Highway Interview: The underground’s best-kept secret isn’t hidden anymore

Photos courtesy of Garrett Bruce

We caught up with Highway just after he dropped his self-titled 10-track EP, which serves as his official major label debut with Victor Victor.

Highway’s sound is in all parts enigmatic, as his striking style can make a superfan out of any first-time listener.

Captivating the game with his vibey melodic flows, gripping baritone and noticeably original production (much of which he co-produces himself), the 23-year-old artist’s very particular approach perfectly meets the growing demand for a hybrid sound that blends the line between trap, R&B and the new wave in a way that is fresh, genre-bending and still undeniably hip-hop.

While born and raised in Seattle, one might guess he’s from Atlanta from the way he sounds like a more introspective and melodic Future — proving that his robust cadence and transportative vocals are truly the star of the show. With the release of his self-titled EP, Highway is in driver’s seat of his own destiny — cruising in the fast lane towards stardom.

After dabbling with production and making music through high school, the Highway of today came into focus around 2019. Right out of the gate, he showed huge promise with a fully-baked, highly polished original style on early releases like the remarkably tender “4 A While” and a big co-sign from Seattle-based producer Basskids when he produced his 2020 project, aptly named Out the Mud.

Later in 2020, he began to build a small but loyal following within the emerging new Soundcloud wave after dropping an EP titled IVY, with early fan favorites like “Cash First” and “On My Mind.” By 2021, with only a few releases under his belt, he was already starting to show up on the radar of big names and important tastemakers like Internet Money, Generation Now’s Seddy Hendrinx and super producer Jetsonmade — who would end up producing “Another Plane,” a standout off Highway’s The Way released in February 2021.

Along with other standout tracks like “Fight Them Drugs,” “Cheesecake” and “Last Man Standing,” it was after this project that Highway really started to see traction amongst the young fans of the new wave. As more and more began to discover his hypnotic trap-infused style, Highway checked all of the boxes of an original and compelling new act set to break out of the niche underground. In addition, a few cutting-edge labels, A&Rs and bloggers with their fingers on the pulse began to take notice of his signature sound.

He kept his foot on the gas throughout 2021, dropping some of his most defining work thus far. In July of that year, he released “Count Fast Island,” introducing his familiar “count fast” refrain heard throught many of his tracks. He doubled down on the theme later that summer when he dropped Count Fast Untitled, which contained what may be his most important song to date in “Better Float.”

Many Highway fans cite “Better Float” as their first introduction to his uniquely compelling sound, immediately captivated by its punching bass and eerie production (Produced by XJay), and driven home by his intense delivery and raspy melodic flow as he contemplates the implications of his high-flying lifestyle. 

A few months later, the intense arrangement and introspection on “Better Float” was contrasted by the more turnt-up “Get It Quick” released in the fall. These two songs were important steps in showing the full breadth and versatility of his unique sound — definitely helping to cement his place as one of the most promising new acts bubbling below the mainstream.

By the end of 2021, those with their ear to the ground began to hear the whispers of Highway’s growing underground presence. He remembers the chance meeting with OGM’s Hakeem Rowe that ultimately resulted in his major label deal with powerhouse label, Victor Victor.

“It was the end of 2021. I had a show in LA, it was an underground rap scene kind of show put on by No Soap. It was crazy because not everyone really knew me, but you could tell certain people did — like an “if you know you know” kind of thing. We ran into Hakeem that night, and that was right when he had just got with Victor Victor as an A&R. That night he told me he already knew he wanted me to be his first artist. And ever since then we’ve been locked in.”

Almost right away they got to work recording Highway, his first release under Victor Victor which finally dropped last month (June). As his major label debut, the goal was to put out a featureless project that would define what Highway sounds like.

“The goal with the project was to really stamp the Highway sound. We wanted to get out the best, most updated, fully cohesive version of my music out into the world for people to take in. And also so everyone knows that when they start to hear anything similar to what I’m doing they’ll know where it came from.”

With just 10 songs, Highway manages to showcase his surprising versatility with a diverse and impressively cohesive tracklist. He’s at his most mellow on songs like “Take It All,” “Cash Talk (No Talkin)” or his current favorite off the project “Ain Change.”

In contrast, “Next Weekend” may be one of the most dance friendly tracks from Highway yet, its upbeat production pairing with his moody melodic delivery in a way that feels like what would happen if Future were featured on Drake’s recent “dance” album Honestly, Nevermind. Good company indeed. He splits the difference with songs like “Right Way9” and “Watch Shit,” striking an incredibly successful and balance between bounce, bars and laidback baritone-laden crooning.

As a longtime and fiercely independent powerhouse, Highway also explained some of the adjustments he had to make while working on his first project that would be distributed through a major label. 

“It’s definitely a lot different. One of the biggest things I had to adjust to is that everything has to be planned out and ready to go weeks in advance. And if you don’t then release dates and everything are getting pushed back. Rather than being independent where you can upload your music through Soundcloud or Distrokid and it goes up right away, you have to think 2-3 steps in the future so I had to really figure out how to get everything done on time.”

Not only are there no features on the project, Highway is fully hands-on with every aspect of his music, which helps to create the cohesive and fully developed sound new fans are falling in love with every day. Along with input from a tight-knit team including Hakeem and manager extraordinaire Chidiebere “Chidi” Udogwu, every song is fully co-produced from scratch by Highway himself — essentially creating all of the drum sounds heard throughout the project and then paired with the melodic piano, guitar and swirling Moog synths artfully played by the talented Jonny Made It

Highway’s unique arrangements and carefully crafted production play a huge role in his distinct appeal as well as his spontaneous recording process. As soon as he hears a beat he likes, he has to drop everything and immediately get to the studio. No pen or paper necessary. 

“If there’s a hard beat I gotta use it right then and there. The best time to record is right when I hear the beat for the first time. So if I’m out somewhere and Jonny sends me a dope beat I try to get home right away to record. Then I just get in the booth and say what’s on my head.”

Highway is also fully involved in creating his music videos, many of which come with an eerie, dreamlike black-and-white aesthetic and a counterintuitive retro feel that only adds to the air of mystery. He and his team come up with the concepts and together they work with their go-to visual creator, Frmnowhre to create simple-yet-striking videos that perfectly match his the style of his music and his overall brand as an artist.  

For the project’s cover art they stuck with the black-and-white theme, reimagining photos taken by the prolific young hip hop photographer Garrett Bruce, with an illustrated graffiti-inspired style by Chito — noticably reminiscent of the eye-catching illustrated aesthetic Highway’s manager, Chidi is known to use for social media announcements.

Fans can get an intimate look at the recording of Highway in this behind-the-scenes video shot by TLaw

As for the future, Highway has an open road ahead with no plans of slowing down. Now that the first project under Victor Victor is out the door, he is getting ready to open the floodgates with new music, visuals and bigger and badder collabs through the rest of the year and beyond. 

As word spreads and you start to see the underground’s best-kept secret pop up in all kinds of exciting and unexpected places, remember where you heard about Highway first.  

Listen to ‘Highway’ below

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