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Planet E's Carl Craig On Keeping Dance Music Black & Expansive New 'Planet E 30' Album
Carl Craig at Sala Apolo in Barcelona.

Photo: Cristian Di Stefano

interview

Planet E's Carl Craig On Keeping Dance Music Black & Expansive New 'Planet E 30' Album

"I've always been about taking risks," says Carl Craig, a Detroit techno forefather and the head of the label Planet E, "and staying independent, an independent Black-run company, because that doesn't happen very long."

GRAMMYs/Jun 28, 2022 - 01:32 pm

Carl Craig is one of Detroit techno's forefathers, and hearing him speak is like sitting down for class with the coolest history professor. The GRAMMY-nominated producer, DJ, multi-instrumentalist and label head has influenced history with his innovative dance and jazz records — and projects that meld both worlds — and shaped dance music culture through his Detroit Love parties as well as his independent, Black-owned label, Planet E.

For the amount of noise Planet E has made over the decades, it's almost surprising that the label is housed in a quiet, glass-walled Mies van der Rohe-designed townhome complex. The inner walls of Planet E are painted black, a nod to clubs and the underground Craig is so essential to, and is currently showcasing two pieces of art from Black artists — including a tender photo of Prince from his first show in the Motor City in 1980.  

His boundary-pushing dance music imprint is celebrating 30 years with the extensive Planet E 30 compilation album. Among its scene-shifting tracks is 1999's "Bug In The Bass Bin," which was sped up by U.K. DJs and became a foundational sound in the then-nascent drum and bass scene.

On the final day of legendary Detroit dance fest Movement, GRAMMY.com sat down with Craig at the sleek Planet E headquarters. He looks effortlessly cool in a black and white lightweight short sleeve button down shirt, black shorts, and chic oversized gray gradient shades as he discusses his label's milestone and its new compilation album. Craig also talks about the importance of celebrating techno's Black Detroit roots, his jazz explorations, bringing the Synthesizer Ensemble to Carnegie Hall, and much more. 

How does it feel being back at Movement and to have the festival back?

It's great. It's great to be able to do this again after two years off. The pandemic has passed by so fast, it doesn't really feel like it's been two years that we haven't had the festival. Being back on the [Movement] stage feels like it did the last episode, which was in 2018.

Why do you think Movement is so important to happen now, 40 years into techno's existence?

Movement is something that should always be here. It should be here to celebrate the music of Detroit. Detroit doesn't have a Motown festival or a punk festival — the origins of punk come from Detroit as well — but we do have a techno festival. Detroit techno is as rootsy to Detroit as Motown and the band called Death.

What do you think is missing in the modern dance music education for the average raver? Do you think everyone knows that techno comes from Detroit?

No, no. That's a fight that we have to keep fighting, [to educate people] that Detroit techno is grassroots Black music. Like every music, there're influences that come from everywhere; we get our influences from, of course, more famously Kraftwerk and, less famously, funk music. We have to always keep people abreast of what's going on, that we're making techno music in Detroit that is not only the real deal, but it's also the beginnings of how we know electronic music in the United States.

This is a big question, so feel free to unpack it as you wish. Could you speak to the legacy, impact and continuing influence of Black artists in dance music?

Dance music as we know it comes from African roots, that's just as folksy as it gets. It's not like doing square dance [chuckles] or doing the Riverdance or any of that kind of stuff, it is really based around solid African influences that came with the slaves, and that found other ways of coming over as well, whether it's from Fela Kuti and the whole Afrobeat style of music. And now from South Africa, there's Amapiano.

For most Black people in the United States, all they had was dance and music. So, to be able to get out of it out of the ghetto, it was either become a sports star or become a musician.

The great thing about Detroit is that because we have techno, we're more interested in being Dr. Dre than being Drake. So, at a production level, people are more willing to make music within that legacy of what the underground is.

Read more: Record Store Recs: DJ Carl Craig Selects Some Of His Detroit Faves & Talks Planet E's 30 Years Of Independence

So, making music less focused on radio or more mainstream audiences?

Yeah. Of course, if you can get a hit, then that's great. The publishing was really good on hits. [Laughs] But on a production level, it's about making great music. It's about making music that is within yourself, and that can translate.

So we here [in Detroit] have grabbed hold of making dance music and making it electro style, or disco style, or house style, or techno style or whatever. And it's important to influence people so that they understand that it is a style of music that is from people with an African background. Of course that gets lost in the shuffle because EDM — it's become a generic term — but it's not really the style of music that you would associate with Black artists until, I think Rick Ross did a track with Skrillex [in 2016].

I love the fact that many rap producers know who Moodymann is, and they knew him before Drake sampled him [on 2017's "Passionfruit"].

What excites you now about what the young Detroit kids and other Black artists are doing in dance music?

I'm happy that Waajeed is doing the Underground Music Academy. That's really important for the next step of production here in Detroit. Because, at a time, it seemed like producing in Detroit — in the U.S. — it seemed like being a Black person wanting to get in the music business, you had to do rap music. J Dilla proved that you can do rap music, but you can be underground as well, you can make all this amazing music and you can cross over.

That's what I've always done, making jazz, making techno, making anything. I've always crossed over genres. And that's what I'd like to see more in Detroit, that kids realize that they have the possibility to crossover and do anything that's musically interesting to them.

What does being able to celebrate 30 years of Planet E mean to you?

I mean, to do anything for 30 years is major. To be alive for 30 years, for some people that's a feat, let alone being in the music industry [for that long]. I wrote my own story. That was what was important — I decided I had to have my own label in order to really have a voice.

Some songs, like "Bug In The Bass Bin," for instance, would never have been released if it was through another label, because…it was somewhere else, it came from outer space. If I tried to put that record out through a Detroit independent, it probably wouldn't have come out. And if I tried to put it out to a major, it definitely would not have come out, it just would've been another demo. So, I put it out myself and then it made waves, got to the right people's hands and the rest is history.

What are you most proud of from your Planet E journey?

The risks. I've always been about taking risks, and staying independent, an independent Black-run company, because that doesn't happen very long. The only Black-run label that has been around for [at least] 30 years — and it's not even owned by Black people anymore — is Motown. It's important being a Detroit label and being around for so long. I'm really proud.

What are you hoping that listeners get when they experience the Planet E 30 compilation album?

It is just a way of chronicling the steps that we've taken. We really spent a lot of time on Planet E 20; we did a boxset, it was really a big undertaking. And for this one, we've had new releases over the last 10 years, but we hadn't done maybe as much as we had in the first 20. Part of that has to do with the record industry changing; streaming. We're proudly a vinyl label, and it's really difficult to get vinyl pressed these days.

So, [Planet E 30] is to give people the idea that there are some things that they probably did miss over the last 10 years since we did Planet E 20. [The tracks are] really more from the past 10 years, plus my music, which has been from the beginning of Planet E.

What have been some of your favorite releases on Planet E?

[Deep chuckle] I A&R the label, so everything is from my choosing. And I never choose based on commerce. I base it more on the idea, the intent of the label, plus my taste and what I just think is good. So I can't say that I liked Clark better than I liked Kirk DiGiorgio, better than I liked Moodymann, better than I liked Niko Marks; it's all something that I enjoy.

I know, it's like asking you to pick your favorite child, you can't do that.

[When people ask] "What's my favorite song that I've released?" That's exactly what I say, "I love all my children." One is not more interesting than the others.

Are there any responses to Planet E releases that have surprised you?

When I put out Moodymann [his debut album, Silentintroduction, in 1997] what surprised me is when I was in New York at a restaurant and they were playing it. And they said, "Yeah, the chef loves this." I don't know if they knew I was coming, but that was a big, big surprise.

My releases, I put out and just let them happen. And then if it's a big deal, it's a big deal. When I put out "Throw" [as Paperclip People in 1994], it was a track that I did while I was watching the Super Bowl one year. I had it on acetate, and I played it out in London and the whole place exploded. That was a really nice feeling.

Planet E feels very boundaryless and you definitely push that with the genres and styles that you bring in. I'm really curious about how you've brought jazz and orchestral arrangements into electronic music in your work, and specifically to Planet E.

We used to have jazz radio here called WJZZ — every major city had a jazz station, like a serious jazz station, not a public radio one. I grew up listening to the jazz station when I was with my dad, and with my brother, he liked rock and funk, so I was listening to Led Zeppelin and Parliament Funkadelic. With classical music, I've always been interested in the whole thing about muzak, like the music that Ramsey Lewis was doing, with a jazz version of "Eleanor Rigby" or something, with a swooning orchestra. Call it elevator music, I love elevator music. I think it's great.

I like symphonic music from that standpoint; from the beginning, that is what was interesting. When I was in high school, I played upright bass in an orchestra. I also played jazz band and played guitar. So my background comes from playing these interesting styles that weren't necessarily normal for my age group. [Chuckles]

I love all kinds of music. So me working with [pianist] Francesco Tristano on Versus is amazing, me working with [trumpeter] Marcus Belgrave, [saxophonist] Wendell Harrison, [trombonist] Phil Ranelin and [drummer] Doug Hammond of Tribe [for their 2009 Rebirth album] is amazing, to the Detroit Experiment with Bennie Maupin, Jaribu Shahid, Karriem Riggins, Amp Fiddler and Francisco Mora Catlett and all these guys. I mean, it's unbelievable. I'm at a position where I feel I've been able to express everything that I can as a Gemini.

Do you feel any connection between playing music in a jazz setting and being a DJ, where you're helming the vibe and the mood?

I've been DJing since 1991. So it's gotten to the point that I look at DJing first, in comparison to being a musician first. Before, when I started making records, I would get suggestions from DJs like, "Hey, you need to have four bars of just kick drums so we can mix into it." I thought, What? Why would you do four bars of kick drum? That doesn't make any sense creatively. I'm not making hammers and nails, I'm making art here.

Of course, after DJing for some years, I understood why they would want it. But I see it now how most dance music tracks that you get have this intro of drums so that it makes it easy for beginner DJs to mix in. Even though I'm a mix DJ, I still come from that world of how [vinyl] records were made where you scratch in and then the track is there and you might have a drum turnover or something like that, and then you can [makes chucka chooo vinyl scratching sound] go right into it.

So I still think in that way, but because I'm looking at the dance floor, how I'm playing, it does come back with me to the studio when I'm working. And I don't particularly like that. It's my life, but I have to separate myself from it to be able to go in and do what is actually best for the track, best for my creativity. I've never sat in the studio like "I betcha people will dance to this." But I do find myself closer to that situation now than I had in the past. 

I wanted to ask about your Synthesizer Ensemble and what it was like bringing it to Carnegie Hall.

That was incredible. My great friend King Britt invited me to be a part of the Afrofuturism Festival that he was involved in organizing. It's a beautiful project that he has. For us to do the Synthesizer Ensemble there was maybe the perfect venue in America for it. It was my great pleasure to be able to come to Carnegie and do something as special as that project and for Afrofuturism to be recognized in that way.

Seth Troxler On His Detroit DJ Education & The Rich Black History—& Future—Of Dance Music

Movement Announces Twitch Partnership & Virtual Fest With Kevin Saunderson's Inner City, Maceo Plex & More

Kevin Saunderson

Photo: Matt Cowan/Getty Images for Coachella

news

Movement Announces Twitch Partnership & Virtual Fest With Kevin Saunderson's Inner City, Maceo Plex & More

Movement Selects Vol. 1 will feature Detroit techno forefathers Juan Atkins, Eddie Fowlkes and Kevin Saunderson's Inner City, as well as Texas-born dark house heavy-weight Maceo Plex, rising Palestinian techno queen Sama' Abdulhadi and more

GRAMMYs/Sep 17, 2020 - 04:46 am

Detroit's Movement Music Festival and Paxahau, the independent producer of the fest, announced an exclusive partnership with video streaming giant Twitch. Paxahau.TV will be home to their new weekly programming, as well as four virtual festivals dubbed Movement Selects.

Movement Selects Vol. 1 will feature Detroit techno forefathers Juan Atkins, Eddie Fowlkes and Kevin Saunderson's Inner City, as well as Texas-born dark house heavyweight Maceo Plex, rising Palestinian techno queen Sama' Abdulhadi and more. It will take place between 4:00 p.m.-10:00 p.m ET Sept. 25 and 26. Details for the following three events will be announced soon.

Read: Afro Nation Co-Founders Smade & Obi Asika Talk Festival Origins, Uniting The African Diaspora & Celebrating Diversity

The weekly Panxahau Twitch content will include DJs set and podcast shows, including "Remote," featuring DJ sets and performances by artists and collectives from Detroit and beyond, "streaming from unique locations and spaces." "Paxahau HQ" will serve up "visually immersive DJ sets and performances" from their headquarters and "Paxachat" will be a variety show consisting of conversations, panels, studio sessions and more.

"The Twitch community brings a unique energy to live streaming that we didn't find anywhere else," Paxahau president Jason Huvaere said in a statement. "We're excited for the opportunity to work with the Twitch team and give [their] community of 17.5 million average daily visitors a chance to experience what makes Movement and Detroit dance music culture so special."

The world-renowned electronic music festival co-founded by Detroit techno legend Carl Craig—in the city where techno was born—has brought major DJ/producers to Hart Plaza every Memorial Day Weekend since 2000, except this year, of course. In its place, Craig and many other big-name Movement regulars brought the energy in a free virtual stream that fundraised for MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund.  

Detroit-based events company Panaxau has produced the kinetic event since 2006. Because of COVID-19, the 20th edition was originally rescheduled to the weekend Sept. 11, and now will (hopefully) be taking place May 29-31, 2021.

Follow Paxahau on Twitch for their latest schedule updates.

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A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She See & Moniquea
Franc Moody

Photo: Rachel Kupfer 

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A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She See & 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.

GRAMMYs/Nov 25, 2022 - 04:23 pm

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

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

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

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

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.

The Rise Of Underground House: How Artists Like Fisher & Acraze Have Taken Tech House, Other Electronic Genres From Indie To EDC

Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage
Billy Idol

Photo: Steven Sebring

interview

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."

GRAMMYs/Nov 25, 2022 - 04:19 pm

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 Bamback 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].

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5 Essential Nu-Metal Albums: How Slipknot, Korn, Deftones & Others Showcased Adolescent Rage With A Dramatic Flair
Slipknot performs during opening night of the Ozzfest 2001 in Chicago

Photo: Scott Gries/ImageDirect

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5 Essential Nu-Metal Albums: How Slipknot, Korn, Deftones & Others Showcased Adolescent Rage With A Dramatic Flair

While nu-metal is sometimes remembered as a throw-away genre, many of its elements were groundbreaking at the time. GRAMMY.com collected the essential albums that best define nu-metal's aggression and innovation.

GRAMMYs/Nov 23, 2022 - 03:46 pm

Around the turn of the millennium, adolescent rage was personified by an anarchic blend of rap and rock, which gave birth to a new genre: nu-metal. The genre was severely theatrical, melding the brash, guitar-forward instrumentation and screaming lyricism of metal with rap’s poetic delivery and drum machines.

Nu-metal took cues from early '90s alternative scenes where thrash-inspired bands such as Faith No More, Nine Inch Nails, Primus and Ministry mixed industrial, electronic, and metal music to create a dark, moody sound. Nu-metal took this further, often employing slow tempos, down-tuned guitars, and distorted string instruments. Groups such as Cypress Hill, Korn and Linkin Park featured a DJ and incorporated rapping.

While nu-metal was ripe for a wide variety of expression, the genre generally promoted individualism, breaking with tradition, and political anarchy. Its lyrics combined hip-hop's political history and metal's brutal aggression to create a sound that resonated with disaffected, sometimes isolated —  a clear deviation away from the proto-masculine themes of 1980s metal. Singers like Korn's Jonathan Davis expanded upon pervasive post-9/11 pessimism, tackling complex subjects like child abuse, suicidal thoughts, and depression. Other groups adopted imagery from horror icons H. R. Geiger (whose work inspired Alien) and Spawn comic creator Todd McFarlane.

Unlike metal in the '80s or grunge in the '90s, nu-metal was not dominated by caucasian men. Nu-metal's experimental incorporation of rap widened the genre's audience, bringing in Black and brown fans who might not otherwise listen to rock. Female-fronted bands like Evanescence, Kitty, and In This Moment were pivotal to the genre’s dominance of festival circuits and merchandise, appealing to both sexes with strong female singers  whose intensity and aggression matched that of their male counterparts. Deftones — who fused Chicano sartorial aesthetics and lowrider iconography with goth culture — along with Fear Factory, P.O.D., and Rage Against the Machine, were fronted by Latinos. All System of Down members are of Armenian descent.

Nu-metal was as much a look as it was a musical genre, uniting fans in spiked hair, Adidas jumpsuits, and JNCO jeans. The fashion sense, ideology, and in-your-face aggression of the genre’s musicality were personified by an intense commitment to the act. The members of Korn wore dreadlocks, black nail polish, unkempt facial hair, and baggy clothes. Slipknot took it one step further, donning disturbing yet mesmerizing masks, each one invoking the historical plague masks, horror icons, and at times, the darkness members felt inside them. 

While nu-metal is sometimes remembered as a throw-away genre during a low point in alternative music — due in part to the legal issues and problematic public perception of nu-metal acts like Marilyn Manson, Limp Bizkit, and Kid Rock —  many of its elements were groundbreaking at the time. Nu-metal groups including Korn and Slipknot, who released a new album this year, continue to resonate with listeners. GRAMMY.com collected the essential albums that best define nu-metal's aggression and innovation.

Korn - Korn (1994)

Nu-metal was formed and led by Korn, who was at the forefront of the genre’s move to mainstream music in the 1990s. Over 14 studio albums, the band solidified the brash musicality of their signature sound — often melding rap/rock lyricism of bands like Cypress Hill with lyrics about alienation and loneliness. James "Munky" Shaffer and Brian "Head" Welchplayed seven-string guitars through a bevy of pedals, incorporating funk-laden bass lines that distinguished the California group from metal bands of the previous decade.

These experimental leanings were evident from the band’s self-titled debut album, released six years before the genre broke into the mainstream. The album's cover laid the groundwork for what awaited listeners, an album filled with disturbing lyrics on childhood abuse and real-life boogie men. A little girl sits on a swing, motionless, peering up at a monstrous figure we only see by the outline of his shadow. From the moment Davis scream, "Are you reaaaddyyyy!!" on the opening track, "Blind," like it or not, you are on an 11-track crash course towards existential hell.

Rage Against the Machine - Evil Empire (1996)

Of all the nu-metal bands that leaned on hip-hop’s legacy, Rage Against the Machine did so with the most authenticity and reverence. (Frontman Zach de la Rocha was well regarded within hip-hop circles, often being asked to tour and collaborate with acts like KRS-One, Chuck D, the Roots, and Saul Williams.) RATM was also one of the most political bands of the era, whose far-left, militaristic lyrics railed against capitalism, colonialism, military intervention abroad, and class warfare —  all socio-political issues in the daily headlines during the late '90s and early 2000s.

Evil Empire was made during a period of vicious infighting among the group, which had just wrapped three years of touring on the success of their debut album. What culminated was an album motivated by the band’s distinct multicultural backgrounds and stubborn, idealistic stances on sound and theme. Songs like "People of the Sun," "Bulls on Parade" and "Down Rodeo" were liberation songs for the underclasses and oppressed. Its liner notes thanked writers and cultural critics Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Abbie Hoffman, and Norman Mailer. 

With Evil Empire, RATM solidified itself as a band for the people and cut one of the great musical manifestos in the process. The populist political advocacy the band pursued in the early '90s was a precursor to contemporary American sentiment where many are overwhelmed by student loan debt, low-paying jobs, inequity and housing instability.

Deftones - White Pony (2000)

On their third release, Deftones embraced the anti-traditionalist mentality of the genre to make an anti-nu-metal album. White Pony tracks like "Adrenaline" and "Around the Fur" were a tonal shift away from the genre’s darkness, favoring melody and romanticism.

Musically, the album had more in common with shoegaze than hip-hop or rap. The guitars were tuned lower than on "Around the Fur," and the album’s only single, "Change (In the House of Flies)," sounded more like the Cure or Depeche Mode than Linkin Park or Limp Bizkit. Moreno sings in a sensual, reverb-drenched wail and adds a soft layer to tracks like "Feiticiera" and "Knife Prty." The album is ethereal and dream-like, thanks to the band stacking effect petals and creating a multi-textured sound. Rather than stand in defiance to nu-metal, White Pony characterizes how diverse and broad the genre’s influences are. 

Slipknot - Iowa (2001)

As macabre as the members of Slipknot looked in their straight-jacket jumpsuits and torture-porn masks, their music was even more brutal. Slipknot embodied the pain many teenagers felt from school bullying and conservative values and encapsulated it by turning into a nightmarish group of nine mask-wearing maniacs delivering musical filth.

Their sophomore album, Iowa, was named after the band's birthplace while delivering their career's heaviest and darkest album. P"When we did ‘Iowa,’ we hated each other. We hated the world; the world hated us. Hate is the optimum word when describing the ethos of Slipknot," percussionist Shawn Crahan recalled

Hate also fueled Slipknot's lyrical content and stage presence. This is never more apparent than on the album’s second track, "People=Shit," which is a spiritual successor to philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s infamous line, "Hell is other people" in his 1944 play, "No Exit." Alternative Press described the album as "like having a plastic bag taped over your head for an hour while Satan uses your [privates] as a speedbag." 

System of a Down - Toxicity (2001)

After 9/11, America was searching for a place to project its sense of anger, sadness, and fragility. Mosques were attacked. Middle Easterners were profiled at airports. Out of this xenophobic muck, System of a Down emerged as a voice against the warmongering of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars. "Toxicity" was released mere days after 9/11, but it presupposed the feelings of American interventionism that would permeate our country’s news cycle for the next two decades.

Musically, the album mined influences from pro-rock, funk, jazz, hip-hop, and alternative metal, to create a sound that was impossible to define. The band used Middle Eastern instruments like sitar, as well as banjos and pianos to create ballads on love, spirituality, police brutality, and third-world politics. Serj Tankian’s vocals resembled the stream-of-consciousness, automatic writing of Beat poets one minute and then the balladry of Leonard Cohen in the next. 

System of a Down were similar to RATM in their incorporation of hip-hop’s political poetry, but   they spun this influence so far that the connective tissue is almost impossible to trace. SOAD was louder and more abrasive than other bands with hip-hop influences, but they could turn melodic at the stop of a dime, creating a flippant, surreal journey into a psychedelic symphony that showed the breadth of nu-metals expression. 

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