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'The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill': For The Record
See the story behind Lauryn Hill's GRAMMY-winning 'The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill'
The 41st GRAMMY Awards played host to a number of historic musical moments. Aside from being a massive evening for female creators across the board – with Madonna, Alanis Morissette, Dixie Chicks, Celine Dion, and Sheryl Crowe all taking home one or more awards – the evening also saw a compelling performance by Ricky Martin that ignited a Latin Pop explosion in the coming year, as well as a series of landmark wins by Lauryn Hill including the first time in GRAMMY history that the coveted Album Of The Year honors went to a hip-hop artist.
Hill's hugely acclaimed solo debut album The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill – which to this day remains her only career solo release – was a force to be reckoned with.
Debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, the album broke the standing record for first-week sales by a female artist, selling close to 423,000 copies in its first seven days. The album chronicles Hill's reflections on a disintegrating relationship, having emerged stronger and wiser on the other side of a period of personal darkness.
Presenting a uniquely strong female perspective on life, love and relationships that was (and still is) noticeably absent in contemporary pop music, The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill was packed with lyrically deep songs that managed to be inescapably catchy and poignant at the same time. All three singles serviced to radio – "Doo Wop (That Thing)," "Ex-Factor," and "Everything Is Everything" – charted Top 40 on the Billboard Hot 100, with "Doo Wop" eventually claiming the chart's top spot. "Everything Is Everything" is also notable for standing as the first recorded appearance by a young John Legend in commercial music. Legend, credited under his birth name of John Stephens, played backing piano on the track.
The album earned a total of 10 nominations at the 41st GRAMMY Awards, and Hill took the stage during the evening's festivities for a rousing performance of "To Zion," with the notable accompaniment of Carlos Santana, with whom she would share in an Album Of The Year Win at the 42nd GRAMMYs for the legendary guitarist's globally successful Clive Davis-produced smash hit album Supernatural.
Altogether, Hill took home five GRAMMY Awards for The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, including Album Of The Year, Best R&B Album, Best New Artist, Best R&B Song, and Best Female R&B Vocal Performance – the latter two both for "Doo Wop (That Thing)."
With her previous wins for Best Rap Album (The Score) and Best R&B Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal ("Killing Me Softly With His Song") as a member of the hip-hop/soul supergroup Fugees, Hill's wins at the 41st GRAMMYs brought her total career wins to seven (rising to eight total the following year, thanks to her shared win for Supernatural). Hill also remains one of just five female artists who can count two or more Album Of The Year wins among their career honors.
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8 Exciting Sets From The 2023 Roots Picnic: Usher, Lil Uzi Vert, Lauryn Hill & More
From a surprise reunion of the Fugees, to a special appearance by Eve and Jazmine Sullivan, the 2023 Roots Picnic brought heat and hype across multiple stages. Read on for the festival's most exciting performances.
For 15 years, The Roots have gathered the music’s brightest and fastest-rising talents to perform in Philadelphia for their annual Roots Picnic, and this year’s lineup was nothing short of star-studded.
After kicking off the weekend with Dave Chappelle’s comedy show at the Wells Fargo Center on Friday, the action moved to the Mann Center in Fairmont Park where fans witnessed surprise crew reunions, unexpected cameos, and a taste of the Las Vegas strip across three performance stages.
On Saturday, legendary rap group State Property reunited for the first time in years, Lil Uzi Vert rocked out with the Park Stage crowd for his third picnic appearance. Supported by the Soulquarians, legends the Isley Brothers and Roy Ayers lit up the Park stage. Lauryn Hill closed out day two by commemorating her GRAMMY-winning album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and bringing out Pras and Wyclef Jean for a Fugees reunion.
Sunday featured high-powered performances from soulful songstress Ari Lennox, former Ruff Ryders first lady Eve, and the devastating femmes of South Florida, the City Girls. Philly’s own DJ Drama drew out home-grown talents like D-Surdy, Armani White, and Bronx legend Fat Joe on the Presser stage.
To close out the weekend, Usher brought the magic of his Vegas residency to West Philly for a string of era-defining hits in the twilight of the festival. Read on for some of the most captivating moments and exciting sets from the 2023 Roots Picnic.
GloRilla Shines In Roots Picnic Debut
GloRilla | Kayla Oaddams/Getty Images
Unapologetic rebel GloRilla may have just one EP under her belt, but her growing fandom came alive during her Roots Picnic performance.
The Presser Stage crowd swooned along with femme-empowering smashes like "Phatnall," as well as more provocative songs like "Nut Quick" and "Lick or Sum." Legions of newly single fans screamed the lyrics to crunk hit "F.N.F. (Let’s Go)."
Big Glo kept the momentum going at high speed, loosening the relatively stiff crowd. And while Cardi B wasn’t present for her part in "Tomorrow 2," GloRilla brought out an energized and visibly pregnant Chrisean Rock for a twerk-worthy cameo.
GloRilla truly embraced her rowdy nature and southern charm, which has helped her earn garner recognition from her peers and even notch her first GRAMMY nod for Best Rap Performance.
Usher Brings Sultry And Sin To The City, With A Few Special Guests
Usher and Black Thought perform | Taylor Hill/Getty Images for Live Nation Urban
Before Usher had even closed out the festival, radio and podcast personality Charlamagne and comedian Jess Hilarious talked about wrapping up their own event early to snag a close seat to watch the R&B star in action.
Though decades into his musical career, Usher hasn't missed a step. Dressed in leather, the eight-time GRAMMY winner delivered his classic, slow-burning album cuts and glossy radio hits under the glimmering lights of the open air Park stage.
Usher put on an electrifying performance that covered hits from various eras in his catalog. Songs like "Love in This Club," "U Don’t Have to Call," and "Lil Freak" had Sunday’s crowd staring in awe, even for those looking to get ahead of the departing traffic. He also brought The Roots on stage before Philly natives Jazmine Sullivan, Eve and Black Thought joined the singer to perform "U Got Me."
Lauryn Hill (And Some Famous Friends) Took The Crowd Way Back
Wyclef Jean, Lauryn Hill, and Pras Michel of the Fugees | Taylor Hill/Getty Images for Live Nation Urban
Lauryn Hill’s reputation precedes her. Some fans joked about her tardiness — or even potential absence — but the legendary vocalist arrived about 30 minutes past her scheduled set time and put on a performance that was met with shockwaves of cheers.
Hill's headlining performance coincides with a big milestone: the 25th anniversary of her groundbreaking album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. "Even though it's been 25 years, everything is still everything," she told the enlivened crowd.
She performed tracks from the masterful GRAMMY-winning album, including "Everything Is Everything" and "When It Hurts So Bad," but perhaps the biggest surprise throughout the weekend was the reunion between her, Pras and Wyclef Jean. The trio came together as the Fugees to perform hits "Ready Or Not" and "Killing Me Softly" for a spirited celebration of the group’s 1996 album The Score.
"We’re out here doing 25 years of Miseducation. But there’s another 25 years we didn’t do a couple of years ago because of COVID," Hill said of the group’s project. The group closed out with "Fu-Gee-La," with Hill switching from her soothing alto to her "L-Boogie" persona of old, bringing the joyous crowd to its knees.
City Girls Bring The Twerkers Out To Play
The City Girls brought headliner energy to Sunday’s picnic, with JT and Young Miami inciting a twerkathon with hot summer girl anthems like "Act Up" and "Do It On The Tip" playing out center stage.
The Miami duo kept the energy high with on-stage twerk moves, pulsating hits like "Twerkulator," and efforts to draw out the crowd’s inner act-bad attitude by screaming: "If you’re a bad bitch, say, ‘Hell, yeah!’" And by the end of the group’s performance, fans were left with a racing heartbeat or sweating from the constant flow of high-powered hits and go-get-him-girl records.
Lil Uzi Vert Knows What The City Wants
Lil Uzi Vert | Taylor Hill/Getty Images for Live Nation Urban
Now in their third appearance since 2016, Philly native Lil Uzi Vert took to the Park stage on Saturday, bringing enough bass and adoring screams that could be heard across Fairmont Park.
"I ain’t going to do too much talking. Let’s do it," they said to the roaring crowd. While Lil Uzi’s voice occasionally drowned in a song’s instrumental, their effortless magnetism and signature shoulder roll dance brought excitement to the growing crowd.
The rumblings of hits like "444+222" and "Sauce It Up" rang in fans’ ears, and songs like "Money Longer," and the Diamond-selling smash "XO Tour Llif3" nearly turned portions of the crowd into mosh pits. Lil Uzi’s performance came to a welcomed halt when fans were invited to the stage to dance to the massively popular "Just Wanna Rock," which has become an unofficial anthem in their hometown. "I’m in the city, this they s—." Fans pulled out their phones as the rap star capped off the set with the viral hit.
Lucky Daye Drips In Allure
Only a year removed from his breakthrough album, Candydrip — a genre-drifting and soul-stirring project riddled with pop and R&B hits — Lucky Daye has risen to star status. And with songs like "Real Games" and "Late Night," it’s easy to be drawn to the New Orleans-born artist.
While initially draped in glimmering red garments, it didn’t take the artist long to strip down (well, shirtless, that is), and render impassioned vocals over the cheers and screams of his admirers. He dove into songs across his various albums and fell to his knees to deliver a burningly passionate rendition of "F—kin’ Sound" before the 37-year-old vocalist exited the Mann’s amphitheater stage.
Ari Lennox Conjures Soul In Comforting Fashion
Ari Lennox | Taylor Hill/Getty Images for Live Nation Urban
It’s unclear if Ari Lennox still has plans to step away from the touring circuit for good, but if her Sunday evening performance is any indication, her presence would be sorely missed. The "Shea Butter Baby" vocalist conjured every fragment of her soulful and poetic artistry, bringing vibes despite having a slight cold.
The DC-born R&B singer danced to the flowy breeze setting over the stretched-out crowd while singing favored tracks like "New Apartment," as well as "Waste My Time" and "Pressure" from last year’s Age/Sex/Location. Lennox encouraged fans to close their eyes and sway their hips, and many raised drinks as Lennox’s soothing voice and sultry lyrics wrapped around their bodies.
Busta Rhymes And Eve Come To Devastate
Spliff Star and Busta Rhymes | Taylor Hill/Getty Images for Live Nation Urban
Joined by The Roots’ Black Thought, Busta Rhymes and Spliff Star tore down the Park stage, even with distracting audio woes hindering the early part of their set. Shot mic or not, Busta’s lion-like voice could be heard from yards away as he spewed the lyrics to "Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See" and A Tribe Called Quest’s "Scenario" to a cheering audience.
Eve arrived during the latter part of the DJ J. Period curated set. The former First Lady of Ruff Ryder burst onto the stage and held her own alongside the fellow hip-hop heavyweights. As she swayed the crowd with songs like "Tambourine" and her verse on the late DMX’s "Ruff Ryders Anthem (Remix)," it harkened back to her days as a lyrical wild card in the early 2000s before she ventured into acting and hosting gigs.
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Revisiting 'The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill': Why The Multiple GRAMMY-Winning Record Is Still Everything 25 Years Later
Lauryn Hill will celebrate her magnum opus with a series of anniversary performances throughout the summer, including at the Roots Picnic June 3-4. Ahead of the show, GRAMMY.com examines how Hill's only solo album continues to impact music and womanhood.
By the time she released The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in 1998, singer and rapper Lauryn Hill had already scored two GRAMMY Awards for her work in the hip-hop trio Fugees. Her debut solo album — and only one to date — generated another seven wins, including Album Of The Year and Best R&B Album, which brought rapping to the mainstream in a way previously unseen. And in a male-dominated genre, this feat was achieved by a strong woman.
"This is crazy, ‘cuz this is hip-hop music!" Hill exclaimed when Whitney Houston presented her with the golden gramophone for Album Of The Year at the 41st GRAMMY Awards in 1999.
Hill set a number of records with Miseducation: The lead single "Doo Wop (That Thing)," released two weeks before the album, immediately went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and Hot Rap Songs chart. As a woman solo artist, she set long-held records for both charts with "Doo Wop (That Thing)." The album also entered the Billboard 200 chart in the top position, which no other debut from a woman had achieved before.
Miseducation contains 16 songs and is over 77 minutes in length — a long album by modern standards, yet fitting for Hill’s magnum opus. The album features guest appearances by Carlos Santana ("To Zion"), Mary J. Blige ("I Used to Love Him") and D’Angelo ("Nothing Even Matters"), bringing listeners back to the classroom for interludes where Hill schools the world on what a vanguard looks like.
And Lauryn Hill was at the vanguard in many ways. Several women who were popular in mainstream hip-hop at the time favored scantily clad outfits and scandalous lyrical content, but Hill projected the opposite in songs about love, faith, fortitude and empowerment. Throughout Miseducation, Hill talks to God and to the world, while simultaneously issuing warnings for those who have mistreated her.
Twenty-five years later, Miseducation still sounds vibrant, alive and current. That’s a testament to how influential Hill’s work continues to be not only in popular music, but in pop culture and womanhood — especially for Black women and single mothers.
"I think the piece as a whole communicates my personality, it is the culmination of my experiences, the sum total of what I had gone through at a certain point in my life," Hill told The Guardian in 2013. "To me it's like driving in a storm, it's hard to see where you're going. You're just praying to get out of it. But once you get out of it, you can look back and say; ‘Oh man, thank god!’ Give thanks, 'cos that's what I came out of. That's what that album feels like to me."
"Doo Wop (That Thing)," "Ex-Factor" and "Everything Is Everything" were each accompanied by masterful music videos that showed Hill as a woman who transcends the ages.
Speaking To Women
For women who were faithful hip-hop fans despite a prevailing tide of misogyny and death, as well as those facing single motherhood, Miseducation demonstrated a positive and empowered way forward. Instead of catering to the male gaze, the songs spotlight the joys and the struggles of women with rugged beats and lyrics that highlight her pure skill as an MC.
"Lost Ones" asserts her split from Fugees with the bravado of the best wordsmiths, while "I Used to Love Him" with Mary J. Blige samples the very macho "Ice Cream" by Wu-Tang Clan rappers Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Method Man and Cappadonna. And songs such as "Doo Wop (That Thing)" and "To Zion" showcase her powerful abilities as a singer, a potent accompaniment to her rhymes.
"Lauryn was a breath of fresh air, a hope and — unrealistically — a solution to what was wrong with hip-hop and its representation of women at the time," Joan Morgan, author of She Begat This: 20 Years of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, said in a 2018 interview with VIBE. "I think people hold dear to it as a really exciting possible moment of change, which in some ways wore itself out and in some ways didn’t. It does more work than just an album…It’s like running into an old friend that you don’t necessarily keep in touch with all the time, but one you have really fond memories of."
"It wasn’t until much later that I realized how many women and girls were changed by the album," Thembisa S. Mshaka, who worked as the senior advertising copywriter for Sony Music during the album’s release, told Okayplayer. "I was shocked to learn how many of the women I’d meet throughout my career still had point-of-purchase flats of the cover, or posters, or ads ripped from magazines like Honey and VIBE on their walls. Lauryn was that role model for the hip-hop generation that Diana Ross was for the Motown generation."
Hill immediately faced monumental pressure from fans and the music business to produce more music after Miseducation. She later shared that the squeeze was taking a toll on her art.
"I had to step away when I realized that for the sake of the machine, I was being way too compromised," she explained in a 2006 interview with ESSENCE. "I had to fight for an identity that doesn’t fit in one of their boxes. I’m a whole woman. And when I can’t be whole, I have a problem. By the end I was like, I’ve got to get out of here."
Though fans keep hope alive, Hill has never released another album, which makes Miseducation even more significant with the passage of time.
"People need to understand that the Lauryn Hill they were exposed to in the beginning was all that was allowed in that arena at that time," she continued to ESSENCE. "There was much more strength, spirit and passion, desire, curiosity, ambition and opinion that was not allowed in a small space designed for consumer mass appeal and dictated by very limited standards."
Hill gave Miseducation her everything, and while she hasn’t released more albums, she has performed songs from the album live countless times over the years. She keeps the material fresh for herself by constantly creating new arrangements, tempos and vibes for the songs, and fans will be able to check that out when she celebrates the 25th anniversary of the album with special performances of the work at Roots Picnic in Philadelphia (June 3-4), Wolf Trap near Washington, D.C. (June 9), Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, IL (June 17) and ESSENCE Festival in New Orleans (June 29-July 3).
"People can be disappointed that we haven’t had more music from her, but I don’t know if they can blame her or be angry," Morgan added in her VIBE interview. "We’re not entitled to another album — I think audiences forget that," she remarks. "You can’t be angry with someone because they only gave you one of what you wanted."
Responding To Persisting Controversy
A 1998 lawsuit filed against Hill by Johari Newton, Tejumold Newton, Vada Nobles and Rasheem Pugh alleged that the star didn’t credit their musical contributions to Miseducation. The suit was settled out of court, but accusations outside the legal arena have persisted over the years.
In 2018, Hill posted a written response to pianist Robert Glasper’s claims that she uses work from others without crediting them. In it, she acknowledged that it took the work of others to bring her vision to life, but asserts that she is the nucleus, and that she hired musicians to execute her specific ideas.
"The album inspired many people, from all walks of life, because of its radical (intense) will to live and to express Love," she countered in the response, which was posted to Medium. "I appreciate everyone who was a part of it, in any and every capability. It wouldn’t have existed the way that it did without the involvement, skill, hard work, and talents of the artists/musicians and technicians who were a part of it, but it still required my vision, my passion, my faith, my will, my soul, my heart, and my story."
A quarter century later, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill remains timeless. It has been prominently sampled by major artists who followed, including Drake, Cardi B, Lizzo, H.E.R. and J.Cole. The beauty of this iconic album is that it may well spark the brain of the next musician who will make as much of an impact on music and humanity.
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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.
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.
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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].
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