Photo by Josh Beavers
Sarah Tudzin of Illuminati Hotties
Illuminati Hotties Reclaim Themselves
As the L.A. punk project releases their experimental 'Free IH' mixtape, frontwoman Sarah Tudzin describes speaking out against their beleaguered record label Tiny Engines, plus drawing inspiration from acts like Cardi B and Death Grips
On July 1, a mysterious Soundcloud link and Twitter account circulated the web. "Occult Classic" was its name; they were a band, a secretive one, making ridiculously interesting, explosive music. It sent Twitter users amok, with indie rock lovers begging for answers, even though "Occult Classic" spell out their real name in one of the songs: Illuminati Hotties.
A few days prior, I had spoken with Sarah Tudzin, the frontwoman of that L.A. crew responsible for 2018's warm Kiss Yr Frenemies. She's gotten a little unhinged—which is why very few people can recognize who Occult Classic is—but to her core she still contains the heartfelt energy of that first record. "There's a tenderness I have not been able to shake," she tells me with a small laugh over the phone the month before the release of the idiosyncratic tornado Free IH: This Is Not The One You’ve Been Waiting For.
That tenderness has carried on over into quarantine, prompting her to build a garden and finally get a dog. "Her name is Maeby. Like "Arrested Development" and like maybe I’ll get a dog, which I've been saying for the last five years."
Free IH was not some kind of impulsive quarantine project, as one might've guessed. It was whipped up in a short timespan—three weeks of writing in February, two full days in the studio (A.K.A. drummer Tim Kmet’s rehearsal space). This is only because Tudzin had worked on a complete record for the last year and a half, just to have it put in a weird position when the record label that represents Hotties—Tiny Engines—got exposed for mistreating artists. Hudson Valley's lo-fi indie act Adult Mom was the first to come out, claiming a breach of contract. This sparked others to speak up as well. Tudzin is the next.
Intended to be viewed as a separate project, this new Hotties record has experimentation at the forefront. It plays with samba, post-punk, noise, pop—it even features a mock-radio bit on tenth track "K - HOT AM 818." It is less of an album and more of a mixtape, embodying a collage rather than a cohesive line of thought.
Ahead of the release of Free IH: This Is Not The One You’ve Been Waiting For (July 17), Tudzin spoke with GRAMMY.com about fighting Tiny Engines, being inspired by Cardi B and needing L.A. punk.
What’s the mugshot from and why did you make it the album cover?
It’s from being young and stupid pretty much. That was taken about five years ago now. It just kind of struck me as being a fitting cover because a lot of the record came together very fast and a lot of it was me feeling emotionally targeted by stuff that was going on with my label. And being claustrophobic in the new space I was in and kind of having no mode of expression. You get a real strong flash of that when you’re staring at the camera of highway patrol. It fit hand and hand. The visual was great when it all came together. Corey Purvis made all the album art surrounding the photo. That being said, I was really lucky when I was booked and there are people who are far less lucky in the incarceration system. I walked away pretty scratch-free. Definitely the feeling of the situation I was in in that moment felt a lot like the quick and dirty feeling when I was making the record.
What was your experience with your label Tiny Engines?
When it got messy was when we were trying to leave. What happened was they got roasted on the Internet, and they immediately shut their doors. To this day they haven’t made any statement or any sort of acknowledgement. They haven't let [out] any information about how they’re going to proceed. We were forced into this position where we were like, Hey, we were really excited for record two. We can’t reasonably promote it if you’re not going to bring any integrity back to the label. There’s no way I could've morally promoted an album with their label's name on it. We were forced into this six-month-long legal back-and-forth about how we were gonna leave the label.
So, Free IH is coming out self-released. But that’s not without stipulations and payout and stuff that I had to do to exit the two record deal that I had standing with Tiny Engines.
I noticed that they never put out a statement, and if you look at their Twitter they haven’t tweeted since 2019. I was wondering if they've paid the rest of the artists and if they have even been communicating with them.
As far as we go, we've been really on it and we've been going out of our way to communicate with them frequently and make sure that we're squared away on all of the royalties that we're owed. Also, we were in this conversation about how we could legally leave. I don't know; we were stuck in this weird place where days before everything hit the Internet about what happened with them we were talking about putting out a record that I had been working on for the last year and a half. They were really excited about it, and I was getting really excited about it too.
That record essentially I put away because I was afraid about self-releasing it once this exit agreement was formed. When I realized what was happening and how long it was about to take, I whipped [Free IH] up real quick… I wasn’t really ready to let go of the record that I had really felt masterful about over the last year and a half.
I think what was so crushing about Tiny Engines was that they were an indie label, and people have faith in indie labels to be in it solely for the passion and the community. Do you think there will be distrust from now on?
I think there’s always been distrust in labels. The Tiny Engines situation is one of millions of stories that have happened with artists smaller than me and bigger than me. Across the board, there’s stories of artists being excited about something and not reading the fine print or not understanding what is standard for a contract like that. I gotta say, to Tiny Engines' credit, all of the struggles I've had with them haven't been financial. We've asked for statements from them, and they've given us accurate statements. We got paid out when we needed to get paid out.
But the distrust of labels I think has always been around. Especially if you're a new band, you haven't done this before, and you aren’t really sure of how your music is gonna go. If thousands of people are gonna hear it, or millions, or billions, or whatever. You're faced with this person or group of people that have more power than you and that have—in some cases—money and in the case of Tiny Engines there was no serious advance. But they have access to resources and they have press and whatever. You're sort of validated in all of this hard work you've been doing in your art and you're like, This is my only chance. And they're saying, This is just how we do it. If you’re young and have no clue what’s going on, you have no choice but to say, Alright, that sounds good! I’m glad that somebody’s gonna listen to my music and somebody likes it.
How did you feel the morning you woke up and saw the Tiny Engines meltdown online?
I mean, it super sucks. It’s so heartbreaking for me and any of the other bands that still owed them a record. We were all hit with this wave of disbelief. Also, I think when you’re working with a label, everything feels comfy. Especially if you maybe don't know what you should be owed by your label; you mostly just go about your life feeling pretty good and feeling excited that you have the cosign. So, seeing that stuff on the Internet was shocking, and then immediately you're sort of like: What does this mean for the record I still owed them? And I know I’m not the only band that felt that. I know a lot of folks who were in this position of, Well what the hell do we do with anything that we still owe them as a part of our contract and what the hell do we do with all this stuff that they still own that we gave them on our first record and EP? There were just a lot of loose ends floating around.
Why is this release so secretive?
I just really am sick of the press cycle and it never really strikes me even as a fan to go through the singles, single and a music video, single, full record stream the day before, full record comes out the next day. It all seems pretty robotic and I don’t want to say that I’m never gonna do that again because that’s just sometimes a part of how you hype up a record. But it’s really not interesting to me and there’s so many ways to do this. Especially with how fast everything travels on the Internet. I feel like you don’t really need to do all of that necessarily. Some of the greatest record releases we’ve seen have been really quick turn arounds like Frank Ocean or Beyoncé. Obviously those drops were far more dramatic [Laughs]. I think just putting out the record is hype enough. As a fan, I also feel pretty uninspired by just hearing the singles and I usually just wait until the full thing drops.
The opening track "will i get cancelled if i write a song called, 'if you were a man, you’d probably be cancelled,'" is an insane way to start the record—even just with the first line: "Let’s smash to a podcast." What was the process like writing this song?
[Laughs.] I was doing a lot of work with Sadie [Dupuis] from Speedy Ortiz at the end of last year and the beginning of this year. She's just constantly sending me and constantly making amazing, palatable music that’s in crazy key signatures. I was like, I gotta do something this fun and unhinged in this very unmathematical way. Then, a lot of it was honestly just that I had verses that didn’t really fit properly into a regular old song. A lot of writing the riff is writing it to words that didn't fit rhythmically into a normal sounding song [Laughs].
This record has moments that remind me of L.A. punk bands like The Paranoyds or Girl Friday. Does the scene there inform your music?
Of course! L.A. punk is really built into my bloodstream. If you grow up in the Valley and you just like skating around and it’s hot as shit outside, the only thing you can listen to is punk rock. Black Flag's from out here and so many bands that have been a part of the lore for so long. Girl Friday's so sick. There's a lot of pretty great D.I.Y. venues that are still happening out here. And the way Illuminati Hotties has gone, admittedly, has moved more into the nationwide scene, I guess. We've toured around, played some very not punk venues in the last two years [Laughs]. But there is so much good punk out here and there has been so many spaces for that kind of music since I’ve been a kid even with The Smell being around for the last however many one or two decades. With the new stuff that keeps popping up, it’s so cool to see that people still want to make noise and it’s a really nice break from what people think about L.A. music. When people hear that word, it seems very Hollywood. There’s still a lot of great kids making loud music.
The press release says that the sort of sensory overload aspect of the album is inspired by mixtape culture. Could you expand on that?
I think there's two aspects to that. One is that several times in the last 10 or 15 years of music it's super common for hip-hop artists and rappers to put out mixtapes to fulfill contract obligations and collect bits and pieces and collage together a project to fulfill the requirements they need to do to either move onto the next label or the next record or they just feel like putting something out in some capacity. That’s just a part of it; it’s just that mixtapes move fast. And I guess the other part of it is that they’re not necessarily connected stylistically, like songs stop in the middle. It’s beat sketches and verse sketches. And mixtape culture is super fascinating to me because you’re putting out the all-you-can-eat buffet for everyone to come and take a look at [Laughs].
You've said that your influences for this record range from Cardi B to Death Grips. I have to know more.
[Laughs.] Well, I think Death Grips makes the most interesting music of all time. And also just performatively are such interesting people, in terms of how they live their whole lives and how they’ve presented their music to their fans over and over again. How they refuse to engage with normal music industry culture I think is so cool. There was a version of this record that only one track made it onto what you’re hearing which is this fully instrumental noise moment on there, and there’s a lot more tracks like that which are just me making a bunch of noise. I wanted to put a completely noise record and the songwriter and producer in me refused to acknowledge that initial instinct. But Death Grips lives so loudly and so purely themselves that it was hard to ignore that influence and hard to not steal from the sounds that they create which are so cool and unabashed.
And then Cardi B, she also lives like that. In a totally different lens. She's so in the eyes of the public in a fully wild way and she came up through such an insane lifestyle that I have no concept of how it felt to live that life. Cardi B is so interesting to me because she is now a rapper, but I don’t think it’s because she wanted to be a rap star. I think it’s because it’s part of her brand and that is so fascinating to me. In order to be the fully personality Cardi B, she needs the fashion and she needs the cars and she needs the music. Now she's also a movie star. Also, the way she delivers the verses that she has is so her and so cool. That definitely informed a lot of rhythmic choices that I made.
Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More
The Nigerian-American singer and actor sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about what inspired his latest album, 'Walk With Me'
In 2015, Rotimi stepped into the New Orleans Superdome for the first time to experience the magic of ESSENCE Fest. Four years later, in 2019, the "Love Riddim" singer returned to the celebration as a performer, something he said was spoken into existence.
"Last year me and my manager had a conversation and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be on the [ESSENCE] mainstage this year. 365 days later, we did it," Rotimi told the Recording Academy at the 25th annual ESSENCE Fest.
Rotimi, also an actor on Starz' "Power," has evolved since his last album, 2017's Jeep Music, Vol.1. The singer said he really hit home with its follow-up, the recently released Walk With Me, a project he worked hard for, putting in hours in the studio after filming on set.
"Walk With Me is the first time I actually felt like I was giving myself as an artist, and personally I feel like with everything else I have going on I wanted to show people that this is really what I do," he said. "I wanted people to understand who Rotimi is, who Rotimi was before, who I want to be and just understand my growth and the journey and my passion for what I do."
Part of why the album felt like such a representation of him is because it embodies beats of his African roots, something he said was very present growing up Nigerian-American.
"I grew up with a lot of Fela Kuti and I grew up with Bob Marley," he said of his musical roots. "But I also grew up with Carl Thomas and Genuine and Usher, so there was a genuine mixture of who I am and what I've grown up to listen to. The actual Walk With Me project was a mixture of influences of Akon and Craig David."
Joan as Police Woman
Quarantine Diaries: Joan As Police Woman Is Bike Riding, Book Reading & Strumming D'Angelo
As the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic continues to rock the music industry, the Recording Academy reached out to a few musicians to see how they were spending their days indoors
As the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic continues to rock the music industry, the Recording Academy reached out to a few musicians to see how they were spending their days indoors. Today, singer/songwriter Joan Wasser of Joan as Police Woman, whose forthcoming covers album, COVER TWO, includes tracks by The Strokes, Prince, Talk Talk, and more, shares her Quarantine Diary.
Thursday, April 2
[10 a.m.-12 p.m.] Went to bed at 4 a.m. last night after getting drawn into working on a song. Put on the kettle to make hot coffee while enjoying an iced coffee I made the day before. Double coffee is my jam. Read the news, which does not do much for my mood. Catch up with a few friends, which does a lot of good for my mood. Glad it goes in this order.
[12 p.m.-2 p.m.] Make steel cut oats with blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, fresh ginger, fresh turmeric, a sprinkling of cinnamon and cardamom, and of course, coconut butter to melt on top. If you’re not into coconut butter (sometimes marketed as coconut "manna"), I’d suggest just going for it and getting it (or ordering it) and putting it on your sweet potatoes, your oats, anywhere you’d put butter. I’m not vegan but I do enjoy hearing the tiny scream uttered by a strawberry as I cut into it.
Contemplate some yoga. Contamplate meditating. Do neither. Resume work on the song I want to finish and send today. I have a home studio and I spend a lot of my time working on music here. The song is a collboration sent to me from Rodrigo D’Erasmo in Milano that will benefit the folks who work behind the scenes in the music touring system in Italy.
[2 p.m.-4 p.m.] I traded in a guitar for a baritone guitar right before all this craziness hit but hadn’t had the time to get it out until now. I put on some D’Angelo, plugged into my amp and played along as if I were in his band. Micahel Archer, If you’re reading this, I hope you are safe and sound and thank you immensely for all the music you've given us always.
[4 p.m.-6 p.m.] Bike repair shops have been deemed "necessary," thank goodness, because biking is the primary way I get around and I need a small repair. I hit up my neighborhood shop and they get my bike in and out in 10 minutes, enough time to feel the sun for a moment.
I ride fast and hard down to the water's edge and take in a view of the East River from Brooklyn. There are a few people out getting their de-stress walks but it is mostly deserted on the usually packed streets.
[6 p.m.-8 p.m.] Practice Bach piano invention no. 4 in Dm very, very, very slowly. I never studied piano but I’m trying to hone some skills. Realize I’m ravenous. Eat chicken stew with wild mushrooms I made in the slow cooker yesterday. It’s always better the second day.
[8 p.m.-10 p.m.] Get on a zoom chat with a bunch of women friends on both coasts. We basically shoot the sh*t and make each other laugh.
Afterwards I still feel like I ate a school bus so I give into yoga. I feel great afterwards. This photo proves I have a foot.
[10 p.m.-12 a.m.] Record a podcast for Stereo Embers in anticipation of my new release on May 1, a second record of covers, inventively named COVER TWO. Continue to work on music (it’s a theme).
[12 a.m.-2 p.m.] Tell myself I should think about bed. Ignore myself and confinue to work on music.
[2 a.m.-4 a.m.] Force myself into bed where I have many books to choose from. This is what I’m reading presently, depending on my mood. Finally I listen to Nick Hakim’s new song, "Qadir," and am taken by its beauty and grace. Good night.
If you wish to support our efforts to assist music professionals in need, learn more about the Recording Academy's and MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund.
If you are a member of the music industry in need of assistance, visit the MusiCares website.
Hero The Band perform at the Recording Academy Atlanta Chapter Annual Membership Celebration
Photo: Marcus Ingram/WireImage
Report: Music & Culture Infrastructure Can Create Better "Future Cities"
How sound planning for a creative future in our urban areas makes all the difference for artists and musicians
The future, as they say, is now. And for music makers around the world, building a future for themselves often starts at home, in their local creative community and in the city where they live. While technology has expanded communication and made the world smaller, cities continue to grow, making planning for the future a critical cultural mission of the present.
To that end, a new report by global organization Sound Diplomacy titled "This Must Be The Place" examines, "The role of music and cultural infrastructure in creating better future cities for all of us." The 37-page deep dive into community planning and development highlights the importance of creative culture in what it calls "Future Cities."
"The government defines ‘Future Cities’ as 'a term used to imagine what cities themselves will be like," the report states, "how they will operate, what systems will orchestrate them and how they will relate to their stakeholders (citizens, governments, businesses, investors, and others),'"
According to the report, only three global cities or states currently have cultural infrastructure plans: London, Amsterdam and New South Wales. This fact may be surprising considering how city planning and sustainability have become part of the discussion on development of urban areas, where the UN estimates 68 percent of people will live by 2050.
"Our future places must look at music and culture ecologically. Much like the way a building is an ecosystem, so is a community of creators, makers, consumers and disseminators," the report says. "The manner in which we understand how to maintain a building is not translated to protecting, preserving and promoting music and culture in communities."
The comparison and interaction between the intangibility of culture and the presence of physical space is an ongoing theme throughout the report. For instance, one section of the report outlines how buildings can and should be designed to fit the cultural needs of the neighborhoods they populate, as too often, use of a commercial space is considered during the leasing process, not the construction process, leading to costly renovations.
"All future cities are creative cities. All future cities are music cities."
On the residential side, as cities grow denser, the need increases for thoughtful acoustic design and sufficient sound isolation. Future cities can and should be places where people congregate
"If we don’t design and build our future cities to facilitate and welcome music and experience, we lose what makes them worth living in."
For musicians and artists of all mediums, the answer to making—and keeping—their cities worth living in boils down to considering their needs, impact and value more carefully and sooner in the planning process.
"The report argues that property is no longer an asset business, but one built on facilitating platforms for congregation, community and cohesion," it says. "By using music and culture at the beginning of the development process and incorporating it across the value chain from bid to design, meanwhile to construction, activation to commercialisation, this thinking and practice will result in better places."
The report offers examples of how planners and leaders are handling this from around the world. For instance, the Mayor Of London Night Czar, who helps ensure safety and nighttime infrastructure for venues toward the Mayor's Vision for London as a 24-hour city. Stateside, Pittsburgh, Penn., also has a Night Mayor in place to support and inform the growth of its creative class.
What is a music ecosystem? We believe the music influences and interacts with various sectors in a city. We have designed this infographic to show how music ecosystems work and impact cities, towns and places: https://t.co/0DIUpN1Dll— Sound Diplomacy (@SoundDiplomacy) August 14, 2019
Diversity, inclusion, health and well-being also factor into the reports comprehensive look at how music and culture are every bit as important as conventional business, ergonomic and environmental considerations in Future Cites. Using the Queensland Chamber of Arts and Culture as a reference, it declared, "A Chamber of Culture is as important as a Chamber of Commerce."
In the end, the report serves as a beacon of light for governments, organizations, businesses and individuals involved in planning and developing future cities. Its core principals lay out guideposts for building friendly places to music and culture and are backed with case studies and recommendations. But perhaps the key to this progress is in changing how we approach the use of space itself, as the answer to supporting music may be found in how we look at the spaces we inhabit.
"To develop better cities, towns and places, we must alter the way we think about development, and place music and culture alongside design, viability, construction and customer experience," it says. "Buildings must be treated as platforms, not assets. We must explore mixed‑use within mixed‑use, so a floor of a building, or a lesser‑value ground floor unit can have multiple solutions for multiple communities."
Ice-T In 1993
Photo by David Corio/Redferns
Nearly 30 Years After Their Debut, Body Count's 'Carnivore' Is The Thrash-Metal Band's Most Fully Realized Album
Led by iconic rapper Ice-T, the L.A.-based seven-piece keep their socially conscious themes consistent and the music louder than ever on their seventh studio album
In early 1992 Ernie Cunnigan visited the Burbank office of Howie Klein. The guitarist (who goes by Ernie C.) and the then-president of Reprise/Warner Bros. Records were listening to the upcoming self-titled debut from Cunnigan’s band, Body Count, fronted by his Crenshaw High School buddy Tracy Marrow, already famous as rapper Ice-T. Ice, with the savvy creative connectivity that guides his multi-hyphenate media career to this day, introduced his forthcoming metal band in 1991 via tracks on O.G. Original Gangster, his fourth album.
It's not unusual for high school pals to form a band. What was unusual, though, was that Body Count was a hardcore thrash metal band comprised of all-black musicians, with point-blank lyrics that were both insightful and incite-ful concerning racial and social inequities and the climate of America. Listening to the 18-track debut, Klein praised it, while voicing concern about the lyrics of "Momma's Gotta Die Tonight," a song about the matricide and dismemberment of a racist parent. Turns out it was the last track, a ditty called "Cop Killer," that should have given the executive pause.
While Klein was and remains stridently opposed to censorship and is a dedicated free speech advocate, Body Count, per the era, was released with a parental advisory sticker (as was Original Gangster). Less than two months after Body Count dropped, Los Angeles exploded in fiery violence in reaction to the acquittal of four policemen in the beating of Rodney King, as well as the shooting death of black teenager Latasha Harlins by a Korean grocer. (The grocer was given only probation.) It was the worst possible climate for "Cop Killer," with lyrics including "Fk the police, yeah!" and shout-outs to then L.A.P.D. chief Daryl Gates, Ice's "dead homies" and King. The blowback went all the way up to then-President George Bush, and though Time Warner supported Ice-T in his fight against the song's opponents, he eventually pulled the cut from new pressings of the album.
Currently, streaming services including Spotify and Apple Music offer the version sans the group's most (in)famous song, replacing "Cop Killer" with "Freedom Of Speech" from Ice's 1989 solo album, The Iceberg/Freedom of Speech...Just Watch What You Say, edited to add samples of Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady" and the voice of political punker Jello Biafra. On YouTube, "Cop Killer" has more than 1.5 million views, with most of the comments thoughtful and positive, understanding the intentionally incendiary messages Body Count was delivering. Ultimately, if Body Count isn’t a classic record in the way that critics consider Nirvana’s Nevermind or Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back to be, it’s an important and groundbreaking one. As Ice-T has said, Body Count is: "a protest record,” not the norm in the metal world, but still the way BC's songs operate today.
Indeed, 28 years later, things haven’t changed. Biafra is also on Body Count's powerful new album, Carnivore. Police actions like "stop and frisk" (the NYC law enforcement program that was proven to disproportionally target black and Latino men) wasn’t legally discredited until 2014. Body Count’s one-time bassist, Lloyd "Mooseman" Roberts III, was murdered in South Central Los Angeles in 2001 in an accidental drive-by; in the last 12 months, 126 black men were killed by guns in L.A. County, as opposed to 23 white men. And Ice-T and Body Count are still raging against the machine.
Ice-T enjoys pushing buttons lyrically, and if they’ve sometimes been heavy-handed or misguided ("KKK Bitch" or "Bitch In The Pit"), Ice-T is a politically eloquent, passionate and personal songwriter, which can be too easily overlooked given Body Count's volume-heavy metal chops and Ice's delivery, a speedy vocal style that’s been traditionally more aggro-rapping than melodic singing.
That said, Carnivore is Body Count’s best album to date; it’s the most fully realized musically, and there’s a cohesion to the vocals and music that led Body Count bassist Vincent Price to lay out the band’s growth in a Metallica timeline: "Manslaughter  was basically Kill ‘Em All; Bloodlust  was our Ride The Lightning, and Carnivore’s our Master Of Puppets."
He's not wrong, and though Ice-T’s more than 20-year stint as detective Odafin "Fin" Tutuola on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit has precluded lengthy Body Count tours, the buzz is loud for this seventh album.
Ice-T may be the original gangster, yet he’s patient, articulate and fervent in explaining songs and motivations to audiences and the press alike. "When I'm Gone," featuring Amy Lee of Evanescence, was inspired by the killing of Nipsey Hussle. It’s a reminder, as he says in the tune, to "tell the people that you love, that you love them now. … Don't wait; tomorrow may be too fking late."
His prolific musical social criticism and seemingly left-leaning views are thoughtful and targeted, despite the vitriol of so many Body Count songs. In the nearly 30 years since founding his revolutionary band, Ice-T observes, "I think you’ve got less racism; less people, but more avid racism. It’s unnerving to think that we’ve come so far but there’s still so far to go." As he advised in a 2017 interview, "Don’t just be angry. Know what you’re talking about so you don’t alienate someone who should be an ally."