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Seth Troxler On His Detroit DJ Education & The Rich Black History—& Future—Of Dance Music

Seth Troxler

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Seth Troxler On His Detroit DJ Education & The Rich Black History—& Future—Of Dance Music

In celebration of his Black History Month Beatport Residency, GRAMMY.com caught up with esteemed producer/DJ Seth Troxler to dive deep into the Black roots of house and techno

GRAMMYs/Feb 27, 2021 - 12:35 am

Legendary Detroit-bred DJ/producer Seth Troxler is perfect person to spread the gospel of what house and techno are all about—community, self-expression and killer beats. Not only has he been living and breathing those genres since his teen years, he's never lost sight of that playful raver energy, remaining approachable, goofy and optimistic despite two decades of fame. He's a stellar selection for Beatport's Black History Month Residency, where he's curated and led deep-diving conversations and DJ sets with artists representing the history and future of house and techno.

Growing up in a house-music-loving home in the suburbs just outside of techno's birthplace of Detroit, he got his first vinyl stash and DJ deck from his dad at age 15. By 17, he'd put out his first track with mentor Omar S. After six years soaking up all he could in the rich Detroit scene, he relocated to Berlin to chase his techno-rave dreams.

Living primarily between Ibiza and Berlin, Troxler's status as a top-tier, in-demand DJ/producer hasn't faltered—but also hasn't jaded him or watered down his Detroit roots. And just as he was mentored by the Detroit greats that came up before him, he continues to make space for younger DJs of color.

In celebration of the Beatport Residency, we caught up with Troxler over Zoom from Bali, where he's been spending the last few months. Dive into the fascinating, far-reaching conversation below, and make sure to tune in to the final episode of his residency Mon., March 1 from 3 p.m. CET / 6 a.m. PST to 6 p.m. CET / 9 a.m. PST time on Beatport's Twitch. You can also find all the past videos on their YouTube channel.

How did you approach the lineup and content you were bringing into your Beatport Black History Month residency?

Well, I really wanted to look at the history of electronic music, but also have somewhat of an evolution through the shows. But more than anything, I wanted to look at the three different cities known for the invention of electronic music: Chicago, New York and Detroit. The first episode was kind of Chicago and New York. Then I wanted to talk about a later [era of] Chicago, and now, my next episode is diving into proto-Detroit with Al Ester and Stacey Hotwaxx Hale. So much of the story of Detroit has only been techno, but it really was a house city before techno. There were a lot of events and history that have not been told about that period.

So, I tapped to people who were there to look at that and to open up the conversation on what is the Detroit music legacy. And then the final episode, we're going to look at new artists carrying the torch of electronic music and being Black artists. I find it really interesting that a musical genre that was founded by people of color, and in LGBTQ+ spaces, has so few representations of those people now.

With the curation of this lineup, I really wanted to go deep into that exploration—also, into the content of the music. All the music in the DJ sets is by Black artists or people of color. It's to highlight the fact that it's there and to bring the flavor of that music.

There are so many OGs that are massive in Detroit, but don't have the name recognition outside of the nerdier techno fans that dive deep. What is the disconnect?

That's a big question that everyone asks, and it's funny, the music that's promoted on different media outlets. It's just party culture, and it's not the fault of any group of people. I think, now, especially within our wokeness and with the popularity of electronic music, people want to look back at its roots and see where it comes from. I think people of color in electronic music and house music have a stylistically different approach that's really fruitful for everyone. So, it's really cool that people are now trying to engage more, and more opportunities are coming up, like this one, to promote that past as well as show the future of what electronic music can be.

Also, it's about, more than anything, showing representation for youth of color and those communities to understand that this is a real thing. Everybody who's a connoisseur of electronic music that doesn't know the history of it, then even less so do the young kids in urban neighborhoods know that it's a culture that came from, actually, those exact neighborhoods.

And we were talking about it the last episode with Paul Johnson and K-Alexi, that people started getting really into rap in urban areas because they saw those rappers as success stories—of getting out of ghettos and situations [like that]. Many people in electronic music from those areas have gotten out of those places, traveled the world and lived incredible lives. And those are also success stories that we need to show the youth of today for creating something new for tomorrow.

What's something that you learned, or that's been surprising to you, during these Beatport conversations?

So much. Being able to speak to Doctor Russ was incredible, as was speaking to Tony [Humphries] and Ron [Trent]. Even for myself, [who has] read every book and spent my last 21 years of my life diving so deeply into this culture, there are so many anecdotes and little stories that you can only really get out of peer-to-peer oral histories. There's an openness when friends and peers are talking to each other that you don't quite get when you're speaking with a journalist, or in a more structured conversation.

Like in the Ron and Tony conversation, the two of them [related] stories, and there are so many little things I didn't know. Like, there was a church underneath [the former Newark, New Jersey club] Zanzibar, and other little factoids. I just sat there in awe and imagination hearing these guys talk. We're really at a special point in time where so many of the creators and originators of this music are still alive to give you oral histories. It's almost like hearing from Robert Johnson about the invention of rock and roll during the height of The Beatles.

The popularity of electronic music is like never before. EDM culture made a big bump in sales and popularity jumping over to America [in the 2010s] and took over the mantle of what electronic music is. That was a real starting point for American culture to get back into electronic music. But now, throughout most cities and countries, EDM is somewhat fading, and now it's more tech-house and techno, are becoming the popular forms of this music. It's interesting to me with that kind of—this didn't work in economics—trickle-down effect.

Don't Reagan-ize house music. 

That's funny. [Laughs.] But with that trickle-down of interest, it's now shedding the light and opening the doorways of the rich history that is in house music, and all the musical possibilities that had been there. It's beautiful. The deeper you go into music, the more you find things that enrich both you and culture as a whole.

"Conversations like this are already a step forward, acknowledging the roots. I wish more often than Black History Month that we could acknowledge these contributions and give it that airplay."

More: Record Store Recs: Chicago House Hero Marshall Jefferson On Representation In Dance Music

What do you think the dance music community and industry need to do to better honor the roots of dance music, and also bring the current space back towards those radical, inclusive roots?

It's a really complicated question. Conversations like this are already a step forward, acknowledging the roots. I wish more often than Black History Month that we could acknowledge these contributions and give it that airplay. But also, it's funny, with Black Lives Matter and other things for it to be happening during a pandemic, it's opened up the conversation for people finally to start looking at it as a thing that has been not given the proper love or acknowledgement that it should. And acknowledgment is key to everything, as with the LGBTQ+ community, or women, or anything. It's the acknowledgement of our existence, I think, that plays a role in moving forward.

As far as institutions are concerned—say, particularly with the GRAMMYs—maybe an opening of a category that focuses on more than the pop side of electronic music, looking at the underground, perhaps a house music category. I think that would open up more opportunities to acknowledge Black artists. Because if you're looking at—Louie Vega actually has a GRAMMY—DJ Sven or gospel house, it's really hard to put those side by side, let's say, with a more commercial EDM act in terms of Best Dance/Electronic Album. They don't really fit.

"I think it's all a matter of time, because the artistry is the thing that should shine the brightest, and the art is not lacking. So, it's about the acknowledgement and visibility to said arts, that will really bring the things forward."

Related: Brandon Lucas Talks Staying Hopeful, Working With Dr. Cornel West & Empowering Dance Producers Of Color

I think it's become clear that in most societies, especially the United States, more space needs to be made for people of color and for other communities that have been systematically kept out. And dance music, we need to be mindful of the people we promote to the top.

Yeah, definitely. I'm really lucky to have been in that position of being at the top, and then always using my position to also open the doors for many other people. I'm very much into that mentorship type of role. However, when The Martinez Brothers and I started our Tuskegee label and started to look around, we were like, "How is there only us?" We grew up mentored by some of the greats of New York and Detroit, but out of all those kids and all that great tradition, there were only five or six people that came out of it.

So that's a hard question to really answer. There's a lot of really great new artists coming up like Life on Planets, Brandon Lucas, Casey Ray. Ryan the Aquarius, Ash Lauryn and DJ Holographic. There are so many new, really exciting artists. We're just really good at opening doors for people and breaking down that barrier. And it's in this time now that the door is really starting to open, and people like you are taking the time to shed light on the experience, and I think it's all a matter of time, because the artistry is the thing that should shine the brightest, and the art is not lacking. So, it's about the acknowledgment and visibility to said arts, that will really bring things forward.

What did that Detroit community and the mentorship feel like for you?

My situation growing up in Detroit is kind of funny because I released my first record with Omar S when I was 17. But also, my mentorship wasn't only people of color. I was really also into the techno scene with Richie Hawtin, and then I moved to Berlin. At one point, Omar and these guys had me make a choice. They were like "Do you want to be a heritage Detroit artist, or do you want to go do this techno thing?" At the time I was "I want to do the techno thing. This is rad. I'm going to raves, hanging out."

Going back to my roots, my dad was also a DJ. My parents were really into house music. So as a teen, I was really into going to raves and techno. Now I'm into house tracks with flutes. I used to call it old-man house, but I guess I'm getting old.

I also had a lot of mentorships from other artists, like Scott Grooves. So many different people coming to the record store [I worked at], who I'm still very close friends with today. Other people who were coming up in that Black techno tradition and acknowledged me as a Black Detroit artist, that I think I've grown more into as an adult.

Those mentorships really helped so much bridge my music style, and my thinking about what dance music is. So many people were there for me. Mike Huckaby as well. The other day I was talking to Scott Grooves—I call him Uncle Scott—and we always have these really deep conversations about music and artistry. I think those things really helped shape my view of the world.

There's a new talent, Jaden Thompson, out of the U.K., that I've been speaking to a lot. We're currently working on a new social platform kind of like Resident Advisor called Early FM. A few other people and I are also creating a media platform—the only way to tell your story is to tell it yourself. There is no platform out there that focuses more on people of color and marginalized communities in music and has writers from those communities writing about that music. It's hard to have people understand the intricacies of music or a stylistic background who aren't from that background. There needs to be a place that represents other perspectives about that music to give us a fair shot at communicating its vision itself.

"I think today's generation of musicians in electronic music across the board, for all styles, has become a much more business-oriented and a less community-based situation. I got into dance music because I loved it."

Some of the OGs have said they feel like the younger DJs today don't have the same sense of community they had; it's more cutthroat. Whereas your relationship with the Martinez Brothers feels like a real friendship, and y'all came up together.

I think that the difference is, like The Martinez Brothers and I, we were both mentored from a different generation and time. Their father also went to Paradise Garage; he was part of that scene, and their uncles, too. And me being from Detroit, and us having that connection with the generation before us. Also, we started [out] very young. I think today's generation of musicians in electronic music across the board, for all styles, has become a much more business-oriented and a less community-based situation. I got into dance music because I loved it. The idea that you could do this professionally when I was a kid was not possible.

Actually, really funny, yesterday I did an interview with my high school. I got inducted into the wall of fame there. I wasn't really the model student, but I had a passion, a really geeky one at that, that no one else was into. There were no other kids into electronic music at my school at that time, the early 2000s. Matthew Dear actually went to the same high school, but he's a bit older than me. It wasn't popular to be into what I was into, but it was my passion.

I think now, with electronic music becoming so popular and this jet-set lifestyle being so prevalent, that people aren't so much into it for the passion of the music, but more into the lifestyle. I think that also permeates throughout the party culture in which electronic music has become where the party is, and maybe party favors, are more the endpoint rather than the community and the music itself.

When I started going to raves, I experienced the electronic music community, and in those days that was about being from an outside community and coming in and finding a place. Everyone was a bit more marginalized—slackers and street kids. I think there was more of a community-based aspect to it then.

I was looking online the other day, and saw some people with nine, 10 million views on a stream, and I had no clue who they are. They're not really active members of our community. I've never seen these people at a festival or heard their music before. The music was cool, but it just wasn't from the same background or perspective in which I associate with electronic music, house, or underground electronic music culture.

Before, it was so hard to become a producer and produce electronic music, but with Ableton and other technologies available to everyone, there're obviously going to be new spawns of creation, and that's an incredible thing for everyone. But I also think it's important to have some people holding the flag for the original heritage of this music and trying to keep that culture alive for future generations. That's something that The Martinez Brothers and I try to do. It's something that I'm trying to do, to create more community. There's a lot of other great artists out there still trying to do that.

There's always been competitiveness amongst the community, and that's what drove innovation, but that was among friends. And now it's this other competitiveness that is just about building followers and taking selfies. They're showing this really depressed, glamorous side of electronic music. It's a different thing, I guess.

Read: Gene Farris Talks "Space Girl," Rave Safety & The Return Of The "Bedroom DJ"

What tracks and/or artists do you feel like really represent those foundations of dance music to you?

I actually just put up a Beatport chart with 30 or so songs on there that pinpoint the history of the dance music. There are so many artists. Obviously, Detroit, you have Drexciya, Kevin Saunderson, all the classic stuff, but also you have such a rich house tradition [there]. Scott Grooves, Keith Worthy. And Chicago is just a hit factory, there's so much. Gene Farris' old music was so real, classic house. I love Gene, he's making great stuff now. Green Velvet, everyone.

There are so many tracks out there. On the list I made, there are a lot of unexpected things that resonate with me, from a lot of my favorite artists that inspired me. Jamie Principle's "Your Love" is always one of my favorites. Adonis's "No Way Back." Any Ron Trent track is a really great example. Tony Humphries' body of work as a whole. Omar S obviously. There's just such a rich tradition.

Do you remember one of the first tracks or moments that really sucked you into dance music and made you want to DJ?

My parents have listened to house music my whole life, but one of the first moments, was when I skipped high school homecoming my freshman year. I told my mom I was staying at my friend's house, that classic high school move, and we went to a rave in Detroit with 14-year-old kids in this warehouse. We saw Frankie Bones, Adam X and Heather Heart, and I was just like "This is it." It was like being in a film, and then I had to go back to normal, suburban high school in a cornfield.

After, my birthday was coming up, and I was like, "All I want is a Scratch Pack!" It was a '90s thing, two turntables and a mixer that you could get it for 500 bucks from Gemini. I got that for my birthday, and my stepdad gave me a box of records. They actually were super classics, that at 14, I was like, "This is far out." One was Lil' Louis' "Frequency." It's this out-there record; it's beautiful. And then the other one was the original copy of Jamie Principle's "Your Love."

I was trying to mix anything you can put together, so I would go to Hot Topic and buy records there. Stuff like Alice DJ's "Better Off Alone," [Daft Punk's] "Around The World" and "Da Funk." Sarah McLachlan, too. It was all '90s, 2000s party jams. I don't know how much they influence me today, but at that time, they definitely worked on my teen sensibilities.

How do you feel like your Detroit roots influence you today?

I've always played the same music. It's fun. Before the pandemic, I'd be playing now for thousands of people, and I'd always pull out these records and look at my tour manager. I'd be like, "Got this when I was in high school for a few bucks," and it's gotten a little sticker with the date on it. I'll play these old records, and I'm like, same taste then as I have now.

I worked at a record store from 15 to 21. I got the job because I was such a geek and really into Derrick Carter and this label called Classic. This was in 2002 so that music and working there inspired me. I think with the scene, that culture, being with a lot more adults, you had to be able to academically engage in the history of that music, and really understand all the nuances of the music, or else people would just not talk to you. Instead of sports facts, I had to memorize catalog numbers when I was a kid.

I think all that stuff really played into who I am today and the tastes that I have. Being able to go to so many of those events, regularly when I was 15, 16, and then coming into the record store, pulling records. Working with Al Ester, and listening to Stacey Hotwaxx Hale, who are both on the next Beatport interview.

All those things, being a part of that musical legacy and background, there's no way it can't influence you. No matter what race you are, what color of your skin, if you're from Detroit or the Midwest, I think you have a very similar view of music. That's something really incredible. Anyone who's come from the city or come to the city, I think really realizes that, and sees the rich musical history that Detroit has offered from so many generations. It's not just electronic music, but rock, Motown, everything. All that goes into play, what we view as our musical heritage.

In dance music, do you think there will always be the underground and the mainstream?

I don't even know if there is really an underground anymore. I think there's always some kids in the middle of somewhere doing some type of underground movement in some basement, making some really out-there stuff. That's underground. I'm not underground. I've got probably a million people across all my social media platforms following me. In rock music, there are always different genres. There's folk, hard rock, metal, and I think all those things can and should coexist because they're different forms of art.

Electronic music is opening up to be really the music of the future, and I think the acknowledgement of all these different forms of this one art form is really important, instead of trying to ball it all into one group. I think to start to open up the conversation to the different subgenres would be really beneficial for everyone.

As far as commercial access goes, in the UK, underground records really make it to the top. In many ways a lot of what Disclosure has done was the bridging of both of the underground and pop worlds. The new album I'm currently working on for Lost Souls of Saturn with Phil Moffa, we're doing the same thing. We're using underground music structures but doing a lot of collaborations with A-list artists to hopefully give it a bit wider appeal. I think crossing over in electronic music is how even the original dance music artists gained their original popularity.

If you look at all the big hits from Detroit and Chicago, they were all-vocal records that you could play on the radio. I think coming back to that, a vocalized version of electronic music, is going to allow the people to connect again with sounds that are deeper than underground.

"I think the dancefloor is a very sacred space, and a place that so many people are allowed to express freedoms that they don't hold in their everyday lives."

What is your biggest hope for the dance music community whenever we're able to safely get back onto dancefloors?

My biggest hope is for exactly that, for us to get back and regain some normalcy and that freedom that we once held in those shared spaces. I think the dancefloor is a very sacred space, and a place that so many people are allowed to express freedoms that they don't hold in their everyday lives. If you go to—this is a bit of an extreme one—Berghain [in Berlin], you see people walk in and literally check their clothes in at the door. Those people are accountants or do whatever else they do in their everyday lives, but they're allowed to go to a space and have a real moment of total freedom and anonymity.

I think when you're listening to music and having internalized experience that you share with others, that clarity in that moment of dance and freedom on that floor is something that we all want to share and be a part of. That's my hope, and I think it's going to come soon, and it's going to be a very happy day for many people. I hope sincerely that we can all do that, but until then I guess we'll have to rely on these streams, and these conversations to keep our hope alive, and to believe in a future that we can all hold together.

Life On Planets Talks Astrology, Inclusivity On The Dancefloor & Why We Have To Be Like Martin Luther King Jr.

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

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

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

GRAMMYs/Jan 6, 2023 - 12:17 am

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

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

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

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

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

About GRAMMY U:

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Rachel Kupfer 

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

James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.

GRAMMYs/Nov 25, 2022 - 04:23 pm

It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.

Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.

Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.

In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.

Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.

There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.

Say She She

Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.

While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."

Moniquea

Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.

Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.

Shiro Schwarz

Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.

Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.

L'Impératrice

L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.

During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.

Franc Moody

Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.

Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.

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

Photo: Steven Sebring

interview

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

"One foot in the past and one foot into the future," Billy Idol says, describing his decade-spanning career in rock. "We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol."

GRAMMYs/Nov 25, 2022 - 04:19 pm

Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Billy Idol about his latest EP,  Cage, and continuing to rock through decades of changing tastes.

Billy Idol is a true rock 'n' roll survivor who has persevered through cultural shifts and personal struggles. While some may think of Idol solely for "Rebel Yell" and "White Wedding," the singer's musical influences span genres and many of his tunes are less turbo-charged than his '80s hits would belie.  

Idol first made a splash in the latter half of the '70s with the British punk band Generation X. In the '80s, he went on to a solo career combining rock, pop, and punk into a distinct sound that transformed him and his musical partner, guitarist Steve Stevens, into icons. They have racked up multiple GRAMMY nominations, in addition to one gold, one double platinum, and four platinum albums thanks to hits like "Cradle Of Love," "Flesh For Fantasy," and "Eyes Without A Face." 

But, unlike many legacy artists, Idol is anything but a relic. Billy continues to produce vital Idol music by collaborating with producers and songwriters — including Miley Cyrus — who share his forward-thinking vision. He will play a five-show Vegas residency in November, and filmmaker Jonas Akerlund is working on a documentary about Idol’s life. 

His latest release is Cage, the second in a trilogy of annual four-song EPs. The title track is a classic Billy Idol banger expressing the desire to free himself from personal constraints and live a better life. Other tracks on Cage incorporate metallic riffing and funky R&B grooves. 

Idol continues to reckon with his demons — they both grappled with addiction during the '80s — and the singer is open about those struggles on the record and the page. (Idol's 2014 memoir Dancing With Myself, details a 1990 motorcycle accident that nearly claimed a leg, and how becoming a father steered him to reject hard drugs. "Bitter Taste," from his last EP, The Roadside, reflects on surviving the accident.)

Although Idol and Stevens split in the late '80s — the skilled guitarist fronted Steve Stevens & The Atomic Playboys, and collaborated with Michael Jackson, Rick Ocasek, Vince Neil, and Harold Faltermeyer (on the GRAMMY-winning "Top Gun Anthem") —  their common history and shared musical bond has been undeniable. The duo reunited in 2001 for an episode of "VH1 Storytellers" and have been back in the saddle for two decades. Their union remains one of the strongest collaborations in rock 'n roll history.

While there is recognizable personnel and a distinguishable sound throughout a lot of his work, Billy Idol has always pushed himself to try different things. Idol discusses his musical journey, his desire to constantly move forward, and the strong connection that he shares with Stevens. 

Steve has said that you like to mix up a variety of styles, yet everyone assumes you're the "Rebel Yell"/"White Wedding" guy. But if they really listen to your catalog, it's vastly different.

Yeah, that's right. With someone like Steve Stevens, and then back in the day Keith Forsey producing... [Before that] Generation X actually did move around inside punk rock. We didn't stay doing just the Ramones two-minute music. We actually did a seven-minute song. [Laughs]. We did always mix things up. 

Then when I got into my solo career, that was the fun of it. With someone like Steve, I knew what he could do. I could see whatever we needed to do, we could nail it. The world was my oyster musically. 

"Cage" is a classic-sounding Billy Idol rocker, then "Running From The Ghost" is almost metal, like what the Devil's Playground album was like back in the mid-2000s. "Miss Nobody" comes out of nowhere with this pop/R&B flavor. What inspired that?

We really hadn't done anything like that since something like "Flesh For Fantasy" [which] had a bit of an R&B thing about it. Back in the early days of Billy Idol, "Hot In The City" and "Mony Mony" had girls [singing] on the backgrounds. 

We always had a bit of R&B really, so it was actually fun to revisit that. We just hadn't done anything really quite like that for a long time. That was one of the reasons to work with someone like Sam Hollander [for the song "Rita Hayworth"] on The Roadside. We knew we could go [with him] into an R&B world, and he's a great songwriter and producer. That's the fun of music really, trying out these things and seeing if you can make them stick. 

I listen to new music by veteran artists and debate that with some people. I'm sure you have those fans that want their nostalgia, and then there are some people who will embrace the newer stuff. Do you find it’s a challenge to reach people with new songs?

Obviously, what we're looking for is, how do we somehow have one foot in the past and one foot into the future? We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol. 

You want to do things that are true to you, and you don't just want to try and do things that you're seeing there in the charts today. I think that we're achieving it with things like "Running From The Ghost" and "Cage" on this new EP. I think we’re managing to do both in a way. 

Obviously, "Running From The Ghost" is about addiction, all the stuff that you went through, and in "Cage" you’re talking about  freeing yourself from a lot of personal shackles. Was there any one moment in your life that made you really thought I have to not let this weigh me down anymore?

I mean, things like the motorcycle accident I had, that was a bit of a wake up call way back. It was 32 years ago. But there were things like that, years ago, that gradually made me think about what I was doing with my life. I didn't want to ruin it, really. I didn't want to throw it away, and it made [me] be less cavalier. 

I had to say to myself, about the drugs and stuff, that I've been there and I've done it. There’s no point in carrying on doing it. You couldn't get any higher. You didn't want to throw your life away casually, and I was close to doing that. It took me a bit of time, but then gradually I was able to get control of myself to a certain extent [with] drugs and everything. And I think Steve's done the same thing. We're on a similar path really, which has been great because we're in the same boat in terms of lyrics and stuff. 

So a lot of things like that were wake up calls. Even having grandchildren and just watching my daughter enlarging her family and everything; it just makes you really positive about things and want to show a positive side to how you're feeling, about where you're going. We've lived with the demons so long, we've found a way to live with them. We found a way to be at peace with our demons, in a way. Maybe not completely, but certainly to where we’re enjoying what we do and excited about it.

[When writing] "Running From The Ghost" it was easy to go, what was the ghost for us? At one point, we were very drug addicted in the '80s. And Steve in particular is super sober [now]. I mean, I still vape pot and stuff. I don’t know how he’s doing it, but it’s incredible. All I want to be able to do is have a couple of glasses of wine at a restaurant or something. I can do that now.

I think working with people that are super talented, you just feel confident. That is a big reason why you open up and express yourself more because you feel comfortable with what's around you.

Did you watch Danny Boyle's recent Sex Pistols mini-series?

I did, yes.

You had a couple of cameos; well, an actor who portrayed you did. How did you react to it? How accurate do you think it was in portraying that particular time period?

I love Jonesy’s book, I thought his book was incredible. It's probably one of the best bio books really. It was incredible and so open. I was looking forward to that a lot.

It was as if [the show] kind of stayed with Steve [Jones’ memoir] about halfway through, and then departed from it. [John] Lydon, for instance, was never someone I ever saw acting out; he's more like that today. I never saw him do something like jump up in the room and run around going crazy. The only time I saw him ever do that was when they signed the recording deal with Virgin in front of Buckingham Palace. Whereas Sid Vicious was always acting out; he was always doing something in a horrible way or shouting at someone. I don't remember John being like that. I remember him being much more introverted.

But then I watched interviews with some of the actors about coming to grips with the parts they were playing. And they were saying, we knew punk rock happened but just didn't know any of the details. So I thought well, there you go. If ["Pistol" is]  informing a lot of people who wouldn't know anything about punk rock, maybe that's what's good about it.

Maybe down the road John Lydon will get the chance to do John's version of the Pistols story. Maybe someone will go a lot deeper into it and it won't be so surface. But maybe you needed this just to get people back in the flow.

We had punk and metal over here in the States, but it feels like England it was legitimately more dangerous. British society was much more rigid.

It never went [as] mega in America. It went big in England. It exploded when the Pistols did that interview with [TV host Bill] Grundy, that lorry truck driver put his boot through his own TV, and all the national papers had "the filth and the fury" [headlines].

We went from being unknown to being known overnight. We waited a year, Generation X. We even told them [record labels] no for nine months to a year. Every record company wanted their own punk rock group. So it went really mega in England, and it affected the whole country – the style, the fashions, everything. I mean, the Ramones were massive in England. Devo had a No. 1 song [in England] with "Satisfaction" in '77. Actually, Devo was as big as or bigger than the Pistols.

You were ahead of the pop-punk thing that happened in the late '90s, and a lot of it became tongue-in-cheek by then. It didn't have the same sense of rebelliousness as the original movement. It was more pop.

It had become a style. There was a famous book in England called Revolt Into Style — and that's what had happened, a revolt that turned into style which then they were able to duplicate in their own way. Even recently, Billie Joe [Armstrong] did his own version of "Gimme Some Truth," the Lennon song we covered way back in 1977.

When we initially were making [punk] music, it hadn't become accepted yet. It was still dangerous and turned into a style that people were used to. We were still breaking barriers.

You have a band called Generation Sex with Steve Jones and Paul Cook. I assume you all have an easier time playing Pistols and Gen X songs together now and not worrying about getting spit on like back in the '70s?

Yeah, definitely. When I got to America I told the group I was putting it together, "No one spits at the audience."

We had five years of being spat on [in the UK], and it was revolting. And they spat at you if they liked you. If they didn't like it they smashed your gear up. One night, I remember I saw blood on my T-shirt, and I think Joe Strummer got meningitis when spit went in his mouth.

You had to go through a lot to become successful, it wasn't like you just kind of got up there and did a couple of gigs. I don't think some young rock bands really get that today.

With punk going so mega in England, we definitely got a leg up. We still had a lot of work to get where we got to, and rightly so because you find out that you need to do that. A lot of groups in the old days would be together three to five years before they ever made a record, and that time is really important. In a way, what was great about punk rock for me was it was very much a learning period. I really learned a lot [about] recording music and being in a group and even writing songs.

Then when I came to America, it was a flow, really. I also really started to know what I wanted Billy Idol to be. It took me a little bit, but I kind of knew what I wanted Billy Idol to be. And even that took a while to let it marinate.

You and Miley Cyrus have developed a good working relationship in the last several years. How do you think her fans have responded to you, and your fans have responded to her?

I think they're into it. It's more the record company that she had didn't really get "Night Crawling"— it was one of the best songs on Plastic Hearts, and I don't think they understood that. They wanted to go with Dua Lipa, they wanted to go with the modern, young acts, and I don't think they realized that that song was resonating with her fans. Which is a shame really because, with Andrew Watt producing, it's a hit song.

But at the same time, I enjoyed doing it. It came out really good and it's very Billy Idol. In fact, I think it’s more Billy Idol than Miley Cyrus. I think it shows you where Andrew Watt was. He was excited about doing a Billy Idol track. She's fun to work with. She’s a really great person and she works at her singing — I watched her rehearsing for the Super Bowl performance she gave. She rehearsed all Saturday morning, all Saturday afternoon, and Sunday morning and it was that afternoon. I have to admire her fortitude. She really cares.

I remember when you went on "Viva La Bamback in 2005 and decided to give Bam Margera’s Lamborghini a new sunroof by taking a power saw to it. Did he own that car? Was that a rental?

I think it was his car.

Did he get over it later on?

He loved it. [Laughs] He’s got a wacky sense of humor. He’s fantastic, actually. I’m really sorry to see what he's been going through just lately. He's going through a lot, and I wish him the best. He's a fantastic person, and it's a shame that he's struggling so much with his addictions. I know what it's like. It's not easy.

Musically, what is the synergy like with you guys during the past 10 years, doing Kings and Queens of the Underground and this new stuff? What is your working relationship like now in this more sober, older, mature version of you two as opposed to what it was like back in the '80s?

In lots of ways it’s not so different because we always wrote the songs together, we always talked about what we're going to do together. It was just that we were getting high at the same time.We're just not getting [that way now] but we're doing all the same things.

We're still talking about things, still [planning] things:What are we going to do next? How are we going to find new people to work with? We want to find new producers. Let's be a little bit more timely about putting stuff out.That part of our relationship is the same, you know what I mean? That never got affected. We just happened to be overloading in the '80s.

The relationship’s… matured and it's carrying on being fruitful, and I think that's pretty amazing. Really, most people don't get to this place. Usually, they hate each other by now. [Laughs] We also give each other space. We're not stopping each other doing things outside of what we’re working on together. All of that enables us to carry on working together. I love and admire him. I respect him. He's been fantastic. I mean, just standing there on stage with him is always a treat. And he’s got an immensely great sense of humor. I think that's another reason why we can hang together after all this time because we've got the sense of humor to enable us to go forward.

There's a lot of fan reaction videos online, and I noticed a lot of younger women like "Rebel Yell" because, unlike a lot of other '80s alpha male rock tunes, you're talking about satisfying your lover.

It was about my girlfriend at the time, Perri Lister. It was about how great I thought she was, how much I was in love with her, and how great women are, how powerful they are.

It was a bit of a feminist anthem in a weird way. It was all about how relationships can free you and add a lot to your life. It was a cry of love, nothing to do with the Civil War or anything like that. Perri was a big part of my life, a big part of being Billy Idol. I wanted to write about it. I'm glad that's the effect.

Is there something you hope people get out of the songs you've been doing over the last 10 years? Do you find yourself putting out a message that keeps repeating?

Well, I suppose, if anything, is that you can come to terms with your life, you can keep a hold of it. You can work your dreams into reality in a way and, look, a million years later, still be enjoying it.

The only reason I'm singing about getting out of the cage is because I kicked out of the cage years ago. I joined Generation X when I said to my parents, "I'm leaving university, and I'm joining a punk rock group." And they didn't even know what a punk rock group was. Years ago, I’d write things for myself that put me on this path, so that maybe in 2022 I could sing something like "Cage" and be owning this territory and really having a good time. This is the life I wanted.

The original UK punk movement challenged societal norms. Despite all the craziness going on throughout the world, it seems like a lot of modern rock bands are afraid to do what you guys were doing. Do you think we'll see a shift in that?

Yeah.  Art usually reacts to things, so I would think eventually there will be a massive reaction to the pop music that’s taken over — the middle of the road music, and then this kind of right wing politics. There will be a massive reaction if there's not already one. I don’t know where it will come from exactly. You never know who's gonna do [it].

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

Graphic: The Recording Academy

list

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

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

GRAMMYs/Nov 23, 2022 - 03:01 pm

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

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

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

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

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

Kelsea Ballerini — "HEARTFIRST"

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

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

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

Zach Bryan — "Something In The Orange"

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

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

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

Miranda Lambert — "In His Arms"

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

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

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

Maren Morris — "Circles Around This Town"

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

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

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

Willie Nelson — "Live Forever"

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

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

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

2023 GRAMMY Nominations: See The Complete Nominees List