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Silence Is Golden: Chad Hugo On The Neptunes’ Otherworldly Success
"What do you do after a magician reveals his tricks?" asks the notoriously quiet GRAMMY-winning producer.
Silent partners are often obscured by overt counterparts — even more so when you’re in groups with Pharrell Williams. Producer and songwriter Chad Hugo actively chose the background.
As one-half of production crew the Neptunes and one third of hip-hop/rock group N.E.R.D., Hugo at times receded from public view during waves of massive success. The Virginia Beach-based musician would resurface to work with the likes of Jay Z and Rhianna, or Nigos' recent reunion track, "Punch Bowl," which featured old collaborators the Clipse.
All this is in line with Hugo’s withdrawn demeanor. He’s been called a silent savant for his consistent lack of hubris, despite three decades of enormous song credits. He’d rather emulate keyboard clinks than explain how things came about, taking umbrage with media when questions felt a bit constrictive: "What do you do after a magician reveals his tricks? That’s how I felt and through the years I’ve tried to refrain about getting into music theory with people because artists have a freedom that comes without getting too technical," he tells GRAMMY.com.
Hugo and Williams met in band camp as teenagers, and famously wowed pioneering producer Teddy Riley at a local talent show. Riley took them under his wing, ushered the pair into the music industry and set them loose at his famed Future Records Recording Studios in Virginia Beach. The experience was "mind blowing," Hugo recalls. Riley would later sign the Neptunes to Virgin Records in 1999.
By the time they reached their twenties, Hugo and Williams were among the industry’s most successful songwriting duos. The Neptunes’ diverse sound helped define modern pop music in the 2000s, and they became the go-to brain trust for top tier acts. Following "Superthug," Noreaga’s highest charting hit ever, the Neptunes caught the ear of Jay Z, who introduced them to Justin Timberlake, whose solo debut they produced the majority of. Consider 2004’s "Drop It Like It’s Hot," a hit that not only gave Snoop’s career a much needed shot of adrenalin, but remains lodged on commercial radio to this day.
They’ve since worked with Gwen Stefani, Ed Sheeran, Britney Spears and a laundry list of others. Standout moments with Kendrick and Andre 3000, too. Two GRAMMY Awards followed, including Producer of the Year, Non-Classical, and Best Pop Vocal Album for Timberlake's Justified.
On June 16, Hugo and Williams will be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame — a club that includes the likes of Burt Bacharach, Bruce Springsteen and Curtis Mayfield. Despite his reserved nature, the honor is not lost on Hugo, who came close to gushing: "I always considered myself a studio rat, just offering touches to songs or whatever I could add. I feel so blessed to do that and to be recognized for this."
Here, Hugo rather openly – and perhaps uncharacteristically— spoke on how both his immigrant experience and rapport with Pharrell impacted his worldview and musical philosophy. These days, Hugo luxuriates in the fundamental sounds that inform his futurist pursuits.
I’ve read that you’ve recently immersed yourself in the blues and making connections between swing and hip-hop. Unpack that a bit for us.
With all the crazy times we’ve gone through, the blues seemed like such an appropriate soundtrack for everything. Without getting too dark, things were getting crazy with the pandemic — for me and everyone I suppose. And with the blues, there’s chord changes and progressions that are rooted in people singing while working hard in the fields. There’s a connection with hip-hop that goes all the way back to the slave days.
In some ways, you can call the blues church. It has a mired, sad sound to it. The blues is a simple formula where you repeat mantras, say things that have happened, and things you want to happen, or just express sadness. I’ve just been concentrating on that, playing jazz, bebop, and swing and just American music from earlier times.
You’ve been sitting in with local music educators and bands from Virginia Beach. What's that interaction been like?
Music was a way of meeting and competing with other people, and sharing new music we’ve never heard before. We share riffs that have been passed down for generations. Some of these melodic lines that have been passed down is like a vocabulary that we can still use today. It’s a way to keep culture thriving.
I’d like to touch on your early history a bit. Teddy Riley discovered you and Pharrell and next thing you know, you’re in his studio. What was that experience like?
I remember when we went to Future Records it looked like a surf shop [laughs]. I remember seeing fancy cars you don’t see in the suburbs of Virginia. Pharrell and our other friend, Mike Shae, and I went to Future after the talent show and we caught the ear of Omar Chandler, who eventually became our manager.
I remember seeing lots of records being made. They had three private studio rooms and loud music was blaring through the speakers at all times. It was like a big factory: engineers everywhere and people at desks and everyone was there just to make sounds. It blew me away.
What do you remember specifically about Teddy? How did he strike you?
I remember seeing Teddy reacting to all the rhythms that were coming out of the speakers. It was awesome seeing him react to the music. He’d also walk over and mute or turn sounds up on this huge multi-track mixing board. He was orchestrating things. Just seeing how his operation ran as an institution was incredible.
I wasn’t too familiar with Teddy to be honest. Back then, Future Records was a scene itself. Black Street was there of course. It felt like its own nightclub. We were too young to go there late at night [laughs] and just wanted to be a part of everything and make some dope sounds. It was nice seeing Teddy control all of that.
A lot has been made of Neptunes’ radio hits, but not all were radio friendly. Your work with The Clipse gained a strong following despite much radio play. In your recent GQ profile, Pusha T called you a genius. What are your thoughts on Pusha and tell us what you remember from that era.
The street life stuff he raps about, I can’t say I witnessed it. Probably a good thing [laughs]. But really, I think he’s just telling stories through his music. I remember him getting to the studio and stretching out his arms and having a notepad to write things down.
At the time, we were like a utilitarian swiss army knife. We would add this and that as needed, you know, make vibes and ultimately to make dope records. Pusha has always been 'bout it and had such a positive attitude. We had two schools of thought in the studio. Pusha wanted to make people move with his words and we wanted to make people move on the dancefloor. So it was truly different frames of thought that came together.
I know that you come from an immigrant household. Given that this is AAPI month, we'd be remiss to not touch on how being a child of immigrants may have impacted your outlook on music.
My parents came from the Philippines and we were in Jersey before moving to Virginia Beach. My mother was a med tech, dad was in the Navy.
We had a piano growing up, which was the go-to entertainment system in our house. I’m the youngest of three, and my sister and brother would convene at our piano teacher’s house to play. We’d always play music for my parents' friends from the Filipino community. They were always working and did what they could. They cooked for us when they had time and tried to have us speak Tagalog. We knew the bad words of course [laughs]. Enrolled us in Catholic school where we had to wear uniforms and having to wear a tie and shirt teaches you that you’re in the same institution and situation as others. One of the first hip-hop people I met was a Filipino pop-locker at one of the community centers we’d frequent.
What are some of your earliest memories of being exposed to music?
I grew up off of everything. Earliest memories would probably be church songs, then things like "The Sound of Music," where I learned all those "do-re-mi" notes. I always had an idea… that there is such a concept as sounds and [knowing] how they connect to instruments and electronics. Also, I watched a lot of old TV shows, black and white shows from the ‘60s and ‘70s and still remember all their theme songs.
You essentially went from watching those TV shows to winning GRAMMYs in a matter of years. What did winning a GRAMMY feel like?
I felt like we made it. We made those records, you know? There’s one thing my band teacher used to say, which is you’re only as good as your last performance. If you didn’t practice the part that was given to you on the sheet music, then you’re only as good as that. Where you take it from there is the main question. So there was always pressure to win, sometimes too much. But that was a memorable day for sure.
Moving towards now, I also read about your recent saxophone lessons. Why the sax specifically?
I just decided to keep up with it. I played it in my elementary years and for my latest sessions, I’ve been using a sax I bought when I lived in California years ago. I’m glad I put it to use. The whole idea was to learn riffs that I kept hearing, so I just wanted to brush up on my playing as a instrumentalist musician. I just love hearing tones from the sax.
The idea of working out my fingers has always been important to me. Certain people know the gym routine better than others, so this, to me, is just doing a better routine. Shout out to my teacher, I still have to turn in my most recent homework assignment [laughs].
We need to talk about your recent induction into the Songwriting Hall of Fame. After GRAMMYs and all your successes, how does this one feel?
Man, it’s just a huge honor. What I gathered recently was that the Songwriters Hall of Fame was founded by Johnny Mercer from the Tin Pan Alley days. I mean, he released a version of "Jingle Bells" in the ‘40s! He wrote all these legendary standards. This is the hugest honor to be a part of.
It's remarkable how your career unfolded and the monumental triumphs you’ve had. What’s next when it seems like you’ve already done it all?
Thankfully I’m always working. Right now, I’ve had a heavy focus on Filipino and Asian artists, and have been doing some great stuff with Jo Koy, Dan the Automator, and some amazing new artists like the Blssm and Eyedress. It’s an honor to lift up my fellow Asian musicians and the next generation.
I’ve also been doing things with M.I.A. which I’m very excited about. I love these projects because they added an element of challenge. If I'm not learning or challenging myself, I lose interest pretty quickly.
Meet Son Lux, Composers Of 'Everything Everywhere All At Once'
Photos: (L to R): Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc; Ethan Miller/Getty Images; KMazur/WireImage; Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Songbook: How Mary J. Blige Became The Queen of Hip-Hop Soul Through Empathy, Attitude And An Open Heart
With 14 albums and nine GRAMMYs under her belt, Mary J. Blige puts no limitations on the music she creates. Explore her extensive catalog of hits, soundtrack favorites, stunning covers and impactful remixes.
Mary J. Blige’s tireless work ethic, extraordinary singing talent and soul-level relatability are the secret ingredients to her longevity as a recording artist. Her discography includes nine GRAMMY wins and 37 nominations, and the multi-hyphenate artist continues to demonstrate that there's no limit to her creativity.
Blige is nominated for six awards at the 2023 GRAMMYs, including Album Of The Year and Best R&B Album for Good Morning Gorgeous (Deluxe). The title track is nominated in three categories: Record Of The Year, Best Traditional R&B Performance and Best R&B Song, and "Here With Me" is up for Best R&B Performance.
Good Morning Gorgeous encapsulates the true self-love Blige felt after healing from divorce, abusive relationships and depression. As she explains on an album interlude "good morning gorgeous" is the affirmation Blige now says to herself in the mornings — and, for the first time, she believes it. And when it comes to the odds of adding to her GRAMMY wins on Feb. 5, it’s safe to wager that Blige thinks they’re sound.
"Bet on me, why not?" Blige sings in the chorus of the album’s "On Top." "Don’t act like I never left on top."
For her resonant musical messages, Blige has been crowned the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul. But she’s also an industry professional who deftly sets and iterates on trends, keeping even her earliest releases relevant and exciting.
Blige became a record label boss when she released Good Morning Gorgeous as a joint venture between Lyor Cohen’s 300 Entertainment and her own Mary Jane Productions. She’s a frequent executive producer of her albums and multimedia projects and is set to executive produce two fictional films for Lifetime in 2023 through her production company Blue Butterfly. Real Love and Strength of a Woman are both named for her songs. Real Love is described as a romantic drama set in an upstate New York college.
After more than 30 years of recording, Blige has amassed an acclaimed and extensive discography of consummate original classics, deep soundtrack cuts, scene-stealing covers and remixes. Press play on the Amazon Music playlist above and use the below guide as a diving board into a career full of the empathetic pain, healing, promise and happiness that she has shared with unflinching honesty and vulnerability.
The Queen Of Hip-Hop Soul
Blige was living in a housing project in Yonkers, N.Y. when the late Andre Harrell signed her to his Uptown Records, which released her 1992 debut album, What’s The 411? Harrell coined the nickname Queen of Hip-Hop Soul to describe the fresh way Blige's music melded rap beats with R&B hooks.
Harrell and his then-intern Sean Combs gave her a rugged style to match her music, with boots and baseball caps instead of heels and sparkles. Young women from the inner city saw themselves in Blige's aesthetic and in her rawness.
Yet admiration for Blige’s powerful vocals and unique tone grew before her name was ever recognized. Blige was first heard as a backup singer for Father MC’s 1990 hit "I'll Do 4 U" and, the following year, her own single "You Remind Me" (from the Strictly Business soundtrack) gave Blige some street buzz to lead into What’s The 411? The hip-hop swagger of "Real Love" — which samples "Top Billin'" by Audio Two, a beat highly familiar to New York City fans at the time — served as her formal introduction to the world and remains a calling card decades later.
The My Life Era (Extended Mix)
Contrary to the music industry’s sophomore slump stereotype, Blige’s second album is a seminal work. 1994's My Life became career-defining, and an album that she has subsequently reflected on to show her growth.
The album is a reflection of her volatile relationship with singer Cedric "K-Ci" Hailey, Blige explained in Mary J. Blige’s My Life, a documentary she executive produced for Amazon Studios in honor of the album’s 25th anniversary. Throughout, Blige keenly pairs heights of happiness with depths of her despair on songs like "You Bring Me Joy," "I’m Goin’ Down," "I Love You" and "Be Happy."
"The whole 'My Life' album is, 'Please love me, don’t go, I need you,'" she said in the documentary. Combs, then known as Puffy, continued: "When she made that album, she was fighting for her heart." (Combs and Harrell served as executive producers of My Life.)
Blige and Combs never collaborated quite so closely again, though they remained friends. Combs didn’t produce 2011’s My Life II… The Journey Continues (Act 1), but he appears in a telephone skit to open the album, similarly to how he did on My Life. The sequel features guest stars such as Nas, Beyoncé and Drake.
Though her earlier works hinted at the potential, My Life most firmly established Blige as a beacon for hurt hearts everywhere. In a 2021 interview with Trevor Noah, Blige described how childhood physical and mental abuse, as well as her relationship with Hailey, led to substance abuse and depression. When she used the songs on My Life as a way of saying she needed help, "four million people responded and said, ‘'We need help, too.'"
Covers, Collaborations And Remixes
Cover songs have been an acclaimed — and long-lasting — part of Blige’s career ever since she sang "Sweet Thing" by Rufus featuring Chaka Khan on What’s The 411? Blige released her hugely popular version of Rose Royce’s "I’m Goin’ Down" in 1994, which reached No. 22 on the Billboard Hot 100, and she beat Beyoncé to the punch in 2000 with her take on Maze’s "Before I Let Go."
But her ascension to rock star status has a lot to do with her scene-stealing covers of songs of stadium-level acts. Blige has delivered epic versions of songs by Led Zeppelin ("Stairway To Heaven") and Sting ("Whenever I Say Your Name"), and when she collaborated with U2 on a new version of "One," there’s an audible battle with Bono as to whose song this is now.
Blige collaborates with rap, R&B, rock, country, electronic and classical artists with equal ease, and her discography includes work with late legends, including "Holdin’ On" with Aretha Franklin and a cover of Stevie Wonder’s "As" with George Michael. She won her first career GRAMMY in 1995 for Best Rap Performance By A Duo Or Group for "I'll Be There For You / You're All I Need To Get By," a collaboration with Method Man that covers Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell.
A dance music collaboration with London duo Disclosure called "F for You" in 2013 helped to catalyze an entire album from the Capital of England called The London Sessions. The 2014 album features a second collaboration with Disclosure ("Right Now"), a cameo from UK garage DJ/producer MJ Cole ("Nobody But You") and guest vocals from Scottish singer Emeli Sandé ("Whole Damn Year").
Blige has long understood the potency of both hip-hop and dance music remixes, which remain a part of her single roll-outs. Over the years, she created a remix album of songs from What’s The 411?, and in 2002 released club-focused reworks of songs from No More Drama, Mary and Share My World on Dance For Me.
Blige's remixes also pay homage. On her cover of First Choice’s "Let No Man Put Asunder," Blige honors singers who came before by featuring guest vocals from the group's lead singer, Rochelle Fleming.
Her Rap Alter Ego
Blige has rapped a few times on her albums, beginning with a verse in "Love," from 2001’s No More Drama. She won her first solo GRAMMY for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance in 2003 for "He Think I Don't Know" from No More Drama. By the time she rhymed on "Enough Cryin’" and "Take Me As I Am" (both from 2005’s The Breakthrough), her rap alter ego had a name: Brook Lynn.
Her cadence caught the ear of her friend Busta Rhymes, who recruited Blige for his "Touch It (Remix)" the next year. "The haters plot and they watch, lookin’ all pale/While I’m on a yacht overseas, doin’ my nails," she raps alongside Busta, Missy Elliott and Rah Digga.
Brook Lynn took a hiatus for a few years after that, but she came back blazing in 2011. "Homegirls love me and we be ridin' Phantoms/Mad chicks hate me 'cause I be writin' anthems," she rhymes on "Midnight Drive" from My Life II… The Journey Continues (Act 1).
Since "You Remind Me," her first Top 40 entry, appeared on the soundtrack to Strictly Business, Blige has written stunning original songs such as "I Can See in Color" for Precious (2009). She has also licensed other hits to dozens of movies.
After years of contributing to soundtracks, Blige created her own as executive producer and performer of the soundtrack for Think Like a Man Too (2014), which includes a cover of Shalamar’s "A Night to Remember" and guest appearances by Pharrell Williams and The-Dream.
Blige has been cast in several acting roles since she guest starred in an episode of The Jamie Foxx Show in 1998 and has played fictional characters as well as real life figures Betty Shabazz (Betty and Coretta) and Dinah Washington (Respect). She received Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actress and Best Original Song for her work on 2017 film Mudbound.
More than 30 years into her recording career, Blige appears happy, energized and ready to add more hits and heartfelt anthems to her songbook.
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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.
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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.