Riley Smithson’s dad played the blues, so he was brought up communicating in two languages.
Everett Smithson gave his son a drum kit at the age of four, and Riley immediately loved expressing himself through percussion. A year later, the younger Smithson’s access to his other language faltered when he developed a stifling stutter. To this day, it’s difficult for him to express even the briefest thoughts, but that experience has also triggered a deeper fluency in music.
“With music, I was able to express things in a new way that I wasn’t able to verbally,” Smithson says. “It made my brain work in a new way that I liked.”
The Buffalo, Minnesota, native now lives in the Twin Cities and produces dense, hypnotic hip-hop beats under the alias John Shrimpnose. He’s the silent maestro behind sneering local rap group CRAM, and he’s produced beats for the likes of Psymun, Spencer Joles, Student 1, and Why Khaliq. Shrimpnose’s music eschews spoken language. He may sample a vocal peal or invite a guest verse, but he communicates as non-verbally as possible.
“I’m not even using actual words to express anything, but it works for me,” Smithson says. “I like the beats to be interesting enough where they don’t need a vocalist. It forces people to think a little bit. They have to put a little bit more work into it, so the connection is deeper.”
Last Friday, Smithson released his latest EP, Sullen, a 15-minute slurry of depression, desperation, and bit-crunchers. Sullen is a collection of moments. No one song lasts for more than two minutes, and all are strung together in a single Soundcloud track, ebbing from mournful piano interludes “Found Uuu” into jubilant toy guitar and tambourine (”Haunted”).
The EP took Smithson two years to write, as he chronicled the most trying time of his young life. When Sullen’s first notes were written, his uncle’s life was falling apart. His son was shot and killed by police inside a Plymouth Arby’s. Soon after, his wife died of cancer. Then, his son-in-law committed suicide. All within the span of a couple years.
“To cope with that, he started to get into alcohol pretty hard, and for a year, he said he had cancer,” Smithson remembers. “He didn’t, he was just trying to hide his alcoholism. He was like, ‘I’m dying, it’s OK,’ but he was trying to drink himself to death.”
All the while, Smithson was enrolled at the University of Minnesota and having a hard time coping. Not only was his family life uprooted by tragedy, but he hated the insular culture of university life. His stutter made him too self-conscious to make friends, and his struggle with depression only worsened the isolation.
Smithson dropped out his sophomore year and resolved to pursue a career making music. As he wrote in a 2017 essay in Pigeons and Planes, this decision would save his life.
“Music seemed like my only viable option,” Smithson wrote. “It brought me confidence and a voice… while college was just dragging me deeper into depression and poverty.”
But Smithson’s goal with Sullen isn’t to explain how he feels. Much like his 2017 EP Dawn, which was written in the two days following the death of his longtime friend Donnie, Sullen is a way for Smithson to confront and exorcise his emotion without fear of his voice betraying him. Every chime and glitched-out drum sample drags a kindred sense of defeat and triumph out of his listeners.
“I hope people can relate,” Smithson says. “If they’re having a horrible day, and they listen to a certain song or the full thing, I hope it makes them feel better. Or it accentuates their good day. I hope it helps somebody else the way it helps me.”