meta-script11 Pop-Punk Artists To Watch: Taylor Acorn, American Teeth & More | GRAMMY.com
11 Pop-Punk Artists To Watch: Taylor Acorn, American Teeth & More
(Clockwise)Travis Mills and Nick Gross of Girlfriends, Taylor Acorn, Hannah Mee of Hot Milk , Dylan Tirapelli-Jamail and Julian Comeau of Loveless, Royal & the Serpent, Charlotte Sands

Photos: Katja Ogrin/Redferns; Thomas Niedermueller/Getty Images; Daniel Vogl/picture alliance via Getty Images; Lorne Thomson/Redferns; Courtesy of Atlantic Press; Jason Kempin/Getty Images

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11 Pop-Punk Artists To Watch: Taylor Acorn, American Teeth & More

Pop-punk has seen a noticeable return to popularity in recent years. These 11 pop-punk bands are following in the footsteps of their early aughts predecessors (who continue attracting new fans) and may be coming to a stage near you.

GRAMMYs/Oct 19, 2023 - 09:25 pm

Pop-punk is almost irresistible. Whether you're an ardent fan or revisiting the genre as a guilty pleasure from your teen years, its fast-paced infectious hooks and relatable choruses are undeniable. 

More than 20 years in, demand for pop-punk remains and its influence heard in a variety of genres. Established pop-punk bands such as Green Day and blink-182 continue to sell out large venues, attract new fans, and put out new music. Meanwhile, Machine Gun Kelly, YUNGBLUD, and All Time Low are making waves while earning acclaim for their contemporary take on pop-punk. Elsewhere, festivals such as When We Were Young and Sad Summer draw legions of fans with a taste for both nostalgia and new hits.

Today’s pop-punk bands aren’t mired by the trappings of what others say it is to be "punk" or bound by conventions of genre. Rather, they find inspiration in a multitude of styles, bending and redefining the beloved genre. Today, pop-punk is a little bit punk, a little bit rap, a little bit pop, a little bit electronic, and a lotta bit whatever the hell it wants to be. 

Contemporary pop-punk acts are proving that the genre is anything but a nostalgia fest — read on for 11 up-and-coming pop-punk acts who are carrying the rebellious torch.

Neck Deep

When you think of pop-punk, Wales isn’t the first place that comes to mind. But Neck Deep's  classic pop-punk sound and high energy shows fall right in line with any SoCal group from the '90s or aughts — so it's no surprise that they supported blink-182 during their 2019 tour.

Neck Deep have steadily built a strong reputation since forming in 2012, earning a Best British Newcomer award from Kerrang! in 2014 and a Best Single award in 2018 for "In Bloom" (from their third studio album, The Peace and the Panic). The album debuted on the Billboard 200 at No. 4 and peaked at No. 2 on Billboard’s Independent and Top Rock Albums categories. The band recently announced a self-titled album, due in January 2024.

Sueco

What do you get when an artist starts making beats at 17 years old and cites Kendrick Lamar, The Weeknd and Green Day as his biggest influences? That would be Sueco, an artist who leans into his expansive tastes and incorporates them to make something entirely his own.

Sueco made a name for himself by making beats for eccentric viral videos (with over 370 million views on TikTok). His songs feel both uncannily familiar and unique, pivoting effortlessly from synth and screamo, to rap and straight-ahead pop-punk to piano ballads. In an increasingly genre-less landscape, Sueco is refreshingly at home with being an outsider who acknowledges a bit of many styles. 

Girlfriends

Travis Mills and Nick Gross make up this dynamic, high-octane duo who’ve only been playing together in earnest for a few years.

Girlfriends eschews the heavy weight of emo without shying away from serious issues. On "Where Were You," the duo explores all the masks we wear and hardships we endure but are afraid to share, managing to be sincere and playful without being slapstick. 

There’s a fullness and maturity to Girlfriends' energetic songs that make you feel seen. And while the duo definitely employ nostalgic undertones, they offer a fresh and optimistic take on pop-punk.

Hot Milk

This powerful English pop group follows the lineage of My Chemical Romance and the weighty ethereal music of Evanescence, mingled with a touch of the vaudevillian presentation of Panic! At the Disco and Fall Out Boy. They heavily incorporate synths and other elements of electronic music, creating a big sound that's only buoyed by fearless lyrics.

Co-lead vocalist Hannah "Han" Mee holds a masters in politics, and her studies are reflected in her songwriting. The group often sings about relevant social issues, from mental health to climate change. Check out their most recent album, A Call to the Void, released this last August.

Royal & the Serpent

In a genre made up of black sheep, Ryan Santiago aka Royal & The Serpent stands out, skirting the fringes of alternative and pop-punk. For their standout efforts, the group have already collaborated with Rivers Cuomo on a track for The Knocks, and opened for Demi Lovato and Fall Out Boy. 

Royal & the Serpent vigorously embrace messiness, melding genres and eschewing being put into any one box. This embrace is on full display in songs like "Better," which seamlessly blends drum and bass with strong pop-punk guitar riffs. On tracks like "Temperance," Ryan Santiago’s ethereal vocals recall Joanna Newsom.

Royal & the Serpent's "Overwhelmed," hit No. 6 in 2020 on Billboard’s Alternative charts and was also certified gold.Their latest album, How to Grow a Rat, is a compilation of two previous EPs.

American Teeth

American Teeth create pop-punk fit for a dance club, but that doesn’t keep frontman Elisha Noll and producer Colin Brittail from moving from acoustic guitars to string, instrumentals to ballads.

There’s a contemplative vulnerability to many of his songs, which reflect the early loss of his father and a heart surgery he went through as a child. But don’t think that means he doesn’t know how to have fun; songs like "Tongue" can also get you up and bouncing with its irresistible zeal for life.

Magnolia Park

Despite the many contributions from artists of color in the punk genre in general, and the undeniable influence of hip-hop on this new generation of artists, punk and pop punk has always struggled a bit with representation. Outside of icons like Bad Brains, it can be hard finding notable bands within the genre fronted by artists of color. Magnolia Park is here to change that.

Heavy and dark, with sounds and stylings reminiscent of Linkin Park, this stadium pop-punk band uses aggressive licks and an unrelenting pace to get your blood rushing. The energy coursing through their songs is undeniably big. 

Formed in 2019, Magnolia Park has already signed with industry heavyweights, Epitaph Records. Their latest track, "Animal," featuring Ethan Ross of TikTok fame, already has over a million and a half plays on Spotify, and may just become your Halloween song of choice this year. 

Loveless

Former pop-punk cover artist Julian Comeau got their start from TikTok before teaming up with guitarist Dylan Tirapelli-Jamail to form Loveless. The duo have quickly gained an international following, selling out shows in the UK and touring throughout Europe.

Their songs are genuine and vulnerable, while simultaneously feeling vast, wide open, and public — perhaps echoing Comeau’s TikTok stardom. Loveless’ anthemic songs feel built to fill a stadium, and their feverish fans accommodate them accordingly.

True to their TikTok roots, they have been steadily releasing songs and videos over the past year, three in the last few months alone. Their most recent offering, Picasso, meditates on navigating creativity in the midst of their newfound fame. Coupled with a catchy guitar riff and clever wordplay, it’ll have you head bobbing in no time.

Mod Sun

Mod Sun, born Derek Ryan Smith, has had a long career, starting from back in 2004 as a pop-punk drummer. Since then, he’s continued working, steadily growing his fan base and performing with some of the biggest names in pop punk, including forays into hip-hop and hardcore. 

While Mod Sun’s 2015 debut studio album, Look Up hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Heatseekers Album list, it employed more of an alternative hip-hop influence than a pop-punk one. However, highlighted by tracks like "Avril’s Song" — from his latest album, God Save the Teen — it’s clear he’s made a strong return to his pop-punk roots.

Pop-punk royalty such as Avril Lavigne and Machine Gun Kelly have featured on Mod Son's songs, further lending to this cred. Whether the song is about heartache or partying, there’s an underlying good-vibes energy flowing through Mod Son's music, and you can’t help but find yourself swept up in it.

Charlotte Sands

With over 200 million global streams across her catalog, a Best Breakthrough Album award from the Heavy Music Awards, and write ups in everything from Forbes to allure, Charlotte Sands is making the kind of international noise that seems destined for massive stardom. And all this before the debut of her first studio album (coming in January).

Sands' music is a force to be reckoned with: a powerful voice backed by brash, rebellious, and honest lyrics. "Love You A Little," a collaboration with The Main and Taking Back Sunday mixes synth beats with hard-hitting punk guitar riffs.

Taylor Acorn

Often described as "genre fluid," Taylor Acorn’s music is a little bit country, a little bit pop, a little bit punk, and fully rocks. With powerful vocals that invoke Kelly Clarkson and Avril Lavigne, Acorn approaches pop-punk from a fresh yet uncannily familiar view.

Acorn’s 2022 single "Psycho" has amassed over11 million streams on Spotify. Her latest EP, Certified Depressant, was released this last September and navigates heartache, mental health struggles, and loss. The vulnerability in Acorn’s songwriting, coupled with her powerful voice, makes her songs deeply engaging and meaningful. 

10 Pop-Punk Albums Turning 20 In 2023: Fall Out Boy, Blink-182, The Ataris & More

Pop-Punk Roundtable Hero
(Clockwise, from top left): John Feldmann, T.J. Petracca and Morgan Freed of Emo Nite, Edith Victoria of Meet Me @ the Altar, Jon Foreman of Switchfoot, Josh Roberts of Magnolia Park, Ryan Key and Sean Mackin of Yellowcard.

Photos (Clockwise, from left): Joe Scarnici/Getty Images, Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Coachella, Scott Legato/Getty Images, Daniel Knighton/Getty Images, Rick Kern/Getty Images, Suzi Pratt/WireImage

interview

The State Of Pop-Punk: A Roundtable Unpacks The Genre's Past, Present And Future

With a slew of promising, diverse rising acts and major returns from big players, pop-punk is as alive as ever. Artists and industry players sound off on what a booming 2023 means for the future of the subgenre.

GRAMMYs/Dec 20, 2023 - 06:31 pm

Back in the early aughts, pop-punk was largely homogenous: a sea of predominantly white men who took over the stages of Warped Tour in their black Converse, lamenting their ex-girlfriend or small-town existence with few exceptions. But 20 years later, the genre has shape-shifted and redefined itself — and it may be more omnipresent than ever. 

While pop-punk isn't necessarily at the forefront of mainstream music the way it was in the mid-2000s, it's undoubtedly permeating culture. Two of the biggest artists in 2023 — Olivia Rodrigo and SZA — incorporated the pop-punk playbook into their songs; Travis Barker has become a go-to collaborator for a slew of rising acts blurring genre lines; pop-punk stalwarts like blink-182, Fall Out Boy and Sum 41 are returning to the genre with massive albums and tours; and When We Were Young Fest continued leaning into the nostalgia of it all, while celebrating both legendary acts and newcomers. 

One of the most remarkable aspects of the new wave of pop-punk popularity is that it's no longer defined by white cisgender males. The genre has become a more inclusive place than ever, with some of the most interesting and impressive music coming from women or people of color. Bands like Meet Me @ The Altar, Magnolia Park and Pinkshift have been pivotal to making the scene more inclusive.

As pop-punk continues to evolve, what will it look like? How will it continue to take steps toward diversity and inclusion? GRAMMY.com invited several leaders and luminaries of the industry to discuss its current state, how it infiltrated the mainstream, and the genre's ever-growing community. 

Quotes from these interviews have been edited for brevity and clarity.

What has 2023 meant for pop-punk?

Ada Juarez, Meet Me @ The Altar drummer: 2023 has been a great discovery year for pop-punk. Lots of pop-punk bands have been touring and playing festivals and getting their names put out there for new people to hear!

Sean Mackin, Yellowcard violinist: 2023 is maybe the biggest year for the genre. There are new bands that are inspiring and changing what music means to them – and it was strong enough to bring Yellowcard back from the afterlife, so for me personally it means a lot!

Joe Horsham, Magnolia Park drummer: 2023 is a pretty good year for pop-punk because it's officially getting mainstream recognition, and I keep seeing more and more pop-punk bands getting on rock festivals. So the demand is high.

Louis Posen, Hopeless Records founder: Pop-punk continues to be an important sub-genre in our community. In the 2000s, the community broke into the mainstream which expanded the community to a level where you can see now, in the most full circle way, the impact it had on fans then.

Morgan Freed, Emo Nite co-founder: Who would have thought that 2023 meant anything for pop-punk 10 years ago? The fact that it's alive and well, growing and thriving with younger artists who've turned what their version of pop-punk is into their own, as well as bands we've loved forever either making a comeback, reuniting or throwing together new tours with newer artists, is remarkable and meaningful. It says a lot about where we are as a country, as a community and as people that are going through their teens now or have been alive long enough to see its return.

Ben Barlow, Neck Deep singer: 2023 was a great year to revitalize the genre and give it a platform for even more in 2024. We saw the return of blink-182, Green Day and Sum 41 releasing new music, as well as a whole bunch of smaller, up-and-coming artists doing good things, too.

Jon Foreman, Switchfoot singer: [It] feels like every decade or so a younger generation discovers the beautifully dissonant energy that we all loved when we were young — and pop-punk returns from the grave like a phoenix reborn. 2023 has felt like the crest of that wave, with guitars and drums finally ringing out loud and proud once again. 

In 2023 pop-punk seemed to reach an even more ubiquitous level. How have you seen the genre regain relevance in recent years?

Juarez: Pop-punk has been a genre that tends to come and go in mainstream society. These past few years I've seen pop-punk get really popular once again — especially with blink-182 having their comeback and festivals like Adjacent Fest, Riot Fest, and When We Were Young having such pop-punk-filled lineups. Not only that, but trailblazers like Travis Barker collaborating with artists outside of the pop-punk realm and introducing their listeners to a whole new sound bring a whole new generation of pop-punkers.

Tristan Torres, Magnolia Park guitarist: Pop-punk has been bubbling since 2020, especially because of Travis Barker collaborating with new artists like KennyHoopla. But now pop-punk is pretty much synonymous with rock/alternative. It seems to be the go-to move for even pop artists when they do a rock song, such as Demi Lovato.

Mackin: 2023 is really a culmination of listeners showcasing their passion and love for music. I think it's a time of celebration and healing after a couple of sheltered and dark years.

Johnny Minardi, Head of Fueled By Ramen: Bands are having fun again and I think that's contagious. The tours are selling more tickets than ever even without gigantic mainstream hits.

Fefe Dobson, singer/songwriter: I saw that pop-punk was being championed and celebrated much more. It wasn't only musically through charting, but through fashion and culture.

John Feldmann, singer/songwriter and producer: Hearing Fall Out Boy on Sirius[XM] Hits 1, selling out the When We Were Young Festival, watching the Punk Rock Museum blow up, seeing both blink-182, and Green Day have bigger live numbers than ever. it's undeniable!

Dayna Ghiraldi-Travers, Big Picture Media founder: For me personally, it never went away. I have been working with New Found Glory since 2014's Resurrection and with Neck Deep since 2012's Rain in July EP, and haven't stopped since. I do think the return of Tom [DeLonge] in blink-182 did a lot for the genre, but overall the genre has held its ground quite nicely over the last decade.

Barlow: Nostalgia and youthful exuberance will always be a part of pop-punk. It's a broad spectrum in terms of the sound, the message and the subject matter, and so it appeals to people on a number of levels. [It] also maybe [has] something to do with rap, pop and electronic music taking inspiration from the genre allowing it to slowly filter into the mainstream. 

Why do you think this music — whether old or new — is resonating so strongly again?

Juarez: Old pop-punk never truly "died" or "got old." We hear the iconic pop-punk songs we all loved growing up constantly in today's day and age! Personally, I spend a lot of my time listening to older pop-punk, such as blink-182, Green Day, and Simple Plan; even newer than those, like The Story So Far, Knuckle Puck, and Neck Deep. It never fails to send me through a whirlwind of emotions, happiness, angst, nostalgia. It's a great genre to feel different emotions, and that's why it'll never truly get old.

Mackin: Music does go through cycles, and we are in a really refreshing time where the energy and the angsty sort of nature just collide, and it feels new again.

KennyHoopla, musician: History always repeats itself. On top of that, the world is going through a lot right now and pop-punk/emo music has resembled that. People are naturally in an emotional state right now.

Dobson: For myself, I crave songs that I can sing at the top of my lungs and let all my emotions hang out unapologetically. I think we just needed that release, and pop-punk has that rebellious and raw, honest quality to it.  

Vince Ernst, Magnolia Park keyboardist: I think this style of music is pretty relevant because it just has a youthful energy. The messages of those songs such as heartbreak, feeling like you don't fit in and wanting to be your own person will always resonate with the younger generations. Also, the classic songs of the past like "Misery Business," "Sugar, We're Going Down" and "All The Small Things" are just great songs. And great music will always stand the test of time.

Minardi: Lyrically, the genre has always been relatable for any mood. I don't think other genres do that as much, especially for younger fan bases.

Foreman: Sometimes it's helpful to step back and look at the broad strokes of adolescent development or even to associate a Jungian archetype to a specific age demographic. Post-pubescent humans are challengers, dreamers: questioning the established rules, pushing back on boundaries and societal norms. Punk music provides a perfect venue for these doubts and questions. Punk thrives when society is riddled with hypocrisy, greed and injustice. Punk rock is an organism that feeds on the dark, ugly, shameful parts of our culture, exposing these social ills to the light. Punk rock asks questions and challenges the status quo. Fortunately for punk-rock, (and unfortunately for humans) these dark times provide ample fodder for punk songs. 

Freed: I think we're going through a time where the world is so f—ed, and the information we receive is so quick and vile that we yearn for something like nostalgia (I wish there was a better term). There are also always going to be teenagers, and teenagers need something to listen to that speaks to them in a way they can understand and relate to. They're smart and see through manufactured, overly-produced s—. And that time is now. The teens have discovered emo and pop-punk, and that rocks. 

Ghiraldi-Travers: I think this music brings an energy that other genres do not. After a worldwide pandemic and the political climate, we need that high-energy and politically charged anti-establishment inspiration that we get out of pop-punk to keep pushing us along. 

Barlow: There's a realness and an honesty to pop-punk, as well as energy. Something undeniably fun and catchy, the soundtrack to your best times and the arm round the shoulder in your worst times. 

Feldmann: I think people want to have fun again at shows, and now that the pandemic is over people are actually going out and living their lives! I think the indie bedroom thing, (i.e. music to do homework to) is still super relevant, but people want to see live instruments being played and actually have an experience.

Posen: Pop-punk has a very close connection between artist and fan. They're almost one and the same and they are in it together. That makes for an incredibly connected community that wants to help and promote each other.

How can pop-punk make more space for marginalized artists?

Dobson: When my first album came out, I remember feeling like I didn't quite fit in, which I was already kind of used to growing up. I didn't really know where my space was at first but I did find a sense of community in the genre with a few other artists. I think it was because we celebrated each other's individuality. We shopped from similar stores, we enjoyed similar influences and we just wanted to be truly seen and heard — some of us for the first time ever.

Foreman: If punk rock is the definition of anti-establishment, then the genre has an obligation to be leading the way forward in making room for the marginalized and championing the causes of the ones who don't fit in.

Juarez: Pop-punk can always make more space for marginalized artists by just being open-minded with show lineups, festivals and even with communities! The more we talk about the bands around us, the more those bands get opportunities, too. Many people and artists from various walks of life listen to and/or play pop-punk — we all deserve these opportunities.

KennyHoopla: By doing it in the places that really matter. Helping local bands and giving your support to local scenes.  I've seen fundraisers for dying venues, free shows, collaboration within the scene [help].

Josh Roberts, Magnolia Park singer: Pop-punk, as we all know, has been dominated by mostly white guys, so it's been a little difficult for marginalized artists to have a space. For example, we get a lot of racist comments. But I think we can make the space safer by just taking the time to educate ourselves and being open to the messages that these artists bring to the table, even if it makes you uncomfortable. 

Barlow: With pop-punk being part of the alternative scene, it's very inclusive and welcoming. Everyone is bound by the shared love of something that often feels like more than music. However, it's historically been pretty white and we can always do better, so, no matter who you are, who you love, the color of your skin, welcome, you'll love it here. Start a band, get involved in your local scene in whatever way you can [and] know that this is a world where everyone can thrive and have a voice. 

Posen: We can be more aware of artists and fans who share the same passions, interests and values but find themselves outside the community. If we raise awareness, both those in the community would reach out and those outside would feel more welcome. At Hopeless, we make it part of all our conversations about signings, hiring and other decisions to make sure we aren't unconsciously leaving anyone out. One of the results is a current artist roster where front people are more than 50% female or non-binary identifying artists.

Ghiraldi-Travers: If the most established artists take younger bands out on the road with them, it is the best way for the marginalized bands to gain new fans. It would also be great for the more popular artists to give a space for features on songs they are releasing that connect directly to that new band's Spotify account. 

Freed: I feel lucky that this scene is the most accepting community I've ever encountered. My wish is that as new generations of artists emerge into the scene and create new spaces within the pop-punk community, [so] inclusivity will be so ingrained into the scene that it won't even be a question.

How has When We Were Young helped give pop-punk a more mainstream boost?

Juarez: A festival as exclusive and influential as When We Were Young was a huge boost for pop-punk in the mainstream — it's a great opportunity for such a community of people to come together and listen to their favorite artists in the same place and create memories. Everyone talks about it, everyone posts about it, people who missed out wish they were able to be there.

Posen: The When We Were Young Festival has played a significant role in the rise in popularity and excitement around iconic artists from our community and the connection they have to the newer generation of artists.

Mackin: Yellowcard grew up dreaming to one day be on the Vans Warped Tour, and in our career we were included in their lineup nine separate times. So playing WWWYF really felt nostalgic, and getting to share the stage with so many of our friends in one place, I think it showed other people and listeners (who may not have already been familiar with the scene) how many people love this sub-culture of music. 

Minardi: Beyond the 85,000 [people] in attendance each day, the social media presence that goes viral with announcements covers a lot of ground that standard roll out plans for music don't always hit.

Feldmann: When my band Goldfinger played When We Were Young, we had close to 50,000 people watching us. I would say 80% of them had never seen our band. I think it was a great place for young people to see some of the legacy acts and also see some of the new current pop-punk bands. That festival was huge.

Foreman: I love to see a lot of my friends on the bill, bands that haven't really toured for years are getting back together to play the festival. And I love that the world is getting to hear their songs again. 

Ghiraldi-Travers I was lucky enough to attend When We Were Young in 2022 and was hired to run the press room at the 2023 festival and the energy of this festival is palpable. You walk the grounds and see ages of fans who are small enough to be on their parents shoulders and fans in their sixties. It has brought together all types of music lovers and is incredible to witness a sea of emo/pop-punk/rock fans flood the streets of Las Vegas. 

Freed: I think When We Were Young took all the best bands and brought them back into the spotlight. I hope that people who have been hooked back into the scene by WWWY's nostalgia focus are also able to check out the passionate and heartfelt work that other artists/creatives are doing to push the needle forward on emo.

Which artists do you believe are bringing pop-punk into the future and why?

Juarez: There are many artists out there bringing the genre into the future and some of them are us, Olivia Rodrigo, Anxious, Willow Smith, KennyHoopla, Daisy Grenade, Pool Kids, Pollyanna, and Citizen! The list goes on and on. All these artists are bringing something new to the table, whether it be a new sound or merging pop-punk with other genres. It's refreshing and new — as it should be.

KennyHoopla: Neck Deep, Hot Mulligan, Magnolia Park, Knuckle Puck are taking pop-punk into the future.

Freddie Criales, Magnolia Park guitarist: TX2 is someone who is bringing pop-punk to the future. Not only is his music good, but he also makes it a point to make his shows a safe space for marginalized groups. He speaks out against a lot of the injustices that are put on people in the LGBTQIA+ community, and I think that's pretty important. Stand Atlantic is another band that comes to mind. They are really good at infusing a lot of futuristic sounds into their music, and I think that's important because that keeps the music modern, fresh and inspiring to the next gen.

Minardi: Games We Play, jxdn, Meet Me @ The Altar, Hot Mulligan and Anxious are all doing it in their own authentic way and kicking ass.

Feldmann: Turnstile, Hot Mulligan, Heart Attack Man, KennyHoopla, Alexsucks, 408...there's too many to mention here!

Ghiraldi-Travers: I see incredible potential in House Parties, NOAHFINNCE, Greyson Zane, Hot Mulligan, Felicity, Action/Adventure, Magnolia Park, Spanish Love Songs, and of course, Meet Me @ The Altar. 

Dobson: I think Avril [Lavigne] continues to bring the genre into the future. I love that she's always been herself and stuck to her vision, which is something that isn't always easy to do in this industry.

Freed: Title Fight, Meet Me @ The Altar, Noelle Sucks, Pile of Love, Captain Jazz, Home is Where, charmer, Egbert the nerd, Petey, awake but still in bed, Heart Attack Man, Alien Boy, Carly Cosgrove, Dogleg, Hot Mulligan and tons of already popular artists switching their styles to pop-punk/emo.

Barlow: I think KennyHoopla, for sure. To see a Black-fronted pop-punk band — shout-out Magnolia Park — is hugely inspiring and nothing but a good thing for the scene. [Josh Roberts] has insane energy and a captivating stage presence. He writes from the heart and takes little drops from other genres which will absolutely push the genre forward. 

Posen: From the Hopeless roster, artists like Scene Queen, NOAHFINNCE, TX2, LOLO, Pinkshift, phem, and others are leading us into the new chapter of our scene. They are not stuck on sounding a certain way, looking a certain way or saying a specific thing. They represent how young people feel today.

Where do you think the genre is headed in 2024 and beyond?

Dobson: Pop-punk, though [it] wasn't in the spotlight or "mainstream" for a minute, never really went anywhere. It's always been there. 

KennyHoopla: It's either going to blow up, or show that it was truly just a just a moment that paired well with the world's events. Only time can tell, but there will always be a space for those who grew up listening to pop-punk and just never grew out of it.

Juarez: I think pop-punk will continue to mold itself into a genre that many different people want to be a part of. It's more than a genre — it's also a community. The pop-punk community is vast and should be accepting and open-minded.

Minardi: Hopefully it's headed to a place that can help launch the next batch of great artists versus only supporting the legacy.

Roberts: I think pop-punk will be something that people use to infuse into their sound — like a hyper-pop artist who uses a pop-punk vocal cadence. Or, a pop artist using a pop-punk guitar riff. At this point, artists aren't really making one type of genre. They infuse a bunch of different genres together to make something new. So I think pop-punk will be more of an integration than a standalone genre. But of course, there's still gonna be a few artists just doing the classic sound.

Posen: The newer pop-punk and other related genres in our community are becoming more diverse with less boundaries [in terms of] sounds, look, historical culture and other differences. It's so cool to see the melting pot of people, sounds and ideas create music and a scene with far less limitations creatively and otherwise.

Ghiraldi-Travers: The genre is more solidified than ever and is only going to continue to grow. The established talent is cranking out some of the best albums of their career which is only going to inspire up-and-coming musicians to keep playing and keep growing. They see longevity, and it is inspiring. 

Barlow: The current crop of bands are the best they've ever been, and the heavy hitters are still very active which makes for a healthy scene. The scene is strong enough right now to keep making waves and growing, old fans rediscovering and new fans being made. Plus, it's only a matter of time before the next blink-182 are found in the mountains of California, farting and laughing at dick jokes. 

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SteveAoki
Steve Aoki

Photo: Xavier Luggage

interview

Steve Aoki Connects Music & The Card-Game Metaverse On 'Hiroquest': "It's About Telling The Story Of The Future Cryptid World"

The trailblazing entrepreneur discusses his fascination with world-building and how the genre-bending 'HiROQUEST' album melds tradable card games and tunes in a "first of its kind" scenario.

GRAMMYs/Sep 13, 2022 - 06:33 pm

He’s a globetrotting DJ, a best-selling author, a renowned restaurateur, a label boss, a philanthropist, a film scorer, and a cake-launching showman. This vast list of titles could only belong to one man: Steve Aoki.

Aoki has unleashed energizing music since the 1990s, first lending his vocals and guitar skills to post-hardcore and punk bands like This Machine Kills, Esperanza and The Fire Next Time. He launched his own Dim Mak label in 1996 and swiftly locked into discovery mode, establishing a clear runway toward success for seminal indie-electronic acts like Bloc Party and The Bloody Beetroots while he was at it.

In the past decade, Aoki’s has focused mostly on EDM, where he’s racked up a number of accolades including repeat appearances on Forbes’ top-paid DJs list, as well as single digit placements in DJ Mag’s Top 100 poll. That’s all in addition to opening his own quick-service yakitori spot with his brother Kevin, Kura Kura Pa, and another club-based pizza concept, PIZZAOKI, as well as penning memoirs, funding brain science research, and clocking hundreds of shows per calendar year. His secret to staying on top is that he simply never slows down.

"Every single project that I've done has, on some level, been informed by my environment, and I think that’s what allowed me to become such a global artist instead of sticking to a very specific sound," Aoki tells GRAMMY.com ahead of the release of his newest LP and crossover venture, HiROQUEST: Genesis. "I think music is much more fluid than that, and that's why I’ll literally go through so many genres."

The forthcoming album, which arrives Sept. 16 via Dim Mak, is a testament to that fact. Its 20+ selections weave through waveforms shaped by rock riffs, country strums, Latin heat, hazy rhymes and the types of blissful, vocal-forward EDM hooks that make Aoki famous. For longtime followers of Aoki’s output, it’s a welcome return to his roots and a shining beacon of what’s still to come.

HiROQUEST: Genesis features collaborations with established stars like Timmy Trumpet and emo pioneers Taking Back Sunday, but it also serves as an introduction to the artists Aoki believes will be the "next big guys." The LP is intricately connected to MetaZoo, a hugely popular tradable card game (TCG) for which Aoki is also the co-founder.

"During COVID, I was into Pokemon big time — I mean, I spent $420,000 on one Illustrator card, so yeah, I’m a little obsessed," he shares with a laugh, explaining how he first became enamored with the collectibles community. It only made sense to share his enthusiasm for TCGs with his loyal fan base by bringing his MetaZoo IP and music together in a way that’s never been done before.

GRAMMY.com caught up with Aoki to learn more about how he hopes to transcend cultures with this novel crossover, and why he’s never one to shell out music — or a business plan — that’s played out or predictable.

SteveAoki

This article has been edited for clarity.

There are so many tracks on HiROQUEST: Genesis. How do they all fit together?

It's really 21 tracks, because there are five melodias which introduce the five different factions of HiROQUEST, who are essentially this world of characters who exist in the future. I wanted to really connect the world-building that I'm doing outside of [the studio] with the musical side of HiROQUEST as well, and the album was one way to do this.

Was this conceptual approach something you always wanted to take, or was it a product of the COVID slowdown?

This album was born in the pandemic, and it was completely different from any other project I’ve done. I made it in an effort to keep up with the global brand and sound of Steve Aoki — regardless of the criticism, the hate, whatever is out there, I’m always looking to explore and work in new genres, and this time the core of the album turned out to be very self-reflective.

I had so much time to experiment, and previous to COVID, I've kept a steady schedule of never breaking below 200 shows in a year. When your schedule is that structured, everything that you do has a purpose, and it has a deadline. There was no time to have free flow — and I wanted that, but I also wanted to stay on track and pump out music. During COVID, I realized there's no f—ing deadline! I'm gonna experiment. I want to grab my guitar. I'm gonna grab my bass. I wanted to have fun and also I wanted to make high frequency music because I was getting really into mindfulness and meditation, too. I was going all over the place and a lot of that music ended up in NFTs.

In that same period of time, I thought, wouldn't it be interesting to go back and focus on more of the alternative rock sounds that I loved growing up that I’d buried, almost, when I became a more prolific electronic artist? I thought I’m going to go back to my roots of being in a band and with that note, I'm gonna really put on my A&R hat and find the new artists that are really exciting right now.

SteveAokiGlobalDanModSun

*(L-R) Global Dan, Steve Aoki, Mod Sun. Photo: Philippe Rivain*

On first listen, its punk aesthetic really stood out, which makes sense considering Dim Mak’s beginnings. Was it cool to reconnect with that nostalgic energy?

I remember when I heard Bloc Party’s "She's Hearing Voices" in 2003, and I was like, this is f—ing incredible! And they said you're the only label we want to work with because we don't want to sign to a major label. So then I put out the Banquet EP in 2004. Then I heard the Kills’ demo and I released the Black Rooster EP. I just remember those times when it was just so exciting to hear something that you knew was going to blow the f— up.

And now I feel this way about the artists on this album. There’s Latin, hip-hop, EDM, and then we have people like Kane Brown who’s a rising massive country singer. I wanted to maintain that genreless feel, but obviously, a big part of the LP’s core is rock.

Who are some of the artists that gave you those big feels you just mentioned?

Taking Back Sunday is also a pretty exciting collaboration, because it was the first of its kind. They'd never worked with a DJ, so for me, I knew I had to do this. When I was in the studio with them, they told me "We haven’t even worked with another artist in 20 years." So, that's a big deal for both sides! There's a lot of firsts here.

I've run my label Dim Mak since 1996, and I love discovering and finding bands, and growing artists. As a producer, I also exist in a different layer of A&R that really supports artists. That’s why it’s really cool to work with No Love For The Middle Child, Grandson, Mod Sun, Global Dan and Goody Grace. These artists have their own followers and are popular in their own right, but they are also going to be the next huge names.

HiROQuest is deeply intertwined with the MetaZoo card game universe, for which you are a co-founder. Explain how this works because it sounds wild!

HiROQUEST has two parts: There's the music side, which we talked about, and there's the non-music side, and I wanted to connect these worlds together. It’s amazing to be part of different cultures where you experience a frenzy of energy and this collective chaos of love. The people that are part of the MetaZoo community, they are obsessed in the same way that crowds are obsessed at festivals. TCGs and music have never been connected in such a way before, so that’s the idea behind HiROQUEST

We created 70 characters, I think 22 of which are new and the other 48 are existing MetaZoo characters that we introduced to these five different factions. And it's about telling the story of the future cryptid world of HiROQUEST and building it out with this community that is just absolutely f—ing crazy about this stuff. And to give you an idea, we dropped a HiROQUEST CD to introduce the 70 cards in the set. Now, dropping a CD is something I haven’t done in a while! In the five hours we let it sit online, the CD sold 30,000 copies.

*Steve Aoki. Photo: Xavier Luggage*

Given the success you’ve seen already, do you think more TCG crossovers could emerge in dance music the same way NFTs exploded over the last few years?

This has never been done before. It’s a unique situation in that I’m half owner of MetaZoo, and in reality there aren’t a lot of TCGs out there — there’s MetaZoo, Pokemon, Magic the Gathering and Yu Gi Oh. But as with anything, if it works and people see that it works, a trend could take off.

There is some crossover happening already, like Magic The Gathering, for example, they introduced a Post Malone card and he’s been vocal about his love for the game, but he didn’t put out an entire album to go along with a set of cards. HiROQUEST is the first time something of this scale has ever happened, and I’m super excited about that. 

Are you working personally with the illustrators who make the cards that come with the album?

Yeah! We work alongside the illustrators to come up with the different characters. We've introduced most of the new characters through my single art.

Like with "Kult," for example. I told the illustrator, "Okay, I want this dude floating — you know, like a cult leader, with a hood. On his face, I want him to have these massive anime eyes. I want his mouth to be really tight — I go real into detail, not necessarily drawing it out, but sometimes I actually do just that. I'm absolutely very detail oriented on the art side.

You must have a very focused brain! Was meditating what led you to start The Aoki Foundation, which supports organizations in the brain science and research areas, or did the foundation lead you to mindfulness?

I was just in Ibiza. I sat on a cliffside over the ocean and let the sun hit my face for 10 minutes. Earlier today I had an ice bath. Meditation is so important and there’s always time for these things.

Honestly, I’m not sure which came first, but I’ve always been obsessed with sci-fi and the idea that within these worlds — even though certain aspects are depicted as fantasy — that with the right minds and research, someday some of those things could eventually become true. And I’m curious about the concepts of anti-aging; I want to live forever, I want to do all of these crazy things. I have the means to help make some of that happen, so why not put it into a foundation that can directly support emerging treatments and technology?

Are NFT Record Labels The Future Of Music?

Bjork performs at the Opening ceremony of XXVII Olympiad known as the Athens 2004
Björk performs at the opening ceremony of the Olympics in Athens 2004

Photo: Steve Christo

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When The GRAMMYs & Olympics Align: 7 Times Music's Biggest Night Met Global Sports Glory

Before the Olympic Games begin in Paris on July 26, dive into the intertwined history of gold medalists and golden gramophones.

GRAMMYs/Jul 25, 2024 - 01:19 pm

The GRAMMY Awards and the Summer Olympics are unarguably the pinnacles of their respective fields. Indeed, most recording artists dream of making an acceptance speech for their magnum opus during the biggest night on the music industry calendar, while athletes competing in any of the Games’ 32 different disciplines are continually motivated by the lure of the podium.

But how often have the two intertwined since the first GRAMMY ceremony took place a year before Rome 1960?

Well, perhaps more than you think. Sure, the musical efforts from basketballers Shaquille O’Neal (gold at Atlanta 1996), Kobe Bryant (gold at Beijing 2008 and London 2012), and Damian Lillard (gold at Tokyo 2020) might not have registered with the Recording Academy. Likewise, those from track and field hero Carl Lewis (nine golds and one silver from four consecutive Games), light middleweight boxer Roy Jones Jr. (silver at Seoul 1988), and near-superhuman sprinter Usain Bolt (eight golds from Beijing, London, and Rio 2016).

But there are a handful of sportsmen (sadly, not yet sportswomen) who have competed for both gold medals and golden gramophones. There are also pop stars who have attempted to capture the blood, sweat, and tears of the quadrennial spectacle in musical form — whether as an official anthem, television theme, or simply a motivational tool — and been rewarded with GRAMMY recognition for their efforts.

With the Olympics’ return to Paris just around the corner (July 26-Aug.11), what better time to celebrate those occasions when the Games and the GRAMMYs align?

Gloria Estefan & Björk's Themes Pick Up GRAMMY Nods

It seems fair to say that Gloria Estefan, the Cuban hitmaker who helped to bring Latin pop to the masses, and avant-garde eccentric Björk, wouldn't appear to have much in common. They have, however, both received GRAMMY nominations in the Best Female Pop Vocal Performance category for their respective Olympics themes.

Estefan was recognized at the 1997 ceremony for "Reach," the gospel-tinged power ballad that embodied the spirit of the previous year's Atlanta Games. Iceland's finest musical export picked up a nod for "Oceania," the swooping experimental number she co-produced with Warp label founder Mark Bell which helped to soundtrack the opening ceremony of Athens 2004. And both went home empty-handed, the former losing to Toni Braxton's "Un-Break My Heart" and the latter to Norah Jones' "Sunrise."

Whitney Houston's Momentous Live Performance

The incomparable Whitney Houston might not have added to her GRAMMY haul at the 1989 ceremony — Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" prevented her from converting her sole nod, Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, into a win — but she still stole the show. Houston owned opened the 31st GRAMMY Awards with a performance of "One Moment in Time," the nominated track that had defined NBC's coverage of the Seoul Games.

Co-written by Albert Hammond, produced by Narada Michael Walden and featuring the London Symphony Orchestra, the UK chart-topping single certainly had a first-class pedigree. But it was Houston's lung-busting vocals that made the torch song such a sports montage favorite. The iconic diva once again stirred the emotions on the music industry's biggest night of the year with a rendition that's since become a staple of her many hits collections.

Read more: Songbook: A Guide To Whitney Houston's Iconic Discography, From Her '80s Pop Reign To Soundtrack Smashes

Oscar De La Hoya Swaps Ring For Recording Studio

Shakira fought off some interesting company to win 2001's Best Latin Pop Album GRAMMY. Alongside records from Luis Miguel and Alejandro Sanz, the category also included Christina Aguilera's first Spanish-language affair, and a bilingual effort from champion boxer Oscar De La Hoya.

The American became a national sensation overnight when he won the men's lightweight boxing gold at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. But despite new material from seasoned hitmaker Diane Warren and a cover of Bee Gees' classic "Run to Me," his 13-track self-titled debut didn't exactly set the charts alight. Despite the GRAMMY nod, De La Hoya hasn't entered the recording studio since.

Muhammad Ali Is Recognized For His Way With Words

But when it comes to GRAMMY-nominated boxers, then the man who famously floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee is undoubtedly the don. Shortly before he changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, the light heavyweight gold medalist of the 1960 Rome Games was recognized for his amusing repartee in the Best Comedy Performance category. Hailed by some as a progenitor of the rap artform, I Am the Greatest lost out to a man slightly different in stature: portly parodist Allan Sherman.   

And the sporting icon also had to experience another rare defeat 13 years later when his reading of The Adventures Of Ali And His Gang Vs. Mr. Tooth Decay lost out to Hermione Gingold & Karl Böhm's Prokofiev: Peter and the Wolf/Saint-Saëns: Carnival of the Animals in 1977’s Best Recording for Children.

John Williams' Winning Olympic Fanfare

Legendary composer John Williams is one of the most-nominated artists in GRAMMY history having amassed 76 nods since his work on detective series "Checkmate" was recognized in Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media in 1962. Two of his wins in this remarkable tally have been Games-related.

In 1985, Williams won Best Instrumental Composition for "Olympic Fanfare and Theme," which he wrote and arranged for the Los Angeles Games the year prior. In 1989, the conductor received a nod in the same category for "Olympic Spirit," another majestic instrumental produced for NBC’s coverage of Seoul '88.

Interestingly, Wiliams isn't a particularly avid sports fan, but as he told The New York Times, he can still relate to those going for gold. "The human spirit stretching to prove itself is also typical of what musicians attempt to achieve in a symphonic effort."

Magic Johnson’s Educational Guide Wins Best Spoken Word Album  

Basketball appears to produce more aspiring musicians than any sport. Marvin Bagley III, Lonzo Ball, and Brandon Clarke are just a few of the NBA names to have released albums in the last few years. But the only time a hooper has been recognized at the GRAMMYs is for an audiobook.   

The year before guiding Team USA to the men's basketball gold at Barcelona 1992, Magic Johnson had bravely revealed that he'd contracted HIV, defying the stigma that surrounded it at the time. The year after his Olympic triumph, the iconic shooting guard was honored for joining the fight against the disease. Johnson won the Best Spoken Word or Non-Musical Album GRAMMY for What You Can Do To Avoid AIDS, a compassionate guide designed to educate the youth of America whose proceeds went to the sportsman's eponymous foundation.   

Chariots Of Fire Is Nominated For Record Of The Year

Based on the real-life exploits of British runners Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell at the 1924 Paris Olympics, period drama Chariots of Fire won Best Picture at the 1982 Oscars. But it’s the titular number from Vangelis' anachronistic synth-based score that remains its crowning glory.

First played as the aspiring Olympians train beachside in the slow-motion opening flashback, the instrumental not only topped the Billboard Hot 100, it also picked up a GRAMMY nod for Record of the Year. "Chariots of Fire" has since become synonymous with the more modern iteration of the Games, appearing in the BBC's coverage of Seoul '88, gracing the start of the men's 100m final at Atlanta '96, and perhaps most famously of all, being performed at London 2012's opening ceremony by none other than Rowan Atkinson's rubber-faced buffoon Mr. Bean.

Read more: 10 Essential Vangelis Albums: Remembering The Electronic Music Pioneer

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Rakim performs onstage during the "J.Period Live Mixtape: Gods & Kings Edition" at Damrosch Park, Lincoln Center, on August 09, 2023 in New York City.
Rakim performs in 2023

Photo: Richard Bord

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On Rakim's 'G.O.D's Network (REB7RTH)' The MC Turned Producer Continues His Legacy With An All-Star Cast

On his first project in 15 years, "God MC" Rakim produced seven songs and called on some of hip-hop's biggest names. The legend and his team detail his new album and working with Nipsey Hussle, DMX and Snoop Dogg.

GRAMMYs/Jul 25, 2024 - 12:58 pm

Every album comes with a backstory, but not many come with two. Rakim's new project G.O.D's Network (REB7RTH), out July 26, came together in a few quick months, from signing a deal in February 2024 to completion in June. The process was spurred by one dedicated A&R person frantically combing through his network of rappers to get guest verses over beats produced by the God MC himself.

But to hear that A&R man, Matt "M80" Markoff, tell it, creating the seven-song project didn't take four months. It took four years.

"I've known [Rakim's longtime manager] Matt [Kemp] and Rakim since 2007," Markoff tells me when I get him on the phone in late June. "They're used to getting calls from me a couple of times a year just for, like, show referrals, verse referrals, things of that nature."

Back at the beginning of the pandemic, Markoff had been talking to the folks at Fat Beats, the venerable record store-turned-distributor that's a huge name in independent hip-hop. He mentioned Rakim's name to the company, and Fat Beats responded that they'd love a project from the God MC. The original pitch, Markoff remembers, was "a three or four song EP with some remixes."

Rakim quoted his price, Fat Beats agreed, and the project was underway, with the emcee meeting with producers to look for beats. But Rakim, who hasn't released a solo album since 2009's The Seventh Seal, is not one to be hurried.

"Ra was having [DJ] Premier and Pete Rock and Ninth Wonder and some of these people come to the studio," Markoff says. "Because of scheduling conflicts and stuff and, you know, normal course of life, it just wasn't right. The vibe wasn't there."

That's where Jazzy Jeff came into play. Rakim and the legendary DJ began working together and, per Markoff, it "just meshed." It seemed like, instead of a handful of songs, a full-length record was in the offing.

"As soon as they finish the first song, I walk into Fat Beats and say, ‘Hey, this is what we're doing now,'" the A&R man recalls. "Instead of Rakim with random producers, it's Rakim/Jazzy Jeff. That'll be huge."

Then…nothing.

A few years pass, and the Rakim and Jazzy Jeff project is still unfinished. (Rakim described its status as "We have a couple records already done.") Fat Beats, which was on the auction block (it was eventually sold in March 2024), wants its money back. Rakim obliges, and everyone seems set to forget about the whole thing.

Markoff, however, was not about to give up on working with the man he calls "my favorite emcee of all time."

The revamped album started its life as not an album at all. Instead, the original conception was a model Markoff had used before: licensing beats by people not typically thought of as producers. In this case, he'd be offering aspiring rappers the chance to get beats by arguably the most influential rapper of all time. 

"He's taken people who are not necessarily known as producers and put together beat packages for them," manager Matt Kemp says of Markoff. "And then, one of the things he does is he goes out and he licenses those beats through a company that he has. If you're a European artist that wouldn't necessarily have access to things like that, you can get it."

So that, as of February of this year, was the (revamped) plan: have Rakim do six beats and one verse, and sell non-exclusive licenses, so that any rapper, anywhere in the world, who wants to use them in a song of their own could do so. This, indeed, was a vision that was followed through all the way to the finish line — you can see the end result released July 12, priced between $700-$1,050 depending on what you want to do with the beats and the rhyme, here.

But along the way to creating that package, things got significantly more complicated. As Rakim was making the beats, he found he really liked them. In some cases, he even wanted to rhyme on them himself.

"As the beats started coming together and Rakim was really in the studio and we started putting the rhymes onto them, we realized that it was bigger just than that [original vision]," Matt Kemp said.

The wheels started turning. Rakim, the God MC, as a producer? That would be a project worth sharing with the world, not just a few aspiring artists.

As it turns out, unbeknownst even to many Ra fans, the rapper has been making beats since the beginning. In fact, he produced — and played drums on — one of Eric B and Rakim's classic songs, 1992's "Juice (Know the Ledge)." So producing an entire project didn't seem like such a big stretch after all. 

"I always was attached to making beats," Rakim explains to me. "But I got to the point where I'm confident with my production now. I got the chance to produce the album and jumped at the opportunity." 

Rakim, as has been well documented over the years, comes from a musical family. His older brother Ronnie was a keyboard player of some note with his own claim on rap history, his other brother Stevie is also keyboardist who performed on some Eric B. and Rakim songs, and the rapper's aunt is the late R&B legend Ruth Brown. So when making beats, Ra will often play drums, bass, guitar, or piano. (He cops to enlisting one of his brothers if the keyboard part gets too complicated.)

He describes his production style this way: "You try to add on to the sample, and enhance certain sounds that you hear. Or you might just add a melody that you feel enhances the sample as well." 

In addition to playing instruments on the project, Rakim also plays the turntable.

"I always knew how to DJ, and I like being able to enjoy the project from a different seat," he tells me. "I enjoyed putting the music together, coming up with the scratch patterns."

So with the musical side of the equation firmly in place, what about the vocals? Rakim was inspired to add verses on a few songs, and hooks on a few more.

"It's mostly a project that I was supposed to be producing," he explains. "In the midst of that, there's certain beats that I'm playing and I'm like, ‘I gotta rhyme on this one,' or, ‘I got a rhyme that fits this one perfectly.'"

The question was, what to write about? After a decade and a half without an album, the rapper had a lot to discuss, and needed to find new ways to say it.

For the project's lead single, "BE ILL," he got in plenty of internal rhymes. And the song's tempo allowed him to come up with different rhythms.

"When tracks are at that speed, I'm able to manipulate time and space to come up with different rhythms because I have so much time and space to deal with," he says. "It was one of them songs I loved rhyming to. Just having fun with words and phrases, and at the same time having so much on my mind to say."

"I'm trying to say a lot of things," Ra admits when discussing his writing on the album. "It's hard to just come back and say a verse when you've been gone so long. So I tried to be very specific and cautious with the words that I chose, and try to be entertaining at the same time. So it was a little nerve wracking."

Even with Rakim's vocal contributions (he ends up with either verses or hooks on six of the project's seven tracks), more was needed to complete the songs. That's where Markoff really got going.

"Literally, I didn't waste a single day," he remembers. "I was calling the artists in my network. I reached out to each artist one by one, and let each artist go through the folder [of beats] with me and make their picks."

Among the artists Markoff reached out to were several members of the Wu-Tang Clan. He has a long relationship with the crew, having worked with them on several projects including the well-regarded 2005 album Wu-Tang Meet the Indie Culture.

Markoff recalls the exact moment when he lined up Wu member Masta Killa for his appearance on what became "BE ILL."

"I was at the first ever Wu-Tang Clan residency in Vegas, and I told Masta Killa, ‘Dude, I just got these Rakim beats 10 minutes ago.' I played 10 seconds of the second beat, which was the beat for ‘BE ILL.' And he was like, ‘That's the one.'" 

A different Wu-Tang show was responsible for one of the album's other notable guest appearances, Cash Money stalwart B.G. The two met at the concert, and the Louisiana rapper was in the studio "48 hours later," Markoff recalls.

For a handful of artists he had good long-term relationships with, Markoff let them choose which of Rakim's beats they wanted to rap over. In addition to Masta Killa, he names Chino XL, Hus Kingpin, 38 Spesh, and TriState as being on that short list. After that, he says, it was all his decision. 

The end result is a list of some of the top rappers in his Rolodex: Kool G. Rap, Method Man, Kurupt, Canibus, KXNG Crooked, Skyzoo, Joell Ortiz, and many more — including an outro from Snoop Dogg. But one of the most surprising things on the tracklist is that a number of the guests aren't alive anymore.

Nipsey Hussle, Prodigy, DMX, and Fred the Godson have verses on the record. All of them were people Markoff had worked with in some capacity over the course of his career. He says that all of the verses were "in my stash or under my ownership." So when he was looking for material for the Rakim project, they were a perfect fit.

The Nipsey Hussle contribution in particular stood out so much that the entire song, "Love Is the Message," was designed around it. The project's engineer placed Neighborhood Nip's verse first, and everyone else listened to that when recording.

"We kind of glorified who he is, and came up with the title ‘Love Is the Message' to put everything in perspective," Rakim tells me. "So everybody vibed off of that and everything that we implemented had to have that feel or had to be in that direction." 

One thing Rakim noticed as he was listening to the contributions coming in? Many of them were paying tribute to him. In particular, B.G. says in his verse that he's "on a song with the greatest." 

"To hear things like that from my peers is a beautiful thing," says Rakim, who also admits to tearing up when hearing Snoop Dogg praise him on the outro of one of the album's songs. "Hip-hop is one of the more, I guess, feisty genres. It's hard to get that love from your peers. So it's a real blessing to hear it from people like that, to hear what they think of you and to say that on records. A lot of people might think that of you, but would never say it on a record."

For Markoff, B.G.'s tribute was particularly meaningful because of the rapper's history. He began his career in a duo, and later a quartet, with another rapper sometimes considered the greatest of all time, Lil Wayne.

"For B.G. to have that history, but acknowledge Rakim — I was speechless," Markoff confides. "It was really cool to see. It's like, ‘I'm not just going to say my partner, my friend, my confidant Lil Wayne's the best because we grew up together.'"

Finally, after all the guest verses came in, the project was ready. Seven songs, entirely produced by Rakim, with raps by him and a broad cross-section of artists. The question, then: what exactly is this project? An album? An EP? Rakim's big comeback? A teaser for his eventual full-length return?

To Markoff, none of these labels are important. He's not concerned about fans being disappointed that a project under Rakim's name features only a handful of the rapper's verses.

 "The fan is going to look at it however they want to look at it," he says. "The negative people will stay negative. It wouldn't matter if it was the greatest album of all time. The positive people that are so grateful that I stepped up to the plate to help bring new Rakim music to the world are going to love it."

After all, he continues, "The whole point originally when we started making it was letting his peers shine on Rakim beats. The fact that this project morphed into something that Rakim literally is on 95% of, I couldn't have asked for more of a blessing."

So Matt Markoff, the boy who fell in love with Rakim's music at 12 is now, three decades later, putting out music from his hero.

"Dream fulfilled," he says right before we hang up. "Now I gotta figure out what I'm going to do for the rest of my life." 

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