Photo: Jason Siegel
GRiZ Talks Pride, Snoop Dogg Collab, Detroit's Music Scene, Giving Back & More
Funky-bass DJ/producer/saxophone player Grant Kwiecinski, better known as GRiZ, has been getting people grooving to his joyful brand of dance music for quite some time now. He self-released his first LP, End Of The World Party, in 2011 and, most recently, released his sixth album, Ride Waves, in April 2019. GRiZ's latest not only features his quintessential upbeat sound, but also an epic, somewhat unexpected list of collaborators, including Snoop Dogg, Matisyahu, Bootsy Collins and DRAM.
We caught up with GRiZ before he performed at the It Gets Better Project Pride party in Los Angeles to learn what Pride and being part of the LGBTQ+ means to him, among other topics. We also learned more about his career beginnings in Detroit, why giving back is so important to him, and the magic behind the collabs on Ride Waves.
The collaborators on Ride Waves are amazing. How did you choose this group going into the album?
I feel like I fell into some of these people's spaces. The Matisyahu thing, I stumbled into that because the bass player, this guy Stu Brooks who is music directing [our appearance at] Bonnaroo and SuperJam, he played with Matisyahu in their band. He's like, "We got to link you guys up." It's like, "Cool. Awesome. Yeah, that sounds great."
The Snoop Dogg thing, that was more calculated. As a kid, [I was] a major hip-hop fan.
I really love that track; what was it like working with Snoop? How did that collab manifest?
It was really, really trippy too, we got the collaboration and I got the vocals back from them. It was just the weirdest thing, it was like an email that had treasure inside of it. It was like, there's these vocals that are in this email and you open it up, it's like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction. You're like, "Oh my God."
Then working with DRAM was super awesome because I've been a huge fan of his since a few years ago; he's fresh on the scene right now. I had a chance to talk with him, talk through the collaboration with him and spin him the idea. When he sent back the work that he did on it, it just felt so right.
Sometimes you work with collaborators and stuff and you feel like you're forcing this thing to happen. You're like, "I don't know how these puzzle pieces are going to fit together but maybe we can make them work." In that case specifically [with DRAM], it felt like even before he had been involved with the song he was there from the beginning.
The Snoop Dogg feature, that's just like ... I don't know. When does he sound bad? That just doesn't exist. That's just not a thing.
That's so cool. So in terms of the creative process, it was like you had some ideas going into it but it all came together organically.
Yeah. Absolutely. I knew specifically the kind of thing that I really wanted to hear. For me it felt like a risk because I love the music that I make. Because I make music that works for me in my life. It's what I use as a point of celebration or things I like to rock out to. Or the music that I make is stuff that I use for a contemplative healing moment, as a point of catharsis for "this is how I'm feeling. I got to get this out."
Sometimes things feel really personal and it's hard to give somebody else, to let them hold the space. So hopefully they can represent the way you're feeling. Giving a sentimental gospel tune to Wiz Khalifa was like, I don't know man, maybe he's going to be like, "Is this about weed or something like that?" [Laughs.] That was another one of the songs that I don't feel like we really forced it too much with the features for this album. Things rolled along really nicely.
I don't think that anything ever goes exactly to plan, but that's probably for the best. Because the more you try and control a situation it just gets kinda f****ery-ish. It starts to lose personality.
You got to let it go and see what comes back to you. Everything that we let go and put feelers out for, that came back to us, ended up being the most natural and organic, and ended up creating the best vibe that we could never have planned on our own. I never planned to have Wiz Khalifa on the record. The way that that turned out, it couldn't have happened better.
"To me, Pride really represents bravery. To me that bravery is represented from this unabashed, "This is who I am. These are my personal needs and the things that we deserve as a community."
Can you speak to what Pride means to you?
If you look at it historically, it means one thing. Then I feel like what people were fighting for years ago is different in context to where it is today. But that's necessary because time changes and the needs of culture shifts too. But the basic need is still there.
To me, Pride really represents bravery. To me, that bravery is represented from this unabashed [feeling of]: "This is who I am. These are my personal needs and the things that we deserve as a community." To be brave enough in situations where you're being challenged against your beliefs by other people, to be able to meet those challenges with grace, and with strength, and not give up on how you feel. Not give up your position and the things that you need. Not shy away from the challenge and speak up for yourself.
Sometimes you run into situations where there's obvious hate or there's obviously awkward situations and you're like, "Man, maybe I don't want to make this awkward." You're like, "You know what? No. I need to stand up for the way that I feel about this. You can't be hateful around me or be bigoted around me." I'm not going to stand for that or I'm not going to shy away from holding my boyfriend's hand when I'm walking down the street just because I'm worried about what somebody might think. I want to normalize this.
I think the gay community has gained a lot of visibility over the past few years because of other people's bravery. At this point it's continuing to not shy away from expressing that personal sense of self. That's important.
I love that. And it's 50 years since the Stonewall Uprising, which is crazy.
Yeah. It was a group of people who were at the Stonewall Inn. There were police raids happening in New York at gay establishments. They were like, "You can't organize this way. This is illegal." Gay people would resist or not. If you're arrested or resist then it was like, all right, this has reached a climax point. The Gay Liberation Front was the foundation that was birthed out of that. It was birthed out of people standing up for themselves and being like, "You know what? Nah. I'm not going to go quietly. We're not going to let you arrest us and kick us out of our spot."
That's the spirit that we need to continue to hold onto. It's great to celebrate around it because that's awesome. If you can take something that has a really deep historical context, and something that has a lot of weight to it, and put fun behind it then you can normalize this thing. Maybe that's what's great about throwing a party and drinking and being with your friends. It's like, let's maybe make this whole being gay thing look really f***ing extra normal and fun. We can just secretly convince everybody that it's chill. [Laughs.] That would be nice.
Well, you have some great things planned for Pride, including a party here in L.A. this afternoon with It Gets Better. Do you want to talk about any of the specific things that you're getting involved in?
Yeah. I did a partnership with MeUndies, which is important to me because The Happy Hippie Foundation is a great charity. A portion of the profits from the MeUndies Pride underwear is going towards the foundation, whose charitable outreach is to create safe spaces for young people who are gay and have been kicked out of their homes or need to link up with other people in the LGBTQ+ community. They are the resource for that and without money they can't exist. We need to give them money; if you buy cool underwear then money will be given to charities so that if kids get put out on the street because their parents aren't cool with them being gay, then they have a place to go; that's the reality of this sh*t. If you're down with the cause go buy a pair of underwear and help out.
It's almost exactly two years since you wrote your moving HuffPost letter. Can you speak to what it was like sharing that and sharing that side of you that you hadn't before with your fans?
Sure. I think I needed to get to a point where I had a substantial career behind me because I didn't want to be defined by sexual orientation. Because I think that... it would kinda suck. I want to be defined by the things that I do—not who I decide to date.
At the time, I felt like this was in a good enough spot [to come out]. I was like, "Okay, cool. I've done my rounds and I'm cool with it on a personal level." I don't even see it as a thing. It's just what life is for me. Sometimes I get these reminders that I'm like, "Okay, cool. Not everybody thinks that that's normal." There's definitely a rift there. I think that it was important now that I reached this point where I was comfortable with myself, comfortable with the music and I was like, "All right, cool. I feel like this could help people."
After writing that op-ed I've talked with a lot of kids in the GRiZ fan space mostly. Then new kids outside of it that are like, "I don't really know you as a DJ nor do I really care but I really f*** with your story. I really f*** with you as a person because I feel similarly." It's important and hopefully it's maybe inspirational for other people who are like, "I don't know if I want to do that, to come out."
That was the Harvey Milk thing, it was like we need to have people come out and represent the community, because if we are all hiding it doesn't really help. We need this movement to grow. We need to be represented in public and that will help other people find the courage within themselves. Then it's like a domino effect, hopefully. Then you'll see this thing being normalized and hopefully less people will feel outcasted because of their feelings towards their own sexuality. Suicide rates would drop. People would be living healthier lifestyles. Drug use will hopefully go down, and depression, all that kind of stuff.
I saw so much great support from the queer community. I was so surprised to hear so many kids coming out of the woodworks and being like, "Wow, that's my story too. Thank you so much for sharing that. It's helped me come to terms with the way that I feel. Now I'm having these conversations with my family and my friends." That's helping. It helped a lot of people. For me it was reaffirming as well to feel like, "All right. Cool. We're out people. That's just it." It doesn't need to be some weirdo thing. It's like, "Yeah, I'm a gay person. So what?"
I'm sure it connected on a very personal level with so many of your fans. Did any of them reach out to you and come out to you, or anything like that?
Oh, yeah. I mean, there was a few kids that I was talking to on a more personal level. A lot of people were just like, "Yo, thank you so much. Awesome. That helps a lot," but there were a few Twitter DMs and a few Instagram DMs that I read through that I was like, "All right. Cool. I want to talk this person through it." People on some serious levels. "I've been struggling with this my entire life. Since you wrote this article I feel like I finally have a jumping off spot."
Like, "How? Tell me more. Do you have any advice?" I ended up talking with a few kids. Then we did Camp Kulabunga. It gave me these tools to be able to talk about this with people, and understand on a therapeutic level how to be able to connect with people, and just have a conversation and continue a dialog that is soothing for struggling kids because I was one of those kids. I get that. Having that relatability aspect is so huge because a lot of people don't have that. I didn't have that when I was a kid. Growing up through this, there wasn't somebody I could just be like, "Hey, so tell me what that was like for you?" There just wasn't that. I didn't have that. There wasn't an example of this. I could ask my mom but she didn't f***ing know.
You spoke to it a little already, but what role has music played for you when you were going through the more challenging parts in your life? Was it always an outlet for you?
Yeah. That's always the safe space. Sometimes words don't do it, like trying to have a conversation with people. I need that emotional feeling of music. That's always been my therapy, having headphone space and listening to music loudly. I don't know what it is, it's just some physics of the sound and, I don't know, but it does it. I can tune the world out and just enjoy that. It can completely turn my day around, a good song. I don't know what it is but yeah, music is my safe space.
I think it is for a lot of people. I also think it's really cool when artists share their personal stories, too.
You know the body weight blankets? It's like that. It feels like a cuddle in music.
"When I can't relate and when I'm feeling awkward, when I'm feeling out of place, I will always be understood and I can always feel understood through music."
A sonic cuddle.
Yeah. That's like what it is. When I can't relate and when I'm feeling awkward, when I'm feeling out of place, I will always be understood and I can always feel understood through music.
When you make music, is that something that has always been important to you? To create upbeat, joyful music?
Sometimes it's like both, right? Sometimes I'm just feeling like I need to write a song that reminds me to put a smile on or sometimes I want to write a song that's going to make me feel happy. Or sometimes I'm feeling really good and I just want to write a really happy song. Sometimes I'm feeling really sh*t and I want to write a song so that I can just get it out, some crazy dubstep something or another and I can just rage for a second because I need that.
Most of the time I'm like, "I need music that's just going to make me feel really cool." It's like putting on a dope pair of clothes and new sneakers. You're like, "Yo, all right. Cool. That's my sh*t." That's my mood most of the time. Saxophone is the instrument that I play and funk is the rhythm that makes my heart beat so it always tends to land somewhere in there.
You grew up in Detroit, which is such a breeding ground for amazing underground music. How did growing up there influence what you listen to and the music you make?
I think the big thing for me, kind of the reason why I'm playing saxophone and doing this whole DJ thing, was there was just this underground movement, and it wasn't techno. This was after techno. There was the underground, alternative pre-EDM scene for kids in downtown Detroit. They would have people like Dan Deacon come through and do shows. It was just bizarro sh*t... It was this nebulous zone of people just trying to figure out what is cool.
There weren't real paid gigs. They would just have parties in their lofts. It was this collective of kids called the Scrummage Kids. They had this thing called Scrummage University that was like, we didn't go to college, we did that. It was really inspiring to see these kids. I was producing music since I was 14 but this was now in the performance space. I was like, "I didn't know you could play this music out to people."
I'd go down to Detroit and see these kids do this stuff, experiment and have fun, and just go way beyond. That really inspired me to just do whatever I wanted. It broke all the rules for what a performance space was so I was like, "Maybe I'll do a saxophone thing. Maybe it'll be like hip-hop beats but danceable."
Then at Michigan State University, during my time there, it gave me the platform to actually do this in a performance space. They're like, now we have parties in basements where guys and girls live. They're called co-ops. There's a bunch of hippies. This was before the DJ movement in America, really. We weren't doing the EDC thing, how it is now. We weren't doing the Marshmello thing. Skrillex hadn't been a thing yet. Dubstep hadn't come to America yet.
We were figuring out this weird thing and it was like this strange electronic music performance space. Where nobody really knew what we were doing but it was cool and it was ours. It was techno, it was indie dance, it was pre-dubstep, it was hip-hop, it was electronica. I was like, "Cool. I'm going to play my music and play saxophone, and it's going to be f***ing weird." That's where that inspiration started.
In terms of giving back to your community, you do a lot. You've done six years of GRiZMAS, right?
What are your thoughts on artists using their platform to speak up on getting involved in causes that are important to them? And what's your biggest driver in that sense right now?
I feel like it's your responsibility to do it, if you have a life that's easy. I have an easy life. I decide to work a lot. You know what I'm saying? I think it's a responsibility.
I see things in my world that are nice. If I want nice things I got to work for them or I've got to insert. If I want a nice education, I'm going to pay money and taxes or something and that's got to happen a certain way. If I want nice schools, and I want arts in education in schools, and I want to see these certain things well then I need to contribute to that, otherwise I'm just complaining about a problem. I don't want to be that kind of a person. I feel like it's my duty to contribute.
We have to do something. I have to do something. I support Seven Mile Music. They do really awesome work. They create after school music programs for kids who don't have music education during the school day. That's what we can do. This is our community and we just got to help. We got to help each other out. The entire world would be better if we could all just fucking pitch in. Just do a little bit of something. Maybe by doing that it will inspire other people to do something. I don't care what it is, just do something.
I feel that. It's a lot easier to complain, but…
It doesn't help anybody. People need help and if you're just complaining, those words aren't going to help feed people or add art to the world, or help create places where people can feel more mentally stable or have outlets for counseling. That doesn't help, us just sitting around saying, "Oh, I wish it was better." It's like, "Okay. [Laughs.] Do something and then let's party."