Photo: Joey Vitalari
ZHU Talks New Rave-Ready Album 'DREAMLAND 2021,' Being Inspired By Hyphy Music & Asian Americans Finally Being Heard
Back in the summer of 2014, a driving, moody deep house earworm called "Faded" crept into our ears, swiftly becoming an inescapable bop around the world. It topped charts around the world—including hitting No. 1 on Billboard's Dance Club Songs chart—and made the then-mysterious singer/producer ZHU a star of the global dance scene and a GRAMMY-nominated artist.
Since his big debut, the artist born Steven Zhu in 1989 in San Francisco, California, has demonstrated his dexterity as a vocalist, producer, remixer, and collaborator, keeping mainstream dance music interesting and innovator. He's worked with Skrillex, SOFI TUKKER, Bob Moses, TOKiMONSTA and Majid Jordan, to name a few.
ZHU's third album, DREAMLAND 2021, released April 29 on Astralwerks, is a tribute to returning to the dancefloor, invoking a dark, sweaty warehouse rave, featuring support from Channel Tres, Yuna, Tinashe and more. GRAMMY.com caught up with the "Zhudio54" artist ahead of the immersive, powerhouse new album's release to learn about how it came together and what he thinks the future of dance music will look like. He also shares what the response to "Faded" felt like for him, the influence of growing up in the Bay Area on his music and Asian Americans' ongoing struggle against racism.
Let's start with the new album. Can you take us inside the dream of DREAMLAND 2021?
Yeah. For me, I think I've evolved quite a bit in the last couple of years sonically and just in my craft. I think from the beginning, people didn't really know maybe all the different assets musically that I was able to put in audio format because, even up to a couple of years ago, people didn't know that my voice was on the records or that I had written some of this or that.
This record definitely allows people to peep more into more of the whole 360 perspective of my music—from the production, to the vocals, to the features, to the different sonic landscapes. I'm pretty excited to let people get a taste of it.
Not unlike the last album, there are a lot of awesome collabs on this one—including Channel Tres, Yuna and Tinashe. How did you choose who to bring into the mix on this one?
Everything, honestly, that I do, it's just been pretty organic. I think getting in the studio with an artist always leads to either the best or worst. [Laughs.] I think with electronic music too, it's a lot of times we'll just send stuff out [to collaborators] and you never know what you're going to get back. But I really make it a point to craft the songs and the way I think the mood and direction goes. For this record, working with each artist was great. They all wanted to be on it and it was all pretty organic.
Were the collaborations all remote or were you able to meet up in person with anyone?
I recorded everybody's vocals at my studio. The Yuna song ["Sky Is Crying"], her and I had written an earlier version of it a long time ago and I randomly stumbled upon it one day. I was like, "This song is really great, I want to put in a club." So, I redid the song and sent it to her and we finished this version of that record pretty much this year.
What was it like working with each of them?
Everything has been fast. I mean, I don't really do more than one or two takes on anything. I feel like if you're not going to get it with instinct it's not—I don't look at it as filmmaking, where you have like seven, 12, 50, 100 takes. Music is emotion first, so if it doesn't make you feel something immediately, then I usually go away from it and come back later. Or it just comes out and it's there.
And obviously, there's a lot of refining process but I've been trying more and more to keep things rolling and not as super-polished, pristine, because I want the character as well.
It's pretty easy to say this album will sound really good on a dancefloor and any kind of big-speakers situation. What do you think raving in the hopefully not-too-distant future will look like?
I think people are ready and I think when people get that taste of the feeling, they're going to go crazy. They've been starved and they're going to feast.
Do you think it's going to happen this year?
Raving? Yeah, definitely.
Almost everything was shut down, but we've never had clubs and events close to this degree ever, really. Do you think it's going to lead to a new wave of dance music or that there's going to be a new underground sound? Obviously, things are going to be different, but what does it look like in your head?
Yeah, I mean, I think the people who are in it for the music are going to survive and the people who are in it just for the cash lifestyle, they probably found an alternative. Sonically, and from an underground perspective, I think it's bigger than ever. And you have people all across the world being able to access sounds and sets and know about artists that you could never have 20 years ago unless you were crate-digging or something like that.
I think it's going to go back to being kind of a purist genre, but everybody wants to experience it. So, I think we'll have a second boom, kind of a Renaissance phase for dance music and I think it just needs to be authentic and it's going to grow pretty quickly.
And for you, as a DJ/producer, what does the energy of the dancefloor feel like from that perspective?
I think a lot of dance music has been pretty geared towards streaming and radio in the past decade. I'd like to see more dancefloor-focused and groove-focused stuff. But again, with that said, I'm also not inhibited to just four-on-the-floor and having to create something that is just super 124 [BPM], all-night-long stuff.
You're actually returning to the stage very soon with your DREAMROCKS shows [at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado]. What are you most looking forward to about having an audience again?
I'd say to feel it again. Everybody is looking at the future of having these shows, but it's not the same until you really get onstage and it sets in. Right now, we're just talking about it, but talking about it does nothing until you actually get up there and really get in that moment and understand, "What am I performing now?"
It's been over a year and a half, and just to get that spark and get that kind of connection again with the fans is really the first step for me because I don't like talking about making music. I just make it.
Looking back a little bit, what did the massive success of the GRAMMY-nominated single "Faded" feel like for you back in 2014?
That was the beginning of everything. It was such a gargantuan first record that I think the expectations for me have been [high]. After that, I was like, let me just go create bodies of work and really allow people to enter this world that I built, instead of trying to chase hits and trying to replicate and manufacture the same sh*t over and over again.
I really tried not to let ["Faded"] be the metric of what I was doing, even though that was responsible for probably the biggest record released and then charting and blowing up and being in all these countries instantaneously, that I've experienced.
Did you have any idea that it would take off like that?
Nope, but I always just knew that people had a reaction to the record. I just didn't know that 60-plus countries would all be playing it. And that I would hear it in person, in some place in a distant country that I didn't even knew played my records.
Going a little further back, how did your experience growing up in the Bay Area, attending raves as a teen, inspire you to start making dance music yourself?
Yeah, when I grew up, I think a lot of the culture initially was hip-hop and the hyphy movement that was going on in the Bay Area, [led by] E-40 and other [rappers]. And it was this era, there was a swagger, there was a Bay Area kind of lingo, there was a Bay Area pace of life, a way you'd drive. It's hard to explain unless you grew up in that era there.
A lot of the beats for those hip-hop records were super simple. They weren't super complicated, like sampled Kanye [West] beats or like [old-school] New York hip-hop. At that time, it was very simple, just 808s, synths, and everybody just dance. It wasn't necessarily story-telling, lyrical aficionados. It was "Let's bounce with the cars, have a good time."
I think that influenced a lot of electronic music of that period of time too, in which people just wanted to just have some slappers. And I try to keep that in mind all the time, to try to not over-complicate stuff, to simplify things to where people can just really feel the rhythm around the world, in every single country. Everybody knows how to move their body regardless of if they can understand the lyrics.
When you were younger and going to raves, was there a moment when it clicked, like, "Oh, I can do this. I can make electronic music"?
Yeah. In the beginning, there was a Haight-Ashbury scene, which was a lot more kind of indie [music], like jam bands and rock, with rock clubs. And they had raves in the Cow Palace, which was huge. It was a lot of trance going on at that time, and very deep, elevator house music going on.
I didn't really realize until I was a little bit older, probably 19 or so. It was in the middle of a show and I had this realization that 10,000 people were just staring at one person playing music, and that was enough, that was the future. It didn't need to be eight people up there playing instruments. It was one person doing it. I had a sudden realization like, "Why isn't that me?" and that began the curiosity.
That was a very transitional period in San Francisco's history, before all the tech people came in. It was very much music- and art-driven, from everything to bands, to hip-hop, to DJs.
It seems like it still had a bit more of that lingering '70s vibe. Not so much anymore.
Nah. I mean, there would be Sundays in [Golden Gate] Park, were you'd go rollerblading and there'd be drum circles. There were just more artists there, but then everybody left.
This past year has been so much, a lot of darkness, a lot of unfortunate violence in addition to the pandemic. And it's all especially impacted communities of color. How do you think as a country, as people, we can better support and protect the Asian American community?
For the first time, the Asian American people spoke up and were heard and had a voice. In the last 10 years, I don't really remember where there's been significant, overwhelming support from other people solely on Asian American issues. And I think people now realize that America, in 2021, is made up of a lot of different types of people.
And most of these people have lived here for at least a generation, and they grew up at the same high schools, eat the same food, listen to the same music, they just have different skin color. They don't, especially for Asian Americans who grew up here, really identify with the native country that they're from because they didn't grow up there, but at the same time, they look like people that grew up there.
And you have this expectation of living in both worlds and carrying two burdens. And obviously, there's so many Asian countries and each one has their own unique culture. So it's hard to just generalize all that. But being in America, you are just generalized.
Yeah. That's such a good point, that it really has been an accumulation—it's not like racism against Asian Americans just popped up last year.
No, it hasn't. It's been around since any Asian person has come over, from Chinese people to Japanese people, and back to the Chinese Exclusion Act [in 1882] and Japanese internment camps during World War II.
The good thing is people are talking about it now and they can do their own research and they can go dig a little further. I don't really expect other people necessarily to fully understand, but I think if they're willing to listen, then that's already the first step.
What's your biggest hope for this year?
I think that without live events—everything from sports, to concerts, to just being able to go to city gatherings like San Francisco's Bay To Breakers [race and parade]—people need to see other people doing things that they enjoy. Then, it won't so distant and categorizing different types of people, because at these shows you get to meet new people who like the same things and then you have a personal connection with them. You get to learn about their stories, you get to experience things with them and it makes you much more open to different things.
And I think all the energy stored up, from not being able to release it, has caused people to channel it in other ways, some positive, some negative. If you can't mosh at a show, you're going to go mosh protest, if can't go trip super hard at a rave, you're going to do it elsewhere, you know what I mean? So, at least there will be a place for people to know that there's other people that are similar to them, and I think that's a big, positive thing no matter what. Bad things happen all the time, but knowing other people go through it with you is probably one of the most comforting things.