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Songbook: How Mariah Carey Became The Songbird Supreme, From Her Unmistakable Range To Genre-Melding Prowess
(L-R) Mariah Carey at the 2006 GRAMMYs, at the 1991 GRAMMYs, at the 2008 GRAMMY Nominations Concert, at the 2018 American Music Awards.

Photos (L-R): Kevin Winter; Jim Smeal/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images; Jewel Samad/AFP via Getty Images; David Crotty/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

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Songbook: How Mariah Carey Became The Songbird Supreme, From Her Unmistakable Range To Genre-Melding Prowess

On the 25th anniversary of Mariah Carey's career-redefining 'Butterfly,' GRAMMY.com digs into every album and song that made her the unofficial Queen of Christmas and the pop queen of her generation.

GRAMMYs/Sep 16, 2022 - 04:01 pm

Mariah Carey's personal favorite title might be "Queen of Christmas," but she has plenty more to her name: Five-time GRAMMY winner, Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee, record-breaking chart-topper, and bonafide superstar — among many more.

The five-octave vocalist almost instantly became a household name upon her debut with 1990's "Vision of Love," which marked her first No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Carey has since landed an astounding 19 atop the chart (only one behind the record-holding Beatles), and sold more than 200 million albums worldwide.

But Carey's long list of achievements didn't come without hard work. The Long Island native spread herself thin between waitressing, beauty school and singing backup for Brenda K. Starr, all the while penning her own music with hopes of making it as an artist herself. Then, with the help of Starr, Carey's demo tape ended up in the hands of music mogul Tommy Mottola and the rest, as they say, is history. 

After starting out her illustrious career with five multi-platinum albums in a row — including her smash holiday album Merry Christmas — Carey decided that a new musical direction was long overdue. And with that, on Sept. 16, 1997, Carey released her self-proclaimed magnum opus: Butterfly.

With contributions from Diddy, Q-Tip, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, and Dru Hill, Butterfly leaned heavily toward R&B and hip-hop compared to Carey's previous works. While a couple of tracks allude to Carey and Mottola's deteriorating marriage, at its core, Butterfly is a coming-of-age story through the lens of a young woman who is finding her voice, becoming more independent, and enjoying her newfound liberation.

In fact, Carey loves Butterfly so much, she's releasing eight bonus tracks on Sept. 16 to commemorate the anniversary. GRAMMY.com is also getting in on the celebration, revisiting the hits, trailblazing remixes, holiday tunes, and musical risks that made the Songbird Supreme one of the most imitated vocalists and influential artists — and why her catalog remains a blueprint.

Listen to GRAMMY.com's official Songbook: An Essential Guide To Mariah Carey playlist on Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, and Pandora. Playlist powered by GRAMMY U.

The Impressive Start

Swiftly amassing a string of No. 1 and top 10 hits, including "Vision of Love," "Can't Let Go," and "Dreamlover," Mariah Carey was on the fast track to becoming one of the top-selling artists of the '90s before the age of 25.

Released in 1990, Carey's eponymous debut studio album spawned an impressive four Hot 100 chart-toppers: "Vision of Love," "Love Takes Time," "Someday," and "I Don't Wanna Cry." Carey's five-octave range and signature whistle register made the then 20-year-old an instant success. But her producing and songwriting chops — unbeknownst to many at the time — set her apart from fellow divas Whitney Houston and Celine Dion.

To capitalize off the success of her debut album, Carey churned out her second studio effort, Emotions, a few months after earning her first two GRAMMY Awards in 1991. (She took home Best New Artist and Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female for "Vision Of Love.") For Emotions, Carey enlisted C+C Music Factory's Robert Clivillés and the late David Cole for the LP's uptempo tunes, including "Make It Happen," as well as the lesser-known tracks "You're So Cold" and "To Be Around You."

The title track became Carey's fifth No. 1 single. With this feat, she's the only artist to have her first five singles soar to the top of the Hot 100.

In 1993, following two multi-platinum albums and a flawless MTV Unplugged performance, Carey welcomed the biggest blockbuster success of her three-decade career: Music Box. Sonically, the LP remains the most pop-leaning of Carey's discography, with the exception of gospel-infused "Anytime You Need a Friend," the album's final single. Perhaps most prominently, Music Box birthed "Hero," one of Carey's signature songs that even the most casual fans can probably recite word for word.

The R&B Period

While Butterfly is cited as Carey's transition from mostly pop music to R&B and hip-hop, 1995's Daydream was her first venture in those worlds thanks to collaborations with Boyz II Men ("One Sweet Day") and Jermaine Dupri ("Always Be My Baby"). "Underneath the Stars" pays homage to Minnie Ripperton, while "Long Ago" echoes Zapp & Roger's "More Bounce to the Ounce" bassline.

Daydream is also notable for kicking off Carey's long-standing tradition of autobiographical album closers. "She smiles through a thousand tears," Carey laments in the second verse of "Looking In," her most personal song at the time. The song served as an important shift for Carey, as it detailed her feelings of unhappiness and "adolescent fears" — despite having a highly successful music career — and showed a deeper side of the singer's songwriting abilities. 

Ahead of Butterfly's 25th anniversary, Carey wrote on Instagram that it's her "favorite and probably most personal album." Butterfly's lead single "Honey" and final single "My All" earned Carey two more No. 1s, but the true highlights are within the deep cuts and other singles. Despite receiving little promotion, "The Roof (Back in Time)" and "Breakdown" quickly emerged as fan favorites. 

Along with a more mature sound, Carey presented a sexier image, as evidenced in the James Bond-themed music video for "Honey" that takes the album's empowerment theme a step further. She did that lyrically as well with the Missy Elliott co-written track "Babydoll," which contains some of Carey's most sensual lyrics.

As the singer noted herself, Butterfly is also deeply personal. Carey recently shared that the album represented a "pivotal moment" in her life following her separation from Mottola, whom she divorced in 1998. She reportedly once stated that she penned the title track "wishing that that's what [Tommy Mottola] would say to me," and "Close My Eyes" intertwines the stories of Carey's tumultuous childhood with her strained marriage. What's more, Butterfly's closing track, "Outside," chronicles her struggles growing up as a biracial person.

Carey continued her foray into more urban musical styles on 1999's Rainbow. She joined forces with Jay-Z for the first time on lead single "Heartbreaker," which also received a high-energy remix with Elliott and Da Brat that featured an interpolation of Snoop Dogg's "Ain't No Fun (If the Homies Can't Have None)" — further displaying her hip-hop sensibility. 

Rainbow, of course, closed with a diaristic song — the gushing "Thank God I Found You," inspired by Carey's then-relationship with Latin star Luis Miguel — but she also sprinkled super-personal tales throughout the album. Ballads like "Can't Take That Away (Mariah's Theme)" and "Petals" offered fans an even deeper glimpse into Carey's personal life.

The (Semi) Forgotten Years

Carey ushered in a new decade by making her big-screen debut in the 2001 movie Glitter. The accompanying soundtrack paid tribute to the '80s, including the Cameo-sampling "Loverboy" and covers of Cherelle's "I Didn't Mean to Turn You On" and Indeep's "Last Night a DJ Saved My Life."

At the time, Glitter marked her lowest first-week sales, despite showing artistic growth. Carey eventually got #JusticeForGlitter, though, as the 12-track LP is hailed as a gem among Carey's most loyal fans — thanks to classic, yet overlooked ballads like "Never Too Far" and "Reflections (Care Enough)." (A #JusticeForGlitter campaign even sparked on social media in 2018, helping the album top the iTunes album chart 17 years after its release.) 

In addition to Glitter's rather disappointing release, Carey was dealing with her own personal struggles: In July 2001, the singer was hospitalized for exhaustion, and in July 2002, she lost her father to cancer. She chronicled those hardships in 2002's Charmbracelet. "And if you keep falling down, don't you dare give in," she sings on opener "Through the Rain."

That same resilience and vulnerability can be heard in "My Saving Grace" and "Sunflowers for Alfred Roy," the latter of which is named after Carey's father. Elsewhere, Carey flexes her ability to excel in any genre, experimenting with jazz ("Subtle Invitation") and hard rock (a cover of Def Leppard's "Bringin' On the Heartbreak").

The Comeback

After two back-to-back underperforming albums with Glitter and Charmbracelet, it became easy for critics to write off Carey — that is, until the spring of 2005, when The Emancipation of Mimi arrived.

Following a moderate hit in lead single "It's Like That," second single "We Belong Together" proved that Mariah Carey the Chart Queen was back. Not only did the ballad spend 14 consecutive weeks at the No. 1 spot, but it was later crowned the "Song of the Decade" by Billboard

But Carey's reign didn't end there. Follow-up singles "Don't Forget About Us" and "Shake It Off" skyrocketed to No. 1 and No. 2, respectively. The album also earned her three more GRAMMYs at the 2006 GRAMMY Awards: Best Contemporary R&B Album, as well as Best R&B Song and Best Female R&B Vocal Performance for "We Belong Together." (She earned 10 nominations total in 2006 and 2007.)

The success continued with 2008's E=MC² and 2009's Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel, which spawned another No. 1 ("Touch My Body" from E=MC²) and a top 10 hit ("Obsessed" from Memoirs). The albums contain some of Carey's most carefree material ("I'm That Chick"), as well as vivid storytelling ("Betcha Gon' Know (The Prologue)") and a taste of her sense of humor ("Up Out My Face").

In the 2010s, as music streaming continued to disrupt the industry, Carey once again proved her staying power, earning two top 5 albums — 2014's Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse and 2018's Caution — and a top 20 hit with "#Beautiful," featuring then-rising R&B star Miguel.

The Remixes And Rarities

Carey is so dedicated to the art of the remix that she put out a double-disc project, The Remixes, in 2003. But she displayed her remix mastery nearly 10 years before that release, with the Bad Boy version of the Daydream hit "Fantasy" in 1995. When the late ODB growls, "Me and Mariah go back like babies with pacifiers" over a thumping Tom Tom Club-sampling bassline, Carey showed there were no boundaries to her music.

Over the decades, Carey has also teamed up with legendary DJs Shep Pettibone and David Morales for club versions of some of her biggest hits, including 1990's "Someday" and 1993's "Dreamlover." When it comes to her best hip-hop reimaginings, standouts include "Thank God I Found You" (Make It Last Remix), "Always Be My Baby" (Mr. Dupri Mix), and "I Still Believe/Pure Imagination" (Damizza Remix), the latter of which features a genius Willy Wonka interpolation and is a true testament to Carey's artistry.

As for B-sides, longtime fans treasure Music Box's "Do You Think of Me" and "Everything Fades Away" and "Slipping Away" from the Daydream sessions. In 2020, they were treated to The Rarities, a double-disc collection consisting of more B-sides and unreleased material collected throughout the decades, including a heartfelt cover of Irene Cara's "Out Here on My Own" and the original mix of "Loverboy," both recorded during the Glitter era.

The Christmas Magic

Fresh off the success of her first headlining tour, Carey was at her commercial peak when she tried her hand at Christmas music in the second half of 1994.

As expected, the now-iconic Merry Christmas is packed with festive classics like "Silent Night," "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," and "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town." But it's the original "All I Want For Christmas Is You" that emerged as a new holiday standard. And that holds true even more than 25 years after its release: In December 2021, the song became the first to top the Hot 100 four chart years in a row — 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022 (it held the top spot on the Jan. 1-dated chart).

Carey released Merry Christmas II You, an aptly titled sequel to Merry Christmas, in 2010. The album includes underrated singles "When Christmas Comes" (which was re-released as a duet with John Legend in 2011) and "Oh Santa!," which she performed alongside Ariana Grande and Jennifer Hudson during her star-studded 2020 Christmas special on Apple TV+.

The timeless success of "All I Want For Christmas Is You" earned Carey the unofficial title of "Queen of Christmas," but her extensive catalog and artistic versatility prove she's an icon outside of her holiday throne. Mariah Carey melded genres, influenced a generation of vocalists, and became the first artist with No. 1 singles across four decades — solidifying a legacy as the true Songbird Supreme.

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Press Play On GRAMMY U Mixtape: New Year, It’s Poppin'! Monthly Member Playlist

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Press Play On GRAMMY U Mixtape: New Year, It’s Poppin'! Monthly Member Playlist

The GRAMMY U Mixtape is a monthly, genre-spanning playlist to quench your thirst for new tunes, all from student members. GRAMMY U celebrates new beginnings with fresh pop tunes that will kickstart 2023.

GRAMMYs/Jan 6, 2023 - 12:17 am

Did you know that among all of the students in GRAMMY U, songwriting and performance is one of the most sought after fields of study? We want to create a space to hear what these students are creating today!

The GRAMMY U Mixtape, now available for your listening pleasure, highlights the creations and fresh ideas that students are bringing to this industry directly on the Recording Academy's Spotify and Apple Music pages. Our goal is to celebrate GRAMMY U members, as well as the time and effort they put into making original music — from the songwriting process to the final production of the track.

Each month, we accept submissions and feature 20 to 25 songs that match that month’s theme. This month we're ringing in 2023 with our New Year, It's Poppin'! playlist, which features fresh pop songs that bring new year, new you vibes. Showcasing talented members from our various chapters, we felt these songs represented the positivity and hopefulness that GRAMMY U members embody as they tackle this upcoming year of exciting possibilities.

So, what’s stopping you? Press play on GRAMMY U’s Mixtape and listen now on Spotify below and Apple Music.

Want to be featured on the next playlist? Submit your songs today! We are currently accepting submissions for songs of all genres for consideration for our February playlist. Whether you write pop, rock, hip hop, jazz, or classical, we want to hear from you. Music must be written and/or produced by the student member (an original song) and you must be able to submit a Spotify and/or Apple Music link to the song. Students must be a GRAMMY U member to submit.

About GRAMMY U:

GRAMMY U is a program that connects college students with the industry's brightest and most talented minds and provides those aspiring professionals with the tools and opportunities necessary to start a career in music.     

Throughout each semester, events and special programs touch on all facets of the industry, including the business, technology, and the creative process.

As part of the Recording Academy's mission to ensure the recorded arts remain a thriving part of our shared cultural heritage, GRAMMY U establishes the necessary foundation for music’s next generation to flourish.

Not a member, but want to submit to our playlist? Apply for GRAMMY U Membership here.

2022 Year In Review: 7 Trends That Defined R&B
(L-R) Mariah Carey, FKA Twigs, Mary J. Blige, Wizkid, SZA, Kehlani

Photo: (L-R) Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images for BET, Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for The Recording Academy, Scott Dudelson/Getty Images, Timothy Norris/Getty Images, Erika Goldring/WireImage, Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Grey Goose Essences

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2022 Year In Review: 7 Trends That Defined R&B

From the return of beloved mainstays to unexpected collaborations, revisit some of the year's biggest moments in R&B.

GRAMMYs/Dec 26, 2022 - 05:24 pm

2022 was a glowing year for R&B, with newcomers and legends alike shattering claims that the genre is on the brink of losing its popularity. It was quite the opposite, actually — newer R&B stars like Flo helped revive '00s nostalgia, and veterans like Babyface showed that there's strength in collaboration.

As the world re-emerges from the pandemic, artists channeled a brighter energy in their music, using more upbeat melodies and lyrics that emphasized fun and romance. Chlöe provided the twerk-friendly anthems, while FKA Twigs' Caprisongs mixtape featured a song for every kind of party imaginable.

There were plenty more R&B stars new and old who contributed to the genre's shine this year. Below, revisit some of 2022's biggest moments in R&B.

The Ladies Seduced Us

R&B has always maintained a sensual core, and the women of the genre confidently reminded listeners of that fact throughout 2022. On her second album Age/Sex/Location, ​​Ari Lennox explored the ebbs and flows of lust with songs like the NSFW "Leak It" (featuring Chlöe) and the flirtatious "Hoodie." Chlöe also continued to unleash her seductive goddess on her solo single, "Surprise."

Two years before SZA dropped her long-anticipated second album, SOS, in December, she showed off her pole-dancing skills in a 2020 Instagram post teasing single "Shirt." (And when lead single "Good Days" arrived in March, she continued her seduction in the outro of the music video.) The LP details the journey of post-lust heartbreak and how to regain one's confidence, from the sneaky affair of "Low" to feeling empty on the punk rock-inspired "F2F."

Peacock's Bel-Air star Coco Jones proved her singing ability was equally as strong as her acting skills, as she captured hearts with her debut EP, What I Didn't Tell You, including the yearning single "ICU." Amber Mark, also a fellow newcomer, released her debut album Three Dimensions Deep. The LP features an array of genres, but songs like "Softly" are what really entranced listeners.

Singers From Across the Pond Ruled

The appreciation for R&B spans shores, and British artists delivered fresh spins on the genre. Cheltenham's FKA Twigs set the energetic tone with the January release of her first mixtape, Caprisongs, which is filled with a kaleidoscope of sounds from drum and bass to trap. Leicester's Mahalia navigated heartbreak with her Letter To Ur Ex EP. Southampton native Craig David tapped back into his '00s style with his nostalgic eighth album, 22, which opens with an interpolation of fellow R&B star Jon B.'s 1998 classic, "They Don't Know."

After winning over stateside fans in 2018 with her GRAMMY-winning single "Boo'd Up," London-born Ella Mai returned with her sophomore album Heart on My Sleeve — a self-described "therapy session" that highlighted the artist's diaristic songwriting. London also spawned a new girl group this year with Flo, a trio who channeled the heydays of '00s pop&B with their debut EP, The Lead.

Afrobeats Trickled Into The Genre

Afrobeats' international popularity has surged over the past few years, so much so that other genres are now borrowing its infectious groove. This year, R&B singers infused the genre into their own sounds, further showcasing Afrobeats' versatility.

FKA Twigs' Caprisongs features "Jealousy," a mellow collab with burgeoning Nigerian artist Rema. Two months later, Rema dropped R&B-infused music of his own on his debut album, Rave & Roses, which featured guests like 6lack and Chris Brown.

The month of June gave way to sweltering summer collaborations. Diddy paired up with Bryson Tiller on the brooding "Gotta Move On," which scored the music mogul his 11th No. 1 on Billboard's Adult R&B Airplay chart. And in true Diddy fashion, he dropped a "Queens" version featuring Yung Miami and Ashanti.

Not long after, Chris Brown and Wizkid joined forces for "Call Me Every Day." Marking their third collaboration, the sultry smash illustrated just why they're crowned the princes of R&B and Afrobeats, respectively.

Artists Took It Back To The Club

R&B is not always about love songs and heartbreak. Rather than dwell in their feelings, a handful of singers opted for a more lighthearted approach in their music. After jumpstarting her solo era with last year's booty anthem "Have Mercy," Chlöe kept the ode to curves going with "Treat Me." Built atop a sample of Bubba Sparxxx and the Ying Yang Twins' 2005 hit "Ms. New Booty," "Treat Me" is a self-confidence anthem.

Baby Tate also borrowed an Atlanta crunk staple from the same year for "Ain't No Love." Featuring fellow Georgia native 2 Chainz, the bouncy tune samples Ciara's "Oh" collaboration with Ludacris, spinning the '00s classic into a modern-day jam.

On the opposite coast, Los Angeles' own Blxst solidified his signature laid-back style with his debut album, Before You Go. Lead single "About You" is best served with a cold one and a two-step.

Kehlani then took listeners to their native Bay Area with April's Blue Water Road album (where Blxst also makes an appearance). The Slick Rick-sampling "Wish I Never" is the ultimate '90s house party jam while the upbeat "Up At Night" with Justin Bieber will do just what its title implies.

Other club genres also came into play, with Ravyn Lenae experiencing house euphoria on Hypnos' "Xtasy" and FKA Twigs going full dancehall alongside shygirl with Caprisongs' "Papi Bones."

There Were Many '90s Celebrations

The '90s still has a tight grip on R&B's current sound, and the artists who ruled that decade proudly reminded us of that fact in 2022. For the 25th anniversary of Mariah Carey's transitional Butterfly album, the icon released a special re-edition that features an updated version of "The Roof" (with added vocals from Brandy) and "Whenever You Call" (with Brian McKnight), a live version of "My All" from VH1 Divas Live, the "Amorphous Anniversary Club Remix" of the title track and more.

Usher also got in the commemorative spirit, releasing My Way (25th Anniversary Edition) — which happens to share the same Sept. 16 anniversary as Carey's Butterfly. The new edition included reimagined versions of three tracks: "My Way (Ryan James Carr Remake)," "Nice & Slow (Ryan James Carr Remake)" and "You Make Me Wanna… (Ryan James Carr Remake)."

To commemorate another 25th anniversary, Erykah Badu celebrated her GRAMMY-winning Baduizm debut with a pair of shows at London's Royal Festival Hall.

Other '90s celebrations came from R&B quartet Xscape, who received the Lady of Soul honor at the 2022 Soul Train Awards, and new artist LAYA, who honored Missy Elliott with a cover of the rapper's 1997 single "Sock It 2 Me" for Women's History Month.

Alt-R&B Girls Made A Return

The beauty of R&B is in its sonic diversity. Alternative R&B has blossomed in popularity over the years, and 2022 saw the return of some of the subgenre's leaders.

Santigold made a thrilling return with Spirituals, the singer's first album in six years. An emotional journey through lockdown, the LP fuses gospel, electronica, punk and pop, all tied together with Santigold's signature yelps.

Another long-awaited comeback came from Kelela, who re-emerged in September after a five-year hiatus. Her single "Washed Away" is the launchpad to her second album Raven, which will be released next February. "Raven is my first breath taken in the dark, an affirmation of Black femme perspective in the midst of systemic erasure and the sound of our vulnerability turned to power," Kelela shared in a press release.

Although Solange didn't give fans new music in 2022, the singer was honored with the 2022 NYU Global Trailblazer Award for Creative and Artistic Excellence in March. And ever the ever-unpredictable star, she composed a score for the New York City Ballet that came to life with a performance at the Lincoln Center in September.

Old School Met New School

This year, there was no separation of generations. Rather, the "legend vs. newcomer" hierarchy was completely dismissed, as artists from the '60s to today joined forces in the recording studio.

Ronald Isley and Beyoncé wooed soul fans with their rework of "Make Me Say It Again, Girl," which originally appeared on the Isley Brothers' 1975 album, The Heat Is On. Isley's wife/manager Kandy told Billboard that Beyoncé's mother Tina Knowles-Lawson was integral in the collaboration, marking a full-circle moment for the star, who grew up listening to the group. "The fact that they are giving us permission to put it out at this time is just overly special," Kandy said.

Ciara and Summer Walker's lilting vocals complemented each other on "Better Thangs," while  SZA (whose stage name pays homage to Wu-Tang Clan member RZA) featured the late Ol' Dirty Bastard on SOS. Elsewhere, PJ Morton's latest album is a celebration of collaboration, with guests Stevie Wonder and Nas on "Water," and Jill Scott and Alex Isley on "Still Believe."

In October, Babyface passed down his GRAMMY-winning torch to the women of R&B with his collaboration album, Girls Night Out. Solely featuring the new generation of female singers, from Muni Long to Ari Lennox, the album showed that romance has no age.

Mary J. Blige donned her Queen of Hip-Hop Soul crown on her latest album, which features rappers like Dave East and Fivio Foreign. On the opposite end, Toronto R&B duo dvsn teamed with male R&B group Jagged Edge on "What's Up" from the former's Working on My Karma album.

Whether it was R&B's legends or promising newcomers making waves, this year had plenty of proof that the genre is still thriving — and never going anywhere.

R&B Isn't Dead: Listen To 51 Songs By Summer Walker, Josh Levi & More Artists Who Are Pushing The Genre Forward

A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
Franc Moody

Photo: Rachel Kupfer 

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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.

GRAMMYs/Nov 25, 2022 - 04:23 pm

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

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

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.

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Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage
Billy Idol

Photo: Steven Sebring

interview

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."

GRAMMYs/Nov 25, 2022 - 04:19 pm

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 Bamback 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].

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