meta-scriptGRAMMY Rewind: DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince Win For 1991 Bop "Summertime" | GRAMMY.com
DJ Jazzy Jeff at 1992 GRAMMYs

DJ Jazzy Jeff at 1992 GRAMMYs

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GRAMMY Rewind: DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince Win For 1991 Bop "Summertime"

Watch DJ Jazzy Jeff accept the award on behalf of the dynamic duo, looking cool in a boxy black suit with a colorful lapel and coordinating purple shirt and small, dark sunglasses

GRAMMYs/Jan 23, 2021 - 12:23 am

For the latest episode of GRAMMY Rewind, we celebrate legendary hip-hop producer DJ Jazzy Jeff's birthday (Jan. 22) by revisiting his and Will Smith's win for their sunny 1991 bop, "Summertime" at the 34th GRAMMY Awards in 1992.

Below, watch Jeff accept the award on behalf of the dynamic pair, looking cool in a boxy black suit with a colorful lapel and coordinating purple shirt and small, dark sunglasses to top it off.

"Summertime" was crowned Best Rap Performance By A Duo Or Group and earned the rap duo known as DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince their second career GRAMMY win. The vibey, laid-back track was the lead single from their fourth studio album, Homebase.

They earned their first GRAMMY at the 31st GRAMMY Awards in 1989, winning Best Rap Performance for "Parents Just Don't Understand," from their second studio album, He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper.

Watch Will Smith's Powerful GRAMMY Acceptance Speech From 1998 | GRAMMY Rewind

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 bones. 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.

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Blxst press photo
Blxst

Photo: Amy Lee

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5 Rising L.A. Rappers To Know: Jayson Cash, 310babii & More

From San Diego to the Bay Area, Seattle and beyond, the West Coast bursts with talent. Los Angeles is at the heart of this expanse, and these five rappers are just a few who are showcasing the vibrant sounds of West Coast hip-hop.

GRAMMYs/Jul 15, 2024 - 01:36 pm

GRAMMY winners Kendrick Lamar and Mustard have long repped their California roots. Earlier this summer, their powerhouse anthem "Not Like Us"  brought West Coast rap back to its roots and shone a global spotlight on the scene. 

Lamar and Mustard are at the forefront of a renaissance in West Coast rap. Their shared roots in Southern California cities — Mustard from Los Angeles and Kendrick from Compton — adds authenticity and resonance to their partnership. Their undeniable chemistry was on display in the video for "Not Like Us," which received a million views less than an hour after its release.

Mustard's signature beats and Lamar's profound lyricism has resurfaced the sound and culture that makes West Coast rap so unique and paved the way for a new generation of artists. All signs suggest that another impactful collaboration may appear on Mustard's upcoming album, Faith of A Mustard Seed.

Learn more: A Guide To Southern California Hip-Hop: Definitive Releases, Artists & Subgenres From L.A. & Beyond

Kendrick Lamar headlined the electrifying Pop Out concert on Juneteenth, which also featured sets from Mustard and DJ Hed. The event saw a handful of L.A. rappers, opening for Lamar in a showcase of  the vibrant talent that defines the region's rap scene.

The West Coast is a vast reservoir of talent, stretching from the Bay Area to Seattle. At the heart of this creative expanse is Los Angeles, which brings fresh perspectives, innovative styles, and renewed energy to hip-hop, ensuring the genre thrives. With the stage set for these newcomers to shine, it's the perfect time to take a closer look at some of the rising talents poised to impact the rap scene. While this list only scratches the surface, it offers a glimpse into the diverse and exciting talent from SoCal, the epicenter of the West.

Blxst

Arising from Los Angeles, Blxst initially played the background as a producer but soon demonstrated his ability to excel across all facets of music creation. Blxst's breakout moment came with his platinum-certified single "Chosen," which solidified his place in the music industry. His collaboration on Kendrick Lamar's "Die Hard" from Mr. Morale And The Big Steppers further showcased his skill for crafting hooks that elevate tracks, resulting in two GRAMMY nominations.

As he prepares to release his debut album, I'll Always Come Find You on July 19, Blxst stands at a pivotal point in his career. With a great resume already to his name, his forthcoming album promises to showcase his undeniable talent and leave a lasting impact on the West Coast music scene.

Bino Rideaux

Bino Rideaux is a South Central native and frequent collaborator with the GRAMMY-winning rapper Nipsey Hussle. He is the only artist to have a joint project with Hussle, No Pressure, released before the prolific rapper's untimely death. Rideaux has hinted at having a treasure of unreleased music with Hussle, saved for the perfect moment and album.

Rideaux  is known for creating tracks that get the city outside and dancing. He has made three beloved projects with Blxst, titled Sixtape, Sixtape 2, and Sixtape 3 resulting in sold-out shows and a special place in West Coast Rap fans' hearts. Endorsed by industry heavyweights like Young Thug, Rideaux continues to carve his path at his own pace. His journey is nothing short of a marathon, echoing the enduring legacy of his mentor.

Read more: Nipsey Hussle's Entrepreneurial Legacy: How The Rapper Supported His Community & Inspired Rap's Next Generation

Kalan.FrFr

Kalan.FrFr, whose name stands for "For Real For Real," is an artist whose music is as genuine as his name suggests. Growing up in Compton and Carson, Kalan.FrFr has always stayed true to his roots, and exudes the unyielding confidence essential to making it in the City of Angels.

His breakthrough mixtape, TwoFr, showcased his ability to shine without major features, delivering verses with catchy hooks and melodic rap. He's shown he's not confined to one sound, delivering vulnerable tracks like "Going Through Things'' and "Never Lose You." His EP Make the West Great Again, Kalan.FrFr both proves his loyalty to his origins and highlights his versatility. Kalan.FrFr's signature punch-in, no-writing-lyrics-down style keeps his fans on their toes, ensuring that whatever comes next is unpredictable but authentic.

Jayson Cash

Jayson Cash, a rapper hailing from Carson — the same city as TDE artist Ab-Soul — stays true to West Coast rap, from his lyrics to his beat selection. Listening to Jayson Cash's music is like diving into a vivid life narrative. His prowess as a lyricist and storyteller shines through in every verse. He gives his fans an insight into his journey, making it a relatable music experience.

Cash made waves with his debut mixtape, Read The Room, and scored a Mustard beat on the song "Top Down." Two years later, their collaboration continues, with Cash writing on Mustard's upcoming album. Though often seen as an underdog, Cash is not to be underestimated, earning cosigns from West Coast legends like Suga Free and Snoop Dogg. His latest project, Alright Bet, includes a notable feature from Dom Kennedy.

310babii

310babii has achieved platinum-selling status at just 18 years old, while successfully graduating high school.  Yet 310babii's career began in seventh grade, when he recording songs on his phone showing early signs of motivation and creativity. His 2023 breakout hit "Soak City (Do It)" quickly gained traction on TikTok — and caught the ears of Travis Scott and NFL player CJ Stroud.

As the song grew in popularity, it led to a remix produced by Mustard, who invited the Inglewood native to join him onstage during his set at The Pop Out. 310babii's innovative spirit shines through in his distinctive visuals, exemplified by the captivating video for his song "Back It Up." His recent debut album, Nights and Weekends, released in February, underscores his evolving talent and promise within the music industry.

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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

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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. 

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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.

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