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How EMPIRE Became A Music Industry Giant In An Unlikely City

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​

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GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016
Kendrick Lamar

Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

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GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016

Upon winning the GRAMMY for Best Rap Album for 'To Pimp a Butterfly,' Kendrick Lamar thanked those that helped him get to the stage, and the artists that blazed the trail for him.

GRAMMYs/Oct 13, 2023 - 06:01 pm

Updated Friday Oct. 13, 2023 to include info about Kendrick Lamar's most recent GRAMMY wins, as of the 2023 GRAMMYs.

A GRAMMY veteran these days, Kendrick Lamar has won 17 GRAMMYs and has received 47 GRAMMY nominations overall. A sizable chunk of his trophies came from the 58th annual GRAMMY Awards in 2016, when he walked away with five — including his first-ever win in the Best Rap Album category.

This installment of GRAMMY Rewind turns back the clock to 2016, revisiting Lamar's acceptance speech upon winning Best Rap Album for To Pimp A Butterfly. Though Lamar was alone on stage, he made it clear that he wouldn't be at the top of his game without the help of a broad support system. 

"First off, all glory to God, that's for sure," he said, kicking off a speech that went on to thank his parents, who he described as his "those who gave me the responsibility of knowing, of accepting the good with the bad."

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He also extended his love and gratitude to his fiancée, Whitney Alford, and shouted out his Top Dawg Entertainment labelmates. Lamar specifically praised Top Dawg's CEO, Anthony Tiffith, for finding and developing raw talent that might not otherwise get the chance to pursue their musical dreams.

"We'd never forget that: Taking these kids out of the projects, out of Compton, and putting them right here on this stage, to be the best that they can be," Lamar — a Compton native himself — continued, leading into an impassioned conclusion spotlighting some of the cornerstone rap albums that came before To Pimp a Butterfly.

"Hip-hop. Ice Cube. This is for hip-hop," he said. "This is for Snoop Dogg, Doggystyle. This is for Illmatic, this is for Nas. We will live forever. Believe that."

To Pimp a Butterfly singles "Alright" and "These Walls" earned Lamar three more GRAMMYs that night, the former winning Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song and the latter taking Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (the song features Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat). He also won Best Music Video for the remix of Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood." 

Lamar has since won Best Rap Album two more times, taking home the golden gramophone in 2018 for his blockbuster LP DAMN., and in 2023 for his bold fifth album, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers.

Watch Lamar's full acceptance speech above, and check back at GRAMMY.com every Friday for more GRAMMY Rewind episodes. 

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GRAMMY Museum To Celebrate 50 Years Of Hip-Hop With 'Hip-Hop America: The Mixtape Exhibit' Opening Oct. 7
The GRAMMY Museum's 'Hop America: The Mixtape Exhibit' opens Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023

Image courtesy of the GRAMMY Museum

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GRAMMY Museum To Celebrate 50 Years Of Hip-Hop With 'Hip-Hop America: The Mixtape Exhibit' Opening Oct. 7

The new exhibit honors the 50th anniversary of hip-hop through an expansive and interactive exploration that features artifacts from legendary artists including the Notorious B.I.G., Tupac Shakur, LL Cool J, and more.

GRAMMYs/Sep 7, 2023 - 03:11 pm

The GRAMMY Museum is celebrating the 50th anniversary of hip-hop this fall with the newly announced Hip-Hop America: The Mixtape Exhibit, an immersive, interactive, 5,000-square foot experience celebrating the multifaceted world of hip-hop and the global impact and influence of the genre and culture. Launching Saturday, Oct. 7, and running through Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2024, the exhibit will feature expansive exhibits exploring hip-hop music, dance, graffiti, fashion, business, activism, and history as well as artifacts from hip-hop pioneers like Tupac Shakur, the Notorious B.I.G., LL Cool J, and many more.

Additionally, the exhibit features a one-of-a-kind Sonic Playground, featuring five interactive stations that invite visitors of all ages to partake in DJing, rapping and sampling, all essential elements comprising hip-hop culture. Additional virtual and in-person education and community engagement programs will be announced at a later date.

Exploring the countless ways hip-hop music and culture has dominated popular culture over the last 50 years, Hip-Hop America: The Mixtape Exhibit was curated by a team of four co-curators who bring a deep knowledge of hip-hop, academic rigor and creativity to the project. They include:

  • Felicia Angeja Viator, associate professor of history, San Francisco State University, author of ‘To Live And Defy In LA: How Gangsta Rap Changed America,’ and one of the first women DJs in the Bay Area hip-hop scene

  • Adam Bradley, Professor of English and founding director of the Laboratory for Race and Popular Culture (the RAP Lab) at UCLA, and co-editor of ‘The Anthology of Rap’

  • Jason King, Dean, USC Thornton School of Music and former chair of the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at NYU

  • Dan Charnas, Associate Arts Professor, NYU Clive Davis Institute of Music, and author of ‘Dilla Time: The Life And Afterlife Of The Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm’

The co-curators worked in conjunction with GRAMMY Museum Chief Curator and Vice President of Curatorial Affairs Jasen Emmons as well as a 20-member Advisory Board.

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

Hip-Hop America: The Mixtape Exhibit is an educational journey through several key themes:

  • Origins: Discover the roots of hip-hop in the Bronx and New York City, where DJs were the original stars, and graffiti and breakdancing were integral to the culture.

  • Innovation: Explore how hip-hop artists have innovatively used technology, from transforming turntables into musical instruments to pioneering sampling techniques.

  • Sounds of Hip-Hop: Experience the diverse sounds of hip-hop in four themed studios, showcasing the evolution of production, the intersection of hip-hop and car culture, the craft of hip-hop lyrics, and the influence of R&B.

  • Fashion: Dive into the world of hip-hop fashion, featuring iconic clothing, jewelry and style.

  • Regionalism: Discover 14 hip-hop scenes across the United States, showcasing the importance of local and regional contributions.

  • Entrepreneurialism: Learn about the transformation of hip-hop from a back-to-school party in the Bronx to a multi-billion-dollar global industry.

  • Media: Discover the role of media in shaping hip-hop's development, from radio stations to pioneering shows like "Yo! MTV Raps."

  • Community: Explore how hip-hop has brought people together over the last 50 years, with an interactive ‘Hip-Hop America’ playlist featuring 200 songs that trace the genre's evolution.

Highlights from Hip-Hop America: The Mixtape Exhibit include:

  • The Notorious B.I.G.'s iconic 5001 Flavors custom red leather peacoat he wore in Junior M.A.F.I.A.'s music video "Players Anthem"

  • Kurtis Blow's original handwritten lyrics for his 1980 hit single, "The Breaks," the first gold-certified rap song

  • Black suede fedora hat and Adidas Superstars belonging to Darryl "DMC" McDaniels of Run-D.M.C.

  • Tupac Shakur's handwritten essay "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death," circa 1992

  • Two outfits designed by Dapper Dan, Harlem fashion icon: 1) a half-length black leather jacket worn by Melle Mel (Melvin Glover, b. 1961) in performance at the 1985 GRAMMY Awards; and a black-and-yellow leather bucket hat and jacket worn by New York hip-hop artist Busy Bee (David James Parker)

  • Egyptian Lover's gold Roland 808, the beat-making tool

  • LL Cool J's red Kangol bucket hat 

Hip-Hop America: The Mixtape Exhibit is a key event taking place as the world is celebrating 50 years of hip-hop this year. The origins of hip-hop can be traced back to Aug. 11, 1973, when DJ Kool Herc DJed a birthday party inside the recreation room of an apartment building located on 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the South Bronx, New York City. This history-making date marks the birth of hip-hop and is the reason why we're celebrating hip-hop's 50th anniversary this year. The 50th anniversary of hip-hop means artists, fans, and the music industry at-large are celebrating the momentous milestone via hip-hop concerts, exhibits, tours, documentaries, podcasts, and more around the globe across 2023.

Visit the GRAMMY Museum website for more information regarding advanced ticket reservations for Hip-Hop America: The Mixtape Exhibit.

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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

L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.

During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.

Franc Moody

Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.

Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.

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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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