“It’s really easy for EDM artists to become super complacent,” said Justin Taylor Phillips, 25, known by his fans as Crywolf.
Complacency wasn’t an option for Justin. While all of his producer friends were swimming in success after a quick come-up thanks to a switchover from dubstep to trap, Justin was struggling to make rent, barely affording to eat. He was hungry, but just not hungry enough to drop dubstep and chase a trendier sound.
Before Justin launched his solo career, he played with his childhood best friend, John Luke Lewis. They had grown a healthy following in their hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina, and after their first #1 on Hype Machine, agents were lining up. They came to the venue one night, paperwork in-hand, but the on-the-brink-of-a-breakthrough moment just faded away. Justin and John proceeded to play “a terrible show.”
“I was so mad… we just didn’t have our shit together at the time… we had all of these missed opportunities.”
Music production never came easy to Justin. It wasn’t something he was naturally gifted at. Justin actually had a lot of success early on with videography and had been offered scholarships to several film schools.
“I never had that with music. It was always a lot of work for a little success.
While his buddies were touring all over, getting paid and enjoying the good life in that first wave of trap producers to hit it big, Justin was in the studio, broke, frustrated and feeling like a complete failure.
“You have to sort of have that desperation. I feel like when you’re in that position, you are more likely to go all or nothing.”
If he had began touring at the time, Justin said, he would have become just as complacent as his trend-hopping friends who eventually stopped releasing tracks and began to fall off just as quickly as they came up.
“I never would have had to really dig down and really find my sound… that never would have happened if I had that feeling of success.”
Dubstep was fun to play out. And by this time, Justin had put the work in. He had reached a level of production where he could hang with the best of them and his music was hitting just as hard. But the more he reflected on where he was and what he was doing, the more dissatisfied he felt.
As he looked around, he saw producers “making the same drop [they] were making three years ago and [they] just realized it worked so [they] just make it over and over again.”
He was disheartened by the default producers pervading the EDM scene and their shallow music with its go-to formulas.
“[It’s] the same thing that everyone thinks, but producers don't say it - well, unless they are butthurt producers - but producers who are successful don't say it because some of these people are your peers. But everyone knows that a lot of the biggest electronic music sucks.”
Justin doesn’t claim to be a rebel minority fighting the matrix.
“I think the majority of musical producers think that, but you can’t really say that because people get so mad at you.”
I couldn’t help but agree with Justin, that there are a great number of producers who seem to be emulating more than innovating.
Dedicated dance music fans know this, and it seems that more and more fans in general are becoming numb to the cheap tricks and are instead gravitating towards more unique ideas and sounds.
Even with dubstep and trap right now, Justin says, the drops that are getting the most attention are the really strange ones.
“If you’re making art for yourself and you’re still making that really standard stuff, then I would ask like how well do you know yourself, how in touch are you with your wants and desires if the ultimate music for yourself is just a Skrillex knock-off…?”
“I love that because it encourages people to make stuff that’s different.”
Being different involves taking risks and fearlessly stepping into the unknown. Creativity isn’t something you just have. In some sense, it’s like any other skill where you have to practice it, Justin said, but then again, it’s not something you can really track like athletic abilities.
A year and a half ago, Justin came across an article arguing that quantity actually trumps quality, pulling an excerpt from a book called Art & Fear Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland.
But quantity over quality sounds ass-backward right? He went on to explain… it cited a study where two groups of people were enrolled into a ceramics class. One group was told that their grade would be based on a single pot, the best pot they could possibly make. The other group’s grade would be based on how many pots they could make. Guess which pots were better? The pots from the “quantity” group because as they were learning from their mistakes with each pot, “the ‘quality’ group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay,” as per the book.
“I always thought, ‘if you’re not going to do something really good, don't do anything’… you sit around until you feel inspired enough… you’re always embarrassed of your shitty tracks.”
Kanye West actually attributes his success to a similar ‘quantity over quality’ philosophy. Fans of Kanye know that his confidence is actually founded in the fact that he’s worked incredibly hard for everything he has. There was one summer, which he refers to in interviews often, where he literally wrote a track a day.
The experimentation is where the magic happens. There’s a common misconception that successful artists party all night and then step into the studio and drop a hit song. The reality is… no one is just that fucking good.“It takes away the fear of it, and you’re not afraid to experiment… [It] totally changed the way that I worked and totally changed the height of my aspirations as far as how excellent I wanted to be at what I do.”
“The work is almost always there… I remember watching this inside the actor’s studio with Will Smith. He was like, ‘from early on with acting, I knew that I wasn't naturally as good as any of these other people so I decided that I would just work way harder than them, like 10 times harder then them… I guarantee, anyone you know, I work harder than them.’”
But it’s not just about being different, and it’s not just about working harder. It’s all also about finding your unique voice, and that requires a little soul-searching and the courage to stop caring about what people think. The way Justin saw it was, if he was going to succeed, he wanted it to be on his terms, and not anyone else’s. He wanted to be successful because hit went “all in.” Sure he could make music that he knew was popular and therefore had a better chance of succeeding. That would be a much safer route, with a lot less risk.
“I would still feel really accomplished but it would be more similar to a normal job, where you do things for other people… the ultimate idea of working for yourself is doing what you want to do and making money for it. If you’re still trying to make things for other people, you’re still kinda working for those people.”
With every EP, Justin was taking a step closer to what he really wanted to do, a step closer to his debut album: Cataclasm. But he admits it was scary.
“It was just the process of slowly gaining the courage to finally do what I’m doing now.”
The biggest leap he took was with his second EP, Angels. It was the first EP Justin decided he was going to just do whatever he
wanted. He knew it could completely flop. It wasn’t what his fans were used to. It wasn't heavy; it was weird. The EP debuted at #3 on iTunes electronic chart and landed at #24 on Billboard’s Electronic/Dance chart.
“The idea of not giving a shit what anybody else thought and having it be really successful… that was one of the top moments of my life for sure… nobody who’s just making whatever’s popular could ever have that feeling.”
For his debut album, Cataclasm, officially released November 20, 2015, Justin traveled to Iceland for a month-long isolation. He traveled 4,308 miles just to work on it; the pressure was on. Unlike releasing single after single, releasing an forces your fans to wait for months on end; the anticipation makes the potential for disappointment even greater. His biggest fear was that he would go all the way to Iceland just to find himself in a creative funk, “a dead zone.” But whether it was coincidence or not, it was the exact opposite.
“…when you digest a bunch of art, you get almost pregnant with all of this inspiration and you feel like there’s so much inspiration inside of you and and just want to write. And then when you’re writing it’s like you’re birthing this child,” he laughed.
It was one of the most creative periods he had experienced in over 3 years.
“I woke up every day and worked for 15 to 18 hours, just sitting at my computer, forgetting to eat… just being so excited about what I was making, dancing the entire time.”
He knew he would lose the magic eventually. And after writing 35 tracks and developing 25 of them, he finally did. Justin wanted to use them all, but he knew he wanted Cataclasm to be only around 10 tracks.
“Maybe I’ll do a Cataclasm lost tapes.”
His journey to Iceland and the making of this debut album was documented in a mini documentary series.
"When I was younger, I remember meeting people that just struck me as really incredible people. After interacting with them for a little bit, I would just feel so affected by them… not because they said anything necessarily but just something about them is just electric, they just have all of this knowledge and wisdom… … I think everyone’s met those sort of people… I always wanted to be one of those people, and so I would just sort of try to act like them. But it never worked, I never felt like I was going anywhere or doing anything special… I realized that people are created by what they do. Who you are is a by-product of other things….You really have to be searching yourself and finding yourself. You don’t have to know fully who you are because nobody does, but you have to be in a place where you are searching for it honestly."
What Justin probably didn’t realize during our two-hour long interview was that he had become “one of those people” for me. He was electric, knowledgeable, wise, but above all - full of love… real love for himself and real love for his art. Because as Justin said, “people can always tell when music is fake.”