Photo: Lauren Desberg
We Pass The Ball To Other Ages: Inside Blue Note's Creative Resurgence In The 2020s
The foundational jazz label Blue Note Records has ebbed and flowed over the years, but they’re charging into the 2020s with renewed energy. Streams are way up; fresh talent is being signed left and right. And label president Don Was has a few ideas why.
When Ethan Iverson sent Don Was his new song, the crackle of frying eggs mixed with the sound of Was weeping in awe.
During the frightening early days of the pandemic, pianist and composer Iverson enlisted 44 friends and colleagues — including pianist Marta Sanchez, choreographer Mark Morris and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza — to join in song via an accumulation of voice memos on top of Iverson’s reedy, tenor voice. The tune was "The More it Changes," with the lyrics written by Iverson’s wife, writer Sarah Deming. Despite never being in the same room, they sounded like a small-town congregation — songbooks out, shoulder to shoulder.
As he cooked breakfast, Iverson’s plucky virtual choir "just made me burst out in tears, man," Was tells GRAMMY.com. "It’s one of the most beautiful summations of the eternal nature of music and the musicians who make it." On Zoom, the five-time GRAMMY winner is framed by voluminous dreads, with various wide-brimmed hats perched on instruments and furniture behind him. And as usual, when rhapsodizing about music he deems "staggering," Was zooms out, considering the whole timeline.
"It’s about us being carbon-based life forms — that carbon will just keep going, man," Was says. He raps his desk with his knuckles. "This desk was a tree." And by invoking that natural cycle of permutation and proliferation — matter never being created nor destroyed, only assuming new forms — Was sums up his job. He’s been the president of the almost century-old jazz label Blue Note Records since 2012. And when he examines the history, lineage and ancestry of Blue Note, he finds that change — transformation — is the constant.
He sees that change in Charles Lloyd, the saxophone titan who Was says is playing better at 84 than he did at 34. ("I think I’m coming into my own!" Lloyd recently quipped to Was.) He sees it in Bill Frisell, the lopsided guitar genius who still endlessly challenges himself at 71.
It permeates his day-to-day operations at the label, too. As a musician himself, Was knows the value of making adjustments when needed — like when he corrected an inconsistent batch of audiophile vinyl from the label’s 75th-anniversary campaign, without fuss or ego. Being open to adjustments is how you evolve. And Blue Note has never stopped evolving, even when some years or decades are stronger than others.
Like the luminaries in its roster do in their craft from time to time, Blue Note is experiencing a growth spurt — despite already making innumerable contributions to the cultural canon. Since being founded by German immigrants Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff in 1939, the label has accumulated a wealth of musical treasures from various generations, scenes and subgenres.
But as recent developments have shown, Blue Note isn’t a "dusty museum" of ancient history — Was’s words — but a still-dynamic entity with plenty of surprises left in it.
"It seemed like in every era, the artists that were signed to Blue Note were artists who had absorbed the traditions, understood the foundations of the music that came before, but pushed the boundaries and turned it into something new," Was says. "They turned it upside down, maybe, and did something brand new with it."
And by adding bricks to Blue Note’s architecture every day, newcomers to the label are doing the same thing.
Building On Tradition With New Signees
The most conspicuous sign of development at Blue Note is its intriguing array of new signees, marking another boom period for the label at the dawn of the 2020s.
Over the last few years, musicians at the helm of the New York scene — saxophonists Melissa Aldana and Immanuel Wilkins, pianists Gerald Clayton and Ethan Iverson, vibraphonist Joel Ross, and guitarist Julian Lage — have joined jazz’s arguably most prestigious family. What explains all these new notches in the Blue Note lineage?
"Probably the pandemic — more time to listen!" Was replies with a hearty laugh. Granted, they’ve always had an ebb and flow of new arrivals and folks moving on. But this latest class of musicians has him particularly enthused. Speaking to Was, one doesn’t get the impression of a honcho selling you something, but a pal who’s an authentic music fan. Even the mere evocation of Aldana’s tone on the horn seems to send shivers down his spine.
But back to the question. Is it really just that Was had "more time to listen"? The answer is more complex, of course. And it has to do with the cash flow from Blue Note’s voluminous catalog, which includes albums that represent the apogee of the artform — by John Coltrane, Joe Henderson, Hank Mobley, Kenny Burrell, Lee Morgan, Andrew Hill, and scores of other leading lights.
Was and his colleagues are always finding ways to present the Blue Note catalog in fresh and innovative ways. Their Tone Poet audiophile vinyl series, which highlights deeper selections with cutting-edge sound quality, is a particular hit; Was says they sold half a million units last year. "We could have done more, except we couldn’t get enough records pressed," Was adds. "But it’s looking better this year."
Plus, a certain singer/songwriter, signed to Blue Note at the turn of the millennium, helps keep the operation flush. "Norah Jones has really helped us to underwrite new music at the rate we’ve released — which is at least one thing a month, sometimes two things a month," Was explains. (Blue Note put out Jones' first holiday album, I Dream of Christmas, last fall.)
Take Jones’ commercial appeal with increasingly detailed and dynamic reissues of agreed-upon classics (like Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch! and Joe Henderson’s Page One) and deep cuts by well-known names (like Grant Green’s Feelin’ the Spirit and Stanley Turrentine’s Rough ‘n Tumble), and you’ve got a healthy cash flow for embracing and nurturing rising talent.
"It’s a lot of new music to subsidize," Was continues. "If you were going to start a jazz record label without a catalog, it’d be an almost impossible business."
At Blue Note’s weekly A&R meeting, Was and his colleagues comb through new music — both what they get in their inboxes and who they’re hearing murmurs about. Some of it’s great — even impressive — but they have to pass on the vast majority of it. So what’s the "wow factor" that makes Was bolt up and sign someone? To answer that, he digs into his decades as a musician, producer, record executive and all-around industry cat.
That Ineffable Something
A quarter-century ago, Was found himself producing an album by Garth Brooks. He knew Brooks as the "biggest star in the world" back then — was mightily talented and a great live act. But something ineffable happened in the studio: "He went to do his vocal, and his vocal jumped," Was recalls, comparing the line of speakers to a 50-yard line on a football field. "It was like he was behind me."
He’d only experienced that phenomenon with a handful of artists — Aretha Franklin, Mick Jagger, Bonnie Raitt. "I’ve seen [Jagger] play to 100,000 people. I saw him play to a million people in Rio, man," Was says. "If you’re far back, he’s an inch tall." He leans his scruffy visage into the camera, making eye contact: "But you feel like he’s talking right to you."
And that ability to jump — with their voice, horn, or whatever their instrument is — is what separated Melissa Aldana, Immanuel Wilkins, Gerald Clayton, Joel Ross and Julian Lage from the rest. And it’s less edifying to comb through the forensics of who met who, and when, and where, than to examine how certain Blue Note signees act as hubs of talent.
Thelonious Monk was one. Herbie Hancock is one. So is pianist Jason Moran, who recorded for Blue Note for years before striking out on his own. And so is Ross, a vibraphonist only in his late twenties.
Ross released his third Blue Note album, The Parable of the Poet, on April 15 — and it’s by far his most ambitious to date. A seven-movement work featuring heavy hitters such as alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, tenor saxophonist Maria Grand, and trumpeter Marquis Hill, the album represents a high watermark and an enticing hint as to how expansive Ross’ vision could become.
"I’ve just been about creating music with my friends, in general, and like-minded individuals," Ross tells GRAMMY.com, noting that some of these connections date back to high school. "And now that I have some opportunities to create some music and open some spaces, I’m just like, ‘I know these great musicians. I want to play with them. Also, Don, you should listen to them."
One of these friends and collaborators happens to be Ross’s best friend: Wilkins, who’s a few years younger. In Jan. 2022, Wilkins released his second album on Blue Note, The 7th Hand; Was hails it a work of sophistication and profundity. "He’s a deep thinker. There’s a conceptual foundation behind what he’s doing," Was says. "But you don’t have to know that to feel the music."
While recording for Blue Note, Wilkins feels a sense of pressure — the good kind. "I think the pressure comes from the canon, the catalog and the archive. It's just like thinking of all these musicians who have come through Blue Note and all of my favorite records that have been on Blue Note," Wilkins tells GRAMMY.com. "It's a pressure that I welcome and love, and it forces me to make sure that I produce music at the highest level possible for myself at all times."
Tenor saxophonist Aldana, who hails from Santiago, Chile, felt that importance too, while recording her 2022 debut album for Blue Note, 12 Stars. In her case, the impetus was more to be herself than to be perfect — and it resulted in intensely personal playing.
"I feel more connected to myself and my own imperfections — and I've discovered that it's the same process with music," she said in a press release. "Embracing everything I hear, everything I play — even mistakes — is more meaningful than perfection." And speaking to GRAMMY.com, Aldana reflects on her experience thus far with Blue Note.
"I haven’t experienced anything but extreme support," she says, "allowing me to record the music the way I want, like really supporting my vision." It’s this sense of solidarity, of being backed up, that allowed Aldana to take the biggest swing she could on 12 Stars. She knew the results would be part of the canon that got her going — Sonny Rollins’ A Night at the Village Vanguard chief among them. And that’s a weight to carry.
"The most meaningful thing is to be part of that legacy, to be honest," Aldana says.
Speaking to GRAMMY.com in 2021 after releasing his Blue Note debut, Squint, Julian Lage laid down what signing to the label means to a jazz musician.
“Blue Note is the mecca of recorded music. All the greatest records come from Blue Note,” he said. “So, I think there's always a sense that as a jazz musician, it would be a dream to be on Blue Note because they cultivate musicians, support innovation and understand jazz as an artform — the social constructs that exist within jazz and the fact that it is an abstract art.”
Pianist Gerald Clayton, who made his Blue Note debut in 2020, tapped into the rich ore of Blue Note's legacy with his 2022 follow-up, Bells on Sand. Most notably, in the majestic "Peace Invocation," an intergenerational duet with Charles Lloyd — the legend who joked he was "coming into his own." "It’s just staggering, man," Was says of the track, as well as three other duets with his father, bassist John Clayton.
While meditating on the significance of Lloyd and his participation in "Peace Invocation," Clayton — a six-time GRAMMY nominee — considers the entire lineage that came before him.
"To feel the connection to Lloyd and to the legends of the music that recorded for the label, who aren’t even with us anymore," Clayton tells GRAMMY.com, "to feel that you’re somehow, in an official history book way, sort of connected to that, is a really honorable, wonderful feeling."
Celebrating The Past, Investing In The Future
In addition to welcoming new talent, Blue Note will honor both their history and potential in innovative ways in coming years.
The label recently announced Blue Note Africa, a co-creation with Universal that spotlights the multitudes of its continental namesake, with inaugural release In the Spirit of Ntu, a majestic album by South African pianist Nduduzo Makhathini. The label also recently acquired an archive of tens of thousands of Francis Wolff photographs from their early history, which includes alternate takes of classic jazz images that might make diehards flip. (At press time, they’re mum on plans for the images.)
Iverson is thrilled that Blue Note has the financial leverage to stay robust into the 2020s and beyond. "[Don has] got the leeway to invest in the future," Iverson tells GRAMMY.com. "And if he was a suit — just a business guy — he wouldn’t bother. But Don is actually interested in the future, and young musicians, and he’s like, 'Yeah, let’s sign the best and brightest. Give them a shot.'"
And on a personal level, Iverson finds Was a breath of fresh air in an evermore strangulating, formatted world. "As the world’s gotten smaller — as the internet has made everything sort of like a steel bearing, that’s one smooth surface, and everyone moves in a certain lockstep — I really love those old-school New Yorkers that are always fresh and idiosyncratic."
On Iverson’s 2022 Blue Note debut, Every Note is True, the communal "The More it Changes" leads off a program by a sumptuous, intergenerational trio — Iverson, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jack DeJohnette. With a simple, diatonic approach to harmony and a classical sense of swing, the record is a psychological balm, a cozy fireplace for the brain during traumatic times. Which makes it perfect for Blue Note.
"Through COVID, people have been treating our catalog like comfort food," Was says. "It’s the same way you eat a grilled-cheese sandwich and Campbell’s tomato soup because your mom made it for you when you were a little kid and it makes you feel good in hard times."
With this momentum, Blue Note seems poised to embrace the future of music while deftly stewarding the treasures of the past. And Iverson’s "The More it Changes" seems to sum up the give-and-take through the decades and the label’s potential to keep the lamps of tradition trimmed and burning for a long time.
"The more it changes, the more it stays the same," the rough-hewn choir sings, bound by common purpose and undeterred by global turbulence. "We pass the ball to other ages; it’s how we play the game." At Blue Note, the ball rolls forward unabated; the game has rarely been this much fun.
Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016
Upon winning the GRAMMY for Best Rap Album for 'To Pimp a Butterfly,' Kendrick Lamar thanked those that helped him get to the stage, and the artists that blazed the trail for him.
Updated Friday Oct. 13, 2023 to include info about Kendrick Lamar's most recent GRAMMY wins, as of the 2023 GRAMMYs.
A GRAMMY veteran these days, Kendrick Lamar has won 17 GRAMMYs and has received 47 GRAMMY nominations overall. A sizable chunk of his trophies came from the 58th annual GRAMMY Awards in 2016, when he walked away with five — including his first-ever win in the Best Rap Album category.
This installment of GRAMMY Rewind turns back the clock to 2016, revisiting Lamar's acceptance speech upon winning Best Rap Album for To Pimp A Butterfly. Though Lamar was alone on stage, he made it clear that he wouldn't be at the top of his game without the help of a broad support system.
"First off, all glory to God, that's for sure," he said, kicking off a speech that went on to thank his parents, who he described as his "those who gave me the responsibility of knowing, of accepting the good with the bad."
He also extended his love and gratitude to his fiancée, Whitney Alford, and shouted out his Top Dawg Entertainment labelmates. Lamar specifically praised Top Dawg's CEO, Anthony Tiffith, for finding and developing raw talent that might not otherwise get the chance to pursue their musical dreams.
"We'd never forget that: Taking these kids out of the projects, out of Compton, and putting them right here on this stage, to be the best that they can be," Lamar — a Compton native himself — continued, leading into an impassioned conclusion spotlighting some of the cornerstone rap albums that came before To Pimp a Butterfly.
To Pimp a Butterfly singles "Alright" and "These Walls" earned Lamar three more GRAMMYs that night, the former winning Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song and the latter taking Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (the song features Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat). He also won Best Music Video for the remix of Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood."
Watch Lamar's full acceptance speech above, and check back at GRAMMY.com every Friday for more GRAMMY Rewind episodes.
Photo: Charlie Gross | Illustration: Meshell Ndegeocello and Rebecca Meek
On Her New Album, Meshell Ndegeocello Reminds Us "Every Day Is Another Chance"
"Every morning is a chance to try again, to try to do something different with yourself," Meshell Ndegeocello says. Her clear-eyed new album, 'The Omnichord Real Book,' is charged with a sense of solidarity, groundedness and renewal.
But her music has a beating pop heart — and not just because she's also collaborated with Madonna, Chaka Khan and the Rolling Stones. Accordingly, she's fully aware of pop's inherent power and limitations.
"I love pop music, but I didn't want to entice people with a turn of phrase," the GRAMMY-winning bassist, multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter, and composer says of her new album, The Omnichord Real Book. "I wanted them to hear something that is: wake up, return, balance, align."
The Omnichord Real Book is Ndegeocello's first album of original material in nearly a decade and her debut on Blue Note Records. True to her stature in jazz and jazz-adjacent spaces, Ndegeocello is joined by some of their best and brightest: pianist Jason Moran, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, harpist Brandee Younger, and many others appear in its grooves.
But Ndegeocello has evaded categories from the jump, and "jazz" can't box her in. Midway through the interview, she stresses that the high-profile guests weren't "curated" for cred. Ndegeocello even announces that she'd like to collaborate with Taylor Swift.
Like its creator, The Omnichord Real Book is a Pandora's box. The title refers to the electronic instrument, which she took to during lockdown. The African diaspora runs through songs like "Georgia Ave" and "Omnipuss." The passing of both her parents formed the album's wounded center — but also its sense of overcoming, and starting over.
As you listen, read on for an interview with Ndegeocello about the state of her musical thinking, her blossoming capacity for collaboration and why it's important to "cherish your voice — your uniqueness, your touch."
This interview has been edited for clarity.
This is your first collection of original music in some time. Draw a thread for our readers through the past decade of your life and creative output.
To be honest, it was the downtime of the pandemic that allowed me to hear my thoughts again — hear the music in my head.
It was that downtime that also kickstarted my TV and film scoring. So I was spending seven to eight hours on a computer a day. And so at the end of the day, after making dinner for the family, I yearned for music, but I found myself playing with my omnichord — just anything without a screen. My Casio keyboard, or basses and guitars.
I just wanted to escape that looking at music, you know? I'm looking at waves; I'm looking at a screen. And so a lot of the writing just came from that. Being alone, being by myself — having beginner's mind, so to speak.
I've been on computers since I was a child. I wish I didn't have to use one anymore.
Even doing Zoom is hard. I have a landline. I wish we could just call and talk on the phone. But it's not because I'm nostalgic; I want to make that clear. I'm not nostalgic, I'm not pastiche, and I'm not a grumpy old person. I love technology — oh my god.
But just for me at that moment, I wanted to get back to the mysticism of sound. How your ears can be a time machine. When you hear a certain song from your childhood, it transports you.
And I don't think it's because you see the videos, it's because you hear something in it. It touches something in your brain that creates all that chemical reaction that you feel, see and smell where you were at that time. And that's what I'm really into now. I think the sound waves are powerful, and I'm trying to disconnect my visual senses from that experience now.
One of my favorite bits of jazz lore is that Wes Montgomery learned to do what he did by just sitting there with a guitar and Charlie Christian on the turntable. That extends to most of the 20th century. Can you connect that to the mystical, ineffable stuff of music?
Oh, exactly. Ineffable. I mean, I too sat with the Prince records and just learned them — and the Parliament-Funkadelic records, and the Sting records, and the Howard Jones records, and the Thomas Dolby records, who was sort of the first beta tech person to me in music. Scritti Politti and Thomas Dolby.
What I mean by the mysticism is: I found myself listening to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan a lot during the pandemic. I found myself listening to George Russell during the pandemic. Stanley Turrentine, these sorts of analog gems.
Wayne Shorter and Steve Coleman showed me that there's something mystical in the rhythms and the harmonies that they can create that are beyond comprehension, that have no technology involved. It's just in their writing and composition.
That's what I mean: where you could hear something and it just blows your mind. How did they get there melodically? How did they get there rhythmically? And I just long for that now.
It's really about the person — what you do with it. And so lately with Logic, speaking of that, I keep my screen black and white. And when I find myself on playbacks, I turn it off or walk away. I just try to engage with it differently.
I really enjoy just listening again. Taking a walk and letting my aural senses entice me instead of constantly having my eyes determine what I feel or what I see. And maybe that edit's not right. Is the bass flamming? I don't know if it feels good, I leave it. Just sort of letting go of the visual aspect of production.
With that established, where did the Omnichord Real Book songs come from? What did you want them to spiritually transmit?
I must admit I'm a little nervous about talking about my faith and spirituality. I guess during COVID there was a lot of death, and just a lot of emptiness, and an inability to engage sorrow. And so I think in this record you hear that a little bit.
After all the songs were written, it was super important to me for us all to be in the studio together. And that's what I wanted to come across. I am the songwriter, I do come up with the ideas, but it's the people that give it life, and give it limbs, and different hues, and just different ways of self-expression.
I paid for this record myself. I made it and then let Blue Note hear it. So it's pretty much all of what I wanted to have come to fruition. And so it's just all about playing together. It's about singing in a group.
If you notice, there's a lot of group vocals. I think there's a reason we have choirs or the reason people gravitate to spaces that have a lot of people who are collectively trying to be at peace. And so I hope that comes through there.
The songs are simple — just little poetry elements. I love pop music, but I didn't want to entice people with a turn of phrase. I wanted them to hear something that is: wake up, return, balance, align.
Every morning is a chance to try again, to try to do something different with yourself, to try to feel different, to try to engage your partner and wife different. Every day is another chance. And I think that's what I'm trying to show in the album.
Can you talk about your version of Samora Pinderhughes' "Gatsby"? That seems to be a lynchpin to the album.
When my father passed, my mother passed, I had to clean out their house. I found my old Real Book that my father gave me just so I could get through the gigs with him. He had lost a bass player. That book allows five or more people to get together and concentrate on one song and play together if they don't know each other, and it's got to be a quick sort of gel.
[With] Samora's song — or "Hole in the Bucket," written by Justin Hicks — I want to aid in the new standards, the new songs that maybe we'll look back on. I think Samora's lyric is brilliant in Gatsby. It's a time, it's an old story that's been here. What does it gain you to have the whole world and lose your soul? So yeah, I think that's going through there.
I'm at an age now where it's important to be upfront. It's not so important to be the main voice. And I want to show that as we pass through time, the gift you can give is just to big up other people, bring them along to help put them in the position so that they can play more.
Like Joshua Johnson, and Hannah Benn, who I think is a genius — I want everyone to know her. The HawtPlates. It's like, I just want to take this opportunity to put music in the world that feels good, brings about new energy, and showcases new talent.
There are so many titanic musicians in the scene to choose from. How did you curate who'd appear on The Omnichord Real Book?
My social skills were lacking during my early 20s. And on top of that, I had a record deal and I was traveling, so my sense of self was a little off. But I'm happy I went through that. And I was raised by musicians who were competitive — sort of real jazz, that jazz mentality of like, I'm going to tear you down to build you up.
But as I aged, and as a woman, I realized that energy just wasn't really the energy I wanted to have. So when you speak of the guests, it's just I think a testament to my growth as a human being and that I'm not as shy and insecure. And I really, if I meet someone and I love their playing, I'm asking them for their number, I'm going to text them, I'm going to ask them about their life and try to create some sort of rapport with them. So, these are just people I've been blessed to meet.
If anything, I'm not curating. That word hurts me. I'm in the sense, I want to be, kind of create collectives, like Don Cherry or something. I'm trying to just get everyone involved because that's the beauty of music and probably why I didn't become a painter.
Painting and visual arts is lonely. It's a lonely thing. But once I learned that, wow, we're all together in this music thing, it definitely inspired me to want to be more about the music. It's like that's the best part to me, that we all can get together and interact.
Can you talk about the role of the vocalist Thandiswa Mazwai on The Omnichord Real Book?
She was on one of my previous records, [2007's] The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams. South African singer. Miriam Makeba anointed her. I just find her melodic and rhythmic sense amazing.
I am African American. I am not African. And to quote my brother [trumpeter] Nicholas Payton, I play Black American music. So, I think the participation was, again, just friendship and camaraderie.
But the song ["Vuma"]— what she's talking about is vuma; is that vuma is the voice. And not only the voice of projection, and singing, or speaking, but the tone you have as a writer, as a musician, as a bassist.
We talk about the touch, the tone, the vuma. That's what we're trying to convey in that song. Not about perfection, or pitch. It's the way that you carry yourself and protect that voice, so that individuality, it's you — that you have a self.
I feel so many people want to sound, or feel, or experience like another. I think Thandiswa and I are just trying to remind you to cherish your voice — your uniqueness, your touch, your harmonic sense; your melodic, carefree ideas.
Don't try to pigeonhole yourself in order to be successful. Just say it a little bit for yourself when you can. I think that's what we're trying to say.
What's the state of your bass thinking — in conjunction with your compositional thinking, or instrumental thinking? Which point in your evolution are you in?
In terms of bass playing, I don't play the same; I don't hear the same. So, it's my love instrument. It is like my appendage, so I don't allow other people to question it. So I feel really secure in my bass playing, and with myself as a bassist.
As a songwriter, I'm just still hoping to grow. I want to create some more complex music, more complex instrumental music. And I'm blessed to say I'm getting asked to work with artists that I really admire.
I'm about to work with [saxophonist] Immanuel Wilkins in the so-called producer chair. But yeah, I want to work on arrangements and use the other parts of my brain. And find other artists that want to work with me as well.
So, that's where I am now. I'm here to serve. How can I be of service as a human, as a parent, as a friend, as a musician?
Photo: Rachel Kupfer
A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.
It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.
Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.
Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.
In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.
Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.
There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.
Say She She
Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.
While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."
Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.
Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.
Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.
Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.
L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.
During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.
Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.
Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.
Photo: Steven Sebring
Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage
"One foot in the past and one foot into the future," Billy Idol says, describing his decade-spanning career in rock. "We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol."
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Billy Idol about his latest EP, Cage, and continuing to rock through decades of changing tastes.
Billy Idol is a true rock 'n' roll survivor who has persevered through cultural shifts and personal struggles. While some may think of Idol solely for "Rebel Yell" and "White Wedding," the singer's musical influences span genres and many of his tunes are less turbo-charged than his '80s hits would belie.
Idol first made a splash in the latter half of the '70s with the British punk band Generation X. In the '80s, he went on to a solo career combining rock, pop, and punk into a distinct sound that transformed him and his musical partner, guitarist Steve Stevens, into icons. They have racked up multiple GRAMMY nominations, in addition to one gold, one double platinum, and four platinum albums thanks to hits like "Cradle Of Love," "Flesh For Fantasy," and "Eyes Without A Face."
But, unlike many legacy artists, Idol is anything but a relic. Billy continues to produce vital Idol music by collaborating with producers and songwriters — including Miley Cyrus — who share his forward-thinking vision. He will play a five-show Vegas residency in November, and filmmaker Jonas Akerlund is working on a documentary about Idol’s life.
His latest release is Cage, the second in a trilogy of annual four-song EPs. The title track is a classic Billy Idol banger expressing the desire to free himself from personal constraints and live a better life. Other tracks on Cage incorporate metallic riffing and funky R&B grooves.
Idol continues to reckon with his demons — they both grappled with addiction during the '80s — and the singer is open about those struggles on the record and the page. (Idol's 2014 memoir Dancing With Myself, details a 1990 motorcycle accident that nearly claimed a leg, and how becoming a father steered him to reject hard drugs. "Bitter Taste," from his last EP, The Roadside, reflects on surviving the accident.)
Although Idol and Stevens split in the late '80s — the skilled guitarist fronted Steve Stevens & The Atomic Playboys, and collaborated with Michael Jackson, Rick Ocasek, Vince Neil, and Harold Faltermeyer (on the GRAMMY-winning "Top Gun Anthem") — their common history and shared musical bond has been undeniable. The duo reunited in 2001 for an episode of "VH1 Storytellers" and have been back in the saddle for two decades. Their union remains one of the strongest collaborations in rock 'n roll history.
While there is recognizable personnel and a distinguishable sound throughout a lot of his work, Billy Idol has always pushed himself to try different things. Idol discusses his musical journey, his desire to constantly move forward, and the strong connection that he shares with Stevens.
Steve has said that you like to mix up a variety of styles, yet everyone assumes you're the "Rebel Yell"/"White Wedding" guy. But if they really listen to your catalog, it's vastly different.
Yeah, that's right. With someone like Steve Stevens, and then back in the day Keith Forsey producing... [Before that] Generation X actually did move around inside punk rock. We didn't stay doing just the Ramones two-minute music. We actually did a seven-minute song. [Laughs]. We did always mix things up.
Then when I got into my solo career, that was the fun of it. With someone like Steve, I knew what he could do. I could see whatever we needed to do, we could nail it. The world was my oyster musically.
"Cage" is a classic-sounding Billy Idol rocker, then "Running From The Ghost" is almost metal, like what the Devil's Playground album was like back in the mid-2000s. "Miss Nobody" comes out of nowhere with this pop/R&B flavor. What inspired that?
We really hadn't done anything like that since something like "Flesh For Fantasy" [which] had a bit of an R&B thing about it. Back in the early days of Billy Idol, "Hot In The City" and "Mony Mony" had girls [singing] on the backgrounds.
We always had a bit of R&B really, so it was actually fun to revisit that. We just hadn't done anything really quite like that for a long time. That was one of the reasons to work with someone like Sam Hollander [for the song "Rita Hayworth"] on The Roadside. We knew we could go [with him] into an R&B world, and he's a great songwriter and producer. That's the fun of music really, trying out these things and seeing if you can make them stick.
I listen to new music by veteran artists and debate that with some people. I'm sure you have those fans that want their nostalgia, and then there are some people who will embrace the newer stuff. Do you find it’s a challenge to reach people with new songs?
Obviously, what we're looking for is, how do we somehow have one foot in the past and one foot into the future? We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol.
You want to do things that are true to you, and you don't just want to try and do things that you're seeing there in the charts today. I think that we're achieving it with things like "Running From The Ghost" and "Cage" on this new EP. I think we’re managing to do both in a way.
Obviously, "Running From The Ghost" is about addiction, all the stuff that you went through, and in "Cage" you’re talking about freeing yourself from a lot of personal shackles. Was there any one moment in your life that made you really thought I have to not let this weigh me down anymore?
I mean, things like the motorcycle accident I had, that was a bit of a wake up call way back. It was 32 years ago. But there were things like that, years ago, that gradually made me think about what I was doing with my life. I didn't want to ruin it, really. I didn't want to throw it away, and it made [me] be less cavalier.
I had to say to myself, about the drugs and stuff, that I've been there and I've done it. There’s no point in carrying on doing it. You couldn't get any higher. You didn't want to throw your life away casually, and I was close to doing that. It took me a bit of time, but then gradually I was able to get control of myself to a certain extent [with] drugs and everything. And I think Steve's done the same thing. We're on a similar path really, which has been great because we're in the same boat in terms of lyrics and stuff.
So a lot of things like that were wake up calls. Even having grandchildren and just watching my daughter enlarging her family and everything; it just makes you really positive about things and want to show a positive side to how you're feeling, about where you're going. We've lived with the demons so long, we've found a way to live with them. We found a way to be at peace with our demons, in a way. Maybe not completely, but certainly to where we’re enjoying what we do and excited about it.
[When writing] "Running From The Ghost" it was easy to go, what was the ghost for us? At one point, we were very drug addicted in the '80s. And Steve in particular is super sober [now]. I mean, I still vape pot and stuff. I don’t know how he’s doing it, but it’s incredible. All I want to be able to do is have a couple of glasses of wine at a restaurant or something. I can do that now.
I think working with people that are super talented, you just feel confident. That is a big reason why you open up and express yourself more because you feel comfortable with what's around you.
Did you watch Danny Boyle's recent Sex Pistols mini-series?
I did, yes.
You had a couple of cameos; well, an actor who portrayed you did. How did you react to it? How accurate do you think it was in portraying that particular time period?
I love Jonesy’s book, I thought his book was incredible. It's probably one of the best bio books really. It was incredible and so open. I was looking forward to that a lot.
It was as if [the show] kind of stayed with Steve [Jones’ memoir] about halfway through, and then departed from it. [John] Lydon, for instance, was never someone I ever saw acting out; he's more like that today. I never saw him do something like jump up in the room and run around going crazy. The only time I saw him ever do that was when they signed the recording deal with Virgin in front of Buckingham Palace. Whereas Sid Vicious was always acting out; he was always doing something in a horrible way or shouting at someone. I don't remember John being like that. I remember him being much more introverted.
But then I watched interviews with some of the actors about coming to grips with the parts they were playing. And they were saying, we knew punk rock happened but just didn't know any of the details. So I thought well, there you go. If ["Pistol" is] informing a lot of people who wouldn't know anything about punk rock, maybe that's what's good about it.
Maybe down the road John Lydon will get the chance to do John's version of the Pistols story. Maybe someone will go a lot deeper into it and it won't be so surface. But maybe you needed this just to get people back in the flow.
We had punk and metal over here in the States, but it feels like England it was legitimately more dangerous. British society was much more rigid.
It never went [as] mega in America. It went big in England. It exploded when the Pistols did that interview with [TV host Bill] Grundy, that lorry truck driver put his boot through his own TV, and all the national papers had "the filth and the fury" [headlines].
We went from being unknown to being known overnight. We waited a year, Generation X. We even told them [record labels] no for nine months to a year. Every record company wanted their own punk rock group. So it went really mega in England, and it affected the whole country – the style, the fashions, everything. I mean, the Ramones were massive in England. Devo had a No. 1 song [in England] with "Satisfaction" in '77. Actually, Devo was as big as or bigger than the Pistols.
You were ahead of the pop-punk thing that happened in the late '90s, and a lot of it became tongue-in-cheek by then. It didn't have the same sense of rebelliousness as the original movement. It was more pop.
It had become a style. There was a famous book in England called Revolt Into Style — and that's what had happened, a revolt that turned into style which then they were able to duplicate in their own way. Even recently, Billie Joe [Armstrong] did his own version of "Gimme Some Truth," the Lennon song we covered way back in 1977.
When we initially were making [punk] music, it hadn't become accepted yet. It was still dangerous and turned into a style that people were used to. We were still breaking barriers.
You have a band called Generation Sex with Steve Jones and Paul Cook. I assume you all have an easier time playing Pistols and Gen X songs together now and not worrying about getting spit on like back in the '70s?
Yeah, definitely. When I got to America I told the group I was putting it together, "No one spits at the audience."
We had five years of being spat on [in the UK], and it was revolting. And they spat at you if they liked you. If they didn't like it they smashed your gear up. One night, I remember I saw blood on my T-shirt, and I think Joe Strummer got meningitis when spit went in his mouth.
You had to go through a lot to become successful, it wasn't like you just kind of got up there and did a couple of gigs. I don't think some young rock bands really get that today.
With punk going so mega in England, we definitely got a leg up. We still had a lot of work to get where we got to, and rightly so because you find out that you need to do that. A lot of groups in the old days would be together three to five years before they ever made a record, and that time is really important. In a way, what was great about punk rock for me was it was very much a learning period. I really learned a lot [about] recording music and being in a group and even writing songs.
Then when I came to America, it was a flow, really. I also really started to know what I wanted Billy Idol to be. It took me a little bit, but I kind of knew what I wanted Billy Idol to be. And even that took a while to let it marinate.
You and Miley Cyrus have developed a good working relationship in the last several years. How do you think her fans have responded to you, and your fans have responded to her?
I think they're into it. It's more the record company that she had didn't really get "Night Crawling"— it was one of the best songs on Plastic Hearts, and I don't think they understood that. They wanted to go with Dua Lipa, they wanted to go with the modern, young acts, and I don't think they realized that that song was resonating with her fans. Which is a shame really because, with Andrew Watt producing, it's a hit song.
But at the same time, I enjoyed doing it. It came out really good and it's very Billy Idol. In fact, I think it’s more Billy Idol than Miley Cyrus. I think it shows you where Andrew Watt was. He was excited about doing a Billy Idol track. She's fun to work with. She’s a really great person and she works at her singing — I watched her rehearsing for the Super Bowl performance she gave. She rehearsed all Saturday morning, all Saturday afternoon, and Sunday morning and it was that afternoon. I have to admire her fortitude. She really cares.
I remember when you went on "Viva La Bam" back in 2005 and decided to give Bam Margera’s Lamborghini a new sunroof by taking a power saw to it. Did he own that car? Was that a rental?
I think it was his car.
Did he get over it later on?
He loved it. [Laughs] He’s got a wacky sense of humor. He’s fantastic, actually. I’m really sorry to see what he's been going through just lately. He's going through a lot, and I wish him the best. He's a fantastic person, and it's a shame that he's struggling so much with his addictions. I know what it's like. It's not easy.
Musically, what is the synergy like with you guys during the past 10 years, doing Kings and Queens of the Underground and this new stuff? What is your working relationship like now in this more sober, older, mature version of you two as opposed to what it was like back in the '80s?
In lots of ways it’s not so different because we always wrote the songs together, we always talked about what we're going to do together. It was just that we were getting high at the same time.We're just not getting [that way now] but we're doing all the same things.
We're still talking about things, still [planning] things:What are we going to do next? How are we going to find new people to work with? We want to find new producers. Let's be a little bit more timely about putting stuff out.That part of our relationship is the same, you know what I mean? That never got affected. We just happened to be overloading in the '80s.
The relationship’s… matured and it's carrying on being fruitful, and I think that's pretty amazing. Really, most people don't get to this place. Usually, they hate each other by now. [Laughs] We also give each other space. We're not stopping each other doing things outside of what we’re working on together. All of that enables us to carry on working together. I love and admire him. I respect him. He's been fantastic. I mean, just standing there on stage with him is always a treat. And he’s got an immensely great sense of humor. I think that's another reason why we can hang together after all this time because we've got the sense of humor to enable us to go forward.
There's a lot of fan reaction videos online, and I noticed a lot of younger women like "Rebel Yell" because, unlike a lot of other '80s alpha male rock tunes, you're talking about satisfying your lover.
It was about my girlfriend at the time, Perri Lister. It was about how great I thought she was, how much I was in love with her, and how great women are, how powerful they are.
It was a bit of a feminist anthem in a weird way. It was all about how relationships can free you and add a lot to your life. It was a cry of love, nothing to do with the Civil War or anything like that. Perri was a big part of my life, a big part of being Billy Idol. I wanted to write about it. I'm glad that's the effect.
Is there something you hope people get out of the songs you've been doing over the last 10 years? Do you find yourself putting out a message that keeps repeating?
Well, I suppose, if anything, is that you can come to terms with your life, you can keep a hold of it. You can work your dreams into reality in a way and, look, a million years later, still be enjoying it.
The only reason I'm singing about getting out of the cage is because I kicked out of the cage years ago. I joined Generation X when I said to my parents, "I'm leaving university, and I'm joining a punk rock group." And they didn't even know what a punk rock group was. Years ago, I’d write things for myself that put me on this path, so that maybe in 2022 I could sing something like "Cage" and be owning this territory and really having a good time. This is the life I wanted.
The original UK punk movement challenged societal norms. Despite all the craziness going on throughout the world, it seems like a lot of modern rock bands are afraid to do what you guys were doing. Do you think we'll see a shift in that?
Yeah. Art usually reacts to things, so I would think eventually there will be a massive reaction to the pop music that’s taken over — the middle of the road music, and then this kind of right wing politics. There will be a massive reaction if there's not already one. I don’t know where it will come from exactly. You never know who's gonna do [it].