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For The Record: How The Chainsmokers' "Don't Let Me Down" Set The Duo Up For Global Success — And The Freedom To Defy Dance Music Expectations
After their career started with an ironic hit, the Chainsmokers solidified themselves as dance hitmakers in 2016. As the duo releases their latest album, 'So Far So Good,' revisit the impact of their GRAMMY-winning smash, "Don't Let Me Down."
The pop-ification of electronic dance music did not start with the Chainsmokers, but no act blurs the line between arena anthems and DJ culture quite like Alex Pall and Drew Taggart.
In 2013, the duo were just another EDM twosome making remixes of indie rock bands for DJs on Hype Machine. By 2017, the pair were headlining their own international arena tour on the back of a multi-platinum sing-along that had just broken the record for longest streak on the Billboard Hot 100 top 5 in history.
When you're looking for an explanation — some musical node that connects the tissue of the Chainsmokers' signature dubstep-heavy DJ sets and the group's de facto pop stardom — one must inevitably turn to 2016 crossover hit "Don't Let Me Down."
Powerful and eruptive, the song's dark electronic hook and bright melodic verses straddle the Chainsmokers' bleeding synth past and made-for-radio future. Both halves are stitched together by the hauntingly strong, yet emotionally desperate, performance of then 17-year-old vocalist Daya.
It's a single that belonged as much on a festival set list as it did in the darkest electro-trap club floors, and it earned the Chainsmokers their first GRAMMY win for Best Dance Recording in 2017. It begs the question: How did they pull that off?
If the Chainsmokers give off a frat-house energy, it might not be their fault. The duo rocketed to stardom fresh out of college, and the band's 2014 breakthrough single "#Selfie" was indeed meant to be a joke. It was a gag song, a catchy pot shot at the vapid VIP bathroom talk that goes down in Miami Beach megaclubs like LIV.
Buzzsaw synth lines and pounding four-on-the-floor bass kicks gave the song a stereotypical EDM vibe. But underneath the novelty hit's spotlight, Pall and Taggert pushed themselves to write real songs full of love, longing and infectious pop hooks. They were never going to stay the "#Selfie" guys, even if they had to fight tooth and nail.
"Roses" — a sun-dipped pop tune with hints of the popular off-kilter future bass sound and an earworm of a synth hook — was the first taste of things to come. While the 2015 hit signaled a shift toward the now signature Chainsmokers sound, its 2016 follow-up was what really turned heads — and it all starts with a clear and wistful guitar pluck.
"All of our new songs happen right after we buy a new instrument," Taggart said in a "How I Wrote That Song" segment for 'The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon' in 2016. "We bought a new Fender electric guitar, and I was listening to a lot of the xx, and I wanted to do a lonely guitar sound."
"So I made that, and it was pretty vibey," he continues, "and then I was on a plane, and I got this new sample pack and it had this cool bouncy sound so I cut it up and made this cool trap drop. We'd never made trap music before, so I wanted to try it and see if we could do it."
Sourced from their friends in electronic hip-hop duo Loudpvck (whose member Kenny Beats has gone on to his own internet fame alongside big look productions for Vince Staples, Ed Sheeran, Gucci Mane and more), that trap breakdown is sandwiched expertly between the song's sentimental pop verses that make "Don't Make Me Down" such a striking hit.
The mix of hard and soft elements — an energetic club hook and sensitive lyrics — make "Don't Let Me Down" a defining tune of its era. The Chainsmokers' managed to capture the coy sleekness of 2010s indie pop and the gritty EDM trap world, then mixed it all up with a certain kind of cinematic grandeur. The song starts so subtle and rises in a gradual tension until it positively explodes, another element that brings it closer to the Chainsmokers' club roots.
They knew they had a hit on their hands, too, mostly because it came together fairly quickly. "Everything we do happens in one session," Taggart said in the "How I Wrote That Song" segment. But as Pall revealed, it almost became the hit that never was.
"When it was completely done, [the] computer crashed and we lost the entire song," Pall said. They had to completely remake it from scratch, but Pall suggested that it may have ended up working in their favor. "We remade it, and it's even better than before."
The song's dangerously romantic message — the line "It's in my head, darling, I hope/ That you'll be here when I need you the most" sets up the titular phrase — was penned by songwriter Emily Warren. (She later went on to co-write hits like Dua Lipa's "New Rules" and Charlie XCX's "Boys"; Warren also features on several Chainsmokers songs, including the 2017 hit "Paris.")
It was Warren's voice that originally graced the single when it was an unreleased set piece for the Chainsmokers, though she was never intended to be the final vocalist. The song was originally pitched to Rihanna, Taggart disclosed to Rolling Stone in 2016, but the R&B singer ultimately turned it down.
At the time, Daya's breakout hit "Hide Away" was gaining traction. "When I heard that, I knew that she had the range," Taggart told the New York Times in 2016. "Her voice was pretty unique and didn't sound like other people on the radio."
As Taggart recalled, Daya "didn't really need my help" in the studio, furthering the song's magic. But "Don't Let Me Down" clearly didn't just make an impact with those involved — it was a runaway hit that won the hearts of critics and fans alike without much effort.
"Don't Let Me Down" charted in 32 countries, including a No. 3 spot on the Billboard Hot 100. Even Usher covered the song during an appearance in BBC Radio 1's Live Lounge. To date, the video has amassed more than 1.8 billion views on YouTube; it remains one of the Chainsmokers' three most-streamed songs on Spotify with more than 1.5 billion streams.
"Don't Let Me Down" opened the door for the Chainsmokers to do bigger and more glamorous things — including the biggest hit of their career The Halsey-featuring smash "Closer" earned the duo their first No. 1 on the Hot 100 (among several other charts around the world), becoming the first single to spend 26 weeks in the chart's top five.
The Chainsmokers went on to capitalize on that larger-than-life pop sound, collaborating with Coldplay's Chris Martin and celebrating the project's debut album Memories…Do Not Open with a 71-date world tour.
The band continues to mix its DJ past with its pop star reality, choosing not to perform fully-original sets, but cramming strings of sing-along hits between mixes of other artists' songs that influence them. It can be a bit clunky at times, sure, and the Chainsmokers' earnest white-guy style hasn't always made the group a critical darling. But the band continues to sell out shows and figure itself out, continuing their musical story with their fourth album, So Far So Good, a project they've dubbed "the start of a new chapter"; Apple Music's Zane Lowe declared it their "boldest song-based statement yet."
Are they a band? Are they DJs? Do they even make electronic music anymore? It doesn't really matter, and maybe that's the point.
In a world where genres have ceased to define listeners, why should they define the entertainer? "Don't Let Me Down" dared to break that barrier — and even six years later, the Chainsmokers continue proving there's frontiers yet to explore.
N.W.A's DJ Yella, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and MC Ren
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N.W.A Are 'Straight Outta Compton': For The Record
What started as an attitude that helped put Compton on the map grew into a worldwide music revolution celebrating the streets
A debut album that landed like a sledgehammer, 1988's Straight Outta Compton has become a legend in its own right. The featured N.W.A lineup was Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and MC Ren. The album was produced by Dr. Dre and DJ Yella, and released on Ruthless Records, the label co-founded by Eazy-E and N.W.A manager Jerry Heller two years before.
Although it sold well initially, its landmark status rested on the controversies surrounding its gangsta lifestyle themes and attitudes. Its provocative tracks described the world N.W.A knew through their own eyes, including the title track, which elevated the group's hometown of Compton, Calif., "Express Yourself" and "Gangsta Gangsta." The album also included "F*** Tha Police," which resulted in the FBI and U.S. Secret Service sending threatening letters to Ruthless Records and the group's banishment from many venues.
Credited as one of the most influential hip-hop records of all time, in 2015, Straight Outta Compton the film appeared, dramatizing the 1988 impact of the album, with Ice Cube portrayed by his son O'Shea Jackson Jr. Confrontations with law enforcement and antagonism based on "F*** Tha Police" form a core element of both the 2015 drama as well as the drama on the streets that has never stopped.
Among the album's many aftermaths, Eazy-E died in 1995, Ice Cube went on to produce and star in his extensive filmography and the adventures of Dr. Dre touch on many other histories, including those of Eminem and Kendrick Lamar. Meanwhile, in recognition of its critical importance to music history, Straight Outta Compton was inducted into the Recording Academy's GRAMMY Hall Of Fame as well as the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry.
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Alanis Morissette's 'Jagged Little Pill': For The Record
Learn about the singer/songwriter's big GRAMMY night at the 38th GRAMMY Awards with her third studio album
For a generation of music lovers, the '90s hosted a boon of hits that have now attained classic status. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill is arguably at the top of the list.
Released June 13, 1995, as her third studio album, Morissette worked on the project exclusively with producer/writer Glen Ballard. She plumped the depth of raw emotion to craft the LP's 12 alt-rock tracks, marking a departure from her previous pop-centered releases.
The Canadian native's honest approach to Jagged Little Pill flipped the industry upside down. The album went on to reach No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and produce three No. 1 Billboard singles: "You Oughta Know," "Hand In My Pocket" and "Ironic."
As of 2015, sales of the album surpassed 15 million copies in the United States, making it one of only three albums to reach that milestone behind Metallica's self-titled album (16.1 million) and Shania Twain's Come On Over (15.6 million).
Further solidifying its legacy, a musical stage production based on the LP will premiere in spring 2018.
Jagged Little Pill also brought Morissette her first four career GRAMMY wins at the 38th GRAMMY Awards. She took home the coveted award for Album Of The Year and Best Rock Album, while "You Oughta Know" earned Best Female Rock Vocal Performance and Best Rock Song.
"I actually accept this on behalf of anyone who's ever written a song from a very pure place, a very spiritual place," Morissette said during her Album Of The Year acceptance speech after thanking Ballard. "And there's plenty of room for a lot of artists so there's no such thing as the best."
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Kendrick Lamar, 'DAMN.': For The Record | 2018 GRAMMYs Edition
Celebrate the Compton rapper's successful fourth album, which brought home a total of five GRAMMY wins on Music's Biggest Night
Kendrick Lamar's phenomenally successful fourth LP, DAMN., landed with a bang in mid-2017 that saw fans digging voraciously into the full media experience of the album's release in an intense manner.
There were rumors based on tweets, there were secret second album release theories, there were even guesses at the tracklist's double-meanings that actually turned out to be true. Altogether, it made for a moment in pop culture that coalesced into an explicit public statement: Lamar was no longer content to merely capture the attention of hip-hop purists and music scenesters with their ears to the street; he was here to convert new listeners over from the mainstream without sacrificing the authenticity of his core sound. And along the way maybe raise a few middle fingers in the direction of his oftentimes befuddled political detractors.
"The initial goal was to make a hybrid of my first two commercial albums," Lamar explained to Zane Lowe on Beats 1 Radio. "That was our total focus, how to do that sonically, lyrically, through melody – and it came out exactly how I heard it in my head. … It's all pieces of me."
Lamar's soul-bearing reaped obvious rewards at the 60th GRAMMY Awards, with DAMN. generating a total of five GRAMMY wins, including Best Rap Album, Best Rap/Sung Collaboration ("LOYALTY."), Best Rap Song ("HUMBLE."), Best Rap Performance ("HUMBLE."), and Best Music Video ("HUMBLE.").
Along with its successes on Music's Biggest Night, DAMN. also proved to be a commercial windfall for Lamar, with lead single "HUMBLE." clocking in as his first-ever No. 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100, with supporting singles "LOYALTY." And "LOVE." both charting in the Top 15. For its own part, DAMN. debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, has been certified double-platinum by the RIAA, and ended the year as the No. 1 album of any genre for 2017, by chart performance.
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Alabama Shakes' 'Sound & Color': For The Record
Wilder than before, the band's fusion of country and soul with immersive rock on their 2015 album defined a sound all their own
Alabama Shakes' 2012 debut Boys & Girls was such a wild success, no one expected the band would get even wilder on 2015's Sound & Color. But the band took their music way out, exploring a spacious, country-soul rock sound that would be more completely their own if it didn't seem so timeless.
"We're just a normal group of people who believe in writing and making something, and honestly, it was truly from a point of having fun," lead singer/guitarist Brittany Howard told our oral history of the album. "It wasn't to get famous or anything like that. We wanted to play gigs, that was our goal, but we didn't have anywhere to gig."
Bassist Zac Cockrell, guitarist Heath Fogg and drummer Steve Johnson write together with Howard, and the band shared in their Best Rock Song win, at the 58th GRAMMY Awards for "Don't Wanna Fight," as songwriters, in addition to winning Best Rock Performance. Sound & Color also won Best Alternative Music Album that year.
Alabama Shakes' 2012 debut brought them 55th GRAMMY Awards nominations for Best New Artist and Best Rock Performance for the song "Hold On." As a single, it remains their biggest hit so far, having reached No. 93 on Billboard's Hot 100. The following year the band was nominated for Best Rock Performance again, for "Always Alright" from the soundtrack to Silver Linings Playbook. A truly admired band, their album sales suggest Alabama Shakes falls better into the category of classics-makers than hit-makers. Their debut reached No. 6 on the Billboard 200 in 2013 and Sound & Color reached No. 1 in 2015.
Although Alabama Shakes hasn't released an album since Sound & Color, their performance of "Joe (Live From Austin City Limits)" drew another Best Rock Performance nomination at the 59th GRAMMY Awards. Earlier this year at the 60th GRAMMY Awards, Alabama Shakes' performance of "Killer Diller Blues" won Best American Roots Performance, the band's fourth win. The song was originally recorded by Minnie Lawlers, and as for other artists participating in the Jack White and Bernard MacMahon 2017 project American Epic: The Sessions, all final recordings were made on an antique 1925 Western Electric direct-to-disc system. How's that for a historic recording?