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Record Store Recs: Simón Mejía Of Bomba Estéreo Takes Us To Colombia

Simón Mejía

Photo: Maria Jose Govea

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Record Store Recs: Simón Mejía Of Bomba Estéreo Takes Us To Colombia

The bassist/producer and co-founder of beloved electro-cumbia act Bomba Estéreo takes us on an adventure through some of the sounds and hidden vinyl haunts of his home country

GRAMMYs/Aug 11, 2020 - 08:19 pm

With the unprecedented global disruption of 2020, it's important to support the music community however we can. With our series Record Store Recs, GRAMMY.com checks in with vinyl-loving artists to learn more about their favorite record stores and the gems they've found there.

As the co-founder and producer of the lively electro-tropical outfit Bomba Estéreo, Simón Mejía has been crafting irresistible cumbia-infused beats that have been getting the world dancing for over a decade. Formed in Bogotá, Colombia in 2005 with vocalist Li Saumet, the GRAMMY- and Latin GRAMMY-nominated group made their mark globally with the explosive "Fuego" in 2009 and have been unstoppable ever since.

Watch: SOFI TUKKER & Bomba Estéreo's "Playa Grande" Will Get You Dancing Right Now

Now, with the debut of his new solo project, Monte (which means "woods" or "forest" in Spanish), Mejía is exploring an ambient take on the roots of Bomba's upbeat sound and colorful aesthetic—the music of the natural environment of their native Colombia—reimagined electronically. The album, entitled Mirla, is due out Sept. 18 and is led by the pulsating "Jungla" (listen below) and the twinkling, chirping title cut, inspired by the jungle and a bird that sang at his window every morning.

Each of the seven tracks was directly inspired by field recordings he'd collected in Colombia. "I started to discover that Colombian folk music was interrelated with the sounds of nature—when the indigenous guys played the flute they were imitating the birds, and when they played the maracas, they were imitating the crickets or the sound of water," Mejía explains in a press release. "That connection would become the foundation of the album."

For the latest edition of Record Store Recs, Mejía takes us on a journey to some of his hidden vinyl haunts in Bogotá and Cartagena, and introduces us to an amazing Afro-Colombian folk group.

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Please pick 3-5 records stores you love.

Cosmos Zapatería in Bogotá, Colombia

Downtown flea market in Bogotá

Mercado de Bazurto in Cartagena, Colombia

RPM Records in Bogotá [offers pickup and shipping within Colombia]

Amoeba [multiple California locations with U.S. shipping]

Cosmos Zapatería | Photo: Simón Mejía

Why do you love these shops? What kind of goodies you've found there?

These are the places where I started digging for records, many years ago, and where I found my most inspiring cumbia, champeta, salsa and classic albums. Many were underground record stores here in Colombia which don't have websites or anything similar. Mostly are in flea or food markets here in Bogotá and Cartagena (on the Caribbean coast).

One of them was actually a shoe shop called Cosmos Zapatería in downtown Bogotá. The records were hidden on the second floor. You had to know the owner to access it. That's what I loved about those places—purely underground. It's the same thing in the Bazurto Market in Cartagena. You had to know the way to access the good joints where they really had the classic albums in good shape. Nowadays both are more popular, and almost all the good classic records are gone.

More Record Store Recs: Chulita Vinyl Club On The Best Music Stores In L.A., Oakland, Austin & Beyond

 Canalón de Timbiquí LP | Photo: Simón Mejía

For at least one of your favorite shops, share a recent record or two you bought there and what you love about the record/artist. 

RPM Records recently gave me a record for my birthday. This store is a really good place here in Bogotá, not as underground as the others—you can order online! The record [De mar y río] is of a band from the Colombian Pacific coast named Canalón de Timbiquí. It's purely Afro folk music from an area of Colombia which is going to be my next sonic exploration. Anything that comes from that musical universe is very inspiring to me. It's a completely different vibe from cumbia and the music from the Caribbean—much more Afro and mystical. It's really high energy and danceable vibes. 

What's an upcoming/recent release you have your eyes on picking up and why?

I think that should be the next Bomba Estéreo album—I can't wait to see the vinyl release so I can keep on growing my personal collection of Bomba on vinyl! 

What were the first CD and first vinyl you remember purchasing when you were younger?

I remember it very clearly. I bought two vinyl albums at the same time at a record store near my place—Appetite for Destruction by Guns N' Roses [1987] and [GRAMMY-nominated] Kick by INXS [1987]. I was a teenager and only cared about music!

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Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: Kabaka Pyramid On Embracing His Voice & The Bold Future Of Reggae
First-Time GRAMMY Nominee Kabaka Pyramid

Photo courtesy of the artist

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Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: Kabaka Pyramid On Embracing His Voice & The Bold Future Of Reggae

Kingston-born reggae star Kabaka Pyramid is one of a handful of artists bringing positivity back into the genre. His messages of consciousness are more powerful than ever on his third album, 'The Kalling' — and now, he’s a GRAMMY nominee because of it.

GRAMMYs/Jan 11, 2023 - 08:27 pm

Kabaka Pyramid answers to a higher power — and his third album, fittingly titled The Kalling, is a testament to his beliefs.

The Kingston-born rapper, singer and producer is one of a handful of artists bringing positivity back into reggae, often channeling the empowered, political, and spiritual vibes of  roots artists. Kabaka Pyramid is often labeled a "reggae revivalist" for this reason, but The Kalling manages to be both classic and incredibly of the moment. And while his previous albums Victory Rock and Kontraband are testaments of lyrical and genre-blending prowess, Kabaka's latest is a notable ascension.

One of five nominees for Best Reggae Album at the 65th GRAMMY Awards, The Kalling showcases Kabaka's passion for using hip-hop, soul and dancehall to iterate on the sound of conscious reggae. The record also overflows with messages of growth, contemplation of addiction, and gratitude — an antidote to some of the more crude attitudes present in Kabaka's favorite genres.

"The older I got, the more I felt responsible to represent myself in a certain way," Kabaka tells GRAMMY.com from his home in Miami. “I wanted to inspire, like how artists like Sizzla and Damian Marley inspired me. I wanted to have a similar effect, and I knew I needed to put out positive music to do that.”

Kabaka called upon his community to achieve this vision. The Kalling was produced by the reggae scion also known as Jr Gong, and features the late icon Peter Tosh in addition to Buju Banton, Jesse Royal and fellow 2023 nominee Protoje. Together, they created an album that pulls from contemporary pop, rap and '80s era reggae, with songs that are meditative ("Stand Up"),  club-ready ("Energy" and "Mystik Man"), and fit for a kickback ("Mary Jane").

Ahead of the 2023 GRAMMYs, the first-time nominee spoke to GRAMMY.com about inspiring higher vibrations through music and action.

Was the GRAMMY nomination a milestone you were working towards, or one that caught you by surprise?

I was shouting, screaming, everything; a couple tears of joy. I'm probably the only person on my team and label that it kind of caught by surprise. I just always thought that the GRAMMY was just this huge thing and something that is best if I don't think about it too much, because I feel like that can lead to disappointment.

So I was just more focused on putting in the work and really representing myself with the music, and then let the awards come. But it's definitely a huge achievement for me. I wouldn't have dreamed of it when I was back in high school, but here I am now, so I have to give thanks.

It's cool to reflect on how far you've come — like, man, I'm living out my dreams from high school or dreams you didn't even know you had.

I'm 37 now, so it's been a 20-year journey since I first started to pencil down some lyrics. And most people start super early, whether they're in the church, or in the choir, or whatever it is. Or they come from a musical family, so they watch their parents do it or whatever. But for me, it wasn't that.

I always loved music, particularly hip-hop and dancehall. So I was just inspired by music, but I never thought of it as something I'd actually be doing until around 17, 18. That's when I realized that I have a talent for actually writing lyrics. And from then it was just working on my voice. A lot of self recording at home, home studios over the years, different places.

Tell me a bit about the creation of the album; what was going on in your life at that time?

The recording and writing and stuff was mostly throughout the pandemic. For the first few months, I was in Jamaica; Damien was sending me beats that he was working on from his studio in Miami. And eventually, I flew up and we started just going at it together in studio and from just jam sessions with me, him and his musicians, just coming up with ideas from scratch.

There were some conversations about what we want to do differently from the last album and what kind of song we wanted to go for, what kind of vibe. We wanted some traditional reggae, we wanted some hip-hop vibes in it, wanted to sample some classic reggae records as well as some soulful stuff. "Grateful" was a soul record that was sampled, and of course, "Mystik Man" [featuring] Peter Tosh is originally "Fade Away" by Junior Byles, a classic reggae record too.

Over two years, it just slowly but surely started to shape itself. We did "The Kalling" and Protoje and Jesse came to studio while Stephen [Marley] was recording, and they ended up dropping their verses that night. And I knew from that night that this would end up being the title track for the album. And we just kind of themed the whole album around "The Kalling." Having a higher calling, a higher purpose to the music, tying it into the teachings of Rastafari and what it means to me. It was just a beautiful process.

What do those Rastafari teachings mean to you and how are they presented on this album?

For me, Rastafari is first and foremost about knowing where you come from, seeing yourself as royalty, as kings and queens — especially for Black people who have been through slavery and coming to the West by force. So it's really a reconnection to Africa, but it applies to anybody that wants to reconnect with who they are, where they're from, and their identity.

We practice a vegan diet, ital, and man and woman relationships — being wholesome, the family unit. These are all Rastafari is and is coming from his Imperial Majesty, the emperor of Ethiopia. Ethiopia being the country that was never colonized in Africa, that really maintained their identity. That's really where Rastafari culture and expression stems from.

This record also has a lot of messaging around being aware of yourself and your addictions, and things that you're doing in your daily life that might not be so healthy. Was that something that you've been thinking about for a long time, or was it something that came to you during this production process?

As Rasta, we reason about these things all the time. It's all about looking at how we live, what's our mentality towards life. And a song like "Addiction" just came out of countless reasonings about social media, about our phones, about the radiation and our phones give off. I don't sleep with my phone near me because I wake up with headaches.

I felt like that song was so important because with the pandemic, we're taught to social distance, we're taught to stay inside and we just turned to our phones and our devices. So we're even more technologically oriented now after the pandemic than even before. It’s kind of continuing from a song I did from Kontrabrand called "Everywhere I Go."

The Kalling is much more centered in traditional reggae, though "Energy" is sort of pop and R&B, and the opening track from your last record is a pop tune. Yet you're branded as this revival reggae artist. What are your thoughts on that?

The whole revival thing came about in like 2011, 2012 when my first reggae project came out; Protoje's album was out, Chronixx [had] transitioned from being a producer/songwriter to being a recording artist, and he took Jamaica by storm. We started going to Europe with our bands, and I think that is what really cemented the whole idea of a revival, because …there was kind of a dying down of Jamaicans coming with their bands. And you had [Jamaican artists using] these backing bands that were local in Europe because it was more economical. And then a lot of artists couldn't travel anymore because of what I consider their freedom of speech being questioned and violated. So you had a lot of key artists that couldn't travel.

So because of that, when we came on the scene, it was very refreshing for people to see these young acts in their 20s coming with their bands and sacrificing where we could have made more money if we went with backing bands, or with track shows or whatever. And then not only that though, we were sampling Black Uhuru records and Sly and Robbie bass lines, and drum and bass.

If you check my song "Revival," "Here Comes Trouble" [by] Chronixx, and Protoje's "Kingston Be Wise," all of these tracks kind of brought back an '80s vibe. And then when we translate them on stage with the bands, people felt like it was a revival of the '70s and '80s.

Musically we definitely fuse a lot of the sounds. There's modern elements, there's hip-hop elements, R&B, pop elements to it too, because we're all influenced by that. We're in an era where artists kind of have more creative control with their sound — it's not like you just go to one producer that has one sound. We can call on different producers, we produce ourselves and the stuff that we are influenced by, that's what we try and recreate.

So it's partially a revival of sound but also a revival of style and performance.

Definitely.

Are there any tracks on The Kalling that you're particularly proud of?

"Mystik Man," I’m really proud of that, especially with the whole Peter Tosh family behind the song. We were able to list it officially as featuring Peter Tosh, so I have a song with one of my idols. Overall, his life, what he represents, his mission — him and Sizzla are right up there in terms of who inspire me the most. "Addiction" from a songwriting perspective, I'm really proud of that one.

I'm proud of the fact that I stuck to my roots. When I was early in my career, I couldn't sing to save my life; rapping was easier for me to do. I was working on my reggae, but I wouldn't let anybody hear those songs. So doing a song like "Kontraband pt. 2" where I'm rapping with this Jamaican accent, [or] "Mystik Man," — being able to represent that and still maintain my identity as a Jamaican [and] as a reggae artist, and to get nominated, is a great achievement for me.

I read in Dancehall Magazine that you think that the subject of a lot of Jamaican music is holding artists back. How did you try to combat that notion on The Kalling?

I think my music is naturally more wholesome. It's more readily accessible to older and the young. Maybe it can be a bit too deep for some people, but just generally speaking, I don't put a bunch of slack lyrics or derogatory lyrics to women or violence, gun violence. And that's kind of typical for Jamaican music. But I feel these younger artists are kind of pushing the limits of it. There's a lot of talk about drug use now in songs, and scamming, and all of them kind of things.

I've seen artists that are on the verge of breaking into mainstream do collaborations with other mainstream acts, but then it's just crazy curse words in the song and super derogatory lyrics. I could see somebody at a radio station like, "no, I can't playlist this because it's too difficult." Especially, being an international artist. So it's trying not to shoot ourselves in the foot by having too extreme lyrics.

How did you meet Damien Marley and what did he bring to this project?

I met him at the Bob Marley Museum, I think it was around 2013. He was shooting some videos with Nas for Distant Relatives.

The first time working with him, he sent me a riddim that he wanted to do a juggling [on]. It was originally a Wayne Marshall record, but he wanted to voice some other artists on it and Chronixx, Juliann Marley, others are on it too. I wrote the song "Well Done" on it, and we all loved the song. I was there when the song was being mixed and prepared, and that's when we really bonded, and we started to just hold our vibe, reason about music.

We played football at the field at his house. And it just felt like a brother kind of relationship from early. He's like a mentor to me; I ask him advice and everything musically. And just being with him, I learned so much about sharpening up my songwriting skills and making my lyrics more potent and more absorbable for people. From there, we just grew to the point where we had a discussion about doing two albums at minimum, and we did Kontrabrand.

He produced five of the tracks [on The Kalling], but it was all put together in his studio, [and] he executive produced the project. I wanted to give him the chance of doing a whole entire album. I felt like there was enough versatility with his production style to do it. I think he really did an excellent job. It's almost like it doesn't make sense to not do an album with him anymore.

Is there somebody who gave you props about this record that were really meaningful?

I just got a very long voicemail from Pressure Buss Pipe, who is an artist I'm really inspired by. He was telling me how much I stepped up with this album, and I'm just in the right gear now. It was really a heartfelt voice note. He's somebody that I listen to a lot, and his vocal ability inspires me, and his songwriting. I have five, six, maybe seven songs with him too.

I should say Protoje was one of the first people to call me when I got nominated. And obviously, I congratulated him as well. And even how excited Damian is [means a lot], because he's not somebody that gets excited very easy. There’s not many others who can impress you more than Damian Marley, you know what I mean?

Why did you want to feature Protoje on The Kalling and, together, what are you guys showcasing about contemporary Jamaican music?

Protoje is somebody I always want to collaborate with. He was instrumental in the start of my career; most of [my 2011 EP] Rebel Music was recorded at his home studio. About four of the beats were beats that he gave me and from other producers. Europe knew about me because Protoje kind of helped me to get my name out there. And I respect him so much.

We're all about innovation. I think Protoje's [nominated] album is super cool. The intro and "Family" and "Hills" kind of go back to his original, more hip-hop flavor. Both of us have evolved so much vocally; I love the vocal tones that he experimented with on his album. And sonically, he's always pushing the genre further and I really appreciate that about him. And similar with me, there's so much versatility around the album, but still rooted in reggae.

The two of you are nominated in a category that has a next generation artist and very established musicians. How do these nominees reflect the state of reggae?

It means a lot for everybody now because of who won last year. Big up to SOJA; I really think they put in a lot of work in this music industry, especially in the U.S. And they unified the whole U.S. reggae industry on their album; they featured all of the major acts in the U.S. and I really think it was effective.

But people see it and say, "Oh, reggae is being taken away from Jamaica" and there was a lot of backlash for that. Based on that, it's very refreshing to see an all-Jamaican lineup of artists; artists that have done so much for the industry who have been on the frontline internationally, who put out wholesome music too. It's not like any real slackness is being represented.

I would hope that this lineup of artists inspires the younger generation that you can do music without all of the negativity and it can reach the highest level. It's not that the U.S. is greater than any other nation, but it's our biggest market for the music. So to be recognized within the U.S. with this GRAMMY Award is tremendous, and everybody feels it and appreciates it.

There’s so much versatility represented: Shaggy, did a Frank Sinatra cover album. Sean Paul is modern dancehall pop. Koffee is kind of similar, but there's so much fusion going on there and she's so lyrical and so young and, just blowing up all over the place. Me and Protoje are kind of in a similar bracket. It's an interesting group.

Speaking of the next generation, who or what are you listening to these days that's giving you life? Anybody you want to big up?

There's a bunch of artists, Medicine, who actually did some songwriting on my album. Irie Soldier, Nattali Rize, Runkus, Royal Blue, Blvk H3ro, Imeru Tefari, Five Star. There's a bunch of artists out there that's doing good music, and I'm always here to support them and want to do some more production with them as well. The future is bright, for sure.

Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: Cimafunk On Creating The New Sound Of Cuba & Redefining Latin Alternative

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.

Behind 1987's Australian Rock Revolution: How INXS, Midnight Oil, Icehouse & Others Went Global
Michael Hutchence (left) and Tim Farriss of Inxs performing at Hammersmith Odeon In London, 1987

Photo: Brian Rasic/Getty Images

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Behind 1987's Australian Rock Revolution: How INXS, Midnight Oil, Icehouse & Others Went Global

Bursting out of Australia's massive pub rock scene, groups like Dragon and Crowded House were united not by a specific sound, but a new national "self consciousness" and distaste for the zeitgeist.

GRAMMYs/Dec 12, 2022 - 02:23 pm

Today it's easy to recognize internationally successful Australian artists — Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Iggy Azalea, Vance Joy, and Gotye, for starters — but the Australian rock scene did not garner the same attention 40 years ago. While AC/DC became the country's prime global export by 1980, and Men at Work had a multi-platinum crest here from 1981 to 1984, it was much harder then for rock bands Down Under to spark serious international attention.

That all changed in 1987.

A boom year for Aussie artists, the music released in '87 didn't have a specific sound as much as it did an attitude and desire to push boundaries. Their distinct musical identities, diverse lyrical content, and fequent disregard for the popular zeitgeist (at home or in America) resonated globally, creating an Aussie music revolution that impacted generations of artists as eclectic as Bono, the 1975, Maroon 5, and the Killers. This era of Australian artists didn't present as an easily identifiable in a sonic scene in the same way as British metal or Seattle grunge — and that is part of what made it fantastic.

Marrying funk with high energy rock, INXS became international superstars with Kick. Midnight Oil’s socially conscious message resonated loudly with Americans and Europeans. Icehouse’s atmospheric rock broke the Top 50 in the  U.S., producing two hit singles, "Crazy" and "Electric Blue." Dragon opened up for Tina Turner in European stadiums for several months in 1986 and 1987. Crowded House’s debut album from 1986 broke big with the hit ballad "Don't Dream It's Over" in the spring of 1987. John Farnham released the stirring, prideful "You’re The Voice" which many have called Australia's unofficial national anthem.

To an outsider, it might have seemed like an overnight Aussie invasion, but it was far from that. Many of this "new wave" of Oz artists were on their fifth or six albums, and had done a decade's worth of hard work around the globe.

"By the time we get to ‘87, [many of] those bands including us had done so much live work that they were machines," says Icehouse frontman/composer Iva Davies. "They could play at such a quality level and had already performed to so many Australian audiences that they knew exactly what they were doing."

"You Really Had To Rock Your Ass Off"

In order to understand the chronology of this Aussie ascension, one must first look back at Australia in the 1960s. While homegrown acts like the Easybeats and the Seekers amassed sizable followings in their country, British success was commonly considered to be a gateway into America — get hits in the UK, then break the U.S.A. British Invasion bands like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Animals became idols to emulate, especially after many of them came over for rare mid-1960s tours that left an impression on the masses.

"[Then] in the 1970s, Australia develops what I call self-consciousness where it's not about what's happening in America and England anymore," explains Andrew Farriss, guitarist and main composer for INXS. "Suddenly we start to develop our own music culture here. And lo and behold, young people start going to pubs and out to clubs and community halls or whatever and start getting into bands like AC/DC. They used to play all over the place."

Groups like the Little River Band, Cold Chisel, the Angels and Dragon (who originally came from New Zealand) were among the early artists making a living from album sales and the prolific and profitable pub rock scene. In cities like Sydney and Melbourne, venue capacities could reach 1,500 to 2,000 people — a more than sizable audience for burgeoning acts on the verge of breaking through. They often played multiple sets in one night, sometimes at more than one venue.  

"Amongst the pub years, which were really big booze barns, often there’d be fights," recalls Farriss. "Everyone smoked cigarettes in these rooms, and they crammed [in] too many people. There wasn't really a fire marshal. So you have these places you could hardly breathe in with this sort of aggro thing that ran through it. Everyone's drunk. You really had to rock your ass off to maintain the respect from the audience. Too many ballads and too many crooning, sweet, harmonious songs, they'd go, 'Get off, we want to rock.'"

The pub rock scene that dominated in Australia in the ‘70s and ‘80s helped forge a national musical identity through the aforementioned groups and the likes of Rose Tattoo, the Radiators, and Australian Crawl — even if it did not quite translate to the rest of the world. (Incidentally, Australian Crawl’s 1981 song "Unpublished Critics" sounded like a template for Guns N’ Roses "Sweet Child O’ Mine".) Aside from the bombastic AC/DC, mainstream Aussie artists who generated international buzz by 1980 were on the softer side — Little River Band, Air Supply, and Olivia Newton-John.

But many groups wanted to make that big international leap. Having cut their teeth in the rough and tumble pub rock scene, they were already seasoned veterans ready to take on the music world at large.

"I Had To Have A Bodyguard, That Was How Massive It Was"

New wave, post-punk, and synth-pop sounds from the U.S. and UK had arrived on Australian shores by the late '70s. Often pulling from those sounds, local bands began to see more wide-ranging success: INXS, Flowers (who became Icehouse), the Church (who got a gold album in America in 1988), Pseudo Echo, Models, Machinations, Divinyls (who later got a Top 10 hit, "I Touch Myself," in America in 1991), the genre-blending Hoodoo Gurus (who would establish a cult following in America and Europe), and the synth pop-flavored Real Life (who scored two Top 40 U.S. singles in 1983). 

Established groups like Dragon and Midnight Oil also persevered into the 1980s. In early 1983, nearly five years into their career, Men At Work became the first Australian band to simultaneously have a No. 1 album (Business As Usual) and single ("Down Under") in America.

INXS were already popular in their homeland by 1987. Their 1985 album Listen Like Thieves had certified gold and a single from the record, "What You Need," became a Top 5 hit Stateside for its blend of funky verses with heavy rock choruses. INXS doubled down on those artistic choices on Kick, released in October '87. The album produced four massive hit singles (including the No. 1 "Need You Tonight"), sold four million copies in its first two years of release, and launched a 16-month world tour. 

INXS saw a larger audience for themselves out in the world. They sought an American market that understood their music.

"We left Australia to tour overseas more because we found that the Australians back then loved eighth [notes]," says Farriss. "There was no funk in anything, and we were like, ‘What's with the lack of groove here?’" (Notable exception: the underrated Machinations.) "That's one of the reasons we started to experiment more and more and how we ended up working with Nile Rodgers [in 1983], how we ended up working with people who we admired that were more funky. Daryl Hall sang on ‘Original Sin’ because Nile asked him to come in as a special guest."

Midnight Oil drummer Hirst recalls his band playing up to about 180 shows a year between late 1977 and the early 1980s, graduating from pubs and clubs into bigger venues. The band later found a lot of support early on from maverick radio stations like WLIR in the United States and Canada, which "played us relentlessly because they had the freedom to do that back then." 

Midnight Oil’s career did not follow a traditional trajectory, and every album saw them assimilating different influences. Their early releases had an edgy rock sound, while Japanese influences can be heard on 1984’s Red Sails In the Sunset. "It was entirely experimental…because Japan at that time was just bursting with color and money and art and culture," says Hirst.

On 1987's socially and environmentally conscious Diesel and Dust, Midnight Oil took inspiration from their Australian desert touring experience with the Warumpi Band, a First Nations band. "We camped out under the stars," recalls Hirst. "We started writing a different song. We were writing songs which were simpler, more melodic, but very Australian songs still. They spoke more of an ancient history of Australia rather than the recent colonial history."

Fueled by songs like "The Dead Heart," "Put Down That Weapon," and the global hit "Beds Are Burning," Diesel And Dust sold over 3 million copies worldwide, hitting No. 1 Down Under and in Canada, Top 20 in five European countries, and went platinum in the U.S. For the American leg of their global tour, Midnight Oil brought along two First Nations bands from Australia — AKA Graffiti Man and Yothu Yindi, the latter of whom released the album Tribal Voice in America in 1991. "The weird thing was the more time we spent overseas touring, the more Australian the material got in many ways," notes Hirst.

Like INXS and Midnight Oil, Icehouse made headway from the start, first performing in 1977 as Flowers in the same Sydney pub circuit as Midnight Oil and INXS. Their new wave/pub rock sound on their 1980 debut racked up over 250,000 album sales, and they took on more synth-pop influences by their second album Primitive Man. Icehouse toured the U.S. on the same club circuit in the same early ‘80s period as the then-fledgling U2; they opened for Simple Minds in Europe and North America, then vice versa Down Under on that reciprocal world tour. Their Top 20 UK hit, "Hey Little Girl," (also Top 10 or 20 in 9 other countries) led to both David Bowie and Peter Gabriel asking Icehouse to open their 1982 European tours. They went with Bowie and played before 70,000 people a night, Davies recollects.

After releasing two more studio albums and regular touring Down Under, in Europe, and America, Icehouse achieved massive success at home with their fifth album, 1987’s Man Of Colours. The record went seven times platinum in Australia (490,000 copies) and its second single, "Electric Blue," (which was co-written with John Oates) spent seven weeks at No. 1 on the country's charts and hit No. 7 in America. The album's first single, "Crazy," (No. 14 in America) was only kept out of the top spot in Australia by Kylie Minogue’s debut single.

"Everything changed," declares Davies. "I had to have a bodyguard, that was how massive it was [there]."

Davies says the big success of Man of Colours spawned 14 months of touring, seven alone in the U.S. They supported the Cars on their final tour in arenas like Madison Square Garden. Their own tour landed at places like San Francisco’s Warfield Theater.

"It was a lot of work," admits Davies of the tour. "In the middle of it, I had a kind of breakdown. I kind of fell apart in San Francisco and missed a show. But I got back on the trail a couple of days later and kept hammering away. It was a very intense 14 months."

On the flip side of Midnight Oil or Icehouse, Dragon had a good time band vibe with some serious songs tossed into the mix. They topped the Oz charts in the '70s with Running Free and O Zambezi, and single "Are You Old Enough?" and "April Sun In Cuba." Dragon embarked on their lone North American tour in late 1978, opening for blues guitar legend Johnny Winter throughout the south. 

Frontman Marc Hunter’s purposeful antagonism of audiences went over well with wild 'n' wooly crowds in Australia, but in the American south and Texas in particular, it provoked hostility. "Marc would really push it as far as he could," recalls bassist Todd Hunter. "It was wild. You had to be there, but I'm glad you weren’t."

Marc was fired from the band for three years, but when Dragon reunited for 1984's Body and the Beat (which produced their big Aussie hit "Rain" that broke the U.S. Top 100) it "was a very different band" with a more modern sound. "It had more of ‘80s pump and big keyboard things, which is fun to play live. You can play stadiums and it just works," Hunter says. "We always had this tradition of bright, poppy choruses and [then added] dark elements to those songs."

Dragon landed the opening slot for Tina Turner’s European tour for six months total in 1986 and 1987. (If that sounds like an unusual fit, Turner had a fair number of rock tracks in her high energy repertoire back then.) They played coliseums and bull rings with her, although they changed their name to Hunter for the tour and international release of the Todd Rundgren-produced album Dreams Of Ordinary Men in 1987. (The temporary name change occurred because their label thought Dragon sounded too metal. Ironically, the European press thought Hunter was a metal name.)

The other big group to emerge from 1987 was Crowded House, formed by former Split Enz members Neil Finn (vocals/guitar) and Paul Hester (drums). Their 1986 self-titled debut album took a little while to pick up steam, but by spring of 1987 the gentle ballad, "Don’t Dream It’s Over" hit No. 2 in America and No. 1 in Canada and the UK. It also charted in the Top 10 in four other countries and Top 20 in two more. They even re-recorded Split Enz’s "I Walk Away" for the Crowded House debut.

Pop singer John Farnham scored Australian hits in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, but experienced a true career revival with the rock anthem "You’re The Voice." Co-written by then-Icehouse keyboardist Andy Qunta, the 1986 song was a No.1 hit in Australia. In 1987, it also went No. 1 in Sweden and West Germany, Top 10 in the UK, Austria, Denmark, Ireland, and Switzerland and Top 20 in four more countries. The album the song was from, 1986’s Whispering Jack, was also a massive hit for Farnham in his homeland where it has since been certified 24 times platinum.

A Lasting Legacy Of Aussie Artistry: "We Were Certainly Going To Make Hay"

The aftershocks of the 1987 Australian rock ascension continue to reverberate today, with multiple generations of bands taking influence from or covering that year's biggest hits. It also opened a wider door for talent from Down Under, some of which was covered in a previous GRAMMY.com feature nearly a decade ago. "We don't even know what the Australian sound is. A lot of people associate it with AC/DC, punk rock type of stuff," Cut Copy’s guitarist Tim Hoey said in the piece. "But there's an amazing bunch of bands that have come out of Australia that I wouldn't necessarily claim have an Australian sound."

INXS has been cited as an influence on the likes of Maroon 5, the 1975, and Savage Garden.Dua Lipa echoed the chorus of their "Need You Tonight" for her 2020 single "Break My Heart," bequeathing co-songwriting credit to Farris and INXS singer Michael Hutchence, the magnetic singer who died 25 years ago on Nov. 22. Documentaries on both the band and vocalist have come out in recent years.

Midnight Oil’s music impacted artists as diverse as Billy Corgan, Pearl Jam, Living Colour’s Vernon Reid, and Bono (who paid homage to the band during their ARIA Hall Of Fame induction). "Beds Are Burning" has been covered by Patti Smith, Imagine Dragons, AWOLNATION, and the Killers, among many others. The group wrapped up its global farewell tour in October 2022.

Frontman Peter Garrett served in Australian government posts between 2004 and 2013; Hirst has seen a lot of First Nations groups thrive and continue the type of tradition that Midnight Oil helped popularize. The band continued taking such artists on tour.

Icehouse continue to headline shows and festivals Down Under. Popular 2000s Aussie alt-rock band Eskimo Joe are fans of the band and even brought Iva Davies onstage at a 2010 festival to perform Icehouse’s "We Can Get Together" to a warm reception. The Killers covered "Electric Blue," and singer Brandon Flowers has acknowledged that they love many Icehouse songs. Davies has also composed for film, TV, and dance, and most notably he co-composed the score to the 2003 Russell Crowe film Master and Commander: Far Side Of The World.

Although Dragon singer Marc Hunter passed away in 1998 from throat cancer, his brother, bassist Todd Hunter, reformed the band in 2006. They have toured regularly with vocalist Mark Williams and released new music, including 2014’s Roses. Many younger Aussie bands have covered "Rain," and  legions of fans continue singing along to the tune at Dragon shows — its theme of love and friendship overriding the storms of life feels eternally fresh, and the song has topped 37 million plays on Spotify. Oddly enough, the single was big in Peru then and now, as evidenced by numerous covers from that country. One Peruvian YouTuber uploaded "Rain" 12 years ago, and it has received 5 million views. The 1,200+ comments confirm the Peruvian adulation.

"Don’t Dream It’s Over" by Crowded House is a beloved ballad that has been appreciated by everyone from Rob Thomas to Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine. Chris Martin and Eddie Vedder performed it at the Global Citizen Festival in NYC in 2016. 

John Farnham’s career Down Under grew immensely following "You’re The Voice" (now at 154 million Spotify plays). The song was covered live by Heart in 1991, and the singer has since performed the song live with Coldplay, Queen guitarist Brian May, Celine Dion, and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. He recently has been recovering from life-saving surgery that removed a cancerous growth in his mouth.

All sixof these artists, and many others mentioned in this feature, have been inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in Australia — further cementing the global impact of what came from the pub rock scene. 

"I cannot emphasize how important that whole scene was," says Icehouse's Davies. "'We better make these people happy, or else they're going to start throwing stuff at us.’ That was the real world all those bands dealt with in lots of weird, different ways."

The sounds of 1987 proved that the music coming from Down Under could have a lasting impact that pushed talent beyond the borders of their homeland.

"We couldn't believe our luck because for the first time ever in Australia's musical history, the eyes of the world turned on [us]," recalls Hirst. "It didn't last long, only a couple of years. But we were certainly going to make hay."

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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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