meta-script50 Years Later, Kool & The Gang Are Still Celebrating The "Pursuit Of Happiness" On New Album 'Perfect Union' |
Kool & The Gang perform live in 1970 in matching all-white outfits

Kool & The Gang

Photo: GAB Archive/Redferns/Getty Images


50 Years Later, Kool & The Gang Are Still Celebrating The "Pursuit Of Happiness" On New Album 'Perfect Union'

Robert "Kool" Bell recently chatted with about Kool & the Gang's new album, 'Perfect Union,' the loss of his brother Ronald "Khalis" Bell and original member Dennis "Dee Tee" Thomas, the band's evolution, and much more

GRAMMYs/Aug 20, 2021 - 04:00 pm

In the summer of 2020, Kool & the Gang's founding member and principal songwriter Ronald "Khalis" Bell wanted to combine the band's dance rhythms with lyrical themes around world peace and harmony for the band's first full-length studio album in over a decade, Perfect Union.

Unfortunately, he would never live to see his musical vision come to life. Bell's life was cut short on Sept. 9, 2020, at age 68. His brother, Robert "Kool" Bell, and original band members George Brown and Dennis "Dee Tee" Thomas decided to carry the torch. Perfect Union's first single, "Pursuit of Happiness," is inspired by President Biden's campaign and features rapper Keith Murray. The album releases on Aug. 20.

For five decades, Kool & the Gang turned their brand of slick funk, disco rhythms, horn-blaring jazz, R&B instrumentals, memorable hooks, and tender pop ballads into GRAMMY-winning, million-selling classics like "Jungle Boogie," "Hollywood Swinging," "Ladies Night," Too Hot," "Funky Stuff," "Summer Madness," "Get Down On It," "Cherish," "Joanna," "Fresh," and the anthemic chart-topper "Celebration."

Originating in Jersey City, New Jersey in 1964, the Songwriters Hall of Fame inductees went through a series of name changes until they released their self-titled debut LP in 1969. The group added lead vocalist James "J.T." Taylor a decade later.

Songs from Kool & the Gang's catalog have been featured in commercials for brands like Kroger, Capital One and Amoco. The band is regularly sampled on hip-hop records, has a street named for them, and is featured at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture. The band is in the process of adapting their story for book publishing, film, an extended box set, and a musical.

Robert "Kool" Bell recently sat with to chat about Kool & the Gang's new music, grieving the losses of his brother Ronald and original member Dennis "Dee Tee" Thomas, the band's evolution, longevity, and giving back to the community.

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What's the inspiration behind the lead single and the album?

I know it's a tough time right now dealing with COVID, but we put this together. My brother basically did most of the album and got us back into the studio before I lost him last year, but it's good to be back out there. When Biden was running for president, he played "Celebration." When he won, "Celebration" was one of the most played songs around the world.

My brother came up with "Pursuit of Happiness." I wasn't sure what route he was trying to go with it, but it turns out he was talking about world peace. When Biden was making his speech for his nomination, he went into the Constitution and spoke about the pursuit of happiness and a perfect union. We have some dance stuff on the album, but this project is about pushing for world peace and people coming together.

How did you get the nickname "Kool"?

I'll try and make this quick. I was a country boy coming to Jersey City, the big city, trying to fit in. My mother sent me to the store one day to get some bread that cost a quarter. Two guys walked up, told me to give them some money, and they took my quarter. I asked myself if I wanted to be a victim or a part of what's going on? So I became a part of that organization, the Imperial Lords, and tried to stay on the good side of things. That's how I got the nickname Kool. It was originally Tamango first because of that movie.

Where did music come into play?

When we first started, my brother was a fan of John Coltrane; Dee Tee was into Cannonball Adderly; Spike Mickens loved Freddie Hubbard; George Brown liked Philly Joe Jones; and I listened to Ron Carter, so the jazz thing was happening.

My father was a boxer, and he used to fight in Cuba a lot before the sanctions. Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis used to come to Cuba and hang out, so it was a lot like Floyd Mayweather being around the hip-hop guys. My father used to live in the same building as Thelonious Monk, and he became my godfather. Miles wanted to get in the ring with my father because he wanted to be a boxer.

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How did Kool & the Gang ensure the energy from the studio could translate so well into song?

The energy was 90 percent us. We'd go in and just have some fun, come up with some concepts, and some ideas, man. All the guys would chip in on the writing. We were just jammin', man: makin' up songs like "Chocolate Buttermilk" and "Raw Hamburger."

Then we got to a point where we ran out of titles, so we called one song "N.T." for "No Title." We got a lot of samples off of "N.T." It just would all come together, man. "Too Hot" was about George Brown and his wife breaking up because it got too hot. George could write those types of songs; "September Love" was about someone that he met in September. We have a lot of different songs that we revisit every now and then.

How was the band able to straddle successfully between making uptempo anthems and pop ballads?

It was all part of our transition. We were on tour with The Jacksons in the late '70s, and Dick Griffey, a promoter and the president of SOLAR Records, said we were doing well on tour, but we needed a lead singer. So we thought about it; Lionel Richie had The Commodores, Maurice White and Philip Bailey with Earth, Wind & Fire, so it was time.

We only auditioned one guy, and that was James "J.T." Taylor. That's when we went to cut the first song, "Ladies Night." Frankie Crocker broke that record in New York. That's when we decided to blend the music with what we did in the early '70s with the lead singer. That's how we were able to roll into the '80s.

What did it take to make sure that adding James "J.T." Taylor was a seamless transition?

That was my brother and our producer, Eumir Deodato. Eumir told us to focus on the lead singer to some degree, and open up them tracks because the horn players would play all through those parts. We were leaving no room for a singer, so we had to write so that we had that space.

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Where did "Celebration" come from?

We were coming off from celebrating "Ladies Night," our first single with J.T. I was hanging out in New York with my wife going to Studio 54, and every weekend somewhere, there was a ladies night. We knew that would be a good song. The tail end of "Ladies Night" says "c'mon let's celebrate," so my brother said there was another song right there.

We went to the studio, and he played this track for us with that down home vibe to it in Alabama with grandma and grandpa sittin' on the porch drinkin' some Kool-Aid. We didn't know that, that record was gonna be the ultimate. We thought "Ladies Night" was. "Celebration" is 40 years old now, and it's still big. It's inducted into the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress, and it's one that you can't go back and try to redo. "Celebration" stands by itself, and we're thankful to have a record that's still as popular as it is.

How does it feel seeing your songs being used in numerous commercials and sampled by countless hip-hop artists?

We feel very good about that, but there's always a couple that I'll miss. It's been so many different ones.

What's your relationship like with Taylor these days?

I spoke to J.T. last week. He called me about Dee Tee and my brother. We still stay in touch.

How's that been grieving the losses of your brother and another bandmate?

It's kinda heavy losing my brother last year, Dee Tee this year, and the whole COVID thing. We're trying to get through it and trying to move forward. Our dates are starting to come back. I just came back from Europe actually. We did a mini-tour: playing France, Finland, Spain and Belgium. During this time we were off, I was doing a lot of social media stuff. It's quite interesting what people being home have had to say over the last year.

What inspired your nonprofit, Kool Kids Foundation?

My wife is responsible for that idea. She passed three years ago, but she wanted to do something for kids in school where there was no music and a lack of funding. When I was in school, you could walk into a classroom and pick up an instrument. I had the opportunity to do that, and she was saying it wasn't there anymore in some areas. She came up with the idea for the Kool Kids Foundation. The year before she passed, I was gonna go big time.

Before that in 1987, I did a tour financed by Pepsi-Cola and Cherry Coke in 48 cities. In order for someone to come, they had to have perfect attendance and perform well in school. These four young men came up to us wanting to sing to us. My cousin, our co-manager, wanted to hear what they could do. They did four songs acapella and sounded pretty good. My cousin introduced them to my other cousin, sent them to New York, and that group became Color Me Badd.

How do you handle lasting five decades in the music business?

It feels great because it shows an accomplishment. Some bands don't stay together for 50 days, and we've been together 50 years. We continue to work; Our parents told us to never give up when times get hard, and they do happen in this music business. You go up and down like a rollercoaster ride. We feel good that those things happen, and we're still out there.

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Lil Wayne performing at Roots Picnic 2024
Lil Wayne performs at Roots Picnic 2024.

Photo: Taylor Hill/Getty Images for Live Nation Urban


9 Lively Sets From The 2024 Roots Picnic: Jill Scott, Lil Wayne, Nas, Sexyy Red, & More

From hit-filled sets by The-Dream and Babyface to a star-studded tribute to New Orleans, the 2024 iteration of the Roots Picnic was action-packed. Check out a round-up of some of the most exciting sets here.

GRAMMYs/Jun 3, 2024 - 09:02 pm

As June kicked off over the weekend, The Roots notched another glorious celebration at West Philadelphia's Fairmount Park with the 16th annual Roots Picnic. This year's festival featured even more activations, food vendors, attendees, and lively performances.

On Saturday, June 1, the action was established from the onset. October London and Marsha Ambrosius enlivened the soul of R&B lovers, while Method Man and Redman brought out surprise guests like Chi-town spitter Common and A$AP Ferg for a showstopping outing. 

Elsewhere, rappers Smino and Sexyy Red flashed their St. Louis roots and incited fans to twerk through the aisles of the TD Pavilion. And Philly-born Jill Scott's sultry vocals made for a memorable homecoming performance during her headlining set. 

The momentum carried over to day two on Sunday, June 2, with rising stars like Shaboozey and N3WYRKLA showing the Roots Picnic crowd why their names have garnered buzz. Later in the day, rapper Wale brought his signature D.C. swag to the Presser Stage. And while Gunna's performance was shorter than planned, it still lit the fire of younger festgoers. 

Closing out the weekend was a savory tribute to New Orleans courtesy of The Roots themselves, which also starred Lil Wayne, acclaimed R&B vocalists, an illustrious jazz band, and some beloved NoLa natives. 

Read on for some of the most captivating moments and exciting sets from the 2024 Roots Picnic. 

The-Dream Serenaded On The Main Stage

The-Dream performing at Roots Picnic 2024

The-Dream | Taylor Hill/Getty Images for Live Nation Urban

After years away from the bright lights of solo stardom, The-Dream made a triumphant return to the festival stage on Saturday. The GRAMMY-winning songwriter and producer played his timeless R&B hits like "Falsetto" and "Shawty Is Da S––," reminding fans of his mesmerizing voice and renowned penmanship.

His vocals melted into the sunset overlooking Fairmount Park Saturday evening. And even in moments of audio malfunctions, he was able to conjure the greatness he's displayed as a solo act. Although, it may have looked easier than it was for the Atlanta-born musician: "Oh, y'all testing me," he said jokingly. 

The-Dream slowed it down with the moodier Love vs. Money album cut "Fancy," then dug into the pop-funk jam "Fast Car" and the bouncy "Walkin' On The Moon." He takes fans on a ride through his past sexual exploits on the classic "I Luv Your Girl," and closes on a fiery note with the "Rockin' That S—." While even he acknowledged that his set wasn't perfect, it left fans hoping to see more from the artist soon. 

Smino Rocked Out With His Philly "Kousins"

Smino performing at Roots Picnic 2024

Smino | Shaun Llewellyn

Despite somewhat of a "niche" or cult-like following, Smino galvanized music lovers from all corners to the Presser Stage. The St. Louis-bred neo-soul rapper played silky jams like "No L's" and "Pro Freak" from 2022's Luv 4 Rent, then dove into the sultry records from his earlier projects.

"Klink" set the tone for the amplified showcase, with fans dancing in their seats and through the aisles. His day-one fans — or "kousins," as he lovingly refers to them — joined him on songs like the head-bopping "Z4L," and crooned across the amphitheater on the impassioned "I Deserve." 

Under Smino's musical guidance, the crowd followed without a hitch anywhere in the performance. It further proved how magnetic the "Netflix & Dusse" artist is live, and how extensive his reach has become since his 2017 debut, blkswn.

Nas Took Fans Down Memory Lane

Nas performing at Roots Picnic 2024

Nas | Taylor Hill/Getty Images for Live Nation Urban

The New York and Philadelphia connection was undeniable Saturday, as legendary Queensbridge MC Nas forged the two distinctive cities for a performance that harnessed an "Illadelph State of Mind."

The "I Gave You Power" rapper played his first show in Philadelphia as a teenager, when he only had one verse under his belt: Main Source's 1991 song "Live at the BBQ." Back then, Nas admitted to underplaying the city's influence, but he knew then what he knows now — "I had to step my s— up." And he did.

The rapper played iconic songs like "Life's a B–" and "Represent" from his landmark debut Illmatic, which celebrated 30 years back in April. He even brought out Wu-Tang Clan's Ghostface Killah to add to the lyrical onslaught, and played records like "Oochie Wally" and "You Owe Me" to enliven his female fans.

Sexyy Red Incited A Twerk Fest

Sexyy Red performing at Roots Picnic 2024

Sexyy Red | Frankie Vergara

Hot-ticket rapper Sexyy Red arrived on the Presser Stage with a message: "Make America Sexyy Again." And as soon as Madam Sexyy arrived, she ignited a riot throughout the TD Pavilion aisles. Twerkers clung onto friends and grasped nearby railings to dance to strip club joints like "Bow Bow Bow (F My Baby Dad)" and "Hood Rats."

Red matched the energy and BPM-attuned twerks from her fans, which only intensified as her lyrics grew more explicit. Sexyy encouraged all of the antics with a middle finger to the sky, her tongue out, and her daring lyrics filling the air. Songs like "SkeeYee" and "Pound Town" added to the nonstop action, leaving fans in a hot sweat — and with their inner sexyy fully unlocked.

Jill Scott Delivered Some Homegrown Magic

Jill Scott performing at Roots Picnic 2024

Jill Scott (left) and Tierra Whack | Marcus McDonald

To close out night one, the Roots Picnic crowd congregated at the Park Stage for a glimpse of Philadelphia's native child, Jill Scott. The famed soulstress swooned with her fiery voice and neo-soul classics like "A Long Walk" and "The Way." Fans swayed their hips and sang to the night sky as Scott sprinkled her musical magic.

Scott, wrapped up in warm, sapphire-toned garments, was welcomed to the stage by Philadelphia Mayor Cherelle L. Parker. The newly elected official rallied the audience for a "Philly nostalgic" evening, and the GRAMMY-winning icon delivered a soaring performance that mirrored her vocal hero, Kathleen Battle. "Philadelphia, you have all of my love," Scott gushed. "I'm meant to be here tonight at this Roots Picnic."

"Jilly from Philly" invited some of the city's finest MCs to the stage for the jam session. Black Thought rapped along her side for The Roots' "You Got Me," and Tierra Whack stepped in for the premiere of her and Scott's unreleased rap song, a booming ode to North Philly. 

Fantasia & Tasha Cobbs Leonard Brought Electrifying Energy

Fantasia performing at Roots Picnic 2024

Fantasia | Taylor Hill/Getty Images for Live Nation Urban

Led by the musical maestro Adam Blackstone, singers Tasha Cobbs Leonard and Fantasia set the warmness of Sunday service and their Southern flare with a "Legacy Experience." And as the title of the performance suggests, their fiery passion was a thread of musical mastery.

As fans danced across the lawn, it was just as much a moment of worship as it was a soulful jam — and only the dynamic voices of the two Southern acts could do the job. "Aren't y'all glad I took y'all there this Sunday," Blackstone said.

The sanctity of Tasha Cobbs Leonard's vocals was most potent on "Put A Praise On It," and Fantasia's power brought the house down even further with classics like "Free Yourself" and "When I See U."

"I wasn't supposed to come up here and cut. I'm trying to be cute," Fantasia joked after removing her shoes on stage. The North Carolina native's lips quivered and her hands shook in excitement, as she continued to uplift the audience — fittingly closing with a roaring rendition of Tina Turner's "Proud Mary."

Babyface Reminded Of His Icon Status

Babyface performing at Roots Picnic 2024

Babyface | Marcus McDonald

There are few artists who could dedicate a full set to their own records, or the hits they've penned for other musicians. And if you don't know how special that is, Babyface won't hesitate to remind you. "I wrote this back in 1987," he said before singing the Whispers' "Rock Steady."

Throughout the legendary R&B singer's 45-minute set, he switched between his timeless records like "Every Time I Close My Eyes" and "Keeps on Fallin'," and those shared by the very artists he's inspired — among them, Bobby Brown's "Don't Be Cruel" and "Every Little Step," 

Fans across several generations gathered to enjoy the classic jams. There was a look of awe in their eyes, as they marveled at the work and memories Babyface has created over more than four decades. 

André 3000 Offered Layers Of Creativity

Andre 3000 performing at Roots Picnic 2024

André 3000 | Marcus McDonald

Speculation over what André 3000 would bring to his Sunday night set was the buzz all weekend. Fans weren't sure if they were going to hear the "old André," or the one blowing grandiose tones from a flute on his solo debut, 2023's New Blue Sun.

The former Outkast musician went for the latter, and while some fans were dismayed by the lack of bars, hundreds stayed for the highly rhythmic set. "Welcome to New Blue Sun live," André said. The majestic chimes and flowy notes of his performance reflect a new creative outlook, and as the performance went on, there was a cloud of coolness that loomed over the amphitheater.

His artistic approach is new to many fans, but he never stopped showcasing the personality they have grown to love. After delivering a message in an indistinguishable language, he panned to the crowd with a look of deep thought and said, "I just want y'all to know, I made all that s— up." It's the kind of humor fans have admired from him for decades, and moments like those are one of many reasons they stayed to watch the nuances of the MC's set.

Lil Wayne & The Roots Gave New Orleans Its Magnolias

Trombone Shorty and Black Thought at Roots Picnic 2024

Trombone Shorty (left) and Black Thought | Taylor Hill/Getty Images for Live Nation Urban

The sound of jazz trombones and the gleam of Mardi Gras colors transported West Philly to the bustling streets of New Orleans for the closing set of Roots Picnic 2024. The ode to the Big Easy featured natives like Lloyd, PJ Morton and the marvelous Trombone Shorty, all of whom helped deliver a celebratory tribute that matched the city's vibrance.

Lloyd floated to the stage singing The Roots' "Break You Off," and delved into his own catalog with "Get It Shawty" and "You." Morton soon followed with a soulful run of his R&B records, including "The Sweetest Thing" and "Please Be Good."

With anticipation on full tilt, Black Thought welcomed the festival closer to the stage with a message: "It's only right if Philly pays homage to New Orleans that we bring out Lil Wayne." And right on cue, Wayne drew a wave of cheers as he began "Mr. Carter."

Wayne strung together his biggest Billboard-charting and street hits, including "Uproar," "Hustler's Muzik" and "Fireman." The performance was a rousing cap-off to the weekend — and it clearly meant a lot to the rapper to rep his city in such grand fashion.

"This is a dream come true," Wayne said. "It's a motherf–ing honor."

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Jasmine Cephas Jones Press Photo 2024
Jasmine Cephas Jones

Photo: Lauren Desberg


Jasmine Cephas Jones' Lifelong Journey To 'Phoenix': "It's The Album I've Always Wanted To Make"

You might know Jasmine Cephas Jones for her dual role as Peggy Schuyler and Maria Reynolds in the Broadway adaptation of 'Hamilton.' On her debut album, 'Phoenix,' she's ready to unmask who she is beyond the stage.

GRAMMYs/May 30, 2024 - 06:17 pm

For years, Jasmine Cephas Jones never saw herself as a recording artist.

As a teen, she attended multiple meetings with producers, but nothing felt authentic. In her twenties, she went the Broadway route, securing the dual role of Peggy Schuyler and Maria Reynolds in the original cast of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton. And even after she created her debut EP, Blue Bird, in 2020, Cephas Jones' future was still uncertain; the pandemic happened, and a string of hard moments left her wondering what would be next — and what would become of her music. 

Even so, her creativity was booming. She wrote and recorded an entire album's worth of music alongside seven trusty collaborators, including Blue Bird producer Zach Golden and Samora Pinderhughes, who co-wrote a track on Blue Bird and produced Phoenix. Nearly four years later, that project finally gets to see the light of day: her debut album, fittingly titled Phoenix

The 13-track LP started as a story of romance. But as Cephas Jones sat with the songs, she discovered her most fulfilling relationships were found in her family, friends, collaborations, and artwork, offering an entirely new meaning of connection and perseverance. As a result, Phoenix is a patchwork of her life, and every formative moment in her musical upbringing: It's her mother's love of Stevie Wonder's witty lyricism on "Bad Habits," her father's penchant for Prince's genre-bending production on "Fade in the Water," and her years of opera training on "Cali." As Cephas Jones puts it, it "just sounds like me."

Before Phoenix arrived on May 30, Jasmine Cephas Jones sat down with to discuss how she grew from the bluebird into the phoenix, and to revisit the moments throughout her career that cultivated into her first full-length studio album.

What does the title, Phoenix, mean to you?

I wrote this album about three and a half years ago. I rented out an Airbnb, and seven of us worked on it. We made two studios in two different rooms. I remember telling everyone that I wanted a transformation in my sound.

As an artist, everyone goes, "Well, who do you sound like?" Or, "What genre are you?" Musically, I'm just trying to sound like me.

My first EP, Blue Bird, was very melancholy. It has that blue color feeling to it. But with [Phoenix], I wanted it to have a lot of confidence. That was the only thing I said. The music could be love or breakup songs. We can write whatever it is that moves us, but it has to have some confidence in it.

Towards the end of that week-long writing group, I was like, "Wow, I really changed musically." This sounds like it has my stamp on it, but it's like a level up. That's initially why I did it.

Life happened. I went through a lot of really hard moments, and the album shifted. It became a metaphor for what was going on. For a long time, I didn't know how I was going to put out Phoenix since everything changed. I didn't know what the story would be, but in reality, it was all right there in front of me. I'm a person going through a difficult time and coming out stronger. Someone who has grown and learned.

How would you say that growth is represented throughout this album — is it in the songwriting? The visuals?

All of it! It's almost like Shakespeare, where everything is written for you. You know, you don't have to do much with Shakespeare.

I was trying to find answers to how the music represented me for so many years. Like I said, I wrote it three years ago. What am I doing putting it out when I am a completely different person? 

I knew it was the album I've always wanted to make. And honestly, now, some of the songs hit harder or mean something else. It strikes a different chord, but that is what makes music so beautiful. If it's done in the right way, with emotion and passion, it's the type of album you can listen to, no matter what decade you're in. It'll still move you, make you dance, make you cry. I'm excited to perform it and have it out because it's going to be such a great release for me.

A tour, maybe?

Yeah, yeah. In the future for sure.

When you listen to it, it's really important that you hear these incredible musicians. Samora Pinderhughes really goes in on a lot of these tracks. Beautiful outros. We've got horns on some of them.

It's an album that feels alive. I remember thinking how much I would enjoy performing it with the live instruments and a full band. That's what excites me as an artist.

The lead single, "Brighter," features Kevin Garrett. How did that come about? And why did you think that track would be the perfect song to lead the new era?

Kevin was a part of the writing camp that was there for seven days, and "Brighter" was one of my favorite songs off that album. I wanted to create a super funky beat. I got this rimshot that reminds me of some track on D'Angelo's Voodoo. It's got this kind of classic, in-the-pocket, fun moment to it. Musically, aesthetically, it was one of the songs that made my neck pop every time I would listen to it. I wanted to start the era with something that brought me so much joy.

In the music video, I'm on a horse. Then, people's flip phones blow up, and I leave the party. Eventually, I turned into a phoenix. The party represents my old life — I left to come to Los Angeles. Running into the streets and turning into a phoenix is the journey of healing and growth.

Stylistically, the music video for "Brighter" is very similar to your other single, "Baby I Can't Give You Up." Is there a connection between those two songs? Are the women in those music videos the same character?

"Baby I Can't Give You Up" is a love story, but it changed for me.

Listen, you can hear the songs and interpret them any way you want. That's what it's for. But in a music video, you see what it meant to me at that moment. Yes, it did start as a love song, but then it became a love letter to my family and friends.

I'm walking around London, which is where I was born. I'm half English, and a lot of my family lives there. I'm reminiscing through the hard times and who was there for me. Who poured me with so much love. At the end, there's a beautiful montage of my father, who passed away last year. Then, I hop on the train to my next journey.

You could say it's the same character, but she represents all the different points in my life.

Though this album is described as neo-soul and R&B, I hear influences of jazz, country, and more. How did you develop this unique fusion of genres?

I listen to so many different types of music. If you look at my saved songs on Spotify, it's Beyoncé, Solange, Radiohead, Enya, Stevie Wonder, and Prince. It's never-ending.

How I write my music… I don't really come up with a melody or lyrics first. I like to start from the beginning and be there throughout the whole process. So, I listen to the sound first, whatever it is that starts — a piano line, bassline, trumpets, or guitar. We come up with that, then the music. And that could be anything. Maybe, a chord strikes me. Like, Oh my god, I love that. Stay there.

I remember when I was 10, listening to Voodoo on my Walkman while I rode the school bus. People would be like, "What are you listening to?" It's D'Angelo. No one knew who that was because we were so young. I've always taken a different path when it comes to music. Again, it goes back to me trying to find my sound and what I like. That's really important to me. 

I have so much respect for music and musicians. That's why Prince is one of my favorite artists because he might be listed under R&B or pop, but we know he's more than that. He's his own genre. That's how I looked at this album — we didn't have to fit into any box. 

That was the beautiful thing about that writing camp was because we were like, "Whatever comes out, just let it come out." If I like it, I like it. If I don't, I don't, and we can move on or try to work with it. But I'm not trying to put anyone into a box. It's one of my favorite ways to write. I don't know how I'll go back to a regular day of writing in the studio. 

I recommend [any artist] to go somewhere, get up early in the morning, and write until like 2 or 3 a.m. Then, you do it again. It was so fulfilling to go back and forth between those two rooms. You're just leaning on each other. That journey to getting to where it is now was awesome.

How does 10-year-old Jasmine discover D'Angelo?

My parents! My mom is a jazz singer. My dad was a jazz aficionado. I grew up around a lot of musicians in my life. I was in theater because my dad was an actor, and I would go to my mom's gigs. I found out a lot through my parents. 

I also always listened to the radio. So, I would still know what's going on as a kid, but my mom had the dopest music setup in her house. She had shells and shells of records, cassette tapes, and CDs. And she had a piano with these speakers from the '80s that were amazing. She had headphones you could plug into them, so I would come home every day, do my homework, and sit in that corner for hours, going through her collection.

I went to performing arts school starting in middle school. I remember trying to figure out what to use as my audition song, and I found Stevie's Innervisions. At 11, I decided that "Living for the City" would be my audition song. I used that in middle school, at LaGuardia High School for vocal, and for the Berklee College of Music. And I got into all of them. All of that happened because I just saw and discovered on my own, which I thought was really cool.

In middle school, I sang Ella Fitzgerald's scat song, "Rockin' in Rhythm," and I remember the music teacher being like, "Wait, what? Where did you learn this?" I've always been an oddball, or whatever you want to call it. I just had a love for great music. So, when it comes to my music, I want to put out everything I've been influenced by. That's why some of the songs go on longer than usual. They'll have these amazing transitions, kind of like Earth, Wind & Fire or Prince, and that brings me joy.

You've experimented with so many different lanes, from musical theater to opera. But did you always want to try songwriting?

I didn't consider myself a songwriter for a long time because I didn't do it. As a teenager, I met with a couple of producers, and they'd always ask, "Who do you want to sound like?" It was more their project, so they wanted me to sound a certain way. Because of that, it didn't speak to me.

It wasn't until I was with Samora [that I had the freedom to express my ideas]. We wrote this song "Wild Thing" that is on my EP, Blue Bird. If I'm trying to fit somebody else's box, I'm not going to be able to write. But Samora taught me that I do have melodies and ideas for basslines — and I do have a lot to say.

Did that level of trust also introduce you to producing?

One of my favorite things to do after I finish the melodies and songwriting is sit with the producer. We go through everything. 

"Cali" started with my idea for a bassline and a horn section. So, I sat with my producer and gave them ideas and my input. If I can be there. I want to see it all through.

Does your vocal performance differ when you're auditioning and acting as a character versus your original music?

In musical theater, you're always playing a character. Whoever that character is, you're embodying that and decide what sound comes out of your mouth. On top of that, you're projecting and using your diaphragm differently because a packed theater of 1,300 people has to hear you.

When I sing my music, I get to be more vulnerable. I'm not embodying anyone but myself, so I get to experiment. In a lot of those songs, I go into the stratosphere with my head voice because in high school, I was training to be a coloratura soprano opera singer and learned how to sing crazy high in the clouds, like in my song "Cali."

It's fun to record and explore the different parts of my voice that I wouldn't normally use in a musical theater setting. All the different tones, tambours, and colors in my voice. I get to decide what I can do.

Is there a track on Phoenix that's particularly special to you?

There's an interlude called "Phoenix," and my dad is on it. Before he passed, I randomly asked, "Hey, could you send me a voicemail of what 'phoenix' means to you?" He sent me a three-minute voicemail, and we chopped it up into an interlude. He got to be a part of it, which is so beautiful.

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Aaliyah in 2001
Aaliyah in 2001.

Photo: Sal Idriss/Redferns


8 Ways Aaliyah Empowered A Generation Of Female R&B Stars

More than 20 years after her untimely death and 30 since her debut album, 'Age Ain't Nothing But a Number,' Aaliyah's legacy lives on through female R&B artists of generations new and old. Dig into her impact, from her fearlessness to her fashion sense.

GRAMMYs/May 24, 2024 - 02:39 pm

With worldwide sales of 32 million, five GRAMMY nominations, and more than a dozen Hot 100 hits to her name, Aaliyah achieved more in her tragically cut-short 22 years than most would several lifetimes over. And more than two decades after her untimely death, the female R&B scene is still very much indebted to her pioneering talents.

In the last few years alone, she's been namechecked by Beyoncé, sampled by SZA and Normani, and covered by Mariah the Scientist and Sinead Harnett. And that's only on a sonic level. Ella Mai and Mahalia also recreated her signature tomboyish look in their video for "What You Did," as did Jhené Aiko on " P*$$Y Fairy (OTW)." Justine Skye and Sevyn Streeter are just a few of the names who paid their respects in 2023 ABC tribute Superstar. And going further back, Aaliyah has also been cited as a major source of inspiration by Ciara, Tinashe, Nelly Furtado, and Rihanna, while Katy B and Jessie Ware even named their "Jolene"-esque duet after their musical icon.

And thanks to Aaliyah's innovative second and third studio efforts, 1996's One In A Million and 2001's Aaliyah, finally escaping from licensing limbo in 2021, those growing up in the streaming age are now discovering her supremely sultry voice, masterly interpretative skills, and array of forward-thinking hits, too. In the last three years, the likes of "Try Again" and "Are You That Somebody" have racked up more than 140 ad 170 million streams, respectively, on Spotify alone.

But why exactly does the singer nicknamed Baby Girl still have such a hold on contemporary artists, several of whom were barely out of diapers when she was busy tearing up the R&B rulebook? To coincide with the 30th anniversary of Aaliyah's debut album, Age Ain't Nothing But A Number, here's a look at how the "street but sweet" star built up such an inspirational legacy.

She Knew How To Use Her Voice 

Aaliyah arrived at a time when powerhouses Mariah Carey, Celine Dion and Whitney Houston were the dominant female singers. But the New Yorker quickly proved that lung-busting multiple octaves isn't the only way to vocally impress.

Aaliyah was still capable of such acrobatics. According to producer Daryl Simmons, she would often rely on opera runs before recording to warm up her voice; Diane Warren, who worked with the star on ballad "The One I Gave My Heart To," has spoken of how she was taken aback by her versatility. But Aaliyah's signature delivery was very much "less is more." You can hear her sensual, featherlight tones in the likes of Kelela, Rochelle Jordan, and The Internet's Syd, the latter of whom has specifically hailed Aaliyah as a formative influence on her own cooler-than-cool style.

She Retained An Air Of Mystery 

Aaliyah's less-is-more approach also applied to her public profile. Perhaps due to the controversy surrounding her relationship with debut album producer R. Kelly, the singer largely preferred to let her music do the talking.

Even when she did speak to the press, she kept her cards close to her chest. And she avoided giving the more salacious outlets any further ammunition by growing up away from the spotlight. If they were looking for celebrity beefs, love triangles or stumbling out of nightclubs, they had to look elsewhere.

In the social media era where oversharing is the norm, Aaliyah's desire to keep her private life entirely private now seems both admirable and practically impossible. But there are still several artists who've recognized there's a power in retaining a sense of mystery. Just look at Sault, the enigmatic collective said to be fronted by the Aaliyah-esque Cleo Sol, who've released 11 albums and evenperformed live without officially revealing their true identities.

She Was A Triple Threat 

Triple threats are par for the course these days. From Beyoncé and Rihanna to Brandy and Nicki Minaj, almost every female R&B star now seems determined to show they can pull off singing, dancing and acting — and, in the case of Jennifer Lopez's recent passion project, all at the same time. But Aaliyah was one of the first to showcase such impressive versatility.

In 2000 thriller Romeo Must Die, she stole the show from Jet Li as the daughter of a crime lord who refuses to get drawn into his dangerous underworld. And thanks to an inventive blend of wirework and futuristic choreography, she was equally spellbinding in the video for tie-in single "Try Again." 

Meanwhile, her slithery performance as the titular bloodsucker was by far the standout in 2001 horror Queen of the Damned. Having landed key roles in The Matrix Reloaded and Sparkle shortly before her untimely death, Aaliyah's movie career would undoubtedly have ascended to the same lofty heights as her musical.

She Wasn't Afraid To Take Control 

Don't be fooled by Aaliyah's softly spoken vocals and coy demeanor. The star was never afraid to tell it like it is. Just ask A&R executive Jeff Sledge, who guided her early days with Jive Records. "She was shy but when she would speak, you could tell she was a real artist," he told The Guardian in 2021. "She had her ideas of what she wanted to do and say — she wasn't a puppet."

Although her talents lay as a performer/interpreter rather than a songwriter/producer, Aaliyah continued to exert creative control throughout her discography. While promoting sophomore One In A Million, she told MTV, "I was very confident in my convictions and what I wanted this time around." 

It's a mindset reflected across her lyrical themes, too. On "If Your Girl Only Knew," she hits back at a player whose attention she's unwillingly caught, while on "Are You That Somebody," she insists on keeping her new beau a secret until he proves his worth.

She Helped Launch Missy Elliott's Career 

Although Missy Elliott had started to make waves in the music industry — firstly in short-lived girlband Sista, and then as writer/producer for Jodeci and Aaron Hall — it was her partnership with Timbaland and Aaliyah on 1996's One In A Million where she truly established herself as an R&B game-changer. Elliott co-penned nine tracks, including the singles "Hot Like Fire," "4 Page Letter" and "If Your Girl Only Knew," her sensual melodic hooks the perfect foil for Timbaland's innovative beats.

By the time their crowning glory, "Are You That Somebody," dropped in 1998, Elliott had become a star in her own right: maintaining the synergy, her debut album, 1997's Supa Dupa Fly, also boasted a guest appearance from Aaliyah. But as Elliott told Entertainment Weekly in a tribute to Aaliyah after her passing, their connection went far beyond the studio: "It was more of a family vibe than just work. We could tell each other anything." Over the next few years, both established (Whitney, Mariah) and emerging (702, Tweet) female talent would follow Aaliyah's lead by utilizing Elliott's production skills.

She Gave The Youth A Voice 

From SWV and En Vogue to Brownstone and Jade, the mid-'90s R&B scene was dominated by ladies well into adulthood. Aaliyah, however, was just 15 when debut Age Ain't Nothing But A Number hit the shelves. Subsequently, a generation of young girls immediately latched on to who they saw as a kindred spirit.

Although Aaliyah always sounded more mature than her years, her debut often reads like a schoolgirl's diary entry. (She even opens the title track by noting one: "May 5, 1993/ Aaliyah's diary/ Got it," goes the often-omitted intro.) Songs about crushes, hanging out with her friends, and partying on the weekend certainly reflected the teenage experience with authenticity (Aaliyah was still attending Detroit High School for the Fine and Performing Arts).

What's more, "Young Nation" essentially finds her spearheading a new youth movement, "keeping it smooth with a jazz attitude.""There were so many messages in her songs that guided me and became the soundtrack to my childhood," British singer Kara Marni told The Guardian, proving that Aaliyah's generational influence extended far beyond her homeland.

She Had A Timeless Sense Of Style 

"There doesn't seem to be a current streetwear trend that Aaliyah didn't sport first," Vogue's fashion editor Janelle Okwodu recently claimed, no doubt referring to everything from bandanas and baggy jeans to sports jerseys and ski hats. From the moment she first graced MTV in overalls, a tracksuit and the chunkiest of leather vests in "Back & Forth," the New Yorker made it crystal clear she wasn't interested in appealing solely to the male gaze.

Aaliyah could dress up for the occasion; see the Roberto Cavalli ballgown she wore to the 2000 VMAs. But her sense of style always leaned more toward the casual and tomboyish end of the spectrum, empowering the next generation of R&B performers to wear exactly what they wanted. British singer Nao was one such follower of her fashion: "There was a part of Aaliyah that made me feel comfortable in rolling out in my denim trousers or in an oversized jumper and knowing that my music can be enough."

She Proved Female R&B Could Think Outside The Box 

TLC's "No Scrubs," Missy Elliott's "Get Ur Freak On," Amerie's "1 Thing." Think of the most innovative R&B singles of the pre-streaming era and it's likely a female act is responsible. And thanks to a sonic palette that still sounds like it's been sent from the future, Aaliyah undeniably paved the way.

Age Ain't Nothing But A Number first established her innovative ways, her mellifluous vocals gliding across Timbaland's progressive beats and bank of avant-garde sound effects. But it was 2001's eponymous LP that truly pushed the genre into various weird and wonderful directions, from the snake-charming classical sample on "We Need A Resolution," to the warped Nine Inch Nails-esque guitars on "What If," to the squelchy sci-fi funk of "Try Again." 

Even when she went classic, as on gorgeous slow jam, "I Care 4 U," she practically invented alternative R&B. Musical boundaries might now be a thing of the past, but in the early '00s, Aaliyah was one of the few breaking them down.

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Tori Kelly
Tori Kelly

Photo: Sarah Morris/Getty Images for The Recording Academy


Tori Kelly Gets “Unwrapped” For 'TORI' At GRAMMY U Event Showcasing Production & Recording Techniques From Her New Album

The singer stepped out for GRAMMY U's first "Unwrapped" event to give fans a look deep inside her new record, TORI. Joined by producer and collaborator Tenroc, the pair walked guests through the making of several tracks including "missin u" and "oceans."

GRAMMYs/May 21, 2024 - 10:11 pm

GRAMMY U members got a special treat from Tori Kelly when the singer (and Sing-er) took the stage for the first ever GRAMMY U "Unwrapped" event on May 15. Held at The Novo in downtown Los Angeles, the event brought together fans, music industry professionals, and students for a night that dove deep into the creative process behind Kelly’s brand new record, TORI. Amazon Music and Mastercard were participating sponsors for this event. 

Joined on stage by producer and collaborator Tenroc, Kelly took fans through a journey of several tracks from her new record, from inception to completion. Kelly discussed each track, aided by a video presentation and using stems to highlight special production techniques, musical intricacies, and cool little Easter eggs. The showcase was followed by a round of live questions from the audience, where Kelly dished about everything from her voiceover work to her pre-studio rituals, before grabbing a guitar and performing two new tracks: "High Water" and "Oceans." 

Here’s a glimpse into all the songs Kelly and Tenroc featured, from "Missin' U" to "Spruce."

"thing u do”

When it came time to make Tori, Kelly told the audience that she wanted to focus on "songs that make [you] wanna dance," and "songs that [anyone] can belt out in the car." Mainly collaborating just with Tenroc, Bellion, Clyde Lawrence, and Jordan Cohen, Kelly put together a record that's strongly influenced by late '90s and early '00s pop, with references to chirping Sidekick phones and plenty of nostalgic vocal effects. 

"missin u" in particular is interesting, not just because it was inspired by Craig David and the U.K. Garage sound — with Kelly taking special care to pronounce "garage" in true British fashion at the live event — but also because it was released in both its original form and as an R&B edit. The latter version is the one Kelly and Tenroc highlighted at the event, going through Kelly's vocal tracks, and really digging in on the remix's bridge, which Kelly wrote just for that track and recorded in her home studio.

Getting to see Tenroc's Logic Pro work on the big screen seemed to mesmerize everyone in attendance, with most marveling at the ease he seemed to have flicking through the dozens of stems, layers, and plug-ins. 

"missin u"

When it came time to make TORI, Kelly told the audience that she wanted to focus on "songs that make [you] wanna dance," and "songs that [anyone] can belt out in the car." Mainly collaborating just with Tenroc, Bellion, Clyde Lawrence, and Jordan Cohen, Kelly put together a record that's strongly influenced by late '90s and early '00s pop, with references to chirping Sidekick phones and plenty of nostalgic vocal effects.

In particular, "missin u" is interesting, not just because it was inspired by Craig David and the U.K. Garage sound — with Kelly taking special care to pronounce "garage" in true British fashion at the live event — but also because it was released in both its original form and as an R&B edit. The latter version is the one Kelly and Tenroc highlighted at the event, going through Kelly's vocal tracks, and really digging in on the remix's bridge, which Kelly wrote just for that track and recorded in her home studio.

Getting to see Tenroc's Logic Pro work on the big screen seemed to mesmerize everyone in attendance, with most marveling at the ease he seemed to have flicking through the dozens of stems, layers, and plug-ins. 


Talking about "shelter," Kelly described a sort of shorthand she'd developed with Tenroc, after working closely together over the past few years. She said they're at the point where they can communicate with "sounds" and "telepathy," a benefit she attributes to not switching producers throughout the making of her record.

Tenroc and Kelly used "shelter" to talk about the comping process, or the act of combining the best parts of different takes into a single track. Kelly said she typically does about five takes of a vocal track, all in different personas: one normal, one shyer, one wild, one with a lot of vocal runs, and one that's sort of a wild card. She can keep each take separate in her mind that way, remembering how she recorded a vowel slightly better in one take or gave a line a little grittier vocal texture in another. It's not something everyone can do, though, and Tenroc said it's truly amazing to witness in person — a fact the live audience could attest to. 

For Kelly, a lot of making TORI, was about exploring different tones and textures of her voice, she said. She'd sometimes start by doing an impression of a singer like Rihanna and Willow in one run, and then blend the inspired version with her own, stretching herself vocally. She demonstrated that kind of thing live at the show, doing off-the-cuff runs of bits of "Shelter" to talk about how they changed the way the word "plate" in the chorus. 

Tenroc also showed off how he used the Little Alterboy plug-in to alter Kelly's voice, turning the rap in "shelter," as well as the "you, you, you, you, you" bit into what sounds like a deep masculine voice, even though those lines were originally laid down by Kelly herself. 


When "spruce" was first being envisioned by Kelly and co-writer Casey Smith, it was a song called "truce" about making up with your loved one before going out on the town. Kelly had been wanting to make a "getting ready, girly song," though, and Bellion came into the studio one day with the idea of merging the two ideas in what became "spruce." 

Written over a loop made by Tenroc, "spruce" — featuring Kim Chaewon of K-Pop group LE SSERAFIM — is emblematic, Kelly said, of her effort to let go, change, and try new things in the studio. The production was inspired by Jai Paul and uses sidechain compression, which is when the level of one instrument or sound triggers a compressor to control the level of another sound. The crowd clearly seemed taken with the sound when Tenroc played examples of how it was used in the track, which he said he made in part with the Serum plugin. Kelly said the result feels fully "3-D," like you're "inside" the track rather than just listening along.

"same girl"

The last — and most personal —song on the record, "same girl," was mostly written by Kelly while she was on a plane. She wanted something that felt like it could close the record, and she recorded it live with Tenroc in her studio, where he also played piano. 

Kelly said the song was inspired by her love of various music styles and genres. She explained, "Coming up as an artist, I always felt a little insecure about trying to stay in one lane and be in one box. I love so many different genres. I'm inspired by so many different things." She continued, "And so finding my sound I always thought that was a bad thing... But I'm grateful for all these different genres I've been able to dabble in. This song was me being overwhelmed by people's opinions and letting it get to me a little bit while thinking of my career as a whole."

Kelly said that while she worried when she was writing that the lyrics would be too personal and too specific, she's had great feedback about the track, something that reminds her that, "Anytime you write about your own experience, someone else out there is going to be able to relate to it." 

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