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Empire CEO/Founder Ghazi Shami

Photo by Adrian Spinelli

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How EMPIRE Became A Music Industry Giant In An Unlikely City

Led by founder and S.F. native Ghazi Shami, EMPIRE is flourishing in a city marked by big tech and little else

GRAMMYs/Aug 15, 2019 - 04:13 am

The elevator doors open on the 25th floor into a sleek, glass-walled office. There's a Platinum or Gold record plaque on every wall throughout the space from iconic hip-hop releases like Fat Joe and Remy Ma's "All The Way Up" single, Kendrick Lamar's Section.80 album, as well as new stacks coming in from emerging stars like Rich Brian and Lil Durk. While this would be par for the course in L.A. or New York music industry enclaves, we're in a less likely locale: Downtown San Francisco, where EMPIRE HQ, an independent Bay Area label/distributor, has carved out a unique place in hip-hop and beyond.

Entities like EMPIRE don't typically exist in San Francisco, a place devoid of major music industry label infrastructure these days, aside from digital streaming providers (DSP). But CEO/Founder Ghazi Shami, an S.F. local who came up as an audio engineer and then Director of Urban at UMG-owned distribution firm InGrooves, was committed to building an independent entity in his backyard. 

"I'm a product of my environment," says Shami. "This company wouldn't exist if I wasn’t born and bred in the Bay; in S.F. and Silicon Valley. This company is as much a software company as it is a music company. It’d be a disservice to the roots, to the origin, to everything that I stand for, if this company wasnt firmly planted or rooted here."

Since its inception in 2010, EMPIRE has set itself apart from the pack by focusing on digital music platforms first, a stroke of foresight, but also timing, right around when majors still hadn’t accepted that physical sales were going by the wayside. The streaming music focus has rendered EMPIRE as not only a go-to player in hip-hop, but also an organization that facilitates accurate royalty payments to artists, songwriters, producers and labels from all ends of the spectrum. Plus, by staying independent, it affords Shami and EMPIRE unique flexibility to do business differently than a major label. 

"I don't have a board of directors. I don't have shareholders," Shami says. "The Bay Area is a tech hub, but it was also the indie music mecca of the U.S. We didn’t crack the mold, we made the mold on independent music. When artists were getting 75 cents as a royalty for an album, there were artists out here like E-40 getting $9 an album on P&D deals."

More Than Hip-Hop?

That Bay Area hustler mentality is indeed strong at EMPIRE, and it’s at the root of what has made the company's ascent look so different. Not only have they built up their marketing, publishing, content and merchandising divisions to the tune of over 60 employees spread across S.F., a London office and an A&R team in New York, they've begun to expand into new verticals outside of hip-hop. 

VP of A&R Tina Davis, a Def Jam alum who ran a management firm for over a decade until joining EMPIRE in early 2018, says EMPIRE has had an eye on diverse talent outside of hip-hop long before she arrived. 

"It started with hip-hop, that’s the foundation," Davis says. "But prior to me getting here for example, they had successfully set up [chart-topping country singer] Kane Brown. Now we've got DJ Carnage on the EDM side, Robin Thicke has the #1 Adult Contemporary Single for the third week in a row and we have a very strong Latin America division."

Since coming to EMPIRE, Davis says she's actually had to develop a "different side of A&R," namely via analytics and metrics. So while she and her team are rooted in the old school, they have to be forward-thinking when building relationships with streaming services and allowing artists to upload their own releases to DSP’s whenever they want. 

"There's transparency," Davis says. "They can put it up themselves and see exactly what their streams are making and how much they’re making. In the old-school way, you’d get bottlenecked because you’re behind the A-List artist and then you finally get a chance to come out and you’re don’t know what to do anymore."

Bay Area R&B singer Rayana Jay, for example, has put out each of her last two releases in a joint venture with EMPIRE, a set-up Shami is keen on and has made it fairly standard in EMPIRE releases. Pull up the label metadata on a streaming service for an artist and you’ll often see both their name or self-owned label along with EMPIRE's. For Jay, there’s a specific element to the JV structure that appeals to her. "Honestly what I have with Empire is brilliant and something I don’t take for granted," she says. "I have ownership of my masters which is rare, and it’s truly a blessing."

EMPIRE's VP of A&R Tina Davis

Growth In Latin Music

Across the sweeping open floor plan of the EMPIRE office, Alán Hensley, Product Manager for EMPIRE Latino (the Latin American division that Davis referenced) is one of the Empire team members who cultivates relationships with streaming services. Hensley got his Masters Degree in Global Entertainment and Music at Berklee College of Music’s Valencia, Spain campus and was working at Square—a payment services tech company co-founded by Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and headquartered in S.F.—before jumping on at Empire over two years ago. 

In a lot of ways, Hensley’s background in tech and his studies abroad signify the future of the music industry. Now operating in 16 different Spanish-speaking countries, EMPIRE needs people like Hensley to navigate this new landscape. 

"One of the most important parts of what we do, is trying to develop a relationship with the DSP’s; the editors and curators of the playlist,” Hensley says. “The new age of music isn’t just about working the album, but working songs into playlists.” 

LatAm music has grown exponentially over the past five years; three of the top four most-viewed YouTube videos in 2019 are from Spanish-speaking artists. And EMPIRE is making inroads working with artists like GRAMMY Award-winning Nicaraguan salsa singer Luis Enrique and Puerto Rican reggaeton artist Darkiel. But Hensley explains that the tide is turning for Latina musicians. 

"It wasn’t until recently [that] we're seeing [Latina musicians] taking control of their narrative," Hensley says. "And now, as LatAm countries and cultures progress more, that narrative is being talked about so openly from the female perspective. But as I look at the charts, as I look at everything on Spotify, it almost seems illogical that there’s so few females out there, but I don’t think it’s for a lack of talent. So I specifically try to find females that are really dope who have something to offer just as much as their male counterparts do... And in general as Latin music is getting more popular in the U.S. and starting to push societal norms and topics within these LatAm countries forward, it’s a reason why EMPIRE has been able to quickly make moves in the market."

EMPIRE VP, Nima Etminan, with newly arrived plaques for releases from Lil Durk and Rich Brian

Not Without Challenges

From both a label and a distribution perspective, EMPIRE has no shortage of marquee artists on their roster. The success of Anderson .Paak’s album Malibu, D.R.A.M.'s ubiquitous "Broccoli" have both been defining releases. And most recently, Iggy Azalea's latest album, In My Defense and Snoop Dogg’s upcoming album, I WANNA THANK ME, are both released as joint ventures with EMPIRE. 

But perhaps their biggest success story has been in distributing and releasing the work of embattled rapper XXXTENTACION, both before and after his life was cut short in 2018. The Florida rapper's career has been celebrated for both the popularity of his emotional, post-Soundcloud rap that refused to adhere to stylistic singularity and the accompanying gaudy streaming numbers ("Sad" has over one billion Spotify streams and it's hard to find any song not in nine-figure streams). Over his legacy, however, hangs a cloud from multiple domestic abuse allegations and a slew of other legal issues that followed him through a rough upbringing. The push/pull nature of his music and personal life are an understandable line in the sand for a lot of listeners. 

"I knew him as a person and what he was going through," Shami says. "If I ride with you, I'm with you till the stick shift breaks. From the beginning, I told him 'I'm with you good or bad.' He was making some amazing progress in his personal life and it's a shame that it got cut so short. He's definitely an artist that defined a segment of the legacy of this company for sure. We've had quite a few and he definitely has a gigantic chapter that’s still being written."

That future chapter is the release of Bad Vibes Forever, a joint venture between EMPIRE and XXXTENTACION's estate. Presiding over an artist's posthumous discography is no easy task—especially this particular artist, whose life was much maligned—but Shami feels confident that this project will honor his artistic legacy.

"It’s hard, gut-wrenching," Shami says of releasing this music. "You spend a lot of time that you feel will honor the legacy of how you’d want it to be. I did. With his Mom, [XXXTENTACION's manager] Solomon, producers and engineers. They’ve dug through his scrapbooks and voice notes to weave a narrative that’s as true to form as what we would have wanted."

Shami looks out his office window.

A Chance At Success

When I came into the EMPIRE office on a Tuesday afternoon, Shami handed me a water in an Aluminum bottle. I remarked how I’d seen this water before and liked that it wasn’t in plastic. He told me he was actually an investor in the brand; a group of young upstarts approached him with the opportunity, saying they came up similarly to him and that he could stand to make a lot of money. 

"I looked at them and said that I don't care about making a lot of money," he says. "But I'd invest on one condition: 'When you’re successful and you get on, the next kid that comes from what we came from or had the same challenges of the same things we went through, when they come looking for an opportunity, make sure they get a chance the way I gave you a chance."

It’s the Bay Area pay-it-forward hustle personified. It’s how Shami’s 2008 summer intern at InGrooves, Nima Etminan, is now his second-in-command as EMPIRE's VP. "I'm like Robin to his Batman," Etminan jokes. 

With EMPIRE approaching 10 years in business, the pair reflects on what they’ve built together. "We fall somewhere into that middle space," Etminan says. "A lot of resources and infrastructure that typically only come with a major [label], but transparency and flexibility and lack of politics that usually comes with an indie."

"We’re very fluid," Shami adds. "I can build infrastructure very quickly and if something doesn’t work, I can tear it down and rebuild it and shift directions. It’s like King Kong vs Bruce Lee: do you want size and strength or speed and ingenuity?"

Shami then turns around in his chair, looks out the window and points just beyond San Francisco's Financial District towards Chinatown. 

"Bruce Lee was born a block from over there."

All photos by Adrian Spinelli​

How SFJAZZ Center Established Itself As A Cultural Force In San Francisco

Kid Cudi performs at Coachella 2024
Kid Cudi, whose music often discusses mental health, performs at Coachella 2024.

Photo: Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Coachella

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10 Times Hip-Hop Has Given A Voice To Mental Health: Eminem, J. Cole, Logic & More Speak Out

From the message of "The Message" to Joe Budden's vulnerable podcast and Jay-Z speaking about the importance of therapy, read on for moments in the history of hip-hop where mental health was at the forefront.

GRAMMYs/May 20, 2024 - 03:10 pm

In a world of braggadocio lyrics, where weakness is often looked down upon, hip-hop can often seem far from a safe place to discuss mental health. 

But underneath its rugged exterior, hip-hop culture and its artists have long been proponents of well-being and discussing the importance of taking care of one's mental health. Openness about these topics has grown in recent years, including a 2022 panel discussion around hip-hop and mental health, co-hosted by the GRAMMY Museum, the Recording Academy's Black Music Collective, and MusicCares in partnership with the Universal Hip-Hop Museum. 

"Artists are in a fight-or-flight mode when it comes to being in this game," said Eric Brooks, former VP of Marketing & Promotions at Priority Records who worked with NWA and Dr. Dre. "And there need to be strategies on how to deal with the inner battles that only happen in the mind and body."  

The panel only scratched the surface of the many times hip-hop culture has illuminated critical mental health issues that often remain hidden or under-discussed in the music industry. In recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month, read on for 10 times hip-hop has shone a light on mental health. 

J. Cole Apologized To Kendrick Lamar

A long-simmering beef between Drake and Kendrick Lamar was reignited in March 2024 when Metro Boomin' and Future released "Like That." The track featured a scathing verse from Kendrick, where he took aim at  Drake and J. Cole, and referenced the pair's collaborative song "First Person Shooter." 

The single begged for a response, and J. Cole, under what was presumably a significant amount of pressure, surprise-released his Might Delete Later. The album featured "7 Minute Drill," in which Cole calls Kendrick's To Pimp, A Butterfly boring. 

But the same week Cole's album came out, he apologized to Kendrick onstage at his Dreamville Fest, saying it didn't sit right with his spirit and that he "felt terrible" since it was released. Cole added that the song didn’t sit right with him spiritually and he was unable to sleep. Cole subsequently removed "7 Minute Drill" from streaming services. 

Strong debate followed about whether or not Cole should have removed the song. However, many heralded Cole’s maturity in the decision and said it was an important example of not doing things that don’t align with one's true emotions, and avoiding allowing others expectations of you weight down your own physical and mental health.

SiR Spoke Candidly About Depression & Sobriety

Although an R&B artist, TDE singer SiR is hip-hop adjacent, having collaborated with former labelmate Kendrick Lamar on tracks like "D'Evils" and "Hair Down." SiR recently spoke with GRAMMY.com about the troubles that followed him after the release of his 2019 album Chasing Summer.

"I was a full-blown addict, and it started from a string of depression [and] relationship issues and issues at home that I wasn't dealing with," SiR says. After the Los Angeles-based singer had hit rock bottom, he found the spark he needed to do something about it. His initial rehab stint was the first step on the road to change.  

"I was there for 21 days [in 2021]. [The] second time, I was there for two months and the third time wasn't technically rehab…I did personal therapy, and, man, [that] did wonders," he recalls. 

SiR also tackled the stigma many Black communities place on therapy and seeking help for mental health issues. "I would've never done something like that if I was in any other position, so I'm thankful for my issues because they led me to a lot of self-reflection and forgiveness," SiR says.

Big Sean Educated His Audience About Anxiety & Depression 

One of the biggest challenges in addressing anxiety and depression is the feeling that those issues must be kept under wraps.  In 2021, Big Sean and his mother released a series of videos in conjunction with Mental Health Awareness Month, in which the GRAMMY nominee opened up about his battles with depression and anxiety. 

In one of those videos, Sean and his mother discussed  the importance of sleep and circadian rhythms when managing depression and mental health issues. In an industry that prioritizes the grind, the hip-hop community often overlooks sleep — much to its detriment.

"Sleep is the most overlooked, disrespected aspect of our well-being," said Myra Anderson, Executive Director & President of the Sean Anderson Foundation and Big Sean's mother. "Even one day without good sleep can mess up your hormones severely." 

As a busy recording artist, Sean concurs that, for him, a lack of sleep contributes to challenges with anxiety. “If I’m not in the right mindset, I don’t get the right sleep,” says Sean in the mental health video series. “Then that anxiety rides high, and my thoughts are racing. I’m somebody that lives in my head.”

G.Herbo's "PTSD" Addressed The Impact Of Street Violence

Eastside Chicago's G. Herbo is an artist vital to the city's drill music scene. On "PTSD," the title track of his 2020 album, Herbo raps about his struggles coping with violence and loss. 

"I can't sleep 'cause it's a war zone in my head / My killers good, they know I'm hands-on with the bread / A million dollars ahead, I'm still angry and seeing red / How the f*ck I'm 'posed to have fun? All my n— dead."  

The lyrics echoed the realities of what G. Herbo grew up seeing in O-Block, considered by many to be one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Chicago. But it wasn't just a song title; G. Herbo was diagnosed with PTSD in 2019 and began therapy to manage it, showing that even rap's most hardened have opened themselves up to professional help. 

"I'm so glad that I did go to therapy," G. Herbo told GRAMMY.com in July 2020. "I'm glad that I did take that leap of faith to just go talk to somebody about my situation and just my thoughts and get 'em to a person with an unbiased opinion." 

Joe Budden Opens Up About His Darkest Times 

In 2017, on the "Grass Routes Podcast," rapper-turned-podcaster Joe Budden opened up about multiple suicide attempts and his lifelong battle with depression. 

"For me, there have been times where I've actually attempted suicide," Budden shared. "As open as I've been when it comes to mental health, it wasn't until retirement from rapping that I was able to dive into some of the things the fans have seen." 

Never one to shy away from rapping about his mental health struggles, Budden songs like "Whatever It Takes" peel back the layers on an artist fighting his demons: "See, I'm depressed lately, but nobody understands / That I'm depressed lately, I'm sorta feelin repressed lately." 

Budden continued to be a champion for mental health that year, including on his former Complex show "Everyday Struggle," where Budden broke down while discussing the suicide death of fellow rapper Styles P's daughter. 

In recent years, Budden has uses his wildly popular "The Joe Budden Podcast" as a tool to discuss his own struggles and raise awareness of mental health issues. 

Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five Broadcast A Serious "Message"

Hip-hop culture has long used rap as a tool to highlight mental health and the everyday struggles of its community. Released in 1982, Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five's "The Message" is an early, effective example of vulnerability in hip-hop.

"The Message" described the mental health impacts of poverty and inner-city struggle, describing desperate feelings and calling for support in underserved communities: "I can't take the smell, can't take the noise / Got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice." Perhaps the most recognizable lyric comes from Melle Mel, who raps, "Don't push me cause I'm close to the edge/I'm trying not to lose my head." 

Eminem Got Honest About Depression While In Rehab

On "Reaching Out," Queen and Paul Rodgers sing "Lately I've been hard to reach / I've been too long on my own / everybody has a private world where they can be alone." These lyrics were sampled on the intro to Eminem's 2009 single "Beautiful," a raw tale of the rapper's struggles with depression. Half of the song was written while Eminem was in rehab, including lyrics like "I'm just so f—king depressed/I just can't seem to get out this slump." 

The lyrics pierced the core of Eminem's audience, who were able to see the parallels between the struggles of a rap superstar and their own issues. The song reached the Top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100 and was nominated for a Best Rap Solo Performance GRAMMY Award. In an interview with MTV about the song, Eminem said it was an important outlet for him at a challenging time. 

But it was far from the first time Eminem has discussed mental health. One of the earliest examples was in his song "Stan," where Eminem rapped from the perspective of an obsessed fan who ended up killing himself and his wife after Eminem failed to respond to his fan mail. In a 2000 interview, Eminem told MTV that he wrote the song to warn fans not to take his lyrics literally. 

Logic Sparked Change With A Number

One of the most impactful moments hip-hop has seen regarding mental health and sparking change was when Logic released his song "1-800-273-8255" in 2017. The record, named after the real National Suicide Lifeline Prevention phone number, which is now 988, hit the top three on the US Billboard Hot 100.

Following the song's release, the British Medical Journal released a study sharing data that showed the song contributed to a 27 percent increase in calls to the prevention hotline that year and may have even contributed to an actual reduction in deaths by suicide. 

Logic's single further proved that rap music's impact extends well beyond charts and sales. "1-800-273-8255" highlighted the connection artists have with their fans, as well as the ways music can be a tool to cope with challenges like mental health and suicidal thoughts. 

Kid Cudi Opened Up About Suicidal Urges 

Cleveland's own Kid Cudi has never shied away from putting his emotions on record, rapping vividly throughout his career about his struggles with mental health. Cudi records, like the hit single "Pursuit of Happiness," are brutally honest about trying to find happiness in a world filled with trials and tribulations. 

In a 2022 interview with Esquire, Cudi recalled checking himself into rehab in 2016 for depression and suicidal urges. He had been using drugs to manage the weight of his stardom and even suffered a stroke while in rehab. "Everything was f—ed," Cudi said. 

Cudi took a break to develop stability, returning to the spotlight with the 2018 project Kids See Ghosts in collaboration with Kanye West.. Today, Cudi and his music remain pillars of strength for those facing similar challenges.   

Jay-Z Detailed The Importance Of Therapy & Getting Out Of "Survival Mode"

In 2017, Jay-Z released his critically acclaimed thirteenth studio album. 4:44 was packed with lessons on family, mental health, and personal growth.

An interview with the New York Times, Jay-Z discussed how helpful therapy had been to him. Therapy helped the rap superstar in his interactions with other people — something that had been hardened growing up as a black man in Marcy Projects. "I grew so much from the experience," he told the Times.

"I think the most important thing I got is that everything is connected. Every emotion is connected, and it comes from somewhere. I understand that, instead of reacting to that with anger, I can provide a softer landing and maybe, 'Aw, man, is you O.K.? You're in this space where you're hurting, and you think I see you, so you don't want me to look at you. And you don't want me to see you,'" he said. "You don't want me to see your pain."

The album also unpacked Jay-Z's infidelity. "I'll f— up a good thing if you let me," he raps on "Family Feud." In the same interview, Jay-Z shared that growing up in the hood put him into "survival mode," impacting his abilities to be a good partner and husband earlier in life. 

"You shut down all emotions. So even with women, you gonna shut down emotionally, so you can't connect," he reflected. "In my case, like it's, it's deep. And then all the things happen from there: infidelity." 

"I Made My ADHD Into My Strength": Understanding The Link Between Rap & Neurodivergence

Rapper Anycia On 'Princess Pop That'
Anycia

Photo: Apex Visions

interview

On 'Princess Pop That,' Rapper Anycia Wants You To Feel Like "The Baddest Bitch"

"It's a no judgment zone," Anycia says of her new album. The Atlanta rapper discusses the importance of maintaining individuality, and using her music for healing.

GRAMMYs/Apr 29, 2024 - 01:25 pm

Twenty-six-year-old rapper Anycia truly lives in the present. The Atlanta-born artist describes her most viral hits as if they were everyday experiences — she's simply going out of town on "BRB" and mad at a partner in "Back Outside" featuring Latto

Despite her calm demeanor and cadence, Anycia is a self-proclaimed "firecracker" and credits her success to her long-held confidence. 

"I [command] any room I walk in, I like to introduce myself first — you never have to worry about me walking into the room and not speaking," Anycia tells GRAMMY.com. "I speak, I yell, I twerk, I do the whole nine," adding, "I see tweets all the time [saying] ‘I like Anycia because she doesn’t rap about her private parts’... are y’all not listening?" 

With authenticity as her cornerstone, Anycia's genuine nature and versatile sound appeal broadly. On her recently released sophomore LP, Princess Pop That, Anycia's playful personality, unique vocal style and skillful flow are on full display. Over 14 tracks, Anycia keeps her usual relaxed delivery while experimenting with different beats from New Orleans, New York, California, and of course, Georgia. 

"I'm learning to be myself in different elements. I'm starting to take my sound and make it adapt to other beats and genres," she says. "But this whole album is definitely a little showing of me dibbling and dabbling.

The rising hip-hop star gained traction in June 2023 with her sultry single, "So What," which samples the song of the same name by Georgia natives Field Mob and Ciara. When Anycia dropped the snippet on her Instagram, she only had a "GoPro and a dream." Today, she has millions of views on her music videos, collaborations with artists like Flo Milli, and a critically acclaimed EP, Extra. On April 26, she'll release her debut album, Princess Pop That, featuring Cash Cobain, Luh Tyler, Kenny Beats, Karrahbooo and others. 

Ahead of the release of Princess Pop That, Anycia spoke with GRAMMY.com about her influences, maintaining individuality, working with female rappers, and using her music as a therapeutic outlet.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Where did the title Princess Pop That come from?

Princess Pop That is my little alter ego, and my Twitter and finsta name. It's kind of like a Sasha Fierce/Beyoncé type of situation. 

The cover of your album gives early 2000 vibes. Is that where you draw most of your inspiration from?

Yeah. My everyday playlist is literally early 2000s music. I even still listen to [music] from the '70s – I just like old music! 

My mom is a big influence on a lot of the music that I like. She had me when she was like 19, 20. She's a Cali girl and has great taste in music. I grew up on everything and I feel like a lot of the stuff that I'm doing, you can kind of see that influence.

I grew up on Usher, Cherish, 112, Jagged Edge, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Teena Marie, Luther Vandross and Sam Cooke. Usher was my first concert, ever and actually my last concert — I went to his residency in Vegas with my mom. That's like our thing.

I know you had your hand in many different professions — including barbering and working at a daycare — how did you get into rapping?

I always liked music, but [thought] girl, we need some money right now. Rapping and music is cool, but I always had one foot in and one foot out. When I was [working] my jobs, it was more this is what I need to be doing right now — but I wasn't happy. 

It got to a point where I noticed that I was doing all these things, and it worked but it wasn't working for me. I didn't want to get caught up; I didn't want to be stuck doing something just because it works. I wanted to do something that I actually love to do. I decided to quit both jobs because I was literally making me miserable. 

I feel like that's what happened with a lot of our parents — they lose focus of their actual goals or what they actually wanted to do, and they get so caught up in what works in the moment. One thing about me, if I don't like something I'm done. I don't care how much money I put into it, if I'm not happy and it doesn’t feed me spiritually and mentally I'm not doing it. Right after [I quit] I was in the studio back-to-back making music. It eventually paid off.

Walk us through your music making process. 

A blunt, a little Don Julio Reposado, a space heater because I’m anemic. Eating some tacos and chicken wings or whatever I’m feeling at the moment. It’s not that deep to me, I like to be surrounded by good energy in the studio. 

People like to say female rappers aren’t welcoming or don’t like to work with each other. You’re clearly debunking this myth with songs like "Back Outside" featuring Latto and "Splash Brothers'' featuring Karrahbooo. What was it like working with them and how did these collaborations come about? 

Karrahbooo and I were already friends before we started rapping. It was harder for people to get us to do music because when we were around each other we weren't like, "Oh we need to do a song together." We had a friendship. 

Working with Latto, we didn't collab on that song in the studio. I did the song myself after being really upset at a man. I made the song just venting. I didn't even think that I was ever gonna put that song out, honestly. Latto ended up hitting me up within a week's span just giving me my flowers and telling me she wanted to do a song [together]. I ended up sending her "Back Outside" because I felt like she would eat [it up] and she did just that. 

She did! Are there any other female rappers you’d like to work with?

I really want to work with Cardi B — I love her! I'm also looking forward to collaborating with GloRilla

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

Many female rappers come into the industry and feel like they have to start changing themself to fit a certain aesthetic or archetype. However, everything about you seems super unique — from your voice to your style and appearance. How do you maintain your individuality? 

Being yourself is literally the easiest job ever. When you're doing everything you're supposed to be doing, you're being genuine while you're doing it and you’re just being 110 percent authentically yourself — I feel like everything works out for you perfectly fine. 

I haven't had the urge to change anything or do anything different. The reason people started liking me was because I was being myself. Even if it wasn't accepted, I'm not going to stop being myself. I do what works for me and I feel like everybody should just do what works for them and not what works for the people outside of them. 

That's what creates discomfort for yourself, that’s how you become a depressed artist — trying to please everybody [but] yourself. I feel like people lose sight of that fact. Aside from this being a job or a career for me now, it’s still my outlet and a way I express myself;  it's still my form of art. I will never let anybody take that from me. It's intimate for me. 

Speaking of intimacy, what was the inspiration behind "Nene’s Prayer"? I want to know who was playing with you.

I was just having a little therapy session in the booth and everyone ended up liking it. Instead of getting mad, flipping out and wanting to go to jail I just put in a song. Even though I said some messed up things in the song, it’s better than me doing those messed up things. 

Have you ever written a lyric or song that you felt went too far or was too personal?

Nope. A lot of the [topics] that I [rap about] is just stuff girls really want to say, but don't have the courage to say. But me, I don’t give a damn! If it resonates with you then it does, and if it doesn't — listen to somebody else. 

Exactly! What advice would you give to upcoming artists trying to get noticed or have that one song that pops?

If you got something that you want to put out into the world, you just have to have that confidence for yourself, and you have to do it for you and not for other people. I feel like people make music and do certain things for other people. That's why [their song] doesn't do what it needs to do because it’s a perspective of what other people want, rather than doing [a song] that you're comfortable with and what you like.

How do you want people to feel after listening toPrincess Pop That?’

I just want the girls, and even the boys, to get in their bag. Regardless of how you went into listening to the album, I want you to leave with just a little bit more self confidence. If you’re feeling low, I want you to feel like "I am that bitch." 

It's a no judgment zone. I want everybody to find their purpose, walk in their truth and feel like "that girl" with everything they do. You could even be in a grocery store, I want you to feel like the baddest bitch. 

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A black-and-white photo of pioneering rap group Run-DMC
Run-DMC

Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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'Run-DMC' At 40: The Debut Album That Paved The Way For Hip-Hop's Future

Forty years ago, Run-DMC released their groundbreaking self-titled album, which would undeniably change the course of hip-hop. Here's how three guys from Queens, New York, defined what it meant to be "old school" with a record that remains influential.

GRAMMYs/Mar 27, 2024 - 03:49 pm

"You don't know that people are going to 40 years later call you up and say, ‘Can you talk about this record from 40 years ago?’"

That was Cory Robbins, former president of Profile Records, reaction to speaking to Grammy.com about one of the first albums his then-fledgling label released. Run-DMC’s self-titled debut made its way into the world four decades ago this week on March 27, 1984 and established the group, in Robbins’ words, "the Beatles of hip-hop." 

Rarely in music, or anything else, is there a clear demarcation between old and new. Styles change gradually, and artistic movements usually get contextualized, and often even named, after they’ve already passed from the scene. But Run-DMC the album, and the singles that led up to it, were a definitive breaking point. Rap before it instantly, and eternally, became “old school.” And three guys from Hollis, Queens — Joseph "Run" Simmons, Jason "Jam Master Jay" Mizell, Darryl "D.M.C." McDaniels — helped turn a burgeoning genre on its head.

What exactly was different about Run-DMC? Some of the answers can be glimpsed by a look at the record’s opening song. "Hard Times" is a cover of a Kurtis Blow track from his 1980 debut album. The connection makes sense. Kurtis and Run’s older brother Russell Simmons met in college, and Russell quickly became the rapper’s manager. That led to Run working as Kurtis’ DJ. Larry Smith, who produced Run-DMC, even played on Kurtis’ original version of the song.

But despite those tie-ins, the two takes on "Hard Times" are night and day. Kurtis Blow’s is exactly what rap music was in its earliest recorded form: a full band playing something familiar (in this case, a James Brown-esque groove, bridge and percussion breakdown inclusive.)

What Run-DMC does with it is entirely different. The song is stripped down to its bare essence. There’s a drum machine, a sole repeated keyboard stab, vocals, and… well, that’s about it. No solos, no guitar, no band at all. Run and DMC are trading off lines in an aggressive near-shout. It’s simple and ruthlessly effective, a throwback to the then-fading culture of live park jams. But it was so starkly different from other rap recordings of the time, which were pretty much all in the style of Blow’s record, that it felt new and vital.

"Production-wise, Sugar Hill [the record label that released many key early rap singles] built themselves on the model of Motown, which is to say, they had their own production studios and they had a house band and they recorded on the premises," explains Bill Adler, who handled PR for Run-DMC and other key rap acts at the time.

"They made magnificent records, but that’s not how rap was performed in parks," he continues. "It’s not how it was performed live by the kids who were actually making the music."

Run-DMC’s musical aesthetic was, in some ways, a lucky accident. Larry Smith, the musician who produced the album, had worked with a band previously. In fact, the reason two of the songs on the album bear the subtitle "Krush Groove" is because the drum patterns are taken from his band Orange Krush’s song “Action.”

Read more: Essential Hip-Hop Releases From The 1970s: Kurtis Blow, Grandmaster Flash, Sugarhill Gang & More

But by the time sessions for Run-DMC came around, the money had run out and, despite his desire to have the music done by a full band, Smith was forced to go without them and rely on a drum machine. 

His artistic partner on the production side was Russell Simmons. Simmons, who has been accused over the past seven years of numerous instances of sexual assault dating back decades, was back in 1983-4 the person providing the creative vision to match Smith’s musical knowledge.

Orange Krush’s drummer Trevor Gale remembered the dynamic like this (as quoted in Geoff Edgers’ Walk This Way: Run-DMC, Aerosmith, and the Song that Changed American Music Forever): “Larry was the guy who said, 'Play four bars, stop on the fifth bar, come back in on the fourth beat of the fifth bar.' Russell was the guy that was there that said, ‘I don’t like how that feels. Make it sound like mashed potato with gravy on it.’”

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It wasn’t just the music that set Run-DMC apart from its predecessors. Their look was also starkly different, and that influenced everything about the group, including the way their audience viewed them.

Most of the first generation of recorded rappers were, Bill Adler remembers, influenced visually by either Michael Jackson or George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic. Run-DMC was different.

"Their fashion sense was very street oriented," Adler explains. "And that was something that emanated from Jam Master Jay. Jason just always had a ton of style. He got a lot of his sartorial style from his older brother, Marvin Thompson. Jay looked up to his older brother and kind of dressed the way that Marvin did, including the Stetson hat. 

"When Run and D told Russ, Jason is going to be our deejay, Russell got one look at Jay and said, ‘Okay, from now on, you guys are going to dress like him.’"

Run, DMC, and Jay looked like their audience. That not only set them apart from the costumed likes of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, it also cemented the group’s relationship with their listeners. 

"When you saw Run-DMC, you didn’t see celebrity. You saw yourself," DMC said in the group’s recent docuseries

Read more: 20 Iconic Hip-Hop Style Moments: From Run-D.M.C. To Runways

Another thing that set Run-DMC (the album) and Run-DMC (the group) apart from what came before was the fact that they released a cohesive rap album. Nine songs that all belonged together, not just a collection of already-released singles and some novelties. Rappers had released albums prior to Run-DMC, but that’s exactly what they were: hits and some other stuff — sung love ballads or rock and roll covers, or other experiments rightfully near-forgotten.

"There were a few [rap] albums [at the time], but they were pretty crappy. They were usually just a bunch of singles thrown together," Cory Robbins recalls.

Not this album. It set a template that lasted for years: Some social commentary, some bragging, a song or two to show off the DJ. A balance of records aimed at the radio and at the hard-core fans. You can still see traces of Run-DMC in pretty much every rap album released today.

Listeners and critics reacted. The album got a four-star review in Rolling Stone with “the music…that backs these tracks is surprisingly varied, for all its bare bones” and an A minus from Robert Christgau who claimed “It's easily the canniest and most formally sustained rap album ever.” Just nine months after its release, Run-DMC was certified gold, the first rap LP ever to earn that honor. "Rock Box" also single-handedly invented rap-rock, thanks to Eddie Martinez’s loud guitars. 

There is another major way in which the record was revolutionary. The video for "Rock Box" was the first rap video to ever get into regular rotation on MTV and, the first true rap video ever played on the channel at all, period. Run-DMC’s rise to MTV fame represented a significant moment in breaking racial barriers in mainstream music broadcasting. 

"There’s no overstating the importance of that video," Adler tells me. vIt broke through the color line at MTV and opened the door to a cataclysmic change." 

"Everybody watched MTV forty years ago," Robbins agrees. "It was a phenomenal thing nationwide. Even if we got three or four plays a week of ‘Rock Box’ on MTV, that did move the needle."

All of this: the new musical style, the relatable image, the MTV pathbreaking, and the attendant critical love and huge sales (well over 10 times what their label head was expecting when he commissioned the album from a reluctant Russell Simmons — "I hoping it would sell thirty or forty thousand," Robbins says now): all of it contributed to making Run-DMC what it is: a game-changer.

"It was the first serious rap album," Robbins tells me. And while you could well accuse him of bias — the group making an album at all was his idea in the first place — he’s absolutely right. 

Run-DMC changed everything. It split the rap world into old school and new school, and things would never be the same.

Perhaps the record’s only flaw is one that wouldn’t be discovered for years. As we’re about to get off the phone, Robbins tells me about a mistake on the cover, one he didn’t notice until the record was printed and it was too late. 

There was something (Robbins doesn’t quite recall what) between Run and DMC in the cover photo. The art director didn’t like it and proceeded to airbrush it out. But he missed something. On the vinyl, if you look between the letters "M" and "C,", you can see DMC’s disembodied left hand, floating ghost-like in mid-air. While it was an oversight, it’s hard not to see this as a sign, a sort of premonition that the album itself would hang over all of hip-hop, with an influence that might be hard to see at first, but that never goes away. 

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A collage photo of African women rappers (Clockwise from top-left): Femi One, Deto Black, Nadfiav Nakai, Candy Bleakz, Rosa Ree, Sho Madjozi
(Clockwise from top-left): Femi One, Deto Black, Nadfiav Nakai, Candy Bleakz, Rosa Ree, Sho Madjozi

Photos: Kaka Empire Music Label; Dave Benett/Getty Images for Dion Lee x htown; Oupa Bopape/Gallo Images via Getty Images; Slevin Salau; Asam Visuals; Harold Feng/Getty Images

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10 Women In African Hip-Hop You Should Know: SGaWD, Nadai Nakai, Sho Madjozi & More

Women have been a part of African hip-hop since its onset, contributing to the genre’s foundation and evolution. These 10 female African rappers bring unique perspectives to hip-hop coming from Nigeria, Ghana and across the continent.

GRAMMYs/Mar 27, 2024 - 03:26 pm

African music has become increasingly mainstream, with Afrobeats gaining global popularity in recent years. As Burna Boy, Davido, Wizkid, and Tems have become household names, and the Recording Academy presented the inaugural Best African Music Performance award in 2024, all eyes are on Africa.

Hip-hop is a crucial thread running through Afrobeats, which also mixes traditional African rhythms with pop and dancehall. Hip-hop landed in Africa between the 1980s and 1990s, first in Senegal in 1985 and in South Africa the following decade. Over time, African hip-hop advanced from imitating American styles, to a focus on artists incorporating their own cultural experiences, languages, and social commentary.

The result was a distinctly African sound, present across the continent from West to East Africa. In Nigeria, the rap scene is almost mainstream with artists like Olamide earning a GRAMMY nomination for Best African Music Performance for his hit song with Asake; Tanzania has gained enormous respect on the international rap scene for its own "Bongo Flava." 

Women have been a part of African hip-hop since its onset, contributing to the genre’s foundation. Nazizi Hirji is known as the "First Lady of Kenyan Rap" for becoming the first successful female artist in her country at age 16. Mariam of the Malian duo Amadou and Mariam created a distinctive sound by fusing elements of hip-hop and traditional Malian music. 

Africa's hip-hop community is ever-evolving, and women are at the forefront. The following 10 African women rappers are bringing their unique voices, experiences and sounds to the scene.

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SGaWD

After leaving her career as a lawyer to pursue music, the Nigerian rapper SGaWD is beginning to make her mark on the scene. Fusing elements of hip-hop and Nigerian alté, SGaWD creates a sound without restrictions. 

She released her debut EP, Savage Bitch Juice, in 2021 and collaborated with fellow Nigerian artist Somadina on flirty lead single "Pop S—." In the second single "Rude," SGaWD detailed the nuances of her romantic and sexual experiences with men. She followed this with a slew of singles, including "INTERMISSION " and "Dump All Your Worries On The Dance Floor."

Her summer anthem "Boy Toy" is a sexy and melodic blend of rap and R&B. Her comfort with sexuality goes beyond lyricism; the music video for "Boy Toy" shows her comfort and embrace of sexuality via wardrobe choices and choreography.

But it's not all sex; SGaWD is dedicated to organizing her community. In December 2023, she organized The Aquarium, a sonic experience that included performances from herself and other female rappers.

Lifesize Teddy

Mavins Records is known for producing back-to-back breakout stars — from Rema to Arya Starr — and fans now expect a new artist from them annually. When Lifesize Teddy was introduced to the scene, rapping as her alter ego PoisonBaby, she got deep. Her intro video dissected her relationship with her inner child and explored her roots in Port-Harcourt, Nigeria. 

After spending three years of artist development in the Mavin Records Academy, she started her music career, by releasing two EPs in the span of four months in 2023. Her self-titled debut EP was led by the single "Hypnotic," a flirty song of sexual freedom that merges hip-hop and Afrobeats. Her second EP, POISN, featured five songs with one featuring her fellow Mavins Records artist, Magixx.

She ended last year headlining different shows in Lagos’ Detty December and is a special guest on Ayra Starr World Tour. 

Eno Barony

Ghanaian rapper Eno Barony's name reflects her aura and essence: "Eno" is Twi for mother, and quite fittingly she is referred to as "The Mother of Rap" in Ghana. Raised by missionary parents, she uses her music to spread the message that women should not be silenced. 

She has been releasing music for over a decade, with singles "Tonga," "Megye Wo Boy", "The Best," "Touch the Body," and "Do Something" gaining mainstream attention on the continent. Eno Barony released her first album in 2020 and, the following year became the first female rapper to win Best Rapper at the Ghana Music Awards. 

Her most recent album, Ladies First, captures the nuances and complexity of being a woman in Ghana and serves as a form of resistance to patriarchy. Opening track "God Is a Woman," featuring Ghanaian singer/songwriter Efya, establishes the tone: Eno is "entering every lane" even though "it’s a man’s world and she entered without a passport". 

Eno Barony continually pours vulnerability into her music. On these lead singles; "Heavy Load" and  "Don’t Judge Me" she raps about accepting her body image and addresses the culture of unconstructive criticism in the music industry, respectively. Last month, she released a new single "Good Enough," a romantic and reflective tune.

Nadai Nakai

Hailing from both Zimbabwe and South Africa, Nadai Nakai has been a fixture in the African rap scene for over a decade. She was the first female rapper to win the Mixtape 101 competition on the hip-hop show, "Shiz Niz."   

A mentee of pioneering Kenyan hip-hop artist Nazizi, Nakai released her first single "Like Me" under Sid Records in September 2013. The rightfully braggadocious song detailed her many talents and skills, wrapped in clever lyricism. She continued to release a slew of singles, including "Naaa Meaan" (a collaboration with Casper Nyovest, a South African male rapper), which garnered over 1 million views. Her debut album, Nadai Naked, was an ode to women making liberating choices. 

Her hip-hop and R&B-inspired songs highlight her values of female free expression and strength. Her most recent single, "Back In," announced Nakai's return to the industry after grieving the death of her boyfriend, AKA. She plans to release a tribute EP dedicated to AKA.

Deela

Deela saw a hole in the Nigerian music industry that needed to be filled. Where were the women who talked and behaved like her, with brazen confidence and an unfiltered sense of expression? 

She started making music during the pandemic lockdown, releasing singles such as the raging "Bitch Boi" and trap track "Rolling Stones." Both tracks later appeared on her debut album, Done Deel. Deela's most popular single, "Get A Grip," shows the rapper is demanding autonomy while owning her promiscuity and single life.

Deela's experimental sound includes ventures into trap, drill and more. Her 2023 album Is This On? showcased this range via UK rap-inspired "Trapstar" and straight-up hip-hop track "Take That Up" featuring Flo Milli.

She hit the ground running in 2024, releasing a collaboration with Somadina titled "Lagos" and a love-themed EP, Love Is Wicked

Deto Black

Lagos-based rapper Deto Black is an artistic polymath who dabbles in modeling, acting and photography. Her music spans hip-hop, Afrobeats, rap, pop and rock, and is becoming known in the alté scene following her collaboration with Odunsi the Engine, Amaarae and Gigi Atlantis on "Body Count." Deto’s verse on the 2020 track is  sex-positive, and encourages listeners to follow her example. 

Deto released her debut EP, Yung Everything, in 2021 and followed with singles "Nu Bag" and "Just Like Deto." At the start of 2024, she released "It’s A No From Me" featuring Chi; its music video was directed by notable alté artist Cruel Santino.

Rosa Ree

Tanzanian rapper Rosa Ree addresses the nuances of womanhood in male-dominated spaces. She entered the scene in 2016 with the goal of proving her naysayers wrong, releasing the aggressive "One Time" to dispel any notions that a woman couldn't exist in hip-hop.

In her 2022 single "I’m Not Sorry," Rosa Ree dismisses criticism and asserts that she won’t be sorry for showing her true image or voice. She also explores the unique bond between mother and child in 2023's "Mama Omollo," further showcasing the multifaceted identities of women in music.

Rosa Ree's 2024 single "In Too Deep" further showcased her introspective side by exploring themes of emotional hurt, betrayal and disappointment.

Candy Bleakz

Nigerian rapper Candy Bleakz fuses Afrobeats, amapiano and hip-hop, with heavy emphasis on street music. She started making music in 2019 and quickly began developing a community. Candy Bleakz collaborated with Zlatan and Naira Marley on "Owo Osu." 

Her resume now includes hits like "Baba Nla," "Kelegbe," "Virus", and "Kope." Her single "Won La" was even featured on the American TV series "Flatbush Misdemeanors." The most amazing thing about Candy Bleakz, though, is her courage to question the established quo and push for female representation in the infamously male-dominated street music scene.

She released her debut EP, Fire, in 2022 and raps proudly about her life and talent. On its breakout single, "Tikuku," she addresses her haters head-on. This song has garnered over 300,000 posts on TikTok going as far as eliciting a challenge in the Nigerian section of TikTok.

Candy Bleakz's second EP, Better Days, was released on March 22 and featured lead single "Para," a rap song featuring African drums, strings and chords. 

Femi One

At just 26 years old, Femi One is a renowned  Kenyan rapper and songwriter. Most of her songs are in Swahili and Sheng — a unique offering as many African rappers perform in a more universal language. 

Over the past five years, Femi One has released back-to-back singles, culminating in her 2019 debut EP XXV. " Two years later, her debut album, Greatness, further detailed her wild style and personality. Tracks like "Balance" are jam-packed with witty wordplay and hidden allusions. She also taps into her gospel roots on Greatness, thanking God for her career on "Adonai."

Her latest single, "B.A," is a pure Afrobeats song that invites listeners to lose themselves in the music and positive energy by throwing open the virtual club doors. 

Sho Madjozi

This South African rapper is known for her bold aesthetic, from her rainbow-coloured hair to her bright costumes. She released her first song, "Dumi Hi Phone," in 2017 and dropped her a genre-bending debut album the following year. Limpopo Champions League explores sounds from hip-hop to EDM.

Sho Madjozi has a quirky habit of writing songs about notable individuals. Her breakout single "John Cena," a tribute to the wrestler and actor, earned her the BET award for Best New International Act in 2019. She also collaborated with Sneakbo, Robot Boi and Matthew Otis on the hit amapiano song "Balotelli," which celebrated the renowned African soccer player. 

Sho Madjozi's music is entirely intertwined with her culture; she raps in the Bantu language Xitsonga and performs traditional dances such as xibelani wearing an adapted 

xibelani skirt. The xibelani (which translates to "hitting to the rhythm") dance is native to Tsonga women, and is performed by girls on special occasions as a celebration of their culture. Sho Madjozi's use of the dance and interpretation of its clothing helps shape her region’s cultural identity.

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