Pop punkers in the studio with rappers. A common scene in recent few years, but step back to 2006, to Fall Out Boy's reappearance with 'This Ain't A Scene'. In the accompanying video, they're set in a darkened room with a hot hip-hop producer and his entourage on the mock-quest to understand and push themselves beyond the success of 2005's 'From Under The Cork Tree', to an almost successful result.
Ricky Cano has lived that. While his burgeoning breakout track as Ricky Himself, 'I Know You Like Black Flag' - a poised and primed satirical missile aimed at the poseurs and surface-level punks he sees around his native LA - is finding him gaining some attention, in actuality, he's been kicking around the music industry in various facets for a fair few years now, predominantly under the wing of producer Hit-Boy (Travis Scott, Kanye West, Beyonce).
"To see it kind of just starting now is a bit odd because I've been around [music] for so long that it felt like it just might not ever start to happen," Ricky softly admits, but something indeed appears to be happening. It would seem the world needs a laugh as much as it is the reminder that sometimes, what came before doesn't necessitate how you're perceived.
With hip-hop and the like undoubtedly embodying the renegade punk spirit more than its founding counterpart, Ricky's exposure to this world "seeing the real punk attitude through those artists - they're breaking the rules over there!" he says.
"That's how you get to the 5am sessions and guns in the studio - all that crazy lifestyle stuff, that's so not me! I was around it every single day. Going to this world, it's so tame in comparison that it's almost funny, which is what 'Black Flag' is poking fun at."
Someone who's confessed to being obsessed with pop culture, not only is his break out track littered with references, but our conversation pinpoints to various moments that have heavily influenced the world surrounding Ricky. This all makes him a rather apt candidate to properly take a look at just what's going on, and what's helping Ricky pick out the road to travel on this journey he's taking front and centre.
"That was my angle: where's the humour in this?" He asks. "It's just more fun to make music for me personally that way too, [especially] coming from a background in rap where it's serious all the time.
On his reasoning for why the rap game carried a heftier weight, Ricky reckons: "The stakes are a lot higher for a lot of the artists in that world. So, even though the music might be upbeat, the real-life story behind the stuff creates a serious day to day energy - on top of that, they don't ever want to leave the studio."
Figuring out who he wanted to be as an artist involved Ricky heading back to square one, even if that's proving a bit more difficult than anticipated. A victim to all-night sessions, and an impressively determined work ethic, is why we end up chatting at the reasonable 10am for Upset, but the ludicrous, sun-scratching 4am for Ricky, because he's used to "hanging out until like 3am to get something done."
"I've been in a room with a lot of dope, successful rappers and a lot of them work around the clock," he explains. "Leaving at 7am, 8am, and then go right back and then do 10 hours again. They make like eight songs a day because they need to get out of where they're coming from.
"That's the total opposite of where I'm at now," he continues. "More established people, or younger artists being discovered earlier by a label - the people I'm coming in contact [with] more often - it's just not as tense of a feeling in those rooms. In some ways, I prefer that; in some ways, I don't. I still miss part of the high stakes of feeling."
Ricky's seen a lot, but he's now more keenly focused on Ricky Himself, a figure making his way in the new-pop punk world, where beats are as consistently prevalent as are four hyper-powered palm-muted chords.
"I don't know how much of it crossed over because the worlds are so different that it felt like I couldn't take much from it," he mentions on what he's bringing with him after leaving the hip-hop world behind. "It almost felt like four years kind of thrown away."
All wasn't lost, however. "I got a lot of insight of how I could abstractly view my career through a different lens - removing myself from it," he explains. "But for the most part, it was like starting from zero and learning all over again. All the producers I'm working with, and all the songwriters and artists I'm meeting, have their own experience and view of music in such a different way. I need to learn from these people even though I do have years of experience under my belt."
In fear that holding onto anything on a conscious level too close would impede his progress, he mentions that whatever room he enters, his mindset is always: "let's start at zero". But there is something he can't control.
Obsession is the world's new obsession. With characters, TV shows, musicians; if you can think of it, there's someone in some corner of the internet whose life revolves around it - but a strange facet that's appeared over the years is an obsession with having people obsessed with other, regular people. Mentioning those two hallowed syllables - TikTok - for an artist in 2021 is just as important as the next lyricism or melody.
"The algorithm is so good to where you can easily just like gain a following; that's the perfect platform for right now. The way that music plugs into that as an outlet that's never been there before. Trying to navigate that, I'm a little bit older in comparison to a lot of the kids poppin' off, so it's trying to figure out how to do what you're talking about, getting people obsessed because that's just the culture right now.
"Not being native to it fully because I'm just barely a year too old to fully naturally understand these platforms." Mentioning his girlfriend, alt-pop songwriter Kailee Morgue, as having picked up TikTok "naturally", whereas for Ricky, "I was like, 'Dude, my head hurts trying to figure it out, but I have to'."
It's all these aspects of modern culture that make us circle back to 'Black Flag'. "When we made that song, it was [thinking] the most punk thing in culture right now is that there is no subculture. Being normal as fuck is the weirdest shit you could do. If you're the normal dude, you stick out way more than the person with green hair. I mean, I have face tattoos," he laughs, pointing to a cross on the far side of his right cheek. "But the stereotypical face tattoos in the rap spectrum.
"And then in the punk way, it's the Instagram kids with pink hair or rockin' 80s punk shit, but making 2000s pop-punk. It's just this weird clash of cashing in on the punk attitude, which is so weird to me but has become a bit of a norm. I'm definitely going off on a tangent!"
Ricky might be on to something. It's just over two decades after the first mainstream surge of pop-punk and alternative music, and the majority of acts in that era were just suburban kids wearing whatever clothes their parents purchased for them; and making music, skateboarding, or whatever else, to make sure they were rebelling against something.
"Mark, Tom and Travis [from blink-182], Good Charlotte - they were just the suburban kids who loved the Descendants and shit. We're re-living that as a culture in pop music right now where I think slowly, but surely, it's turning into more and more artists reeling back on being punk visually, and [instead just] making cool shit."
Being able to not only dive into this shapeshifting culture but to also survive is a facet that's thanks in part to his earlier career, one that Ricky remembers on his thought train process. "I've always felt like the one thing I took from now that, circling back a bit - now that I'm kind of talking out loud - the thing I took most from starting in rap is like the fluidity of adapting to your environment."
Of Ricky's current offering on Spotify, there are elements of punk, of course, but the beats that flitter and flow, his languid vocals that err between rapping and singing, make for an intoxicating concoction that's as laid back as it is urgent. Black Flag's follow-up single 'Fucked Up But It's True' edges more into stereotypical relationship pondering, about friends not liking lovers but being unable to give them up.
"A lot of people would view it as just kind of hustling to the next thing every time, [but] it comes off like a slacker attitude with me - it's not actually - it's more of if 'it goes that way, cool; if not, I'll get to it a different way'."
Ricky exudes that carefree Californian breeze, the kind that is as comfortable coasting on a skateboard as it is chugging a guitar or just chilling on the beach. Indeed, growing up in the City of Angels makes this a more natural appearance, but leaning into it has all been a conscious choice.
"It's like I don't care, but it's more 'well, if that doesn't work, I'm not putting all my chips on that, and it's not going to break my heart'," he explains. "That's why that song ['Black Flag'] is the spirit of whatever the EP ends up being. That song started because the attitude of it was exactly what I needed to snap into a new headspace to continue."
On what that headspace is, he says: "For my mental health, it's easier to just make a song like 'Black Flag' - maybe not do that every time - but take part of that attitude with me and download it and be like I can approach my career this with this attitude, like, it's not that serious.
"If I flop, I flop, and if it goes off, then the joke's on you guys. But if I take it too seriously... like this interview right now could be a make or break moment if I am too harsh on myself all the time, I can beat myself up for days about every individual thing that comes up. So when I wrote that song, it was more like, 'Cool'," he adds, shrugging. "[And] I can approach music and life that way."
It would seem that no matter how hard he tries, however, Ricky's musical DNA is made up of the journey he's been on. He's in a unique position. Of the names in music, only one other comes to mind with a hip-hop facing introduction and breaking through the barriers to a successful venture into the pop-punk world, and that is Machine Gun Kelly.
"I identify a lot with how with his career arc in general, and respect it a lot because it is a true-to-form pop-punk project," he says. "There needed to be that to re-lay the blueprint all over again. When I heard it, I was like, 'Oh, you can do that?'
"Him doing it - and it working - was important because it shows that it's possible, and it sounds corny, but a year and a half ago, I don't think people thought you could put that album out and still be looked at as pop as he is looked at."
Ricky's ability to seamlessly traverse hip-hop and punk gives the impressions of the ultimate 'cool' factor at play. It takes an understanding you simply can't learn to be able to fire up in genres that, once upon a time, felt worlds apart, but in the heady, wild west of the 2020s, are closer than ever.
"At the beginning, I fit into that world [hip-hop] very seamlessly because of how I grew up," he says of this effortlessness coming through in Ricky Himself's game plan. "It was similar to a lot of the people I was meeting, rather than a lot of the people I meet in pop, rock and alternative. [But] I can connect with both very easily because I had a vast experience of the types of people I grew up around and the schools I was going to."
Mentioning that even though he's removed from those smoky studio scenes of hip-hop - where everything felt life or death - "the stakes are still high" for Ricky.
"I can't remove the energy of feeling like there's still more to do," he muses as the sun begins to creep into his room. "I feel like a bit of a sore thumb in both worlds, so it's hard. Neither totally felt like the right fit."
Really, Ricky is just a kid "figuring out, like where do I fit right now," and there's nothing more relatable than that.
Taken from the May issue of Upset.
Featuring Lilhuddy, The Offspring, All Time Low, While She Sleeps, Evanescence, Manchester Orchestra, Gojira and more.