Hip-hop has always embraced an array of styles, flavors, and influences, with many of its producers drawing inspiration from sounds and genres most wouldn’t expect. One producer in particular has turned his skill with classical instrumentation and orchestral soundscapes into a creative asset, and is now working with some of hip-hop’s biggest stars. Born Torrance Esmond, Street Symphony is a Grammy Award-winning producer whose unorthodox musical background has given him a significant advantage in Atlanta’s ever-evolving hip-hop scene.
Esmond’s story begins with his early days in Tennessee, splitting time between Memphis and Nashville. It was in these cities that he found his passion for music and cut his teeth with arrangement and instrumentation.
“Both Memphis and Nashville are music cities with deep culture,” Esmond says. “Memphis is known for its blues, Nashville, its country and gospel. Growing up there, I realized that I had a gift for composing. The first instrument I learned how to play was the trombone.”
Esmond’s talents were apparent from the start. While studying at the Suzuki Institute in his youth, he gained a better grasp of music theory, studying orchestra-based instrumentation while learning the violin. Esmond’s early experiences in these environments are what give him an edge when producing for world-class artists such as Meek Mill and 2 Chainz.
“Having that background with education really helps with production,” he explains. “A lot of computer-based producers make a lot of their music out of key, and that’s okay. But when you start expanding to genres outside of rap, you have to have an understanding of music theory—not just producing what feels good, but what looks good and sounds good, too.”
While Esmond got his formal education in more classical styles of music, he found a more organic connection with hip-hop. Seeing the way his older family members embraced the movement generated an immediate interest on his end.
“I remember in the summertime my cousins would have their tape machines and they’d record the last few seconds of songs, play it back, and rap over the beats,” Esmond recalls. “My cousin loved Memphis hip-hop—36 Mafia, 8 Ball. Those were some of my earliest influences. I remember this one time in particular when I saw Outkast perform in Tallahassee—that was a defining moment for me and deciding what I wanted to do.”
Esmond began working his way up the Memphis music scene while attending Middle Tennessee State University, a school heralded for its recording program. After graduating, he worked with Gary Payton’s since-defunct record label, Rock Solid, which eventually disbanded, forcing him to consider his next move. It took some time and a few scenic routes, but he eventually realized that Atlanta was where he needed to be.
“When things with the label shut down I had to find something else, and I was really interested in the Houston music sound at the time,” Esmond says. “I ended up moving there and connected with Lil’ Keke and a lot of people in that scene as a producer, but ultimately I moved to Atlanta because I felt that was where the culture was.”
Street Symphony’s sentiment is a popular one. It’s a known fact that many aspiring artists have migrated to Atlanta in search of success in the music industry, but for Esmond, it goes far beyond that.
“Atlanta is such a dope city, but there’s so much more to it than just hip-hop,” he explains. “It’s really entertainment and culture overall. Whenever the kids in Atlanta start doing a new dance on Instagram, it becomes a nationwide sensation. When companies want to know what’s cool to market to America, they tap into Atlanta because they know whatever happens here, everyone follows. There’s just something special about the youth here.”
Shortly after settling in Atlanta, Esmond connected with Christian hip-hop artist Lecrae. The two had built a relationship during his time in college, and the artist had decided it was time to reshape his sound and image.
“I met him while I was in school, but we ran back into each other here in Atlanta,” Esmond says. “I was working with [Ludacris’ label] DTP [Disturbing the Peace] at the time, and he was trying to evolve his sound. He wanted more contemporary hip-hop sounds, more aggressive production, wanted to be more competitive with mainstream hip-hop. He wanted to make his music more relatable.”
Street Symphony found his niche working Lecrae, and the two collaborated on a number of projects, including Lecrae’s widely acclaimed album, Rehab and his Grammy Award-winning masterpiece, Gravity.
“When companies want to know what’s cool to market to America, they tap into Atlanta because they know whatever happens here, everyone follows. There’s just something special about the youth here.”
“I produced a number of records for him with both albums, but I did a lot to help him with his own brand as well,” Esmond says. “We got his label, Reach Records, going, I became an A&R for a number of his artists, and we won the Grammy for Best Gospel Album in 2013. It was an interesting time in my career, because it showed me that I could develop artists and help them get to where they wanted to be.”
Religion and spirituality have always had a unique relationship with hip-hop. Artists have never shied away from expressing their faith on wax, which was why Esmond felt the thematic similarities between Christian rap and hip-hop made the process organic.
“There really wasn’t too much of a shift, moving between Christian music and hip-hop,” he says. “If you look at artists like Tupac and DMX, they’ve always had spiritual references in their music. It’s always been there. As far as producing, I’ve always loved doing the songs that are the meat of the album, not just the dessert. I like producing the records that will stick with you, not just a trendy song. It’s easy for me to craft those records because the objective identifies with the types of listeners I’m speaking to.”
Having hit every major milestone in the Christian music scene, Street Symphony’s sights are now set on working with more mainstream hip-hop artists. He’s also been hard at work developing his own music company and label, Track or Die.
“I’m getting ready to drop some songs with some artists that I really think are carrying the culture,” Esmond reveals. “I’ve been working on the pop side with Sean Garrett, but I’ve also got some records with Meek Mill, Yo Gotti, 2 Chainz, and Trouble. Track or Die is my production and publishing house. I’ve signed a few producers that I work with pretty regularly, [and] I really started it to solve the massive problem in the music industry we currently have, with producers not getting paid for their work.”
While Esmond loves working alongside rappers and producers to bring out the best in them, his work goes beyond just helping musicians. He’s currently expanding his reach into philanthropic efforts.
“I started the Street Symphony Scholarship in 2015 for minority students at Middle Tennessee State University,” Esmond says. “I remember when I was in school and funds were tight, and I had to take on an extra job so I could afford school. As of late I’ve been privileged enough to give back to my community, so I want to help kids avoid the struggles I went through when I was their age.”
With so many accomplishments so early in his career, it would be easy to assume that Esmond would grow complacent. But Street Symphony is hungry, poised, and ready to make his mark in the mainstream. Now more than ever, he’s ready for his testimony.