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Songbook: Celebrating Daddy Yankee's Legendary Three-Decade Reggaeton Reign
At the start of his farewell tour, GRAMMY.com examines the solo hits and collaborations that have made Daddy Yankee a living legend — and why countless of rising reggaeton artists are following in his footsteps.
Presented by GRAMMY.com, Songbook is an editorial series and hub for music discovery that dives into a legendary artist's discography and art in whole — from songs to albums to music films and videos and beyond. In this edition, GRAMMY.com pays tribute to reggaeton legend Daddy Yankee, examining his biggest hits and most memorable collaborations.
Daddy Yankee goes by many names: The Big Boss. El Jefe. El Cangri. The King. While many of them are self-proclaimed, it’s undeniable that the artist is a reggaeton icon. In his nearly three-decade-long career, Yankee (real name Ramón Luis Ayala Rodríguez) has reigned tall with hardly any visible competition (with all due respect to Don Omar), and his journey to the top is the stuff of legends.
In fact, the 46-year-old reggaetonero is the most successful person to emerge from the underground in the mid-'90s. He became el género's biggest export during its first international explosion in the aughts and, in the decades that followed, D.Y. has enjoyed a highly prolific career. As the genre currently enjoys massive mainstream popularity the world over, Daddy Yankee has also gained the respect and admiration of the majority of reggaeton’s new class.
Unbeknownst to many, Yankee coined the word "reggaeton" 1994 on DJ Playero’s seminal 1994 mixtape Playero 36 (DJ Nelson would popularize the word reggaeton the next year). His underground debut No Mercy (1995) laid the foundation for the future of reggaeton, fusing old-school hip-hop and turntablism against his signature dancehall-esque, quick-witted lilt. A decade later, Daddy Yankee fueled the reggaeton explosion with "Gasolina," and the rest is history.
Six Latin GRAMMY wins and four GRAMMY nominations later, the Big Boss remains a global force to be reckoned with. Following D.Y.'s recent retirement announcement, GRAMMY.com pays homage to his prolific and highly influential body. From Barrio Fino to "Despacito" and Legendaddy, we examine the solo hits and collaborations that have made the Puerto Rican artist a living legend — and why countless of reggaeton newcomers are following in his footsteps.
The Global Hitmaker
Armed with a rapid-fire flow backed by a revving, EDM-driven thump, the former baseball player scored his first musical home run with "Gasolina" in 2004. Produced by Luny Tunes, the song became an instant gargantuan hit that unleashed reggaeton well beyond his island home.
In the Americas, Yankee became known as the face of a burgeoning scene and the incendiary song became the gateway to the genre for those outside of the Caribbean diaspora. The album cover of Barrio Fino — a candid black-and-white shot of Daddy Yankee looking off camera, donning a New York Yankees cap — inspiring legions of followers to sport Yankees hats.
In addition to expanding reggaeton’s international reach, the album is widely considered foundational for many reggaeton artists that followed. Daddy Yankee’s linguistic dexterity and influence on the genre was recognized at the 2005 Latin GRAMMYs, where "Gasolina" became the first reggaeton song to be nominated for the coveted Record of the Year; Barrio Fino earned him his first Latin GRAMMY for Best Urban Album Music.
Nearly two decades later, Barrio Fino’s countless hits — like the party-starting "Lo Que Pasó, Pasó," about an old fling, and "Tu Prínicpe" — continue to ignite dance floors at block parties and bourgeois resorts alike. In 2005, Daddy Yankee followed up with a live album and four new songs, including "Rompe," a fire-in-the-belly banger for serious perreo enthusiasts. His popularity accelerated well into the aughts, and Daddy Yankee was added to Time's list of 100 influential people in 2006.
The Boricua superstar journeyed to further sonic territory with 2010's Mundial, which employed equal parts braggadocio and trap experimentalism as heard on "El Mejor de Todos Los Tiempos" and "El Más Duro." Early signs of the then-new Latin trap seeped through, thanks to producers Musicólogo & Menes, while the Yankee also embraced beloved Puerto Rican tropical rhythms (hear the merengue on "La Despedida" and "Rumba y Candela").
Prestige arrived a couple of years later with more memorable bangers at the intersection between EDM, reggaeton, and electropop. In 2012, the rapper told a news outlet in Miami that Prestige is his "best and most complete album" yet. The charts and viral streams confirmed it: flashy, swaggering numbers like "Limbo" and "Lovumba" both peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard’s U.S. Latin charts; and the former song currently boasts a staggering 1.2 billion views on YouTube.
A new cohort of música urbana superstars that grew up on old school reggaeton — led by the likes of J Balvin, Ozuna, and, later, Sech and Karol G — gave the genre a more sophisticated makeover in the mid-2010s. Many of urbano’s rising stars cite Yankee as an inspiration, while their changes to the genre were also inspired by improved technology that refined production.
Meanwhile, new reggaeton fans began to explore the roots of the genre. While genre O.G.s such as Don Omar experienced a back-catalog boost, many slowed their new music release momentum — not Daddy Yankee. To popular perception, this made the D.Y. the default genre originator, with hardly any visible competition from peers.
During the later part of the decade, Daddy Yankee released a slew of singles and buzz-worthy collabs. As an unrivaled reggaeton icon, Yankee dropped "Shaky Shaky" and "Dura" to further virality. By the time of the reggaeton-pop of "Con Calma" (featuring Snow) and the tropical-soaked "Que Tire Pa Lante" — which samples vocals by the new hype generation including Bad Bunny, Natti Natasha, Anuel AA, and Darell, as well as genre pioneers like Wisin and Lennox — Daddy Yankee was unstoppable.
The Powerhouse Collaborator
When "Despacito" arrived in 2017, the reggaeton movement spread like wildfire. Daddy Yankee’s artistry and decades of street cred paid off in a huge way when he joined former rock balladeer Luis Fonsi for the now-omnipresent smash hit. Beyond his existing fame, the track instantly transformed D.Y. into a full-fledged Latin pop phenomenon. The song itself took on a new life of its own: "Desapcito" currently clocks in at a staggering 7.92 billion views, making it the second most watched video in YouTube history. Today, reggaeton and Latin pop are used interchangeably, and popular Latin pop playlists are loaded with reggaeton songs.
Perhaps one of Daddy Yankee's most memorable collaborations is "Oye Mi Canto" by N.O.R.E., also featuring Nina Sky, Gem Star and Big Mato. Entering the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 12 in 2006, this song helped catapult reggaeton to mainstream success. "Oye" also put the Latino/a and Black Latino/a presence on the map at a time when MTV largely aired music videos by white and African American artists.
Yankee's feature on "Machete" by Héctor El Father was another early banger that resonated throughout the underground. Released the same year that "Gasolina" dropped, the song channeled a similar bombastic energy and made maximalist reggaeton sound defiant.
The New Class
Reggaeton’s new cohort further helped elevate Daddy Yankee’s star to newer heights. In 2020, Panamanian sensation Sech invited an all-star cast — including Farruko, J Balvin, Yankee and superstar Rosalía — to sing in the remix of his hit song "Relación." "Daddy Yankee is the Big Boss, the best of all time," said Sech. "He’s not about just arriving and making a hit, he’s about maintaining, and if we talk about maintaining, he has the record."
As he continued to make huge strides within the ever-growing reggaeton empire, Daddy Yankee then stepped into Latin drill. In 2021, Yankee joined forces with Brooklyn drill pioneer Bobby Shmurda and J Balvin for a remix of trap rapper Eladio Carrión’s viral dissonant drill song "Tata." The song sees the D.Y. diving into darker territory while maintaining his bad boy image.
At the same time, Yankee was shedding that image: A few years earlier, he joined Janet Jackon for a more gleeful pop duet in New York City, and helped break then-teen reggaeton upstart Lunay on the remix of "Soltera," joined by Bad Bunny.
By combining sounds and styles from different generations, reggaeton is cementing its everlasting star power. This is exemplified in "Mayor Que Usted," a recent hit by Natti Natasha, Wisin & Yandel, and Daddy Yankee, which sees three artists of different stylistic leanings bring forward a potent reggaeton recipe. In the month and a half since its posting, the YouTube video already racked up 14.5 million streams.
When considering his biggest hits and collaborations, it’s undeniable that El Jefe has made epic strides. As he plans his exit in full galore, Yankee leaves us with a riveting record for the reggaeton-pop cannon that encapsulates his dynamic and linguistic prowess. There are plenty of moments in LEGENDADDY (his seventh and final studio album, released in March) where D.Y.'s creative brilliance shines through, but in contemporary Latin pop fashion, he invites plenty of others to share the spotlight, while making his claim as the G.O.A.T.
In "Agua" starring Rauw Alejandro and fabled guitarist Nile Rodgers, the three artists summon a revamped pop-funk for perreo under a disco ball. Bad Bunny’s hit-making streak continues on the exhilarating club track "X Última Vez," and El Alfa brings forward his frenetic Dominican dembow dazzle on "Bombón," alongside unlikely guest Lil Jon. Our main man re-returns to the native tropical rhythms of Puerto Rico on "Rumbatón," all in all accumulating to a welcoming, farewell homage that captures Daddy Yankee’s enduring legacy.
From coining the genre to continually rewriting the música urbana playbook for over a quarter-century, and amassing 20.4 billion total YouTube views, there’s no denying that the Yankee has been helping transcend reggaeton’s cultural boundaries. As reggaeton enjoys plenty of global acclaim, this legendary daddy has every right to boast his bravado.
Photo: Timothy Norris/FilmMagic
The Sonic And Cultural Evolution Of Reggaeton In 10 Songs
Reggaeton is now firmly in the mainstream, with stars like Bad Bunny and Karol G topping charts with consecutive hits. But the genre has had a complex history and development over decades; read on for 10 songs that track reggateon's evolution.
Once a marginalized genre associated with lewdness and criminality — much like the genres from which it draws so much influence, dancehall and hip-hop — reggaeton is now firmly in the mainstream. While dominant across Latin America in the new millennium, reggaeton has made huge inroads with English-speaking audiences in the past decade, particularly with crossover hits like "Bailando," "Despacito," and numerous Bad Bunny songs from the past three years.
Although many associate reggaeton with Puerto Rico, the roots of the genre can be found in Panama, with artists like El General and Nando Boom taking Jamaican dancehall riddims — like dembow, first introduced in the Shabba Ranks song of the same name — and rapping in Spanish over them in the early 1990s. In Puerto Rico, early reggaeton was called "underground," and gained popularity in the mid-1990s through mixtapes put out by DJs like Playero and Negro, who utilized hip-hop techniques to alter the dancehall riddims as an instrumental track for local rappers and singers like Daddy Yankee.
Reggaeton has long been a male-dominated genre (with Ivy Queen being the main exception to the rule), but in recent years female singers have become more prominent. Colombian singer Karol G, for example, is currently one of the genre’s biggest stars, and Spanish singer Rosalía pivoted to reggaeton for her 2022 album Motomami, which won a Latin GRAMMY for Album Of The Year.
Colombian artists have also been making their way to the top of the reggaeton charts in recent years — alongside Karol G, there’s J Balvin and Maluma — although Puerto Rican artists still dominate the genre, with current stars like Rauw Alejandro and Anuel AA.
Reggaeton will only continue to evolve and develop; read on for 10 songs that represent the sonic and cultural evolution of the genre in the past three decades.
El General - "Tu Pum Pum" (1990)
Years before the term reggaeton was invented, Panamanian rapper El General (Edgardo Franco) was the first artist to gain recognition recording reggae en español. Given the history of West Indian immigration to Panama to build the Canal, it’s not surprising that the story of reggaeton begins there. This proto-reggaeton style emulated Jamaican dancehall much more closely than later styles would. El General and his friends got started by taking Jamaican riddims like the genre-defining dembow and rapping in Spanish over them; they used to board buses in Panama City and perform for fellow riders. El General was known as a skilled improvisor.
He moved to New York to study in the late 1980s, and hooked up with fellow Panamanian and producer Michael Ellis, who is said to have invented the term "reggaeton." El General’s first hit, "Tu Pun Pun" is a Spanish-language version of Jamaican dancehall artist Little Lenny’s 1990 song "Punnany Tegereg" that’s quite faithful musically to the original.
The title of the song is slang for female genitals, and the lyrics chronicle El General’s sexual prowess in graphic detail. Its chorus chants, "Your pum pum, baby baby, won’t kill (tame) me." The song became a hit in the U.S. and El General went on to have a successful, albeit brief, career.
Tego Calderón - "Pa’ Que Retozen" (2003)
One of the biggest tracks on Tego Calderón’s debut album, El Abayarde, "Pa’ Que Retozen" was a party anthem and one of the first reggaeton hits in the U.S. It represents the culmination of many musical shifts that took place during the 1990s in Puerto Rico. By the mid-1990s, the dembow riddim began to dominate the Puerto Rican underground scene. As the millennium approached, DJs and producers began to incorporate elements of Latin popular music genres as well.
"Pa’ Que Retozen" is a good example of this trend, as bachata-style guitar riffs play underneath Calderón’s rapping. The background track switches up several times in this song, including an incredibly catchy, high-pitched synth riff heard in the second verse. Other tracks on El Abayarde also incorporate Latin genres and instruments — like bongó drums on "Abayarde," Afro-Puerto Rican bomba percussion on "Loíza," and a full salsa orchestra and vocals on "Planté Bandera."
Ivy Queen - "Quiero Bailar" (2002)
Known as the "Queen of Reggaeton," Ivy Queen was the only prominent female reggaeton artist for nearly two decades. She released two albums in the late 1990s, but it was her third album, Diva, in 2003, that really broke through. Ivy Queen intentionally wrote from a female perspective, as she had come up in a male-dominated scene in San Juan where women were constantly being objectified.
With her deep, throaty vocal tone, Ivy Queen proclaims on "Quiero Bailar" that although she wants to dance — even in the sexualized perreo style that had become synonymous with reggaeton — that doesn’t necessarily mean she wants to have sex with her dance partner. The song is still an important anthem for women who want to feel free to bump and grind and express themselves on the dancefloor without men expecting a sexual encounter.
Don Omar - "Dile" (2003)
Three of the genre’s most influential artists exploded on the scene at roughly the same time: Calderón, Daddy Yankee and Don Omar, with the latter two involved in a rivalry for the title of "King of Reggaeton." However, Don Omar always stood out among the three for the lyricism of his voice — he was a more gifted singer than many of his peers.
His debut album, The Last Don, is considered to be a classic, utilizing a similar approach as Calderón of injecting more melodic Latin styles, like bachata and salsa, into his music. The Dominican production team Luny Tunes, who was instrumental in expanding the sound of reggaeton and distinguishing it further from its Jamaican roots, produced about half the album’s tracks.
Like "Pa’ Que Retozen," Don Omar’s first major single, "Dile" relies heavily on a bachata guitar line, but his vocal style is quite different from the deep, resonant rapping of Calderón. The combination of Don Omar’s tenor voice with the melodic instrumentals of "Dile" makes for a very aesthetically pleasing, yet danceable song. In addition, he interpolates a salsa song, Joe Arroyo’s "La Noche," into a bridge-like section in the middle of "Dile."
The subject matter is also more emotional than many reggaeton songs had been up to this point, as he’s pleading with a woman to tell her boyfriend that she wants to be with someone else (Don Omar).
Daddy Yankee - "Gasolina" (2004)
The first reggaeton song to be nominated for Record Of The Year at the Latin GRAMMYs, "Gasolina" still stands as the genre’s most iconic and recognizable song. The song catapulted not only Daddy Yankee into the mainstream, but also the genre itself. It appeared on Daddy Yankee’s third studio album, Barrio Fino, which broke numerous records and won many awards.
Barrio Fino took a broad approach, which proved incredibly successful. Many of the album’s tracks were produced by Luny Tunes, including its two biggest hits, "Gasolina" and "Lo Que Pasó, Pasó." The album also features a salsa-reggaeton fusion and an R&B-inflected rap song that sounds like it could have been recorded by Big Pun.
As for the concept behind "Gasolina," Daddy Yankee was living in a San Juan housing project with his family, where he often heard people on the street shouting, "iComo le gusta las gasolina!" ("How she likes gasoline!"), referring to women who accept rides from men with nice cars. He took that phrase and ran with it, creating the famous hook "A mí me gusta la gasolina, dame más gasolina" ("I like gasoline, give me more gasoline"). A decade later he laughed at the idea that the term "gasolina" referred to drugs — as many people assumed — claiming that he used it literally, to refer to cars.
"Oye Mi Canto" - N.O.R.E., feat. Nina Sky, Gem Star, Daddy Yankee, and Big Mato
Reggaeton exploded in popularity in the mid-aughts, which explains why there are so many classic songs from that time period. "Oye Mi Canto" was the first collaboration between an American rapper (N.O.R.E.) and reggaeton artists, and included verses in English and Spanish.
The song originally featured Tego Calderón but Daddy Yankee replaced him in the video. It also signaled an acceptance of reggaeton by New York hip hop artists — Fat Joe also appears in the video. It peaked at No. 12 on the Billboard Top 100, a first for a reggaeton song.
The song utilizes a common feature of commercial hip hop at the time, a catchy R&B hook sung by a female vocalist, Nina Sky. The hook borrows from and adapts the recognizable chorus "Boricua, morena, Boricua, morena," which was heard on Big Pun’s massive 1998 hit "Still Not A Player," but extends it to include other Latino ethnicities beyond "Boricua" (Puerto Rican).
Calle 13 -"Atrévete-te-te" (2005)
Hardly a traditional reggaeton group, Calle 13 nonetheless created one of the genre’s most popular, beloved songs in 2005 with their irreverent hit "Atrévete-te-te." Rapper Residente and instrumentalist/producer Visitante, step-brothers, founded the group in 2004, and gained fame with a song about the FBI killing of Puerto Rican independence leader Filiberto Ojeda Ríos called "Querido FBI."
Residente is the most politically outspoken rapper within reggaeton, a genre the two musicians have tended to distance themselves from, preferring not to be labeled. The group’s music has always been eclectic, using live instrumentation and unusual timbres. These elements undoubtedly relate to the fact that Visitante plays dozens of instruments. The brothers still hold the record for most Latin GRAMMY Awards in history, a whopping 27 each!
"Atrévete-te-te" is an infectious cumbia-reggaeton hybrid featuring an unforgettable high-register clarinet. Residente’s lyrics are raunchy, witty, and replete with American pop culture references and anglicisms. He dares a "Miss Intellectual" to get down off her culturally elitist high horse and let loose: "I know you like Latin pop rock, but reggaeton gets into your intestines, under your skirt like a submarine, and brings out your ‘Taino’ (indigenous people native to Puerto Rico)." He reinforces his point later, singing, "Who cares if you like Green Day? Who cares if you like Coldplay?"
"Bailando" - Enrique Iglesias feat.Descemer Bueno and Gente de Zona (2014)
In the 2010s reggaeton’s popularity continued to grow, and "Bailando" was one of the songs that significantly raised the genre’s visibility among English-language audiences. Nonetheless, Spanish pop singer Enrique Iglesias originally didn’t like the song.
"Bailando" was written and recorded by Cuban singer/songwriter Descemer Bueno and Cuban reggaeton duo Gente de Zona, who had become one of the island’s biggest musical groups. When Iglesias heard Bueno’s recording, he changed his mind and they added his vocals.
Garnering many awards, and winning Song of the Year at the 2014 Latin GRAMMYs, "Bailando" was flamenco-infused reggaeton designed for mass appeal. It follows a traditional pop song format, with Iglesias singing the verses and trading off with Gente de Zona and Bueno in the extended chorus sections. The lyrics are standard love song fare, and don’t include any of the rapped vocals or Cuban slang that had made Gente de Zona so popular in Cuba. Nonetheless, it peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and spent a record-breaking 41 weeks at the top of the U.S. Latin charts.
"Despacito" - Luis Fonsi featuring Daddy Yankee, with a remix feat. Justin Bieber (2017)
Love it or hate it, it’s impossible to ignore the cultural impact of "Despacito." It was already a huge hit in its original version, by Puerto Rican singer Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee. But when Justin Bieber called Fonsi up to inquire about doing a remix, it became 2017’s song of the summer.
Like "Bailando," the original version was already as much Latin pop as it was reggaeton, and although Daddy Yankee has some rapped vocals in the second verse, he’s mainly singing as well. The producers decided to use a Puerto Rican cuatro, which opens the song, in addition to an acoustic guitar in order to give the song a more local feel. One unique element was the insertion of a rhythmic break right before the chorus "Despacito" (which translates to "slowly") comes in. The way Fonsi breaks up the three syllables in the title word, taking his time with them, is a nice touch.
The Justin Bieber remix was released three months later, and maintained the song’s original rhythms and Daddy Yankee’s verses. An English verse was added for Bieber at the beginning of the song, and he sang the "Despacito" choruses in Spanish — the first time he’d ever sung in Spanish. It quickly rose to No. 1 on the Hot 100 charts, which gave Fonsi and Daddy Yankee their first No. 1 hit. It stayed at the top of the charts for 16 weeks, tying with "One Sweet Day," by Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men, and remained the longest-leading No. 1 single until 2019. "Despacito" also won Song and Record Of The Year at the Latin GRAMMYs.
"Titi Me Preguntó" - Bad Bunny (2022)
Bad Bunny is not only the most prominent artist in contemporary reggaeton — he was the biggest artist in the world in 2022. It’s impossible to list all of the accolades Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio has attained in his short career, but here are a few: His latest, Un Verano Sin Tí, was the first Spanish-language one to be nominated for Album Of The Year at the 2023 GRAMMYs, he's been Spotify's most streamed artist in the world for three straight years.
Un Verano Sin Tí was a masterful achievement, showcasing a wide variety of contemporary Latin music beyond reggaeton, including Dominican dembow and mambo, bachata, electro-cumbia, and even indie rock — all anchored by Bad Bunny’s emo vocal style. The album is a celebration of Spanish Caribbean identity, paying homage as much to Dominican as to Puerto Rican music.
"Titi Me Preguntó" is not only one of the album’s biggest hits, but also one of its most complex tracks, featuring several discrete sections. It begins with a bachata guitar intro, followed by Bad Bunny’s rapped vocals accompanied by a sparse backbeat. His aunt is asking why he goes out with so many girls and won’t settle down. The body of the song speeds way up, keeping a sparse accompaniment, as Bad Bunny lists the names and cities of different girlfriends.
But there’s an interesting shift at the 2:15 mark, where the bachata guitar returns and we hear a woman’s voice admonishing him for being an f-boi. It’s followed by anguished Bad Bunny vocals singing, "I’d like to fall in love but I can’t." The music changes back to the sparse backbeat accompaniment when he sings: "I don’t even trust myself," and notes how many women say they want to have his first-born child. The singing returns, as a spooky electronica melody is added into the background mix: "Listen to your friend, I’ll only break your heart…I don’t know why I’m like this."
This is a man struggling with interpersonal demons, and this vulnerable masculinity (and his past refusal to conform to rigid gender norms) is precisely why Bad Bunny is so beloved by his female fans.
Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016
Upon winning the GRAMMY for Best Rap Album for 'To Pimp a Butterfly,' Kendrick Lamar thanked those that helped him get to the stage, and the artists that blazed the trail for him.
Updated Friday Oct. 13, 2023 to include info about Kendrick Lamar's most recent GRAMMY wins, as of the 2023 GRAMMYs.
A GRAMMY veteran these days, Kendrick Lamar has won 17 GRAMMYs and has received 47 GRAMMY nominations overall. A sizable chunk of his trophies came from the 58th annual GRAMMY Awards in 2016, when he walked away with five — including his first-ever win in the Best Rap Album category.
This installment of GRAMMY Rewind turns back the clock to 2016, revisiting Lamar's acceptance speech upon winning Best Rap Album for To Pimp A Butterfly. Though Lamar was alone on stage, he made it clear that he wouldn't be at the top of his game without the help of a broad support system.
"First off, all glory to God, that's for sure," he said, kicking off a speech that went on to thank his parents, who he described as his "those who gave me the responsibility of knowing, of accepting the good with the bad."
He also extended his love and gratitude to his fiancée, Whitney Alford, and shouted out his Top Dawg Entertainment labelmates. Lamar specifically praised Top Dawg's CEO, Anthony Tiffith, for finding and developing raw talent that might not otherwise get the chance to pursue their musical dreams.
"We'd never forget that: Taking these kids out of the projects, out of Compton, and putting them right here on this stage, to be the best that they can be," Lamar — a Compton native himself — continued, leading into an impassioned conclusion spotlighting some of the cornerstone rap albums that came before To Pimp a Butterfly.
To Pimp a Butterfly singles "Alright" and "These Walls" earned Lamar three more GRAMMYs that night, the former winning Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song and the latter taking Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (the song features Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat). He also won Best Music Video for the remix of Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood."
Watch Lamar's full acceptance speech above, and check back at GRAMMY.com every Friday for more GRAMMY Rewind episodes.
From left: David Corio/Redferns; Paul Natkin/Getty Images; Scott Gries/Getty Images; Richard E. Aaron/Redferns
Songbook: A Comprehensive Guide To Tom Waits’ Evolution From L.A. Romantic To Subterranean Innovator
As Tom Waits’ series of Island Records releases from the ‘80s and ‘90s are being reissued, take an album-by-album trip through the legendary singer/songwriter’s significant body of work.
When Tom Waits warned on "Underground," the first song on his transformational 1983 album Swordfishtrombones, "there’s a rumblin’ groan down below," he very well could have been describing the artistic awakening that made him a legend.
Once an earnest yet good-humored singer/songwriter, Tom Waits is the rare artist in the past 50 years to successfully pull off something as radical as a complete artistic reinvention. A songwriter with a taste for the dark and grotesque as much as the theatrical, Waits has built up a catalog heavy on bizarre characters, morbid nursery rhymes, gruff junkyard blues and a uniquely unconventional take on rock music. And though it took some experimentation, trial and error and eventually getting married to arrive on the sound we hear today, he’s made a five-decade career of embracing sounds on the fringe and turning them into memorable melodies.
A Southern California native who got his start playing folk clubs in San Diego before relocating to Los Angeles in the 1970s, Tom Waits debuted as a relatively conventional singer/songwriter with a twinge of blues and jazz in his bones. And where his earliest records found him singing with more of a raspy croon, he adopted a vocal growl more spiritually akin to Louis Armstrong and Captain Beefheart.
Waits never quite fit in alongside peers such as Jackson Browne or James Taylor. His instincts often pushed himself somewhere a little dirtier and darker, favoring tales of vagabonds and outcasts told with an inebriated sentimentality and irreverent humor. Throughout his decades-long career, the two-time GRAMMY winner never let go of the emotional honesty in his songwriting.
Waits has joked that he makes two types of songs: grim reapers and grand weepers. The former became his staple sound in the 1980s after he married longtime creative partner Kathleen Brennan and began his decade-long tenure on Island Records, which still occasionally found him returning to the latter via less frequent but no less disarming ballads.
What once was a songbook reflective of the bars and familiar streets evolved into surreal dens of iniquity and theaters of the grotesque. Waits' knack for storytelling and character development only strengthened over the years, even as his songs took more oddball and ominous shape. Swordfishtrombones' "Sixteen Shells from a Thirty-Ought Six" follows a hunter following a crow into a Moby Dick-like epic; spoken word standout "What’s He Building In There?," from 1999’s Mule Variations, prompts the listener to ponder who’s really up to no good.
Though his record sales have been modest, Waits' songs have been covered by the likes of Rod Stewart and Eagles, and he’s collaborated with everyone from Bette Midler to Keith Richards. His songwriting and unique musical aesthetic have influenced records by Andrew Bird, Neko Case, Morphine and PJ Harvey.
As Waits’ acclaimed series of albums on Island Records from the ‘80s and ‘90s are being reissued in remastered form — some for the first time on vinyl in decades — GRAMMY.com revisits the legendary singer/songwriter’s significant body of work via each of his studio albums. Press play on the Spotify playlist below, or visit Apple Music, Pandora, and Amazon Music to enter Waits' sonic wonderland of '70s era ballads and his plethora of twisted narratives and experimental sounds.
The Barroom Balladeer
Though often treated to his own idiosyncratic filter, Waits’ early output in the ‘70s reflected the glamor and sleaze of his Los Angeles surroundings.
Closing Time (1973)
Making his debut at the height of the ‘70s singer/songwriter boom, Tom Waits revealed only slight glimpses of his myriad idiosyncrasies on 1973’s Closing Time. Heavily composed of ballads, the album’s sound is a result of a compromise between Waits’ own preference for more jazz-leaning material and producer Jerry Yester’s penchant for folk.
Despite, or perhaps because of, that creative tension, Closing Time has a unique character. A sense of wanderlust and escape within its 12 piano-based songs feels like a jazzier, West Coast counterpart to Bruce Springsteen. Waits imbues the call of the road with a sense of melancholy on gorgeous opener "Ol’ 55" and gives a hefty tug at the heartstrings on the aching "Martha." He kicks up the tempo on "Ice Cream Man." Closing Time is often at its best when it’s more quietly haunting, like on the bluesy "Virginia Avenue."
Though the album didn’t initially garner much critical or commercial attention, it’s since become regarded as one of the finest moments of Waits’ early recordings. It also quickly earned the respect and admiration of other artists, with various songs from Closing Time being covered by Bette Midler, Eagles and Tim Buckley.
The Heart of Saturday Night (1974)
After establishing himself with the romantic ballads of his debut album, Waits waded deeper into the waters of boho jazz and beat poetry in its follow-up, The Heart of Saturday Night.
Waits shares his perspective from the piano bench and the barstool, occasionally delving into a sing-speak delivery against upright bass and brushed-drum backing. Throughout, Waits serves up colorfully embellished imagery about nights on the town and getting soused on the moon. Though not as experimental or sophisticated as some of his later recordings, The Heart of Saturday Night nonetheless finds Waits in a more playful mood, more overtly showcasing his sense of humor and penchant for a particular kind of down-and-out protagonist. Fittingly, the album's title track was directly inspired by Jack Kerouac.
The Heart of Saturday Night is somewhat autobiographical in that it’s one of the few albums that repeatedly features references to his youth growing up in San Diego. Most famously on "San Diego Serenade," as well as in his narrative of driving through Oceanside in "Diamonds on My Windshield," and his name-drop of Napoleone’s Pizza House, the pizzeria in National City where he worked as a teenager, in "The Ghosts of Saturday Night."
Nighthawks at the Diner (1975)
As Tom Waits further established himself as a singer/songwriter more at home in the naugahyde and second-hand smoke of a seedy nightclub than a folk festival, he sought to replicate the atmosphere of a jazz club on his third album. It’s not a live album in a literal sense; Waits invited a small crowd into the Record Plant studio in Los Angeles on two nights in July of 1975, and though the venue is artifice, the crowd reactions are genuine.
More heavily rooted in jazz than Waits’ first two albums, Nighthawks at the Diner mostly follows a particular pattern: An "intro" track featuring some witty barfly banter, followed by an actual song. Introducing each song with a round of inebriated wordplay ("you’ve been standing on the corner of Fifth and Vermouth," "Well I order my veal cutlet, Christ, it just left the plate and walked down to the end of the counter…") is a bit of a gimmick, yet for all its loose, freewheeling feel, the album features some of his best early songs, including "Eggs and Sausage," "Warm Beer and Cold Women" and "Big Joe and Phantom 309."
Releasing a manufactured live album early on proved a canny gambit for Tom Waits and resulted in his highest charting album up to that date. And it’s easy to see why: Nighthawks showcased the raconteur persona that’d come to define much of Waits' work to come.
The Bluesy Bohemian
Embracing a grittier sound and a more character-driven approach to storytelling, Tom Waits entered a period of creative growth in the second half of the ‘70s that saw him balancing a darker tone with a wry sense of humor.
Small Change (1976)
On his second and third albums, a jazz influence and increasingly prominent humor saw Waits developing not just as a distinctive personality, but as a character. His raspy growl deepened onSmall Change, as Waits' barfly persona finds himself in increasingly seedier surroundings. This new area is best showcased through the amusingly unsexy striptease scat of "Pasties and a G-String" and the surreal and misty eyed "The Piano Has Been Drinking."
Small Change isn’t nearly as jokey as the previous year’s Nighthawks at the Diner, but Waits carries a persistent smirk as he rattles through a laundry list of hucksterish advertising slogans in the carnival-barker beat jazz of "Step Right Up": "It gets rid of unwanted facial hair, It gets rid of embarrassing age spots, It delivers the pizza." He even ramps up an element of danger in the noir poetry of "Small Change (Got Rained on With His Own .38)".
Still, the heartache and romance remains within the album’s best ballads, including the gorgeous opener "Tom Traubert’s Blues" and the imagined depiction of a lonely waitress in "Invitation to the Blues."
Foreign Affairs (1977)
Tom Waits’ fifth album Foreign Affairs unexpectedly became one of his most consequential releases.
A rare Waits album that opens with an instrumental ("Cinny’s Waltz"), Foreign Affairs finds him taking on more narrative driven songwriting, as in the lengthy noir tale of "Potter’s Field" and the nostalgic road-movie recollection of "Burma-Shave." It seems fitting that this is the moment where Hollywood began to crack a door open for Waits — these songs sound like they were made for the silver screen.
Indeed, album standout "I Never Talk to Strangers," a duet with Bette Midler, inspired Francis Ford Coppola’s 1981 film One From the Heart. Waits wrote and performed on its soundtrack, and would work with Coppola multiple times.
Blue Valentine (1978)
Parallels between Waits' music and his acting career crop up throughout , beginning with 1978’s Blue Valentine. Released the same year that he made his acting debut in Paradise Alley — cast as a piano player named Mumbles, an apt role to be sure — Blue Valentine opens with a big, cinematic number itself, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s "Somewhere," the famous ballad from West Side Story.
Blue Valentine also finds Waits in character development mode, increasingly populating his bluesy and bedraggled songs with widows and bounty hunters, night clerks and scarecrows wearing shades. It also features one of his most heartbreaking songs in "Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis," in which Waits’ first-person epistle comes from the voice of the title character who reaches out to an old friend in a hopeful and warm update on the changes she’s made for the better. And then he seamlessly, devastatingly pulls out the rug from underneath it all, as only a fabulist like Tom Waits can.
Heartattack and Vine (1980)
The transition from one decade to the next couldn’t have been starker for Tom Waits as he entered the 1980s. His final album for Asylum Records seemed to signal a sea change, with its leadoff track steeped in scuzzy, distorted guitar and gruff blues-rock rather than piano balladry, jazz and beat poetry.
Heartattack and Vine is in large part more of a proper rock record than any of Waits’ earlier albums, as he lends his husky growl to gritty songs such as "Downtown" and "In Shades." Still, it’s the most tender moments that comprise some of Heartattack and Vine’s most enduring songs, such as "On the Nickel" and, in particular, "Jersey Girl," covered four years later by the Garden State’s own Bruce Springsteen.
The Avant-Garde Auteur
Tom Waits underwent a significant transformation in the 1980s, mostly leaving behind the smoky jazz-club ballads of the ‘70s in favor of a more avant garde take on rock music, rife with an arsenal of unconventional instruments.
The most dramatic shift in Tom Waits’ career came with the release of 1983’s Swordfishtrombones, his first release for Island Records and the first album of what came to be the sound most often associated with Waits. It’s rougher, rawer, more experimental and offbeat. A great deal of the credit goes to Waits’ wife, Kathleen Brennan, who introduced him to artists like Captain Beefheart and who became his creative partner, co-writing many of his best-known songs.
Waits trades the piano and strings of his earlier material for arrangements better fit for junkyard jam sessions and New Orleans funerals. Though he’s delivered a long list of releases that have since usurped such a title, Swordfishtrombones certainly sounded like his weirdest album at the time. Very little of it sounded like a conventional pop song;it’s interwoven with spoken-word pieces both hilarious and unnerving ("Frank’s Wild Years," "Trouble’s Braids"), instrumentals ("Dave the Butcher," "Rainbirds"), boneyard bashers ("Underground," "16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought Six") and even a few tender ballads ("Johnsburg, Illinois," "Town With No Cheer").
Though arguably far less commercial than anything he’d released prior, Swordfishtrombones still cracked the bottom half of the album charts. It also received the attention of critics, who praised Waits’ bold new direction and unconventional stylistic choices.
Rain Dogs (1985)
For much of the 1970s, Tom Waits took inspiration from the seamier side of Los Angeles, with occasional sentimental nods to his youth further south along Interstate 5 in San Diego. With 1985’s Rain Dogs, however, he relocated to New York City to capture an even grimier and grittier album inspired by its outcasts and outlaws.
Recorded in what was then a rough part of Manhattan in 1984, Rain Dogs continues the stylistic experimentation of Swordfishtrombones with an unusual array of instruments for a rock album, including marimba, trombone and accordion, the latter of which opens the title track in dramatic fashion with an incredible solo.
Rain Dogs also began Waits’ long collaborative relationship with Marc Ribot, whose guitar playing helps craft the album's signature sound. Through his Cuban jazz-inspired playing on "Jockey Full of Bourbon" and the scratchy and dissonant solo on "Clap Hands." Yet the album also finds him in the company of Keith Richards, whose licks appear on the album’s most famous song, "Downtown Train," which became a hit for Rod Stewart when he covered it in 1991.
Rain Dogs features Waits’ first co-writing credit from Brennan, brought dded gravitas to the aching ballad "Hang Down Your Head." It’s one of a few moments that cuts through the carnivalesque atmosphere of the album (see the demented nursery rhyme "Cemetery Polka," the crime-scene poetry of "9th and Hennepin" and the litany of misfortunes in "Gun Street Girl"). IRain Dogs is Tom Waits perfecting his approach, completing a stylistic transformation with one of his greatest batches of songs.
Frank’s Wild Years (1987)
One of the highlights of Waits’ 1983 album Swordfishtrombones was a humorous spoken-word jazz interlude wrapped up in a David Lynch nightmare, titled "Frank’s Wild Years," in which the titular Frank settles down into a suburban lifestyle, only to set his house on fire and drive off with the flames reflecting in his rearview mirror. Those 115 seconds or so were enough for Waits and Brennan to spin the idea out into a stage play, with this album serving as its soundtrack. (Its original cast at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre included Gary Sinise and Laurie Metcalf.)
Frank’s Wild Years likewise comprises songs performed in the play, though without the context of knowing its origins, it doesn’t so easily scan as a set of songs written for the stage. It continues the aesthetic vision that Waits pursued on his two previous Island Records albums, steeped in Weill-ian cabaret and mangled lounge-jazz renditions, like in the hammy Vegas version of "Straight to the Top." Waits continues to run wild stylistically, however, veering from junkyard blues-rock in opener "Hang On St. Christopher" to the tenderness of the lo-fi 78-style recording of closing ballad "Innocent When You Dream."
Fifteen years after its release, "Way Down in the Hole," was given a second life as the theme for the HBO drama "The Wire," each season featuring a different artist’s rendition of the song. Waits’ original scores the opening credits for season two.
Bone Machine (1992)
The title of Tom Waits’ tenth album fairly accurately sums up the sound of the record, which finds Waits incorporating heavier use of curious forms of percussion, many of them he played himself. Opening track "Earth Died Screaming" even resembles the sound of bones clanking against each other as Waits growls his way through an apocalyptic nightmare.
It’s fitting that Bone Machine coincided with Waits’ appearance as Renfield in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula. A macabre sensibility and grotesque narratives permeate this record:Acts of violence become a form of entertainment in "In the Colosseum," and he retells an actual story of a grisly homicide in "Murder in the Red Barn." There’s levity too, like in the delusions of a fame-seeker in the rowdy "Goin’ Out West," which, along with half the songs on the album, was co-written by Brennan.
Eerie and macabre as Bone Machine is, it earned Waits his first GRAMMYAward, for Best Alternative Music Album in 1993. Likewise, the Ramones covered standout track "I Don’t Wanna Grow Up" three years later on their final album ¡Adios Amigos!; Waits repaid the favor in 2003 with a cover of the band’s "Return of Jackie and Judy."
The Storyteller’s Songbook
Deeper into the ‘90s and ‘00s, Waits became more active in writing music for the theatrical stage, albeit filtered through his own peculiar lens. He also closed out the ‘90s with his longest album, helping to usher in a late-career renaissance.
The Black Rider (1993)
The soundtrack to a theatrical production,The Black Rider closed Waits' tenure with Island Records with the soundtrack to a theatrical production. Though his music appeared in films by the likes of Jim Jarmusch and Francis Ford Coppola, and he entered the world of theater with Frank’s Wild Years, this was his released composed in collaboration with playwright Robert Wilson — they would work on three productions together — based on German folktale Der Freischütz. In fact, Waits affects his best German accent in the title track, in which he beckons, "Come on along with ze black rider, we’ll have a gay old time!"
Highlights "Flash Pan Hunter," "November" and "Just the Right Bullets" juxtapose distorted barks against ramshackle arrangements of plucked banjo, clarinet and singing saw. , The structure of the album — rife with interludes, instrumentals and reprises — sets it apart from any of his prior works, leaving room for the listener to fill in the visual blanks.
Mule Variations (1999)
The release of Mule Variations coincided with the launch of Anti- Records, an offshoot of L.A. punk label Epitaph that was more focused on legacy artists in a variety of genres. This also resulted in the unlikely instance of a song by Tom Waits appearing on one of Epitaph’s famed Punk-O-Rama compilations, which typically featured selections by the likes of skatepunk icons NOFX and Pennywise.
The longest studio album in Waits’ catalog, Mule Variations makes good on a six-year gap by being stacked with an eclectic selection of songs, most of them co-written with Brennan (who also co-produced the album). From the lo-fi beatbox bark that blows open the doors of leadoff track "Big In Japan," Waits essentially takes a tour through a disparate but cohesive set of songs that feels like a career summary, from tent-revival blues ("Eyeball Kid"), to devastating balladry ("Georgia Lee") and rapturous gospel ("Come On Up to the House").
A new generation of TikTok users received an introduction to this album via a meme featuring the album’s "What’s He Building In There?", an eerie spoken-word track from the perspective of a paranoid, busybody neighbor that became an unlikely viral sensation.
Blood Money & Alice (2002)
Another collaboration with playwright/director Robert Wilson, Blood Money and Alice were released on the same day in 2002. Co-written by Brennan, both are the soundtracks to two plays, the former based on an unfinished Georg Büchner play Woyzeck and the latter an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland.
Blood Money is darker and harsher in tone, kicking off with the satirically pessimistic "Misery is the River of the World," and featuring highlights such as the obituary mambo of "Everything Goes to Hell" and the charmingly tender "All the World Is Green."
Alice — whose songs had been circulated for years in bootlegs in rougher form — is more subdued and strange, its gorgeously lush and haunting opening ballad an opening into a head-spinning world of Lewis Carroll surrealism and disorientation. "Kommienezuspadt" soundtracks White Rabbit hijinks through German narration and Raymond Scott machinations, "We’re All Mad Here" lends a slightly darker shadow to an uneasy tea party, and "Poor Edward" diverts slightly from Carroll canon to visit the story of Edward Mordrake, a man born with a face on the back of his head.
The Catalog Continues…
Though Waits hasn’t been quite as prolific in the past two decades as he had been from the ‘70s through the late ‘90s, he continued to refine and evolve his strange and uncanny sound, while sharing a triple-album’s worth of rare material that offered a wide view of his evolution over the prior two decades.
Real Gone (2004)
Waits maintained his prolific streak with the lengthy Real Gone, which featured 16 songs and spans nearly 70 minutes — just a hair shorter than his longest, Mule Variations. It’s also the rare Tom Waits album to feature no piano or organ, its melodies primarily provided via noisier guitar from Harry Cody, Larry Taylor and longtime collaborator Marc Ribot, along with contributions from Primus bassist Les Claypool and Waits’ own son, Casey, who provides percussion and turntable scratches.
Real Gone is, at its wildest, the most abrasive record in Waits’ catalog, clanging and clapping and clattering through uproarious standouts such as the supernatural mambo of "Hoist That Rag," the CB-radio squawk of "Shake It" and creepy-crawly stomp "Don’t Go Into That Barn," one of his better scary stories to tell in the dark. He leaves a little room to ease back on dirges like the haunting "How’s It Gonna End" and the subtly gorgeous "Green Grass," but every corner of the album is populated by outsized characters and ominous visions that seem larger than ever.
Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards (2006)
A career as long and fruitful as that of Tom Waits is bound to leave some material on the cutting room floor, the likes of which is compiled on the triple-disc set Orphans. Composed of non-album material that stretches all the way back to the 1980s, it’s divided into three distinctive themes: Brawlers, a disc of rowdier rock ‘n’ roll and blues material; Bawlers, a set of ballads; and Bastards, made up of what doesn’t fit into the other two categories — essentially Waits’ most fringe, peculiar music.
In drawing the focus toward each distinctive type of songs, Waits lets listeners experience more intensive, discrete aspects of his music. It’s the "Bastards," however, that tap into the extremes of Waits’ unique talents, comprising strange and macabre storytelling, unintelligible barks, even a wildly distinctive take on "Heigh Ho," from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Some of these songs had previously been released in some fashion — many of them appearing on movie soundtracks as well as collaborative efforts like Sparklehorse’s "Dog Door" — Orphans speaks to how productive he’s been over the past 40 years.
Bad As Me (2011)
Tom Waits’ final album (so far) hit shelves 12 years ago, the aftermath of which opened up his longest stretch without any new music since he began releasing records. Yet Bad As Me only offers the suggestion that Waits still has plenty of energy and inspiration left in the tank, as the album — released when he was 61 years old — comprises some of the hardest rocking material he’s ever committed to tape. It’s an album heavy on rowdy rock ‘n’ roll guitar, including that of Keith Richards, who had also previously lent his guitar playing to 1985’s Rain Dogs, as well as longtime collaborator Marc Ribot and Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo. Waits mostly adheres to concise, charged-up barnburners such as "Let’s Get Lost," "Chicago" and the more politically charged anti-war song "Hell Broke Luce." Though when Waits does ease off the throttle on songs like the eerie "Talking at the Same Time," the results are often spectacular.
If Tom Waits were to simply leave this as the end of his recorded legacy, it’d be a satisfying closing statement, though the closing ballad "New Year’s Eve" — ending on a brief round of "Auld Lang Syne" — would suggest new beginnings ahead of him. As it turns out, Bad As Me isn’t intended to be his last; earlier this year he confirmed that, for the first time in over a decade, he’s been working on writing new songs.
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.