meta-scriptLove Thundercat? Check Out These 5 Contemporary Bassists Keeping The Flame | GRAMMY.com
Love Thundercat? Check Out These 5 Contemporary Bassists Keeping The Flame
(L-R) Sam Wilkes, Mononeon, Blu DeTiger, Anna Butterss, Adi Oasis

Photos (L-R): courtesy of the artist, courtesy of the artist, Rick Kern/Getty Images, Zach Caddy, Clément Dezelus

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Love Thundercat? Check Out These 5 Contemporary Bassists Keeping The Flame

Two-time GRAMMY winner Thundercat has helped redefine the bass in the popular conversation — but he's just the tip of the iceberg. Here are five other bassists maintaining the groove.

GRAMMYs/Jun 21, 2023 - 05:21 pm

A common metaphor for the bass is an "anchor," the instrument that establishes the groove in tandem with the drums. Together, they create a solid foundation for the lead instrument, or instruments, to shine.

But if you call Ron Carter, the most-recorded jazz bassist alive, an "anchor," he'll have a few choice words for you.

"You ever see an anchor? It's down at the bottom, rusty," the three-time GRAMMY winner once said. "No one knows it's there; no one gives a s— that it's there, holding the boat back. Anchor of the band? That means the band's not going anywhere.

"That's not what I do, man," Carter continued. "My job is to knock your socks off."

These days, the music community is full of contemporary bassists who knock your socks off, in all genres. Which has less to do with tearing apart the rulebook than bringing their instrument to the center of the music discourse — an instrument in the front seat, not the back.

Take the colorful and virtuosic Thundercat; his bass acumen made him a star, and even blasted him into the Star Wars universe. (Flea followed suit, in a passing of the bass torch in a galaxy far, far away. Consider fellow GRAMMY winner Linda May Han Oh, a dazzling composer on both electric and upright bass; "jazz" barely contains her artistry.

From there, the list goes on and on: Esperanza Spalding, Mali Obomsawin, Charles Berthoud, Endea Owens, Alex Claffy, Sam Wilkes, Logan Kane, and so many others. Sungazer bassist Adam Neely's music-focused YouTube channel commands 1.7 million subscribers; the bassist-YouTuber Davie504, a whopping 13 million.

Clearly, the bass is alive and well in the popular conversation — and to address all the worthy practitioners who've popped up in the last decade and change would require a thick book. 

So here's a sampler platter: five radiant bassists bringing their instrument to the forefront, who hail from a range of backgrounds and scenes.

Blu DeTiger

Watch the video for Blu DeTiger's four-on-the-floor single "Elevator," and chances are you've never seen anything like it: a pop song, and video, with the bass prominently featured.

Yet the TikTok bass phenom is unconcerned with showing off and committed to the pocket. Same in "Hot Crush Lover," which further demonstrates her fluidity and suppleness on four strings.

"I remember thinking 'So many girls play guitar and sing,'" DeTiger told Spin in 2022. "I was like, 'I want to be different. I want to do something unique.' And I've never looked back."

Bass covers of pop songs by Beyoncé, Prince, Megan Thee Stallion, Lil Nas X, and others put DeTiger on the map. Since then, she's evolved into a full-fledged indie pop star, signed to Capitol Records, even performing on "Saturday Night Live" with Bleachers.

"I'm grateful and lucky that I was kind of on TikTok and stuff early on and was finding my way then." DeTiger told Reverb. "Because I feel like if I was trying to do what I was doing then now, I don't know if it would've cut through the same."

But perforate the mainstream DeTiger has — and with it, the bass gets a great deal more shine.

Sam Wilkes

L.A. bassist, composer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist Sam Wilkes is pure versatility; his sound straddles jazz fusion and ambient psychedelia without tipping over into "chill study beats."

"Jazz is just a language within another broader language. I'm a curious person and music offers up endless possibilities for me," Wilkes told The Fader. "I guess I can't escape jazz. It's what hits people first and they hear what they hear."

Jazz or no jazz, Wilkes' omnivorous muse has led to regular collaborations with saxophonist Sam Gendel and singer/songwriter Louis Cole, as well as stints in the eclectic groups Knower — who's opened for Red Hot Chili Peppers — and funk cover band Scary Pockets. 

Reared on jammers like Phish and the Dead, Wilkes was bitten by the improvisation bug early on. Although he played electric bass rather than upright, he figured USC would accept him into their jazz program anyway; despite his prodigious talent, said stumbling block barred him from the school.

But when that door closed, another opened; he entered the world of R&B and became an in-demand session cat. The career that ensued wasn't "anti-jazz," exactly; it encompasses a multitude of musical spheres, commensurately owed to brainy analysis and vibey grooves.

Adi Oasis

Adi Oasis isn't just a masterful bassist; she's a completely 360° artist — playing, singing, composing, and producing with equal facility. As such, she's not just here to jam; on her latest album, 2023's Lotus Glow, she tackles difficult subjects of identity and belonging.

"Thematically my new album is fearless, yet vulnerable, and also more political," the French-Caribbean artist wrote in a statement. "Because I'm a Black female immigrant, and these are my truths."

Oasis' pursuance of truths have paved the way for a dynamic career; she's collaborated or shared stages with leading lights like Anderson .Paak, Natalie Prass, Lee Fields, Big Freeda, and Chromeo.

Her approach to her instrument is finding a subliminal core — and a seam of infectious energy. "For me, bass is about finding a good groove that people may not even notice — a good groove that I want to keep playing forever," she told Bass Player in 2021.

Clearly, Oasis continues to accomplish this mission with every gig, every record, every collaboration.

"My entire life, every single show has felt like a victory — and I've played a lot of shows," Oasis has said of holding down the low end onstage. "The feeling that I get when I perform… that's it. That's what I've dreamt about, that's the high that I'm chasing.

"So I've made it a long time ago," the multi-hyphenate continued. "The rest is just a matter of getting more and more people in the room to share it with."

MonoNeon

When two-time GRAMMY-winning bass great Marcus Miller calls a bassist a "young bad cat" — and Prince has worked with them — any lover of four strings should investigate immediately.

MonoNeon, born Dywane Thomas, Jr., is a mighty bassist who blends soul, funk, jazz, and hip-hop, often on his eye-catching YouTube channel, where he commands 179,000 subscribers.

Thomas' father, Dywane Sr., is a bassist in his own right; Thomas curiously learned the instrument upside down from the age of four. "My dad played the right way," he explained to Thrasher in 2021. "I don't know why I flipped it over."

Victor Wooten of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones fame was a formative influence. "Seeing Victor Wooten thump the way he does really made me practice on my slapping and thumping more," MonoNeon continued. "It was difficult trying to thump upside down — I'm still working on it."

In the same interview, he shouts out Joe Cleveland, as well as Curtis Mayfield's bassist Joseph "Lucky" Scott and Muscle Shoals bass legend David Hood.

The sky was the limit for MonoNeon; he was actually one of the Purple One's final collaborators. 

"It was super cool. It wasn't what I thought it would be. Like, it was really weird and s—, but it was also laid back," Thomas added. "I still think about those Paisley Park shows that I played with Prince. I miss that shit so much, mane!"

But Prince will be remembered forever — and the more MonoNeon continues his ascendancy, chances are he will too.

Anna Butterss

What do singer/songwriters like Bright Eyes, Phoebe Bridgers and Aimee Mann have to do wit jazz musicians like Makaya McCraven, Larry Goldings and Walter Smith III? At the top of the list is Anna Butterss.

The Aussie bassist and composer's art isn't simply contained in these accompanying roles, though; her 2022 debut, Activities, contains the full spectrum of her art in microcosm.

"I was trying to subvert expectations while still keeping the music engaging, almost hooky," Butterss told Interlocutor that year. "I'm a sucker for a singable melody, but I want it to be a little off-kilter in some way, to feel surprising."

"And I wanted to express a lot of complicated and conflicting emotions, feelings that are difficult to put into words," she continued. Butterss then cited something that reveals her jazz bona fides: Thelonious Monk's concept of "ugly beauty."

No matter which context Butterss finds herself in, imagination is paramount; she can stretch her personal style any which way. So can all five of these bassists, as they've proved time and time again — every time they bring a background instrument to the forefront, to brilliant results.

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Blu DeTiger's "Cotton Candy Lemonade" Turned COVID-19 Emotions Into A Dreamy Song Full Of Endless Hope

Blu DeTiger 

Photo: "Cotton Candy Lemonade" Music Video Still

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Blu DeTiger's "Cotton Candy Lemonade" Turned COVID-19 Emotions Into A Dreamy Song Full Of Endless Hope

The singer/songwriter and bassist tells GRAMMY.com more about the single, what her forthcoming project will sound like, how she feels connected to Shawn Mendes and more

GRAMMYs/Oct 27, 2020 - 04:00 am

Blu DeTiger, like many of us, has felt the weight of the pandemic. The singer/songwriter and bassist turned her feelings into her latest single, "Cotton Candy Lemonade," a dreamy song about wanting to be anywhere else with that special someone. 

"I've been on my own/ Come find me now/ I'm lonely to the bone/ But I don't feel so low/ When you're around," she sings before opening up a sea of endless possibilities. "I wanna get lost with you/ Picture waking up somewhere new/ I wanna get lost with you."

The song is "classic quarantine, COVID emotions and just longing for a different time," she tells GRAMMY.com in a recent interview.

The song's video only magnifies the dreamy vibe with hazy scenes and candy-colored New York landscapes as she rides off on the back of a motorcycle. 

Despite the heavy feelings, Blu wanted the song to be hopeful, a feeling that comes through the song's beat and her smooth groovy-inspired bass line. 

"It is coming from a hopeful place. It's not a sad bop," she adds.

Blu, who went viral onTik Tok unexpectedly in the spring and has found herself giving people a soundtrack to create on the platform during these times, caught up with GRAMMY.com to talk more about her latest single, what her life looks like now, what we can expect on her next project, how she uses DJing to solidify her sound, how she feels connected to Shawn Mendes and more. 

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How are you spending your time these days? What does your day to day look like now?

Oh, man. I mean, I feel like it's changed over time during this whole thing now that things are a little bit more open in New York, but yeah, my day-to-day, I wake up, have my coffee, whatever. Go through my—I'm doing very basic day to day right now—I'm going very detailed ... check my stuff, emails and texts and things and then I usually, nowadays, I do a walk around my neighborhood just to get back in the zone of going outside and then I'll work on music basically the rest of the day until the late hours of the night. 

Have you noticed something that you didn't notice before about the city while on your walks?

Yeah, now it's weird because the energy here is really good right now. I know that sounds crazy. Everything is so horrible in the world, obviously but the energy here, I feel like it's like more of a community now and real, OG New Yorkers are here and it's been feeling good and I'll Citi Bike. I like to bike around now these days near the water while it's still nice out. But yeah, people are out and about, just relaxing, enjoying themselves. 

Your latest single is called "Cotton Candy Lemonade." I know you wrote it under quarantine. What's the story behind the song?

I've been working with some friends, these two producers, Eugene and Stelios and this other writer, Jessie. Eugene and Stelios had these starting chords and sent them to me and then we got on Zoom and I added the bass and we wrote the song over it pretty much and it came together really quickly. It was interesting that it was over Zoom, I think it was one of my first Zoom sessions. So, I think that was weird, but now I'm more used to that. So, it was over Zoom and it came together really quickly. I think it was just a lot of what I was feeling at that time. The classic quarantine, COVID emotions and just longing for a different time, like pre-COVID or post-COVID. 

Did those first chords set the mood at all for the song?

Yeah, definitely. Those chords just inspired the feeling ... I added the bass and the drums and stuff and I think that the movement of the groove... It's still a driving song, it still drives from the base groove and stuff and I think that's also what's cool about this song because it is coming from a hopeful place. It's not a sad bop, I still think there are some positives in there about it.

You recently released the video directed by Sacred Pact. Were you and Sacred Pact still able to get your vision across through the video?

Yeah, totally. It was different because obviously, it was a very tight set. It was only like four people or five people on set and we all tested and all of the COVID precautions we did before but yeah, it was weird that it was small, but I liked it and it was an all-female set as well, which was special and just good energy. But I think we were able to do well with the limitations. The Sacred Pact girls are so cool, they shot and edited and directed. They took on a bunch of different hats, we all had to. So, that was fun, it was real teamwork and it felt really good. I had so much fun shooting that day. Just riding on a motorcycle in the city is the best feeling ever. 

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When it comes to your music-making process, is there a time you feel most creative?

Yeah, definitely at night between the hours of like midnight and four. It sounds crazy but it's really hard for me to get out of this schedule. I feel like a lot of people actually got into that sleep schedule where people are staying up later and then waking up later ... When quarantine first started and I've gotten into that cycle and I still hadn't broken it but I've just found that I'm way more creative at night when the sun goes down and it's those 12 to 4 a.m. hours, so that's been fun. I'm still doing that. That's when I really sit down to write music and record stuff at home. I found out that's been my process but then when I think about it, I'm also like, "That makes sense," because I'm used to djing. Before COVID, I was djing a lot and those hours would always be 12 to four, those are the nightclub hours or like 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. That's when I would be working anyways in normal times. So, I think I'm just used to that schedule anyways.

Does being a DJ influence your music-making at all?

Totally. I'm so grateful that I have a background in DJing because, first of all, it makes you have a wide, vast knowledge of music throughout the decades. You need to know the hits through every decade, especially if you're djing. I've DJed weddings and bar mitzvahs and all that stuff and you need to know your stuff. You need to know the hits and I've also done other things where... I've just done every genre, so I think it made me just have to know a lot of music and listen to a lot of music and, of course, that's always going to be an influence. To make music, you got to hear other music but also, just the experience of playing to a crowd and being able to control the crowd and seeing what makes people dance and what makes people move and what makes people leave the dance floor and what gets a reaction out of people, different moments in songs and picking up on that and being aware of that has also been really helpful.

I want to pick your DJ brain for a little bit because I know that we've had to adjust a lot to the fact that live music is still not something we're able to experience. Do you feel like these live streams... Is that good for now or do you feel like you just can't wait until you can be in a room with people?

I don't know, I have mixed feelings because I know this is the only other thing that's possible right now, so I don't want to bash it but it's definitely not the same at all, for me at least. It's been tough just to capture that live experience, there's just nothing like it. I definitely think it's the best next thing that's possible but yeah, I don't know. I'm hoping that shows come back soon so you can get that feeling again. Even just like perform... I mean, I did these performance videos from home that I've been uploading on YouTube with each song. Obviously, it wasn't the same but I definitely think it was so therapeutic for me to put those together and just rehearse, like put myself back in a rehearsal mode and back into thinking about the songs in a live performance setting, which is so good for me and I feel like I had those endorphins go off again and I was missing that, craving that feeling. So, I was able to tap into it a little bit, making these videos from home but yeah, I mean, I don't know. I miss sweaty bodies in a room so bad.

Can you be a DJ and also make your own music at the same time? Or is it something that you're like, "I'm going to make music for this amount of time and I'm not going to DJ, I'm just going to focus on making music"?

I definitely think they go hand-in-hand and you can do both for sure. I also think the best feeling is like when I first started to complete my songs for my project, I would test them out in DJ settings and I would mix them into my DJ sets and that's the best feeling ever. Just hearing your song in comparison to other songs and seeing people dance to it but even if they don't even know what they're listening to, but they just know that they like it. Just seeing a genuine live reaction from a crowd in a DJ setting is really special and cool. When I first started finishing my songs and testing them out in the clubs, that was really fun. You could definitely do both and they go hand-in-hand. I mean, it's all music so I think anything music-related. I used to be like, "Oh my God, I do all these different things and how do they come together?" And I feel like they just always come together ... music is fluid and flows and it's all in the same category, in the same mother, you know?

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You've been releasing singles since late 2019, can we expect an album soon?

Yeah, not an album but an EP, for sure, is on the way and then album soon after that but yeah, I'm really excited for this. I haven't released a full body of work yet, so I'm super excited to do that and just have that snapshot of a bunch of songs. So, that's coming next year, so I'm really excited about that.

 I noticed that the singles you released in late 2019 were very dance-pop and we started to hear a little bit of a change in "Tangerine" and then "Figure It Out" and "Cotton Candy Lemonade" lose the dance feel a little bit, can we expect these sounds to make up your EP?

Yeah. I mean, I think the EP definitely has some more dance elements in there. I feel like I started with that because that was the world that I was coming from with the DJ background. I had that influence and I feel like just the music I've been making now, I feel like it's probably the same for a lot of artists these days, during quarantine, but no one's going out and really dancing, I guess, so it's been harder to sit down and make dance music because no one's out there dancing. My thought process I think is just like, "I'll just sit down and make more mellower, groovier tracks," but I'm always going to have that influence in my music because that's just what I like and what I grew up on and also like the funk stuff and disco, that genre is what I really fell in love with when I started playing bass and stuff like that. So, that's definitely in the vibe of the EP, for sure.

What are some of the other sounds that inspired you to make music when you were younger?

Definitely the late '70s, early '80s funk is my sweet spot of music I love, so that's definitely in there and the production style is just... all of the sounds are just so amazing. So, definitely, a sense of that is in there. I mean, I don't know. I listened to everything, I know that sounds like cliché everyone's like I listen to everything, but I do really try to take in everything and I feel like stuff just comes out here and there in my music, whether it's a subconscious decision or I'm actually sitting down and being like, "I'm going to try to replicate this cool thing that I heard in this song." 

What is one genre or artist that you think people would be surprised you like?

Good question. I honestly, I feel like I've talked about this before in an interview but I honestly love Shawn Mendes. He's a major artist, so maybe it's not surprising but I think the new song is so good and I'm pumped for his documentary he just was talking about because I remember I first followed him on Vine when he had not that many followers, so I feel a certain connection but I mean, I don't know. I guess that's a good answer for that question. 

Going back to your project, how do you feel like you're growing working on it?

Oh, damn. I think in the biggest way is, in the past songs I've released, I haven't done as much production work on it, except for "Cotton Candy Lemonade." I co-produced that one, but for the songs before, I wasn't as, I guess, hands-on, on the computer with the production and with these new songs that are coming out, I'm the main producer on the song and really getting into that producer hat zone. So, I think that's probably the biggest way that I'm growing, is I'm really getting into doing more of the production on my own and really just flushing out my ideas from start to finish. Just me or just me and my brother, I've been working with my brother a lot in quarantine. That's the biggest way I'm growing is in my production skills, for sure. 

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Is that something that you've always wanted to do, produce?

Yeah, for sure. I learned Ableton at an early age and I would always experiment, but I never sat down to write songs within and I slowly started to. I went to NYU for music and going there I learned some more skills because they have a bunch of production classes and things like that. So, I was slowly getting better but I wasn't as confident in myself and I never called myself a producer. I feel like now I can call myself a producer but before, I would always be scared to be like, "I produce too," because I just wasn't as confident, so I definitely had to put in the hours and practice before I could really take that on.

People ask themselves, "Is it worth going to school?" In your opinion, what do you think? Is learning in the classroom worth it? Or have you learned the most being an artist and producer?

It's so hard because I feel like everyone's different and everyone has a different style. I mean, I'm definitely so grateful that I got to go to NYU. I left a few years in because I had touring opportunities, but I definitely learned a lot while I was there and it was really good for me just to meet other people and be in the room with the other kids was really important. Classmates inspire you and you inspire classmates and that all rubs off on each other and being in the room with the professors, just having that network is really important but, I can only speak from personal experience. From my experience, it was important for me to leave when I did. And I definitely learned... there are some things you can't learn in the classroom and you got to really just go out and experience because someone telling you how to tour is different than you actually touring, you know? I think just getting life experience is really important. So, I would say a mix, but it really depends on what you want to do and if you want to be an artist or producer, engineer or music business, I think it all really depends on the person in the situation but for me, I'm really grateful I had the mix of both, like the best of both worlds.

When it comes to your forthcoming project, is there something you want to accomplish for yourself?

I think just to feel good about... I don't know. I mean, I do feel really good about it already but I think just to get it out there and for people to hear it. Just to release it. I think every time I release music, I'm just so happy after I put something out. It just feels like another part of you is being shown or expressed. 

This album will have a little bit more of you in the production sense

Yeah, totally. I think you'll definitely get a better taste of me and some different sides of me and qualities and it's a good sum up of just where I'm at right now or where I was when I wrote it and yeah, I'm pumped to just keep growing, keep experimenting and going on and writing more stuff forever. It's been a good journey and process for sure.

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GRAMMY Rewind: Watch Doja Cat & SZA Tearfully Accept Their First GRAMMYs For "Kiss Me More"
(L-R) Doja Cat and SZA at the 2022 GRAMMYs.

Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

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GRAMMY Rewind: Watch Doja Cat & SZA Tearfully Accept Their First GRAMMYs For "Kiss Me More"

Relive the moment the pair's hit "Kiss Me More" took home Best Pop Duo/Group Performance, which marked the first GRAMMY win of their careers.

GRAMMYs/Mar 1, 2024 - 06:11 pm

As Doja Cat put it herself, the 2022 GRAMMYs were a "big deal" for her and SZA.

Doja Cat walked in with eight nominations, while SZA entered the ceremony with five. Three of those respective nods were for their 2021 smash "Kiss Me More," which ultimately helped the superstars win their first GRAMMYs.

In this episode of GRAMMY Rewind, revisit the night SZA and Doja Cat accepted the golden gramophone for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance — a milestone moment that Doja Cat almost missed.

"Listen. I have never taken such a fast piss in my whole life," Doja Cat quipped after beelining to the stage. "Thank you to everybody — my family, my team. I wouldn't be here without you, and I wouldn't be here without my fans."

Before passing the mic to SZA, Doja also gave a message of appreciation to the "Kill Bill" singer: "You are everything to me. You are incredible. You are the epitome of talent. You're a lyricist. You're everything."

SZA began listing her praises for her mother, God, her supporters, and, of course, Doja Cat. "I love you! Thank you, Doja. I'm glad you made it back in time!" she teased.

"I like to downplay a lot of s— but this is a big deal," Doja tearfully concluded. "Thank you, everybody."

Press play on the video above to hear Doja Cat and SZA's complete acceptance speech for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance at the 2022 GRAMMY Awards, and check back to GRAMMY.com for more new episodes of GRAMMY Rewind.

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Listen: Miley Cyrus & Pharrell Reunite For New Song "Doctor (Work It Out)"
Miley Cyrus performs at the 2024 GRAMMYs.

Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

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Listen: Miley Cyrus & Pharrell Reunite For New Song "Doctor (Work It Out)"

Ten years after their first funky single, Miley Cyrus and Pharrell Williams strike again with "Doctor (Work It Out)," which arrived on March 1. Hear the new track and watch the spirited music video here.

GRAMMYs/Mar 1, 2024 - 04:31 pm

On the heels of her first GRAMMY wins, Miley Cyrus is feeling good — and she's ready to be your cure.

The pop superstar unveiled her new single, a lustful, funky dance track titled "Doctor (Work It Out)," on March 1. The track is her latest collaboration with Pharrell, and their first in 10 years.

Over a pulsating bass guitar-driven beat, Cyrus opens with the punchy chorus (“I could be your doctor/ And I could be your nurse/ I think I see the problem/ It's only gon' get worse/ A midnight medication/ Just show me where it hurts," she sings) before erupting into a dance break as she declares, "Let me work it out… Imma work it out…”

So far, 2024 is feelin' fine for Cyrus. At the 2024 GRAMMYs, her 2023 smash, "Flowers," took home two awards, for Best Pop Solo Performance and Record Of The Year. Following her first win, she delivered a knockout performance featuring the unforgettable ad lib, "I started to cry and then I remembered I… just won my first GRAMMY!" 

Less than a month later, "Doctor (Work It Out)" serves as another groovy celebration of Cyrus' achievements in life and music so far.

The song's music video is reminiscent of her 2024 GRAMMYs performance, too. Not only is she wearing a similar shimmery fringe dress, but the entire video is a jubilant, blissful solo dance party.

Though Cyrus first teased "Doctor (Work It Out)" just a few days before the song's arrival, Pharrell first gave a sneak peek in January, at his American Western themed Fall/Winter 2024 Louis Vuitton Men's fashion show in Paris. It was Pharrell's third collection for the luxury house, and the bouncy single served as a fitting soundtrack. 

The song marks Cyrus' first release in 2024, and her first collab with Pharrell since 2014's "Come Get It Bae" from his album G I R L'; Pharrell also co-wrote and produced four tracks on the deluxe version of Cyrus' 2013 album, Bangerz.

Watch the "Doctor (Work It Out)" video above, and stay tuned to GRAMMY.com for more Miley Cyrus news.

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Photos: Fundokwakhe Majozi, Oupa Bopape/Gallo Images via Getty Images; Courtesy of the artist; Jerritt Clark/Getty Images for UnitedMasters; Oupa Bopape/Gallo Images via Getty Images; Leon Bennett/WireImage

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11 Women Pushing Amapiano To Global Heights: Uncle Waffles, Nkosazana Daughter, & More

While Tyla may have brought amapiano to 2024 GRAMMYs stage, a vast network of women are responsible for bringing the South African sound to the world. Get to know 11 of the artists at the forefront of amapiano music.

GRAMMYs/Mar 1, 2024 - 04:15 pm

After South African singer Tyla won the inaugural golden gramophone for Best African Music Performance at the 2024 GRAMMYs award show, many likely wondered why her international breakout single "Water" garnered such global appeal. 

Beyond the R&B sensibilities that made its sound approachable to Western audiences, what really drew crowds to "Water" was the vitality of South African dance and elements of amapiano — a subgenre of house and a child of kwaito, South Africa’s post-Apartheid freedom sound. Punctuated by amapiano’s log drums and insistent shakers, brought to life through the frantic backside movements of bacardi  and Tyla’s aquatic theater, "Water" used genre fusion to carry South African sound across global airwaves.

What’s more, Tyla is part of a vast network of women propelling amapiano to the world. Zimbabwean singer Sha Sha’s breakout in 2019 created a monumental shift in a genre that was largely the terrain of boys and men, and since then the amapiano scene has seen many other women follow in her wake. The likes of Mawhoo, Ami Faku, Bontle Smith, and Nobantu Vilakazi consistently emphasize the genre's soulful heart through dreamlike vocal work, grounding the very hits that have made amapiano the widespread phenomenon that it is today.

Everything from the skillful improvisations of dancing schoolgirls, to lively performances from women DJs and vocalists has allowed amapiano’s essence to be communicated clearly to the world. A vast web of women are pushing the genre both within and beyond South African borders; read on for a list of 11 influential women who are key in elevating amapiano to global heights.

DBN Gogo 

It’s not that controversial: everybody loves Gogo. Born in the city from which she derived her name, Durban, DBN Gogo has steadily become one of amapiano’s most sought-after acts. From her 2021 smash hit "Khuza Gogo" featuring amapiano stars such as the late Mpura, to later hits like "Possible," "Bambelela," and "Bells," Gogo has made a name for herself as a highly-dependable hitmaker and an equally compelling performer. It was her, of course, who created the viral dakiwe dance challenge, inspiring countless dance variations and solidifying her position as amapiano’s queen of cool.

Even while she has offered the genre mass mainstream appeal, DBN Gogo's personal projects reveal her lasting dedication to preserving amapiano’s authenticity. Her 2022 debut album, What’s Real, is a warm, rich body of work, while her newest EP Click Bait is a genre-diverse wonder that transcends the boundaries of ‘piano itself. 

Since her breakout years ago, she has not even remotely backed down, taking over multiple AfroNation stages yearly, performing at Coachella in 2022, and featuring twice on the GRAMMY-nominated Black Panther: Wakanda Forever soundtrack. Dropping the Shakes & Les-assisted "Funk 55" in 2023, a track that is still dominating South African nightlife as we speak, Gogo is on an unending mission to take the world by storm.

Nkosazana Daughter

With a spiritual sound and an angelic voice to match, it’s safe to say that Nkosazana Daughter is amapiano’s sweetheart. Breaking out via an Instagram Live with DJ Maphorisa and Mpura during lockdown, the 23-year-old has proved that her ethereal vocals can impart a distinct sense of purity to any song she features on. 

She has since voiced dreamy hit singles like "Dali Nguwe" and "Sofa Silahlane" with frequent collaborator Master KG, and worked with continental artists including Tanzania’s Harmonize and Nigerian Afropop stars Mr. Eazi, Omah Lay, and Young Jonn. Last year, she asserted herself in a big way, releasing her debut album Uthingo Le Nkosazana

"Uthingo," meaning "rainbow" in Zulu, communicated to the world the vast color and love she had to bring to the scene. Nkosazana Daughter called amapiano’s greats to her world, working with the likes of Kabza de Small, Maphorisa, and Sir Trill throughout the project as well as Master KG on the lead single, "Amaphutha." She has already started the year with a bang via her successful hit "Keneilwe," proving her determination to come into 2024 with an unrelenting force.

TXC

Tarynn Reid and Clair Hefke are the dj duo that have proved the importance of intentional performance while pushing ‘piano. The pair are known for mixing amapiano party hits while clad in matching sets; Clair often holds down the fort while Tarynn drives crowds wild with impassioned dance moves. 

The duo has become a symbol of amapiano’s global appeal, ruling the Piano People stage at AfroNation in Miami, closing Boiler Room’s Soulection stage in London, and taking on Qatar’s 2022 Fifa World Cup stage alongside acts like Lil Baby. What’s more, they have consistently shown dedication to growth, expanding their title from DJ duo to production duo, including producing their debut EP.

That release, 2022's A Fierce Piano is a rich collection of tracks featuring assists from some of the genre's smoothest vocalists: Daliwonga and Murumba Pitch. Following up with "Vuka Mawulele" and their latest single "Turn Off the Lights," TXC have shown that their future as creatives in amapiano is limitless. 

Babalwa M

While the amapiano scene is fraught with disagreements surrounding origins, dates, and pioneers, all unanimously agree that Babalwa M is the queen of private school amapiano. Known for its deeply jazzy, soulful approach to amapiano, "private school" is a distinct subgenre that Babalwa’s vocals have refined throughout the years alongside its king, producer Kelvin Momo.

Listening to the transcendental vocals laced through tracks like "Aluta Continua" from her debut album of the same name, it should come as no surprise that Soweto’s own Babalwa M found her voice through the church choir.

Babalwa M's most infamous contributions to the private school archive come in the form of collaborations with the aforementioned Momo. Her near-spiritual vocals on tracks like "Feza," "Sukakude" and, most recently, "Amalobolo" from his newest project, have made even the most surface level consumers invested in the beauty of private school. Coming off of the heels of her most recent track "Maye Maye," Babalwa M is determined to continue sharing the sublimity of private school with the world. 

Uncle Waffles

Nobody quite epitomizes amapiano’s globalization in the way that Uncle Waffles does. 

It all boils down to one fateful day: a DJ booked for a 2021 club night in Soweto was unable to make their set, so Uncle Waffles was called in. She played Young Stunna’s "Adiwele," gyrating with incomparable cool as she responded to the crowd’s impassioned cries. A video of her dancing at this set went viral, generating a dance challenge that can still be seen at club nights today and converting her into an overnight sensation. Suddenly, Swaziland’s own Uncle Waffles was juggling bookings from all over the world. 

Since then, the cosmos has become the limit  — she has shut down Coachella, sold out US and UK headlines shows, and received cosigns from Drake, Kelly Rowland, and Ciara. Waffles' hit single "Tanzania" was even featured in an amapiano-influenced set during multiple stops of Beyoncé’s Renaissance Tour. What’s more, she has proved that her talents transcend the stage with three projects in her catalog: Red Dragon, and 2023’s Asylum and Solace. 

With global hit singles "Yahyuppiyah" and "Peacock Revisit" from 2023, and her constant re-definition as a style icon, dancer, and creative director, Uncle Waffles continues to show the world that she cannot be confined to any one creative medium.

Chley

Slick-tongued Chley is widely understood as a secret weapon for any producer looking to cook up an amapiano anthem. Taking on music as recently as 2021, she’d already collaborated with prominent amapiano producers Mellow & Sleazy, Konke, and Musa Keys a year into her music career - voicing hits like "Kancane" and "M’nike." Chley was catapulted to a new level of fame once featured on Uncle Waffles’ "Yahyuppiyah," offering a rapid-fire verse that netizens all over the world fought hard to replicate.

Since then, she has featured on bangers such as "Vuma" with Felo Le Tee and Mellow & Sleazy, "Shu!" with Tanzania’s Diamond Platnumz, Gogo’s "Funk 55," and Ggoldie’s "Asambe." With a discography bound to make even the most conservative of listeners get up and dance, Chley is certainly one to watch in the midst of amapiano’s ever-evolving scene.

Kamo Mphela

Kamo Mphela burst onto the scene after one too many videos of her dancing went viral — an expected outcome for a girl who consistently danced and MCed at block parties on the streets of Joburg. Her rise to fame fatefully coincided with amapiano’s nationwide popularization, allowing the multi-talented dancer to latch on to the township sound and never let it go. 

She soon jumped on tracks like "Sandton" alongside Kabza and Maphorisa in 2019 and "Amanikiniki" with Major League DJz in 2021, then released her own tracks "Percy Tau" and "Nkulunkulu" on her debut EP the same year. She’s since released smash hits, featured on the Wakanda Forever soundtrack, and offered a thrilling performance ahead of Davido at London’s O2 arena.

Throughout her career, Kamo Mphela has redefined the role of the dancer in amapiano’s landscape, not confining herself to the sidelines but instead positioning dance as a central component of any amapiano performance worth its salt. This radical ethic has allowed her to become widely regarded as one of amapino’s most notable performers, and she consistently ensures that her music embodies this weighty title. Her 2023 singles "HANNAH MONTANA" and "Dalie" came with expert dances — the latter with a viral dance challenge that has kept the song at a steady position on South African charts. 

Boohle

Hailing from the Vosloorus township of Johannesburg, Buhle Manyathi is all about soul. Kicking off her career as part of a gospel troupe in 2016, she later transitioned to Afro house and amapiano, releasing a multi-genre debut album, Izibongo, in 2020 and EP Sfikile in 2021. It was only a matter of time before she became the vocalist behind some of ‘piano’s biggest hits, voicing "Mama" with Josiah de Disciple (and its gorgeous Afro house remix from De Capo), "Siyathandana" alongside rapper Cassper Nyovest, and the glorious "Ngixolele," produced by Busta 929. 

Several top charting positions and awards later, she came out with arguably her most global single, "Hamba Wena" alongside Deep London. Igniting a global dance challenge created by South African steppers Hope Ramafalo and Hlongi Mash, "Hamba Wena" captivated the globe  and reasserted Boohle’s seemingly endless ability to produce ‘piano anthems.

Lady Du

Music was always in the cards for Lady Du, but it was amapiano in particular that changed the scope of her career. Reared in a family of influential DJs and producers, she kicked off her career as a Hip-Hop DJ before pivoting completely into ‘piano. 

Dropping both "Catalia" and "Woza" in 2021 — both with production from ‘piano pioneer Mr JazziQ — Lady Du suddenly had 2 gigantic hits under her belt, the latter becoming one of the biggest songs in the early days of amapiano’s globalization.

She has since offered roaring vocals on Busta and Mpura’s "Umsebenzi Wethu," hard-hitting rap on 9numba and TOSS’ "uMlando," and Mzansi flare on international features such as "I Did It" with Nigeria’s Niniola. 

Lady Du reaffirmed her centrality in the scene in 2023, dropping her debut album Song is Queen and later, the Megadrumz-produced single "Tjina." The percussion-heavy tune quickly turned global club nights upside down, secured high positions on South Africa’s streaming charts, and emphasized Lady Du’s centrality in amapiano’s sprawling ecosystem.

Pabi Cooper

or Pritori princess Pabi Cooper, winning is easy. Hailing from South Africa’s administrative capital Pretoria, Pabi broke out as a 21-year-old with the party-starting "Isphithiphithi," a hit produced by Busta 929 in 2021.

2022's "Banyana Ke Bafana" was a widely popular hit, propelled by irresistible verses from the Pritori trifecta of Pabi, vocalist Ch’cco, and rapper Focalistic. Her debut EP, Cooperville, introduced audiences to a vast world of her making, with soulful numbers like "MAMA," alongside more street-centric jams like "Waga Bietjie" and "Angeke." 

Today, Cooper has solidified herself as a symbol of youth power, mesmerizing South African crowds through her concert series Cooper FC and snagging a BET nomination in 2023 for Best New International Act. She also carries her hometown on her back wherever she goes; last year saw her release "Jukulyn" alongside Pretoria’s Jelly Babie, a track dedicated to a township of the same name and rooted in the city’s bouncy, infectious sound bacardi. 

Khanyisa

Khanyisa may have started off her career as a social media influencer, but she has seamlessly evolved into an amapiano star. Performing covers and skits to the millions of followers she amassed on TikTok, Khanyisa wielded relatability and humor as her social media superpowers. 

It wasn’t until her irresistible breakout "Bheka Mina Ngedwa" with Lady Du and her official debut "Ungangi Bambi" in 2021, both delivered with the same vitality that offered her acclaim online, that Khanyisa formally secured popularity within the amapiano space.

Since, Khanyisa has featured on popular tracks such as "Vuka Mawulele" with TxC and the  danceable "Zula Zula" with Villosoul. In 2023, she proved her role as an undeniable hitmaker, releasing the log drum heavy "SUKA" and "NGIMOJA" with producer of the year Tyler ICU. With her successful pivot to musical fame, it is clear that Khanyisa’s future as a player in amapiano is incredibly bright. 

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