Photo: Joey Vitalari
ZHU Talks New Rave-Ready Album 'DREAMLAND 2021,' Being Inspired By Hyphy Music & Asian Americans Finally Being Heard
ZHU's third album, 'DREAMLAND 2021,' is a tribute to returning to the dancefloor that invokes a dark, sweaty warehouse rave and features support from Channel Tres, Yuna, Tinashe and more
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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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Photo: Astrida Valigorsky / Getty Images
Channel Tres' Ascension: How The Compton Producer & Rapper Found Himself Through House Music
Channel Tres discusses his new EP, 'Real Cultural S—,' his love of Teddy Pendergrass, and glowing up as you grow up.
It's about damn time Compton-bred singer, rapper, producer, DJ Channel Tres is recognized and celebrated for the superstar he is.
His latest body of work, the Real Cultural S— EP, dropping on Feb. 24, is just the chance to do so. It includes the jubilant lead singles "6am" and "Just Can’t Get Enough," the latter featuring the perfect use of a Teddy Pendergrass sample, plus three new tracks.
But Tres has long demonstrated his star power with confidence, with 2022 being his biggest year yet. He dropped the palate-cleansing refresh, an eclectic mixtape of vibey instrumentals that showcase his skills as a producer and as an artist unwilling to be boxed in. In March, he offered the clubby Acid / Ganzfeld two-tracker, and followed by the sassy "hollaback b*tch" with Mura Masa and Shygirl. The single "No Limit" provided a fitting anthem for the ascending star, and marked Channel Tres' signing to RCA Records.
The "Topdown" artist also brought back his captivating live show, with more dancers, fresh bedazzled 'fits, and a sleek stage design across the country in 2022. He made his Coachella debut and tore up other big festivals like New York's Governors Ball and San Francisco's new Portola Fest. He sold out three nights in a row in his hometown, at Los Angeles' Fonda Theater in December.
An in-demand collaborator, Tres is regularly tapped by a wide range of dance and pop artists including Tove Lo, SG Lewis, Honey Dijon, TOKiMONSTA, Duke Dumont, Polo & Pan, and Flight Facilities to bring his infectious grooves and swagger to their tunes. In 2021, Tres' fire collabs included Polo & Pan’s "Tunnel" and Duke Dumont’s "Alter Ego."
Channel Tres has come a long way since his 2018 debut — the still fresh-as-ever "Controller" — but he's also become more grounded in the process of his glow up. GRAMMY.com first sat down with Channel Tres in 2019 to discuss his Isaac Hayes-nodding Black Moses EP, which he followed up with 2020's "Weedman" and his sunny, timely pandemic mixtape, i can't go outside, featuring Tyler, The Creator and Tinashe.
GRAMMY.com sat down with Channel Tres once again — this time at Bloom & Plume, a Black-owned coffee shop in Los Angeles — diving deep into his new EP and how he found his musical voice.
On the EP opener "Sleep When Dead," you talk about people not vibing with your sound or the beats you're making, and then making the decision to be yourself. Can you speak to finding your musical voice?
I was just referring to my early years of making music. I started off as a producer. My style was always a little left of center…because of not knowing music and not knowing certain things. I think that's sometimes the best creatively, because you're not following form, you're not following any rules, you're just creating from a very, very pure place. And I'm still like that. But now I know more about music, so everything's more in shape and I know how to achieve certain things.
I grew up with a lot of people critiquing me and around a lot of very talented musicians. The era was really rap heavy and there weren't many Black artists exploring different genres; you were kind of taught to just do one thing. But I've always been somebody who just does what I want, instead of doing what people want me to do. So, I would be in rap sessions and be like, "Let me just play this weird beat." There were times I walked into sessions and would be kicked out because I wasn't where I am now.
That gave me the motivation to work harder. Nas says, "Sleep is the cousin of death." It's not a really healthy thing to be on, but at the time, I equated sleep to being lazy or not being able to get things done. In my younger years, I would stay up a lot. Now, I sleep more and I'm pretty healthy. But "Sleep When Dead" is just kind of a figure of speech: work hard until you get to achieve goals.
I was self-taught at first, but then I went to school when I was 21 and I got classically trained.
Did you find a mentor at a certain point, or was it about finding that mentor inside of yourself?
I found all my mentors on YouTube; I'm a product of YouTube university. I would watch beat videos and take classes online. And then once I was in school, I had teachers teaching me things musically. I would study Hit-Boy. I got to tour with Anderson .Paak early on — when I was DJing for Duckwrth we opened for him, and every time I would get [time with Anderson], I would ask him hella questions, and then I would watch him.
I'm a sponge. If I'm around somebody that has something I want or is just really good at things, I watch and I learn. I'm always like that. The world can teach you a lot. Nobody has to be your mentor directly, but if you put yourself around good people, you learn things.
On "Just Can't Get Enough," you sample Teddy Pendergrass — how did that song come together? Did you start with the sample first, or the mood?
It started off as a love story. I was going through something in my love life, and I just imagined this realm of getting married and exploring a life with someone and how that feels. And how when you're in love with somebody, you just can't get enough of them.
The Teddy Pendergrass sample came because I was studying him. He was a ladies' man, and performance-wise, I was studying him a lot. He was a good inspiration. Teddy is just a big inspiration, as far as how he conveyed emotion in his vocals. And with Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, he was the lead singer but the group wasn't named after him. I can relate to that; doing all this work and not getting the recognition. But when he stepped out, he stepped out and it was time.
Do you have a favorite Teddy Pendergrass song?
It's not his song, but It's from the Blue Notes; "The Love I Lost" is one of my favorite songs.
"6am" is a super fun song, and the music video directed by Tajana Bunton-Williams is also super fun, with '70s inspired fits and artsy parking garage shots. What was the vision for that video?
The vision for that was simple, to look cool. I grew up with my great grandparents and when it was Easter Sunday, we got to wear suits, everybody got dressed up. I miss that energy. I don't really go to church anymore, and my great grandparents have passed away.
I feel like I stepped away from that for a while and now my style is maturing again. I'm going back to my roots of how my great grandfather dressed, and how people took pride in what they were wearing. I wanted to do that in a music video and get that feeling again of Easter Sunday or something, but also just sexy. I just wanted to get the fellas together and dance and show we're happy. Growing up, it was always a woman thing to be like that and enjoy yourself, but I feel as we're getting better in society [that's changing]. We all have masculine energy and feminine energy and that's what makes us beautiful as people.
As I'm growing up, I'm realizing that none of [those gender expectations] matter; I can make my life the way I want it. I use videos and different things to explore that. Also, I used to think low of myself, to where I didn't want to dress up because I thought I'm not cuter than the next person. You know, that insecurity. So now, it's like, nope, we're gonna make this a big deal.
My grandma loves the song.
"Chucks" with Terrace Martin is such a perfect melding of your sounds and vibes. How did you two link up and how'd the song come together?
I knew about Terrace since 2009, 2010, just from being from L.A. He was one of my inspirations back then. We linked up maybe a couple years ago, he just DMed me and we made a relationship over that. I met up with him to work on his  album Drones. I wrote a song four years before that called "Drones" and I played it for him. I was like, "Bro, you're on the same f—ing frequency." And then we wrote the song "Tapped" for Drones. After that, we were just really cool.
And "Chucks" came from a session I had with Ty Dolla $ign. (Ty is credited as a co-writer and co-producer of the track.) Ty and I made the track and Ty played it for Terrace, and Terrace put horns and his vocoder on it and made it his, and hit me up and asked to put it out.
These dudes are my idols, so it's always trippy for me. I'm like, Damn, I'm just working with these dudes casually now.
Do you usually reach out to people? Or do you wait for people to reach out to you?
I try to read the vibes. Some things come to me, and then some things, if I push for it, it'll come. I just try to follow my intuition on certain things. Some people are really busy….So I'm not a tough person, like, "You got to get back to me." I believe in the universe and connections; things happen when they're supposed to.
I love when connections and collaborations feel like synergy and like they're supposed to come together, rather than me forcing it. My collaborations usually work because it just flows.
How do you foster your relationship with your intuition, especially when you're super busy or there's a lot going on?
I mean, a lot of it is breathing. Not making rash decisions, taking time. If I feel uneasy, I just completely disconnect from it, and go to sleep [before deciding] or I say, "Just give me a second" and think some stuff out. And working out and listening to audiobooks and reading stuff; filling yourself up with things that help you. You are what you eat, you are what you listen to, you are a lot of the things that you put inside yourself.
The more I fuel myself with positive things and different things that can help me, the more I see that my spirit and my mind is able to filter out bulls—, or suss out things. It's just about spending time with yourself, and learning what triggers you or learning what's going on and looking at past things that have happened, and where your intuition has led you and using that as guidance.
It's been really rad to witness your ascension in music; becoming an in-demand collaborator and selling out three nights at The Fonda. How has the glow up felt for you?
It feels like it's confirmation that if you put the work in, you will get the results. Also, all the stuff I went through before in life, a lot of it is starting to make sense. If I didn't have those situations, I don't know if I would have gotten here or even been able to handle the success.
I'm really grateful. I want to use my platform to help people and spread love and spread that energy. I've gotten there because of all the things I've been through. And now I'm like, How can I help the next person in life, give back to my community and help my family? I can really build a business on the mindset I have now. So, everything comes when it's supposed to.
Real Cultural S— was initially going to be an album. Why did you choose to release it as an EP?
I just felt like, conceptually, I wasn't ready. I started playing the songs on tour. It just felt like it was right for this to be the EP before the first album. I use EPs to get ready conceptually, and to get better. To put a body of work together is a lot of work. I just grew past these songs and it was unexpected for the tour to be so good. I was like, "Oh man, I gotta write on this energy now, where I'm at now and prepare for the next stage.
I got signed, and I have more collaborators I can work with; my relationships are getting stronger with other people that I would love to be on my album. Now, I have access to that, so I can make this process a little more special and document the new mindset I have.
Those songs [on Real Cultural S—] were made between COVID and between me finding myself again. That process got me right here, now. So, it's like, let me make a project on this feeling, this vibe.
What does it feel like when you're on stage?
You just blank out. It's like playing a basketball game. You just lay out all the practice and let all the things you've been doing take over. And then you read the crowd and enjoy.
You coined your music Compton house. If you're describing it to someone, what elements are central to it?
It's just music, it's just me. I'm from Compton and I happen to make dance music. I'm not really a genre type person. I don't think anybody cares. If it sounds good, it sounds good.
I've dabbled in house music, and I make a lot of things. House is a genre that allows you to be you. For me, it's not a [specific] BPM, it's [about] being who you are. I like to put Compton on everything because that's where I'm from. It's just me being who I am, over music.
Would you say it's about the mood or the vibe or just if it sounds good, versus claiming that you're house or Compton house?
Yeah, I don't claim any genre. I like to make people dance, and I like to make people feel good. It is what it is.
House music was in a lot of conversations last year, with the Beyoncé and Drake albums. How do you feel about pop music sampling from house?
I didn't think about it, I was just happy. If it becomes accessible to more of a broader crowd because of them, great. I hope more people listen to my music. We own this music, we don't own anything here. It's all open, it's an open playing field.
I'm grateful that people explore and want to do different things and push the needle. I love Beyoncé's album. I love Drake's album a little bit. I didn't really care, it's just music to me. I don't own any genre. I found house music when I was 20 and I just explored it.
After you got into house music, is that when you started finding your sound and style?
No. I think house music just made me want to be myself more, to explore my sexuality, the way I dress, even what type of parties I like to go to. Now I'm like, "Yo, if ain't nobody dancing, I don't want to be there." At first it was about going to the club and looking good, trying to get somebody's number. Now I'm Shazaming songs, listening to what the DJ's playing, like, Oh my god, they mixed this with that record.
House music made me appreciate a party, a good DJ and mixes, and it helped me free myself from the constricting ideas I had about music.
What are your biggest goals or intentions for this year?
My biggest goal is to just become a better human. Learning how to be more of service, more respectful, more loving, and learning how to love myself better in different ways. Also, to get better at music, performing and production.
I was watching a video of Beyoncé yesterday, she was directing her show and telling her team how they need to get this right. [I want to] be more proactive in that way, to allow my ideas to come to life and to let the people around me know what I want. And being okay with that, knowing that I have the power to advocate for myself and my art.
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Photo courtesy of the artist
Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: Kabaka Pyramid On Embracing His Voice & The Bold Future Of Reggae
Kingston-born reggae star Kabaka Pyramid is one of a handful of artists bringing positivity back into the genre. His messages of consciousness are more powerful than ever on his third album, 'The Kalling' — and now, he’s a GRAMMY nominee because of it.
Kabaka Pyramid answers to a higher power — and his third album, fittingly titled The Kalling, is a testament to his beliefs.
The Kingston-born rapper, singer and producer is one of a handful of artists bringing positivity back into reggae, often channeling the empowered, political, and spiritual vibes of roots artists. Kabaka Pyramid is often labeled a "reggae revivalist" for this reason, but The Kalling manages to be both classic and incredibly of the moment. And while his previous albums Victory Rock and Kontraband are testaments of lyrical and genre-blending prowess, Kabaka's latest is a notable ascension.
One of five nominees for Best Reggae Album at the 65th GRAMMY Awards, The Kalling showcases Kabaka's passion for using hip-hop, soul and dancehall to iterate on the sound of conscious reggae. The record also overflows with messages of growth, contemplation of addiction, and gratitude — an antidote to some of the more crude attitudes present in Kabaka's favorite genres.
"The older I got, the more I felt responsible to represent myself in a certain way," Kabaka tells GRAMMY.com from his home in Miami. “I wanted to inspire, like how artists like Sizzla and Damian Marley inspired me. I wanted to have a similar effect, and I knew I needed to put out positive music to do that.”
Kabaka called upon his community to achieve this vision. The Kalling was produced by the reggae scion also known as Jr Gong, and features the late icon Peter Tosh in addition to Buju Banton, Jesse Royal and fellow 2023 nominee Protoje. Together, they created an album that pulls from contemporary pop, rap and '80s era reggae, with songs that are meditative ("Stand Up"), club-ready ("Energy" and "Mystik Man"), and fit for a kickback ("Mary Jane").
Ahead of the 2023 GRAMMYs, the first-time nominee spoke to GRAMMY.com about inspiring higher vibrations through music and action.
Was the GRAMMY nomination a milestone you were working towards, or one that caught you by surprise?
I was shouting, screaming, everything; a couple tears of joy. I'm probably the only person on my team and label that it kind of caught by surprise. I just always thought that the GRAMMY was just this huge thing and something that is best if I don't think about it too much, because I feel like that can lead to disappointment.
So I was just more focused on putting in the work and really representing myself with the music, and then let the awards come. But it's definitely a huge achievement for me. I wouldn't have dreamed of it when I was back in high school, but here I am now, so I have to give thanks.
It's cool to reflect on how far you've come — like, man, I'm living out my dreams from high school or dreams you didn't even know you had.
I'm 37 now, so it's been a 20-year journey since I first started to pencil down some lyrics. And most people start super early, whether they're in the church, or in the choir, or whatever it is. Or they come from a musical family, so they watch their parents do it or whatever. But for me, it wasn't that.
I always loved music, particularly hip-hop and dancehall. So I was just inspired by music, but I never thought of it as something I'd actually be doing until around 17, 18. That's when I realized that I have a talent for actually writing lyrics. And from then it was just working on my voice. A lot of self recording at home, home studios over the years, different places.
Tell me a bit about the creation of the album; what was going on in your life at that time?
The recording and writing and stuff was mostly throughout the pandemic. For the first few months, I was in Jamaica; Damien was sending me beats that he was working on from his studio in Miami. And eventually, I flew up and we started just going at it together in studio and from just jam sessions with me, him and his musicians, just coming up with ideas from scratch.
There were some conversations about what we want to do differently from the last album and what kind of song we wanted to go for, what kind of vibe. We wanted some traditional reggae, we wanted some hip-hop vibes in it, wanted to sample some classic reggae records as well as some soulful stuff. "Grateful" was a soul record that was sampled, and of course, "Mystik Man" [featuring] Peter Tosh is originally "Fade Away" by Junior Byles, a classic reggae record too.
Over two years, it just slowly but surely started to shape itself. We did "The Kalling" and Protoje and Jesse came to studio while Stephen [Marley] was recording, and they ended up dropping their verses that night. And I knew from that night that this would end up being the title track for the album. And we just kind of themed the whole album around "The Kalling." Having a higher calling, a higher purpose to the music, tying it into the teachings of Rastafari and what it means to me. It was just a beautiful process.
What do those Rastafari teachings mean to you and how are they presented on this album?
For me, Rastafari is first and foremost about knowing where you come from, seeing yourself as royalty, as kings and queens — especially for Black people who have been through slavery and coming to the West by force. So it's really a reconnection to Africa, but it applies to anybody that wants to reconnect with who they are, where they're from, and their identity.
We practice a vegan diet, ital, and man and woman relationships — being wholesome, the family unit. These are all Rastafari is and is coming from his Imperial Majesty, the emperor of Ethiopia. Ethiopia being the country that was never colonized in Africa, that really maintained their identity. That's really where Rastafari culture and expression stems from.
This record also has a lot of messaging around being aware of yourself and your addictions, and things that you're doing in your daily life that might not be so healthy. Was that something that you've been thinking about for a long time, or was it something that came to you during this production process?
As Rasta, we reason about these things all the time. It's all about looking at how we live, what's our mentality towards life. And a song like "Addiction" just came out of countless reasonings about social media, about our phones, about the radiation and our phones give off. I don't sleep with my phone near me because I wake up with headaches.
I felt like that song was so important because with the pandemic, we're taught to social distance, we're taught to stay inside and we just turned to our phones and our devices. So we're even more technologically oriented now after the pandemic than even before. It’s kind of continuing from a song I did from Kontrabrand called "Everywhere I Go."
The Kalling is much more centered in traditional reggae, though "Energy" is sort of pop and R&B, and the opening track from your last record is a pop tune. Yet you're branded as this revival reggae artist. What are your thoughts on that?
The whole revival thing came about in like 2011, 2012 when my first reggae project came out; Protoje's album was out, Chronixx [had] transitioned from being a producer/songwriter to being a recording artist, and he took Jamaica by storm. We started going to Europe with our bands, and I think that is what really cemented the whole idea of a revival, because …there was kind of a dying down of Jamaicans coming with their bands. And you had [Jamaican artists using] these backing bands that were local in Europe because it was more economical. And then a lot of artists couldn't travel anymore because of what I consider their freedom of speech being questioned and violated. So you had a lot of key artists that couldn't travel.
So because of that, when we came on the scene, it was very refreshing for people to see these young acts in their 20s coming with their bands and sacrificing where we could have made more money if we went with backing bands, or with track shows or whatever. And then not only that though, we were sampling Black Uhuru records and Sly and Robbie bass lines, and drum and bass.
If you check my song "Revival," "Here Comes Trouble" [by] Chronixx, and Protoje's "Kingston Be Wise," all of these tracks kind of brought back an '80s vibe. And then when we translate them on stage with the bands, people felt like it was a revival of the '70s and '80s.
Musically we definitely fuse a lot of the sounds. There's modern elements, there's hip-hop elements, R&B, pop elements to it too, because we're all influenced by that. We're in an era where artists kind of have more creative control with their sound — it's not like you just go to one producer that has one sound. We can call on different producers, we produce ourselves and the stuff that we are influenced by, that's what we try and recreate.
So it's partially a revival of sound but also a revival of style and performance.
Are there any tracks on The Kalling that you're particularly proud of?
"Mystik Man," I’m really proud of that, especially with the whole Peter Tosh family behind the song. We were able to list it officially as featuring Peter Tosh, so I have a song with one of my idols. Overall, his life, what he represents, his mission — him and Sizzla are right up there in terms of who inspire me the most. "Addiction" from a songwriting perspective, I'm really proud of that one.
I'm proud of the fact that I stuck to my roots. When I was early in my career, I couldn't sing to save my life; rapping was easier for me to do. I was working on my reggae, but I wouldn't let anybody hear those songs. So doing a song like "Kontraband pt. 2" where I'm rapping with this Jamaican accent, [or] "Mystik Man," — being able to represent that and still maintain my identity as a Jamaican [and] as a reggae artist, and to get nominated, is a great achievement for me.
I read in Dancehall Magazine that you think that the subject of a lot of Jamaican music is holding artists back. How did you try to combat that notion on The Kalling?
I think my music is naturally more wholesome. It's more readily accessible to older and the young. Maybe it can be a bit too deep for some people, but just generally speaking, I don't put a bunch of slack lyrics or derogatory lyrics to women or violence, gun violence. And that's kind of typical for Jamaican music. But I feel these younger artists are kind of pushing the limits of it. There's a lot of talk about drug use now in songs, and scamming, and all of them kind of things.
I've seen artists that are on the verge of breaking into mainstream do collaborations with other mainstream acts, but then it's just crazy curse words in the song and super derogatory lyrics. I could see somebody at a radio station like, "no, I can't playlist this because it's too difficult." Especially, being an international artist. So it's trying not to shoot ourselves in the foot by having too extreme lyrics.
How did you meet Damien Marley and what did he bring to this project?
I met him at the Bob Marley Museum, I think it was around 2013. He was shooting some videos with Nas for Distant Relatives.
The first time working with him, he sent me a riddim that he wanted to do a juggling [on]. It was originally a Wayne Marshall record, but he wanted to voice some other artists on it and Chronixx, Juliann Marley, others are on it too. I wrote the song "Well Done" on it, and we all loved the song. I was there when the song was being mixed and prepared, and that's when we really bonded, and we started to just hold our vibe, reason about music.
We played football at the field at his house. And it just felt like a brother kind of relationship from early. He's like a mentor to me; I ask him advice and everything musically. And just being with him, I learned so much about sharpening up my songwriting skills and making my lyrics more potent and more absorbable for people. From there, we just grew to the point where we had a discussion about doing two albums at minimum, and we did Kontrabrand.
He produced five of the tracks [on The Kalling], but it was all put together in his studio, [and] he executive produced the project. I wanted to give him the chance of doing a whole entire album. I felt like there was enough versatility with his production style to do it. I think he really did an excellent job. It's almost like it doesn't make sense to not do an album with him anymore.
Is there somebody who gave you props about this record that were really meaningful?
I just got a very long voicemail from Pressure Buss Pipe, who is an artist I'm really inspired by. He was telling me how much I stepped up with this album, and I'm just in the right gear now. It was really a heartfelt voice note. He's somebody that I listen to a lot, and his vocal ability inspires me, and his songwriting. I have five, six, maybe seven songs with him too.
I should say Protoje was one of the first people to call me when I got nominated. And obviously, I congratulated him as well. And even how excited Damian is [means a lot], because he's not somebody that gets excited very easy. There’s not many others who can impress you more than Damian Marley, you know what I mean?
Why did you want to feature Protoje on The Kalling and, together, what are you guys showcasing about contemporary Jamaican music?
Protoje is somebody I always want to collaborate with. He was instrumental in the start of my career; most of [my 2011 EP] Rebel Music was recorded at his home studio. About four of the beats were beats that he gave me and from other producers. Europe knew about me because Protoje kind of helped me to get my name out there. And I respect him so much.
We're all about innovation. I think Protoje's [nominated] album is super cool. The intro and "Family" and "Hills" kind of go back to his original, more hip-hop flavor. Both of us have evolved so much vocally; I love the vocal tones that he experimented with on his album. And sonically, he's always pushing the genre further and I really appreciate that about him. And similar with me, there's so much versatility around the album, but still rooted in reggae.
The two of you are nominated in a category that has a next generation artist and very established musicians. How do these nominees reflect the state of reggae?
It means a lot for everybody now because of who won last year. Big up to SOJA; I really think they put in a lot of work in this music industry, especially in the U.S. And they unified the whole U.S. reggae industry on their album; they featured all of the major acts in the U.S. and I really think it was effective.
But people see it and say, "Oh, reggae is being taken away from Jamaica" and there was a lot of backlash for that. Based on that, it's very refreshing to see an all-Jamaican lineup of artists; artists that have done so much for the industry who have been on the frontline internationally, who put out wholesome music too. It's not like any real slackness is being represented.
I would hope that this lineup of artists inspires the younger generation that you can do music without all of the negativity and it can reach the highest level. It's not that the U.S. is greater than any other nation, but it's our biggest market for the music. So to be recognized within the U.S. with this GRAMMY Award is tremendous, and everybody feels it and appreciates it.
There’s so much versatility represented: Shaggy, did a Frank Sinatra cover album. Sean Paul is modern dancehall pop. Koffee is kind of similar, but there's so much fusion going on there and she's so lyrical and so young and, just blowing up all over the place. Me and Protoje are kind of in a similar bracket. It's an interesting group.
Speaking of the next generation, who or what are you listening to these days that's giving you life? Anybody you want to big up?
There's a bunch of artists, Medicine, who actually did some songwriting on my album. Irie Soldier, Nattali Rize, Runkus, Royal Blue, Blvk H3ro, Imeru Tefari, Five Star. There's a bunch of artists out there that's doing good music, and I'm always here to support them and want to do some more production with them as well. The future is bright, for sure.
Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: Cimafunk On Creating The New Sound Of Cuba & Redefining Latin Alternative
Photos (L-R): Joseph Okpako/WireImage; Tim Mosenfelder/FilmMagic; Prince Williams/Wireimage; Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Justin Combs Events; Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images
15 Must-Hear New Albums Out This Month: SZA, Neil Young, A Boogie Wit da Hoodie, NCT Dream & More
Rounding out the year, here are the can't-miss releases and massive new albums dropping in December 2022 from Weezer, Metro Boomin, NOFX, Jacquees, Ab-Soul, and many others.
And just like that, 2022 is almost done — but not before we get another round of must-hear albums. December's slate of releases is set to send the year out on a high note, with something for all tastes.
This month heralds much-anticipated returns from R&B innovator SZA, with S.O.S., and rap super-producer Metro Boomin, with the mysterious HEROES & VILLAINS. December's riches also include Bad MFs from West Coast hip-hop supergroup Mount Westmore, indie-rock lifers Weezer dropping SZNZ: Winter and a loaded, possibly final album from punk-rock misfits NOFX. There's also new-generation R&B (RINI’s Ultraviolet EP and Jacquees' Sincerely For You), dark techno (Terence Fixmer's Shifting Signals), soul-baring indie (Sophie Jamieson's Choosing), and much more.
Below, check out a guide to the 15 essential albums dropping just in time for the festive season. — Jack Tregoning
Contributed reporting by Ashlee Mitchell
SZA - S.O.S.
Release date: TBD
Five years after her GRAMMY-nominated debut album, Ctrl, it's about to be SZA season all over again. While details are still pending, the alternative R&B star is expected to drop her second album, S.O.S., this month, following the single "Shirt" and its teaser follow-up, "PSA".
In a revealing Billboard cover story, SZA spoke frankly about the pressure she feels to release the album while navigating the music industry and her fans' expectations. As always with SZA, the music itself speaks volumes, and the darkly seductive "Shirt" (accompanied by a music video co-starring SZA and Academy Award nominee LaKeith Stanfield in a riff on Bonnie and Clyde) suggests S.O.S. will be something to savor. — J.T.
Related: Ari Lennox's Age/Sex/Location Explores Online Dating, Never Settling & Old School Romance
Metro Boomin - HEROES & VILLAINS
Release date: December 2
To prepare fans for his new album, HEROES & VILLAINS, sought-after rap producer Metro Boomin went all-out on a short film starring his collaborators Young Thug and Gunna alongside celebrated actors Morgan Freeman and LaKeith Stanfield. Following that flex, the artist's first solo LP in four years is set to feature a who's who of rap, with an exact tracklist still to be announced.
Metro Boomin's previous album, 2018's Not All Heroes Wear Capes, featured the likes of Travis Scott, 21 Savage and Gucci Mane rapping over the producer's dark, trap-centric beats. This time around, he's keeping his cards close to his chest, slyly sharing a video of the studio sessions on his Instagram with the caption, "When the sequel is even better than the first." All will be revealed on Dec. 2. — J.T.
Related: For The Record: Kendrick Lamar's 'Good Kid, M.A.A.d City' Launched A New Era In Storytelling & West Coast Rap
Neil Young - Harvest (50th Anniversary Edition)
Release date: December 2
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Neil Young's seminal folk-rock album Harvest, released to great acclaim in 1972. Featuring indelible songs like "Heart of Gold," "Old Man" and "The Needle and The Damage Done," Harvest was the best-selling album of that year in the US.
To celebrate the milestone, Young is releasing a special anniversary edition, available in either CD or vinyl box-set. Extras include a new two-hour documentary called Harvest Time, an official release of Young's BBC In Concert performance , and a hardcover book featuring never-before-seen photos and notes by legendary rock photographer Joel Bernstein. Consider this the festive gift for the Neil Young completist in your life. — J.T.
Read More: For The Record: Why Neil Young's Commercial Breakout Harvest Is Weirder & More Wonderful Than You Remember
RINI - UltraViolet
Release date: December 2
After breaking out with his 2021 debut album, Constellations, RINI returns this month with the seven-track EP, Ultraviolet. The Filipino-Australian R&B talent, who now calls Los Angeles home, pairs his indelible voice with slinky, late-night production that pulls the listener close.
Ahead of Ultraviolet, RINI has released the singles "Haunt Me" and "Selfish," featuring GRAMMY-winning rapper BEAM, which pair his themes of love and longing with gauzy, head-nodding beats. "I want to be able to show the world and myself that I'm growing, not just in music, but as a person," RINI told Uproxx in May. On Ultraviolet, which also features the slick bedroom jams "Something to Feel" and "Your Eyes," that evolution is evident. — J.T.
Related: R&B Isn't Dead: Listen To 51 Songs By Summer Walker, Josh Levi & More Artists Who Are Pushing The Genre Forward
NOFX - Double Album
Release date: December 2
SoCal punk veterans NOFX have always kept up a prolific output, and this month the band returns with their 15th LP, Double Album. Following last year's Single Album, the conveniently titled Double Album features 10 new songs with perfectly NOFX titles like "Punk Rock Cliché" and "Is It Too Soon if Time Is Relative?" Lead single "Darby Crashing Your Party" showcases the band at their hard-riffing, rowdy best, with frontman Fat Mike clearly relishing lyrical volleys like, "A middle-class clown waging lower class war/A Beverly Hillbilly peeled off the floor."
In a statement announcing the new album, Fat Mike revealed the songs were recorded at the same time as Single Album, then finished off later. "I think it's a very enjoyable album, and maybe our funniest," he added. It could also be NOFX's parting gift — responding to a fan’s Instagram comment, Fat Mike announced that 2023 will be the band's "last year" after an "amazing run." — J.T.
Related: 5 Women Essential To Punk: Exene Cervenka, Poly Styrene, Alice Bag, Kathleen Hanna & The Linda Lindas
Terence Fixmer - Shifting Signals
Release date: December 2
French producer Terence Fixmer has been one of the most intriguing figures in the electronic music scene for well over a decade. Over six past solo albums, numerous EPs and standalone releases, Fixmer has perfected a dark, gritty sound that melds techno with the looser industrial spirit of electronic body music (EBM).
Fixmer's seventh album, Shifting Signals, continues in that vein while allowing for new textures to creep in. "On each album I aim for something different but I retain the core sound, which is always there and often dark and melancholic," the producer wrote in a statement. "Sometimes the balance tips slightly and on this album, I'm striving to be freer and open myself up more to melody."
That openness to different modes is showcased on the atmospheric, piano-led "Synthetic Minds," which evokes a John Carpenter film score, while fellow singles "Corne de Brume" and "No Latitude for Errors" are built for heady techno dance floors. — J.T.
Related: Going Underground: House DJ Claude VonStroke On Making Soul Decisions & Keeping Electronic Music Grimy
Sophie Jamieson - Choosing
Release date: December 2
On her debut album, Choosing, London-based singer-songwriter Sophie Jamieson doesn't shy from difficult or uncomfortable emotions. Lead single, "Sink" lays bare her push-pull relationship with alcohol over a lulling bed of piano and drums. That theme of emotional vulnerability carries through the LP's 11 songs, which foreground Jamieson's enchanting voice and plain-spoken lyrics.
"The title of this album is so important," Jamieson wrote in a statement. "Without it, this might sound like another record about self-destruction and pain, but at heart, it's about hope, and finding strength. It's about finding the light at the end of the tunnel and crawling towards it." Choosing arrives via Bella Union, the tastemaking label led by Simon Raymonde, formerly of Scottish dream pop band Cocteau Twins. — J.T.
Related: Hear The 2022 Nominees For Best Alternative Music Performance At The 2023 GRAMMY Awards
White Lung - Premonition
Release date: December 2
Canadian punk rockers White Lung weren't expecting to take six years to follow up 2016's celebrated Paradise. As the story goes, the band got together in their hometown of Vancouver in 2017, expecting to rip out their final album before parting ways. In the studio, frontwoman Mish Barber-Way discovered she was pregnant with her first child — which, along with a global pandemic and another child, put the album plans on ice.
Fast forward to 2022, and White Lung's fifth and final album, Premonition, is finally here. With all that extra time to marinate, Premonition is a thrilling return from the trio, mining deeper themes with the same raucous, kick-down-the-door energy that fans expect. The album opens furiously with "Hysteric", and also features the singles "Date Night" and "Tomorrow," which match Barber-Way's impassioned vocals with muscular punk-rock riffing.
"We felt like this record was the right endpoint and we are happy the songs will finally be released," the band wrote in a statement. — J.T.
Related: Like Turnstile And Code Orange? 10 More Bands Expanding The Boundaries Of Hardcore
A Boogie Wit da Hoodie - Me vs. Myself
Release date: December 9
New York's A Boogie wit da Hoodie has been steadily hyping the release of his fourth album, Me Vs Myself, throughout 2022. Originally scheduled for November, the album will drop this month, right in time for A Boogie's hometown album launch at the iconic Apollo Theater in Harlem.
Me Vs Myself was preceded by a pair of singles, "Take Shots," featuring Tory Lanez, and "Ballin," which both showcase the rapper's supremely confident flow and wavy beats. While the full tracklist is not yet confirmed, A Boogie's previous album, ARTIST 2.0, covered the R&B and rap spectrum with guests like Summer Walker, Khalid, Young Thug and Lil Uzi Vert, without pulling focus from the main star. The rapper has already lined up dates for the Me Vs Myself tour stretching into 2023, so it's a great time to bet on A Boogie. — J.T.
Related: Meet The 2022 Nominees For Best Rap Album At The 2023 GRAMMY Awards
Mount Westmore - Snoop, Cube, 40, $hort
Release date: December 9
When living legends Snoop Dogg, E-40, Too Short and Ice Cube formed the supergroup Mount Westmore, West Coast rap heads took notice. After several hints that a collaborative album was coming, Mount Westmore made the surprise decision to release their debut, Bad MFs, exclusively as an NFT via the blockchain-based platform Gala Music.
The album arrives on streaming services this month under a new title, Snoop, Cube, 40, $hort, featuring additional songs not included on the NFT version. A spirit of loose fun and ride-or-die friendship carries through all the singles released so far, including the swaggering "Bad MFs" and the bass-heavy, light-hearted "Big Subwoofer." As Snoop put it to HotNewHipHop, "You bring the legends of the West Coast together, something great will always happen." — J.T.
Related: Take The Power Back: How Rage Against The Machine's Debut LP Created Rap-Rock With A Message
Leland Whitty - Anyhow
Release date: December 9
Best known as a member of Toronto-based jazz ensemble BADBADNOTGOOD, Leland Whitty is a true multi-instrumentalist. On his seven-track solo release, Anyhow, Whitty oversaw all production and composition, moving deftly between guitar, synthesizer, woodwinds and strings.
Following his scores for indie films Disappearance at Clifton Hill and Learn to Swim, Whitty was inspired to combine cinematic composition with rock and jazz instrumentation in his own project. Lead single "Awake" perfectly strikes that balance with twinkling keys, mournful strings and an insistent drum beat, while follow-up "Glass Moon" conjures a similarly beguiling mood. Members of BADBADNOTGOOD and Whitty's musician brother also joined the studio sessions, making Anyhow a family affair. — J.T.
Related: Robert Glasper & Terrace Martin On Removing Their Egos And Creating Their GRAMMY-Nominated Collaboration Dinner Party: Dessert
Jacquees - Sincerely For You
Release date: December 16
On "Say Yea", the sultry bedroom anthem he dropped back in May, Jacquees croons, "Girl, you overdue for some romantic s—." That simple line is something of a mission statement for the R&B casanova, whose third album, Sincerely For You, drops this month.
The LP features "Say Yea" alongside 16 more R&B jams, including singles "Tipsy," which captures the singer's blurry plea to a lover, and the smoothly boastful "Still That." Elsewhere, Sincerely For You offers up guest turns from Future (who also executive produced the album), 21 Savage and Tory Lanez, plus the R&B dream team of 6lack and Summer Walker on "Tell Me It's Over." On his socials, Jacquees dedicated the album to "everybody who been there for me along the way" and promised to deliver only "real R&B." — J.T.
Related: Durand Bernarr's 'Wanderlust': The R&B Singer Explains Why He's "Constantly In A State Of Arriving"
Ab-Soul - Herbert
Release date: December 16
Six hard-won years after his last album, the divisive, conspiracy theory-heavy Do What Thou Wilt., Ab-Soul has found his drive again. The rapper from Carson, California returns this month with a deeply personal album that shares his birth name, Herbert.
Ab-Soul's new outlook was previewed in lead single "Do Better," which reckons with the scars of his past and looks to the future with powerful clarity. The next single, "Gang'Nem," featuring Houston rapper FRE$H and produced by fellow Top Dawg Entertainment mainstay Sounwave, also revisits his upbringing and pays respect to L.A. street culture over a woozy, hard-hitting beat.
For fans of Ab-Soul's dense lyrical style and gravelly flow, Herbert is an eagerly-anticipated return to the rap limelight. — J.T.
Related: From "Rap Sh!t" To "Pistol" And "Treme": 8 Must-See TV Series For Music Lovers
NCT DREAM - Candy
Release date: December 19
NCT Dream, the youngest sub-group of Neo Culture Technology (NCT), has seen exponential growth since they rebranded as a fixed unit in 2020. The septet is set to release a winter special EP called Candy on Dec. 19. The mini-album's six tracks, include lead single "Candy," which was originally performed by H.O.T. in 1996. The album will be the first holiday release for any NCT sub-group, following a slew of successful releases from NCT Dream this year.
The group released their second studio album, Glitch, in March 2022, followed by their repackaged Beatbox in May. Their first feature film, NCT Dream The Movie: In a Dream, released worldwide on Nov. 30 and Dec. 3 and documents the opening days of their tour in Seoul. The group will finish their tour in Japan by February 2023. — Ashlee Mitchell
Related: K-Pop Icon B.I Isn't Afraid To Explore Growth And Freedom On 'Love Or Loved Pt. 1'
Weezer - SZNZ: Winter
Release date: December 21
This has been a remarkably good year to be a Weezer fan. Always pleasingly prolific, in 2022 the band decided to release a four-EP series under the name SZNZ, each timed to coincide with a new season.
Following Spring, Summer and Autumn editions, SZNZ: Winter arrives just in time for peak coziness. While the complete tracklist is not yet known, Weezer performed the EP in full for an intimate crowd at the Troubadour in Los Angeles (using their favored alias Goat Punishment), with new highlights including "I Want A Dog" and "The One That Got Away."
While frontman Rivers Cuomo has described SZNZ: Winter as having a sad vibe that suits snowed-in days, you can always count on Weezer to cut the melancholy with some power-pop verve. — J.T.
A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
Photo: Rachel Kupfer
A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.
It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.
Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.
Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.
In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.
Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.
There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.
Say She She
Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.
While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."
Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.
Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.
Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.
Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.
L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.
During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.
Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.
Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.
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