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Marbs Talks New Techno Sublabel Desert Hearts Black, L.A.'s City Hearts, Looking Up To Dubfire & More

Marbs & Evan Casey

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Marbs Talks New Techno Sublabel Desert Hearts Black, L.A.'s City Hearts, Looking Up To Dubfire & More

Along with his best friends, the San Diego-bred DJ/producer is helping keep dance music, dancefloors and DJ booths fun

GRAMMYs/Oct 17, 2019 - 09:31 pm

Meet Marbs, one of the five founding members of Desert Hearts, an ever-growing electronic music label/collective that throws ridiculously fun parties and festivals. He is the resident deep house/dark techno aficionado of the welcoming core crew of lifelong friends. This summer, along with another close friend (and a DH regular), Evan Casey, he launched a brand-new "darker sounds" sublabel, Desert Hearts Black.

Just seven years ago, Mikey Lion, Marbs, Porky, Lee Reynolds and Kristoff McKay held their first DH Festival in the Mojave, a very cold and minimalist party that longtime members of their community refer to as "Frozen Hearts." While they've all helped Desert Hearts grow momentously since its humble beginnings—enhancing the fest each iteration, launching the main record label in 2014 and the sublabel this August, taking City Hearts events across the country and building a loyal fan base—the core of it has never changed.

"As long as we focus on the people and creating a place where incredibly talented, creative people want to come together and connect, then I think the things we create will be in flow with that," Marbs recently told us over the phone. Read on to learn more about their inspirational story, his kick-off collab release on Desert Hearts Black, what's in store for the major November City Hearts Festival in Downtown L.A. (happening on Nov. 9 and 10) and more.

Next month you guys are bringing back City Hearts Festival to L.A. What are you most looking forward to with this iteration of the event?

I'm most looking forward to us doing new things and expanding the City Hearts experience. The whole idea for the City Hearts Festival is to bring that similar experience as the [flagship] festival at Los Coyotes to an urban setting that's more accessible for our direct community. Los Angeles is probably our strongest market, and the location is literally across the street from the train station so for people who are coming from San Diego or Santa Barbara or even farther north, they can hop on the train and as soon as they get off the train at Union Station they walk about 50 feet and they're at the party.

We really want to start doing this all over the nation and eventually the world, bringing the festival experience to other settings throughout the whole country and all the markets that we've been building with the tour. That's the main goal of the tour, to build our communities in large sections around the world and once those get strong enough for us to be able to do festivals in those locations. So this is a really exciting moment for us because we're finally taking the steps to get to that in place and L.A. is the first place that we want to do it.

Also, we've started working with this wonderful human being who goes by BlakeShine. She works with Dirtybird and Electric Forest and specializes in immersive experiences, where you might not even know you're in a theatrical space, it might just look like it's part of the festival and all of a sudden people in character will start interacting with you. They won't break character and will lure you into this experience and take you into this space. She has a lot of surprises for City Hearts Festival. She did the Forgotten Fort at Desert Hearts [spring 2019] Festival, so it's building off of that.

It really took you out of the festival and made you feel like you were at a theater or circus and they had all kinds of comedy, performances and interactive experiences. That I'm really looking forward to, because another thing with City Hearts Festival is we want to push the experience of festivals to a new place. There's so much saturation, especially in Los Angeles right now, with all the different events and festivals and DJ nights and there's something every day. To break that mold, we are really trying to think of ways to differentiate and create and build off of our community experience. We think that happens with immersive experiences, more art, more interactivity. All the things that we love in the Desert Hearts Festival, we're trying to bring in to our urban events as well.

The people that are going to keep people interested are the ones that are going to really be focusing on the experience and the community, and that's something we've always held close to the heart.

I love that. It reminds me a lot of the conversation with the Meow Wolf founders. I think it's really cool for the future of event experiences.

We love the Meow Wolf team, we want to work more closely with them. We played their Taos Vortex festival this year and we would love to work more with them.

And then with expanding City Hearts Fest, do you have a shortlist of where you guys want to go?

Just like with most of the stuff we do, we kind of want to go with the flow. The first one makes sense in L.A., that's where our strongest community hub is, even though we started in San Diego. We'd love to do New York, I think that's on the horizon. And Denver; we've really resonated with Colorado over the last however many years we've toured over there, it's really grown every single time we go there. So working towards maybe doing one there. San Francisco is a definite, we've already done a block party with the Great Northern club. So to do more stuff like that and build off of it, that's kind of the whole idea behind the City Hearts experience. Then onward, to Mexico, and we're starting to dip our toes into Europe so hopefully on the horizon we'll see it over there as well.

Just like in life, the more you pay attention to the little things and the more people you meet and all that, the more experience you get so that's what we're trying to bring. And it's not a V.I.P. [experience] or anything, it's more like trying to spark everyone's curiosity and get people exploring a little bit more.

What will the Desert Hearts Black experience at the City Hearts L.A. look and feel like?

Since it's mostly a day event, it'll go into the night, but not late. We're doing a special thing this event that we've never done before where instead of the core four—me, Mikey, Lee and Porky—playing individual sets, we've paired off with our favorite people that we've been working with over the years. So we're going to go back-to-back with some of our favorite DJs, which we'll announce later. And for the first time, we'll have a special Desert Heart Blacks set. While there isn't a whole block, there will be sections of the day that people will get to experience the deeper, more melodic side that we are diving into with Desert Hearts Black.

Going into the future, we've been talking about Desert Hearts Black holding a space for the after parties after a Desert Hearts day festival or day party. It's not something we have planned right now, but it's something we're talking about as a cool structure for how these two will be symbiotic with each other in a single bite.

It's only been a few months since you and Evan Casey officially launched Desert Hearts Black and dropped the debut release, the Torus EP. How has it felt for you so far?

It's been incredible. None of us anticipated the response. We believed in our music, of course, and we were so proud of the Torus EP, but for it to hit number one on overall releases on Beatport was something I wasn't imagining I would see yet in my career. It was a really amazing day when that happened and it really opened our eyes that we're on the right path and that trusting our hearts is going really well. And then the second release we put out is from Arude, Apophenia. It's getting played by people like [Berlin techno DJ/producer] Kevin de Vrise at Afterlife [events], which is just crazy.

It's really cool to see the response on this side of our Desert Hearts umbrella really flourishing and taking off. We have some cool releases lined up, we're really excited, and we're scheduled all the way through February or March of 2020. We're thankful for the people that are willing to work with us on this thing, especially with it being such a new off-branch of Desert Hearts.

A lot of people who resonate with the Desert Hearts experience and are part of the community are talented musicians and producers, but maybe what they produce didn't quite fit on our Desert Hearts Records primary label, as it's tech house and house focused. Now have this outlet that's giving the community a platform to express themselves in the community with the music that they make, like melodic house and techno or deep house or psychedelic more chill, down tempo stuff. We've seen a good response of people feeling like they have a place and a voice that they can creatively speak through now for Desert Hearts which is really, really cool.

Do you feel like everything with the Black label is moving faster than you imagined, or is exceeding your hopes so far?

A hundred percent. When we first had the idea of Desert Hearts Black, I was talking to my management like, "Well, if this thing goes well, let's talk about tour dates." Everyone was like, "Let's get there when we get there. Let's first get the label launched and set up. But the second we launched the label, the first EP went to number one and people came to us for tour dates.

We just played in Seattle and Portland this last weekend, both shows were incredible. They were small rooms but there were 300 people at each or so; a really good vibe, everyone smiling and dancing real hard and appreciative. It was the whole Desert Hearts vibe but curated to the sound that we're trying to push with Desert Hearts Black and I think that was another huge sign that we're on the right track and we're doing this in the right way. It means a lot.

We're going to Denver for Halloween, there's a Desert Hearts Black takeover, it has support from Charlotte DeWitte and Solardo and we're doing the side room. It's going to be a massive show, we also have some other dates that I can't announce yet that are really exciting so it's off and running.

"One of my favorite things from the beginning to now with Desert Hearts, has been traveling around with my best friends. We started as DJs before we ever had the festival or anything, we just wanted to play the music that we loved with the people that we loved."

Reflecting on the success so far, what are you most excited right now with the future of Desert Hearts Black?

One of my favorite things, from the beginning to now with Desert Hearts, has been traveling around with my best friends. We started as DJs before we ever had the festival or anything, we just wanted to play the music that we loved with the people that we loved. That's where all of this came from. I've never been on the road with Evan, who is one of my best friends, and neither with Mike [Rinzen], and to do that this last weekend was a really cool thing.

I'm very blessed and very humbled by all of this. I'm also looking forward to all of the music that's coming in. It's cool to be in a place now in the American market where melodic house and techno is being more digested on dancefloors. Compared to tech house which, five, six years ago was still being introduced and was still pretty underground as far as the places that we were touring. Now tech house is the norm. And now melodic house is opening a space for these other genres to come through, for people that are looking for a different experience but something similar, are getting hooked by it. I'm excited to see how that scene grows and where we're going to sit in that scene.

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What do you think the state of electronic or dance music feels like right now?

When I first started DJing and was going on Beatport, the stuff on the front page was not tech house. It was a lot of EDM and it was a whole different place. I think it's a direct reflection of what the market is because it's what people are buying. Now, all of the front page is tech house. So it shows that that genre has really taken a huge hold on the market, but what you're also seeing is new genres popping up. Melodic house and techno wasn't even a genre on Beatport a couple of years ago but now it is and it's doing really well. So 10 years from now, who knows what's going to be on the front page, but I do know that music is an organism that's constantly evolving. Everyone that loves music is always looking for that new music that they haven't heard yet that makes them feel the way that they do when they hear music that they love.

"Everyone that loves music is always looking for that new music that they haven't heard yet that makes them feel the way that they do when they hear music that they love."

Do you feel like the Torus EP is sort of the thesis statement of Desert Hearts Black?

Totally. The idea of Desert Hearts Black came from the synergy between the three of us [Marbs, Evan Casey and Rinzen] making that EP. When we first started the first track, we were just getting in the studio to try and make music together and see what happens, we had never done it before, all three of us. "Torus" [the title track] was made in two or three sessions and we were blown away at how stoked we were on that track and we were like, "We've got to keep to it."

We busted out two more tracks in another handful of sessions and I got that the sound doesn't really fit on Desert Hearts records but it's totally into the Desert Hearts festival experience. It would fit perfectly at the late hours of the festival and so the idea of creating the label came from that. I was like, "Well maybe I'll ask the boys what they think about a sister side label. I was a little nervous bringing it up to them because I didn't want it to sound like it was separation or anything like that. I just wanted it to be building off of what we had already done. Everyone was like "Fk yeah, you should definitely do that!"

It was totally received well and it meant a lot to me to have the support from the group. So that's when we decided the EP is a perfect statement of what we want Desert Hearts Black to push. We don't want it to be limited to that [sound] because it's very progressive, it's completely in the melodic house and techno sound. Desert Hearts Black is more going to be a range, you'll see it in the next couple of weeks as [releases] come out. It's supposed to reflect the experience you have at the Desert Hearts festival in the late hours into the mornings. So some of those sunrise sets that get really trippy and weird and tribal, maybe a little bit more eclectic, there's going to be releases that hit that note. If you sit it next to Torus it's going to sound like two totally different sounds.

That's what we want, we want to hit all of the other sounds that Desert Hearts community loves that maybe don't have a place on the primary label and that way between the two labels we hit the full spectrum of what people enjoy at the festival.

For the uninitiated, how would you explain Desert Hearts and then Desert Hearts Black?

Desert Hearts has always been about love, acceptance, being yourself, radical expression, radical inclusion, a lot of the things we've learned from Burning Man. To know that whether you're coming by yourself for the first time or with a group for the first time, that this is a safe place for you to express yourself and be your true self and enjoy some really good music along the way. To build off of that, Desert Hearts Black is that same space for people that resonate maybe with more moody, dark, progressive music. And because that music is a little bit more journey-driven, it makes people go a little deeper.

We want people to have the same experience that they have at any Desert Hearts event, the feeling of acceptance and love and smiles everywhere and the freedom to express themselves how they want. If that means being decked out in black or being however you want to be, that is a space for you and it's just as much Desert Hearts as anything else, and we want people to feel that way no matter what.

As you know, there's the stereotype of the "real techno DJ"; he wears all black, he's a guy, he's very serious and not dancing. What's your view on that idea? I'm going to say that you are one of the people doing your part to break the mold and keep the dancefloor fun.

I think it really matters what space you're having an experience in. In the European techno market, there's so much good music and so many people doing it, that it's so competitive. I feel like maybe that's where that culture comes from. Don't get me wrong, I fell in love with techno because of Ritchie Hawtin and because of all these incredible people that normally are very stoic. I mean you'll see Ritchie loosen up a little bit and have a smile here and there but for the most part it's pretty serious.

One person I love to say as an example that does it right is Dubfire. Ali [Shirazinia a.k.a. Dubfire] plays the same music as all those guys, but when you see him behind the booth he's having fun, he's interacting with people in there. He's having fun but still active and DJing very heavily, not just playing a track and fking around. He's really taking in the experience around him and that's something I know we do at Desert Hearts. Just look at the booth and see how the mayhem in there.

We have a joke: in their rider most DJs will say, "No people in the booth." They need their space. We're the opposite. We feel really weird when there's no one in there with us. It's really what we want to push as far as this melodic house and techno project, and the experience on the dancefloor and in the booth. We want it to be like Ali and how he represents himself, it might sound harder and a little bit more serious, but we want people to be having fun.

In our mind, if you're enjoying the music it shouldn't make any difference on how you are expressing your enjoyment of it. And so we want to push that and we want to push not taking things so seriously. We're all here just trying to have fun, play and make music, and have a cool experience. As we learned from Burning Man, to take these experiences home, to treat people the way that you are treated. The music that's playing shouldn't change how you treat people at these experiences or throughout every day of your life.

"We have a joke: in their rider most DJs will say, 'No people in the booth.' They need their space. We're the opposite. We feel really weird when there's no one in there with us."

I love that we've been seeing more diversity, especially with gender, in the international techno and house space. It's nice to see more variety because when people are like, "No, DJs do this," it's like, "Well what about this guy? What about this woman?"

It is for sure. Just like with anything in life—I say that a lot but everything's connected—the more labels and constraints we put on anything, the worse it is. The less freedom there is, less creative expression there is. So all of the labels and constraints that we put on DJs; how they should act or what they should play or what the right experience is, it doesn't matter. It should be a matter of flow and experience and however that magnet connects people and brings them in.

If I'm a goofy techno DJ and there's a serious techno DJ, that serious techno DJ is going to attract the people that like that experience and that's great for them. Good for it. I'm going to express myself the way that I do and the people that resonate with that are going to come, like a magnet. There's no need for the labels, just let everyone do what they want. Some things are going to do better than others. Some are going to get fizzled out and some are going to flourish and it's just about going with the flow and letting people do what they want to do.

Yes! Desert Hearts has grown so much in just seven years. What do you think is the biggest thing that keeps you true to the core values of House, Techno & Love, and that inclusive experience that you were talking about?

It's 100% the community and the people, that's the biggest backbone of this whole thing; our focus on people being who they truly want to be and expressing themselves the way they want. We could play good music all day, we can bring the best sound, but without the community and the people that come to these events, it would not be anything like what it is. This whole thing's a big ship—with me, Mikey, Lee and Porks are driving the thing—it's not going to work without all the people working. It's not going to do anything, it'll just be four guys on a boat. I could be Djing in my room to a wall, playing the best music that anyone's ever heard or we could be doing what we're doing with the people that we're doing it with. That's the whole thing.

If as long as we focus on the people and creating a place where incredible talented, creative people want to come together and connect, then I think the things we create will be in flow with that. And so we get signs and we have ideas for new projects, and as long as the intention of those projects is to build that community, everything has always been successful. From the beginning of us saying we just want to get out of the bars and go to the desert, we want to go and have an experience with our friends and play the music that we love and that's it, no other constraints. The whole idea was to create an experience for the people that we love and for us and I think that's why it just snowballed; the first one was 300 [people], the next one was 1000, the next one was 2000. I think it will keep everything glued together as long as we keep doing that.

When did you first start DJing and making music? Did you have a professional "Plan B"?

I got into DJing about 10, 12 years ago and started doing it at bars about nine, 10 years ago. Music production came much later. I've been producing music for the last five years. Now I'm in a place where I'm comfortable releasing my music, so it's been a long road to get to that point. Back when I first started to DJ, I was helping my father with his repair and maintenance construction business. He does commercial repairs for places like Home Depot, JC Penney, big corporate accounts. I started off swinging the hammer, fixing tile and drywall and dealing with electrical and plumbing and stuff. I worked my way up to managing construction jobs, being an account manager for Home Depot through his business and helping him with some of the behind the scenes stuff.

I was working with that, 40 hours a week when I was DJing shows on the weekends, when we were doing our jungle parties. We used to throw these little bar parties in San Diego called "Jungle" that we'd bring a bunch of palm fronds and plants and make the whole booth look like a little jungle and play tech house and take over little dive bars. That's what we were doing before we went to Burning Man and decided we wanted to start doing stuff out in the desert.

I actually had that job through the first two years of Desert Hearts, so it was hard. It was what I had to be doing as far as being sustainable as an adult, paying the bills and living on my own but also trying to chase my dream. I was burning the candle at both ends; I wasn't sleeping much, I was going into work after doing shows until 4 a.m. But it was a great experience because it really taught me how to follow your dream and to work really hard in the beginnings of that phase. When I finally decided I was going to stop working for my father's business, it was a hard decision. I was very happy to help my dad with his business that he grew from an idea that he had when he was 16.

I'll never forget looking my dad in the eyes and saying, "Look, I don't think this is for me, I'm going to go do this Desert Hearts thing and throw parties." He looked right back at me and supported me and said okay, but you could see in his eyes, he was like, "You crazy fk."

But he was so supportive and we brought him and my mom out to Desert Hearts a couple of years later when it was at Los Coyotes and was really growing and flourishing. I will never forget that, because it was them finally realizing that I didn't quit that job to go DJ, but that I really created something really special with four of my best friends. That was the day I feel like everything shifted for me.

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I really can’t express how much I love this man right here. He’s taught me so much about life, the importance of working hard, to love unconditionally, to treat people with kindness, that family comes first, to be honorable, to be loyal... everything that makes me the person I am today. Without this man I would have never had the foundation that led me to the life that I live today. Dad, you’re one of a kind and I love you so much for all that you are and do. Thank you for always pushing me and being an inspiration to everyone around you. I hope you have a wonderful birthday today because you more than deserve it, you’ve earned it. I wish I was with you and the family today, but I’m thankful that I get to see you as often as I do. Enjoy the rest of your day and I’ll see you in a few weeks

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You can catch Marbs and the DH crew keeping it fun at a healthy handful of lit events over the next few months, including a few big fests: their City Hearts Festival in Downtown L.A., Nov. 9–10, Your Paradise Fiji (on Malolo Lailai island in Fiji!), Dec. 6–12, and Holy Ship! Wrecked in Punta Cana, D.R., Jan. 22-26, 2020. 

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Pearl Jam Named Record Store Day 2019 Ambassadors

Pearl Jam

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Pearl Jam Named Record Store Day 2019 Ambassadors

Pearl Jam's Mike McCready says "if you love music," record stores are the place to find it

GRAMMYs/Feb 13, 2019 - 04:05 am

Record Store Day 2019 will arrive on April 13 and this year's RSD Ambassadors are Pearl Jam. Past ambassadors include Dave Grohl, Metallica, Run The Jewels (Killer Mike and El-P), and 61st GRAMMY Awards winner for Best Rock Song St. Vincent.

McCready was also the 2018 recipient of MusiCares' Stevie Ray Vaughan Award

The band was formed in 1990 by McCready, Jeff Ament, Stone Gossard, and Eddie Vedder, and they have played with drummer Matt Cameron since 2002. They have had five albums reach No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and four albums reach No. 2.

"Pearl Jam is honored to be Record Store Day's Ambassador for 2019. Independent record stores are hugely important to me," Pearl Jam's Mike McCready said in a statement publicizing the peak-vinyl event. "Support every independent record store that you can. They're really a good part of society. Know if you love music, this is the place to find it."

With a dozen GRAMMY nominations to date, Pearl Jam's sole win so far was at the 38th GRAMMY Awards for "Spin The Black Circle" for Best Hard Rock Performance.

Pearl Jam will be performing on March 3 in Tempe, Ariz. at the Innings festival, on June 15 in Florence, Italy at the Firenze Rocks Festival and at another festival in Barolo, Italy on June 17. On July 6 Pearl Jam will headline London's Wembley Stadium.

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Original Misfits Unleash One Night Only L.A. Reunion Show

Glenn Danzig

Photo: Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images

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Original Misfits Unleash One Night Only L.A. Reunion Show

Dark punk legends to play first show with Glenn Danzig and Jerry Only since last year's Riot Fest reunion

GRAMMYs/Aug 22, 2017 - 05:28 am

There's big news today for punk-rock fans aware that the Misfits made much more than just T-shirts.

The massively influential punk band announced a special show touted as the "only 2017 performance in this world… or any world" and billed as "The Original Misfits" in Los Angeles at the Forum on Dec. 30.

This will be the first Misfits show featuring original singer Glenn Danzig and original bassist Jerry Only with long-time guitarist Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein since the band reunited for a pair of Riot Fest appearances in Chicago and Denver in 2016. Last year's Riot Fest gigs, which featured drummer Dave Lombardo, marked the first time in 33 years the original Misfits members played together.

"OK Los Angeles, you've waited almost 35 years for this, here's your chance to see the "Original Misfits" in this Exclusive L.A. only performance." said Glenn Danzig. "No Tour, No BS, just one night of dark metal-punk hardcore brutality that will go down in the history books. See you there."

Tickets for this "one night only" show go on sale Friday, August 25.

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Lady Gaga Steps In To Support Youth Impacted By Hurricanes

Lady Gaga

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Lady Gaga Steps In To Support Youth Impacted By Hurricanes

GRAMMY winner pledges support for those impacted by hurricanes this year through Save the Children’s Journey of Hope program

GRAMMYs/Oct 12, 2017 - 11:03 pm

On Oct. 10 Lady Gaga announced she is devoting her $1 million donation in support of those impacted by the recent hurricanes in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico and the earthquakes in Mexico, to a specific cause — the mental and emotional well being of children and youth.

Gaga announced on her Born This Way Foundation website she will support Save the Children’s Journey of Hope program, which uses a variety of tools to help young people deal with trauma in the wake of natural disasters.

"Through a curriculum that includes cooperative play, discussion, art, meditation, and mindfulness practices, young people learn to recognize and understand their emotions and develop healthy coping skills," Gaga wrote. "Tens of thousands of youth have benefited from the program since it’s development in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and Save the Children is working to bring it to hundreds of thousands more in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico."

The announcement came on World Mental Health Day, and the Fame Monster has invited all of us to step up and consider making a contribution to the Journey of Hope program to support to mental and emotional needs of children.

"Mental health is just as vital to our wellbeing as physical health. That’s true for each of us, everyday, but it’s especially important for those coping with disaster and recovering from trauma," wrote Lady Gaga. "We must do everything within our power to support the full, vibrant recovery of these communities, from meeting their immediate needs to helping them to rebuild sustainably."

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Find Out Who's Nominated For Best Rap Album | 2020 GRAMMY Awards

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Find Out Who's Nominated For Best Rap Album | 2020 GRAMMY Awards

Dreamville, Meek Mill, 21 Savage, Tyler, The Creator, and YBN Cordae all earn nominations in the category

GRAMMYs/Nov 20, 2019 - 06:28 pm

The 2020 GRAMMYs are just around the corner, and now the nominations are in for the coveted honor of Best Rap Album. While we'll have to wait until the 62nd GRAMMY Awards air on CBS on Jan. 26 to find out who will win, let's take a look at which albums have been nominated for Best Rap Album.

Revenge of the Dreamers III – Dreamville                                                                        

 
This star-studded compilation album from 11-time GRAMMY nominee J. Cole and his Dreamville Records imprint features appearances from some of the leading and fastest-rising artists in hip-hop today, including label artists EARTHGANG, J.I.D, and Ari Lennox, plus rappers T.I, DaBaby, and Young Nudy, among many others. Recorded in Atlanta across a 10-day recording session, Revenge of the Dreamers III is an ambitious project that saw more than 300 artists and producers contribute to the album, resulting in 142 recorded tracks. Of those recordings, 18 songs made the final album, which ultimately featured contributions from 34 artists and 27 producers.

Dreamers III, the third installment in the label’s Revenge of the Dreamers compilation series, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart and achieved gold status this past July. In addition to a Best Rap Album nod, Dreamers III is also nominated for Best Rap Performance next year for album track “Down Bad,” featuring J.I.D, Bas, J. Cole, EARTHGANG, and Young Nudy.

Championships – Meek Mill

In many ways, Championships represents a literal and metaphorical homecoming for Meek Mill. Released in November 2018, Championships is the Philadelphia rapper’s first artist album following a two-year prison sentence he served after violating his parole in 2017. Championships, naturally, sees Meek tackling social justice issues stemming from his prison experience, including criminal justice reform. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, his second chart-topper following 2015’s Dreams Worth More Than Money, and reached platinum status in June 2019. Meek Mill's 2020 Best Rap Album nod marks his first-ever GRAMMY nomination.

i am > i was – 21 Savage

Breakout rapper and four-time GRAMMY nominee 21 Savage dropped i am > i was, his second solo artist album, at the end of 2018. The guest-heavy album, which features contributions from Post Malone, Childish Gambino, J. Cole, and many others, has since charted around the world, topped the Billboard 200 – a first for the artist – in the beginning of 2019, and achieved gold status in the U.S. As well, nine songs out of the album’s 15 original tracks landed on the Hot 100 chart, including multi-platinum lead single “A Lot,” which is also nominated for Best Rap Song next year. 21 Savage’s 2020 Best Rap Album nomination, which follows Record of the Year and Best Rap/Sung Performance nods for his 2017 Post Malone collaboration, "Rockstar,” marks his first solo recognition in the top rap category.

IGOR – Tyler, The Creator

The eccentric Tyler, The Creator kicked off a massive 2019 with his mid-year album, IGOR. Released this past May, IGOR, Tyler’s fifth solo artist album, is his most commercially successful project to date. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, marking his first time topping the coveted chart, while its lead single, "Earfquake,” peaked at No. 13, his highest entry on the Hot 100. Produced in full by Tyler and featuring guest spots from fellow rap and R&B stars Kanye West, Lil Uzi Vert, Solange, and Playboi Carti, among many others, IGOR follows the rapper’s 2017 album, Flower Boy, which received the Best Rap Album nod that same year.

The Lost Boy – YBN Cordae

Emerging rapper YBN Cordae, a member of the breakout YBN rap collective, released his debut album, The Lost Boy, to widespread critical acclaim this past July. The 15-track release is stacked with major collaborations with hip-hop heavyweights, including Anderson .Paak, Pusha T, Meek Mill, and others, plus production work from J. Cole and vocals from Quincy Jones. After peaking at No. 13 on the Billboard 200, The Lost Boy now notches two 2020 GRAMMY nominations: Best Rap Album and Best Rap Song for album track “Bad Idea,” featuring Chance the Rapper.