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RZA’s Constant Elevation: From Wu-Tang to 'Kill Bill,' The Rapper/Producer Discusses His Creative Process And History Ahead Of Bobby Digital Reprise
“RZA has a certain responsibility ... Bobby Digital offered escapism,” rapper/producer RZA tells GRAMMY.com. Ahead of his new album as Bobby Digital, 'Saturday Afternoon Kung Fu Theater,' the multi-hyphenate discusses his artistic evolution.
Artists who’ve stretched their careers past the unimaginable often come full circle; at no point do they ever really lose the foundations that moved them to begin with. Robert Diggs — known as the RZA — is having one of those full-circle moments. After founding a record label and clothing brand, creating comic books and soundtracking Hollywood hits, today he admits: “Now, I can get back to my foundational love that started it all, which is and will always be, hip-hop.”
Diggs’ — a.k.a. Zig-Zag-Zig Allah, a.k.a. Prince Rakeem, a.k.a. the RZArector (among his many monikers through the decades) — career began through homespun demos with cousins and neighborhood friends in Staten Island. RZA’s supreme mathematics with the Wu-Tang Clan were well known by 1994, when Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) forever changed rap with uncanny ballistics not seen before or since. As Wu-Tang’s visionary, RZA famously masterminded their record deals and single-handedly produced all the vaunted material; his group mentality aiding everyone’s collective ascension.
RZA then transcended Shaolin, landing in Hollywood to oohs and ahs in the late ‘90s, where he scored Jim Jarmusch’s meditative film Ghost Dog: Way Of The Samurai. Yet it wasn’t until 2012’s The Man With The Iron Fists — a film produced by Quentin Tarantino starring Russell Crowe which RZA co-wrote and directed — that he felt he’d finally arrived. “My evolution to manhood began with that film,” he tells GRAMMY.com.
“At that point I became a master. It took me many years but I really felt like I evolved into the artist I am today after that project.” His voice now a bit dustier, but RZA’s energy and enunciation rings familiar. “I felt like I could run a small country after that.”
In 1998 he once again emerged solo, this time as Bobby Digital — a character and concept album woven with fantastical tales over fewer sampled beats, creating an atmosphere that was equal parts Blaxploitation and futuristic street narrative. Hearsay tells us that a Bobby Digital film was even in the works, though it never materialized and remained the final word regarding the Digital persona — until recently.
After 20 years, RZA has boomeranged to Bobby Digital with Saturday Afternoon Kung Fu Theater, out March 4. Bobby Digital’s return pays homage to the Shaw Brothers — Hong Kong’s largest film company, operating for an astounding 86 years, with almost every notable kung fu ever made film under their banner — while evolving the album’s namesake character. GRAMMY-nominated producer DJ Scratch nails the sample palette, creating an epic undertone of kung fu dialogue and sound effects.
Reprising the Digital the character gave RZA a sense of liberation. “It was freeing just rapping and spitting verses all over,” he says. “It was fun trying to match my words to the vibe of the beats and just using all kinds of different cadences again.”
From his pre-Wu days, to the making of “C.R.E.A.M.”, to his production epoch, and his celebrated film work, GRAMMY.com demystifies and unpacks the many histories that orbit one Robert Diggs.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I want to start at the beginning and move forward: While “Protect Ya Neck” was the first single, “C.R.E.A.M.” likely introduced Wu-Tang to many and still resonates. What comes to mind when you think of it today?
“C.R.E.A.M.” was a song that actually took three four different evolutions before it became final. At one time it was called “I’m On Some S<em></em>t.” And later on, there was a version with just me and Ghostface. Then, later there was a version with just Raekwon and [Inspectah] Deck. That one was called “Lifestyles Of The Mega Rich” and it was 12 minutes long. [Laughs]
When we got the deal to make [36 Chambers], I wanted to use it because I knew that the beat was special. I knew that the vibe between Raekwon’s voice and Deck’s voice was the best. But as we was doing it, it just seemed like something else had to happen.
We needed a hook. And so at the time, the best person to do hooks was Method Man. He was a melodic member of the crew and was always very witty with his hooks. I was like, “Yo, I need a hook for this” and he was casual about everything and came back with “C.R.E.A.M. get the money. Dolla dolla bill.”
We touched on “C.R.E.A.M.” but does RZA have a favorite Wu-Tang song?
I don't know, my favorite changes. But recently I've just been really impressed with the way I did “Bring Da Ruckus.” I used a CD skipping as my horn. Even to me, that sounds like I really was innovative back then.
I was trying to complete a story…and it made sense to me that I needed a horn. While I was looking for samples, the CD started skipping so I sampled that sound. Then I slowed it down and it became the tata tata tata tata tata that you hear. So the orchestration of this song and how it came together finally means a lot to me. I’m just really impressed to think of my young mind being able to compose that without even knowing what a C chord was.
As the producer of Wu-Tang Clan, what an embarrassment of riches to have those MCs to produce for.
Each member had something unique and I knew them all. They all knew each other but I was the denominator; I did demos with all of them. There’s a demo with just me and Ghostface. There’s a demo of Dirty and GZA and so on. Some of these tapes go back to when I was 12.
When [my debut solo project] Prince Rakeem happened, I had a little record deal and felt like I understood the industry a little bit. Even then I was like, “The best talent my ears have heard are homies that I've been doing demos with my whole f<em></em>*ing life!” So I went and told execs that we got something different and that we had that Wu-Tang slang. Bong bong.
Do you mind sharing your decision to leave high school? What was your family’s reaction?
To keep myself motivated, I just wanted to record and record. That's why I dropped out of school.
I don't think I ever made this public, but it was my mom that actually signed me out of school. At first I was just absent so much that they’d send people to our house. And my mother said she was gonna do whatever I wanted; I told her I just wanted to do music. So she drove me up to the school and the lady asked us, “You sure you want to do this?” I was 16 years old at the time and my mom signed me out, and I went for it.
Thanks for that. What strikes you now looking back on that transitional stage in life?
I came in as this young man that had his heart and energy focused on writing songs and making music. The problem that I had, though, was nobody believed in me as a producer.
Acclaimed producer Easy Mo Bee produced your first released material during your Prince Rakeem era. Tell us about your early development and how that impacted you as a young producer.
I may have had like a hundred beats at that point. And a hundred ain't enough to be at the master level. I was making these beats with the Roland and a 4-track Yamaha. I didn’t even have a sampler; I would just scratch in samples live. I met Easy Mo Bee with his brother and they had an SP 1200 and were killing it. I was just enamored by that. I saw that machine and didn’t know what it did and Mo Bee would just make a beat right in front of me. Mo was dope. I would to go to his house a lot. I wanted him to produce my whole album, and he gave me a couple tracks. I couldn't afford him at the time. [Laughs]
We’d be remiss to not mention your Gravediggaz project with Prince Paul, 1994’s 6 Feet Deep. Looking back, do you think you guys invented “horrorcore?” And please touch on Paul’s importance for us.
We never wanted to call it “horrorcore.” That was a title that the writers started calling it. But I do think we definitely pioneered it. Nobody else was doing it in front of us. You could give credit to The Geto Boys too, like “Mind Playing Tricks On Me” or “Mind Of A Lunatic.” They were pretty dark, but it wasn't spiritually dark like us.
Prince Paul is a producer who brought skits to the whole album format for hip-hop. His creativity was there before all of us. Paul was definitely a pioneer on interludes and being able to add abstractness. He made Gravediggaz happen. His choices were just different.
You have a new Bobby Digital project out soon, but I want to talk about the first one, Bobby Digital In Stereo. What did this allow you to do that was different from the RZA?
RZA has a certain responsibility, so I had to protect that persona. Bobby Digital offered escapism for me. I was in the studio smoking and drinking and I just had this insight that the whole world's gonna be digital. I felt like I became a digital being around that time. Whatever combination of drugs I had that night, I did more. And did it again. I remember I couldn’t feel my hands! And then I thought of my birth name, which is Robert Diggs, Bobby Digs. So I knew I had to be Bobby Digital.
Production wise, it had less samples, more strings and keys. What are your thoughts when you look back on that era of your production?
I didn’t want to do RZA anymore. Thinking back, I think it helped open up the fact that hip-hop could be electronic music and not only sample based. Maybe more kids got Triton keyboards after that instead of samplers. I still wasn't musically trained like I am now. What I love about the album in particular and its vibe, is that I was bold and tried weird s<em></em>*. With the new Bobby Digital, I wanted to bring it back and be positive about everything.
On My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Watch The Throne, you worked with Kanye, who like yourself both raps and produces. What was that experience like and did you have any takeaways?
Working with him was great because Ye has the ability to bring a lot of energy and people together to create. He was the first artist that I met personally that treated his project like how a boxer prepares for a fight. The regimen of him and his crew and all the dedication to that moment of creativity. I had never seen that before.
When Wu did it, we were all sort of at the studio and we were all dedicated, but it wasn't scheduled. For us, the studio was like a clubhouse, it’s where you’re going. But with Kanye, the scenario was that the team would get up and eat breakfast together. Then do something recreational together and another activity. But at 4 o'clock we’re all going to be at the studio.
I want to move to your film work. There’s Afro Samurai and of course the scores for both Kill Bills. Touch on Tarantino and describe your mind state when scoring a film versus production.
Artists sometimes come together and I think it’s destiny. Our relationships come out of a love for art. With Tarantino, we’re just both big kung fu heads and our friendship started by watching movies. He’d call and say, “I'm in town, come over. I got this film.”
With scoring a movie, you lose your freedom. You’re there to complement the story and as well as have a story to tell through music. It’s more trial and error. Once your brain gets the process, it all makes sense. I had a scene where the music started right when the girl in the scene opened her eyes. It was very subtle. It was magic. You need to communicate to the audience as the composer.
Let’s touch on directing The Man with Iron Fists. You grew up on kung fu films. Was it hard to take all your influences and not make a 5-hour kung fu epic?
The first cut of the film was over three hours! But to be real with you, Dave, and to be real with your readers, I’ll tell you how I put out art. You need three things: inspiration, imagination and aspiration. All of those words, there's an action to it. There's an internal spirit and movement. All these things are important.
I was just so happy that I was able to share this with the world. It was the most difficult artistic expression I had ever done to date. It was the greatest challenge of my life. And when I finished it, I became a full-blown artist and a full-blown man. I truly believe that.
When it comes to films, what inspires you most: scoring, acting or directing? And what do you exactly mean by it helped you “evolve?"
Directing is the greatest because as a director, you have all the control. I wrote, directed, acted and scored it. My signatures were on everything. Moviemaking is the most expensive form of art creation. It is your responsibility to protect everybody's interest and money and time and still tell a story while doing it. And that's why I said I became a full-blown man because after that. To me, it was almost the epitome of artistic creation. But now, I can get back to my foundational love that started it all, which is and will always be hip-hop.
Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Hip-Hop History On Full Display During A Star-Studded Tribute To The 50th Anniversary Of Hip-Hop Featuring Performances By Missy Elliott, LL COOL J, Ice-T, Method Man, Big Boi, Busta Rhymes & More | 2023 GRAMMYs
The landmark performance honoring the genre’s diverse history featured performances from a long line of hip-hop’s powerful history, from Run-DMC to LL COOL J, Salt-N-Pepa, Missy Elliott to Future.
With hip-hop marking half a century of powerful contribution to the music world in 2023, the 65th GRAMMY Awards proved the ideal opportunity to honor the genre’s storied legacy.
At the 2023 GRAMMYs, an unimaginably deep lineup of contributors to that tradition graced the stage, drawn from a wide swath of hip-hop’s history — from progenitors to today’s up-and-coming stars, from the East Coast boom to the swagger of the Dirty South, performing hits and cult classics from throughout the decades. On a constantly shifting stage with a bevy of backup dancers, the Recording Academy's tribute to hip-hop seemly had the entire Crypto.com arena on their feet.
As the performance’s curator Questlove put it on the red carpet, it was a "family reunion." After an introduction from LL COOL J, the Roots set up shop behind the performers, while Black Thought narrated the massive lineup’s spread across three acts.
“I founded Rock The Bells to elevate the creators of Hip-Hop culture and to make sure the timeless stories were told correctly. This performance gave us the opportunity to honor the music of the last 50 years and further uplift the culture, in line with the proud work we are doing through RTB,” LL COOL J said about the special tribute in a statement to GRAMMY.com “The process of working with Questlove and the GRAMMY producers was truly a joy. I’m deeply inspired that I was able to help bring together this incredible and iconic group of artists to the stage on Sunday. This special moment will sit with me for a long time to come.”
The performance’s first act comprised legends from hip-hop’s early days, the arena thrilled by the likes of Grandmaster Flash and Run DMC, and absolutely exploding when Chuck D & Flavor Flav hit the stage for "Rebel Without a Pause," the Public Enemy members getting Lizzo and Adele swaying together.
After a quick transition, LL and Black Thought helped the stage transport into the late ‘80s and ‘90s, bringing together the likes of De La Soul, Geto Boys’ Scarface, and Ice-T, with Jay-Z rapping along with Method Man from his table in the audience. But this second section of the performance also included two of the biggest eruptions of the night. The first came in the form when Busta Rhymes recreated his incredibly nimble flow from "Look at Me Now"; the tribute’s second act ended with Missy Elliott, the legend blitzing through snippets and samples of a variety of hits complete with a full dance crew.
The third act then entered the ‘00s with Nelly’s "Hot In Herre", swirling forward into the present from there. Rising star GloRilla thrilled the young crowd with "F.N.F. (Let’s Go)" (nominated this evening for Best Rap Performance), injecting even more adrenaline into the mix. And with LL COOL J surrounded by a blend of artists drawn from across the decades, the entire arena roared in celebration of these incredible 50 years, leaving a certainty that the next 50 will be even stronger.
Check out the complete list of winners and nominees at the 2023 GRAMMYs
Photo: Rachel Kupfer
A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.
It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.
Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.
Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.
In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.
Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.
There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.
Say She She
Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.
While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."
Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.
Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.
Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.
Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.
L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.
During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.
Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.
Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.
The Rise Of Underground House: How Artists Like Fisher & Acraze Have Taken Tech House, Other Electronic Genres From Indie To EDC
Photo: Steven Sebring
Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage
"One foot in the past and one foot into the future," Billy Idol says, describing his decade-spanning career in rock. "We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol."
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Billy Idol about his latest EP, Cage, and continuing to rock through decades of changing tastes.
Billy Idol is a true rock 'n' roll survivor who has persevered through cultural shifts and personal struggles. While some may think of Idol solely for "Rebel Yell" and "White Wedding," the singer's musical influences span genres and many of his tunes are less turbo-charged than his '80s hits would belie.
Idol first made a splash in the latter half of the '70s with the British punk band Generation X. In the '80s, he went on to a solo career combining rock, pop, and punk into a distinct sound that transformed him and his musical partner, guitarist Steve Stevens, into icons. They have racked up multiple GRAMMY nominations, in addition to one gold, one double platinum, and four platinum albums thanks to hits like "Cradle Of Love," "Flesh For Fantasy," and "Eyes Without A Face."
But, unlike many legacy artists, Idol is anything but a relic. Billy continues to produce vital Idol music by collaborating with producers and songwriters — including Miley Cyrus — who share his forward-thinking vision. He will play a five-show Vegas residency in November, and filmmaker Jonas Akerlund is working on a documentary about Idol’s life.
His latest release is Cage, the second in a trilogy of annual four-song EPs. The title track is a classic Billy Idol banger expressing the desire to free himself from personal constraints and live a better life. Other tracks on Cage incorporate metallic riffing and funky R&B grooves.
Idol continues to reckon with his demons — they both grappled with addiction during the '80s — and the singer is open about those struggles on the record and the page. (Idol's 2014 memoir Dancing With Myself, details a 1990 motorcycle accident that nearly claimed a leg, and how becoming a father steered him to reject hard drugs. "Bitter Taste," from his last EP, The Roadside, reflects on surviving the accident.)
Although Idol and Stevens split in the late '80s — the skilled guitarist fronted Steve Stevens & The Atomic Playboys, and collaborated with Michael Jackson, Rick Ocasek, Vince Neil, and Harold Faltermeyer (on the GRAMMY-winning "Top Gun Anthem") — their common history and shared musical bond has been undeniable. The duo reunited in 2001 for an episode of "VH1 Storytellers" and have been back in the saddle for two decades. Their union remains one of the strongest collaborations in rock 'n roll history.
While there is recognizable personnel and a distinguishable sound throughout a lot of his work, Billy Idol has always pushed himself to try different things. Idol discusses his musical journey, his desire to constantly move forward, and the strong connection that he shares with Stevens.
Steve has said that you like to mix up a variety of styles, yet everyone assumes you're the "Rebel Yell"/"White Wedding" guy. But if they really listen to your catalog, it's vastly different.
Yeah, that's right. With someone like Steve Stevens, and then back in the day Keith Forsey producing... [Before that] Generation X actually did move around inside punk rock. We didn't stay doing just the Ramones two-minute music. We actually did a seven-minute song. [Laughs]. We did always mix things up.
Then when I got into my solo career, that was the fun of it. With someone like Steve, I knew what he could do. I could see whatever we needed to do, we could nail it. The world was my oyster musically.
"Cage" is a classic-sounding Billy Idol rocker, then "Running From The Ghost" is almost metal, like what the Devil's Playground album was like back in the mid-2000s. "Miss Nobody" comes out of nowhere with this pop/R&B flavor. What inspired that?
We really hadn't done anything like that since something like "Flesh For Fantasy" [which] had a bit of an R&B thing about it. Back in the early days of Billy Idol, "Hot In The City" and "Mony Mony" had girls [singing] on the backgrounds.
We always had a bit of R&B really, so it was actually fun to revisit that. We just hadn't done anything really quite like that for a long time. That was one of the reasons to work with someone like Sam Hollander [for the song "Rita Hayworth"] on The Roadside. We knew we could go [with him] into an R&B world, and he's a great songwriter and producer. That's the fun of music really, trying out these things and seeing if you can make them stick.
I listen to new music by veteran artists and debate that with some people. I'm sure you have those fans that want their nostalgia, and then there are some people who will embrace the newer stuff. Do you find it’s a challenge to reach people with new songs?
Obviously, what we're looking for is, how do we somehow have one foot in the past and one foot into the future? We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol.
You want to do things that are true to you, and you don't just want to try and do things that you're seeing there in the charts today. I think that we're achieving it with things like "Running From The Ghost" and "Cage" on this new EP. I think we’re managing to do both in a way.
Obviously, "Running From The Ghost" is about addiction, all the stuff that you went through, and in "Cage" you’re talking about freeing yourself from a lot of personal shackles. Was there any one moment in your life that made you really thought I have to not let this weigh me down anymore?
I mean, things like the motorcycle accident I had, that was a bit of a wake up call way back. It was 32 years ago. But there were things like that, years ago, that gradually made me think about what I was doing with my life. I didn't want to ruin it, really. I didn't want to throw it away, and it made [me] be less cavalier.
I had to say to myself, about the drugs and stuff, that I've been there and I've done it. There’s no point in carrying on doing it. You couldn't get any higher. You didn't want to throw your life away casually, and I was close to doing that. It took me a bit of time, but then gradually I was able to get control of myself to a certain extent [with] drugs and everything. And I think Steve's done the same thing. We're on a similar path really, which has been great because we're in the same boat in terms of lyrics and stuff.
So a lot of things like that were wake up calls. Even having grandchildren and just watching my daughter enlarging her family and everything; it just makes you really positive about things and want to show a positive side to how you're feeling, about where you're going. We've lived with the demons so long, we've found a way to live with them. We found a way to be at peace with our demons, in a way. Maybe not completely, but certainly to where we’re enjoying what we do and excited about it.
[When writing] "Running From The Ghost" it was easy to go, what was the ghost for us? At one point, we were very drug addicted in the '80s. And Steve in particular is super sober [now]. I mean, I still vape pot and stuff. I don’t know how he’s doing it, but it’s incredible. All I want to be able to do is have a couple of glasses of wine at a restaurant or something. I can do that now.
I think working with people that are super talented, you just feel confident. That is a big reason why you open up and express yourself more because you feel comfortable with what's around you.
Did you watch Danny Boyle's recent Sex Pistols mini-series?
I did, yes.
You had a couple of cameos; well, an actor who portrayed you did. How did you react to it? How accurate do you think it was in portraying that particular time period?
I love Jonesy’s book, I thought his book was incredible. It's probably one of the best bio books really. It was incredible and so open. I was looking forward to that a lot.
It was as if [the show] kind of stayed with Steve [Jones’ memoir] about halfway through, and then departed from it. [John] Lydon, for instance, was never someone I ever saw acting out; he's more like that today. I never saw him do something like jump up in the room and run around going crazy. The only time I saw him ever do that was when they signed the recording deal with Virgin in front of Buckingham Palace. Whereas Sid Vicious was always acting out; he was always doing something in a horrible way or shouting at someone. I don't remember John being like that. I remember him being much more introverted.
But then I watched interviews with some of the actors about coming to grips with the parts they were playing. And they were saying, we knew punk rock happened but just didn't know any of the details. So I thought well, there you go. If ["Pistol" is] informing a lot of people who wouldn't know anything about punk rock, maybe that's what's good about it.
Maybe down the road John Lydon will get the chance to do John's version of the Pistols story. Maybe someone will go a lot deeper into it and it won't be so surface. But maybe you needed this just to get people back in the flow.
We had punk and metal over here in the States, but it feels like England it was legitimately more dangerous. British society was much more rigid.
It never went [as] mega in America. It went big in England. It exploded when the Pistols did that interview with [TV host Bill] Grundy, that lorry truck driver put his boot through his own TV, and all the national papers had "the filth and the fury" [headlines].
We went from being unknown to being known overnight. We waited a year, Generation X. We even told them [record labels] no for nine months to a year. Every record company wanted their own punk rock group. So it went really mega in England, and it affected the whole country – the style, the fashions, everything. I mean, the Ramones were massive in England. Devo had a No. 1 song [in England] with "Satisfaction" in '77. Actually, Devo was as big as or bigger than the Pistols.
You were ahead of the pop-punk thing that happened in the late '90s, and a lot of it became tongue-in-cheek by then. It didn't have the same sense of rebelliousness as the original movement. It was more pop.
It had become a style. There was a famous book in England called Revolt Into Style — and that's what had happened, a revolt that turned into style which then they were able to duplicate in their own way. Even recently, Billie Joe [Armstrong] did his own version of "Gimme Some Truth," the Lennon song we covered way back in 1977.
When we initially were making [punk] music, it hadn't become accepted yet. It was still dangerous and turned into a style that people were used to. We were still breaking barriers.
You have a band called Generation Sex with Steve Jones and Paul Cook. I assume you all have an easier time playing Pistols and Gen X songs together now and not worrying about getting spit on like back in the '70s?
Yeah, definitely. When I got to America I told the group I was putting it together, "No one spits at the audience."
We had five years of being spat on [in the UK], and it was revolting. And they spat at you if they liked you. If they didn't like it they smashed your gear up. One night, I remember I saw blood on my T-shirt, and I think Joe Strummer got meningitis when spit went in his mouth.
You had to go through a lot to become successful, it wasn't like you just kind of got up there and did a couple of gigs. I don't think some young rock bands really get that today.
With punk going so mega in England, we definitely got a leg up. We still had a lot of work to get where we got to, and rightly so because you find out that you need to do that. A lot of groups in the old days would be together three to five years before they ever made a record, and that time is really important. In a way, what was great about punk rock for me was it was very much a learning period. I really learned a lot [about] recording music and being in a group and even writing songs.
Then when I came to America, it was a flow, really. I also really started to know what I wanted Billy Idol to be. It took me a little bit, but I kind of knew what I wanted Billy Idol to be. And even that took a while to let it marinate.
You and Miley Cyrus have developed a good working relationship in the last several years. How do you think her fans have responded to you, and your fans have responded to her?
I think they're into it. It's more the record company that she had didn't really get "Night Crawling"— it was one of the best songs on Plastic Hearts, and I don't think they understood that. They wanted to go with Dua Lipa, they wanted to go with the modern, young acts, and I don't think they realized that that song was resonating with her fans. Which is a shame really because, with Andrew Watt producing, it's a hit song.
But at the same time, I enjoyed doing it. It came out really good and it's very Billy Idol. In fact, I think it’s more Billy Idol than Miley Cyrus. I think it shows you where Andrew Watt was. He was excited about doing a Billy Idol track. She's fun to work with. She’s a really great person and she works at her singing — I watched her rehearsing for the Super Bowl performance she gave. She rehearsed all Saturday morning, all Saturday afternoon, and Sunday morning and it was that afternoon. I have to admire her fortitude. She really cares.
I remember when you went on "Viva La Bam" back in 2005 and decided to give Bam Margera’s Lamborghini a new sunroof by taking a power saw to it. Did he own that car? Was that a rental?
I think it was his car.
Did he get over it later on?
He loved it. [Laughs] He’s got a wacky sense of humor. He’s fantastic, actually. I’m really sorry to see what he's been going through just lately. He's going through a lot, and I wish him the best. He's a fantastic person, and it's a shame that he's struggling so much with his addictions. I know what it's like. It's not easy.
Musically, what is the synergy like with you guys during the past 10 years, doing Kings and Queens of the Underground and this new stuff? What is your working relationship like now in this more sober, older, mature version of you two as opposed to what it was like back in the '80s?
In lots of ways it’s not so different because we always wrote the songs together, we always talked about what we're going to do together. It was just that we were getting high at the same time.We're just not getting [that way now] but we're doing all the same things.
We're still talking about things, still [planning] things:What are we going to do next? How are we going to find new people to work with? We want to find new producers. Let's be a little bit more timely about putting stuff out.That part of our relationship is the same, you know what I mean? That never got affected. We just happened to be overloading in the '80s.
The relationship’s… matured and it's carrying on being fruitful, and I think that's pretty amazing. Really, most people don't get to this place. Usually, they hate each other by now. [Laughs] We also give each other space. We're not stopping each other doing things outside of what we’re working on together. All of that enables us to carry on working together. I love and admire him. I respect him. He's been fantastic. I mean, just standing there on stage with him is always a treat. And he’s got an immensely great sense of humor. I think that's another reason why we can hang together after all this time because we've got the sense of humor to enable us to go forward.
There's a lot of fan reaction videos online, and I noticed a lot of younger women like "Rebel Yell" because, unlike a lot of other '80s alpha male rock tunes, you're talking about satisfying your lover.
It was about my girlfriend at the time, Perri Lister. It was about how great I thought she was, how much I was in love with her, and how great women are, how powerful they are.
It was a bit of a feminist anthem in a weird way. It was all about how relationships can free you and add a lot to your life. It was a cry of love, nothing to do with the Civil War or anything like that. Perri was a big part of my life, a big part of being Billy Idol. I wanted to write about it. I'm glad that's the effect.
Is there something you hope people get out of the songs you've been doing over the last 10 years? Do you find yourself putting out a message that keeps repeating?
Well, I suppose, if anything, is that you can come to terms with your life, you can keep a hold of it. You can work your dreams into reality in a way and, look, a million years later, still be enjoying it.
The only reason I'm singing about getting out of the cage is because I kicked out of the cage years ago. I joined Generation X when I said to my parents, "I'm leaving university, and I'm joining a punk rock group." And they didn't even know what a punk rock group was. Years ago, I’d write things for myself that put me on this path, so that maybe in 2022 I could sing something like "Cage" and be owning this territory and really having a good time. This is the life I wanted.
The original UK punk movement challenged societal norms. Despite all the craziness going on throughout the world, it seems like a lot of modern rock bands are afraid to do what you guys were doing. Do you think we'll see a shift in that?
Yeah. Art usually reacts to things, so I would think eventually there will be a massive reaction to the pop music that’s taken over — the middle of the road music, and then this kind of right wing politics. There will be a massive reaction if there's not already one. I don’t know where it will come from exactly. You never know who's gonna do [it].
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Graphic: The Recording Academy
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.
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.