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Haiti's Michael Brun Talks Debut LP 'LOKAL,' Friendship With J Balvin & Diplo & His Legacy As Global Artist

Michael Brun

Photo: Steve Baboun

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Haiti's Michael Brun Talks Debut LP 'LOKAL,' Friendship With J Balvin & Diplo & His Legacy As Global Artist

"The deeper I got into my own culture, the more it allowed me to connect with others. I felt like that was so important to get a clear vision of what Haiti represents to me and that led the album," Brun told the Recording Academy

GRAMMYs/Jun 26, 2019 - 09:32 pm

Haitian DJ/producer Michael Brun may just be 27, but he is already focused on his musical legacy: to serve his life-long vision of being able to give back to his community in a meaningful way. With his music, he wants to world to also get to know and love the vibrant sounds of his home country, and to showcase other Haitian and global artists in the process.

His new debut album, LOKAL, which dropped today, does just that. On the project, he collabed with more than a dozen featured artists for its nine upbeat, joyful tracks, weaving in traditional Haitian Rara and Konpa sounds with hip-hop, reggaetón, house and other danceable beats in a beautiful sonic tapestry. While it is his first full-length, Brun has been releasing tracks since he was in college, then with a more EDM during its early '10s boom.

Brun also aims to recreate the sound and liveliness of the block parties he used to throw back home to new audiences; his hugely successful North American Bayo 2019 tour, which he recently wrapped, featured a selection of Haitian artists and more special guests in every city.

"Those kinds of moments with the music that I grew up and to see artists that I really love and support have this platform, I think that's my personal favorite. That's this whole mission that I'm working on, to get my culture and my music heard," Brun told the Recording Academy in a recent phone interview that dove deep into the new album and his vision. He also tells the story of how he serendipitously met one of his mentors, Colombian reggaetón sta, J Balvin, and what he learned in working with him, among other topics.



You're releasing your album LOKAL soon. What are you most looking forward to about sharing it with the world?

I think just the fact that I've been making music now for coming into eight years professionally, and this is my first album project that I've ever done. So just being able to take all these different experiences from the last eight years of touring and collaborations with all these different types of people around the world, and then also bringing my culture, Haitian culture, and sounds in a really unique way to this project, I felt like this was the moment to do it and it's just representative of that whole journey.

Where did the idea for the project start? And how did it grow and shift as you began working on the songs and working with different collaborators?

I think part of the concept for this came from the tour that I was doing. It's called the Bayo tour; "bayo" in Creole means give it to them, or to give. The concept for that was just to create a showcase and a presentation of Haiti and Haitian sounds and culture for the whole world to be able to learn something new, hopefully, and then maybe find a new genre of music or artist that they like a lot.

So I was doing that tour, and that incorporated Haitian sounds but then also in my sets and in the actual live performance I'd play Latin music and I'd be playing African music. And I realized that they were way more similar than I ever initially thought. And I had these moments where I was like, I want to transition from an African song to a Haitian song or Caribbean song to a Latin song, and I felt like with the album it was an opportunity to create those transition moments where it showed the links between those different cultures. It was just over the course of two years of touring, finding those pockets where I could come up with something that would help tell that story.

That's so cool. You did the Bayo tour first in 2016 and then again this past year, correct?

Yeah, so it started out as literally a free block party in and around Haiti. I would just set up speakers or find a spot, it would be in the street sometimes, sometimes it would be in a venue, but we would just set up, and I'd invite all these different artists around Haiti to come and perform and it just a complete surprise. So we did that in 2016 and it started out with 50 people, if that. It was super small, but just, it was more about the sound and the vibe, but it grew.

When I brought it to the States, I did it in Miami first at the Little Haiti Cultural Center and then I did the first New York show in Brooklyn. And then it just went from like 50 people to like 500 people to 1,000 to now we sold over 10,000 tickets for the tour in the last year. So it's crazy how it's continued to evolve and just become this way bigger concept than I thought it would be.

It must be surreal and also just really powerful to share Bayo outside of Haiti to such big crowds.

It's been such an amazing experience to see the crowds and then also just to see the artist support too. Because I think what made this tour special, the one that we did in the spring, is we had such a diverse Haitian line-up but then we also had Maxwell in New York and Major Lazer and Mr Eazi in Miami, and then Adekunle Gold in Boston and Demarco and Kevin Lyttle, and all these different artists from around the world came in for the support. That was just so cool seeing all these different genres represented and these different countries and cultures, but somehow it could connect via Haiti. That was what I always hoped for this.

I want to talk a little bit about some of the different collaborators on the album. Did you know who you wanted to work with going into it? Or did that sort of grow organically as you started working on the album?

Partially. I knew that I wanted to work with the best of the best from Haiti. I wanted to find all the artists that I thought were doing a really amazing job across the board, not only as musicians but also as representatives of the country and supporting community and building up the image and the sound of Haiti. I had actually so many songs that didn't even make it on the album, just for the sake of time.

From those artists to the international artists that I was close with, like Diplo and Major Lazer. I'd been doing some stuff with them for years now and to finally get a track together was really, really cool. Diplo's been so supportive with everything. They came out in Miami it was a complete surprise, him and Walshy Fire [who is in Major Lazer with Diplo and Ape Drums]. It was really cool. Yeah, so they were one of the artists, just talking to them about the song and saying, "Let's make a song that represents the streets of Haiti that's a hot track but we can take it into a place where it can also be international and global." So that was one example.

And then Mr Eazi was another example. I went on tour with him, opening forJ Balvinlast fall, and we became really, really good friends and collaborating on so many different things outside of even just the two songs on the album. We have dozens of stuff together, music and projects that we've been doing. He's an amazingly talented artist, so getting him on there was a no-brainer.

And then Arcade Fire too. They had invited me to New Orleans for this project that they were doing and we got to spend a few days together, playing music and just talking. Win and Régine [of Arcade Fire] are such amazing people and to have them and the Preservation Hall and RAM all together on one song, it's such an honor really. I feel that all these international artists and the Haitian artists, they really are some of the best in their entire industry so it's really incredible.

The track list, with all of its featured artists, is really impressive. Was it a powerful experience for you, working with all these different artists?

Yeah, I'm so grateful, honestly. Because I feel like when you make a collaborative album, you're dealing with so many different people, you can have a vision, but if people don't fully connect with your vision maybe it won't work out. But in this case, it was so smooth. I think also just the fact that I worked with people who are friends and people that I really look up to, so that we've connected on a level before we even made the music helped. I think you hear it when you listen to the songs, even if it's in Creole or in French or in English, whatever language it is, I think it does feel really authentic and honest.

Can you speak to the different styles and sounds that you explore in the album? You mentioned how some of them are native sounds to Haiti, so it would be really cool to learn a bit more about those specifically.

I would say there's probably two specific genres that really were the focal point for me in Haitian music. One them is Konpa music, which is slower dance music, very Caribbean sounding with guitars and keyboards and a very iconic beat. It's mid-tempo. That dominated Haitian music for years. My dad actually had a band that made Konpa music, when I was a baby, so that's probably where I got some of the music production genes or whatever. [laughs] And actually, "Nouvo Jenerasyon," which is the second to last song on the album, has a sample of his band, funny enough. 

That was one genre. I feel like that's probably the most iconic Haitian genre that's existed. Somebody like Wyclef [Jean], for example, sampled that for some of his stuff. It's been known for a while. Then Rara music is the other kind that I really, really love. That's honestly one of my favorite genres of music in the whole world. It's this traditional, ceremonial music that's a mix of the Western African vodou rhythms and Haitian vodou rhythms with the tying of original native sounds. It's very percussive, it's very ritualistic. It's so hypnotic and powerful, when you hear that music it just puts you in a trance. 

I used to hear it every Sunday, actually. There was a Rara band that would always be near our neighborhood that would play and I love the rhythm so much. That very drum-heavy vibe, you hear throughout most of the album. You feel that accent, it feels like the earth. 

That whole combination of the two genres and then Afrobeat, and electronic music and hip-hop, and all these other genres that I was listening to and making, I wanted to infuse them and find a way to tell both of those stories.

Do you feel like the two Haitian genres were the threads throughout the album that kind of tied it together? Or, as you were integrating all these different sounds, what was the thing that kept it sounding so cohesive?

I think the main thing actually was, as a producer and why I haven't done an album yet, this is the first time I ever felt confident in it, as I wanted to have a really clear vision with the music I was making. I wanted to make sure that when I was going to do a project like this, that it would be timeless and be something that I could be proud of in my legacy as an artist, I wanted to make sure I could put these different sounds and genres and artists, put them into this vision of a mosaic of Haiti. Actually, when you look at the artwork for the album, it is a mosaic. It's meant to be connecting all these different parts of my culture and Haitian culture as a whole and putting that into perspective via this music.

And then something that I learned while being on tour with J Balvin and also just working with him and Mr Eazi, who are Colombian and Nigerian, was seeing how much they connected with what I was doing. The deeper I got into my own culture, the more it allowed me to connect with others. I felt like that was so important to get a clear vision of what Haiti represents to me and that led the album, that led the organization of it and the sounds. Because really genre-wise, there's all types of vibes on this album but I still feel like it's cohesive.

It's that transition from local, very, very local sounds, to global that I think is what I wanted that album to be about. If there was one thing I could say about it, you listen to it and you feel like, this is Haitian, but then also wait this makes me connect with all these other cultures too.

"The deeper I got into my own culture, the more it allowed me to connect with others. I felt like that was so important to get a clear vision of what Haiti represents to me and that led the album, that led the organization of it and the sounds."

So you collaborated with J Balvin on "Positivo," the 2018 World Cup song, in addition to joining his Vibras tour. How did you guys originally connect? What was the biggest thing you learned from working with him?

It was really so random, it was one of the craziest experiences of my life. I was in a meeting with Apple Music for my label, because I have my own label that I founded with my manager called Kid Coconut. We were doing a label meeting with upcoming releases and we were meeting with a few different people at Apple, and they asked at the end of the meeting, "Hey, do you have anything that you wanted to play that you're working on?" Because I was actually not focused on me, it was more like a general label meeting. And I was like, "Actually, yeah, I have this song 'Bayo' that I'm working on." I had made a list of international collaborators a few weeks earlier, and I was like, "I want to work with these artists around the world." J Balvin was the person that I had in mind for "Bayo."

I played them a 30-second section of the song and then they're like, "One sec. Can we get somebody else to come in here?" And so they brought the Latin editor at Apple, her name was Marisa. I spoke to her for a bit and played her the song. She was amazing, I mean everyone on the team was so nice, but she said, "Hey, you want to get J Balvin on this. I actually know José. I'll put you in touch." And I've heard that a million times and in every kind of way, like, "Yeah, I know that person." I was like, "Okay, but thank you, I don't expect that at all, but I appreciate you saying that." And then legitimately one week later, she messaged me, "Hey, José loved the song and he wants to speak with you."

And that was it. He sent me "Positivo" one week later and then three months later he hit me up again and he was like, "Hey, the World Cup's been asking me if I had a song that we could use." I was like, "Of course, use that. Why are you even asking?"

It just happened so naturally and he's been such a leading mentor and also given me a really great spotlight consistently, bringing me on any way he can. Bringing me, for example, to work on his upcoming album. It's been blessings for the last two years, nonstop blessings. I'm really grateful and also excited because I feel like all these different things I'm working on, they're now going to be coming out. I can't wait for people to see it.

That just sounds like such a serendipitous but also very much meant-to-happen moment of connecting you and J together.

I know. Another really funny thing, which is insane, was I was with Arcade Fire in New Orleans in February for this event that we were doing together. Diplo was there too, so I met up with him and spoke for a bit and then was like, "So where are you going next?" He's like, "Yeah, I'm going to Colombia." I'm like, "You're going where?" And he's like, "Medellín. Wait are you going to Medellín?" And we literally went to J Balvin's camp, like the day after, where we were working on music. We played football and made music, it was something crazy. I can't imagine anybody else in the world besides Diplo going from New Orleans to Medellín, working with Arcade Fire and then working with J Balvin. It was crazy.

You talked a little bit about your Bayo tour, which you just wrapped up. What's your favorite part about sharing music in that format?

I think there's a few parts. One of the personal favorite things was just the fact that all these artists that are on the tour, we had I think it was about 15, both women and men, of so many different genres. They're some of my favorite artists. And I feel like the diversity and just the quality of the music is so special, and yet it's not really known outside of Haiti. So being able to bring these different people on these pretty big stages. Like some of these shows are like 2,000 people and sold out. We sold out Brooklyn Steel, which was nuts to have all Haitian lineup sell out there.

Those kinds of moments with the music that I grew up and to see artists that I really love and support have this platform, I think that's my personal favorite. That's this whole mission that I'm working on, to get my culture and my music heard. So to see it happen from this tour so relatively quickly and to get the kind of support and feedback that we have been, it's been worth the sleepless nights and the crazy investments in every way possible. Like, making sure that everything goes as smoothly as it could, it's been worth it all. Because just to see further opportunity come up for some of these different artists has been amazing.

"Those kinds of moments with the music that I grew up and to see artists that I really love and support have this platform, I think that's my personal favorite. That's this whole mission that I'm working on, to get my culture and my music heard."

You mentioned your dad was in a band when you were growing up; what music were you jamming to when you were younger? Was there a specific moment when you knew you wanted to make music yourself?

Funny enough, I was pre-med in college and I thought I was going to be a pediatrician my whole life. That was my whole plan, because I grew up in Haiti and I felt a responsibility for the community that I was in that I had to give as much as I possibly could because I received so much. I felt like being a doctor was the most direct way. And I was volunteering at different hospitals. I got a full scholarship at Davidson College for that, to be a doctor.

But I loved music too. And both my parents were really musical. They played piano and different instruments. I did violin also, I sang, played guitar, a bunch of different things. Eventually I was producing when I was like 14, 15. And it was a hobby, I never thought, "I'm going to do this as a career." And then while I was in college, there was this one thing that ended up going viral on Hype Machine and it opened up this Pandora's box of music stuff. But it was really serendipitous. I feel like I've had a lot of serendipity in my life. The fact that I was able to speak with the school and with my family and friends and making music was the option that everybody supported. Because school was always going to be there for me, so that was amazing.

And then the other part of your question; musically, I listened to so much different stuff. My parents were really, really into '70s and '80s music, so like Earth, Wind & Fire. And everything from the '80s, my dad was a huge Tears for Fears fan, he loves, loves, loves that group. And my mom listened to everything contemporary too, so it was a mix of all these different international genres and then whatever was on in Haiti at the time, so Kompa music and Rara music, hip-hop and all of that informed my music. EDM too, because I made it for like the first five years of my career. That was during that whole amazing boom of that music, so it really gave me an opportunity.

When you tell that story it really makes sense with how your musical path has all come together now, exactly where you are today.

Yeah, I mean the thing is, even though I'm making music now versus being a doctor, I feel like that is also improving the community that I came from. And to work with those tools and with the people and provide more opportunities and just have that as the focus of what I do; it's always been there. And I can see the results now with music, that maybe as a doctor you get to reach a few thousand people in your life, which is already incredible, right? But then with music you can reach millions. And I think that as I continue on with this, I always want to keep that really in the forefront of what I do, because it's a responsibility and I want to create as much good as I can.



I love that. And it goes perfectly into my next question; what do you feel is your biggest duty and goal as a rising global artist in 2019?

I think as a global artist, the people that I really look up to in the industry like J Balvin or Mr. Eazi or any of these international artists that I feel like are representing their cultures really proudly; they know where they come from, they really know who they are. And that allows them to not only have the support of their entire community and wherever they grew up or their country or even the continent. Eazi represents all of Africa in my opinion, not just Nigeria. J Balvin represents all of Latin America, he doesn't just represent Colombia. And the reason they can do that is because their identities are so strong that you just know that's what they are and they know that too. I really want that same level of clarity when I'm working as an artist so people can connect with that.

And I see that honestly, I've already seen it in the last few years of working on it, and being able to work with some of these impossible-to-reach people, it's been such a blessing. And I think that goes hand-in-hand with making great art. And then also representing your community; when you do that, I feel like doors open for you and it allows you to create bridges.

What is your biggest dream for the trajectory of your path in music over the next few years?

I really want to leave an amazing legacy for what I do. I don't want to ever have anything that's middle of the road. I'd rather you hate it than you love it, honestly. I feel like that's the purpose of art, it's supposed to make you feel something. And with my legacy, when you first listen to something that I worked on, I think you'll have that reaction. Then when you look deeper into it and you see how carefully I've been thinking about this and how much I'm incorporating community into the work that I do, I hope that it inspires people too.

I feel like education allowed me to get this far in my life, especially coming from Haiti where that's not always that accessible, and it can really completely change the course of your life. I hope that when people see how I've been able to get to where I am today, it's because of a combination of all these different things. They're tools you can share, it's not things that only a few people have access too. I want it to be accessible to everybody. So, legacy is really important to me right now.

It's been amazing talking to you and learning more about your story and being able to hear your music, thanks so much for sharing it with us. 

I really appreciate it, because that's what helps to get this further out to the rest of the world. Everybody that's helped support this has made it into something way bigger than I could have imagined, and I'm really grateful. 

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Listen: All Of The Alternative Music 2023 GRAMMY Nominees In One Playlist
Listen to this comprehensive playlist of the Alternative Music GRAMMY nominees at the 2023 GRAMMYs.

Graphic: The Recording Academy

Listen: All Of The Alternative Music 2023 GRAMMY Nominees In One Playlist

Celebrate ahead of Music's Biggest Night on Feb. 5, 2023, with this playlist of every Alternative nominee at the 2023 GRAMMYs including Arctic Monkeys, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Björk & more.

GRAMMYs/Jan 13, 2023 - 07:45 pm

Alternative music triumphed in 2022, glistening with ambition, sincerity and yearning.

The Recording Academy introduced several new categories for the 2023 GRAMMY Awards, including an addition to the alternative genre's honors: Best Alternative Music Performance. Together with Best Alternative Music Album, these two categories celebrate the alternative genre's greatest music makers.

In the recently added Best Alternative Music Performance category, Arctic Monkeys are nominated for their down-to-earth track about a doomed relationship "There'd Better Be A Mirrorball," alongside Big Thief's folksy "Certainty" and Florence + The Machine's acute "King," which both examine a precarious future with sharpness and heart. 

Best New Artist nominee Wet Leg's tongue-in-cheek wit shines through on "Chaise Longue." In the same category, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Perfume Genius unite with a beautifully ominous quality on "Spitting Off The Edge Of The World."

Embracing visionary eclecticism, the following albums are nominated for Best Alternative Music Album: Arcade Fire's WE, Big Thief's Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You, Björk's Fossora, Wet Leg's Wet Leg, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Cool It Down.

Listen to all of the above songs and albums in this comprehensive playlist of the Alternative Music GRAMMY nominees at the 2023 GRAMMYs.

Check it out on Amazon Music. Find out who wins on Music's Biggest Night on Sunday, Feb. 5!

Playlist powered by GRAMMY U.

2023 GRAMMY Nominations: See The Complete Nominees List

Press Play On GRAMMY U Mixtape: New Year, It’s Poppin'! Monthly Member Playlist

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Press Play On GRAMMY U Mixtape: New Year, It’s Poppin'! Monthly Member Playlist

The GRAMMY U Mixtape is a monthly, genre-spanning playlist to quench your thirst for new tunes, all from student members. GRAMMY U celebrates new beginnings with fresh pop tunes that will kickstart 2023.

GRAMMYs/Jan 6, 2023 - 12:17 am

Did you know that among all of the students in GRAMMY U, songwriting and performance is one of the most sought after fields of study? We want to create a space to hear what these students are creating today!

The GRAMMY U Mixtape, now available for your listening pleasure, highlights the creations and fresh ideas that students are bringing to this industry directly on the Recording Academy's Spotify and Apple Music pages. Our goal is to celebrate GRAMMY U members, as well as the time and effort they put into making original music — from the songwriting process to the final production of the track.

Each month, we accept submissions and feature 20 to 25 songs that match that month’s theme. This month we're ringing in 2023 with our New Year, It's Poppin'! playlist, which features fresh pop songs that bring new year, new you vibes. Showcasing talented members from our various chapters, we felt these songs represented the positivity and hopefulness that GRAMMY U members embody as they tackle this upcoming year of exciting possibilities.

So, what’s stopping you? Press play on GRAMMY U’s Mixtape and listen now on Spotify below and Apple Music.

Want to be featured on the next playlist? Submit your songs today! We are currently accepting submissions for songs of all genres for consideration for our February playlist. Whether you write pop, rock, hip hop, jazz, or classical, we want to hear from you. Music must be written and/or produced by the student member (an original song) and you must be able to submit a Spotify and/or Apple Music link to the song. Students must be a GRAMMY U member to submit.

About GRAMMY U:

GRAMMY U is a program that connects college students with the industry's brightest and most talented minds and provides those aspiring professionals with the tools and opportunities necessary to start a career in music.     

Throughout each semester, events and special programs touch on all facets of the industry, including the business, technology, and the creative process.

As part of the Recording Academy's mission to ensure the recorded arts remain a thriving part of our shared cultural heritage, GRAMMY U establishes the necessary foundation for music’s next generation to flourish.

Not a member, but want to submit to our playlist? Apply for GRAMMY U Membership here.

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

Photo: Rachel Kupfer 

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

James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.

GRAMMYs/Nov 25, 2022 - 04:23 pm

It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.

Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.

Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.

In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.

Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.

There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.

Say She She

Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.

While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."

Moniquea

Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.

Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.

Shiro Schwarz

Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.

Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.

L'Impératrice

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

Photo: Steven Sebring

interview

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

"One foot in the past and one foot into the future," Billy Idol says, describing his decade-spanning career in rock. "We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol."

GRAMMYs/Nov 25, 2022 - 04:19 pm

Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Billy Idol about his latest EP,  Cage, and continuing to rock through decades of changing tastes.

Billy Idol is a true rock 'n' roll survivor who has persevered through cultural shifts and personal struggles. While some may think of Idol solely for "Rebel Yell" and "White Wedding," the singer's musical influences span genres and many of his tunes are less turbo-charged than his '80s hits would belie.  

Idol first made a splash in the latter half of the '70s with the British punk band Generation X. In the '80s, he went on to a solo career combining rock, pop, and punk into a distinct sound that transformed him and his musical partner, guitarist Steve Stevens, into icons. They have racked up multiple GRAMMY nominations, in addition to one gold, one double platinum, and four platinum albums thanks to hits like "Cradle Of Love," "Flesh For Fantasy," and "Eyes Without A Face." 

But, unlike many legacy artists, Idol is anything but a relic. Billy continues to produce vital Idol music by collaborating with producers and songwriters — including Miley Cyrus — who share his forward-thinking vision. He will play a five-show Vegas residency in November, and filmmaker Jonas Akerlund is working on a documentary about Idol’s life. 

His latest release is Cage, the second in a trilogy of annual four-song EPs. The title track is a classic Billy Idol banger expressing the desire to free himself from personal constraints and live a better life. Other tracks on Cage incorporate metallic riffing and funky R&B grooves. 

Idol continues to reckon with his demons — they both grappled with addiction during the '80s — and the singer is open about those struggles on the record and the page. (Idol's 2014 memoir Dancing With Myself, details a 1990 motorcycle accident that nearly claimed a leg, and how becoming a father steered him to reject hard drugs. "Bitter Taste," from his last EP, The Roadside, reflects on surviving the accident.)

Although Idol and Stevens split in the late '80s — the skilled guitarist fronted Steve Stevens & The Atomic Playboys, and collaborated with Michael Jackson, Rick Ocasek, Vince Neil, and Harold Faltermeyer (on the GRAMMY-winning "Top Gun Anthem") —  their common history and shared musical bond has been undeniable. The duo reunited in 2001 for an episode of "VH1 Storytellers" and have been back in the saddle for two decades. Their union remains one of the strongest collaborations in rock 'n roll history.

While there is recognizable personnel and a distinguishable sound throughout a lot of his work, Billy Idol has always pushed himself to try different things. Idol discusses his musical journey, his desire to constantly move forward, and the strong connection that he shares with Stevens. 

Steve has said that you like to mix up a variety of styles, yet everyone assumes you're the "Rebel Yell"/"White Wedding" guy. But if they really listen to your catalog, it's vastly different.

Yeah, that's right. With someone like Steve Stevens, and then back in the day Keith Forsey producing... [Before that] Generation X actually did move around inside punk rock. We didn't stay doing just the Ramones two-minute music. We actually did a seven-minute song. [Laughs]. We did always mix things up. 

Then when I got into my solo career, that was the fun of it. With someone like Steve, I knew what he could do. I could see whatever we needed to do, we could nail it. The world was my oyster musically. 

"Cage" is a classic-sounding Billy Idol rocker, then "Running From The Ghost" is almost metal, like what the Devil's Playground album was like back in the mid-2000s. "Miss Nobody" comes out of nowhere with this pop/R&B flavor. What inspired that?

We really hadn't done anything like that since something like "Flesh For Fantasy" [which] had a bit of an R&B thing about it. Back in the early days of Billy Idol, "Hot In The City" and "Mony Mony" had girls [singing] on the backgrounds. 

We always had a bit of R&B really, so it was actually fun to revisit that. We just hadn't done anything really quite like that for a long time. That was one of the reasons to work with someone like Sam Hollander [for the song "Rita Hayworth"] on The Roadside. We knew we could go [with him] into an R&B world, and he's a great songwriter and producer. That's the fun of music really, trying out these things and seeing if you can make them stick. 

I listen to new music by veteran artists and debate that with some people. I'm sure you have those fans that want their nostalgia, and then there are some people who will embrace the newer stuff. Do you find it’s a challenge to reach people with new songs?

Obviously, what we're looking for is, how do we somehow have one foot in the past and one foot into the future? We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol. 

You want to do things that are true to you, and you don't just want to try and do things that you're seeing there in the charts today. I think that we're achieving it with things like "Running From The Ghost" and "Cage" on this new EP. I think we’re managing to do both in a way. 

Obviously, "Running From The Ghost" is about addiction, all the stuff that you went through, and in "Cage" you’re talking about  freeing yourself from a lot of personal shackles. Was there any one moment in your life that made you really thought I have to not let this weigh me down anymore?

I mean, things like the motorcycle accident I had, that was a bit of a wake up call way back. It was 32 years ago. But there were things like that, years ago, that gradually made me think about what I was doing with my life. I didn't want to ruin it, really. I didn't want to throw it away, and it made [me] be less cavalier. 

I had to say to myself, about the drugs and stuff, that I've been there and I've done it. There’s no point in carrying on doing it. You couldn't get any higher. You didn't want to throw your life away casually, and I was close to doing that. It took me a bit of time, but then gradually I was able to get control of myself to a certain extent [with] drugs and everything. And I think Steve's done the same thing. We're on a similar path really, which has been great because we're in the same boat in terms of lyrics and stuff. 

So a lot of things like that were wake up calls. Even having grandchildren and just watching my daughter enlarging her family and everything; it just makes you really positive about things and want to show a positive side to how you're feeling, about where you're going. We've lived with the demons so long, we've found a way to live with them. We found a way to be at peace with our demons, in a way. Maybe not completely, but certainly to where we’re enjoying what we do and excited about it.

[When writing] "Running From The Ghost" it was easy to go, what was the ghost for us? At one point, we were very drug addicted in the '80s. And Steve in particular is super sober [now]. I mean, I still vape pot and stuff. I don’t know how he’s doing it, but it’s incredible. All I want to be able to do is have a couple of glasses of wine at a restaurant or something. I can do that now.

I think working with people that are super talented, you just feel confident. That is a big reason why you open up and express yourself more because you feel comfortable with what's around you.

Did you watch Danny Boyle's recent Sex Pistols mini-series?

I did, yes.

You had a couple of cameos; well, an actor who portrayed you did. How did you react to it? How accurate do you think it was in portraying that particular time period?

I love Jonesy’s book, I thought his book was incredible. It's probably one of the best bio books really. It was incredible and so open. I was looking forward to that a lot.

It was as if [the show] kind of stayed with Steve [Jones’ memoir] about halfway through, and then departed from it. [John] Lydon, for instance, was never someone I ever saw acting out; he's more like that today. I never saw him do something like jump up in the room and run around going crazy. The only time I saw him ever do that was when they signed the recording deal with Virgin in front of Buckingham Palace. Whereas Sid Vicious was always acting out; he was always doing something in a horrible way or shouting at someone. I don't remember John being like that. I remember him being much more introverted.

But then I watched interviews with some of the actors about coming to grips with the parts they were playing. And they were saying, we knew punk rock happened but just didn't know any of the details. So I thought well, there you go. If ["Pistol" is]  informing a lot of people who wouldn't know anything about punk rock, maybe that's what's good about it.

Maybe down the road John Lydon will get the chance to do John's version of the Pistols story. Maybe someone will go a lot deeper into it and it won't be so surface. But maybe you needed this just to get people back in the flow.

We had punk and metal over here in the States, but it feels like England it was legitimately more dangerous. British society was much more rigid.

It never went [as] mega in America. It went big in England. It exploded when the Pistols did that interview with [TV host Bill] Grundy, that lorry truck driver put his boot through his own TV, and all the national papers had "the filth and the fury" [headlines].

We went from being unknown to being known overnight. We waited a year, Generation X. We even told them [record labels] no for nine months to a year. Every record company wanted their own punk rock group. So it went really mega in England, and it affected the whole country – the style, the fashions, everything. I mean, the Ramones were massive in England. Devo had a No. 1 song [in England] with "Satisfaction" in '77. Actually, Devo was as big as or bigger than the Pistols.

You were ahead of the pop-punk thing that happened in the late '90s, and a lot of it became tongue-in-cheek by then. It didn't have the same sense of rebelliousness as the original movement. It was more pop.

It had become a style. There was a famous book in England called Revolt Into Style — and that's what had happened, a revolt that turned into style which then they were able to duplicate in their own way. Even recently, Billie Joe [Armstrong] did his own version of "Gimme Some Truth," the Lennon song we covered way back in 1977.

When we initially were making [punk] music, it hadn't become accepted yet. It was still dangerous and turned into a style that people were used to. We were still breaking barriers.

You have a band called Generation Sex with Steve Jones and Paul Cook. I assume you all have an easier time playing Pistols and Gen X songs together now and not worrying about getting spit on like back in the '70s?

Yeah, definitely. When I got to America I told the group I was putting it together, "No one spits at the audience."

We had five years of being spat on [in the UK], and it was revolting. And they spat at you if they liked you. If they didn't like it they smashed your gear up. One night, I remember I saw blood on my T-shirt, and I think Joe Strummer got meningitis when spit went in his mouth.

You had to go through a lot to become successful, it wasn't like you just kind of got up there and did a couple of gigs. I don't think some young rock bands really get that today.

With punk going so mega in England, we definitely got a leg up. We still had a lot of work to get where we got to, and rightly so because you find out that you need to do that. A lot of groups in the old days would be together three to five years before they ever made a record, and that time is really important. In a way, what was great about punk rock for me was it was very much a learning period. I really learned a lot [about] recording music and being in a group and even writing songs.

Then when I came to America, it was a flow, really. I also really started to know what I wanted Billy Idol to be. It took me a little bit, but I kind of knew what I wanted Billy Idol to be. And even that took a while to let it marinate.

You and Miley Cyrus have developed a good working relationship in the last several years. How do you think her fans have responded to you, and your fans have responded to her?

I think they're into it. It's more the record company that she had didn't really get "Night Crawling"— it was one of the best songs on Plastic Hearts, and I don't think they understood that. They wanted to go with Dua Lipa, they wanted to go with the modern, young acts, and I don't think they realized that that song was resonating with her fans. Which is a shame really because, with Andrew Watt producing, it's a hit song.

But at the same time, I enjoyed doing it. It came out really good and it's very Billy Idol. In fact, I think it’s more Billy Idol than Miley Cyrus. I think it shows you where Andrew Watt was. He was excited about doing a Billy Idol track. She's fun to work with. She’s a really great person and she works at her singing — I watched her rehearsing for the Super Bowl performance she gave. She rehearsed all Saturday morning, all Saturday afternoon, and Sunday morning and it was that afternoon. I have to admire her fortitude. She really cares.

I remember when you went on "Viva La Bamback in 2005 and decided to give Bam Margera’s Lamborghini a new sunroof by taking a power saw to it. Did he own that car? Was that a rental?

I think it was his car.

Did he get over it later on?

He loved it. [Laughs] He’s got a wacky sense of humor. He’s fantastic, actually. I’m really sorry to see what he's been going through just lately. He's going through a lot, and I wish him the best. He's a fantastic person, and it's a shame that he's struggling so much with his addictions. I know what it's like. It's not easy.

Musically, what is the synergy like with you guys during the past 10 years, doing Kings and Queens of the Underground and this new stuff? What is your working relationship like now in this more sober, older, mature version of you two as opposed to what it was like back in the '80s?

In lots of ways it’s not so different because we always wrote the songs together, we always talked about what we're going to do together. It was just that we were getting high at the same time.We're just not getting [that way now] but we're doing all the same things.

We're still talking about things, still [planning] things:What are we going to do next? How are we going to find new people to work with? We want to find new producers. Let's be a little bit more timely about putting stuff out.That part of our relationship is the same, you know what I mean? That never got affected. We just happened to be overloading in the '80s.

The relationship’s… matured and it's carrying on being fruitful, and I think that's pretty amazing. Really, most people don't get to this place. Usually, they hate each other by now. [Laughs] We also give each other space. We're not stopping each other doing things outside of what we’re working on together. All of that enables us to carry on working together. I love and admire him. I respect him. He's been fantastic. I mean, just standing there on stage with him is always a treat. And he’s got an immensely great sense of humor. I think that's another reason why we can hang together after all this time because we've got the sense of humor to enable us to go forward.

There's a lot of fan reaction videos online, and I noticed a lot of younger women like "Rebel Yell" because, unlike a lot of other '80s alpha male rock tunes, you're talking about satisfying your lover.

It was about my girlfriend at the time, Perri Lister. It was about how great I thought she was, how much I was in love with her, and how great women are, how powerful they are.

It was a bit of a feminist anthem in a weird way. It was all about how relationships can free you and add a lot to your life. It was a cry of love, nothing to do with the Civil War or anything like that. Perri was a big part of my life, a big part of being Billy Idol. I wanted to write about it. I'm glad that's the effect.

Is there something you hope people get out of the songs you've been doing over the last 10 years? Do you find yourself putting out a message that keeps repeating?

Well, I suppose, if anything, is that you can come to terms with your life, you can keep a hold of it. You can work your dreams into reality in a way and, look, a million years later, still be enjoying it.

The only reason I'm singing about getting out of the cage is because I kicked out of the cage years ago. I joined Generation X when I said to my parents, "I'm leaving university, and I'm joining a punk rock group." And they didn't even know what a punk rock group was. Years ago, I’d write things for myself that put me on this path, so that maybe in 2022 I could sing something like "Cage" and be owning this territory and really having a good time. This is the life I wanted.

The original UK punk movement challenged societal norms. Despite all the craziness going on throughout the world, it seems like a lot of modern rock bands are afraid to do what you guys were doing. Do you think we'll see a shift in that?

Yeah.  Art usually reacts to things, so I would think eventually there will be a massive reaction to the pop music that’s taken over — the middle of the road music, and then this kind of right wing politics. There will be a massive reaction if there's not already one. I don’t know where it will come from exactly. You never know who's gonna do [it].

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