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Kool & The Gang
50 Years Later, Kool & The Gang Are Still Celebrating The "Pursuit Of Happiness" On New Album 'Perfect Union'
Robert "Kool" Bell recently chatted with GRAMMY.com 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
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 GRAMMY.com 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.
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.
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.
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.
Image courtesy of the GRAMMY Museum
GRAMMY Museum To Celebrate 50 Years Of Hip-Hop With 'Hip-Hop America: The Mixtape Exhibit' Opening Oct. 7
The new exhibit honors the 50th anniversary of hip-hop through an expansive and interactive exploration that features artifacts from legendary artists including the Notorious B.I.G., Tupac Shakur, LL Cool J, and more.
The GRAMMY Museum is celebrating the 50th anniversary of hip-hop this fall with the newly announced Hip-Hop America: The Mixtape Exhibit, an immersive, interactive, 5,000-square foot experience celebrating the multifaceted world of hip-hop and the global impact and influence of the genre and culture. Launching Saturday, Oct. 7, and running through Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2024, the exhibit will feature expansive exhibits exploring hip-hop music, dance, graffiti, fashion, business, activism, and history as well as artifacts from hip-hop pioneers like Tupac Shakur, the Notorious B.I.G., LL Cool J, and many more.
Additionally, the exhibit features a one-of-a-kind Sonic Playground, featuring five interactive stations that invite visitors of all ages to partake in DJing, rapping and sampling, all essential elements comprising hip-hop culture. Additional virtual and in-person education and community engagement programs will be announced at a later date.
Exploring the countless ways hip-hop music and culture has dominated popular culture over the last 50 years, Hip-Hop America: The Mixtape Exhibit was curated by a team of four co-curators who bring a deep knowledge of hip-hop, academic rigor and creativity to the project. They include:
Felicia Angeja Viator, associate professor of history, San Francisco State University, author of ‘To Live And Defy In LA: How Gangsta Rap Changed America,’ and one of the first women DJs in the Bay Area hip-hop scene
Adam Bradley, Professor of English and founding director of the Laboratory for Race and Popular Culture (the RAP Lab) at UCLA, and co-editor of ‘The Anthology of Rap’
Jason King, Dean, USC Thornton School of Music and former chair of the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at NYU
Dan Charnas, Associate Arts Professor, NYU Clive Davis Institute of Music, and author of ‘Dilla Time: The Life And Afterlife Of The Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm’
The co-curators worked in conjunction with GRAMMY Museum Chief Curator and Vice President of Curatorial Affairs Jasen Emmons as well as a 20-member Advisory Board.
Hip-Hop America: The Mixtape Exhibit is an educational journey through several key themes:
Innovation: Explore how hip-hop artists have innovatively used technology, from transforming turntables into musical instruments to pioneering sampling techniques.
Sounds of Hip-Hop: Experience the diverse sounds of hip-hop in four themed studios, showcasing the evolution of production, the intersection of hip-hop and car culture, the craft of hip-hop lyrics, and the influence of R&B.
Fashion: Dive into the world of hip-hop fashion, featuring iconic clothing, jewelry and style.
Regionalism: Discover 14 hip-hop scenes across the United States, showcasing the importance of local and regional contributions.
Entrepreneurialism: Learn about the transformation of hip-hop from a back-to-school party in the Bronx to a multi-billion-dollar global industry.
Media: Discover the role of media in shaping hip-hop's development, from radio stations to pioneering shows like "Yo! MTV Raps."
Community: Explore how hip-hop has brought people together over the last 50 years, with an interactive ‘Hip-Hop America’ playlist featuring 200 songs that trace the genre's evolution.
Highlights from Hip-Hop America: The Mixtape Exhibit include:
The Notorious B.I.G.'s iconic 5001 Flavors custom red leather peacoat he wore in Junior M.A.F.I.A.'s music video "Players Anthem"
Kurtis Blow's original handwritten lyrics for his 1980 hit single, "The Breaks," the first gold-certified rap song
Tupac Shakur's handwritten essay "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death," circa 1992
Two outfits designed by Dapper Dan, Harlem fashion icon: 1) a half-length black leather jacket worn by Melle Mel (Melvin Glover, b. 1961) in performance at the 1985 GRAMMY Awards; and a black-and-yellow leather bucket hat and jacket worn by New York hip-hop artist Busy Bee (David James Parker)
Egyptian Lover's gold Roland 808, the beat-making tool
LL Cool J's red Kangol bucket hat
Hip-Hop America: The Mixtape Exhibit is a key event taking place as the world is celebrating 50 years of hip-hop this year. The origins of hip-hop can be traced back to Aug. 11, 1973, when DJ Kool Herc DJed a birthday party inside the recreation room of an apartment building located on 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the South Bronx, New York City. This history-making date marks the birth of hip-hop and is the reason why we're celebrating hip-hop's 50th anniversary this year. The 50th anniversary of hip-hop means artists, fans, and the music industry at-large are celebrating the momentous milestone via hip-hop concerts, exhibits, tours, documentaries, podcasts, and more around the globe across 2023.
Visit the GRAMMY Museum website for more information regarding advanced ticket reservations for Hip-Hop America: The Mixtape Exhibit.
Living Legends: Kool & The Gang Are Still Celebrating On New Album, 'People Just Want To Have Fun'
The last original members of three-time GRAMMY-winning group Kool & The Gang discuss stories behind their classic hits, hip-hop samples, and how they kept the creativity going on their new album.
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music who are still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Robert Bell and George Brown, respectively the bassist and drummer of legendary funk/disco group Kool & The Gang. Their latest album, People Just Want To Have Fun, is out now and the group are touring throughout the summer and fall.
Fifty-nine years into their career, Kool & The Gang's music endures and still gets the party going. You can't go to a wedding or other big celebration without hearing one of the GRAMMY winners' many undeniably groovy, joyful classics — "Jungle Boogie" (1973), "Celebration" (1980), "Get Down On It" (1981), "Ladies Night" (1979), to name a few. And they're still making new music!
The group's iconic horns and drums are the DNA of so much other music — over 1900 tracks — including many classic hip-hop tracks, making them one of the most-sampled bands ever. Their chilled 1974 instrumental "Summer Madness" is featured on DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince's "Summertime," Ice Cube's "You Know How We Do It," and more recently, as the main instrumental in Jhené Aiko's "Summer 2020." Elements of "Jungle Boogie" can be heard on Luniz and Mike Marshall's "I Got 5 on It," TLC's "Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg," Madonna's "Erotica" and Public Enemy's "Welcome to the Terrordome." Last year, 23-year-old Brazilian house sensation Mochakk paid tribute to one of their deep cuts, "Sombrero Sam," with a dance floor reimagining of the jazz track.
Kool & The Gang often get tagged as a disco band, but real heads know they got their start in jazz. Their 1970 self-titled debut album is fully instrumental and opens with a funky, swinging, jubilant mission statement that just makes you feel good. The group's fourth studio album, 1973's Wild And Peaceful saw them channel their funk and disco power and breakthrough into the charts and the wider public consciousness, with "Funky Stuff," "Jungle Boogie" and "Hollywood Swinging."
Their funky tunes have also soundtracked a wide range of memorable moments in film. 1976's "Open Sesame" was featured in the wildly popular film (and soundtrack) Saturday Night Fever, cementing their status as household names in disco. "Summer Madness" was featured in another huge blockbuster, 1976's Rocky, and in 1994, Quentin Tarantino featured "Jungle Boogie" in Pulp Fiction (and on the soundtrack), bringing their music to another generation.
In 1979, the band brought in Brazilian producer, composer and multi-instrumentalist Eumir Deodato and their first lead vocalist James "J.T." Taylor. This led to a string of hit singles and albums: Ladies' Night in 1979, Celebrate! in 1980 and Something Special in 1981. The band continued with a prolific release schedule through the '90s, followed by two studio albums each in the '90s and '00s. In 2021, they released Perfect Union, their first original music in over a decade and final project with Ronald Bell.
The band began in 1964 with brothers Robert "Kool" Bell and Ronald "Khalis" Bell, along with high school friends Dennis "D.T." Thomas, George Brown, Robert "Spike" Mickens, Ricky West and Charles Smith in their hometown of Jersey City, New Jersey. The surviving original members – bassist Robert "Kool" Bell and drummer George Brown – are keen to continue their mission of bringing joyful music to the world with live shows and new music as long as they can.
They recently released a new LP — their 34th studio album! — People Just Want To Have Fun and are touring North America this summer, along with a Las Vegas residency in October. The album features some of the last studio work from the band’s late legendary horn players Thomas and Ronald Bell. Brown also has a brand-new memoir, Too Hot: Kool & The Gang & Me, detailing the legendary self-taught drummer and songwriter's musical and life journey.
GRAMMY.com sat down with the living funk legends Robert Bell and Brown to discuss the stories behind some of their classics, the hit-making partnership with Deodato and Taylor, and their new album.
Kool & the Gang has performed continuously longer than any other R&B group and y'all have been together for 59 years. What's your secret?
George Brown: A love for the art of music and for the arts as a whole, and a love for performing for people to give them two hours of happiness and relief from the everyday humdrum and all that's going on in this world. We love to perform and it gives us a release as well. It brings people together big time. And that changes the quality of society and culture because you're bringing people together, and all those cultures mix and we believe makes us all better for it.
Robert "Kool" Bell: Well, sticking together. When we first started, our parents always told us, "Be sure that you guys stick together." That was many years ago. Before Kool & the Gang, we called ourselves the Jazziacs, which we started in 1964. Then we were the Soul Town Band, then Kool & the Flames, then Kool & the Gang in 1969 when we put out our very first record. We have been together for all those years; next year will be 60 years.
Kool & the Gang is one of the most-sampled bands. What does it mean to you that your music has played such an important part in hip-hop, throughout its continued evolution over the past 50 years?
Brown: It's a great honor for the younger artists to see and hear what we were doing and to apply it into their music. [It's like] people saying, "We love what they've done. Let's try it in our music and make another entity out of it." You can't get more honored than that.
Bell: It's a blessing. We are the most sampled band in hip-hop, but we are also [one of] the most sampled bands in the world.
What do you feel when you hear Kool & the Gang's horns and drums on another track, in a whole new context?
Brown: Once again, I feel honored. It shows the awareness people have of Kool & The Gang, and that's a wonderful thing that adds to the longevity and to the mystique. And I think it also adds to the genius of the band, in what we created — I don't mean it in an egotistical way — where it can be co-opted into somebody else's music and it works for them too.
Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine to be honored this way. When we started [making music] there was no such thing as sampling and even in the early '80s when things started coming up, we didn't think we were going to be such a darling of the hip-hop world. Now, we're [one of] the most sampled bands and I'm the most sampled drummer. An interviewer said I'm like the grandfather of this music and I said "Really?" My bandmates and I don't let it go to our heads. At the end of the day, like everybody else, we're guys who write songs to make people happy.
Bell: It tells me that people are listening and respect what we do. There have been some very creative songs [sampling our music]—"Summer Madness" on Will Smith's "Summertime" Diddy and Mase [did "Feel So Good"] with "Hollywood Swinging," A Tribe Called Quest [on "Oh My God" and "Mr. Muhammad."] There's many, many more.
"Jungle Boogie" is one of those iconic, oft-sampled tracks. How did that one come together?
Bell: My brother Ronald was the key writer for "Jungle Boogie." We were dealing with some issues with our record company at the time. They came to us and said, "Listen, you guys have some regional hits but we have a guy that we want to work with you.” He had some big records, [including] "Soul Makossa" by Manu Dibango. We met with the guy one time and we weren't really feeling it. So we went to the studio — Baggy's in Downtown New York — one morning and we created "Funky Stuff," "Hollywood Swinging" and "Jungle Boogie" — Top 5 records. Well, Top 40 for "Funky Stuff," but No. 1 on the R&B chart for six or seven weeks and the other two [were] Top 5 on the pop charts.
Brown: Long story short, we started working on some tracks as we got to rehearsal studio and Ronald had the horn line and I came in over that groove, which is kind of derivative of "Funky Stuff." We were going to call the song "Jungle Gym" but Dennis Thomas came in and said "Let's call it “People Boogie" or "Jungle Boogie." So we started putting horns that kind of sounded like elephants.
Quentin Tarantino did us one of the biggest favors of all when he put it in Pulp Fiction. It was crazy. Who would have thought?
It was the same with "Hollywood Swinging." Ricky said, "I have an idea for a song called 'Hollywood.'" Frankie Crocker was a big [radio] DJ in New York and he had a thing where he'd go "Hollywooood." It's a life story about him, going out to California to become successful, sort of like a reverse of "Midnight Train to Georgia." We don't say “These are hits!” we just say, "Okay, sounds good." And people get it and take it to another level. It's amazing.
Do you think that the specific combination of the bandmates being friends and having known each other for a long time helps creatively?
Brown: Absolutely. Because if you take any band and the way they play guitar or bass or horns or piano, the pressure that they play with, the way they strum their guitar, the way they move the air, it's personal to them. When the chemistry works between the drummer and the bass player, because of the sensitivities and the way they play, it just works. And next thing you know, you have a whole band and the chemistry is there, no matter how long you've been apart. As soon as you sit down together, that same sound comes out.
In the late '70s, the band started working with Brazilian producer Eumir Deodato. How did that partnership come together and how did he help shape the band's sound?
Brown: That's my dude. He's a wonderful musician. You know, when he was in Brazil at 17, so many people asked him to produce and write strings and arrangements. He's got a bunch of his own gold and platinum albums, [in addition to] other artists'.
Deodato acknowledged my writing and took it to another level.
I was always writing poems and lyrics and playing piano and I'd get a solo on the album. But it wouldn't be taken as seriously until he came along. Everything we worked on with him went platinum. It was like he had a magic wand. I presume it was from learning from him when we were working together, just bringing up our acumen as producers and musicians.
Bell: Deodato was doing his album at the House of Music and that's how we met him, because we also chose that studio to record the Ladies Night project. Of course, we knew Deodato because he was a jazz guy, and my brother was a jazz lover as well. We thought that would be a perfect match.
We figured that working with Deodato we'd do a jazzier album. [Laughs.] But it was less jazz and more pop. For the session when we did "Celebration" and Deodato brought in a 40-piece orchestra. When they started mixing the record, my brother went into the studio and said, "What happened to the strings?" Deodato said, "Well, that's not the record. This is the record. This is a hit. Here's a tape of the orchestra so you can listen to it whenever you want."
["Celebration" became the] most played record in the world, a No. 1 record; they even played on the space station. Deodato knew it. He knew where we wanted to go and where he wanted to take us. That was a successful match for three albums.
What do you think Deodato helped bring out of you, George?
Brown: He was the guy that said, "That sounds great. Those chord changes and that melody, that works." He'd come in when I was playing piano in the studio before work, I'd be playing flowery stuff, just making up stuff. But he would say, "Señor, you've done it again! That's quite cute." He knows. And that's the genius. I think [he has] that type of personality that can really see through a maze and say there's something there and point it out.
Did y'all have any idea "Ladies Night" would be as big as it was?
Bell: Well, we felt good about it. This was our very first record with a lead singer. I was hanging out in New York with my wife and we were going to Studio 54 and Regine's and some of the other hotspots in New York at the time. And we realized that every weekend there was a ladies' night. I went to the guys and said, "Hey, I have a great idea for a song with our new lead singer. Ladies night." My brother said, "Wow. There's one of those everywhere around the world." Frankie Crocker broke that record in New York.
Brown: It was also a big surprise. I was coming from my manager's office, walking down Seventh Avenue, and I came up with a baseline and when I got back to my apartment, I started harmonizing the piano chords.
When all of us started working on it, we put some horns in there that were expressing the same lyrics the girls were singing, and some disco sounds. It was the right tempo and everybody sounded great. Then it's platinum, platinum, platinum, overnight. It just kept going. Holy smokes, it was crazy. When I showed [Deodato] the track he said, "Ah, señor, this is what we're looking for!" Getting with the right people and taking their counsel always works.
The band started out jazzier, then went funk and disco, into R&B and '80s flavor and beyond. How have you been able to adapt to a changing music landscape while staying fresh and true to yourselves?
Bell: Well, when you hear one of our records, you can tell that it's Kool & The Gang. On the vocal side, there's been some changes. We've had different lead singers since J.T. left, but we always put our little sound in there; in the horns, in the baseline, guitar parts.
Brown: We write we want and what we feel, not because everybody's writing this now. And we're pretty eclectic. We were interviewed in England and the gentleman said, "You guys are very eclectic, you got some big cojones. Most artists find their niche and stay there." We never have.
It's something very specific about the band because we've always been open. We were teenage jazz musicians turned pop stars. Jazz is very eclectic… it's not just a common cadence. That's what we love, so that's how we've always been.
You have a new album, People Just Want To Have Fun. Tell me about the inspiration for it.
Brown: It is like everything we've done from the beginning to now, but all the new harmonics and cadence. The vocals and lyrics are different, but we're still talking about having fun. And we're still bringing some wonderful love songs and some songs of unrequited love and temptation and party songs.
The lyrics and the vocal quality are different. Sha Sha Jones, who's a great [song]writer who has been writing on our team for years, she's doing some of the leads, which is unusual for Kool & The Gang. [She has a] gorgeous voice. It's harmonically, lyrically and vocally new. We have different mixes coming out. The "Let's Party" pop mix is out and a rap with Afrobeat mix is coming.
Has it been challenging to continue the legacy of the band after the loss of Ronald and Dennis?
Brown: Well, that's why we did the album. We lost our manager some months ago as well. We're moving right along and the band is doing well. And the legacy of the band — God willing, 100 years from now they'll still be playing our songs. I do believe that.
It goes on — it's sad, but there's nothing you can do but press on regardless, because that's what life is all about. You can't say, "Oh, that's it." You have to pick yourself up each time and strengthen yourself and move forward. That is the spirit of humanity.
Bell: Yes, it has always been a little difficult when you lose original members. That was with Ricky Wes, Spike Mickens, Charles Smith, now my brother and D.T. There's no one left but George and I. The blessing is that we're still here, people are loving the music, and we're still touring and having fun. [Chuckles]
When you were a kid in Jersey City, did you ever imagine you'd still be making music now, and that your music would be so loved and celebrated?
Brown: Believe it or not, yes. Ronald knew it. I knew that what we were doing was going to blossom. To what extent, I didn't know. As kids in Jersey City, working in the clubs when we were teenagers to two o'clock in the morning, that gave us a taste. And it just blossomed.
When we did amateur hour at the Apollo Theater, the musicians who were in the orchestra said, "You guys are going to make it. You guys got this new thing." Honi Coles was emceeing and he said, "You see these kids, ladies and gentlemen, they come out and they play jazz, they're not playing the songs of today. You're going to hear from them. Watch."
Bell: It definitely has been a blessing, in a business that can sometimes be very difficult to survive in, with so much competition and making the right decisions, etcetera, etcetera. I have a saying, you live and learn, and then you learn to live. People sometimes ask me, "Would you do it the same way again?" Yeah, because that's how I learned what it's all about. That's why we're still around today. And that, indeed, is a blessing.
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].