meta-scriptCelebrating Missy Elliott: How The Icon Changed The Sound, Look & Language Of Hip-Hop | GRAMMY.com
Missy Elliott performs onstage during the Lovers & Friends music festival at the Las Vegas Festival Grounds on May 06, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Missy Elliot

Photo: Aaron J. Thornton

interview

Celebrating Missy Elliott: How The Icon Changed The Sound, Look & Language Of Hip-Hop

In celebration of Missy Elliott's incredible legacy — and very first headlining tour, which kicks off July 4 — GRAMMY.com spoke with Missy's colleagues and collaborators for an insider’s view on what makes the four-time GRAMMY winner unique.

GRAMMYs/Jul 1, 2024 - 03:52 pm

We’re fortunate enough to be living in the middle of a Missy Elliott resurgence — not that she ever went away.

Three decades into her groundbreaking career, Missy is readying her very first headlining tour, which begins July 4 in Vancouver, British Columbia. The Out of This World Tour runs through August and features her longtime collaborators Timbaland, Busta Rhymes, and Ciara.

The fact that it is her first headlining tour may be surprising, given that she’s been on the scene since debuting with the group Sista in the mid-1990s, and has been a chart-topping star since becoming a solo artist in 1997.

The hip-hop icon released her last full-length album, The Cookbook, nearly two decades ago but time hasn’t diminished her influence at all. In fact, we’re all still catching up to the futuristic vision that Missy and Timbaland introduced to the world in the late 1990s in their songs and videos.

Missy began her career as a member of Sista, which was a part of the Swing Mob, a musical collective working under Jodeci’s DeVanté Swing. That crew included a number of future world-changers, including Missy, Timbaland, Ginuwine, Tweet, Stevie J., and two legends who have since passed on, Magoo and Static Major. After Sista was dropped from their label, Missy, by all accounts, would have been perfectly happy to settle into a life as a songwriter and producer. But something bigger was beckoning. 

Persuaded by Elektra’s Sylvia Rhone with the promise of her own label, Missy agreed to turn in one album as a solo artist. That album, 1997’s Supa Dupa Fly, made Missy not just a star but an icon, and changed the course of her life. It began a career that, over a quarter-century later, found her inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame — she was the first female rapper ever to be nominated for the latter.

And that’s just the beginning of the accolades. There are the four GRAMMY wins and head-spinning 22 nominations. She was also honored alongside Dr. Dre, Lil Wayne (who has not been shy about calling Missy his favorite rapper), and the woman who gave Missy her first solo record deal, Sylvia Rhone, at 2023’s Black Music Collective’s Recording Academy Honors event. Missy was also a key participant in the GRAMMYs tribute to a half-century of hip-hop that same year.

Throughout it all, Missy has remained humble. When speaking to GRAMMY.com in 2022, she reflected on how she and longtime collaborator Timbaland had no idea of their impact at the time.

"We really just came out with a sound that we had been doing for some time, but we had no clue that it would be game changing, that we would change the cadence — the sound of what was happening at that time," she said. "No clue!"

"Her whole existence is based on moving us and influencing us," says her longtime manager Mona Scott-Young. "She wants to be able to touch people."

And that she has. To celebrate the Missy-aissance, GRAMMY.com spoke with Missy's colleagues and collaborators for an insider’s view on the course of her career and what makes the four-time GRAMMY winner unique. 

The quotes and comments used in this feature were edited for clarity and brevity.

Missy’s Impact Began With Her First Guest Verse 

The first time many people took note of Missy Elliott was her verse on the 1996 remix of Gina Thompson’s "That Thing You Do."  

Gina Thompson (singer): I was in the process of completing my first album, Nobody Does It Better. Actually, it was complete. So what happened was, my A&R at the time, Bruce Carbone at Mercury Records, wanted to have Puffy do the remix.

Puffy was like, "We have this person that's really talented. Her name's Missy, and she used to be with the group Sista, and she's a phenomenal writer. She's working with a lot of other artists, she’s definitely the next big thing in the R&B/hip-hop world." We were like, cool.

I believe we actually heard it over the speaker phone in Bruce’s office. I know that I said that I loved it, and I felt her style was unique and different. It grew on me in a great way. I just felt like it was a smash. She definitely had added a great touch to it. I was super-excited about it.

Merlin Bobb (former Executive Vice President, Elektra Records): I was blown away by the simple fact that I knew she was a great songwriter. But when I heard her rhyming, I thought it was the most unique style that I had heard in some time.

Digital Black (former member of Playa, part of the Swing Mob): A lot of people only knew her as a writer or an R&B artist, but when she came on that Gina Thompson record with that rap, it changed everything. It allowed her to be even more herself.

Mona Scott-Young (manager): Oh my God, have you heard that song? It’s her ability to use expression and evoke emotion without even using words. She said, "He he he haw," and we all found a new way to bounce. There was something fun and magical and different that spoke to what we would come to know was this incredibly vivid imagination that would take us places sonically and visually that we didn’t even know we needed to be. 

Read more: 50 Artists Who Changed Rap: Jay-Z, The Notorious B.I.G., Dr. Dre, Nicki Minaj, Kendrick Lamar, Eminem & More 

She Changed The Sound Of Hip-Hop With Her Debut LP 

Missy’s first solo album, Supa Dupa Fly, came out the following year. It gave new energy to a hip-hop scene that was still reeling from the deaths of 2Pac and Biggie.

Anne Kristoff (former Vice President of PR, Elektra): She 100 percent did not want to be an artist. She's like, "I'm not an artist. I want to be Diane Warren. I'm going to write the songs. I'm going to be behind the scenes."

Merlin Bobb: I started talking to her regarding being an artist. She was totally against it. "No, I want to be a songwriter." And also, just to be honest, [Sista] had been dropped from Elektra prior to my conversations with her, so she wasn't too eager, I think, to jump back aboard.

It took about six or seven months of us discussing ways to do this. I spoke to Sylvia [Rhone, then-head of Elektra], and I said, "She's an incredible songwriter. Let's offer her a production deal or a label deal where she can not only just look at herself as an artist, but at the same time develop and nurture artists under her own banner." Sylvia thought it was a great idea. 

We both talked to Missy about it, and she said, "Okay, I'll do one album." I was ecstatic because she was writing some great songs, but she also gave us her first album, which was, needless to say, a classic.

Kathy Iandoli (author, "God Save the Queens: The Essential History of Women in Hip-Hop and Baby Girl: Better Known as Aaliyah"): In God Save the Queens, I referred to her as the Andy Warhol of hip-hop, in the sense that she took the art and the cultural aspect of it, and she just put this spin and interpretation of the art that no one had ever really done prior.

With Missy’s arrival around ‘97, we were at a point in time where hip-hop was in a complete state of confusion. We did not know where it was going to go. Missy made high art hip-hop that was commercially accessible. And for that, she changed the entire game. 

Gina Thompson: When she had her first project with the whole vision — not only her sound, but her songwriting style, the look — everyone was like, "This girl went out on edge. I'm gonna do a little bit of the same thing and not be so worried if I don't sound so average, what people are going to think. Because she's out on the edge doing it." And I promise you, ever since she came out, that you started hearing a lot more of female rappers tweaking their voices.

Lenny Holmes (guitarist): In hip-hop, everybody would think that it's a whole bunch of computer generated stuff. Missy Elliott does not approach it like that. She loves live instrumentation, but she likes to take bits and pieces of it. She simplifies it, and it is placed uniquely in the track at certain points. That's what makes up the structure of the song.   

Mona Scott-Young: Everything from the way she looked to what she was talking about to the way she delivered that music and what she represented in terms of being nonconforming, not looking like the other female rappers of the day — I think all of those elements were the perfect lightning in a bottle. The way she rode that beat, both lyrically and with her delivery, was very, very different from everything else that we were hearing. 

Read more: Revisiting 'Supa Dupa Fly' At 25: Missy Elliott Is Still Inspired By Her Debut Record 

She Reinvented The Music Video 

You can’t think of Missy Elliott without picturing her iconic music videos, many done in collaboration with director Hype Williams. 

Brian Greenspoon (former International Publicist, Elektra): I mean, she came out of the gate wearing a garbage bag, and made it the coolest thing anyone had ever seen. 

Merlin Bobb: She said, if I put out this album — initially we were talking about a single deal, but we went into an album — there’s two things very important to me: the dance aspect and the visual aspect.

Kathy Iandoli: The thing that I really loved about Missy's music videos, she was a big budget music video person. She got the men's music video budget.

Anne Kristoff: When you think about the "Rain" video — I'm just guessing, I don't want to put words in her mouth — but I think when she saw that the vision in her head could become real out in the world, that anything she could think of could happen, that maybe it made it a little more fun for her to be an artist. I hope.

Digital Black: Missy is one of the funniest people you’ll ever meet. People maybe don't know. She loves joking. So that was just her being her. 

Gina Thompson: You started seeing a lot of people doing certain robotic-type images or moves in their videos to almost mimic her "Supa Dupa Fly." She’s the creator of that.

Earl Baskerville (manager/producer): Missy would get with the director, and she would sit there and go over the whole treatment. A lot of the visuals came from her. She was very hands on. Today, you can shoot a video in four or five hours. But Missy’s video shoots was so long, I used to hate it. We would be there fifteen hours for a three minute video!

She Was Avant-Garde But Still Pop 

Missy’s musical and visual style was like nothing anyone had ever seen. Yet she still became a star. How did she manage to be both innovative and accessible? 

Kathy Iandoli: You can't make something that the general public can't access, or speak over their heads.

Digital Black: Even if you said it sounded weird, it still had some soulfulness to it. I think that was what allowed her to touch so many different people. 

Merlin Bobb: When you have an artist that stands out, but it doesn't go over your head musically, artistically, lyrically, then it works. People, when they heard and experienced something new and fresh that was easy to digest, but it was unique, they gravitated to it. 

Brian Greenspoon: How was it sold to a mass audience? I mean, the sound was breakthrough. What Timbaland was doing with drum sounds, and the way they were building these very sparse rhythms and sound beds, they were breaking ground. But the thing that worked is that they had these incredible songs that Missy was writing and that she had these incredible featured artists on. 

Gina Thompson: To try to figure out what her brain is doing, I’ve been gave that up.

Earl Baskerville: Nobody could figure out what we were doing, because they couldn’t understand the sound.

Lenny Holmes: Her rhythmic style of how she would do the vocals was just unheard of. Like, doubling up accents. The things that she started doing — you would hear a deejay do a scratch on a record. You would not hear a singer do it. I was like, What in the world?

Anne Kristoff: She was doing these really creative things that no one else was doing visually. And the sound was different than whatever everyone else was doing. So it wasn't a hard sell for the press.

She Was A Master At Working With Other Artists 

Missy was far more than just a solo star. All throughout her career, she continued her first love: writing and producing for other artists — including Ciara, Aaliyah, Destiny’s Child, and Whitney Houston. 

Lenny Holmes: Missy had a great relationship with singers and rappers, because she could do both. A lot of people don’t know, but Missy can sing. So when we worked with groups that had singing parts on them, a lot of times she would go ahead and lay down the guide track for the actual artist to sing.

Kathy Iandoli: Missy just really understood the artists that she worked with. She saw their strengths, and she helped them utilize them to the best of their capabilities. 

Angelique Miles (former music publishing executive): She was able to relate to the artist and express that artist. She was able to customize and express that artist's story. Whatever she wrote for 702 didn’t sound like what she wrote for Whitney Houston. 

Digital Black: She was good at listening to the artist, seeing what they do, and then, how can you enhance what they do well? Those are the best records. She was great at tailor-making records for people, just from her doing her due diligence on learning who the artist is. Not just going in, "I’m Missy, I can write whatever." I'm gonna write something specifically for you that enhances what you’ve already done.

Merlin Bobb: She would have made an incredible A&R person. I would have hired her back then. She was able to come up with lyrics and melodies and songs and chords and production that to me stood out. She worked with both male and female artists. She really knew how to get an artist not only to sing a great song, but to sing very uniquely and in their own way, because she was a great vocal production coach.

Mona Scott-Young: She's always listening beyond what we hear. Even if there's a song an artist has [that she’s not involved with], she'll say, "Yeah, I would have done this thing differently with this artist. Because if you listen to what she did on this one part of the song, you can hear that there's more range there. But for some reason they didn't push her to go there." That to me is just one of the things that makes her such a great producer and star finder, because she always is looking for what more they can do and how they can challenge themselves to be better.

Earl Baskerville: She had signed an artist that I used to manage named Mocha. And she told Mocha to go in there and just rap. I think Mocha might have did 30-something bars, 60 bars. know. Missy listened to all of the stuff she did, took it, and dissected it. She went in there and took eight bars, not from the beginning of the track — I don’t know where she found it, in the middle or something — and put it on the Nicole Wray record "Make It Hot." When Mocha comes in, that’s actually the middle of the verse somewhere! That was crazy to me.  

Her First Love Was Always Songwriting 

Through it all, Missy’s strength remained (and remains) her songwriting. But what makes her songs stand out, and stand the test of time? 

Earl Baskerville: Missy didn’t want to be an artist. She just wanted to be a songwriter. 

Merlin Bobb: Her songwriting was very soulful, but it also had great melodic edge to it. They’re very realistic lyrics to a young scene that was happening in R&B and hip-hop at the time. So it was somewhat of a fusion of R&B and hip-hop lyrically, and she just had a very strong sense of melody and great hook lines.

Mona Scott-Young: She wasn't talking about the same thing that we were hearing from a lot of the other females in the genre at the time — overt sexuality and material possessions and that kind of stuff. She was engaging, having a good time lyrically, and holding her own with her male counterparts. 

She was giving us music that was great, and it didn't matter that it was coming from a female. She was kind of this androgynous being that was delivering great music. You listen to the song, you just want to party.

Read more: Missy Elliott Makes History As First Female Rapper Nominated For Songwriters Hall Of Fame 

She Changed The Artists Who Came After Her 

As with all major innovations, it didn’t take long after Missy broke big for her influence to be felt. 

Kathy Iandoli: The special relationship between Aaliyah, Missy, and Timbaland was the fact that together they all created a new sound that would set the standard of hip-hop and what we now define as alt-R&B. They invented a new subgenre. It was something that Missy was able to continue along and then create a sound on her own terms. 

Gina Thompson: Many people were trying to emulate her whole different style.

Lenny Holmes: [Were people copying her?] Most definitely. But there's only one Missy. And I got to say, there’s only one Timbaland too. You hear that trademark voice or the trademark lick, and you just know that's them. 

Brian Greenspoon: I think she influenced just about everybody that came after her. The sound of hip-hop changed after her and Timbaland dropped that music. The way the people produced their drum sounds and their beats, the use of hi hats, it all changed based on Missy and Timbaland.

Merlin Bobb: Most hip-hop/R&B collaborations at that time were hip-hop records with vocal hooks from R&B artists. She kind of flipped it, where she worked from the R&B side and made the vocals and the production more hip-hop friendly.

Mona Scott-Young: Her whole existence is based on moving us and influencing us. She wants to be able to touch people. So when we see artists who you can hear or see the influence, then you know that she's done her job.

There's so many artists — Flyana Boss, a little bit Cardi, a little bit Nicki. They all, I think, have been influenced by Missy, her look, her sound, in one way, shape or form. And that is the greatest compliment, to inspire a generation and see them take what you've done to another level. But then she's constantly also evolving and keeping everyone on their toes.

Learn more: 8 Ways Aaliyah Empowered A Generation Of Female R&B Stars

Considering Missy And Her Legacy 

Everyone interviewed for this piece had so much love for Missy. Here’s a small sample.

Brian Greenspoon: Missy is one of the most professional, talented, creative artists I've ever had the luck to work with. I'm happy to see that she is being recognized for being the icon that we all saw that she was becoming back then. 

Lenny Holmes: Even today, in whatever we're doing, we use what we've learned from Missy Elliott. It’s mixed in whatever we do. It’s amazing what she has done for herself, but she has definitely helped people along the way, and we will forever be grateful to her.

Digital Black: She's a one-of-one, God-given talent. She earned every award, every accolade, accomplishment. Her work ethic was phenomenal, and nothing was given. Big sis earned everything, and I just want to say I love her, and it's been a pleasure and an honor to be a part of her career.

Kathy Iandoli: There’s so much of the art that we have right now that we have to thank her for.

Mona Scott-Young: This has been an incredible journey. I always talk about being incredibly blessed to have had the opportunity to play a role when you have somebody like her who has touched so many people globally and whose music and entire presence hold this special place in fans’ hearts. 

Every day it's just about, how do we continue to push forth, break boundaries, challenge ourselves to do things bigger and better than we did it the last go round.  

Explore The Artists Who Changed Hip-Hop

Denzel Curry press photo
Denzel Curry

Photo: Giovanni Mourin

interview

Denzel Curry Returns To The Mischievous South: "I've Been Trying To Do This For The Longest"

Over a decade after he released 'King of the Mischievous South Vol. 1,' Denzel Curry is back with 'Vol. 2.' The Miami rapper details his love of Southern hip-hop, working on multiple projects, and the importance of staying real.

GRAMMYs/Jul 17, 2024 - 01:10 pm

Denzel Curry isn’t typically one for repetition. His recent run of critically acclaimed projects have all contrasted in concept and musicality.

The Miami Gardens native has cascaded through boom-bap, synth-soaked trap metal, and cloud rap throughout his catalog. But on his upcoming project, King of the Mischievous South Vol. 2, Curry returns to the muddied, subwoofer-thudding soundscape that he captured on the first installment back in 2012. 

Curry was just 16 when he released King of the Mischievous South Vol. 1 Underground Tape 1996]. "I was a kid, man," Curry tells GRAMMY.com. "I was just trying to emulate my favorite rappers at the time who really represented the South. That was pretty much what I was on at the time – the Soulja Slims, the No Limits, but mostly Three 6 Mafia. And then I just put Miami culture on top of that."

Curry first explored the rough-cut "phonk" of Southern acts like DJ Screw and Pimp C as a teenager. His first mixtape, King Remembered Underground Tape 1991-1995, caught the attention of then-rising rapper and producer SpaceGhostPurrp. He shared Curry’s project on his social media accounts, making him an official member of South Florida’s Raider Klan.

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

The now-defunct group is well behind Curry, who’s ascended from the infancy of his early SoundCloud days to mainstream success. But the rapid-fire delivery and hazy, rough-cut sounds of early Southern rap are still soaked into his musical fibers.

Reignited by the same musical heroes that led to Vol. 1, Curry is comfortable in old sonic form. Vol. 2's lead singles "Hot One" (feat. A$AP Ferg and TiaCorine) and "Black Flag Freestyle" with That Mexican OT fully capture the sharp-edged sound that stretched from Port Arthur, Texas to the Carolinas.

The rapper wanted to go back to the KOTMS series nearly a decade ago, but other projects and outside ventures derailed his return. "I tried to do this thing multiple times," Curry tells GRAMMY.com. "I remember revisiting a [social media post] from 2015 that was like, ‘KOTMS Vol. 2055 is now going to be called Imperial.’ I’ve been trying to do this for the longest." 

A string of bouncy, syrup-pouring, and playalistic Southern trap songs led him back to familiar grounds. The new 15-song capsule features Juicy J, 2 Chainz, Project Pat, That Mexican OT, Maxo Kream, and others inspired by the same pioneers that fall below the Mason-Dixon line.

GRAMMY.com sat down with Curry before the release of King of the Mischievous South Vol. 2 on July 19. The "Ultimate" rapper revealed his "Big Ultra" persona, his ability to crank out hits from his bedroom, and his recent discoveries being "outside." 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. 

What inspired you to revisit the 'King of the Mischievous South' series?

I was making two projects at once, and there was a through-line from the second half of the project. The second one I was working on kind of just manifested itself into what it is today, 12 years later. And it’s called King of the Mischievous South Vol. 2 because it has the same sonics as the first one.

You mentioned Three 6 Mafia being a big inspiration for Vol. 1. But what about Vol. 2? 

The first KOTMS was obviously Three 6 Mafia, and then Lord Infamous was really the person I looked up to, God rest his soul. I get my rap style from him — the rapid flows and stuff like that. You can even hear it on "Walkin’" and "Clout Cobain." But since I’m from Miami, I’m talking about stuff that predominantly happens in Miami. And  I’m influenced by Soulja Slim, Master P, DJ Screw, UGK, Trina, Trick Daddy, and Rick Ross.

How did you juggle the two different projects at once?

When I wasn’t working on one project, I was working on the other one. Sometimes I would be working on the same two projects on the same day. I was like, If this one won’t see the light of day until next year, this one has to hold fans over. And the one that was supposed to hold fans over ended up having a crazy through-line.

What were the studio sessions like?

When it came down to the production, I was just making these songs on the fly. A couple came out of Ultraground sessions, but the majority of the songs were made in my bed — just how it was with the first one. "Hot One" was made in my house downstairs, and "Hit The Floor" was made in a random room in an AirBnb. And I think the rest of the songs were made in an actual studio.

I was just flowing, doing my thing, and figuring things out. I was working on one project, and when I wasn’t getting called back to the studio, I was working on another one on the side. The grind didn’t stop.

Was there an element or feature that you really wanted to explore?

I just knew I wanted certain rappers to be featured on [project]. When I was working on "Set It," I originally wanted PlayThatBoiZay. But he didn’t get the record done or whatever the case may be. So, I sent it to Maxo Kream, and he ended up just doing it. And when I made "Wish List," I got Armani White on it.  Me and him came off of doing "Goated," so getting that record done was really simple. He pulled up to the studio and he said, "This is tight," and then jumped on the record.

Some stuff didn’t make the cut because we couldn’t get certain people. But the majority of the stuff that made the cut, we were like, "Yes, we did that." Then having people like Ski Mask the Slump God, 2 Chainz, Project Pat, and Juicy J — all these guys played a role. I’m getting people from the South, whether they’re from Texas, Florida, or the Carolinas. And even people outside of the South,  like A$AP Ferg and Armani White, they’re all influenced by the same artists. 

Learn more: A Guide To Texas Hip-Hop: Definitive Releases, Artists & Events

Your persona on the album, "Big Ultra." Break that down for me.

This is how the name came about — my boy’s nickname is Mr. Don’t Fold. It’s kind of a play on "Mr. Don’t Play," so we came up with "Big Ultra" because I’m doing "ultraground" stuff. It wasn’t on some superpower s—, it’s just me, pretty much. It’s how I wanted to be presented on this tape. It’s just me at the end of the day, it’s no persona.

You’ve been in the rap game for a while. Do you consider yourself a veteran?

I think I’m mostly in a formation period because my best years haven’t even happened yet. I feel like I’m just getting my reps in, preparing myself for my 30s. You know, going through the bulls—, having good times, having bad times.

By the time I get to 30, 35, and 40 — God willing — I could have a fruitful career and not be backtracked by dumb s—. I see myself as someone with a lot to offer because I’m still young.

Do you care about garnering more fame or acclaim? Or is there no need for it? 

All my projects are critically acclaimed. The main thing is staying good at what I do. That comes with a lot of effort, a lot of studying, and a lot of work. I take pride in my job and I have fun making music.

I think the hardest part is putting myself out there and being visible. I’m starting to understand that’s what I had to do. I got asked the same question five times in a row about when my album was dropping. I’ve been saying July 19 for the longest. Like, people really haven’t been paying attention? C’mon, bro.

What do you feel is the next step?

I’m just trying to be more visible where the younger generation is at. Most people know me for "Ultimate," "Clout Cobain," or the [XXL Freshman Class] Cypher if I’m being totally real with you. But in due time, everybody has blessings in certain parts of their career. And I’ve been blessed to have a career this long.

All I have to do is just deliver, be real with myself, and do what I have to do. I got to lean into being outside. I didn’t know who messed with me or who liked my stuff until I started going outside and talking to people. You never know who rocks with you until you're outside.  

As far as the music and experience, where does the album rank for you?

I didn’t think about where I’d rank this. We had a whole decade of producing great records, and people look forward to the album experience more than the single when it comes to me. This is what it is, and I just want people to enjoy it. It’s not something to put too much effort or thought into. It’s something you can bump into the club, or you could go to a show and turn up to it. That’s where I’m at with it. 

Are there any other sounds or genres you want to explore?

It’s going to happen when it’s supposed to happen naturally. But I do want to explore pop and R&B a year from now. I want people to be able to sing my songs and stuff like that.

Latest Rap News & Music

Derrick Hodge press photo
Derrick Hodge

Photo: Oye Diran

interview

Meet Derrick Hodge, The Composer Orchestrating Hip-Hop's Symphony

From Nas' 'Illmatic' to modern hip-hop symphonies, Derrick Hodge seamlessly bridges the worlds of classical and hip-hop music, bringing orchestral elegance to iconic rap anthems.

GRAMMYs/Jul 16, 2024 - 01:01 pm

Over the last 50 years, hip-hop culture has shown it can catalyze trends in fashion and music across numerous styles and genres, from streetwear to classical music. On June 30, Nas took his place at Red Rocks Amphitheater in a full tuxedo, blending the worlds of hip-hop and Black Tie once again, with the help of Derrick Hodge

On this warm summer eve in Morrison, Colorado, Nas performed his opus, Illmatic, with Hodge conducting the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. The show marked a belated 30-year celebration of the album, originally released on April 19, 1994. 

As Nas delivered his icy rhymes on classics like "N.Y. State of Mind," "Memory Lane (Sittin' in da Park)," and "Halftime," the orchestra held down the beat with a wave of Hodge's baton. The winds, strings, and percussion seamlessly transitioned from underscoring Nas's lyrics with sweeping harmonic layers to leading melodic orchestral flourishes and interludes. For the album's final track, "Ain't Hard to Tell," the orchestra expanded on Michael Jackson's "Human Nature," expertly sampled originally by producer Large Professor.

Derrick Hodge is a pivotal figure in modern music. His career spans writing and performing the famous bassline on Common's "Be," composing for Spike Lee's HBO documentary "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts," and his own solo career that includes his latest experimental jazz album, COLOR OF NOIZE. Hodge also made history by bringing hip-hop to the Kennedy Center with orchestra accompaniments for Illmatic to celebrate the album's 20th anniversary in 2014.

"That was the first time hip-hop was accepted in those walls," Hodge says sitting backstage at Red Rocks. It was also the first time Hodge composed orchestral accompaniments to a hip-hop album.

Since then, Hodge has composed symphonic works for other rappers including Jeezy and Common, and is set to deliver a symphonic rendition of Anderson .Paak's 2016 album, Malibu, at the Hollywood Bowl in September.

Hodge's passion for orchestral composition began when he was very young. He played upright bass by age seven and continued to practice classical composition in his spare moments while touring as a bassist with Terence Blanchard and Robert Glasper. On planes. In dressing rooms. In the van to and from the gig.

"It started as a dream. I didn't know how it was going to be realized. My only way to pursue that dream was just to do it without an opportunity in sight," Hodge says. "Who would've known that all that time people were watching? Friends were watching and word-of-mouth." 

His dedication and word-of-mouth reputation eventually led Nas to entrust him with the orchestral arrangements for Illmatic. He asked Hodge and another arranger, Tim Davies, to write for the performance at the Kennedy Center.

"[Nas] didn't know much about me at all," Hodge says. "For him to trust how I was going to paint that story for an album that is very important to him and important to the culture, I have not taken that for granted." 

Read more: How 'Illmatic' Defined East Coast Rap: Nas’ Landmark Debut Turns 30

Those parts Hodge wrote for the Kennedy Center are the same parts he conducted at Red Rocks. Over a decade later, he channels the same drive and hunger he had when he was practicing his compositions between gigs. "I hope that I never let go of that. I feel like these opportunities keep coming because I'm approaching each one with that conviction. Like this could be my last." 

Before this latest performance, GRAMMY.com spoke with Hodge about bridging the worlds of classical and hip-hop, influencing the next generation of classical musicians, and how his experience as a bassist helps him lead an orchestra.

Throughout history, orchestral music has been celebrated by the highest echelons of society, whereas hip-hop has often been shunned by that echelon. What is it like for you to bring those two worlds together?

I love it. I've embraced the opportunity since day one. I was a young man showing up with Timberlands on and cornrows in my hair, and I knew the tendency to act and move in a certain perception was there. I knew then I have to represent hope in everything I do. I choose to this day to walk with a certain pair of blinders on because I feel like it's necessary. Because of that I never worry about how the classical world perceives me. 

Oftentimes I'll stand before them and I know there may be questions but the love I show them, what I demand of them, and how I show appreciation when they take the music seriously…almost every situation has led to lifelong friendships. 

I believe that's been part of my purpose. It's not even been to change minds or change perceptions. In serving the moment, even when people have preconceptions, they're in front of me playing music I wrote. How do I serve them best? How do I bring out the best in them just like I'm trying to bring out the best in the storyline of a hip-hop artist that may not relate to their story at all? The answer is just to be selfless. That's eliminated the distraction of trying to convince minds.

With that unifying principle, would you consider conducting the orchestra the same thing as playing bass with Robert Glasper?

The way I try to be selfless and serve the moment, it's no different. Maybe the skillset that's required. For example, conducting or working within a framework of composed music requires a certain way of making sure everybody's on the same page so we can get through these things on time and keep going. But I serve that moment no differently than when myself and Robert Glasper, Chris Dave, Casey Benjamin RIP, are creating a song in the moment.

I actually don't even think about how one thing is affecting the other. I will say the beauty of the bass and the bassists that have influenced me — from Ron Carter to the great Marcus Miller, Victor Wooten — is the way they can stand out while never abandoning the emotion of the moment. Remembering what is perceived as the role of the bass and how it glues things in a unique way. Harmonically and rhythmically. Being aware of the responsibility of being aware of everything.

I think that's one thing that's carried over to orchestrating and thinking about balances and how to convey emotion. I think some things are innate with bassists. We're always navigating through harmony and having a conversation through a lens of placement with drums. Placement with the diction if they're singers or rappers. There are a lot of decisions bass players are making in the moment that we don't even think about. It's just secondhand. But it's how are we serving what's necessary to make the conversation unified. I think that's one thing that's served me well in composition.  

What's one song you're particularly excited to dive into for the Anderson .Paak arrangements?

So I'm intentionally not thinking in that way because we decided to treat it like a movie. Start to finish no matter what. With that in mind, I'm trying to approach it as if the whole thing is an arcing story because I didn't realize the succession of how he placed that record was really important to him. 

**Hip-hop is often a very minimalist genre while an orchestra is frequently the opposite with dozens of instruments. How do you maintain that minimalist feel when writing orchestra parts for hip-hop albums like Illmatic?**

I'm so glad you asked that because that was the biggest overarching thing I had to deal with on the first one. With Nas. Because Illmatic, people love that as it is. Every little thing. It wasn't just the production. Nas's diction in between it, how he wrote it, how he told the story, and the pace he spoke through it. That's what made it. So the biggest thing is how do I honor that but also try to tell the story that honors the narrative of symphonic works? [The orchestra is] fully involved. How do I do things in a way where they are engaged without forcing them? 

Illmatic was a part of my soundtrack. So I started with the song that meant the most to me at that time: "The World is Yours." That was the first piece I finished, and I emailed Pete Rock and asked "How is this feeling to you?" If the spirit of the song is speaking to him then I feel like this is something I can give to the people no matter how I feel about it. And he gave the thumbs up. 

So instead of overly trying to prove a point within the flow of the lyrics, how do we pick those moments when the orchestra is exposed? Let them be fully exposed. Let them tell a story leading into that. Make what they do best marry well into what Nas and the spirit of hip-hop and hip-hop sampling do best. And then let there be a dance in between. 

That first [Illmatic] show was a great experiment for me. I try to carve out moments whenever I can. Let me figure out what's a story that can combine this moment with this moment. That's become the beauty. Especially within the rap genre. To let something new that they're not familiar with lead into this story. 

Derrick Hodge with orchestra

*Derrick Hodge conducts the Colorado Symphony Orchestra at Red Rocks* | Amanda Tipton

The orchestra is just as excited to play it as Nas is to have them behind him. 

And that reflects my story. I try to dedicate more time to thinking about that, and that normally ends up reciprocated back in the way they're phrasing. In the way they're honoring the bowings. In the way they're honoring the breaths that I wrote in for them. They start to honor that in a way because they know we're coming to try and have a conversation with these orchestras. That's one thing I try to make sure no matter what. It's a conversation and that goes back to the moment as well. 

I've seen other composers put an orchestral touch on hip-hop in recent years. For example, Miguel Atwood-Ferguson wrote orchestral parts to celebrate Biggie's 50th birthday. Would you say integrating an orchestra into hip-hop is becoming more popular? 

It has become popular, especially in terms of catching the eyes of a lot of the different symphonies that might not have opened up their doors to that as frequently in the past. These opportunities — I appreciate the love shown where my name is mentioned in terms of the inception of things. But I approach it with a lot of gratitude because others were doing it and were willing to honor the music the same. There are many that wish they had that opportunity so I try to represent them. 

With these more modern applications of orchestral music, I feel like there will be an explosion of talent within the classical realm in the next few years. Kids will think it's cool to play classical again.

The possibility of that just brings joy to me. Not just because it's a spark, but hopefully the feeling in the music they relate to. Hopefully there is something in it, aside from seeing it done, that feels that it relates to their story. I have confidence if I'm true to myself, hopefully, each time in the music it's going to feel like it's something relevant to the people. The more I can help foster platforms where people are free to be themselves, and where they can honor the music—I hope that mentality becomes infectious.

More Rap News

Lismar, S.Pri Noir, Ivorian Doll, Odumodublvc in collage
(From left) Lismar, S.Pri Noir, Ivorian Doll, Odumodublvck

Photos: Taylor Hill/Getty Images; Stephane Cardinale - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images; Dave Benett/Getty Images for The Standard London; Paras Griffin/Getty Images

list

10 Artists Changing The Face Of Drill: Ivorian Doll, Bobby Tootact & More

While Cash Cobain and Ice Spice bring drill music even further into the mainstream, a new generation of artists are evolving the sound of the genre. From S.Pri Noir and 163Margs, to Lismar and Jay Hound, these 10 acts should be added to your playlist.

GRAMMYs/Jul 12, 2024 - 02:12 pm

Originating in the early 2010s on the southside of Chicago, the hip-hop subgenre drill has transcended borders to become a global phenomenon. 

Characterized by a menacing and dark energy, drill music sets itself apart from traditional rap and hip-hop through its violent, aggressive lyrics and undertones. Drill music incorporates slower, heavier beats that often blend distorted 808 basslines, dark synths, and trap-style hi-hats. 

The gritty, lawless sound, pioneered by artists like King Louie, Chief Keef, G Herbo and GRAMMY-award winner Lil Durk, remains at the core of the drill. Their influence is spreading to more mainstream acts like Cash Cobain — whose melodic, sultry "Attitude" exemplifies sample drill and landed him at No. 25 on Billboard's Hot Rap Songs — and Ice Spice, whose bold and perky lyrics contrast drill beats. As a whole, these artists are proving that drill is more than just graphic and horrid lyrical stories; it can be fun and even make you feel like a baddie.  

Variations on drill music can be heard in regions such as South America, Africa, and Europe.  The controversial but incredibly popular UK drill, which was born in the south London neighborhood of Brixton, draws many aesthetic influences from Chicago drill while maintaining its own stylistic differences. Where Chicago drill is heavily influenced by trap music, UK drill can be seen as a type of British gangsta rap, or "road rap." Young UK artists like Digga D and Central Cee have taken over the genre, both scoring entries on the Billboard chart, and with Central landing features with Drake and Lil Baby.    

A new generation of drill rappers are continuing to evolve the sound of the genre by combining drill beats and lyrics with a wide range of influences. Read on to learn about 10 budding drill artists whose innovative sounds and diverse perspectives are evolving the global drill landscape. 

Explore More: Drill Music Is On The Rise Around The World. Can Latin Drill Take Over Next?

Kenzo B

When it comes to vocal adaptability, attention to detail, and charisma — Kenzo B has got it. The Bronx-born rapper has quickly risen in prominence in New York's drill music scene following  2022 singles "Bump It" and "The Realest," both of which showcased her raw energy and talent. 

The self-proclaimed "Queen of Bronx drill" continues to refine her rapid-fire rhymes while maintaining a fierce competitiveness, setting her apart in the male-dominated drill space. In April, Kenzo B teamed up with Harlem rapper Bianca Bonnie to drop their ultra-femme anthem "What You Talkin Bout?"

Wolfacejoeyy

Known for his sexy drill singalongs, Wolfacejoeyy is one of the most exciting rising rappers from NYC’s "forgotten borough," Staten Island. The 21-year-old seamlessly weaves hooky, charismatic rhymes into signature Staten-style instrumentals. On songs like the viral "cake" and "wya," Joeyy taps into an alter ego that teeters between hopeless romantic and relentless f—boy, backed with dynamic hats and a heavy bass.

His highly-anticipated 13-track debut album Valentino, dropped last month and includes a feature from R&B singer Reuben Aziz and production from "Power" actor Michael Rainey Jr., who raps as WhereIs22.

S.Pri Noir

Born to a Senegalese mother and father from Guinea-Bissau, S.Pri Noir is based in France. Despite rapping in French, hip-hop artist S.Pri Noir's music is slowly transcending borders — grabbing the attention of audiences worldwide. 

S.Pri Noir’s 2018 debut album Masque Blanc reached No. 18 on the Top Albums chart in France. Earlier this month, he delivered a thrilling freestyle on "On The Radar Radio," channeling his inner Cash Cobain. After a recent Instagram post, fans are speculating a potential collaboration between the two artists will drop soon.

S.Pri Noir represents the next big market in drill: Africa. Many budding artists in the genre, especially from Europe, are second or third-generation African immigrants.   

Ivorian Doll

German British rapper Ivorian Doll is making a name for herself in the UK drill scene. Boldly claiming the title "Queen of Drill," she's carving out a unique niche with explosive lyrics, drill-infused tension, and undeniable pop appeal. Each of her anthems is a potent cocktail of drama and attitude, highlighting her razor-sharp signature style that's firmly anchored in unfiltered, hard-hitting lyricism.

The 26-year-old rapper debuted in 2018 as part of a duo, dropping the infectious drill track "The Situation." Since embarking on her solo journey, she's continued to captivate audiences with standout releases like "Queen of Drill," "Daily Duppy" and the buzz-worthy song "Rumour." Her ascent in the drill scene exemplifies a fresh voice bringing new energy to the genre, blending cultural influences with raw talent and unapologetic star quality.

Bobby Tootact

Harlem rapper Bobby Tootact is known for remixing popular Afro-Caribbean songs  — from Afrobeats bangers such as Wizkid’s "Joro" to dancehall like Teejay’s "Drift" — into drill tracks with overtly rough lyrics. On 2023's "Real Facts" (produced by go-to mixer Lowkeymali‬), Bobby raps about gun violence while sampling Wizkid’s popular Afrobeats dance track "Ojuelegba."

As the child of Senegalese immigrants, Bobby's music reflects a fusion of his cultural heritage and his upbringing in Harlem. This combination allows him to create a distinctive musical identity that resonates with fans of multiple genres while merging two completely different musical worlds. 

163Margs

Blending gritty lyrics with infectious beats, Nottingham's very own 163Margs has struck a chord with listeners craving traditional UK drill music from a young artist. Margs, who debuted in 2023, has already collaborated with UK heavyweights like Digga D, Bandokay, and Blanco. His debut single "Hide and Seek" propelled him into the spotlight, showcasing his raw talent and captivating flow. 

At first listen, his 2024 single, "Barbies" can be confused as an ode to beautiful women, with lyrics like: "All of them Barbie pretty." Listeners later realize the song is actually about guns and street life. "The opps are wet and there's no disagreement / Ayy / fill up the wap / put teeth in."

Odumodublvck

Nigerian rapper and singer Odumodublvck is crafting a lane for himself with an alluring Afro-grime and Afro-drill sound. As a member of the hip-hop collective Anti World Gangstars, Odumodublvck creates high-energy music which features catchy, repetitive lyrics in Pidgin English and his Native Nigerian language (Igbo). 

His latest project, EZIOKWU, dropped in October 2023 and includes collaborations with acclaimed artists like Fireboy DML, Wale, and Amaarae — further cementing his position as a rising star in the evolving Nigerian music landscape.

Jay Hound

Jay Hound is an upcoming drill artist hailing from a section of Manhattan's Upper West Side neighborhood and catapulted into the spotlight via his 2023 single "UKRAINE." 

A collaboration with his Sweepers labelmate Jay5ive, the track features deep and vibrating bass, and garnered over seven million views on YouTube and nearly 30 million streams on Spotify. He even released an Afro-drill version of the song, which deconstructs the grittiness of the original drill track for a more light and playful dance sound. 

Lismar

Dominican singer/songwriter Lismar is dominating the Dominican urban music scene with her contemporary hip-hop and drill rap. Gaining recognition on the Puerto Rican platform Freestyle Mania, Lismar's creativity and distinctive sound of which infuses both Latin and hip-hop music has earned her a growing fan base and a deal with Roc Nation.

In her new released tracks "Delincuente Con Traje" and "BZRP Music Session #60," she captivates listeners with her powerful flow and impactful lyrics that translate to "I look calm / but I was raised on the corner" and "If they close the door / I knock down the window." The rapper dropped her latest single "Mi Primer Concierto," a softer record that seamlessly integrates her Dominican heritage with rap.

Dee Billz

New York-based rapper, Dee Billz, combines bold and unapologetic lyrics while also toying with a Jersey club sound in his 2023 breakout hit "Thootie." The single took the internet by storm and racked up more than a million views across TikTok and YouTube.  

Last year, the drill artist collaborated with fellow New Yorker rapper’s Kyle Richh, Jenn Carter, and Tata to release "Stomp Stomp," a single that reimagines Soulja Boy's "Crank That" in a drill style. 

Latest Rap News & Music

Janet Jackson performs at the 2022 Essence Festival of Culture.
Janet Jackson performs at the 2022 Essence Festival of Culture

Photo Credit: Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for Essence 

interview

Celebrating 30 Years Of Essence Fest: How New Orleans & Multi-Generational, Diasporic Talent Create The "Super Bowl Of Culture"

Ahead of the 30th Essence Festival Of Culture, held July 4-7 in New Orleans, GRAMMY.com spoke with executives and curators of the legendary celebration of Black excellence.

GRAMMYs/Jul 2, 2024 - 03:02 pm

Every July, millions of Black people, specifically Black women, descend upon New Orleans for the Essence Festival of Culture (EFOC). Known for many years as the Essence Festival, the festival is a celebration of Black culture, community, and heritage. Since its inception in 1995 as a one-off event to commemorate the publication’s 25th anniversary, the festival has evolved into a diasporic jubilee, drawing in people of African descent from across the diaspora. 

In addition to its global presence, the festival pours millions of dollars into the local New Orleans community, which has served as the festival's home for 30 years (with the exception of 2006, when the festival was held in Houston, because of Hurricane Katrina). In 2020, the festival was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite this, the annual festival continues to be one of the most sought-after and attended festivals in the United States. 

This year’s Essence Festival of Culture will be held at the Superdome from July 4-7, replete with legendary and fast-rising talents. On July 5, Birdman & Friends will celebrate the 30th anniversary of Cash Money Records. The following day will feature a special performance by Charlie Wilson, while Usher will commemorate the 20th anniversary of Confessions.

Janet Jackson and Victoria Monét will headline the festival's final night, while Frankie Beverly and Maze close out the festival with the return of All-White Night. Other performers include The Roots featuring Mickey Guyton, Ari Lennox and T-Pain, Busta Rhymes, Raphael Saadiq, D-Nice featuring Shelia E, Big Boi, and many more.  

Read more: Music Festivals 2024 Guide: Lineups & Dates For Lollapalooza, Coachella, Bonnaroo & Much More 

EFOC has been compared to SXSW, Coachella, Austin City Limits, and other notable festivals, yet it stands out for its empowerment-centered approach. It is not simply a festival, it is a family reunion. The one festival in the United States that does not pander to or take advantage of Black audiences, but truly celebrates them and their achievements. Although music has always been an integral part of the festival’s ethos — Aretha Franklin and B.B. King performed at the first iteration — the festival excels in its multi-generational and interdisciplinary programming. On any given day, attendees can attend sessions on Black entrepreneurship, politics, mental health, and literature, as well as seminars focused on issues impacting the Black community.  

There’s a reason why the festival is referred to as the party with a purpose. For decades, it has operated as a celebratory convening place for Black people, Black families, and Black communities. Now, more than ever, spaces like EFOC are needed, as the Black community experiences an onslaught of changes — from Historically Black Colleges and Universities in North Carolina and Tennessee being subject to intense government oversight, to Black women-owned venture capital firms being targeted by conservatives, and Black voting rights becoming at risk during an election year. 

Ahead of the festival’s 30th celebration, Michael Barclay, Executive Vice President of Experiential for ESSENCE Ventures and Barkue Tubman Zawolo, Chief of Staff, Talent and Diasporic Engagement for Essence Ventures, spoke to the Recording Academy about the history, legacy, and future of the Essence Festival of Culture.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Are you part of the generation that grew up with the Essence Festival of Culture? If so, how does it feel to be a part of it?

Barkue Tubman Zawolo: I'm originally from Liberia. And even being in Liberia, prior to my family moving to the U.S. in 1980, Essence was always a thing for my mom and my aunts. When we came here, fast forward to me, as an adult, [after] graduating college, I got into the music industry. I've managed artists that have gone through the Essence stages and pages in different ways.

Essence Fest has always been something that we were familiar with. I have to say, I had not really experienced Essence Fest until 2019 when Essence was actually a client. One of the things that I was doing [at that point] was integrating the Diaspora and African creatives within the festival in fashion and music.

To be in the role that I'm in right now and to be on a team with people who have been a part of Essence for a long time…. Essence seems to be ingrained in all of our fabric. [What] started as a music festival now is the Super Bowl of Culture that is the Essence Festival of Culture. To be on the team that helps bring this to life for our community is a daunting but rewarding task all in the same. 

Essence is something that I don't think anybody in our community takes lightly. Even our partners understand the value of it. We certainly understand that we serve the Essence-inverse and, and we are in service to this community. It is a huge honor to be able to be a part of the team that brings this to life and, and, and constantly hear what it means to the community globally too. 

One thing that I admired, especially about last year's festival, was GU Kickback — a music event hosted by Girls United, the publication’s Gen Z vertical. I saw a number of local artists from New Orleans, such as 504ICYGRL. ESSENCE just released a series of cover stories celebrating the 30 year relationship between the publication and New Orleans; how do you highlight the city and their history?

Michael Barclay: As somebody who's worked in experiential, creating gatherings and experiences for almost 25 years now, the venue is always important when you're trying to set the box where you are creating for your community, for your audience. New Orleans has been that backdrop for us for almost 30 years now. 

New Orleans is the convergence of our mission, our brand, in a city that is perfectly matched for that energy. New Orleans is as much a part of Essence Festival of Culture as Essence Magazine is to Essence Festival. 

It is very much a partnership that has created this cultural movement. To be more inclusive, and highlight more of those local relationships and talent is very intentional. It has been something that we have put a lot of energy and effort into over the last couple of years. 

This will be my third festival this year. I think Barkue, you started maybe a year or two before me. We're a fairly new crew that is working to help grow and reshape and solidify those relationships. Even with how we handle the management of the festival. 

Our VP of Essence Festival, Hakeem Holmes is a hometown boy from New Orleans. He's the pride and joy. They love to see him coming. He's always enlightening us on the things that we need to be focused on for the city and how we make the best partnership and make the best impact on the area.

It was intentional what you saw last year. It's intentional this year. We dedicated our entire festival edition of the magazine as a love letter to New Orleans. It's a symbiotic relationship that is one of the key reasons why this festival is the Super Bowl of Culture.  

I would love to hear about the talent aspect of the festival. Last year, Megan Thee Stallion headlined. In previous years, Beyoncé and Prince have served as headliners. What is the formula between balancing local talent, national talent and diasporic talent at the festival?

Zawolo: As we grow the festival, the intentionality becomes even more and more important. And, what we do in understanding where we are as a brand. 

We're 30 years into the festival, the brand is 55 years. What's traditionally known as the Essence Woman is now bringing her daughter. It's multi-generational. We also know that the world is as big as your cell phone, so people are now exposed to different types of content and music. 

We see the influence of Afrobeats and Caribbean music. We are intentional about making sure that every night really speaks to multiple generations, but it's anchored in a generation. It's like, who's bringing, who to the concert on Friday? Is it the daughter bringing her mama? 

It's anchored in  that younger demo, but we're going to make sure that they're going to have a collective good time there. Saturday is usually our heaviest night. We have our living legends that show up there; that really cuts across generations. This is anybody can bring anybody, but let me tell you, you're going to be able to teach each other, connect with each other with the different groupings of talent that we have.

We try to make sure that there is something that speaks to us, but that that connects with the diaspora on as many nights as possible. Sometimes it's not because they're from a different country, but because we know the music also resonates.

If you think of Janet Jackson, you can go anywhere in the world. She can check off that box, although she's not from there. You can create those ties, but we also are intentional about having Ayra Starr and Machel Montano. Last year we had Tems and Wizkid. The goal is to continue to grow what that looks like, because we are a global brand and that is our diasporic and global intent in connecting the global Black community is really important.  

We are intentionally multi-generational. We intentionally lead into where a multitude of generational communities can come together and have fun together. There is something for everybody. We have a unique opportunity with Essence as the brand grows to be able to not only speak to what they want to call the aunties, I call the punties. I also think that this is where we get to educate the next generation on where we're coming from. We also get to learn from them on where they are and where they want to go. 

What a beautiful way to kind of tie all of these connections. Last year, the festival celebrated 50 years of hip-hop; this year you're celebrating the 30th anniversary of the festival. What is the intention behind this year’s music programming?

Zawolo: Paying homage to people who had done some historical things on our stages. We have Janet [Jackson] back. People are like, “Oh, we saw Janet two years ago,” but Janet is also one of the highest sellers in the festival's history. 

If we're going to celebrate, let's celebrate, because we know Janet never disappoints. We also want to lean into some of the [older] talent, like Charlie Wilson, Uncle Charlie. He's graced that stage so many times, but yet it's still very relevant. Using this moment to reignite things that we've done in the past and bring them back to life that we know the audience missed.

Frankie Beverly, who is going to come, this is probably going to really be his last performance. The passing of the torch. This year was about having to be intentional about what other milestones are happening that are important to this culture. Cash Money is also celebrating 30 years. Who better, right?  

Essence has been in New Orleans for 30 years. Cash Money and crew are from New Orleans. Juvenile just got the key to the city from the mayor. We want to honor and celebrate him, but we also want to recognize the influence that this group of very creative, entrepreneurial, rappers and artists have had on culture, because there was a time where we all were backing that ass up. 

Making sure we highlighted milestones, connecting with people who have historically been a part of making history with us, introducing some new ones — that's what we have to do. We have to set up now for the next 30 years. We want to go to the soul of what appeals to our audience, and we're really all about good music.  

I think the 30th year just continues to do what we do. As we look to grow and connect demos, Megan Thee Stallion is a very viable option because again, the daughter now is going to bring the mama. Intergenerational diasporic and connecting demos, I think that only happens at the Superdome. That's also happening in the convention center, which I believe is honestly the soul of the festival. 

What are your hopes and aspirations for the next 30 years of the Essence Festival of Culture? Will Essence Fest always be in New Orleans? Are we going to have an Essence Fest in Lagos, Nigeria?

Barclay: Being on this side of [EFOC], seeing the true impact of the festival and how it impacts the communities, how it impacts the folks that come to New Orleans, and now, because we've expanded to our virtual audience, the 1.7 million that are viewing around the world, my hope for the festival is that we continue to show up where our community needs us.

We're going to be in New Orleans. We're going to be in our official world as we call it. If you can't make it to New Orleans, you can tune into Essence.com and you can see what's going on there. We are creating virtual experiences, AR experiences, VR experiences, all those things, so really keeping up with the way that people continue to connect with each other, whether they're physically in the same place or halfway across the world.

I think that type of innovation is what I want to continue to see us do and allow us to create that joy that we generate in New Orleans and wherever it's needed for our community.

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