We had a chance to chat with underground music curator and video artist Ryan Celsius to dig into the vision behind his popular mixtapes.
When you tune into the live stream that runs 24/7 on RyanCelsius° Sounds, you’re likely to find yourself on a bus racing its way through a tunnel in the mountains of Japan. Or, you might be floating through the crowded streets of an urban New Year’s celebration. Other times, you might encounter any number of other strange sights drawn from both well-known and obscure sources.
No matter what’s on screen, you can be sure it will perfectly match the accompanying music track, which usually consists of remixed hip hop classics, new tracks from underground artists and samples from iconic movies and television.
Keep watching, and you’ll notice the chat is populated with enthusiastic discussions surrounding anything from music, to movies, to job satisfaction to heartbreak. The unique combination of music and visuals draws in a diverse audience, and real-time chat, both on the YouTube stream and in the Ryan Celsius Discord server, keep the community tightly connected.
And when Ryan himself hops into chat, the reactions from viewers make it clear that he is at the center of it all.
Who is Ryan Celsius?
#1 Youtube PHONK Overlord, SAD GOD, TRAP SAVANT Dark Passenger, Aesthetic Deity, Soul Physician, WAVE PRODIGY — Ryan Celsius is an underground music curator who creates mixtapes and music videos on YouTube. “For me, the channel was always about creating unofficial or official music videos and promoting artists with that,” Ryan explains, “I really wanted to offer something to the independent artists that I loved that would make sense aesthetically with their sound.”
This fusion between music and visuals is at the core of Ryan’s vision for the channel. He wants his uploads to serve as a counterpoint to the way the mainstream music industry handles music video production. “It often frustrated me that most music videos seemed to be an afterthought,” says Ryan, “especially in the mainstream; to me the audio and the video are inseparable and the approach to an artist’s project should be similar to scoring a film.”
“Most trends look like they were created by Facebook ad-targeting, mainly because they exactly are.”
In Ryan’s view, there isn’t enough care and attention to detail happening in today’s music industry. He blames the problem on the increased demand for new music thanks to algorithm-driven content distribution: “With the current music-on-demand algorithm curation meta that is happening now with popular music platforms (Spotify, etc.) and really fast content schedules, the majority of people are being blasted with music and style aesthetic that is largely contrived.”
The rush to put out more and more content to satiate the ever-growing appetite of the internet machine means thoughtfulness and intentionality are often sacrificed in favor of empty tropes and cookie-cutter stylization. As Ryan puts it, “Most trends look like they were created by Facebook ad-targeting, mainly because they exactly are.”
Because Ryan Celsius is an individual, not an organization, he is able to focus on what is meaningful to him, imbuing his mixes with emotional context lacking in more profit-oriented efforts. “I think the idea of a music video blog is more interesting if it is told from the standpoint of single person, and not a brand,” says Ryan, “This ideology is obviously less profitable and limits the speed of growth of the channel or community or whatever. But while I enjoy all the support and my subscribers, my primary motivation and audience has always been myself.”
While it’s true that refusing to chase the algorithm puts his channel at a disadvantage, this philosophy also ensures his channel always feels authentic and relatable — as his YouTube bio explains, he’s “not a Record Label or a Company or a Collective, just a guy who loves new music.”
Get on the bus
The foundation of Ryan’s channel is the bus footage featured in many of his mixes but especially prominent in his early Journey through J^P^N and Trappin in Japan series. Often sped up but otherwise unedited, the bus footage is mesmerizing in its banality as it transports viewers from bus stops through city streets and into the countryside.
The idea to pair this footage with music came up naturally for Ryan, who had worked as a bus driver for many years. “When it comes to the bus footage, watching it with music in the background was something I had always done for years. It made me nostalgic for the days when I was a bus driver and would need to build some good playlists to have on in the background while I drove long shifts.”
From there it was an easy jump to editing the footage together with music: “When I started listening to a great lofi producer, j^p^n , that is when I first had the idea to actually edit together bus footage with lofi hip hop in Japan as part of a project called ‘Journey through J^P^N’ which would be his whole discography synced and set to travels through Japanese countrysides.”
More than just pretty footage
In addition to the bus footage, mixes feature footage from a variety of sources, including submissions, images in the public domain and collaborations with other channels. Ryan’s work borrows tropes from experimental filmmaking and artist’s film and video. The hour-long bus rides through Japan, for instance, hearken back to art projects like Andy Warhol’s “Sleep” or “Empire,” which show uninterrupted views of things people normally ignore or take for granted. Nothing really happens in these clips, but the fusion of music and images tells subtle emotional stories, taking viewers on a journey both literal and figurative.
Unlike much of mainstream media, the visuals in Ryan’s mixes don’t try to fracture your attention. Clips that seem to loop endlessly and uninterrupted bus rides through the Japanese countryside let you sink deeper into the mixes, inducing a more contemplative state than your average music video.
The clips you see and hear are always familiar, but out of their original context, they can be hard to place. This breakdown and recombination is what allows for new connections and emotions to flow throughout the mixes. Rather than a repackaging of existing content, Ryan produces entirely new works from these recycled pieces.
In Trappin in Japan 13, for instance, the camera follows a crowd of festival attendees as they make their way up to an overlook where we watch some fireworks in an unedited clip that lasts nearly an hour. The only interruption is a pair of semi-transparent overlays showing a distorted version of some mash-up Simpsons-Akira fan art followed by the old Dreamcast loading screen. The rest of the mix features flowing slow-motion footage of the crowd, colorful food stands and the slightly over-exposed glow of fireworks in the background.
Near the end of the tape, the visuals get even more dreamy. A cross-dissolve sends us backward through time as the footage starts to run in reverse. Reminiscent of the reversed waves in Maya Deren’s “At Land,” watching fireworks fade in rather than out is equally beautiful and disorienting. All of this gives the visuals an immersive quality, as if you’re pulling these images out of your own memory bank.
Finding new music
In order for the mixes to work, all of these visuals need to be in line with the aesthetic of the music they’re paired with. In a landscape flooded with new tracks that may or may not be worth your time, there is a desperate need for curation. If you like lo-fi, vaporwave, trap remixes, chillwave, Simpsonwave or the experimental subgenres developed from these, Ryan Celsius will guide you to new music you didn’t even know you wanted to hear.
Ryan takes on the hard work of sifting through mediocre music to uncover the hidden gems — he spends at least 2 hours each day digging through SoundCloud and Bandcamp and listening to submissions: “The qualities I look for depend on my mood or what I want to express in a project, but in general I look for music that inspires a specific emotion strongly and offers something new or interesting to the genre it represents.”
Narrative of Emotion
The emotional impact of Ryan’s mixes relies, at least in part, on his personal connection to his work. “What I upload is usually a reflection of how I feel at a given time. When I was deeply depressed, I created HIGH ALONE and chose tracks to convey those feelings as accurately as possible, as an example.”
While he produces all his mixes with emotional resonance in mind, Ryan admits that some mixes are more accessible than others: “I think Trappin in Japan is easily the most enjoyed by listeners. The mixes are really versatile in the sense that you can enjoy them in many different situations; at a party, chillin alone, getting high and vibing out, not getting high and vibing out, working out at the gym, etc.”
As for Ryan’s own tastes, he tends to favor more dramatic fare: “My personal favorites are the SADTRAP and DARK TRAP mixes as well as the TRIPPY mix series because they are much more theatrical, atmospheric, and tell more complex stories.”
In any case, the visuals and overall mood of the mix need to be in line with the tracks that are included: “I think the visuals and actual thought around how visuals meld with the music and subsequently create overall style is extremely important, specifically right now where most people are just trying to quickly put out what can get the most clicks at a given time.”
Rather than worry about metrics, Ryan recognizes that his audience is made up of people looking for ways to process their own memories and experiences:
“I think people want music that they can hear and will transport them to the mindstate they had when they first heard the track or samples used within the track,” Ryan says, “It’s a very personal emotional nostalgia that I want people to be taken in by.”
Going live and growing the community
“I was not trying to promote myself as a brand or a large group,” Ryan recalls, “I’m very happy that the community evolved organically and people within the community have been inspired to create things for the channel.”
Ryan believes starting up the live stream in 2017 had a direct impact on the growth of the channel and the surrounding community. He goes on to credit the live stream with the “creation of a community around the channel that … would not exist otherwise.”
Now that a community has been established, Ryan brings in new subscribers through outreach on other social media networks and collaborations with other channels. He’s also active on Instagram and SoundCloud, but uses them mostly to discover and contact new artists: “Without IG and SoundCloud, it would be simply too difficult to interact with most people for collaborations.”
Overall though, Ryan takes a casual attitude to the channel’s growth, focusing on staying true to his own tastes rather than what’s trending: “I only want to create and promote things that I want to see or hear, despite what other people expect or want. I did not really expect the channel to grow as much as it has, but I am very appreciative that it did.”
The process of producing each mix is quite involved, but some mixes require even more time and attention. “Some mixes are definitely more involved than others and require different effort,” Ryan explains, “For example, a majority of the time for something like the Trappin in Japan series is talking to artists/producers that are contributing, getting permission for external footage, mixing/re-mastering audio from producers, and curating the mix so that it sounds consistent front to back while staying fresh.”
While the production of a Trappin in Japan mix is relatively straightforward, other mixes require a more nuanced approach. “With something like the DARKTRAP.MP4 or SADTRAP.MP4 series, these are much more involved. For those I usually storyboard out the main themes and points for the whole video, then break that down into individual storyboards for each video for a track within the mix; this can take months or weeks in addition to the countless hours actually editing and executing the videos.”
The stories crafted in each mix may not be obvious, but this planning and attention to detail help each track in a mix flow smoothly into the next without interrupting the emotional tone of the mix overall:
“Even though most people will not notice or observe the story elements and most of the easter eggs from the editing, I think it provides great depth and replay value to each mix.”
While Ryan does most of the creative work, he does have help when it comes to community management: “I have around 20+ moderators who manage the community on both YouTube and Discord. The Discord moderators and contributors play the biggest role in helping build the community and also function as a level of early reviewers. I usually push out early versions of mixes to people on Discord first to get their thoughts on creative elements that I am not 100% comfortable with in a mix or project.”
Though Ryan takes charge of the final edit, he still considers his work a group effort: “Without the incredible work of other producers/artists/visual artists that I select per project, it would not be possible.”
Ryan also spends time clearing copyrights for all his mixes: “For more mainstream content owned by large studios or record labels their policies are effectively random, and it’s difficult to get permission or even pay to use footage and tracks.”
Navigating copyright law is often more complex when dealing with independent artists and other YouTubers: ”They would at some point later get signed to a major record label and that label would retroactively block or copyright videos from people that promoted earlier works,” Ryan explains. “An example of this is $uicideBoy$, a popular group in the underground that was promoted a lot by YouTube channels in 2016 — now, at some point last year their independent label became affiliated with Universal Music Group. After this happened, a portion of their discography was automatically blocked worldwide, so any videos containing those tracks were subsequently blocked or copyright striked.” It’s an ongoing problem that many YouTubers can relate to.
Despite the enormous effort needed to produce each new mix, Ryan promises more experimentation and innovation to come, saying that “the visual themes will definitely evolve along with the music and my own experience.”
While Ryan doesn’t give any firm predictions about what we can expect from the channel in the coming months and years, he does plan to lean into the narrative and emotional elements of his mixes: “I think the ultimate goal is to create more and more immersive experiences to the point where each project is like a self-contained movie or a movie series, that is able to convey a wide range of moods and narratives.”
Outside of the YouTube channel, Ryan says we can expect to hear more of his own music in the future: “I’ve been producing since 2006, but I keep most of my projects completely separate and under different names. Only recently have I started producing more in ways that people will sometimes directly link back to ‘Ryan Celsius.’ In the near future I will be focusing more on completely independent albums as myself, but until then I will remain in the shadows.”