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Rhyme & Punishment: How NPR's "Louder Than A Riot" Podcast Traces The Interconnected Rise Of Hip-Hop And Mass Incarceration

Hosts of NPR's "Louder Than A Riot": Rodney Carmichael (L) and Sidney Madden (R)

Photo: NPR's Christian Cody and Joshua Kissi

 
 

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Rhyme & Punishment: How NPR's "Louder Than A Riot" Podcast Traces The Interconnected Rise Of Hip-Hop And Mass Incarceration

Co-hosts Rodney Carmichael and Sidney Madden break down how "Louder Than A Riot" explores the wide-spanning issue of mass incarceration through the lens of hip-hop music and culture, as told by the artists, journalists and executives who lived it

GRAMMYs/Oct 11, 2020 - 11:51 pm

Here's a big theory: The dramatic surge in mass incarceration in the U.S. is intertwined with the explosive rise of hip-hop music and culture. 

Here's an even bigger theory, this one falling closer to the conspiracy sorts: Record labels, which allegedly have investments in the private prison system, purposely market criminal behavior via rap music to increase the prison population and, in turn, boost their profits.

The latter conspiracy theory has been circulating around hip-hop circles and the wider music industry for nearly a decade. In 2012, at the height of the hip-hop blog era, someone wrote an anonymous letter describing a "secret meeting" in which executives from the industrial prison complex and the music industry discussed the aforementioned symbiotic relationship. The letter exploded on the internet, sparking heated debates around the validity of the note itself as well as the underlying trigger warnings contained within it. 

Whether the letter is real or not and whether that "secret meeting" ever happened, the conspiracy theory revealed a lot about the fear and paranoia surrounding the many ways the U.S. criminal justice system disproportionately impacts Black Americans and people of color, NPR Music staff writer Rodney Carmichael explains in the debut episode of "Louder Than A Riot." 

"There was just a lot of online debates about whether the meeting that was described [in the letter] was real, whether the impact that it was laying out had manifested and registered," Carmichael tells GRAMMY.com in a recent interview. "Now, in terms of where I stand on it, I'd really rather leave that to the episode. We use the letter to reveal a lot of things … But I really want people to be able to check out the episode to get a better sense of where we stand on it, and not only us, but the culture [as well]."

Launched this week (Oct. 8), "Louder Than A Riot," the first narrative podcast series from NPR Music, explores the wide-spanning issue of mass incarceration through the lens of hip-hop music and culture, as told by the artists, journalists, legal experts, activists and music industry executives who've experienced the hyperincarceration phenomenon and were directly impacted by the criminal justice system. 

Each week, the limited-series podcast will dissect a different aspect of the criminal justice system—the probation and parole system in the U.S., the growing power of prosecutors and plea deals, the practice of RICO laws on street gangs—and its wider, often detrimental, effects on Black America and other communities of color. 

"Louder Than A Riot" continues a long-running conversation that the hip-hop community at large has been chronicling for decades, from the reality rap and social commentary within Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's 1982 hood anthem "The Message" to The Source magazine's "Hip-Hop Behind Bars" 2004 cover story to Kendrick Lamar's eye-opening performance at the 2016 GRAMMYs.

"We just have to remember that hip-hop has been rapping about this stuff for 40 years," Carmichael says. "This is not a new conversation for the culture. This is not a new conversation within the genre. Hip-hop has been being dismissed by people in power for 40 years … To me, the answer to the question, 'What's louder than a riot?' It's actually hip-hop."

"Louder Than A Riot" co-host Sidney Madden, a reporter and editor for NPR Music, hopes the show will lead to real-life change.

"Our greatest impact would be to put something out that creates cultural conversations that can lead to cultural shifting, that can lead to societal shifting, that can be ... one of those things that's put into the world that wakes people up to things that they've had the luxury to be asleep on," she tells GRAMMY.com. "My biggest aspiration for creating this body of work and presenting it to listeners is that it's going to have people challenge themselves, complicate questions about their role in the whole thing, and start a lot more conversations that can lead to shifts in society."

GRAMMY.com spoke to "Louder Than A Riot" co-hosts Rodney Carmichael and Sidney Madden about the show's expansive look into the sociopolitical issues within hip-hop culture, rap's long-running and contentious relationship with the criminal justice system and the artists and rappers continuing the conversation today.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

"Louder Than A Riot" examines a very big idea: the interconnected rise of hip-hop and mass incarceration. That's a heavy theory that is perhaps not obvious to many everyday music listeners and hip-hop heads. Can you tell me about how you got to this theory in the first place?

Rodney Carmichael: Well, I think it's important first to recognize the fact that this is not the first time that this intersection has been explored. [The] Source magazine did a few classic annual issues back in the early 2000s ... Hip-Hop Behind Bars [in 2004] .. where they really explored what felt like was becoming a really big deal. Obviously, the criminal justice system disproportionately impacts Black America and other communities of color [like] Brown America. With hip-hop coming from those communities, it's just a reflection of that inequality. It's always been in the music. It's always been something that the culture, I think, has recognized in terms of the injustice built into the systems and the systemic inequality.

I don't necessarily think the connection is new. I think there hasn't been enough conversation about how, in some ways, there feels like there's this interrelated thing going on between the two of them at times. That was part of it ... kind of recognizing that this has always been something that's talked about. I think mass incarceration—we're not the first to say it—is really one of the biggest, most pressing civil rights issues of our time. It's gotten to a point now where it's a bipartisan issue: criminal justice reform. 

People on the right and the left, sometimes for different reasons, have coalesced around this issue and [are] realizing that a lot of the really tough-on-crime policies that were prevalent during the Drug War era and afterwards, through the '80s and '90s, got us to this point where we incarcerate more people [at] a higher percentage of our population than any other nation on the planet. It's a problem, and it's been impacting us the most, and hip-hop has been talking about it the most. So why not explore those two?

Sydney Madden: It's funny because now it's considered a bipartisan issue to be against mass incarceration without trying to take any responsibility as to how we got here. So many policies that were enacted in the '80s and '90s are really showing that boom in population, and the chickens are coming home to roost. But the whole time, way before there was any sociological study or political pundit trying to advocate for these things, hip-hop was pushing back. You can see it through the lineage of the lyrics. You see it through a lot of artists who talked about it, whether it'd be in interviews or artists that went through cases themselves, whether it be 2Pac or Shyne or Beanie Sigel, Lil Wayne, Lil' Kim, Gucci [Mane]. I mean, even now like JT from the City Girls, Bobby Shmurda, Tay-K.

It's so funny because I can rattle off all these names. They seem like different cases, but none of these cases happen in a vacuum. The topic does seem a little bit sprawling when you first hear about it, but that's the thing about the podcast that we're going to take you through. We're going to take you through the timeline of how these numbers in America and for the population surpassed a million and ballooned to even 2 million [prisoners] now and 4.5 million people living on parole. And then, how at the same time, hip-hop became the most dominant, most consumed, most commercialized and profitable genre while it was still pushing back at all of these things at its core. [The podcast is] really about the parallel rise between two American phenomenons, and then how they connect with each other.

We take you through that timeline in the show, and then we break down real-world cases for you throughout history to give you a real proof of concept the whole way through. So it does seem a little bit overwhelming, but then every subsequent episode of the podcast is going to become more and more clear that the [criminology] in hip-hop is really a microcosm of the criminalization of Black America as a whole.

Let's jump off that. The podcast traces a few key moments in American history that contributed to the rise in the prison population and also coincided with the rise of hip-hop. For example, the first episode dives into the War on Drugs during the Reagan era, which, as you report, affected incarceration rates. How far back and how current does the podcast travel? What are some other key moments or developments that the podcast examines?

Madden: The podcast really does start with a lot of the roots of sociopolitical critique that hip-hop has always been about. We start with "The Message" [from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five] in '82 and Reagan's re-imagining of the War on Drugs. Then we go through the '90s. And then, when we start to deep-dive into cases is really at the turn of the century. Every case that we explore has a specific theme, but it also gives you the specific time marker of where hip-hop is at in the marketplace and where it's shifting and growing into its own ...

And then, we take you through a lot of cases every decade. We get really contemporary with it at the end. The final episodes, which are going to be airing after this [2020 presidential] election is over, it's going to be very contemporary in [terms of] talking about the fight for reforms right now and the fight for abolition right now. We try to do a lot of time traveling with you, but not too much that you get whiplash.

So it's not going to feel like a college course.

Madden: It is not. It's not "Hip-Hop 101." It's not "Crime and Punishment in America." It's history and context and contemporary cultural takes all in one. That's the secret sauce of it all.

Carmichael: We try to cover 30-40 years in [the first] episode. It's probably our least narrative episode, but almost all the other episodes are going to be narrative. We're going to be telling stories about a specific person who has been impacted by this interconnected rise, and who's been caught in the crosshairs of the criminal justice system. It's not going to feel academic at all. These are stories. We know that hip-hop loves stories. It's a genre full of storytellers. So we're trying to connect these big, broad issues and communicate them in a way that the culture eats.

Madden: Absolutely. Rooted in culture. Rooted in reality. Pretty much all the cases that we dive into, we have artists at the center of it; we have interviews with them. We have interviews with all the connected players, from people on the industry side, the people in their management camp, their marketing people, their friends growing up. A lot of rappers' parents make appearances in this show as well as people on the law enforcement side. So you can get a full picture of not retrying an artist for a specific case, but really the larger sociopolitical umbrella that all of these things happen under.

The podcast opens with a story about an anonymously written letter that describes an imagined scene in a supposed "secret meeting" in which executives from the industrial prison complex and the music industry meet to discuss how the marketing of rap music could promote criminal behavior and in turn increase the prison population, which would ultimately boost profits for the prison system and its record label investors. There's a whole conspiracy theory about this. When was the first time you heard about this conspiracy theory? And where does each of you stand in regard to the validity of this "secret meeting"?

Carmichael: I think I heard about it pretty much at the time that this anonymously written letter first hit the internet, which was 2012 … There was just a lot of online debates about whether the meeting that was described [in the letter] was real, whether the impact that it was laying out had manifested and registered. It was a really interesting debate that I think, in a lot of ways, captured a lot of the angst that certain generations of the culture were going through at the time. Hip-hop was evolving, and everybody didn't necessarily like the way it had changed from the golden era to where we were at that point.

Now, in terms of where I stand on it, I'd really rather leave that to the episode. We use the letter to reveal a lot of things. But this is also an age that we're currently in where there's a lot of weight put into and onto conspiracy theories … Us being journalists, we wanted to make sure that we treated this conspiracy theory in the most journalistically sound way; I think we ultimately do. But I really want people to be able to check out the episode to get a better sense of where we stand on it, and not only us, but the culture [as well].

Madden: I'll definitely echo what Rodney is saying. I want listeners to hear what our take is and the culture's take is in the episode. But in terms of actually learning about the letter itself ... I didn't learn about it immediately ...I want to say I found out about it a year or two after, but it's because somebody was having a debate about it …

It was a bit mind-blowing, but also like, "Hmmm, I could see that. That's right on the money." … This is the time of Kendrick [Lamar's] Section.80 and good kid, m.A.A.d city. This is the time of [Meek Mill's] Dreams and Nightmares or Big K.R.I.T.'s Live From the Underground. There were so many things already happening in the music and the lyrics that legitimized this connection.

Rodney, at the end of the debut episode, you borrow a part of a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. quote in which you say, "If a riot 'is the language of the unheard' … then rap is the definitive soundtrack." What's the significance of the show's title, "Louder Than a Riot"?

Carmichael: We wanted to pick a name that spoke to this wake-up call that 2020 has become. But also, it really connected with [how], just historically, the fact that hip-hop has always been a voice for the voiceless. That quote just came to mind because it's interesting to see now how protests and things of this nature, which have always been politicized, but in this current age are continuing to be politicized in a way ...

I think the key is that as America seems, in a lot of ways, to have awakened to a lot of the inequality that was exposed this summer in terms of the George Floyd protests and the Breonna [Taylor] protests, we just have to remember that hip-hop has been rapping about this stuff for 40 years. This is not a new conversation for the culture. This is not a new conversation within the genre. Hip-hop has been being dismissed by people in power for 40 years. True, it makes a lot of money now, and it's evolved in terms of how much it's been accepted within mainstream America. But in terms of this politicization, it's always been something that has been disregarded and dismissed by those in power. To me, the answer to the question, "What's louder than a riot?" It's actually hip-hop.

Read: Want To Support Protesters And Black Lives Matter Groups? Here's How

Speaking of which, "Louder Than a Riot" drops during a very critical time in American politics and culture. You have nationwide protests advocating for racial justice and denouncing police brutality. You have the major label complex and the wider music industry reanalyzing its exploitative history and relationship with Black music and Black creators, specifically. What is the significance of "Louder Than a Riot" dropping amidst all of this turmoil and ongoing demands for change? What sort of impact do you think the podcast can make amidst or contribute to this wider cultural conversation?

Madden: We've thought about this a lot. I think one thing that people might not know right off the bat listening [to the podcast] is that this has been something that we've been developing as music journalists ... it's been years leading up to this. But in earnest, we've been developing and reporting and researching this topic for the last two years. The fact that the drop of this show was colliding with this moment in history, it just reinforces our thesis so much more, and it gives me a renewed sense of guidance and purpose ... A lot of what America is waking up to right now and is being forced to face and grapple with right now, hip-hop's been telling y'all.

There are so many moments, whether it's a rally cry, a protest chant or policy change—you're going to hear the seeds of that in hip-hop the farther back you go. That's what we're doing with people. We're showing you where the seeds of this whole movement came from, contextualizing it in a way that is urgent but also digestible and malleable. 

I often think about who we're making this podcast for, and so much of it is people who've been in tune with it, but also people who just had the luxury to enjoy hip-hop without ever feeling challenged by it. And it's like, no—hip-hop is challenging all the things that are not great in America for Black people. Hip-hop is rebelling against that, and hip-hop is showing resilience against that …

In terms of impact, I would say everyone has a different metric of success. But I would say, our greatest impact would be to put something out that creates cultural conversations that can lead to cultural shifting, that can lead to societal shifting, that can be ... one of those things that's put into the world that wakes people up to things that they've had the luxury to be asleep on ... My biggest aspiration for creating this body of work and presenting it to listeners is that it's going to have people challenge themselves, complicate questions about their role in the whole thing, and start a lot more conversations that can lead to shifts in society.

Ultimately, what does the podcast set out to do or what are the questions the podcast aims to answer?

Carmichael: If you're a hip-hop fan or especially if you come from the community that hip-hop originated in, we already understand that mass incarceration and the criminal justice system hit us harder than any other community in this country. That's one thing to just have that general knowledge or that general understanding. But to really get into the weeds of the system and understand how it works and how it goes about disproportionately impacting us is another thing.

With each story that we're telling, we get to focus on or highlight a different aspect of the criminal justice system that an artist is being impacted by, whether it's the probation and parole system in this country, whether it's the power of prosecutors and plea deals and getting into the nitty-gritty of why some 90-plus percent of criminal cases end in plea deals and don't go to trial and how that impacts the turnout of these cases, the sentencing, et cetera, et cetera … 

Each spot along the way, it's just a really revealing, eye-opening thing to really be able to allow people to have a better understanding of how the criminal justice system works, and usually not in our favor.

Who are some rappers and artists continuing this conversation and analyzing these issues in their music?

Madden: For me, I've been a Kendrick fan since day one ... He was like a prophet in some ways. And it's so great because he's getting inspired while he's alive because he's one of the best [artists] we got. Killer Mike is another one who's always been on time with it, whether he was speaking in an interview or dropping so much knowledge in a single verse that it kind of makes your head spin. 

From the younger generation, I think a lot of people don't give Vince Staples enough credit because maybe he's a bit snarky, but he gives you so much focus riddled with commentary, and he breaks it down for you in a way that never adds that, "I'm going to explain what I already said," type of thing. Noname out of Chicago. She's 'bout it, 'bout it a hundred percent in her lyrics and also in her intent and in her activation. Her starting the Noname Book Club as a force for learning … I think those type of actions and those types of motives are what's going to push us forward and propel this conversation way beyond the series' 10 episodes. Some of the people I named just now for you are actually featured in the series.

Read: Fight The Power: 11 Powerful Protest Songs Advocating For Racial Justice

Carmichael: I just want to say: All rap is political to me. It's interesting. You hear a lot of conversation today about the fact that hip-hop is not as political as it used to be. "Where are the Public Enemys?" and whatnot. But I'm from Atlanta, and trap, which really originated here, is one of the most political art forms that I think has emerged out of hip-hop and out of Black America. Hip-hop, I think, nowadays and rap in general and trap, to be more specific—its political point of view is more about giving you a version of reality that we as a country often are not willing to look at or not willing to deal with. It's very much a political point of view. 

When we think of a lot of the marginalization that is happening in this country—[for example], Atlanta, for many years running, has been the income inequality capital; the gap between the haves and the have-nots is wider here than anywhere else. That's reflected in music that is giving a voice that wouldn't otherwise have a voice. The irony is that Atlanta is also considered the Black Mecca, and it's considered to be a place where Black folks, especially, have more and better opportunity to succeed and achieve than anywhere else in the country.

And the truth is that both of those things are true. A lot of Black folk do not fit into that narrative here. A lot of Black folk have been historically overlooked here if they aren't in the middle class. What could be more political than them being able to have a platform to express their woes, their frustrations, their hopes, their dreams, and all of that? I think just because it doesn't meet the moral code that America professes to go by, it doesn't mean anything, especially if they've been left out of the moral concerns of America.

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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.

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.

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

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

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
Billy Idol

Photo: Steven Sebring

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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."

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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Hear All Of The Best Country Solo Performance Nominees For The 2023 GRAMMY Awards
2023 GRAMMYs

Graphic: The Recording Academy

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Hear All Of The Best Country Solo Performance Nominees For The 2023 GRAMMY Awards

The 2023 GRAMMY Award nominees for Best Country Solo Performance highlight country music's newcomers and veterans, featuring hits from Kelsea Ballerini, Zach Bryan, Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris and Willie Nelson.

GRAMMYs/Nov 23, 2022 - 03:01 pm

Country music's evolution is well represented in the 2023 GRAMMY nominees for Best Country Solo Performance. From crossover pop hooks to red-dirt outlaw roots, the genre's most celebrated elements are on full display — thanks to rising stars, leading ladies and country icons.

Longtime hitmaker Miranda Lambert delivered a soulful performance on the rootsy ballad "In His Arms," an arrangement as sparing as the windswept west Texas highlands where she co-wrote the song. Viral newcomer Zach Bryan dug into similar organic territory on the Oklahoma side of the Red River for "Something in the Orange," his voice accompanied with little more than an acoustic guitar.

Two of country's 2010s breakout stars are clearly still shining, too, as Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini both received Best Country Solo Performance GRAMMY nods. Morris channeled the determination that drove her leap-of-faith move from Texas to Nashville for the playful clap-along "Circles Around This Town," while Ballerini brought poppy hooks with a country edge on the infectiously upbeat "HEARTFIRST."

Rounding out the category is the one and only Willie Nelson, who paid tribute to his late friend Billy Joe Shaver with a cover of "Live Forever" — a fitting sentiment for the 89-year-old legend, who is approaching his eighth decade in the business. 

As the excitement builds for the 2023 GRAMMYs on Feb. 5, 2023, let's take a closer look at this year's nominees for Best Country Solo Performance.

Kelsea Ballerini — "HEARTFIRST"

In the tradition of Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Carrie Underwood, Kelsea Ballerini represents Nashville's sunnier side — and her single "HEARTFIRST" is a slice of bright, uptempo, confectionary country-pop for the ages.

Ballerini sings about leaning into a carefree crush with her heart on her sleeve, pushing aside her reservations and taking a risk on love at first sight. The scene plays out in a bar room and a back seat, as she sweeps nimbly through the verses and into a shimmering chorus, when the narrator decides she's ready to "wake up in your T-shirt." 

There are enough steel guitar licks to let you know you're listening to a country song, but the story and melody are universal. "HEARTFIRST" is Ballerini's third GRAMMY nod, but first in the Best Country Solo Performance category.

Zach Bryan — "Something In The Orange"

Zach Bryan blew into Music City seemingly from nowhere in 2017, when his original song "Heading South" — recorded on an iPhone — went viral. Then an active officer in the U.S. Navy, the Oklahoma native chased his muse through music during his downtime, striking a chord with country music fans on stark songs led by his acoustic guitar and affecting vocals.

After his honorable discharge in 2021, Bryan began his music career in earnest, and in 2022 released "Something in the Orange," a haunting ballad that stakes a convincing claim to the territory between Tyler Childers and Jason Isbell in both sonics and songwriting. Slashing slide guitar drives home the song's heartbreak, as Bryan pines for a lover whose tail lights have long since vanished over the horizon. 

"Something In The Orange" marks Bryan's first-ever GRAMMY nomination.

Miranda Lambert — "In His Arms"

Miranda Lambert is the rare, chart-topping contemporary country artist who does more than pay lip service to the genre's rural American roots. "In His Arms" originally surfaced on 2021's The Marfa Tapes, a casual recording Lambert made with Jack Ingram and Jon Randall in Marfa, Texas — a tiny arts enclave in the middle of the west Texas high desert.

In this proper studio version — recorded for her 2022 album, Palomino — Lambert retains the structure and organic feel of the mostly acoustic song; light percussion and soothing atmospherics keep her emotive vocals front and center. A native Texan herself, Lambert sounds fully at home on "In His Arms."

Lambert is the only Best Country Solo Performance nominee who is nominated in all four Country Field categories in 2023. To date, Miranda Lambert has won 3 GRAMMYs and received 27 nominations overall. 

Maren Morris — "Circles Around This Town"

When Maren Morris found herself uninspired and dealing with writer's block, she went back to what inspired her to move to Nashville nearly a decade ago — and out came "Circles Around This Town," the lead single from her 2022 album Humble Quest.

Written in one of her first in-person songwriting sessions since the pandemic, Morris has called "Circles Around This Town" her "most autobiographical song" to date; she even recreated her own teenage bedroom for the song's video. As she looks back to her Texas beginnings and the life she left for Nashville, Morris' voice soars over anthemic, yet easygoing production. 

Morris last won a GRAMMY for Best Country Solo Performance in 2017, when her song "My Church" earned the singer her first GRAMMY. To date, Maren Morris has won one GRAMMY and received 17 nominations overall.

Willie Nelson — "Live Forever"

Country music icon Willie Nelson is no stranger to the GRAMMYs, and this year he aims to add to his collection of 10 gramophones. He earned another three nominations for 2023 — bringing his career total to 56 — including a Best Country Solo Performance nod for "Live Forever."

Nelson's performance of "Live Forever," the lead track of the 2022 tribute album Live Forever: A Tribute to Billy Joe Shaver, is a faithful rendition of Shaver's signature song. Still, Nelson puts his own twist on the tune, recruiting Lucinda Williams for backing vocals and echoing the melody with the inimitable tone of his nylon-string Martin guitar. 

Shaver, an outlaw country pioneer who passed in 2020 at 81 years old, never had any hits of his own during his lifetime. But plenty of his songs were still heard, thanks to stars like Elvis Presley, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. Nelson was a longtime friend and frequent collaborator of Shaver's — and now has a GRAMMY nom to show for it.

2023 GRAMMY Nominations: See The Complete Nominees List