Ryan Haynes doesn’t look back on his early Pittsburgh gigs with a lot of fondness.
By his recollection, the scene was full of talented artists. But for Haynes — who performs as DJ Afterthought — it was cliquey and difficult to break into, and lacked support from major promotions companies.
“It was, like, these crappy little local shows … with terrible sound and 10 other artists,” says the New Jersey native who moved here by way of Morgantown in 2010. To make matters worse, the events usually felt like opportunities to hand money over to promoters. “It sucked, it was terrible.”
Frustrated, he started booking shows in Butler. “Once I started getting traction and bringing Pittsburgh people out there, [venue owners and promoters] were like, ‘OK, we’ll give you a shot.’”
Haynes says that things have changed in the scene since then, and for him personally.
After multiple national tours with flashy Houston-born rapper Riff Raff, and a more recent tour with Mac Miller, DJ Afterthought (who also headlines his own EDM events) is quickly becoming one of the most recognizable names in Pittsburgh music — even if Pittsburghers themselves are slow to catch on.
Haynes has always been careful to make his own way, and initially maintained relationships with Mac and Wiz Khalifa from a distance. “I never wanted to over-do my welcome, or be perceived as trying to do anything off of them,” Haynes says. “But that kind of catapulted my image with them, like, ‘Oh wow, here’s another person in Pittsburgh who we didn’t put on who’s doing something cool.’ So we kind of naturally gravitated toward each other.”
It was that mutual respect that led to one of Haynes’ biggest breaks. In 2014, on the recommendation of one of Miller’s associates, Riff Raff unexpectedly contacted Haynes. At first, Riff asked if Haynes could help find a decent hair-braider before his upcoming Pittsburgh show. “Then at the end of [the conversation], he said, ‘And I’m about to send you my tracks for the night,’” Haynes recalls. “‘I’m like, wait what?’ And he says, ‘If someone from Mac’s camp gave me your number, you’re a good DJ. If you want to spin my tracks, then come out.’”
Haynes now helps run Riff Raff’s tours and does other managerial work for the rapper. “When we get to the venues I’m the first one in … I’m talking to the promoters, I’m talking to the agents,” he says. “It really helped connecting with those types of people who are booking shows outside this area, and [who] have their finger on the pulse in different cities.”
While DJing might seem conceptually uncomplicated, it’s an art that takes patience, confidence and diplomacy. “I work with a lot of bigger artists … so they already have what they want in their head … even though that might not work for the situation.” But his primary strength as a DJ lies in his ability to work a room. “I want to connect to the crowd more than anything,” he says, adding that historically DJs acted more as MCs. “The DJ’s voice got smaller and smaller, to the point where most DJs are comfortable being that guy … in the back, just playing music. For me, it’s more personal,” he says. “It’s a lot more [about] wanting to build that relationship, and really have those people have a good time and really connect … instead of just standing there pressing play.”
Despite his national success, Haynes — who’ll release his first EP in March — is still invested in the local scene. He’s heavily involved in the locally-based clothing company Daily Bread and works with area promoters to bring major artists to town. He also started King of the Burgh, a monthly event at the Rex Theatre, where local rappers perform and compete for cash prizes. “We damn near sell out every time,” he says. “It’s exciting to see.”
Haynes also recently opened an office and studio space in ID Labs, the Etna studio which serves as the home base for Taylor Gang Records. As with everything else, Haynes, who started as a studio client, earned that spot by developing a personal relationship with the owners.
“There were a lot of people recording out of their basements,” he says. In trying to grow the scene, “The No. 1 question is, ‘Hey, what’s something we can do right now to dramatically increase our chances?’ One [thing] is that we need to have a solid sound and not some janky recording. So I’d kind of push [artists] toward ID Labs.”
In turn, studio owner E. Dan and house producer Big Jerm started recommending Haynes to anyone who needed a DJ or a manager. “They helped me, obviously, but I never really asked them for anything,” Haynes says. “And they kind of respected that.” When space opened in the studio, Haynes seemed like the obvious choice.
While Haynes says the scene has come a long way since 2010 — he namechecks Norman Dean, Choo Jackson and Joel Kellem as just a few artists worthy of attention — Pittsburgh hip hop faces challenges. It’s still tough to find support from the major bookers, especially those who mostly bring in rock bands. Plus, he says, “It’s not like L.A. or New York … there just [aren’t] the people here who are going to pull you into the industry.”
More than anything, Haynes would like to see the local scene take a more unified position, and work harder to be seen as a positive force. ““I’d love to see more people get out of here and get the spotlight,” he says. “But it’s also kind of a crab-in-a-bucket mentality — nobody wants to support the next person because they want to be it.”