Photo: Pedro Gomes/Redferns
Inside Imagine Dragons' Biggest Hits: Dan Reynolds Details How "Believer," "Radioactive" & More Came To Be
On the heels of Imagine Dragons' sixth album, 'Mercury - Act 1 & 2,' frontman Dan Reynolds reveals the backstories behind smash songs like "Thunder," and "Enemy."
Since Imagine Dragons debuted 10 years ago, billion has become their default number. Four of the hitmaking group's singles — "Radioactive," "Believer," "Demons," and "Thunder" — each have more than a billion views on YouTube and a billion streams on Spotify.
Clearly those aren't the only songs that have made Imagine Dragons one of the most commercially successful rock bands of the 2010s. Combined, the group's streams top 100 billion, thanks to other hits like "Whatever It Takes" and "Enemy." The latter track is part of the group's sixth LP (and first compilation album), Mercury - Acts 1 & 2, and became their latest top 5 single on the Billboard Hot 100 — proving that they're not done making hits.
Behind each one of Imagine Dragons' songs is frontman Dan Reynolds, the group's principal songwriter. While the band has only been active in the mainstream for a decade, 35-year-old Reynolds is going on 25 years of making music.
"I started writing when I was 12, and I have recorded a song almost every day since then," Reynolds tells GRAMMY.com. "I have thousands and thousands of recorded songs with lyrics and melody that never saw the light of day."
Luckily for Imagine Dragons and their fans, plenty of songs have emerged from Reynolds' daily songwriting — and it's taken him and his band around the world. The group kicked off their 72-date Mercury World Tour in Miami in February, and they return to North America on Aug. 5 after a stretch of shows in Europe. (They had to cancel shows in Ukraine and Russia due to the countries' ongoing conflict, but Imagine Dragons showed their support for Ukraine by becoming ambassadors for United24, the organization launched by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that collects charitable donations for his country.)
During a brief break from performing, Reynolds reminisced with GRAMMY.com about some of his group's most recognizable hits to date.
"It's Time" — Night Visions, 2012
The major-label debut single from Imagine Dragons cracked the Top 20 on the Billboard Hot 100, also finding its way onto multiple screens thanks to Gossip Girl, Perks of Being a Wallflower and Glee.
Ten years later, it's still the song with which Imagine Dragons open the majority of their live shows. For Reynolds, "It's Time" serves as perhaps the most full-circle song in their catalog. "I wrote 'It's Time' in my dorm room the week I was dropping out of college to pursue music," he recalls. "The stomp clap is me hitting my desk."
After moving back to his hometown of Las Vegas, Reynolds recorded the song with the rest of the band at The Studio at the Palms. "We added the group's stomps and claps, but we kept the slaps and claps I had done in the dorm room," he says. "There is something about the youthfulness of that song. It took us from obscurity into alternative radio. It paved the way for 'Radioactive' and is still, to this day, one of my favorite songs."
"Radioactive" — Night Visions, 2012
Imagine Dragons' highest-charting single on the Hot 100, the No. 3-peaking "Radioactive" was the band's first top 5 single. It also gave Imagine Dragons another big first: their first GRAMMY. "Radioactive" won Best Rock Performance at the 56th GRAMMYs, where it was also nominated for Record Of The Year (and where the group performed the song with Kendrick Lamar).
"My first memories of 'Radioactive' are me living in a studio apartment at the Villa Carlotta in L.A. with my wife and first child," recalls Reynolds. "My wife and I were both struggling musicians. She was the singer of a band called Nico Vega who were signed to MySpace. Imagine Dragons was unsigned. We played at the Viper Room and Alex da Kid's assistant attended our show, bought our EP and gave it to Alex. [Alex] emailed saying 'I like your songwriting. Would you like to come in and do some songwriting sessions?'"
"Radioactive" was one of the first songs they wrote, with Reynolds writing the lyrics and melodies and Alex da Kid creating the dubstep beat. With the addition of Wayne Sermon's guitar parts, Ben McKee's bass and Daniel Platzman's drums, the song became, "More and more strange," laughs Reynolds. "Combining EDM and dubstep and five rock instruments was weird. But we wanted to keep listening to it. That was promising."
But when they brought "Radioactive" to their newly minted team at Interscope — their label home since 2011 — Reynolds remembers being told "This can never play on Top 40 radio." Nonetheless, "It forced its way on the radio," he asserts. "It was a monster. One of those songs that just wanted a life of its own and took on a life of its own."
"Demons" — Night Visions, 2012
Imagine Dragons' second Top 10 single "Demons" was "written in two hours," says Reynolds, during those same early songwriting sessions with Alex da Kid. Reynolds would write from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. every day, and present what he had to Alex da Kid at the end of the day.
"Alex is usually very reserved and not reactive," says Reynolds. "I remember specifically when I played 'Demons' he was like, 'This is really special,' which is a lot for him. When we brought in the band, it took even more life. Same as 'Radioactive,' where adding real instrumentation took something that was electronic and brought more live emotion to it, it made the song feel magical.
"We were an unsigned band at this time," Reynolds continues. "Even though these songs feel special, we had no understanding or idea that they would go on to be massive. In a perfect world, we wanted to maybe get enough fans to be able to do a club tour around America and play in front of 150 people in every city. The dream was to be able to sustain ourselves as indie artists. We had no understanding of what the songs would actually end up doing."
Last year, "Demons" was Diamond-certified, making Imagine Dragons the first band to have three Diamond-certified singles at the time; "Thunder" hit that milestone certification this July, adding to their record-breaking RIAA legacy.
"Believer" — Evolve, 2017
"Believer" marked the start of Reynolds working with Swedish songwriting/production duo Mattman & Robin, as well as hit-making songwriter Justin Tranter — collaborators who Reynolds says helped Imagine Dragons get back on track.
"We self-produced our second record, Smoke & Mirrors, which is one of my favorite records that we've done," says Reynolds. "But its biggest weakness is, it was way over-produced. When it's four people producing, it's easy to overthink and keep adding, so it's a huge wall of sound on every song."
With that in mind, Reynolds says the band took "a really minimalistic view" when approaching Evolve. "Mattman and Robin, that's what they do: very few sounds, but really intelligent and well thought out. We were in a room with [Tranter] and 'Believer' came really quick. It was one of those songs that was waiting to be written."
"Believer" spent 29 weeks topping the Hot Rock & Alternative chart — their longest run on the tally to date. Additionally, "Believer" is the only song in Imagine Dragons' catalog to have more than 2 billion streams on Spotify and 2 billion views on YouTube.
"Thunder" — Evolve, 2017
Imagine Dragons' fourth Diamond-certified single was nominated for Best Pop/Duo/Group Performance at the 60th GRAMMY Awards. The song spent 24 weeks in the No. 1 position on the Hot Rock and Alternative Songs chart and seven weeks at No. 1 on the Adult Contemporary chart.
"It was recorded at my computer in my front entry room," recalls Reynolds. "If you listen really closely, you can hear a couple of my kids screaming in the background. There was nothing professional about it. It wasn't in a studio. It's not recorded in a vocal booth. I recorded it in one evening, sent it back to Alex, he said, 'I love this, let's get the band on it.'"
"Whatever It Takes" — Evolve, 2017
"Whatever It Takes" is Imagine Dragons' unintentional sports anthem. The third Hot Rock & Alternative Songs No. 1 — in a row — from Evolve was the official theme song for WWE's Battleground 2017 as well as featured on Madden NFL 18.
"We lived with that song for months," remembers Reynolds. "We kept feeling like the chorus sounded too familiar. Nobody could put their finger on it. We finally realized it sounded too close to Gary Glitter's 'Rock 'n' Roll.' It wasn't the same melody, but it was close enough that it made you think of it. We got rid of the chorus. I rewrote and re-recorded the chorus at my house in the same front lobby that I recorded 'Thunder.' I wanted that kind of redemptive chorus and I tried to stay in that zone when I was creating it."
Says Reynolds of the GRAMMY-nominated Evolve, "It's a big record for us, which is crazy because we felt Night Visions was one of those things that we were never going to replicate and that it was all downhill from there."
"Natural" — Origins, 2018
Also an unintentional sports anthem, "Natural" was the hype song for ESPN's 2018 college football season. Reynolds wrote "Natural" during the same sessions as "Believer," but held on to the song for a strategic reason.
"When you put out an album, you're lucky in this day and age, if maybe you get two big singles," he says. "You don't get three or four singles. It just doesn't happen that way. We knew 'Natural' was going to be a big song, but we didn't want to put it on Evolve, because it would get buried with 'Thunder' and 'Whatever It Takes' and 'Believer.'"
So, they put it on Origins, which Reynolds calls "the sister album" to Evolve. "I'm really glad we did that, because I don't think it would have ever been released as a single or seen the light of day otherwise."
"Enemy (with JID)" — Mercury - Act 1/Arcane League of Legends Soundtrack, 2021
When the video game company Riot Games presented Arcane: League of Legends to Imagine Dragons to tap them for a theme song, Reynolds felt "Enemy" was a good fit for the Netflix animated series.
"We had the whole song complete," remembers Reynolds. "But we thought it'd be cool to have a guest appearance on it. We took out my vocals on the bridge. I really love JID and suggested him. What he added to it really brought it up a level."
It was four years from the time "Enemy" was written to when it was released with Arcane. But it was worth the wait for Imagine Dragons: "Enemy" earned them their first top 5 hit on the Hot 100 in five years.
"Bones" — Mercury - Acts 1&2, 2022
The lead single from Mercury - Act 2, "Bones," earned Imagine Dragons their 22nd Top 10 hit on the Hot Rock & Alternative Songs chart. Reynolds says his writing for Mercury - Acts 1&2 revolved around the concept of finality — and "Bones" exemplifies that idea.
"I was really hyper focused on death," says Reynolds. "That sounds so morbid, but that was the theme of the record. My goal was to write a song about death that was not sad. It's the first time we've ever made a dance song. When we play 'Bones' live, everybody's dancing. It's not typical for Imagine Dragons. That's not the rhythm that we go for. It's usually more angsty.
"'Bones' is supposed to be self-aware and a little bit ironic. But also, it was part of my lifelong obsession about, 'What is life? Why are we here? Where are we going? What happens when we die?' And also about not wanting to recognize death because it's such a scary thing to talk about. Why not just sing about it and make light of it?"
As "Bones" continues to rack up the streams and views and Imagine Dragons hit the road again, one thing remains clear: They're showing no signs of stepping down from their place as one of the biggest rock bands of their generation.
Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
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.
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."
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.
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."
Watch Lamar's full acceptance speech above, and check back at GRAMMY.com every Friday for more GRAMMY Rewind episodes.
Photo: Monica Schipper/Getty Images for iHeartRadio
9 Artists Who Advocate For The LGBTQIA+ Community: Troye Sivan, Taylor Swift, Madonna & More
From Big Freedia to Beyoncé, artists who identify as queer and allies alike celebrate love in all its forms.
"GAY RIGHTS!!!!!" Betty Who captioned a cheeky photo earlier this month. Yes, it was a well-known inside joke among the LGBTQIA+ community, but the all-caps message held some serious meaning. The queer pop star's photo was from the White House's 2023 Pride Celebration, where President Biden formally announced the New Actions to Protect the LGBTQIA+ Community plan — and Betty Who was the star performer.
Music has always been a safe haven for gay and trans people of all kinds — from the closeted kids in Middle America finding sanctuary in the songs of their favorite pop stars, to the out-and-proud artists forming the soundtrack for the next generation of LGBTQIA+ fans. And Pride has always been a special time of the year to celebrate visibility and inclusion in the music industry — a place where everyone deserves to show up and be seen (and heard!) as their authentic self, and where every proverbial note, melody and harmony make up a beautiful and unique soundtrack that can only be yours.
Recently, queer musicians and allies who use their platforms to stand up for the LGBTQIA+ community has felt more important than ever. A rash of anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation has swept through state legislatures across the country, from so-called "Don't Say Gay" bills to blatant legal attacks on drag queens, trans kids and LGBTQIA+ history as a whole — but those who stand for the community are fighting even harder.
As Pride month carries on, GRAMMY.com has rounded up a list of nine LGBTQIA+ artists, allies and bonafide gay icons who've made advocating for the community a central tenet of their music, their words and their actions. Of course, there are dozens to highlight, but take a look at how queer artists like Kim Petras and Troye Sivan and allies like Taylor Swift and Madonna have helped fans shine as their authentic selves.
Petras cemented her place as a rising star in the pop music echelon in February, when she became the first trans woman to win the GRAMMY for Best Pop Duo/Group collaboration with Sam Smith for their subversive collaboration "Unholy." (Smith, who identifies as non-binary, also made history with the win, though they graciously ceded the floor for Petras to give her awestruck acceptance speech on the GRAMMYs stage.)
As the cover star of Out's 2023 Pride issue, the German pop princess spoke out about the rash of anti-trans rhetoric taking root in legislatures across the country and harming vulnerable trans youth. "I literally was very suicidal as a kid, and I just wouldn't still be here had my parents not believed me," she told the magazine. "I hate that another generation is going through this, and I hate that young kids are going through the same s–t I was going through, and that apparently just isn't changing. I think it's sad. I just never understood why people were so obsessed with what people do to be happy. Just focus on what you can do to be happy."
Lil Nas X
Lil Nas X has never been shy when it comes to sticking up for the queer community — and he usually does so with a healthy dose of snarky humor on social media. He's cheerfully clapped back about everything from the explicit queerness of his music videos to his place in the modern pantheon of hip-hop; mostly recently, he hopped on Twitter to hilariously take down conservative outrage over Pride-themed merchandise at Target.
"Can't believe target is supporting this nonsense, im never shopping there again, my son is not 'too cool for school' these shirts are ridiculous. He is going to school and he WILL learn," the GRAMMY winner wrote in a since-deleted tweet, mockingly referencing the anti-LGBTQIA+ crusaders upset with inclusive and trans-friendly apparel being sold at the popular retailer.
In another instance from late April, Montero made his stance hysterically clear when he tweeted, "I want to clear all the straight rumors. i have many straight friends and i support their community, but that is NOT me!"
Years before releasing his debut album Blue Neighborhood in 2015, Troye Sivan came out publicly via YouTube. Since then, he's been consistently outspoken about his experiences as a gay artist in the music industry.
The Australia native, who announced his long-awaited follow-up to 2018's Bloom earlier this month, has made a consistent point in his career to turn his visuals into unapologetic examples of queer art — from the lusty defiance of 2018's "My My My!" to the "gushy juicy doting adoring power b^tt^m gay ballad" perfection that was 2021's "Angel Baby."
Perhaps most powerful of all, though, was his video for early single "Heaven" featuring Betty Who, which depicted historic moments in the LGBTQIA+ rights movement including some of the earliest Pride parades on record. "We have always been here. we will always be here. this video is dedicated to all those who've come before me and fought for our cause and those who now continue the fight," he wrote in the video's description. "in dark and light times, let's love forever. love, troye x."
Speaking of Betty Who, the indie pop star received an invitation directly from President Biden to perform at the White House's official 2023 Pride Celebration, where the commander in chief formally announced his administration's plan titled New Actions to Protect the LGBTQIA+ Community. The three-point roll-out promises to focus on "Strengthening Physical Safety," "Addressing Civil Rights Violations" and "Strengthening Mental Health and other Support Resources."
"Today was the biggest pride celebration ever held at the white house and i got to be a part of it!!!!!!!!" Betty, who identifies as both queer and bisexual, wrote afterwards on social media. "So many things i want to say! What an honour it is, how proud i am to be part of the lgbtqia+ [community], how special today's event was and how grateful i am to @potus, @drbiden and the amazing white house staff for hosting us. queer joy spouting everywhere!!! very grateful for this incredible experience."
Earlier this year, Big Freedia was honored by PFLAG — the nation's longest-running LGBTQIA+ organization — with its first-ever National Breaking Barriers Award. The new honor, which she received at PGFLAG's 50th anniversary gala in March, is meant to shine the spotlight on "an individual who uses their platform to help remove obstacles to LGBTQIA+ and intersectional equality in pursuit of a more just, equitable and inclusive world."
Upon receiving the award, the bounce music trailblazer (and 2023 GRAMMY winner) took to Instagram with a determined message, writing, "There's still so much work to do to fight discrimination and I will continue to work on behalf of our whole community to spread love, acceptance, inclusion and everyone's right TO BE FREE."
While she'd slyly referenced her support for the LGBTQIA+ community in the past on songs like "Welcome to New York," Taylor Swift took a public stand in 2019 with her Lover era single "You Need to Calm Down." The gay anthem's celebratory music video issued a call to action for her fans to support the as-yet-unpassed Equality Act with her very own Change.org petition.
During her Eras Tour stop in Chicago earlier this month, the superstar spoke specifically to her LGBTQIA+ fans, promising them that her concerts would always be a "safe space" for them to celebrate who they are.
"I wish that every place was safe and beautiful for people in the LGBTQ community, I really wish that. We can't talk about Pride Month without talking about pain," she told the sold-out crowd of Swifties at Soldier Field. "There have been so many harmful pieces of legislation that have put people in the LGBTQ and queer community at risk. It's painful for everyone — every ally, every loved one, every person in these communities. And that's why I'm always posting, 'This is when the midterms are. This is when these important, key primaries are.'
"'Cause we can support as much as we want during Pride Month," the 12-time GRAMMY winner continued. "But if we're not doing our research on these elected officials — Are they advocates? Are they allies? Are they protectors of equality? Do I want to vote for them? — I love you guys so much and happy Pride Month."
What hasn't Madonna done in her iconic career to lift up the LGBTQIA+ community? In fact, there's an entire Wikipedia page dedicated solely to her status as a living gay icon.
Famously, Her Madgesty's love for the gay community started with her early mentor and dance teacher Christopher Flynn. Early in her career, she became one of the first artists to speak out about the HIV/AIDS crisis and decry the stigmatization of gay people at the time.
She's been recognized by the GLAAD Media Awards multiple times, including in 1991 with the Raising Gay Awareness award and in 2019 with the Advocate for Change award. (At the latter ceremony, GLAAD president Sarah Kate Ellis stated, "Madonna always has and always will be the LGBTQ community's greatest ally.")
More recently, Madge added multiple dates to her upcoming Celebration Tour, including a special stop in Nashville to stand in solidarity with the state's queer, trans and drag communities as they've been bombarded by a string of anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation from the state's Capitol.
"The oppression of the LGBTQIA+ is not only unacceptable and inhumane; it's creating an unsafe environment; making America a dangerous place for our most vulnerable citizens, especially trans women of color," she wrote on Instagram alongside the announcement. "Also, these so-called laws to protect our children are unfounded and pathetic. Anyone with half a brain knows not to f— with a drag queen. Bob and I will see you from the stage in Nashville where we will celebrate the beauty that is the queer community!"
Long considered a gay icon in her own right, Beyoncé paid reverential honor to the LGBTQIA+ community and her late uncle Johnny with 2022's Renaissance, an undulating magnum opus inspired by the underground ballroom scene sparked by Black, trans and gay pioneers of the 1970s, '80s, '90s, and beyond.
Queen Bey also holds space for queer artists throughout Renaissance's sprawling, hour-long track list, collaborating with TS Madison and Big Freedia, sampling Kevin Aviance and late drag star Moi Renee, working with Honey Dijon behind the boards and more. "Thank you to all of the pioneers who originate culture, to all of the fallen angels whose contributions have gone unrecognized for far too long," the living legend wrote in a note posted to her personal website upon the album's release. "This is a celebration for you."
Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons
Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds has emerged as a powerful advocate for the LGBTQIA+ community through his nonprofit organization Loveloud and its popular Utah festival, which he launched in 2017 to support LGBTQIA+ teens in the state's overwhelmingly conservative (and outspokenly anti-LGBTQIA+) Mormon community.
This year, though, Reynolds and the Loveloud board — which includes out and proud musicians like Tyler Glenn of Neon Trees, Vincint, Wrabel and Parson James — have expanded Loveloud's mission beyond the Mormonism of the Wasatch front. In early March, Loveloud announced it would be transforming into a traveling festival for its sixth year with stops in Austin, Texas, where dozens of anti-LGBTQIA+ laws have been pursued by the state legislature and Gov. Greg Abbott, and Washington D.C.
Photo: Rachel Kupfer
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.
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'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 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 (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'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.
Photo: Steven Sebring
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."
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 Bam" back 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].