meta-scriptBlack Coffee On New Album, 'Subconsciously': "Music Is Life To Me And I Want You To Feel That With Every Beat And Melody" | GRAMMY.com
Black Coffee

Black Coffee

Photo: Alari Teede

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Black Coffee On New Album, 'Subconsciously': "Music Is Life To Me And I Want You To Feel That With Every Beat And Melody"

"That's what music should do, it should divide barriers and unite us under this one universal language," the South African DJ and producer says of his new album, 'Subconsciously'

GRAMMYs/Feb 5, 2021 - 02:29 am

If you have yet to immerse yourself in Black Coffee's captivating, atmospheric beats, now's a perfect time. The South African DJ and producer's emotive sixth album, and first in five years, Subconsciously, drops tomorrow, Fri., Feb. 5, on Ultra. To craft the enchanting soundscapes therein, Black Coffee tapped a diverse, talented group of collaborators, including vocalists Usher, Sabrina Claudio, Celeste and more, and fellow producers David Guetta, Diplo, DJ Angelo and Pharrell Williams (who also provides vocals on "10 Missed Calls").

Black Coffee has been big in the international house music scene since 2013. That year, he won bingo on the DJ bucket list, playing spots like Berghain in Berlin, Amsterdam Dance Event, Circoloco in Ibiza and his first Boiler Room set. In 2017, while he was busy bringing joy to dancefloors around the world, he made waves in the mainstream with his standout feature on Drake's More Life. "Get It Together" featuring Jorja Smith is a remake of Black Coffee's 2007 track "Superman," its pulsating beat traversing decades and borders.

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The Drake spotlight led the talented producer to "Get It Together" in the studio with other heavy-hitters like Diddy, Akon, Usher and Pharrell and to where he is today. Subconsciously is a culmination of Black Coffee's two-plus decades refining and redefining his sound, limitless beyond borders and genres, yet rooted in his South African identity—he's never too big to work with fellow artists from his home country.

Ahead of his exciting new album, GRAMMY.com caught up with the "Wish You Were Here" artist over email to dive deeper into the project and its collaborators, as well as what representing South Africa means to him.

What does your new album Subconsciously represent to you? What was your creative vision for this project?

When jumping into this new project, I wanted to remind the world that we're not confined by genres. As an artist, that's a value I hold very close to me. I create music that I can connect with, that provokes a certain emotion.

That's what music should do, it should divide barriers and unite us under this one universal language—and that's exactly what I wanted to do with Subconsciously. My artistic touch will always be defined by my music, but I want to break barriers and convey a global message, not just on dancefloors. This album goes way beyond. 

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There are a lot great collabs on the project—how did you choose who to work with on this one?

There are different processes for making every song and so I didn't go into this album thinking that I had to work with a particular artist. As the music evolved, we played around with many different elements. Sometimes a particular voice just meshes well with the direction of my production and it works. Other times, we're pitched a vocal and I adapt my music to make it feel right. These different processes sort of create an equal playing field for collaborators. 

What is your favorite part about working with other artists? And what do you feel like is one of the more challenging elements of collaborating?

Sometimes, you've put your heart and soul into a particular song and you feel there's nothing else that can be done, but then you add another creative on board and the song is elevated to a place that you couldn't have imagined before. Every vocalist, producer or writer can add a certain key element that changes the whole dynamic of the music and I think that's the real beauty in collaborating. I wouldn't say there are challenges, only creative motivation!

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When you released "LaLaLa" with Usher in 2019, had you already finished the album? For you, in what ways did this track feel like a shift into new sonic territory?

Back when I released this single, the album hadn't been 100 percent completed. The general tracklist had been outlined, but we were still going in and adding finishing touches to make it what it is today. The creative process and journey in making this album spanned over a couple of years.

For me, it wasn't necessarily a shift, but rather a gateway to spreading the joy of different sounds and reminding people that one particular musical way of thinking isn't superior to another. To me, if a song can evoke emotion and power, it's already done its job.

The music I am producing is oftentimes very different than the music that I DJ. I create music that you can blast on your car speakers or clean your home to. I create feel-good music that can universally bring us together. It's all about that feeling

"To me, if a song can evoke emotion and power, it's already done its job."

As a whole, Subconsciously is very captivating and immersive, and it definitely has a bit of a chilled out and moody vibe. How would you describe the mood and the feeling of it?

Every time I listen to Subconsciously, I have a new favorite song. That's what makes this album unique. There's something for every mood; it evokes a lot of emotion. You have the deeper sounds of "You Need Me" [featuring Maxine Ashley and Sun-El Musician] or "Ready For You" [featuring Celeste], upwards to the more poppy side of the spectrum with songs like "Never Gonna Forget" [featuring Diplo and Elderbrook].

What do you hope your fans will experience while listening to the album?

I hope that it brings anyone who's listening from anywhere in the world joy. That's what the music is all about for me. I've been working on and evolving my sound for pretty much my entire life. Music is life to me and I want you to feel that with every beat and melody. 

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What does it mean to you to represent South Africa across the globe? What is a misconception people often have about your home country?

My South African roots are something extremely important to me. I want to bring South Africa to the world. The talent emerging from my country is growing by the day and being able to collaborate with outstanding artists like Sun-El Musician, Tellaman, Una Rams, Msaki and C-Tea, to name a few, means I'm taking the sounds of South Africa one step further on the global spectrum. It's such an honor to be able to carry the flag on a more global spectrum.

When people from outside the country or even further, the continent, think of South Africa, they have a very cut-and-paste conception, but it goes so far beyond that. My country is home to some of the most incredible musicians, artists and great minds, even beyond the obvious household names. Our culture is vibrant and booming and I'm so proud to call it home. 

Do you have your eyes on any rising African artists right now?

It's hard to pinpoint any one particular artist right now, as there is so much emerging talent. In the music world, there's Da Africa Deep, in the visual world, there's Ghariokwu Lemi, but these are just two of so many. I could go on for days and the scope is constantly changing and evolving.

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Machinedrum
Machinedrum

Photo: James King

feature

Machinedrum's New Album '3FOR82' Taps Into The Spirit Of His Younger Years

For his 15th album, Machinedrum drew inspiration from his early productions and ventured into the Joshua Tree desert. There, he collaborated with Tinashe, Mick Jenkins, Duckwrth and more, alongside his longtime friend and collaborator Jesse Boykins III.

GRAMMYs/May 28, 2024 - 01:20 pm

“If you were able to go back and hang out or collaborate with your younger self, what would you say to them? What advice would you give them?”

That question fueled Machinedrum’s new album, 3FOR82, out May 24. 

Unlike most people, the prominent electronic producer, real name Travis Stewart, has a direct line to his younger self through the music he’s made. He still has hard drives with productions from his teenage years, and on his new album, he sought to create with that same spirit. He wanted to hang with his younger self who was nothing but a kid who loved music with big dreams.

“In that early period where everything is just so free, there's nothing like it,” Stewart said. “I think, as creatives, we all try to find different ways to tap back into that.” 

By tapping back into that freedom, Stewart made 3FOR82 into a diverse and exciting body of work. On his 41st birthday (the album title 3FOR82 reflects Stewart’s birthday of March 4, 1982), he started exploring his older recordings, collaborating with his younger self. The result is an album that is more than the sum of its parts. Weaving a wide palette of genres together, including alternative hip-hop, drum & bass, and UK garage — along with a long list of collaborators — it has an experimental hunger to it as well.

Stewart worked with more vocal collaborators than on any past album, featuring artists including Tinashe, Mick Jenkins, and Topaz Jones on 11 of the 12 tracks. With this stronger external input, each track has a unique identity. While “HON3Y,” the only solo production, harbors Stewart's talent for erratic sonic motion, “KILL_U” with Tanerélle is a minimalist soul tune.

Clearly, when Stewart was just starting he wanted to make anything and everything. He started releasing music as Machinedrum in 2000. Since then, he has shared 15 albums and launched various aliases including Tstewart, his atmospheric side project, J-E-T-S, the club-focused collaboration with the respected house artist, Jimmy Edgar, and Sepalcure, his duo with Praveen Sharma that focuses on dubstep and UK garage.

After so much experience, he knows the music industry very well. The good parts and the bad. 

“Once you've released a few projects, this new pressure comes along with what your fans expect from you,” Stewart said. Conversely, his early recordings offered a window into an era without any pressure or expectations. 

Read on to learn more about where he found the biggest inspiration when he took a trip down musical memory lane during the making of 3FOR82

Impulse Tracker: His First Production Software

Every artist has to start somewhere, and Machinedrum started with Impulse Tracker, the music production software released in 1995. Stewart is now using industry-standard programs like Abelton, but when he was using Impulse Tracker during his early days, his music was imbued with a kind of youthful optimism that only comes when you’re starting something new. 

"For me it was going into these old Impulse Tracker sessions and finding these little nuggets of ideas that I didn't really know what to do with at the time."

When he was working in Impulse Tracker, he only had the skills to make cursory musical ideas, but when he listened back he was really proud of those ideas. “I was just so excited about music. Not to say that I'm not now, but when I listen to electronic music now, I can't help but think about how it was made. Think about what kind of numbers they're doing. Who produced it? What label released it?” Stewart said. “Whereas back then, I would listen to things for the pure sake of listening to them and just be so inspired.”

Finding Freedom In Rules

Stewart often suffers from what he likes to call “choice paralysis.” If there are too many options it can be difficult for him to make a decision. Well, music production presents endless choices. How much reverb to use? Whether or not to use samples? What plugins will make this track sound its best? So, when he was making 3FOR82 he laid down specific parameters to limit his choices.

First, he was only allowed to use sounds that he drew from his Impulse Tracker recordings. He spent a month going through the old pieces of music and created a sound library from them. Those sounds became the album. “That whole process of creating the sound library was incredibly inspiring. Being a digital archaeologist,” Stewart said.

He had two rules if he wanted to sample something outside those old files. One, he had to run the sound through Impulse Tracker so it maintained the same aesthetic. Two, he had to sample music from his birth year of 1982.

“That was one of the parameters that actually made it a lot of fun to explore what music came out the year of my birth and see what things resonated with me. I was finding a lot of interesting synchronicities of stuff that I didn't realize came out in 1982 that I'm actually a huge fan of,” Stewart said. 

The Legacy Of Joshua Tree Continues

Plenty of artists have found musical inspiration in the vast deserts of Joshua Tree National Park. Josh Homme founded The Desert Sessions there back in 1997. RÜFÜS DU SOL recorded their live album, aptly titled Live From Joshua Tree among the desert rocks in 2019. Now Machinedrum has joined the musical legacy of Joshua Tree by making 3FOR82 there as well.

He always had a great time there when he visited with friends and family in the past, but he also found a profound sense of clarity during those trips.

“Ideas come to me. I just feel so separated from the chaos of the world,” Stewart said. “I had always wanted to come to Joshua Tree for the pure reason of doing something creative.”

He set up a mobile studio in an Airbnb and invited myriad guest artists to join him in this temporary creative atmosphere and share in the clarifying experience.

His Dear Friend Jesse Boykins III

Jesse Boykins III is a vocalist who has collaborated with Stewart since the 2000s. He was also a groomsman at Stewart’s wedding. When Stewart was out in Joshua Tree, he spent an hour on the phone with Boykins discussing his idea of revisiting the past to make the album. During that conversation, he realized their long history together could further fuel the creative process.

Stewart made Boykins a co-executive producer, and Boykins brought in numerous vocalists Stewart had never worked with such as Duckwrth and aja monet. Stewart instructed Boykins to find seasoned artists when he was courting collaborators so they could bring their own past into the music. 

He asked each of the collaborators the guiding question at the beginning of each session: “If you were able to go back and hang out or collaborate with your younger self, what would you say to them? What advice would you give them?”

Sometimes Stewart sampled their responses and added them to the music like with Mick Jenkins’ track, “WEARY.” Other times, the question was meant to inspire trust between Stewart and the collaborators Boykins introduced to him.

“Just having him there, understanding the concept behind the album, and making sure that we're all keeping within the theme, whether literally, or in more of an abstract way, that was super important,” Stewart said of Boykins. “I'm super grateful for his involvement on the album and all the inspiration he gave me. Being there along my side throughout the process. It's very cool working like that with someone. I had never done that with an album in the past.”

Healing His Inner Child

When Stewart was producing 3FOR82 from songs he made as a teenager it was just as spiritual for him as it was technical. During those early years as an artist, Stewart felt very isolated. There was no community around the music he loved growing up in North Carolina in the 90s. Even when his preferred sounds migrated from the UK to the US, it was in cities like Miami and New York, far away from him. In his loneliness, he struggled to believe his dream of being a professional electronic musician was possible.

Well, over two decades later, Stewart has accomplished his dream and then some. By working with music from his past, he was assuring his younger self that everything was going to be OK. “This whole process of collaborating with my younger self on these new songs was so healing for me. It was like a way of me sending a message to my younger self. ‘You're gonna do all these amazing things. You're going to travel the world. You're gonna work with amazing artists. So keep your chin up. Don't worry so much about the future.  Just keep going. Keep doing what you're doing,’” Stewart said.

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Dillon Francis and Diplo GRAMMY Museum Event 2024
Dillon Francis (left) and Diplo at the GRAMMY Museum on May 15, 2024.

Photo: Courtesy of the Recording Academy™️/photo by Rebecca Sapp, Getty Images

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Dillon Francis & Diplo In Conversation: 5 Things We Learned From The GRAMMY Museum Event

In honor of Dillon Francis' breakthrough hit "Get Low" turning 10 this year, the DJ/producer sat down with one of his longtime dance buds, Diplo, at the GRAMMY Museum. Check out five revelations from the career-spanning (and highly entertaining) chat.

GRAMMYs/May 20, 2024 - 08:30 pm

Dillon Francis and Diplo have respectively built massive careers within dance music — but as they proved on May 15, they may have been just as successful doing stand-up comedy.

The two producers came together at the GRAMMY Museum's Clive Davis Theater for a wisecracking exchange, marking the 10-year anniversary of Francis' breakthrough song with DJ Snake, the platinum-certified "Get Low." It also felt like a celebration of 

their longstanding friendship — which predates "Get Low" — as the conversation was filled with humorous anecdotes, insider stories about key moments in Francis' career, and some of Francis' favorite memories with Diplo.

Since "Get Low," Francis has had a mercurial music trajectory. Though he's released three studio albums and a number of EPs, his landmark mixtapes — 2015's This Mixtape Is Fire and last year's This Mixtape is Fire TOO — are the key highlights. Like many dance acts, collaboration has been at the core of Francis' work, particularly within the electronic community; he's teamed up with the likes of Skrillex, Calvin Harris, Martin Garrix, Kygo, Alison Wonderland, Illenium, Alesso, and even Diplo's trio Major Lazer

More recently, Francis has released collaborations with Ship Wrek, Space Rangers and Sophie Powers, and the moombahton Pero Like EP with Good Times Ahead. The EP includes the bouncy "LA On Acid," whose video — which premiered at the South By Southwest Festival in March — features Diplo in its opening sequencing, along with cameos from Euphoria's Chloe Cherry, Righteous Gemstones' Tony Cavalero and Master of None's Eric Wareheim.

Three days after stopping by the GRAMMY Museum, Francis headed out to Las Vegas to perform at North America's largest electronic dance music festival, Electric Daisy Carnival, on May 18. It was one of many festival appearances for Francis this summer, along with one of several trips to Las Vegas, as he has a residency at the Wynn's XS Nightclub.

Below, take a look at five takeaways from Francis' spirited conversation with Diplo at the GRAMMY Museum.

Francis Met Diplo By Sliding Into His Twitter DMs

The two met in person 16 years ago in Francis' hometown of Los Angeles. Before that, Francis would send Diplo demos for consideration for the latter's record label, Mad Decent. Once Francis realized Diplo had heard his song "Masta Blasta," he slid into Diplo's Twitter DMs — and never left. "I was harassing him so much," Francis quipped. "'Let's please hang out right now. God, please let me come and hang out.'"

Diplo invited him to a bar, and they watched the Phillies (Diplo's team) lose. "It was one of my first blind dates," Diplo said. "I tried to make [Dillon] my ghost producer." 

Shortly after their first meeting, the pair worked together on a dubstep remix for Kelly Rowland's "Motivation" — and the more exposure he had to Francis' production skills, the more convinced Diplo was of his talent. "[Dillon is] too good to be my ghost producer. He's already better than me. We got to do a real record with this guy."

Francis' Superior Social Media Skills Began As A Class Assignment In High School

Francis' comedic online presence is the perfect combination of humor and authenticity, adding another layer to his appeal alongside his music. He traced his savvy skills back to his time at Los Angeles County High School for the Arts and a new genres course he took. His teacher considered everything as art, and their creations could be whatever they wanted.

"My friend and I would make comedy videos, basic sketch shows, and we passed the class with flying colors," Francis recalled. "When Vine came around, I did what I did in that class. It was another way of doing stuff I love to do, which is making people laugh."

Diplo then chimed in with a hilariously fitting observation. "You are the Weird Al Yankovic of electronic music," he said. "You had bangers, but you made them funny and you made them accessible to people."

He also commended Francis for opening his eyes to what social media can do for a creator. "You put me onto interaction on social media in different ways," Diplo added. "I don't think any other electronic music DJs were putting their personality out there like you did. You were the first one to do that properly."

Francis' Musical Education Came From Collaboration

As Francis revealed, he dropped out of college after a semester. But as someone who has built his career on collaboration, he's learned everything he needs to know by working with other artists. In fact, he thinks of working with other producers as interning. 

"It's my favorite thing to do," he said. "They're going to learn the way that you produce, you're going learn the way they produce. You can cross-pollinate your ideas and come away with new ways to make music. I feel like it also helps with evolving as an artist."

Diplo agreed, noting that Francis' time as a young producer, interning at studios, learning from producers and gaining relationships in the process was essential to his career. "Not to encourage more people to drop out of college," he joked.

Furious 7 Was A Key Player In The Success Of "Get Low"

Diplo pointed out that "Get Low" had its crossover moment after being included in the soundtrack for Furious 7, the 2015 installment of the Fast and Furious franchise. He asserted that it is special for a producer to have a song in a big movie, as he experienced with M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes" (which he co-wrote and co-produced) after it was featured in 2008's Pineapple Express.  

As Francis recalled, "Get Low" was already well-received and being played by the DJ community, with about five million plays on Spotify before Furious 7. But once it was part of Furious 7 — first in the trailer and then in the film — it ramped up significantly (and now has more than 200 million Spotify streams as of press time).

"This is when people were buying music on iTunes," Francis remembers. "From the trailer, it peaked at number 5 or something like that, which is huge for any artist in dance music. We're not usually on that chart. To be right next to Selena Gomez with a song that says, 'Get low when the whistle goes,' is crazy."

He Had A Life-Altering Turning Point At 18

After Diplo concluded his questions, Francis took a few from the audience. In response to one fan about what he would have done differently early in his career, Francis opened up about one of the worst moments in his life — which actually turned into a great learning experience. 

As he explained, at the age of 18, Francis was charged with a DUI (which was eventually downgraded to wet reckless). His parents spent their savings on a lawyer; he lost his car; he lost his license for a year; he did the DUI classes. And all of it put things into perspective.

"That was the first moment where I realized, things can get messed up and lost," he said. "I was like, 'I need to figure out my career. I'm going to go make money and I'm going to pay [my parents] back.' That was a very big driving factor for me."

Now 36, Francis views the incident as one of the best things to ever happen to him — and, in turn, for his path in dance music. "If that didn't happen, I don't think I would be sitting here on the stage today."

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Usher Collaborator Pheelz Talks New EP
Pheelz

Photo: Williams Peters

interview

Meet Usher Collaborator Pheelz, The Nigerian Producer & Singer Who Wants You To 'Pheelz Good'

After working with Usher on two tracks for his latest album, 'Coming Home,' Lagos' Pheelz is looking inward. His new EP, 'Pheelz Good II' drops May 10 and promises to be an embrace of the artist's unabashed self.

GRAMMYs/May 9, 2024 - 01:15 pm

If you were online during the summer of 2022, chances are you’ve heard Pheelz’s viral hit single "Finesse." The swanky Afro-fusion track (featuring fellow Nigerian artist Bnxn) ushered in a world of crossover success for Pheelz, who began his career as a producer for the likes of Omah Lay, Davido, and Fireboy DML.

Born Phillip Kayode Moses, Pheelz’s religious upbringing in Lagos state contributed to his development as a musician. He manned the choir at his father’s church while actively working on his solo music. Those solo efforts garnered praise from his peers and music executives, culminating in Pheelz's debut EP in 2021. Hear Me Out saw Pheelz fully embrace his talent as a vocalist, songwriter, and producer. 

"I feel important, like I’m just molding clay, and I have control over each decision," Pheelz tells GRAMMY.com about creating his own music. 

2022 saw the release of the first two tapes in his Pheelz Good trilogy: Pheelz Good I and Pheelz Good (Triibe Tape), which was almost entirely self-produced. The 29-year-old's consistency has paid off: he produced and sang on Usher’s "Ruin," the lead single from his latest album Coming Home, and also produced the album's title track featuring Burna Boy. But Pheelz isn't only about racking up big-name collaborators; the self-proclaimed African rockstar's forthcoming projects will center on profound vulnerability and interpersonal honesty. First up: Pheelz Good II EP, out May 10, followed by a studio album in late summer.

Both releases will see the multi-hyphenate "being unapologetically myself," Pheelz tells GRAMMY.com. "It will also be me being as vulnerable as I can be. And it’s going to be me embracing my "crayge" [crazy rage]...being myself, and allowing my people to gravitate towards me."

Ahead of his new project, Pheelz spoke with GRAMMY.com about his transition from producer artist, designing all his own 3D cover art, his rockstar aesthetic, and what listeners can expect from Pheelz Good II.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

What sparked your transition from singing in church to realizing your passion for creating music?

For me, it wasn’t really a transition. I just always loved making music so for me I felt like it was just wherever I go to make music, that’s where I wanna be. I would be in church and I was the choirmaster at some point in my life, so I would write songs for Sunday service as well. And then I would go to school as well and write in school, and people heard me and they would love it. And I would want to do more of that as well. 

A friend of my dad played some of my records for the biggest producers in Nigeria back then and took me on as an intern in his studio. I guess that’s the transition from church music into the industry. My brothers and sisters were in the choir, but that came with the job of being the children of the pastor, I guess. None of them really did music like me; I’m the only one who took music as a career and pursued it.

You made a name for yourself as a producer before ever releasing your music, earning Producer Of The Year at Nigeria’s Headies Awards numerous times. What finally pushed you to get into the booth?

I’ve always wanted to get into the booth. The reason why I actually started producing was to produce beats for songs that I had written. I’ve always been in the booth, but always had something holding me back. Like a kind of subconscious feeling over what my childhood has been. I wasn’t really outspoken as a child growing up, so I wouldn’t want people to really hear me and would shy away from the camera in a sense. I think that stuck with me and held me back. 

But then COVID happened and then I caught COVID and I’m like Oh my god and like that [snaps fingers] What I am doing? Why am I not going full steam? Like why do I have all this amazing awesomeness inside of me and no one gets to it because I’m scared of this or that?

There was this phrase that kept ringing in my head: You have to die empty. You can’t leave this earth with all of this gift that God has given you; you have to make sure you empty yourself. And since then, it’s just been back-to-back, which just gave me the courage.  

How did you react to " Finesse" in former President Barack Obama’s annual summer playlist in 2022?

Bro, I reacted crazy but my dad went bananas. [Laughs.] I was really grateful for that moment, but just watching my dad react like that to that experience was the highlight of that moment for me. He's such a fan of Barack Obama and to see that his son’s music is on the playlist, it just made his whole month. Literally. He still talks about it to this day. 

Experiences like that just make me feel very grateful to be here. Life has really been a movie, just watching a movie and just watching God work and being grateful for everything.

At first he [my dad] [didn’t support my career] because every parent wants their child to be a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer. But when he saw the hunger [I have], and I was stubborn with [wanting] to do music, he just had to let me do it. And now he’s my number one fan. 

Your latest single, "Go Low" arrived just in time for festival season. What was it like exploring the live elements of your art at SXSW and your headlining show in London at the end of April?

I have always wanted to perform live. I’ve always loved performing; Pheelz on stage is the best Pheelz. Coming from church every Sunday, I would perform, lead prayers and worship, so I’ve always wanted to experience that again.

Having to perform live with my band around the world is incredible man. And I’ll forever raise the flag of amazing Afro live music because there’s a difference, you know? [Laughs.] There are so many elements and so many rhythms and so many grooves

I’ve noticed that much of your recent cover art for your singles and EPs is animated or digitally crafted. What’s the significance, if any, of this stylistic choice?

It still goes back to my childhood because I wasn’t expressive as a child; I wouldn’t really talk or say how I felt. I’d rather write about it, write a song about it, write a poem about it, or draw about it. I’d draw this mask and then put how I’m feeling into that character, so if I was angry, the mask would be raging and just angry.

The angry ones were the best ones, so that stuck with me even after I started coming out of my shell and talking and being expressive; that act of drawing a mask still stuck with me. And then I got into 3D, and I made a 3D version of the mask and I made a 3D character of the mask. So I made that the main character, and then I just started making my lyric videos, again post-COVID, and making them [lyric videos] to the characters and making the actual video mine as well.

In the future, I’m gonna get into fashion with the characters, I’m gonna get into animation and cartoons and video games, but I just wanna take it one step at a time with the music first. So, in all of my lyric videos, you get to experience the characters. There’s a fight [scene] among them in one of the lyric videos called "Ewele"; there is the lover boy in the lyric video for "Stand by You"; there are the bad boys in the lyric video for "Balling." They all have their own different characters so hopefully in the near future, I will get to make a feature film with them and just tell their story [and] build a world with them. I make sure I put extra energy into that, make most of them myself so the imprint of my energy is gonna be on it as well because it’s very important to me.

You and Usher have a lengthy working relationship. You first performed together in 2022 at the Global Citizen Festival, then produced/co-wrote "Coming Home" and "Ruin." Take us through the journey of how you two began collaborating.

It started through a meeting with [Epic Records CEO] L.A. Reid; he was telling me about the album that they were working on for Usher and I’m like, "Get me into the studio and lemme see what I can cook up." And they got me into the studio, [with Warner Records A&R] Marc Byers, and I wrote and produced "Coming Home." I already had "Ruin" a year before that. 

["Ruin"] was inspired by a breakup I just went through. Some of the greatest art comes from pain, I guess. That record was gonna be for my album but after I came home I saw how L.A. Reid and Usher reacted and how they loved it. I told them, "I have this other song, and I think you guys would like it for this album." And I played "Ruin," and the rest was history.

Before your upcoming EP, you’ve worked with Pharrell Williams, Kail Uchis, and the Chainsmokers in the studio. What do you consider when selecting potential collaborators?

To be honest, I did not look for these collabs. It was like life just brought them my way, because for me I’m open to any experience. I’m open to life; I do it the best I can at any moment, you understand? 

Having worked with Pharrell now, Dr. Dre, Timbaland, and the Chainsmokers, I’m still shocked at the fact that this is happening. But ultimately, I am grateful for the fact that this is happening. I am proud of myself as well for how far I’ve come. Someone like Timbaland — they are literally the reason why I started producing music; I would literally copy their beats, and try to sound like them growing up. 

[Now] I have them in the same room talking, and we’re teaching and learning, making music and feeding off of each others’ energy. It’s a dream come true, literally.

What's it like working with am electro-pop group like the Chainsmokers? How’d you keep your musical authenticity on "PTSD"?

That experiment ["PTSD"] was actually something I would play with back home. But the crazy thing is, it’s gonna be on the album now, not the EP. I would play it back home, like just trying to get the EDM and Afrohouse world to connect, cause I get in my Albert Einstein bag sometimes and just try and experiment. So when I met the Chainsmokers and like. "Okay, this is an opportunity to actually do it now," and we had a very lengthy conversation. 

We bonded first as friends before we went into the studio. We had an amazing conversation talking about music, [them] talking about pop and electronic music, and me talking about African music. So it was just a bunch of producers geeking out on what they love to do. And then we just talk through how we think the sound would be like really technical terms. Then we get into the studio and just bang it out. Hopefully, we get to make some more music because I think we can create something for the world together.

I’ve noticed you dress a bit eccentrically. Have you always had this aesthetic?

I’ve always dabbled in fashion. Even growing up, I would sketch for my sister and make this little clothing, so like I would kick up my uniform as well, make it baggy, make it flare pants, make it fly. 

I think that stuck with me until now, trying different things with fashion. And now I have like stylists I can talk to and throw ideas off of and create something together. So yeah, I want to get into the fashion space and see what the world has in store for me. 

What can fans expect as you’re putting the finishing touches on your upcoming EP Pheelz Good II and your album?

Pheelz Good II, [will be] a close to the Pheelz Good trilogy of Pheelz Good I, Pheelz Good Triibe Tape and Pheelz Good II. The album is going to be me being unapologetically myself still. But it will also be me being as vulnerable as I can be. 

It’s going to be me embracing my crayge [crazy rage]. Like just embracing me unapologetically and being me, being myself, and allowing my people to gravitate towards me, you get me. But I’m working on some really amazing music that I am so proud of. I’m so proud of the EP and the album.

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Sofia Ilyas Q&A hero
Sofia Ilyas

Photo: Grace Phillips

interview

Beatport's Sofia Ilyas On Creating A More Equitable & Connected Music Industry

"What I love about the music industry is there are so many gaps, and so many observations you can make and sort of insert yourself in and create something quite special itself," Sofia Ilyas of carving out a career as a music professional.

GRAMMYs/May 7, 2024 - 01:42 pm

Given that Beatport Chief Community Officer Sofia Ilyas has dedicated the last 15 years or so of her life supporting burgeoning artists, subgenres and underrepresented groups, it's somewhat surprising that she grew up in a household without music.

As a teen, a Sony Walkman with a radio and mixtapes featuring the likes of Radiohead were a lifeline to a world Ilyas' family didn't want her to participate in. She was even kept home during school field trips to the National Gallery museum in London, where she's since hosted her Piano Day music and art event, and will soon be curating a room for their 200th anniversary celebration.

Ilyas has had to sacrifice a lot — namely, a relationship with her strict Muslim family — to carve out a career in music, and hers is a story of patience and resilience. After leaving her home in Cardiff, Wales for London to pursue higher education (against her family's wishes), she found solace and connection in live music. She'd hang out around the sound booth and introduce herself and ask questions about how things worked. Slowly but surely, she befriended people that worked at labels and venues, and even artists — Four Tet grew to know her by name after she kept coming back to his shows.

After years of being a part of the London scene as a dedicated fan, at age 30, Ilyas became co-manager of indie record label Erased Tapes, where she helped popularize neoclassical music and one of its purveyors, experimental German pianist Nils Frahm. Alongside Frahm, Ilyas launched Piano Day, where a diverse range of artists help them celebrate the past, present and future of the instrument alongside contemporary dancers and painters.

Now, as the first Chief Community Officer at major dance music platform Beatport, Ilyas is building community within and across disparate global electronic communities. She aims to bring more women and people of color into the mix.

"We're living in a time where people are feeling incredibly lonely and disconnected from community," Ilyas tells GRAMMY.com. "I [want to] facilitate people to come in to hear from each other, especially women, in a room that feels safe to hold discussion."

GRAMMY.com recently caught up with Ilyas for an insightful, engaging conversation on her work to support women and people of color in electronic music, making piano cool, her hopes for a more equitable music industry, and much more.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

You recently hosted your Piano Day annual events in Melbourne and London — tell me your vision for Piano Day.

When we launched Piano Day in London with Nils [Frahm], it gave me an excuse to try my own events. I had the artists performing in different corners of the room and a painter in the middle, watching and being inspired. I've always looked at different arts and wondered why they can't also be present in the music world and why we can't support each other across various industries. I've had a contemporary dancer at almost every event I've done in London. Piano Day was my way of having my own event that I could own and really show off my curation. Even with the first event, people were saying the space was beautiful and the curation was so good. I felt really validated.

[For Piano Day,] I always ask artists what they can do that's a little bit different, beyond performing their album or recent EP. I had one artist who had never played piano before, and he made a few mistakes and everyone was applauding him like it's okay. It's really important to me that Piano Day offers something that maybe the audience will never see again and they feel they've experienced something very special. An even bigger extension of that is the lineup that I curate for the National Gallery; coupling a piano player with a dancer who had never met before, and multiple artists only ever played piano maybe three times. I love that the artists have felt safe to trust me and that it's the type of event where they can take a risk.

I'm always looking for acts that are open to trying something a bit different and to be challenged by the fact that it's solo piano predominantly. And to also be inspired by the space, the National Gallery is such a prestigious, iconic venue. It's quite an unusual event because you've got people who've come to see the artists and regular visitors who have just come to see the paintings and they happen to stumble across what's happening. What's even more special for me is the audience is full of children. [I've been wondering] how we can do more music events that kids can come to, because I saw how inspired they were.

You'll be returning to the National Gallery in May to help curate their 200th anniversary event. How are you thinking about everything it stands for while bringing it into the future with music and women and people of color?

I've always had an attachment to the Gallery because there were school trips to it and my parents would never let me go. So for them to email me, "Hey, we've been to a couple of your events, would you like to bring Piano Day to the National Gallery?" I was just overwhelmed and hugely complimented.

I went to each room, sat down and thought about the feelings [it brought up]. I ended up landing on the blue room, it's got a lot of English paintings in it. I liked the idea of English artists against old English paintings, sort of breaking that mold of stiffness and classical looks to be like, this is now the future of London coming into the gallery. We placed the piano right in front of this really famous huge horse painting to really make that statement.

I am very mindful of having a diverse and interesting lineup. I always have one artist that starts the event that is a nod to the traditional kind of way of playing [piano]. It usually evolves to some artists playing the neoclassical sounds and then it moves into more the dance element and vocalist and then it ends on "this is the future" type of thing. I always like having that momentum.

Let's talk about your new record label RISE. What's your vision is with it and who are the artists you're currently working with?

I started Rise last year for artists that want help to get to the next level and get the attention of the label they want. I wanted to do a label that was within my bandwidth because I have a full-time job. If there're artists that I can help get from point A to B, then they go on to C, that's a great thing. I have Frank Hopkins on the label, who's an electronic artist, and Kareem Kumar, who's a Black artist who is known for playing in the streets of London. [Kumar] has built an incredibly huge audience on socials that has been a real inspiration to so many youngsters during COVID. They played together for the first time at the National Gallery, where Frank added some really nice ambient sounds and Kareem played the piano.

Too often, labels are quite a stiff experience, they want to assign that artist forever. If there are any artists that want help on press releases, overall branding and PR, that's exactly what RISE is there for. We can help them release some records, sort their online profile and offer guidance to basically uplift the artist so they can get the attention of booking agents, a label etc.

I see the future of labels where they are this sort of incubator-type of model, where they help an artist and the artists can grow into their own team or go off into another label. I envisage more labels existing like mine, where they're helping the artists onto that next level.

What do you think needs to shift for the music industry to be more supportive — financially and otherwise — of artists, particularly young people of color?

One thing that could be great is the labels that are doing well commercially — I'm sure they do this to a certain extent — choose two artists every year for an incubator program and make it more visible. Right now, most labels' A&R is a very closed thing. I think [it would help] if the labels made a very clear way of sending them demos. I know it is difficult because these days, even [people at] labels are so overworked and they don't have time to think about things like this. Maybe a music organization or a body out there could pick this idea up and take it to some of the major labels.

On the live side, [we need] more community spaces where an artist can come by and play regularly to fans and bring their friends and family around. Most venues are so hard to get on the bill, [so there's a need for] smaller 100-capacity-or-so spaces that open the doors more to local artists. We rely on the same names over and over again, whether it's festivals or local clubs, etc.

With your work as Beatport's Chief Community Officer, what are you actively doing to bring in and celebrate more women and people of color in dance music?

I've always been aware of diversity and my color and who I am in the music industry. Especially when I was around all those white male composers who knew everything about production and I knew nothing, that was very daunting. Even things like drinking — I don't drink and the amount of times it feels uncomfortable to be in the music industry. Many people in South Asian communities, especially Pakistani, grew up in a non-drinking culture, and we should have awareness to make those people feel comfortable otherwise they're never going to join the music industry.

What's been incredible is that Robb [McDaniels, Beatport's CEO] and the team have been, "You own it, you do what you believe." In the first few months, I hired a DEI consultant named Vick Bain, who was an amazing mentor for me. I'm a real big believer in experts. I was able to really upskill myself very fast through having her around.

Putting aside diversity, we're living in a time where people are feeling incredibly lonely and disconnected from community. That's why I'm doing panel events with DJ sets with Beatport. I [want to] facilitate people to come in to hear from each other, especially women, in a room that feels safe to hold discussion.

How have you taken it upon yourself to bring more women and artists of color with you along the way, and do you make space and advocate for people?

It's always something that's on the top of my mind because being a South Asian woman in music is already quite difficult at moments. You look around wondering Is there any support for me? And with my journey of having walked away from my family, part of me is already exhausted from that experience and existing in the music industry in an environment that often feels very alien to me.

Just being a woman in a C-Suite position isn't not easy. I've never been in a role where the focus is to champion women and that's why I'm so grateful for Beatport.

Throughout my career, I've always given out a lot of free PR and guidance, and quite often that's been for women. I've always wanted to be available and I'm always happy to give my time. If anyone reads this, and they want to email me and ask me any questions, I'm always really happy to help.

What's some advice you have for young women of color that want to work in the music industry but don't know where to start?

What I love about the music industry is there are so many gaps, and so many observations you can make and sort of insert yourself in and create something quite special itself. Once you start getting to know your local community, [you can get] so much support from others. I made a lot of my friends by going to vinyl markets and going up to my favorite labels and saying hi. When I was trying to work in the music industry and sending a ton of emails, I got nothing in return. But as soon as I started being a bit more active in the live [music] side, I met so many people.

Don't think you need to do it alone. For so many years, I kept what I was experiencing to myself and I would always present this polished person on Instagram. Lately, I've started really opening up more about how I feel. When I turned 43 recently, I posted on Instagram about how I sometimes overwork to avoid [loneliness]. I was surprised by how many people, especially men, messaged me and said I feel that way too. I'm learning to be more vulnerable.

Don't be afraid to ask questions. You just have to get over ego and fear. I can't sugarcoat it; unfortunately, there are [some] people who are going to make you feel really stupid for asking. Lean on your friends and know you're on the right path. Know that we need more women and more diversity in the industry. Look at people that inspire you. When I used to look at Four Tet, I'd be like, Oh my God, an Indian man on stage, that's so cool. So, look for your inspiration points and be vulnerable with your friends, because it is going to be difficult sometimes. And you can definitely email me anytime. [Chuckles.]

What does a more equitable music industry look like to you?

Well, that's a big question. I think [it would involve] everyone being more conscious. Whether it's a booking agent or a label looking to sign someone, if everyone is thinking around diversity and consciously looking and making their spaces more open to women. I always think about open doors. How can everyone open their doors more while considering the space people are entering into. It's one thing opening your door but it's another thing if that person enters a space and doesn't feel safe.

For me, a place where everyone's consciously thinking about this, and it isn't just on the organization or a few artists or someone like me in my role to try and figure it out. I think if everyone was conscious of it, things would just happen more seamlessly.

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