Ray Dalton, The Singer On Macklemore’s “Can’t Hold Us,” Finds A Home In Hip-Hop
Sometimes, it only takes 27 seconds for life to change completely. Just ask Ray Dalton, whose half-minute hook on Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' monstrous "Can't Hold Us" took the twenty-three-year-old tennis instructor from Seattle onto a whirlwind tour that's spanned the globe and sent his name to the top of the Billboard charts, carving out a place in the history books along the way. The song, the second single from Macklemore's The Heist album, went platinum earlier this year, largely due to the soaring voice that entrenched itself into the minds of music fans the world over.
But for Dalton—who has been singing in Seattle's Total Experience Gospel Choir since he was sixteen—the song, not to mention the genre, is a bit of an odd fit. Growing up listening to soul music, he'd never been the biggest hip-hop head, limited to the songs and artists that came over the very same airwaves he's now dominating. "I liked to listen to whatever was on the radio, but I didn't ever grow up listening to any rappers," he says. "I've gotten more into it now."
With "Can't Hold Us" nominated for a VMA this weekend and Dalton working on new music with one of Lil Wayne's producers, Ray spoke to XXL about the transitions in his life since the track hit the mainstream, diving into hip-hop—especially the music of Kendrick Lamar—and the new music he's cooking up in the studio. —Dan Rys (@danrys)
How does it feel to have a platinum song and make Billboard chart history?
It's crazy. I didn't think the song was gonna—you know, when we released the song, I had faith in the song that it was gonna do well, but you just never know—you never know if it's gonna be the best, if it's gonna be the worst song. But this, this is freakin' crazy. I can't even describe it—it's overwhelming. I just wanted the established singers and artists to hear it, and I wanted everybody to dance to it—those were my two goals, I just wanted everybody to hear it and everybody to like it.
Did you always want to be a musician?
Yes, I always wanted to do music. I would listen to my parents' music and just sing with them and pretend I was singing live, and I'd watch all the people on TV sing, and I just really really really just wanted to sing on stage in front of people. I'm in the Total Experience Gospel Choir; it's a pretty famous Seattle-based choir group, but they're pretty famous in certain parts of the world as well. I've been with them since I was sixteen—it's not your normal choir. We've sang for Bill Gates, for President Obama twice, done some really cool things. [Singing for the President], that's the biggest honor you can do! He was in Seattle for a lunch-in, and then again for a rally. The first time it was [intimidating], then the second time it was like, "I hope we get to meet him!" We went to Korea and Japan a lot of the time, but the year that I wasn't in the choir [they] went everywhere, but I got to go to Japan and Korea, so that was cool.
Did you ever think you'd make a career out of music?
I wanted to make a career out of it; I didn't know what it would lead me to. I thought, "If I could do this..." I'd make small little goals every year and write it on paper, and my friend Camila Recchio, she brought me into the choir, and she started making hooks for a lot of singers in the Seattle music scene, and I was like, I wanna do that. So I started making goals to try to do that and do the choir. I was just making little goals, and I guess they just got bigger and bigger. [Laughs] I do monthly goals now, and then I have my dream goals of working with really established artists, working on my music, and traveling certain places. So I'm still always making goals.
Growing up on soul music, how did you get into hip-hop?
Someone in the scene needed a hook, and my friend called me and was like, "Hey, a rapper needs a male singer, you've been wanting to do this, here's your chance." So that's how it started, and I was like, okay, I want to sing with all the rappers. My name kind of got around the town, and that's how it happened, I just started making music with people.
I was never really into hip-hop; I liked to listen to whatever was on the radio, but I didn't ever grow up listening to any rappers. I liked some songs where they would do a little verse, but I wasn't huge into hip-hop as much; I just thought it was cool 'cause people did that on the radio. I've gotten more into it now. I really like Kendrick, I like Andre 3000—there's a lot of people I like. [Macklemore and Ryan Lewis] educate me a lot. Macklemore and Kendrick are very close. [Kendrick]'s really talented. And I'm not trying to be disrespectful to anybody, but in the singing world, there's people that—I wouldn't say they don't have talent—but there's people that are 1,000 times more talented than the people in the [pop] world that they have singing. But they don't get any recognition, or people don't try to sign them because they don't have that look, or whatever. And it's nice to see someone who's just really talented, has good flow, has great lyrics, and is just good. I know it should be about art, but when you pick a baseball team, you don't have the person who can hack it pitch, you pick the best. And I think we should always have the best.
I think that's sort of what Kendrick was saying on his "Control" verse—let's all be the best.
Yeah, everybody's freaking out. I think it's great. One thing I really admired about him was that he didn't go in an interview and diss everybody, he used his art about it. And I bet a lot of people went into the studio after they heard that, so it's a good thing. It's like, "Come on! Show me what you've got!"
Before this song blew up you were a tennis instructor, right?
Yeah, I was playing tennis and singing with my gospel choir. I'm very competitive, so I guess that's the only thing that's the same [between tennis and music]. I want to be the best. Maybe that's a bad thing to say, but it's the truth. It's all you got these days, you gotta be the best.
Is there any part of you that misses your life from before this song got so huge?
Yes and no. That's where I came from, you know, the choir and playing tennis. But people grow up, and I'm doing what I really want to do right now. Tennis was something that made me feel good, but this is my life. Singing is my life. So I'm very happy with where I am right now.
What music are you working on right now?
I'm working on a solo project right now, and I've just been making a bunch of hooks—my management told me to send them a bunch of hooks, so I've been making loads of them, and making songs that I can release next year. Not really big artists, but a lot of artists have wanted to work with me, and I think that's nice. It's a compliment.
Who would you like to work with?
Well I'd love to work with Celine Dion, she's a really good singer. She has insurance on her voice—that's crazy, you have to be one of the best singers in the world to have that. I love Lady Gaga's music, and I like how she wants everybody to feel loved, I think that's very important. And I like Missy Elliott 'cause she just does her own thing. Kanye too, Kanye does his own thing.
What types of things have you learned from being in the studio with Macklemore?
Take your time. Make the music how you want it to be. You're not in a rush to make good music. You know, I'm not with a label, so I don't have someone saying, "This needs to be done by this time." That's hard, because when you go into the studio thinking, "This needs to be a hit record..." At the beginning when I was making my music, I was like, "This needs to be like 'Can't Hold Us,' I need another 'Can't Hold Us,'" and it was messing up my flow, the way I make music, the way I write. So I just had to chill and make the music. "Can't Hold Us" is on its own.
What direction are you going with your new project?
Electric soul. I like soul singing. Electric soul is like pop-soul, but it's soul with a little twist. I don't know anybody who makes electric soul—I'm making it up. A new genre. I always listen to Sam Cooke, Amy Winehouse. I've just been listening to random stuff lately, I haven't found an addiction yet. I've been working with a lot of people—Kinetics, Young Yonny, who worked with Lil Wayne. A lot of producers.
What are you looking forward to at the VMAs this weekend?
I hope I win an award—what I got planned is a moonman in my hand. [Laughs] I really want to meet Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars. I just want to kick it with all the singers. Cee-Lo, I wanna kick it with Cee-Lo, he should be there.