meta-script8 Artists Who Were Inspired By Their Teachers: Rihanna, Adele, Jay-Z & More | GRAMMY.com
John Legend with students in 2012
John Legend sings for students at Duke Ellington School of the Arts in 2012.

Photo: Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images

list

8 Artists Who Were Inspired By Their Teachers: Rihanna, Adele, Jay-Z & More

In honor of Music In Our Schools Month this March, take a look at how teachers made a heartwarming impact on superstars like Katy Perry and John Legend.

GRAMMYs/Mar 16, 2023 - 03:55 pm

Before Rihanna, Billy Joel and Jay-Z became some of the biggest names in music, they were students just like the rest of us. Without some particularly special teachers, they might not be the superstars they are today, and they all remember who first encouraged them.

Within the past few years, Rihanna made a special trip to a cricket match in England to reunite with her old P.E. teacher from Barbados, who she calls her "MVP"; Joel traveled back to his New York hometown to honor the teacher who said he should be a professional musician; and Jay-Z told David Letterman that his sixth grade English teacher made him fall in love with words. 

In honor of Music In Our Schools Month — which raises awareness for supporting and cultivating worthwhile music programs in K-12 — GRAMMY.com highlights eight artists who have praised their teachers for making a lifelong impact.

Billy Joel

After watching Joel tackle Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23, his high school music appreciation teacher Chuck Arnold suggested that he consider music as a career.

"He said to me, you should be a professional musician," Joel recalled of his Hicksville High School mentor during a 1996 event at C.W. Post College. "Now, for a teacher to say that, it's like condemning someone to a life of poverty, drug taking, alcoholism and failure.

"A teacher is telling me this," he added seriously. "It had a huge influence on me."

In 2022, Joel was on hand to congratulate Arnold during the dedication of the Charles "Chuck" Arnold Theatre at the school. "This is for the coolest teacher there ever was," he praised.

Lizzo

In 2019, CBS Sunday arranged a surprise visit with the singer and Manny Gonzales, the former band director at her alma mater, Elsik High School in Houston. She told the network that Gonzales helped her get a scholarship to study classical flute at University of Houston.

"You told my ass!" Lizzo exclaimed as she squeezed him. "You were like, 'Get it together, girl, 'cause you are special. Apply yourself!' Those moments meant so much to me."

Lil Jon

The Atlanta DJ/producer and king of crunk has done more than take parties to the next level — he has invested in the educational future of children in Africa by building two schools in Ghana with the non-profit organization Pencils of Promise. He credits a mentor at Frederick Douglass High School in Atlanta for sparking his brain when he was a teenager.

"It was my music teacher [who inspired me to dream bigger]," he said in a 2019 interview with Yahoo! "I wanted to play drums, and if I didn't play drums, I wouldn't make music, and drums are the foundation for what I do."

Rihanna

Roddy Estwick was Rihanna's P.E. teacher in Barbados and is now the assistant coach of the West Indies cricket team. The two had an emotional reunion at the 2019 Cricket World Cup in England.

"He made a lasting impact on my life and he really offered great advice to me and many others when we were at school at Combermere," she told Barbados Today amid their reunion. "I just wanted to let everyone know what he meant to me in my development and what he did for us back at school in Barbados." Essence reported that Rihanna described him as, "My mentor, my champ, my MVP" on her Instagram stories.

John Legend

The Ohio native credits his English teacher Mrs. Bodey at North High School in Springfield for setting him on the path that culminated in his music career.

"Until her class, I hadn't believed in my ability as a writer," Legend shared in a 2017 op-ed for Huffington Post. "She recognized my potential and showed me that I could write with creativity, with clarity, with passion."

He continued, "Mrs. Bodey, along with a few other teachers, helped me gain confidence in my skills and pushed me to challenge myself. They pushed me to graduate second in my class. They pushed me to deliver the speech at our graduation. They pushed me to earn a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania, to hone my writing as an English Major and, ultimately, toward a successful career as a songwriter."

Adele

The singer was reunited with the most pivotal teacher in her life during her "An Audience with Adele" concert special in 2021. While the singer took questions from the crowd, actress Emma Thompson asked Adele if she had a supporter or protector in the past.

"I had a teacher at [south London high school] Chestnut Grove, who taught me English. That was Miss McDonald," Adele said. "She got me really into English literature. Like, I've always been obsessed with English and obviously now I write lyrics… She really made us care, and we knew that she cared about us."

Miss McDonald then surprised Adele on stage, and the singer was brought to tears — a touching highlight of the special. She even told her former teacher that she still has the books from her class!

Katy Perry

While Perry has admitted that she wishes she had a better overall education, her former music school teacher gave her confidence to pursue singing seriously.

"I'm kind of bummed at this stage that I didn't have a great education because I could really use that these days," she said in a 2014 interview with Yahoo! "There was a teacher named Agatha Danoff who was my vocal teacher and music teacher at the Music Academy of the West. It was very fancy and I didn't come from any money… and she always used to give me a break on my lessons. I owe her a lot of credit and I appreciate that she looked out for me when I didn't have enough money to pay."

Jay-Z

Picture a young Shawn Carter — now better known as Jay-Z —  with his head stuck in a dictionary.

"I had a sixth grade teacher, her name was Ms. Lowden and I just loved the class so much," Jay-Z said during his appearance on My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman in 2018. 

He later realized how much Renee Rosenblum-Lowden, who taught him at Intermediate School 318 in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, had an influence on his passion for language. "Like, reading the dictionary and just my love of words," he explained. "I just connected with her."

"I knew he was extremely bright, but he was quiet," Rosenblum-Lowden told Brut in 2019, sharing that he scored at the 12th-grade level on a sixth-grade reading test.

"He's been very kind," she added. "Every famous person has a teacher who probably influenced them, and I wish they would all shout out the way Jay-Z did."

Meet Me @ The Altar Reveal The 4 "Badass" Female Artists Who Inspired Their Debut Album, 'Past // Present // Future'

Eminem NMF Hero
Eminem performs at Michigan Central Station in June 2024.

Photo: Aaron J. Thornton/GettyImages

news

New Music Friday: Listen To New Releases From Katy Perry, Eminem, Nelly Furtado & More

As temperatures rise, chill out with these fresh tracks, albums, and collaborations from Nelly Furtado, One OK Rock, Uncle Kraker, and more, all released the week of July 12.

GRAMMYs/Jul 12, 2024 - 03:43 pm

As summer rolls on, more tracks from artists across all genres continue to drop, and we couldn't be more excited. With album releases from John Summit, HARDY, OneRepublic, and Cat Burns to fresh singles from collaborations including Alesso and Nate Smith, July 12 brings a handful of new music to enjoy.

As you stroll through the weekend, make sure to check out these nine musical projects:

Katy Perry — "Woman's World"

Serving as the lead single from 143, her first studio album since 2020, Katy Perry releases "Woman's World," a new pop track celebrating girl power and womanhood. Perry wrote the track alongside songwriter Chloe Angelides and producers Dr. Luke, Vaughn Oliver, Rocco Did It Again!, and Aaron Joseph.


Initially teasing the track through social media, the song drew attention from pop fans globally. The lead single from 143 marks both a comeback and a new era for the American Idol judge. "I set out to create a bold, exuberant, celebratory dance-pop album with the symbolic 143 numerical expression of love as a throughline message," Perry explains in a press statement.

Eminem — 'The Death of Slim Shady (Coup De Grâce)'

Guess who's back? Eminem returns with his twelfth studio album, The Death of Slim Shady (Coup De Grâce). The album appears to be his last project before retiring his notorious alter ego, Slim Shady.

A standout track on the album is "Guilty Conscience 2," a sequel to the 1999 collaboration with Dr. Dre. Leading up to the album release, Eminem dropped two singles, "Houdini" and "Tobey," featuring Big Sean and BabyTron. The album is both a blast from the past and a revived representation of the renowned Detroit-raised rapper.

Nelly Furtado — "Corazón"

Premiering the song at her Machaca Fest set, Nelly Furtado returns to music with "Corazón," the lead single off her new album 7. The track is an upbeat dance song with lyrics in both Spanish and English, along with drums and flutes that bring it to life. The track was two years in the making, according to Furtado on Instagram.

"The essence of the song is that we're just out here living and trying to do our best," Furtado told Vogue. "Even when we make mistakes, it's coming from the heart. When it comes from the heart, it's never a mistake."

7 is set to captivate both loyal fans and new listeners. Centered around the vibrant theme of community, Furtado felt an irresistible pull toward creating new music, inspired by the diverse communities around her. The spirited energy of the DJ community that breathes new life into her pop classics to this day and the passionate online community yearning for her return, spurred by her collaborations with Dom Dolla and Tove Lo and SG Lewis, have both played a crucial role in Furtado's renewed artistic journey.

Clairo — 'Charm'

Amidst the viral resurgence of her 2019 track "Bags" on TikTok, indie sensation Clairo unveils her eagerly anticipated third studio album, Charm. Co-produced with GRAMMY-nominated Leon Michels of El Michels Affair, this enchanting project underscores a striking blend of musical artistry and innovation.

"I want afterglowing, and when I call a car / Send me eyes with the knowing that I could pull it off," she sings in "Sexy To Someone," the lead single from the album. Putting introspective lyricism at the forefront of all her projects without sacrificing quality instrumentals, this album is no exception.

Alesso & Nate Smith — "I Like It"

In this genre-crossing collaboration, electronic artist Alesso joins forces with country singer Nate Smith on their new single, "I Like It." Though an unexpected blend of styles, the song blends elements from both artists' sounds, seamlessly combining country and dance as they proudly declare, they "like it like that."

With Alesso's electrifying instrumentals perfectly complementing Smith's spirited country vocals, the track captures the essence of summer in a song and is set to make waves throughout the season.

One OK Rock — "Delusion:All"

Featured as the official theme song for the upcoming movie "Kingdom IV: Return of the Great General", Japanese rock band One Ok Rock releases "Delusion:All." The upbeat, cinematic track is the band's latest contribution to the "Kingdom" movie soundtrack series, following their 2019 song "Wasted Nights." 

"It's been a while since we wrote 'Wasted Nights' for the first series of 'Kingdom,' and we are very honored to be a part of the movie again," said vocalist Taka in a press statement. "We tried to reflect "the various conflicts going on in the world today and the modern society" in the song, while making it blend into the worldview of 'Kingdom.'"

Cat Burns — 'early twenties'

A love letter to her community and a deep dive into the intricacies of adulthood, Cat Burns presents her debut album, Early Twenties. Accompanying the album is a captivating short film directed by Libby Burke Wilde. The film tells the individual narratives of each character, touching on themes of mental health, relationships, and personal identity, mirroring the album's essence. 

With this well-rounded creative project, Burns showcases her full artistic prowess, making these releases a testament to her pioneering creative vision.

Uncle Kracker — 'Coffee & Beer'

Making a triumphant return to music after 12 years, Uncle Kracker breaks down the boundaries between genres once again with his latest album, Coffee & Beer. The 13-track album intertwines country, pop, and rock, offering a musical journey that ranges from high-spirited anthems to laid-back, mellow tracks. 

"I wanted to give my fans a soundtrack to summer and what's better than the balance of first coffee…then beer? Coffee & Beer is going to be a fun one. Cheers," Uncle Kracker said in a press statement.

Meridian Brothers — 'Mi Latinoamérica Sufre'

Drawing inspiration from the golden era of '70s Congolese rumba, Ghanaian highlife, and Nigerian afrobeat, the Meridian Brothers unveil Mi Latinoamérica Sufre. This concept album integrates the electric guitar into tropical Latin music in an innovative fashion. The album showcases a dynamic tapestry of sounds, blending cumbia, champeta, soukous, Brazilian tropicalia, and psychedelic rock, making it an exciting sonic journey.

Latest News & Exclusive Videos

LL Cool J

Credit: Paul Natkin/Getty Images

list

Celebrate 40 Years Of Def Jam With 15 Albums That Show Its Influence & Legacy

From the Beastie Boys' seminal 'License To Ill' and Jay-Z's 'Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life,' celebrate Def Jam with 15 of the label's essential albums.

GRAMMYs/Jun 24, 2024 - 01:31 pm

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Def Jam Recordings, the New York label that made history in hip-hop, R&B, pop, and even thrash metal since its founding, and continues to do so today.

A label that began out of an NYU dorm room in 1984 quickly became an artistic (and business) powerhouse. Early acts like LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys, and Public Enemy were raw, adventurous, and risk-taking. Def Jam's roster opened new pathways in a still-young genre, seemingly every few months. 

After that initial explosion, the label experienced a brief lull in the early 1990s when one label founder departed and the other expanded into fashion and comedy. Def Jam came roaring back beginning in 1994, and by 1998 the label was home to some of the most popular and influential artists in the game — including burgeoning megastars DMX and Jay-Z. To this day, Def Jam maintains a roster of both commercially successful and critically beloved artists in hip-hop, R&B, and pop.

To commemorate the anniversary of the label that gave us, well, pretty much everyone, here’s a list of 15 of Def Jam’s essential releases. While Def Jam brought audiences plenty of singles, EPs and remixes, this list primarily focuses on albums. Each project has a mix of artistic merit, popularity, influence and longevity, originality, and played a key role in the story of Def Jam as a whole. Think of it as a chronological run through the key albums that built one of the most lasting labels in modern music. 

And finally: it must be said that in recent years, a dark shadow has begun to loom over Def Jam’s legacy. Label co-founder Russell Simmons been accused over the past seven years of numerous instances of sexual assault, dating back decades. In spite of these accusations, the label (in which Simmons hasn’t been involved for a quarter-century) remains on top, safeguarding its valuable archive while looking forward to another four decade run as fruitful as the first one.

T La Rock & Jazzy Jay - "It’s Yours" (1984)

The one single on this list is also the first piece of music ever released with the now-famous Def Jam logo. "It’s Yours" was a single produced by Def Jam co-founder Rick Rubin — his very first hip-hop production. Instrumentally, it was perhaps only comparable to Larry Smith and Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons’ contemporaneous work with Run-D.M.C. Both "It’s Yours" and D.M.C.’s early work were severely stripped-down, consisting of a few drum sounds, an instrumental stab, and some scratches. 

Lyrically, though, "It’s Yours" is worlds apart from "Sucker M.C.’s" — or pretty much anything else going on in hip-hop at the time. T La Rock, the brother of Treacherous Three member Special K, came from a family of educators, and he put every ounce of his erudition into the track. It begins, "Commentating, illustrating/ Description giving, adjective expert" and goes from there.

LL Cool J - 'Radio' (1985)

In the early 1980s, the state of the hip-hop album was very grim. Only a few existed, and they almost exclusively consisted of a few singles mixed with often-confusing filler. Two things changed that. First, Run-D.M.C.’s 1984 self-titled debut, which GRAMMY.com examined in depth a few months ago. Second was LL Cool J’s debut album Radio, the very first full-length album Def Jam ever released.

In many ways, Radio kicked off hip-hop’s Golden Age. The record shows LL, then still in his teens, as a versatile artist who can be boastful, funny, aggressive, lyrical. The album shows many different sides of his personality, and helped set the template for what a rap album could be.

Read more: 20 Iconic Hip-Hop Style Moments: From Run-D.M.C. To Runways

Beastie Boys - 'Licensed to Ill' (1986)

The Beasties would release more complex and enlightened albums than Licensed to Ill, and one of the members would eventually apologize for some of its lyrics. But there’s no denying that it was a smash hit. It was the first rap album to ever top the Billboard 200, got the group onstage with Madonna, and would eventually sell over 10 million copies

Was some of that success due to their race? Sure. They were a credible group, signed to a hot rap label, at a time when it was still novel for white people to be performers in hip-hop. And yet, that’s not the whole story.

Licensed to Ill is a catchy, unique, energetic album, and the group members show undeniable chemistry. To this day, shout-filled, guitar-heavy anthems like "No Sleep till Brooklyn" and the ubiquitous "Fight for Your Right" can still get the party started.

Read more: The Beastie Boys Provide A License To Party

Public Enemy - 'It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back' (1988)

There’s not too much you can say about this album that hasn’t already been said in the years of books, conferences, academic papers, and deluxe re-issues. It has ended up at or near the top of many all-time best lists. Its abrasive, collage-like approach to composition was never equalled (and, in light of current laws and practices around sampling, can never even be approached). The comic stylings of Flavor Flav bring just the right amount of levity to balance Chuck D’s takes on life-and-death issues. 

Decades after its release, the album still sounds urgent. And sadly, in an America still roiled with tensions over race, incarceration, drugs, and the media, its concerns remain as relevant as ever.

Read more: 5 Things We Learned At "An Evening With Chuck D" At The GRAMMY Museum

Slick Rick - 'The Great Adventures of Slick Rick' (1988)

Slick Rick is the ultimate rap storyteller, and his debut album is the best example of his artistry. "I wrote them like an essay," Rick once said of creating the batch of songs that make up Great Adventures. He also compared it to doing stand-up. So you have exactly what those two reference points imply: stories that are well-constructed, and also frequently riotously funny.

Rick is the master of the telling detail (remember "Dave, the dope fiend shooting dope/ Who don’t know the meaning of water nor soap" from "Children’s Story"?), the humorous twist, the morality tale, the bedtime story, the character voice. His influence lives on in perhaps his most devoted protege, Ghostface Killah, as well as in any rapper who has tried to craft a song with a beginning, middle, and end.

Learn more: Essential Hip-Hop Releases From The 1980s: Slick Rick, RUN-D.M.C., De La Soul & More

Warren G - 'Regulate… G Funk Era'(1994)

A bit of an edge case here, as technically the record was put out by Violator Records and Rush Associated Labels, the latter of which was a sort of umbrella organization Def Jam ran in the mid-1990s. Many albums that could have made this list, including projects by Redman, Onyx, Domino, and Nice & Smooth, were released under the RAL banner. But Warren G’s debut, a giant hit in an era where Def Jam really needed it, became inextricably associated with the label, to the point where an article about the album on Universal Music’s website mentions Def Jam five times in the first two paragraphs.

Regulate is a pop-savvy take on the G-funk sound that was then ascendant. It was a huge success in a year that saw the introduction of tons of amazing rappers into the game. And Warren G being associated with Def Jam meant that the East Coast-centric label had expanded its geographic footprint. 

Read more: Warren G Revisits 'Regulate: The G-Funk Era': How The 1994 Album Paved The Way For West Coast Hip-Hop's Dominance

Foxy Brown - 'Ill Na Na' (1996)

Def Jam wasn’t always a friendly place for female artists (despite many of the most important employees being women, including one-time president Nana Ashhurst). In fact, the label didn’t release a rap album by a woman until Nikki D’s Daddy’s Little Girl in 1991. So Foxy Brown’s impact — on Def Jam and on the rap world as a whole — cannot be overstated. Ill Na Na was an album that changed everything for female rappers. It had songs for the clubs, the block, and the radio. Foxy’s sexuality, versatility, and first-class rhyming would have an influence on countless rappers, most famously her number one fan Nicki Minaj, who has been effusively praising Foxy for more than a decade.

Read more: Ladies First: 10 Essential Albums By Female Rappers

DMX - 'It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot' (1998)

No less an authority than Nas referred to 1998 as "The year DMX took over the world." It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot is how he did it. The album set fire to Bad Boy’s so-called "shiny suit era" by embodying its polar opposite: a dark, grimy vision full of gothic synths; raspy, full-throated lyrics; and, sometimes, actual barks. Without DMX, there’s no NYC street rap return: no G-Unit mixtape run, no Diplomats.

The record is consistent and captivating from start to finish, and its thematic centerpiece comes, appropriately, about halfway through with "Damien," which reminds all of us that the most difficult battles we fight are the ones with ourselves.

Jay-Z - 'Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life' (1998)

Jay-Z has made more critically beloved albums than Vol. 2 (Reasonable Doubt and The Blueprint both fall in that category). He has made albums with bigger hits (The Blueprint 3 had a No. 1 hit with "Empire State of Mind"). But he has never made a more important LP.

Vol. 2 was the album that made Jay a superstar. Its Annie-sampling title track (produced by the late 45 King) sent him to the stratosphere — a process he actually documented on his follow-up album. But the record wasn’t just a commercial novelty. It showed Jay at the absolute top of his game: cocky, funny, and brilliant. Case in point: his novel approach to storytelling in "Coming of Age (Da Sequel)," where all the important action takes place in just a few seconds, inside the characters’ heads.

Read more: Songbook: How Jay-Z Created The 'Blueprint' For Rap's Greatest Of All Time

Ludacris - 'Word of Mouf' (2001)

Around the turn of the millennium, Def Jam had its sights set on conquering new territory. Specifically, the South. So they set up Def Jam South and hired Scarface to head it up. The entity’s biggest success came from an Atlanta DJ who went by Chris Luva Luva on the air, but began rapping as Ludacris.

Word of Mouf was Luda’s second album, but it was the one that really cemented his stardom with songs like "Rollout (My Business)," "Area Codes," and the immortal "Move Bitch" (the last of which has had an artist-approved second life as a protest chant). The album proved that the South was here to stay, and that Def Jam would have a role in determining its hip-hop future.

Learn more: A Guide To Southern Hip-Hop: Definitive Releases, Artists & Subgenres From The Dirty South

Scarface - 'The Fix' (2002)

Speaking of Scarface and Def Jam South, Face had no intention of dropping music while running the label. But, in his telling, Def Jam exec Lyor Cohen insisted on it, paying handsomely for the privilege.

"There were so many things working in my favor on that album," Scarface wrote in his memoir Diary of a Madman. "For the first time, I was working on an album for a label that believed in me 100 percent and didn’t want anything from me except for me to make the dopest album I could possibly make. And they went out of their way to make that possible."

Def Jam’s history of putting out classics inspired Face on The Fix, he writes in that book. And in the end, the album stands up there with any of them. It is one of only a small handful of rap records to earn a perfect five-mic rating from The Source, and it belongs in that rarified air with projects like Illmatic and Aquemini

Kanye West - 'The College Dropout' (2004)

Yes, today Kanye West is the worst: a Hitler-loving, Trump-supporting, paranoid, antichoice, antisemite who stands accused of sexual harrassment. But two decades ago, the world met a Mr. West who at least seemed very different. 

The College Dropout presented an artist who was already extremely well-known as a beatmaker. But Kanye’s carefully crafted persona as the bridge between mainstream rap and the underground — "First n— with a Benz and a backpack," as he put it — meant that he appealed to pretty much everyone. The College Dropout wasn't West at the top of his rap game, but it did show his skill at developing song concepts, at beats, and at creating an artistic vision so powerful, and so relatable, that it captivated an entire generation.

Cam’ron - 'Purple Haze' (2004)

It’s impossible to talk about Def Jam without discussing Roc-A-Fella. Jay-Z’s label hooked up with Def Jam in 1997, and had a years-long hot streak with artists like Kanye, Beanie Sigel, Freeway, the Young Gunz, and of course Cam’ron’s Diplomats crew — Cam, Juelz Santana, and the overall group all released projects there.

Purple Haze came at the very tail end of Roc-a-fella’s golden age. It has Cam at the absolute peak of his absurdist rhyming powers, keeping computers ‘puting and knocking out eight-syllable multis about Paris Hilton like it was nothing. During the Purple Haze era, it was Cam’s world, and we were all just lucky to be living in it.

Rihanna - 'Good Girl Gone Bad' (2007)

Rihanna’s first two projects were full of Caribbean sounds and ballads. But when her third album came along, she needed a change. Riri wanted to go "uptempo," and history shows that was the right choice. Good Girl Gone Bad began the singer’s transformation into the megastar we know today. It spawned five singles and two separate quickie tie-in albums (Good Girl Gone Bad: Reloaded and Good Girl Gone Bad: The Remixes).

"Umbrella" was the way forward. Rihanna had a No. 1 record prior, but she’d never made a sensation like this. The song (with a guest verse by then-Def Jam president Jay-Z) not only made it to the top slot, it also won a GRAMMY and was undeniably the song of the summer. The album also contained the sensation "Don’t Stop the Music," a track that kickstarted the EDM/pop hybrid that dominated the late aughts. Without Good Girl Gone Bad, it’s safe to say we’d be living in a very different, Fenty-less world.

Read more: Songbook: The Ultimate Guide To Rihanna's Reign, From Her Record-Breaking Hits To Unforgettable Collabs

Frank Ocean - 'Channel Orange' (2012)

One could fill a whole blurb about Channel Orange simply by quoting the extreme praise it received. "A singular achievement in popular culture." "Landed with the crash and curiousness of a meteor." Two days after its release, Pitchfork was already saying that it "feels like a classic."

And yet, somehow even that kind of acclaim doesn’t do the album justice. You really had to be there when it came out, when Frank looked into his soul and, in doing so, connected deeply with so many listeners

Read more: Frank Ocean Essentials: 10 Songs That Embody The Elusive Icon's R&B Genius

"Channel Orange is the most concentrated version of 2012 in 2012 so far," wrote Sasha Frere-Jones at the time, in one of the most dead-on statements about the album. It expressed the contradictions we all lived in. Its fragmentation mirrored the social media that was beginning to take over all of our lives. Ocean left bits of his biography scattered throughout the album, but they almost didn’t matter. He was speaking for all of us, in the way only great artists can. 

A Guide To New York Hip-Hop: Unpacking The Sound Of Rap's Birthplace From The Bronx To Staten Island

PRIDE & Black Music Month: Celebrating LGBTQIA+ & Black Voices

Leon Michels, center, poses with Black Thought, Kirby and members of El Michels Affair backstage at "The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon."
Leon Michels, center, poses with Black Thought, Kirby and members of El Michels Affair backstage at "The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon."

Photo: Rosalind O'Connor/NBC via Getty Images

interview

Behind Leon Michels' Hits: From Working With The Carters & Aloe Blacc, To Creating Clairo's New Album

Multi-instrumentalist turned GRAMMY-nominated producer Leon Michels has had a hand in a wide range of pop and hip-hop music. Read on for the stories behind his smash hits with Norah Jones, Black Thought, Kalis Uchis, Aloe Blacc, and others.

GRAMMYs/May 27, 2024 - 03:17 pm

A child of New York’s ultra-niche soul revival scene of the early 2000s, multi-instrumentalist turned producer Leon Michels has had an extensive reach into global pop music. As both producer and session man, Michels has worked with the Carters, Norah Jones, Black Thought, the Black Keys, Kalis Uchis, and Aloe Blacc — to name a few.

He has held to a specific creative vision for more than two decades, first through his heavily sampled El Michels Affair projects and a healthy schedule of releases through Truth & Soul records and later, Big Crown, the label he co-founded with DJ Danny Akalepse in 2016. He runs a studio in upstate New York called the Diamond Mine North, where he does most of his work since relocating from New York City in 2017. He has two GRAMMY nominations to his name, for Mary J. Blige’s Good Morning Gorgeous and Lizzo’s Special.

Trained originally on piano, he took up drums and eventually saxophone through the guidance of his high school music teacher, Miss Leonard. "[She] is actually the person I owe it all to. She started this jazz band when I was in fifth grade, and there's no drummer, so she asked me if I would learn drums," he tells GRAMMY.com. "I did that, and she would give me Duke Ellington cassettes, Sydney Bichet, Johnny Hodges. She would just feed me music."

Daptone Records co-founder Gabe Roth recruited and mentored Michels while he was still in high school, and the teenager soon became a regular touring member of what would become the Dap-Kings, backing singer Sharon Jones during an early run of success in the mid-2000s. " I joined Sharon Jones when it was the Soul Providers. We went on tour in Europe with them. Somehow my parents let me do it. I don't even understand. Gabe came over and sweet-talked them."

Michels left the group in 2006 after seven intense years, wanting to spend more time recording than enduring the grind of touring. His chosen timing caused him to miss out by mere "months" on the group’s recording sessions for Amy Winehouse’s four-time GRAMMY winner Back To Black. Despite what appeared to be a major missed opportunity, he turned his focus to his group El Michels Affair after initial encouragement from the 2005 album Sounding Out The City, released on Truth & Soul, the label he had co-founded. 

Finding his inspiration in the intersections of soul and hip-hop, as a fully committed instrumentalist producer, he was able to develop an analog soundscape that quickly caught the ears of artists including Raekwon and other Wu-Tang Clan alumni, with whom he toured in 2008. This led to the follow-up album Enter The 37th Chamber in 2009. Samples from El Michels Affair, including those by Ghostface Killah, Jay-Z, Just Blaze, J. Cole, and Travis Scott quickly proliferated and opened doors. Via the Lee Fields album My World, Michels' work caught the attention of Dan Auerbach, with whom he and his longtime collaborator and bassist Nick Movshon toured from 2010 to 2012.

Producing the Aloe Blacc song "I Need A Dollar" in 2010 further enhanced his credentials and provided the financial stability to allow him to be true to his creative spirit, which he has done successfully over the last decade.

Leon Michels spoke to GRAMMY.com about some key career recordings, including his latest release with singer Clairo.

Clairo – "Sexy to Someone" (Charm, 2024)

I met Clairo almost three years ago. I made a record with her that took three years to complete, which is actually one of the longest stretches I've ever spent on a record.

She’s made two records before this. Her first record, Immunity, came out when she was 19. It's a pop record, and it was very successful. But she's a total music nerd like me. She’s constantly scouring the Internet for music. The way people, especially young people, ingest music these days is just insane. She's got great taste.

Her first record was super successful. She made her second record, Sling, with Jack Antonoff, and it was an ambitious folk record, and a huge departure from her first record. I think it caught her audience off guard, but it was kind of a perfect move because now she can make whatever she wants. 

When she came to me, I was excited but slightly confused. What do I do? Because in those situations, you think, well, I need to facilitate a successful pop record, but she just wanted all the weird s—.

It’s this cool mix of pop elements, but some of the music sounds like a Madlib sample. All of it is steeped in pretty cool references and older music, but her perspective is a 25-year-old’s, and she’s an incredible songwriter. It's a really cool mix.

Norah Jones - "Running"  (Visions, 2024)

Norah used to hit up me and Dave Guy, trumpet player in the Menahan Street Band and the Roots, if she needed horns.

As we were coming out of the pandemic, she hit me up and wanted to make some music. We made a few songs and then after that, she asked me to produce her Christmas record, which was super fun because I've never listened to Christmas music. I started to enjoy it, which was weird because I had thought I hated Christmas music. I mean, once you start to dig for Christmas records, pretty much all of your favorite artists have them. I was listening to Christmas music from March to October the entire year. 

After that, we made Visions, which is all original stuff. Norah's just so talented. Her musicianship is actually some of the most impressive I've ever seen or worked with. She's so good that when I play with her, I get intimidated and I forget basic harmony and music theory!

Read more: 5 Inspirations Behind Norah Jones' New Album 'Visions': Nightly Dreams, Collabs, Harmony Stacks & More

We cut that record,  mostly just the two of us. There's a couple of songs where we got a band, but most of it was in my upstate studio. She would just come over from nine to three. She would come after she dropped her kids at school and then have to leave to pick them up. It was super fun to make, essentially just jamming all day.

[Overall] it’s not a huge departure for Norah, but sonically it is a departure, and it's got this very loose, "un-precious" quality. That's maybe a little different from her other stuff.

"Running" was her choice as a single. When it comes to singles — the songs that have actually been most successful — I've wanted to take those off the record. I have no idea what's going to be the hit or not.

Black Thought - "Glorious Game" (Glorious Game, 2023)

That was a total pandemic record — at the start of the pandemic when everyone was completely locked in, we had no idea what was going on.

Black Thought texted me out of the blue, and I think he was just trying to stay busy. So he just said, "Can you send me songs?" I sent him maybe two songs and then he sent back finished verses three or four hours later. Most of that record was just me sending him s— and him sending it back, and then going like that. We had probably 20 songs. 

The time I did spend in the studio with him was, he's a total savant. He sits there while you're playing a song, and it kind of looks like he's on Instagram or f—ing around, you know what I mean? Does this guy even like this song? And then 45 minutes later, he’ll be like "Aight, ready." And he goes in there and, and he'll rap four pages of lyrics in one take. It's insane. He remembers everything;  we'll do a song and then three years later, he'll have to redo it, but he'll know the lyrics from memory.

There's a couple of things that I figured out on that record. One: The thing I love about sampled hip-hop production the most is it's almost always pitch-shifted, which makes a giant difference in the sound. And if the piano has decay or vocals have vibrato, when you pitch it up, it becomes something that is so uniquely hip-hop. The second thing was, with hip hop, one of the best parts about sampling is the choices a producer has to make when they are limited to chopping a two-track mix.  If you have multi-tracks, there are too many options. 

I think that record resonated with people who are hip-hop aficionados who really love the art of emceeing. 

Aloe Blacc - "I Need A Dollar" (Good Things, 2010)

We had just recorded the Lee Fields record, My World. Eothen Alapatt, who used to be a label manager at Now Again, was a friend of mine. [Jeff Silverman and I] started Truth & Soul, but we had no infrastructure. We thought My World would have a bigger reach if Stones Throw took care of the press and distribution. And so Eothen said "Yeah, we can do that, but instead of paying us, just make a record with this artist we have, Aloe Blacc."

I had no idea who he was. And so that was the business deal. We didn't get paid for the record initially. The payment was that they were going to promote Lee Fields record for us. So [Aloe] came to New York, and I did it with my partner at the time, Jeff Silverman, also Nick Movshon, who played on the entire record.

He wanted to do this Bill Withers thing. "I Need A Dollar" was probably my least favorite song on the record. I think I have this aversion to anything that's slightly cheesy, but I've gotten better at it. But at the end of the day, it's just a good song. It got picked up as the theme song to an HBO pilot called "How To Make It In America." And then, it just blew up in Europe. It was No. 1 everywhere. But it never hit in America.

It kind of set me off on a weird path for a minute, because I got a taste of success. And made some poor career decisions. I tried to a do lot of songwriting sessions with strangers.  It was maybe four years until I decided to just make El Michels Records.  

The Carters - "SUMMER" (EVERYTHING IS LOVE, 2018)

At the time, I was making these sample packs and sending them out to producers. One of them was this slow jam, and so the producers called me up and said "We used one of your samples. It's for a giant artist. We can't tell you who it is. You have to approve it now. And you can't hear it, but it's going to change your life." That’s what they kept saying to me. Then they said "It's coming out in two weeks."

So I figured they used one of my samples and chopped it up and did their thing to it.  And so when the record came out, it was Beyoncé and Jay-Z. It was the first track on that record they did together, the Carters. And it was mostly just my original sample with some new bass and string section. So basically it was just Beyoncé and Jay-Z over an El Michael's Affair track. The track was called "Summer," and my original never came out. 

So just hearing Beyoncé, hearing these giant pop voices that I associate with absolute hits, over my song, that was pretty cool.

Liam Bailey - "Dance With Me" (Zero Grace, 2023)

Me and him just have a very crazy chemistry when it comes to music, because it all happens super fast and with very little thought. Sometimes I'll listen to Liam's stuff, and I actually don't know how we did it. That is actually the goal. That’s why Lee "Scratch Perry" is the greatest producer of all time, because he could access that instant input, instant output type of creativity. It just passes through him and then it's on the record. Making music with Liam is like that; I'll make some instrumental, or I'll have an idea and then he'll freestyle lyrics one or two times.

To me, it sounds gibberish, but then he'll go through it and change one or two words and all of a sudden has this crazy narrative, and it's about his childhood [for example]. When I’ve worked with him, he has this same process where it's just kind of "hand to God" s—, just let it happen. I was trying to make something the way Jamaicans did, [like] that brand of Jamaican soul from the mid-'60s. 

Brainstory - "Peach Optimo" (Sounds Good, 2024)

I met those guys through Eduardo Arenas, who's the bass player from Chicano Batman, and he had recorded a couple of demos from them. And they had one song in particular that really caught my attention, which made it onto their first record called "Dead End."

They’re three jazz kids. Their dad was a gospel singer and loved soul and Stevie Wonder. So they grew up on all that stuff as well. Producing a band like Brainstory is super easy, because they rehearse all the time. Most of their songs are written; all I have to do is maybe shuffle around sections or just essentially cut stuff out. Because a lot of times when bands write music and rehearse every day, they just love to play, so sections are endless. 

I'll…have a sound in mind for the record, some reference for me and the engineering hands to kind of work from. And in the case of Sounds Good, the reference for the whole sound of the record was that this is Gene Harris song called "Los Alamitos Latin Funk Love." This is kind of the vibe of the entire record. We just cut that record over the course of a year, but it was two sessions that were maybe six days each. 

Kevin is the main vocalist and he's amazing. He can do that sweet soul background stuff perfectly. And when he does [his own] background vocals, it's this thing that not a lot of people can do where he changes his personality. So he becomes three different people. Then the background sounds like an actual group. 

Behind Mark Ronson's Hits: How 'Boogie Nights,' Five-Hour Jams & Advice From Paul McCartney Inspired His Biggest Singles & Collabs

Kid Cudi performs at Coachella 2024
Kid Cudi, whose music often discusses mental health, performs at Coachella 2024.

Photo: Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Coachella

list

10 Times Hip-Hop Has Given A Voice To Mental Health: Eminem, J. Cole, Logic & More Speak Out

From the message of "The Message" to Joe Budden's vulnerable podcast and Jay-Z speaking about the importance of therapy, read on for moments in the history of hip-hop where mental health was at the forefront.

GRAMMYs/May 20, 2024 - 03:10 pm

In a world of braggadocio lyrics, where weakness is often looked down upon, hip-hop can often seem far from a safe place to discuss mental health. 

But underneath its rugged exterior, hip-hop culture and its artists have long been proponents of well-being and discussing the importance of taking care of one's mental health. Openness about these topics has grown in recent years, including a 2022 panel discussion around hip-hop and mental health, co-hosted by the GRAMMY Museum, the Recording Academy's Black Music Collective, and MusicCares in partnership with the Universal Hip-Hop Museum. 

"Artists are in a fight-or-flight mode when it comes to being in this game," said Eric Brooks, former VP of Marketing & Promotions at Priority Records who worked with NWA and Dr. Dre. "And there need to be strategies on how to deal with the inner battles that only happen in the mind and body."  

The panel only scratched the surface of the many times hip-hop culture has illuminated critical mental health issues that often remain hidden or under-discussed in the music industry. In recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month, read on for 10 times hip-hop has shone a light on mental health. 

J. Cole Apologized To Kendrick Lamar

A long-simmering beef between Drake and Kendrick Lamar was reignited in March 2024 when Metro Boomin' and Future released "Like That." The track featured a scathing verse from Kendrick, where he took aim at  Drake and J. Cole, and referenced the pair's collaborative song "First Person Shooter." 

The single begged for a response, and J. Cole, under what was presumably a significant amount of pressure, surprise-released his Might Delete Later. The album featured "7 Minute Drill," in which Cole calls Kendrick's To Pimp, A Butterfly boring. 

But the same week Cole's album came out, he apologized to Kendrick onstage at his Dreamville Fest, saying it didn't sit right with his spirit and that he "felt terrible" since it was released. Cole added that the song didn’t sit right with him spiritually and he was unable to sleep. Cole subsequently removed "7 Minute Drill" from streaming services. 

Strong debate followed about whether or not Cole should have removed the song. However, many heralded Cole’s maturity in the decision and said it was an important example of not doing things that don’t align with one's true emotions, and avoiding allowing others expectations of you weight down your own physical and mental health.

SiR Spoke Candidly About Depression & Sobriety

Although an R&B artist, TDE singer SiR is hip-hop adjacent, having collaborated with former labelmate Kendrick Lamar on tracks like "D'Evils" and "Hair Down." SiR recently spoke with GRAMMY.com about the troubles that followed him after the release of his 2019 album Chasing Summer.

"I was a full-blown addict, and it started from a string of depression [and] relationship issues and issues at home that I wasn't dealing with," SiR says. After the Los Angeles-based singer had hit rock bottom, he found the spark he needed to do something about it. His initial rehab stint was the first step on the road to change.  

"I was there for 21 days [in 2021]. [The] second time, I was there for two months and the third time wasn't technically rehab…I did personal therapy, and, man, [that] did wonders," he recalls. 

SiR also tackled the stigma many Black communities place on therapy and seeking help for mental health issues. "I would've never done something like that if I was in any other position, so I'm thankful for my issues because they led me to a lot of self-reflection and forgiveness," SiR says.

Big Sean Educated His Audience About Anxiety & Depression 

One of the biggest challenges in addressing anxiety and depression is the feeling that those issues must be kept under wraps.  In 2021, Big Sean and his mother released a series of videos in conjunction with Mental Health Awareness Month, in which the GRAMMY nominee opened up about his battles with depression and anxiety. 

In one of those videos, Sean and his mother discussed  the importance of sleep and circadian rhythms when managing depression and mental health issues. In an industry that prioritizes the grind, the hip-hop community often overlooks sleep — much to its detriment.

"Sleep is the most overlooked, disrespected aspect of our well-being," said Myra Anderson, Executive Director & President of the Sean Anderson Foundation and Big Sean's mother. "Even one day without good sleep can mess up your hormones severely." 

As a busy recording artist, Sean concurs that, for him, a lack of sleep contributes to challenges with anxiety. “If I’m not in the right mindset, I don’t get the right sleep,” says Sean in the mental health video series. “Then that anxiety rides high, and my thoughts are racing. I’m somebody that lives in my head.”

G.Herbo's "PTSD" Addressed The Impact Of Street Violence

Eastside Chicago's G. Herbo is an artist vital to the city's drill music scene. On "PTSD," the title track of his 2020 album, Herbo raps about his struggles coping with violence and loss. 

"I can't sleep 'cause it's a war zone in my head / My killers good, they know I'm hands-on with the bread / A million dollars ahead, I'm still angry and seeing red / How the f*ck I'm 'posed to have fun? All my n— dead."  

The lyrics echoed the realities of what G. Herbo grew up seeing in O-Block, considered by many to be one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Chicago. But it wasn't just a song title; G. Herbo was diagnosed with PTSD in 2019 and began therapy to manage it, showing that even rap's most hardened have opened themselves up to professional help. 

"I'm so glad that I did go to therapy," G. Herbo told GRAMMY.com in July 2020. "I'm glad that I did take that leap of faith to just go talk to somebody about my situation and just my thoughts and get 'em to a person with an unbiased opinion." 

Joe Budden Opens Up About His Darkest Times 

In 2017, on the "Grass Routes Podcast," rapper-turned-podcaster Joe Budden opened up about multiple suicide attempts and his lifelong battle with depression. 

"For me, there have been times where I've actually attempted suicide," Budden shared. "As open as I've been when it comes to mental health, it wasn't until retirement from rapping that I was able to dive into some of the things the fans have seen." 

Never one to shy away from rapping about his mental health struggles, Budden songs like "Whatever It Takes" peel back the layers on an artist fighting his demons: "See, I'm depressed lately, but nobody understands / That I'm depressed lately, I'm sorta feelin repressed lately." 

Budden continued to be a champion for mental health that year, including on his former Complex show "Everyday Struggle," where Budden broke down while discussing the suicide death of fellow rapper Styles P's daughter. 

In recent years, Budden has uses his wildly popular "The Joe Budden Podcast" as a tool to discuss his own struggles and raise awareness of mental health issues. 

Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five Broadcast A Serious "Message"

Hip-hop culture has long used rap as a tool to highlight mental health and the everyday struggles of its community. Released in 1982, Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five's "The Message" is an early, effective example of vulnerability in hip-hop.

"The Message" described the mental health impacts of poverty and inner-city struggle, describing desperate feelings and calling for support in underserved communities: "I can't take the smell, can't take the noise / Got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice." Perhaps the most recognizable lyric comes from Melle Mel, who raps, "Don't push me cause I'm close to the edge/I'm trying not to lose my head." 

Eminem Got Honest About Depression While In Rehab

On "Reaching Out," Queen and Paul Rodgers sing "Lately I've been hard to reach / I've been too long on my own / everybody has a private world where they can be alone." These lyrics were sampled on the intro to Eminem's 2009 single "Beautiful," a raw tale of the rapper's struggles with depression. Half of the song was written while Eminem was in rehab, including lyrics like "I'm just so f—king depressed/I just can't seem to get out this slump." 

The lyrics pierced the core of Eminem's audience, who were able to see the parallels between the struggles of a rap superstar and their own issues. The song reached the Top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100 and was nominated for a Best Rap Solo Performance GRAMMY Award. In an interview with MTV about the song, Eminem said it was an important outlet for him at a challenging time. 

But it was far from the first time Eminem has discussed mental health. One of the earliest examples was in his song "Stan," where Eminem rapped from the perspective of an obsessed fan who ended up killing himself and his wife after Eminem failed to respond to his fan mail. In a 2000 interview, Eminem told MTV that he wrote the song to warn fans not to take his lyrics literally. 

Logic Sparked Change With A Number

One of the most impactful moments hip-hop has seen regarding mental health and sparking change was when Logic released his song "1-800-273-8255" in 2017. The record, named after the real National Suicide Lifeline Prevention phone number, which is now 988, hit the top three on the US Billboard Hot 100.

Following the song's release, the British Medical Journal released a study sharing data that showed the song contributed to a 27 percent increase in calls to the prevention hotline that year and may have even contributed to an actual reduction in deaths by suicide. 

Logic's single further proved that rap music's impact extends well beyond charts and sales. "1-800-273-8255" highlighted the connection artists have with their fans, as well as the ways music can be a tool to cope with challenges like mental health and suicidal thoughts. 

Kid Cudi Opened Up About Suicidal Urges 

Cleveland's own Kid Cudi has never shied away from putting his emotions on record, rapping vividly throughout his career about his struggles with mental health. Cudi records, like the hit single "Pursuit of Happiness," are brutally honest about trying to find happiness in a world filled with trials and tribulations. 

In a 2022 interview with Esquire, Cudi recalled checking himself into rehab in 2016 for depression and suicidal urges. He had been using drugs to manage the weight of his stardom and even suffered a stroke while in rehab. "Everything was f—ed," Cudi said. 

Cudi took a break to develop stability, returning to the spotlight with the 2018 project Kids See Ghosts in collaboration with Kanye West.. Today, Cudi and his music remain pillars of strength for those facing similar challenges.   

Jay-Z Detailed The Importance Of Therapy & Getting Out Of "Survival Mode"

In 2017, Jay-Z released his critically acclaimed thirteenth studio album. 4:44 was packed with lessons on family, mental health, and personal growth.

An interview with the New York Times, Jay-Z discussed how helpful therapy had been to him. Therapy helped the rap superstar in his interactions with other people — something that had been hardened growing up as a black man in Marcy Projects. "I grew so much from the experience," he told the Times.

"I think the most important thing I got is that everything is connected. Every emotion is connected, and it comes from somewhere. I understand that, instead of reacting to that with anger, I can provide a softer landing and maybe, 'Aw, man, is you O.K.? You're in this space where you're hurting, and you think I see you, so you don't want me to look at you. And you don't want me to see you,'" he said. "You don't want me to see your pain."

The album also unpacked Jay-Z's infidelity. "I'll f— up a good thing if you let me," he raps on "Family Feud." In the same interview, Jay-Z shared that growing up in the hood put him into "survival mode," impacting his abilities to be a good partner and husband earlier in life. 

"You shut down all emotions. So even with women, you gonna shut down emotionally, so you can't connect," he reflected. "In my case, like it's, it's deep. And then all the things happen from there: infidelity." 

"I Made My ADHD Into My Strength": Understanding The Link Between Rap & Neurodivergence