can appreciate and reflect on, but ultimately, what does that really have to do with me and the path I'm on now? Is it helping or hurting? For me, a lot of artists I've worked with and the label I was on (Oneohtrix Point Never's now-defunct label Software) loved the name, and at the time, it felt okay. But now I have to move on.
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You recently put together From Denver to Oakland, a forty-track compilation of music in honor of and to raise money for the artists we lost and those affected by the Ghost Ship fire. Can you talk about your process behind the collection of the work?
I feel like I'm always reactionary to things like that.... I felt really compelled to put this tragedy into action — not to capitalize. But how can we as a community that is obviously hurting for this community do something directly for them? I put out compilations and records before, and I thought I could use this energy to give back to that community in a very immediate sense.
With everything happening locally that was dismantling our DIY community here — I mean, when Ghost Ship happened, none of the stuff happening to the Denver community had begun ("Rhinoceropolis DIY Venue Shut Down by Denver Fire Department for Code Violations"). As I put this compilation together over the last few weeks, it also became a tool for strengthening our community or at least showing everyone here the vastness and power of our creativity. It was a reaction to a tragedy, but it was also about music as therapy. I look to music whenever I'm in dark places. This project was very literal.