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Bruce Hornsby Talks New Album 'Non-Secure Connection,' Working With Spike Lee And His Ongoing Support Of Civil Rights In His Music

Bruce Hornsby

Photo: Sarah Walor

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Bruce Hornsby Talks New Album 'Non-Secure Connection,' Working With Spike Lee And His Ongoing Support Of Civil Rights In His Music

The GRAMMY-winning singer-songwriter tells GRAMMY.com about how his work with the revered filmmaker and his longtime affirmation of civil rights inform his latest album

GRAMMYs/Aug 16, 2020 - 01:19 am

Bruce Hornsby is constantly on the search for new sounds to explore and fresh ways to express his thoughts. In 1986, the GRAMMY-winning singer-songwriter set the tone on The Way It Is, his multiplatinum hit debut album with his original band, Bruce Hornsby And The Range. (The album ultimately helped him and the group score the Best New Artist win at the 1987 GRAMMYs.) He later made an impact during a stint on keyboards with The Grateful Dead and dabbling in a variety of genres on his albums, including ventures into folk, jazz, bluegrass and even classical music.

"It's just a byproduct of a constant search for inspiration, a constant search for the new, a constant search for growing and evolving and improving your craft and your creativity over a long career period," Hornsby says of his wide-spanning musical projects in a recent phone interview with GRAMMY.com. "And so, I'm just intellectually, musically curious or musically, intellectually curious ... I'm doing this for people who are interested in a little bit of musical adventure."

His latest albums—2019's Absolute Zero and the newly released Non-Secure Connection—find him exploring yet another genre: film scores. Thanks to his work on music for multiple Spike Lee films, including 2018's BlacKkKlansman, Hornsby realized he could turn a film score cue into a song. He uses piano as well as instruments like the electric sitar and Chamberlin to create atmospheric, cinematic songs. 

"I think a filmmaker's telling the story, using music to augment the emotional quality of the film, and I'm doing the same thing here," he says.

Released Friday (Aug. 14), Non-Secure Connection features a wide array of guest artists and musicians who further enhance the songs: The Shins singer James Mercer, singer and poet Jamila Woods, Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid and Bon Iver leader Justin Vernon. Album standout "Anything Can Happen" features the late Leon Russell, who co-wrote the track and appears on it courtesy of a demo that he and Hornsby recorded together more than 25 years ago. 

Lyrically, Hornsby has plenty to say on Non-Secure Connection. He muses on topics such as computer hackers, mall salesmen and the "Darwinian" aspects of AAU basketball. A longtime, ardent supporter of civil rights—his 1986 hit song, "The Way It Is," references the civil rights movement of the '60s—the singer continues to address the social issues of the time across the album. 

"Nina Simone said it best: 'It's the artist's job to reference the time in which we live.' And it's a bit like folk music. Lots of folk music has reflected through the years the world in which those writers wrote. And so, this is me doing my version of taking Nina Simone's charge and running with it," he says.

GRAMMY.com caught up with Bruce Hornsby to discuss his latest album, Non-Secure Connection, his longtime affirmation of civil rights in his music and how working with Spike Lee inspired a new sonic direction.

Songs such as "Bright Star Cast" and "Non-Secure Connection" feel very timely, with lyrics about civil rights and connections with each other.

Certainly. It's all of a sudden timely again, not that it's never not timely. The problems of American racism are always evident; you don't have to look very closely to find them. But certainly, the George Floyd tragedy has galvanized the scene, galvanized anyone who was at all sympathetic to the race issue and Blackness in America.

It's sort of serendipitous … that I wrote this song "Bright Star Cast," which is an attempt at a civil rights anthem. But it should be no small surprise because my career started with a song about racism: "The Way It Is." And this will be now the seventh song I've written that deals in some way with the race issue in our country.

And you mentioned "Non-Secure Connection," which is a song about a hacker, and that's, of course, very much sort of au courant in the current zeitgeist.

Nina Simone said it best: "It's the artist's job to reference the time in which we live." And it's a bit like folk music. Lots of folk music has reflected through the years the world in which those writers wrote. And so, this is me doing my version of taking Nina Simone's charge and running with it.

Read: 'Black Gold' At 50: How Nina Simone Refracted The Black Experience Through Reinterpreted Songs

When it comes to singing about racial equality, do you feel there's a constant search for finding the right words to express your feelings about it?

Well, there's a constant search to find the right words to express really anything. If you're trying to do something of some worth, then that's not easy. I think in everything I write, it's difficult to find the best words, and I struggle with it, just like any songwriter who's serious about it probably would and probably should. But I can make also this statement about what's happening now to me. The George Floyd tragedy is a Bull Connor moment in our history, a second Bull Connor moment. 

How so?

In 1964, during the heyday of the civil rights movement, especially in the South, there was a protest going on in Birmingham, Ala., and the police chief in Birmingham, named Bull Connor, brought out his force and turned hoses on the protestors. It was just a horrific scene, and someone captured this on film … As soon as they could, they showed [this film] on the national news ...

And so, this film of this terrible local response to a civil rights protest, again, it shocked the country when they saw this … that just made the country aware of what was going on, and they previously had not been. And several months later, [President Lyndon B. Johnson] and the Congress passed the Civil Rights Act Of 1964. And I think a large part of what enabled them to do this is that footage from Bull Connor's police-hosing moment.

And so, this is a Bull Connor moment right now, because the video of that terrible, basically murder of George Lloyd—that went viral in a way that they couldn't think of in '64, obviously, [without] the internet. It went around the world and inspired the same response; that's why I call this a Bull Connor moment.

And hopefully, it will have the same effect. I mean, that was a major law passed, the Civil Rights Act Of 1964. I refer to it in my song, "The Way It Is": "They passed a law in '64 to give those who ain't got a little more." 

You wrote the song "Sh*t's Crazy Out Here" about AAU basketball. Can you explain that connection?

If you're a serious basketball aspirant as a child, as a young hopeful, and you have a very solid to great talent, you're probably going to be playing in what's called grassroots basketball, summer basketball, also known as AAU basketball. AAU stands for the Amateur Athletic Union. My son, Keith, went through that crucible from age 10 to 18. This song comes from some of his experiences that he would tell me about. 

"Sh*t's Crazy Out Here" is a song about that dysphoria that occurs in this Darwinian world of summer AAU basketball, but it's also a metaphor for our crazy world now, and I feel strongly about that. But also, what may be of interest to some regarding this song is that to me, it's an odd musical juxtaposition of modern classical meets modern pop. I describe this song as Arnold Schoenberg and Elliot Carter meet The Beatles at the Boo Williams Sportsplex, which is the AAU basketball mecca of our area here in Hampton, Va.

Half of the songs on Non-Secure Connection were originally crafted while you were working on film scores for Spike Lee. What was it like getting exposed to his unique perspective and working with a different kind of music?

Well, I've been being exposed to Spike's unique perspectives for 28 years. We met in 1992 … The first time I worked with Spike, he directed a video for me for a song of mine off my fourth record called Harbor Lights, and the song is called "Talk Of The Town." It was actually one of those seven songs about race that I was previously referring to, and it's about the first interracial romance in my town and all the reaction to that. I've been working with him since '92.

Those five songs to which you're referring, they started off as film cues, as instrumental music, part of my score for various Spike movies in the last decade. I started doing this on my last record, Absolute Zero, and I've continued to do that. It was a new way of writing songs for me and took me to a different, more cinematic place for obvious reasons. I feel these two records, Absolute Zero and Non-Secure Connection, have that connection, that at least half of the songs come from that [film] world, hence the cinematic quality ...

[Spike is] an unswerving artiste, and he will go the extra length to get what he wants. That's always inspiring, and it makes me not want to settle in my own work. He has more stamina than two people in their 60s. He can just go and go all day, every day, from 5:00 in the morning to midnight—and then do it again, like I say, every day. He's a very inspiring person and just a great, longtime friend.

Film music is pretty conducive to storytelling. 

I think that's true. Since I tend to be a storyteller in song, I'm not much of a "woe is me" writer, if you understand what I'm saying. I'm not much into the confessional writing. I love a lot of people who've done that, but they would mine that area a lot better than I would. I've tended to be more of a storyteller, or I guess a commentator, on the current scene. So yes, I think a filmmaker's telling the story, using music to augment the emotional quality of the film, and I'm doing the same thing here.

Read: 'Score': Soundtracks take us on an emotional ride

You invited a wide spectrum of guest musicians to play on the album, including Jamila Woods and Vernon Reid on "Bright Star Cast." How did you get connected with them for that song?

I wanted a woman to sing with me on "Bright Star Cast," and our great friend from Jagjaguwar, Eric Davis, hooked us up with one of their artists named Jamila Woods.

I wasn't familiar with Jamila, but I went and listened to her music and thought, "Wow, I love it. It's a beautiful and great sound." She's also a wonderful poet … She added so much to that track, as did Vernon Reid. 

That track was a Spike Lee cue originally for a movie called Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus from 2014; Vernon played on the film version of that track. So I twisted and turned his performance around just a little bit to fit what we were doing, the song that I created on top of that piece of instrumental music and the film music. I've loved [Vernon] for years, a longtime friend and a great musician.

What did it mean to be able to pay tribute to your friend, Leon Russell, on "Anything Can Happen"? 

Leon Russell was one of the two pianists that I heard when I was younger that made me want to play the piano. The first was Elton John. The second was Leon; he was one of my early heroes.

I met him years later after we had our career going fairly solidly. I met him at The Palomino Club in the San Fernando Valley, L.A., when I lived out in that area in California. We ended up getting together for a Rolling Stone photoshoot that they asked us to be a part of. I asked him if he wanted to try to get back into the crazy music game, and he called me.

About four months later—this is 1988—he called and said, "Well, I'd like to try it if you can help me." I was able to get him a record deal at Virgin Records in 1990. In 1991, we made the record gradually over the course of that year, and it came out in '92. I think the first song that we wrote together was sparked by him asking me to write him a Barry White track.

I tried my best to effect a Barry White feeling on a musical track. Then I picked some words that he'd written for him out of this notebook that he had full of lyrics. He sang it incredibly well, and that was the title song of that record, "Anything Can Happen." 

In the end, I loved the demo we cut. This happens so often, that the demo is not really made much better, or it's actually made worse in the end, by polishing it too much. I always felt that the record we made was not as good as it could have been. I've always wanted to recut the song; this was my time to do it. We sampled a little bit of Leon from the original demo and flew it into the record. He's sort of a ghost behind me in the first part of the song. Then he comes in full force to sing harmonies with me at the end.

He passed about three or four years ago, and I spoke at his memorial service in Tulsa, Okla. Leon meant a lot to me, and we'd become good friends for many years. I guess it is truly a tribute to my old-hero-turned-friend.

Throughout your career, you've written albums in a variety of styles and have said that you're no trend-follower. Why do you feel it's still important to keep exploring in music even after 30-plus years?

I'd say it's not really about what's important. It's just a byproduct of a constant search for inspiration, a constant search for the new, a constant search for growing and evolving and improving your craft and your creativity over a long career period. And so, I guess I'm just intellectually, musically curious or musically, intellectually curious. And I'll deal with a broad range, stylistically, of music—from the most down-in-the-dirt, old-time folk and traditional music to the most avant-garde, atonal, modern classical music.

All of that is all that is used in my records. And some people really hate that, but I guess I'm not playing for that ... I'm not doing this for them. I'm doing this for people who are interested in a little bit of musical adventure. It's just the byproduct of my curiosity and, I guess you could say, insatiable search for new inspiration.

Terence Blanchard On The Music Behind 'Da 5 Bloods,' Working With Spike Lee And The Lasting Impact Of Marvin Gaye

 

Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

Rotimi

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

The Nigerian-American singer and actor sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about what inspired his latest album, 'Walk With Me'

GRAMMYs/Jul 8, 2019 - 10:04 pm

In 2015, Rotimi stepped into the New Orleans Superdome for the first time to experience the magic of ESSENCE Fest. Four years later, in 2019, the "Love Riddim" singer returned to the celebration as a performer, something he said was spoken into existence.

"Last year me and my manager had a conversation and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be on the [ESSENCE] mainstage this year. 365 days later, we did it," Rotimi told the Recording Academy at the 25th annual ESSENCE Fest.

Rotimi, also an actor on Starz' "Power," has evolved since his last album, 2017's Jeep Music, Vol.1. The singer said he really hit home with its follow-up, the recently released Walk With Me, a project he worked hard for, putting in hours in the studio after filming on set.

"Walk With Me is the first time I actually felt like I was giving myself as an artist, and personally I feel like with everything else I have going on I wanted to show people that this is really what I do," he said. "I wanted people to understand who Rotimi is, who Rotimi was before, who I want to be and just understand my growth and the journey and my passion for what I do."

Part of why the album felt like such a representation of him is because it embodies beats of his African roots, something he said was very present growing up Nigerian-American. 

"I grew up with a lot of Fela Kuti and I grew up with Bob Marley," he said of his musical roots. "But I also grew up with Carl Thomas and Genuine and Usher, so there was a genuine mixture of who I am and what I've grown up to listen to. The actual Walk With Me project was a mixture of influences of Akon and Craig David."

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Find Out Who's Nominated For Best Rap Album | 2020 GRAMMY Awards

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Find Out Who's Nominated For Best Rap Album | 2020 GRAMMY Awards

Dreamville, Meek Mill, 21 Savage, Tyler, The Creator, and YBN Cordae all earn nominations in the category

GRAMMYs/Nov 20, 2019 - 06:28 pm

The 2020 GRAMMYs are just around the corner, and now the nominations are in for the coveted honor of Best Rap Album. While we'll have to wait until the 62nd GRAMMY Awards air on CBS on Jan. 26 to find out who will win, let's take a look at which albums have been nominated for Best Rap Album.

Revenge of the Dreamers III – Dreamville                                                                        

 
This star-studded compilation album from 11-time GRAMMY nominee J. Cole and his Dreamville Records imprint features appearances from some of the leading and fastest-rising artists in hip-hop today, including label artists EARTHGANG, J.I.D, and Ari Lennox, plus rappers T.I, DaBaby, and Young Nudy, among many others. Recorded in Atlanta across a 10-day recording session, Revenge of the Dreamers III is an ambitious project that saw more than 300 artists and producers contribute to the album, resulting in 142 recorded tracks. Of those recordings, 18 songs made the final album, which ultimately featured contributions from 34 artists and 27 producers.

Dreamers III, the third installment in the label’s Revenge of the Dreamers compilation series, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart and achieved gold status this past July. In addition to a Best Rap Album nod, Dreamers III is also nominated for Best Rap Performance next year for album track “Down Bad,” featuring J.I.D, Bas, J. Cole, EARTHGANG, and Young Nudy.

Championships – Meek Mill

In many ways, Championships represents a literal and metaphorical homecoming for Meek Mill. Released in November 2018, Championships is the Philadelphia rapper’s first artist album following a two-year prison sentence he served after violating his parole in 2017. Championships, naturally, sees Meek tackling social justice issues stemming from his prison experience, including criminal justice reform. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, his second chart-topper following 2015’s Dreams Worth More Than Money, and reached platinum status in June 2019. Meek Mill's 2020 Best Rap Album nod marks his first-ever GRAMMY nomination.

i am > i was – 21 Savage

Breakout rapper and four-time GRAMMY nominee 21 Savage dropped i am > i was, his second solo artist album, at the end of 2018. The guest-heavy album, which features contributions from Post Malone, Childish Gambino, J. Cole, and many others, has since charted around the world, topped the Billboard 200 – a first for the artist – in the beginning of 2019, and achieved gold status in the U.S. As well, nine songs out of the album’s 15 original tracks landed on the Hot 100 chart, including multi-platinum lead single “A Lot,” which is also nominated for Best Rap Song next year. 21 Savage’s 2020 Best Rap Album nomination, which follows Record of the Year and Best Rap/Sung Performance nods for his 2017 Post Malone collaboration, "Rockstar,” marks his first solo recognition in the top rap category.

IGOR – Tyler, The Creator

The eccentric Tyler, The Creator kicked off a massive 2019 with his mid-year album, IGOR. Released this past May, IGOR, Tyler’s fifth solo artist album, is his most commercially successful project to date. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, marking his first time topping the coveted chart, while its lead single, "Earfquake,” peaked at No. 13, his highest entry on the Hot 100. Produced in full by Tyler and featuring guest spots from fellow rap and R&B stars Kanye West, Lil Uzi Vert, Solange, and Playboi Carti, among many others, IGOR follows the rapper’s 2017 album, Flower Boy, which received the Best Rap Album nod that same year.

The Lost Boy – YBN Cordae

Emerging rapper YBN Cordae, a member of the breakout YBN rap collective, released his debut album, The Lost Boy, to widespread critical acclaim this past July. The 15-track release is stacked with major collaborations with hip-hop heavyweights, including Anderson .Paak, Pusha T, Meek Mill, and others, plus production work from J. Cole and vocals from Quincy Jones. After peaking at No. 13 on the Billboard 200, The Lost Boy now notches two 2020 GRAMMY nominations: Best Rap Album and Best Rap Song for album track “Bad Idea,” featuring Chance the Rapper.

Brittany Howard, Brandi Carlile, Leon Bridges, 2 Chainz & More Join Small Business Live Benefit Livestream

Brittany Howard

Photo: C Brandon/Redferns/Getty Images

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Brittany Howard, Brandi Carlile, Leon Bridges, 2 Chainz & More Join Small Business Live Benefit Livestream

Proceeds from the event will be go toward loans to small businesses founded by people of color, with additional support to women-owned and immigrant-owned businesses, via Accion Opportunity Fund

GRAMMYs/Jun 16, 2020 - 04:13 am

This Saturday, June 20, artists including Brittany Howard, Brandi Carlile, Leon Bridges, 2 Chainz and more will come together for Small Business Live, a livestream fundraiser event for small businesses facing challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Proceeds from the livestream will go to Accion Opportunity Fund to support small businesses founded by people of color, with additional support to women-owned and immigrant-owned businesses.

“Entrepreneurs of color are denied credit more often and charged higher rates for money they borrow to fund their businesses. We need to accelerate support to underserved businesses in order to reach our full potential,” Accion Opportunity Fund CEO Luz Urrutia said. “We have to decide what we want our Main Streets to look like when this is over, and we must act decisively to keep small businesses alive and ready to rebuild. This is a fun way to do something really important. Everyone’s support will make a huge difference to small business owners, their families and employees who have been devastated by this pandemic, the recession, and centuries of racism, xenophobia and oppression.”

Tune in for Small Business Live Saturday, June 20 from 4:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. EDT on smallbiz.live. The site also provides a full schedule of programs and links to watch the livestream on all major digital platforms. To learn more about Accion Opportunity Fund, visit the organization's website.

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DJ Khaled, Nipsey Hussle And John Legend Win Best Rap/Sung Performance For "Higher" | 2020 GRAMMYs

DJ Khaled, Samantha Smith and John Legend

Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

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DJ Khaled, Nipsey Hussle And John Legend Win Best Rap/Sung Performance For "Higher" | 2020 GRAMMYs

DJ Khaled, Nipsey Hussle and John Legend take home Best Rap/Sung Performance at the 62nd GRAMMY Awards

GRAMMYs/Jan 27, 2020 - 09:05 am

DJ Khaled, featuring Nipsey Hussle and John Legend, has won Best Rap/Sung Performance for "Higher" at the 62nd GRAMMY Awards. The single was featured on DJ Khaled's 2019 album Father of Asahd and featured Hussle's vocals and Legend on the piano. DJ Khaled predicted the track would win a GRAMMY.

"I even told him, 'We're going to win a GRAMMY.' Because that's how I feel about my album," DJ Khaled told Billboard. "I really feel like not only is this my biggest, this is very special."

After the release of the song and music video -- which was filmed before Hussle's death in March -- DJ Khaled announced all proceeds from "Higher" will go to Hussle's children.

DJ Khaled and co. beat out fellow category nominees Lil Baby & Gunna ("Drip Too Hard"), Lil Nas X ("Panini"), Mustard featuring Roddy Ricch ("Ballin") and Young Thug featuring J. Cole & Travis Scott ("The London"). Hussle earned a second posthumous award at the 62nd GRAMMYs for Best Rap Performance for "Racks In The Middle." 

Along with Legend and DJ Khaled, Meek Mill, Kirk Franklin, Roddy Ricch and YG paid tribute to Hussle during the telecast, which concluded with "Higher."

Check out the complete 62nd GRAMMY Awards nominees and winners list here.