meta-scriptTekno Talks New Music, Touring America & His "Elden Ring" Obsession | GRAMMY.com
Tekno press photo
Tekno

Photo: Emmanuel Oyeleke

interview

Tekno Talks New Music, Touring America & His "Elden Ring" Obsession

Ahead of his Back Outside tour, which hits the U.S. June 22, Nigerian artist Tekno details the origins of his name and sound, as well as his predictions for the future of African music on a global stage.

GRAMMYs/Jun 26, 2024 - 01:37 pm

It takes a lot of guts to declare yourself the "King of Afro-pop," but Tekno has the hits to back it up. 

The Nigerian artist is a staple of the country’s Afrobeats scene, responsible for massive hits such as "Pana" (over 66 million Spotify streams). He’s collaborated with massive artists across the world, starting in 2012 when he enlisted Davido for his breakout single "Holiday." He’s also entered the studio with the likes of Drake and Swae Lee, and Billie Eilish is a professed fan.  

Despite this, Tekno hasn’t quite reached the levels of fame that colleagues WizKid and Burna Boy have stateside, but that may be about to change. He’s touring extensively across the U.S. this summer as part of his Back Outside Tour, supporting his 2023 album The More The Better. Tekno also recently inaugurated a label partnership with Mr. Eazi-owned emPawa Africa, defecting from SoundCloud.  

The video for his latest single, "Wayo," features the artist as a cab driver going through relationship problems. It's a perfect example of Tekno’s classic pan-African pop, with romantic lyrics and a sweetly melodic sound.  

GRAMMY.com caught up with Tekno ahead of his tour, which kicks off June 22 in Columbus, Ohio, to chat about his new music, career goals, and a surprising video game obsession.

You recently released a new single. Tell us a little bit about "Wayo?"

"Wayo" is basically me just tapping into my roots sound, the original pan-African Tekno sound. Our music has morphed and just grown into so many different sounds over the years. And it's very easy to forget that this sound existed before all this music that's playing right now. So I had to deep dive into that. That's basically how I describe "Wayo," I call it a basic Tekno love song. Like it's basically how I started really.  

I don’t know if you’re aware that there’s an entire genre of music called "Techno?"  

Yes, yes, it’s close to house music.  

They’re pretty close. Actually, techno music was invented here in America by Black musicians in Detroit.  

Oh, wow. Yeah, people don’t really listen to the techno genre out here yet. They prefer more melodic and groovy music. 

So in that case, I did want to ask you about your artist name. Because if people don’t really listen to techno music in Africa, where did your name come from?  

I was much younger, and I was looking for a name while I was in church. I’m a Christian, so I was looking for a name that had some form of Christianity to it, even though I knew I wanted to be a secular artist. And then I found this name, "tekno," and it's Hebrew, it means something like "God's people" or "God's word." It's spelt a little bit differently, I can't really remember. But I just liked the meaning of it, and the name stuck with me. And that's how I started calling myself "Tekno."  

You've declared yourself the "King of Afro-Pop." Why do you consider yourself to be the king of Afro-pop, and why that instead of the King of Afrobeats or another label like that? 

It's more of a personal thing in a way. My favorite artist of all time, forever, will always be Michael Jackson. And Michael Jackson is the King of Pop. So when I named myself the "King of Afro-Pop," it’s because I like Michael Jackson, but it's also because I'm the king of Afro-f—ing-pop. So the name just kind of has a good ring to it.

I want to talk a little bit about partnering with Mr. Eazi; why did you decide to join EmPawa? What do you think the partnership holds for your future, and for the future of music in Africa? 

I just love making music so much, that's the goal for me. And I've gone from camp to camp, level to level, and after a while it just starts to wear on you. I don't want to just keep moving from Triple MG to Universal to SoundCloud; I want my own thing that’s a little more permanent. And Eazi is not just my friend, he's my brother. We've been talking about this for years, about doing business together.  

There are reasons why it made so much sense for us to come together, but I don't want to share everything. But I like being a priority. If I'm on SoundCloud, I don't want to be on a list of 27 artists where I'm maybe number 18 and my music doesn't get the focus it needs. Like, say I put out a song, and everyone on SoundCloud has gone on holiday. And I'm not aware because I'm Nigerian, I don't know that this day or that day is a holiday in the States. But working with a brother and a team that is home, where we know the system and we understand the culture, it's just way, way better. Because we know ourselves, we know our culture. So working with a brother that has this amazing setup at EmPawa, it just made so much sense.  

Read more: Mr. Eazi’s Gallery: How The Afrobeats Star Brought His Long-Awaited Album To Life With African Art 

You've collaborated with some American artists before, and Billie Eilish said she is a big fan of yours. Is there anyone in the U.S.-UK ecosystem that you would consider a dream collaboration? 

I’d definitely love to work with Billie Eilish. 100 percent. But Drake would always be my favorite collaboration, just because we've been in the studio together. We've talked about it. You know, if I start something I want to see it finished.  

He's just an inspiration to the business. Drake, he makes you know that you gotta work, because as big as Drake is he works harder than everybody else. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t love to collaborate with so many other artists whose music I really love.

Are you following the beef between Drake and Kendrick at all?

That was so good, man. I didn't consider that a beef, because when I would watch boxers in the ring fight, let’s say I'm watching Mayweather vs. Pacquiao, it doesn't matter who I'm a fan of. It doesn't matter who wins, I'm entertained.

As a big fan of music, I enjoyed every Drake song and I enjoyed every single Kendrick Lamar song. But if you ask me who I prefer, I would always pick sides and choose. But was I entertained? I definitely was, for sure. 

How is working with Americans different from working with Africans?  What are the distinctions you find between the two? 

Back in Nigeria we don't work in big studios, we work at home. Like, if I want to work with Wizkid I would probably go to his house, or he would come to mine, and we would make music there. But if I'm going to work with Travis Scott, we're gonna go to the studio. If I'm working with Billie Eilish we're gonna go to the studio. 

You’re touring North America this year. Do you have any expectations, or anything you’re looking forward to?  

I'm just happy to be back outside. I went through this period where I had lost my voice in 2019. And after that happened, and I went through surgery in New York, Corona[virus] happened right after.

And in this whole period, I kind of just stayed away from how much I worked and how much I put out music in the past. I feel like I got used to not being active, so I haven't necessarily been performing for a while. That’s why this tour in the U.S. is called The Back Outside Tour.  Because for a long time I haven't been outside, I haven’t been performing, I’ve just been at home.

I like to game [and] I like to make music. I make so much music, but I feel like being home has kind of restricted the amount of music I put out. Because anytime I’m outside, I just get this feeling like I want to conquer the world, I want to do more; I want to put out more.

I want to do more than I've done in the past. So this tour for me is just getting back outside, just getting myself out there and just being on the road heavy. You get lazy if you stay home for too long; we’re habitual creatures. So now I have the mindset that I have to forcefully keep myself out there and just be outside. I'm gonna be touring for three months in the U.S. That's a long time.

You mentioned you’re a gamer. What have you been playing recently? 

Recently I've been on "GTA V"; the online is extremely good. Just because it has this plethora of radio stations where while you're gaming you can still bask in this vast playlist. And it’s just fun because you get to play with people around the world. I [also] have this Nigerian community I play with. It's like a way to just be around the people even though I'm in the house, so it's really lovely. And "Call of Duty" is a great one too. But my all time favorite I would say is "Elden Ring." I got locked into Elden Ring for like eight weeks. 

Amapiano has really become the dominant sound coming out of Africa in recent years. What do you think will be next? 

Tekno sound! They miss it! My sound is like "Game of Thrones," season one to seven. 

Not season eight. 

Not season eight. I didn’t say that, you said that! [Laughs.

Basically, I’m not saying amapiano isn’t beautiful music, I’m not saying Nigerians haven’t found a way to evolve it in a way that’s different from the South African type. The South African sound will always be the original one, and every time you record on a South African amapiano beat, you can just tell the difference in the sound. It’s their culture, they own it. 

But we [Nigerians] are extremely good at taking your sound and putting our own flavor on it. It’s still your sound, but we play with it. So I feel like it’s been two years of the same [amapiano] and after a while people are gonna want another type of song. I’m not saying Amapiano will go away all of a sudden, it’ll never go away. But people want that pan-African sound. The local rhythm. And Tekno got that.  

Learn more: 11 Women Pushing Amapiano To Global Heights: Uncle Waffles, Nkosazana Daughter, & More

Can you go into detail? How do you describe this pan-African sound?  

These are songs that always tell a story, it’s never just random. "Wayo" is talking about, "If I invest in my love, would I get a return?" "I no come do wayo" means I'm not trying to play games. I'm serious. If I invest in this love, would I get it back? This thing we call love? Do you truly believe in it? Or you're just with me for the sake of dating somebody?  

This type of music always has a deep rooted message in the melodies; it's not just like a regular party thing. There's always a good tale behind the sweet melodies. So like, no, no matter how new school our music goes, this type of sound would always be this type of sound. You're not taking it where. It’s culture. 

The video for "Wayo" shows you driving a cab. Did you ever have to hold down a day job like that before you became a successful musician?  

Oh my god. I've been a houseboy. I catered for four little kids. They were so stubborn, man, that was the hardest thing I've done in my life. [Laughs.] That would have to be a different interview. I've worked in churches, too. I grew up from a very humble background and I'm grateful to God that I experienced that. 

Tems On How 'Born In The Wild' Represents Her Story Of "Survival" & Embracing Every Part Of Herself

KOKOKO! press photo
KOKOKO!

Photo: Sven de Almeida

interview

Meet KOKOKO! The DIY Electronic Group Channeling The Chaos & Resilience Of Kinshasa

The exciting live electronic act out of the Congo discusses their fiery, pulsing, sophomore album, 'BUTU,' the manic sound of Kinshasa, and using improvisation to keep their performances energized.

GRAMMYs/Jul 10, 2024 - 03:00 pm

No one else sounds like KOKOKO! —  they are a truly unique aural experience, an emphatic statement that does justice to the exclamation point in their name.

The experimental live electronic group out of Kinshasa — the active, populous capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo — is a reflection of their city. Their shouted and chanted lyrics reflect people's frustration with their government, as well as the sonic signals of industrious local vendors. Even their DIY instruments are an example of their resourcefulness: Although DRC is a resource-rich country, that wealth has been extracted by and for Western powers for centuries. Locals are left with limited resources and experience regular power outages and intense, ongoing conflict.

KOKOKO! was born after French electronic producer Xavier Thomas — who makes left-field, globally-influenced electronic music as Débruit — met talented local singer and musician Makara Bianko on a visit to Kinshasa. He was captivated by Bianko's large, nearly daily outdoor performances with his massive dance crew. The group, which also consists of locals Boms and Dido who fashion DIY instruments, incorporate much of Makara's improvisational and interdisciplinary energy into their music and energetic live show, while Thomas brings in synths, drum machines and other electronic elements.

After releasing their powerful debut album Fongola in 2019 on indie label Transgressive Records, KOKOKO! started getting booked at music festivals around the globe, as well as on NPR's Tiny Desk series and Boiler Room. Now, the cutting-edge group is pumping up the BPM and bringing the lively Kinshasa nighttime to the rest of the world via their urgent, high-energy sophomore album, BUTU, on July 5 on Transgressive.

Read on for a chat with Thomas and Bianko about their captivating new album, the music scene in the Congo, how their music reflects Kinshasa, and much more. (Editor's note: Bianko's answers are translated and paraphrased from French by Thomas.)

What energies, sounds and themes are you harnessing on 'BUTU?'

Xavier Thomas: "Butu" means night in Lingala [one of the national languages of the DRC]. The album is all about that high energy, specific atmosphere that happens when the night falls in Kinshasa.  

It's a very loud and crowded city. It gets pitch-black quite quickly because it's on the Equator. The sun sets really fast all year long. The sounds of the city kind of wake up [at night]; the generators are plugged in and the club music and evangelical church music [start] competing. All the inspirations are from all these sounds and everything that happens in the night in Kinshasa. 

The band plays a lot of DIY instruments; what instruments are on this album and can you point to their specific sounds? 

Xavier Thomas: There're the go-to things and then there's the found objects or the ones you can build. Simple things that are kind of ready-made, like detergent bottles — you can play it with a stick with a little bit of rubber, and it kind of makes bongo sounds with a slight natural overdrive.  

And you can also build your own string instruments with what you found on the street. For example, there's plastic chairs that have metal feet, and you can do a kind of metallophone with; if you chop the tubes, you will get different pitches, etcetera. You can find something in a mechanic shop that sounds really good straight away when you hit it; metallic percussion. So that's all the different DIY instruments or found percussion that you can make or work with. 

Was it mostly the same instruments as the first album, or were there some different things you were incorporating as well? 

Xavier Thomas: There are different things. Also, on this one, we use a little bit more of electronics, as it's a bit more upbeat and influenced by the club and the small music production studios of Kinshasa. 

There are also some field recordings. For example, on some tracks, there's horns from moto taxis that we pitched and made melodies with. But yeah, it's roughly the same instruments. 

The term DIY is often attached to the band. Of course, you just talked about the instruments, but I was also curious what DIY and improvisation looks like in your music-making process and performances. 

Xavier Thomas: It was an all-over DIY thing when we started. I used to make a lot of the videos. We [still] work with a small team, so we always have problems getting visas. We're doing a bit of everything just to keep going forward and traveling and to get our music everywhere. So, the DIY is not just the music, it's [all very] hands-on. Even on stage, we don't turn up with a big team, it's pretty much us at the moment. 

The DIY aspect came out of necessity for the music and instrument creators, of not being able to afford to buy or rent an instrument. So it started like that, trying to make a one- or two-string guitar, a two-string bass, and a drum set. And then it went beyond that, realizing we can find original and new sounds if we're not copying existing instruments. 

When I met Makara, he was doing five-hour public rehearsals six times a week on his own with 40 or 50 dancers. He had to work out all the technical problems with power cuts and amplifiers exploding. Makara still has that energy, even when we're sound checking. A lot of that DIY intuition is still coming in. 

The recording process has to be DIY because you're recording in outside music studios in little compounds or in difficult neighborhoods of Kinshasa, so there's a lot of sounds in the background. You just grab the moment where the energy, the music, the inspiration feels right. That's another DIY part of the project, it's pretty much recorded outside of recording studios for the most part. 

How does that also speak to access to instruments, internet and music studios for music-making in the DRC more broadly? 

Xavier Thomas: Well, there's some big artists in the Congo that have a lot of money and travel to play even in the U.S. and France. A few artists have everything they want and they're very famous and wealthy. But most of the studios I've seen are a tiny room in the corner of a compound, yet people are doing the most impressive productions and recordings with very little, whether it's electronic or live music. It's very resourceful and sometimes you don't hear it, you could not imagine it would be coming from such a small studio. 

I wish I could ask about every song on the album, because it feels like there's so much energy and context in each one. Can you tell me about the opening track, "Butu Ezo Ya" — the energy starts out so strong. Is there a message behind that song? 

Xavier Thomas: The first track is kind of an invitation. It's saying the night's coming, be ready. We have all the sounds that we grabbed in the streets. That's the track where the horns of the motorbikes are pitched and turned into melodies. It's an invocation, an invitation, to the listener to step in the Kinshasa night because it's really something.  

We wanted the opening track to be a little bit overstimulating, which is the impression you have the first time you step into the night in Kinshasa. So that's the idea, to [channel the] overwhelming street sounds that suddenly from chaos become organized and become the opener of the album to invite you to the more organized music after. [Chuckles.] 

Makara Bianko: I'm inviting people to step into the night, step into the album.

The album's next track, "Bazo Banga," is really captivating as well.

Xavier Thomas: "Bazo Banga" means they are scared. Sometimes people chant it when they're protesting. It can also be used in sport events about the other teams. There's a lot of frustrations in Congo; the population is a bit abandoned by the government. Sometimes there are political things that can't be said or expressed because it's a bit dangerous. So, in this track — Makara has explained the lyrics to me before — it's a way to regain a bit of control by trying to impress the other side. 

Makara Bianko: There's another angle mentioned at the end of the track: We're bringing so many new sounds that their hips are not going to hold. They are scared they are out of date, that they will not be matching our energy or be able to move because we're going too fast. During the track, I'm quoting a lot of images of why they could be scared. 

Xavier Thomas: In Kinshasa, our sound is still very different. At the beginning, with all the music, art performers, people who do body performance as well, who gravitate around our music and are sometimes part of the videos; [other] people thought we were all so crazy. The music didn't fit any standards there, even though Makara has a lot of influences, more when he was younger, in more standard music like Congolese rumba or ndombolo. I think people can still be a bit scared of our style and our energy, the people we work with, it's a bit different. 

In what ways is your music incorporating — as well as radically shifting — traditional and popular Congolese music? 

Makara Bianko: Growing up in Kinshasa, there's a lot of Congolese rumba and nbombolo. I'm also influenced by [Congolese] folk music, really old rhythms and chants. Congo is so big that this has just been mixed in our music, but we are presenting it like it's a new recipe. It doesn't taste like what you're used to even though the ingredients are there. There's also influences [in our music] from outside countries like Angola or South Africa. 

Xavier Thomas: What struck me the most when I first met Makara at this concert — from my Occidental angle — he has a very punk energy. Even though people aren't listening to punk music in Kinshasa, Makara would stick his mic in the speakers and play with feedback, and he has a very powerful voice and sometimes a very threatening singing tone. It was not influenced from punk; it was his own energy, his own frustration. 

I think music helps express the frustration a lot of people have in Congo, and people see that in him, through his anger and when he talks about things people encounter on the street that they can relate to. So yeah, some of the old folk music is there as influences, but it's very important to him to not do the same thing that a lot of artists have done for the last 40 years and to bring something new. 

What's going on in Kinshasa and the DRC in terms of electronic music? Are there other DIY electronic acts coming up?  

Xavier Thomas: There's a lot of electronic music now, I think the big scenes are in South Africa or Nigeria for big pop electronic music. Congo used to influence a lot of West Africa and Central Africa and now Nigeria and South Africa have quite strong industries, so sometimes there's a bit of that influence.  

With more Congolese rhythms for electronic music, you can have the whole range from very pop to very alternative. In the neighborhood where we started, there's a few more bands coming up now with DIY instruments who play a bit more like folk music from the Equator region in the north of the country. In Europe, I've noticed three bands since we started that now work with more DIY instruments. There's a music producer, P2N, from the southeast of Congo who makes repetitive electronic music in a kind of hypnotic, dance way. 

The band has been touring quite a bit since the first album. Locally, are you an active part of a scene, or is it more like you're doing something different there and bringing that around the world? 

 Xavier Thomas: We're still quite unique in Kinshasa, and if we play there it would be more of a block party. Makara has a lot of dancers in his crew, and dancers would join from the youngest at the beginning [of the show] to the more experienced, bridging between classic Congolese dance and more contemporary dance. There's a lot of theater in the dance as well.  

When we play there, it's still alternative. Once in a while we might play a bigger stage, but we play out [of the country] way more in front of way more people. We try not to play too often [here]. It's a huge city, so it can be tricky with the power cuts and everything. It's more of the art scene and people from the performance art school and dancers who gather if we do an event in Kinshasa, it's not huge crowds. 

You've performed on some pretty big platforms, as well as at global music festivals. What goes into your energetic live performance; is there improvisation? 

Xavier Thomas: It's key that we are still incredibly passionate, and we feel the music and leave a lot of space for improvisation. Then we can surprise each other, even during a gig. One track can be one length or double the next time, depending on the feeling, the crowd, the sound system and the time we play. 

Usually, people end up really moving, sometimes without realizing. We don't spare any energy. You end up drenched in sweat. I think because our excitement is real, the music is not over-rehearsed. We're still always excited at every show. I think people can feel that it's not staged. There can be unexpected things happening, which keeps us energetic, motivated and surprised on stage. 

How does the band usually feel after a performance? Is it a cathartic experience? 

Xavier Thomas: Well, we have our kind of ceremonial thing. We usually talk together at the beginning; we gather and stick our heads together, and we say where we are and what we want to achieve. At the end of the concert, the whole hour or so feels like it's passed by really quick, and you're still left with that rhythm or energy, even though you might be super tired, sometimes traveling and playing every day. Sometimes we have more energy at the end. At the beginning, we feel tired, and then the energy really comes in, and we feel super energized and super sharp and really awake at the end. It's good for us. 

What does Kinshasa sound like to you? 

Xavier Thomas: For Makara and I, to explain to somebody who's never been to Kinshasa, it's a very sonic city. I've never seen [anything like it]. It's so crowded; I think it's 15 million or 18 million people now. [Editor's note: 17 million is the latest estimate.] Everybody lives on the ground floor. There aren't too many high buildings, so the density of people is very high. For this reason, it's visually a bit crowded and overwhelming with people, cars, colors and everything.  

Therefore, to be noticed or stand out, everybody needs to have their own little signal or jingle. You can tell who's around you with eyes closed. A nail polish vendor would just bang two little glass polish bottles; that sound carries far away and they have their rhythm. People who sell SIM cards have a loop on their megaphone. 

Sound is how to be noticed; how to sell yourself, what's your role, what's your identity. That's obviously, without talking about music and sound systems. Churches have their own huge sound systems and they can clash with the club in front. Also something very typical in Kinshasa; it goes to the fullest, to the max, everything is used at its highest potential. The sound is pushed in overdrive and distorted because you want to be louder than the next person. It's all these little sound signals that can tell exactly who's around you or sometimes where you are as well. For me, that's the sound, plus the traffic. 

Wow. It must be so different going somewhere more remote, or just where it's quieter. It must feel almost like something's wrong. 

Xavier Thomas: There's not many moments with silence because at night the city is still alive. People like to go out. You can have a church next to you with a full live band and a huge PA sound system at 3 a.m. Quiet moments are rare.  

Makara: It's hard to deal with silence. I don't feel comfortable in silence because I've never really experienced it. 

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Janet Jackson performs at the 2022 Essence Festival of Culture.
Janet Jackson performs at the 2022 Essence Festival of Culture

Photo Credit: Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for Essence 

interview

Celebrating 30 Years Of Essence Fest: How New Orleans & Multi-Generational, Diasporic Talent Create The "Super Bowl Of Culture"

Ahead of the 30th Essence Festival Of Culture, held July 4-7 in New Orleans, GRAMMY.com spoke with executives and curators of the legendary celebration of Black excellence.

GRAMMYs/Jul 2, 2024 - 03:02 pm

Every July, millions of Black people, specifically Black women, descend upon New Orleans for the Essence Festival of Culture (EFOC). Known for many years as the Essence Festival, the festival is a celebration of Black culture, community, and heritage. Since its inception in 1995 as a one-off event to commemorate the publication’s 25th anniversary, the festival has evolved into a diasporic jubilee, drawing in people of African descent from across the diaspora. 

In addition to its global presence, the festival pours millions of dollars into the local New Orleans community, which has served as the festival's home for 30 years (with the exception of 2006, when the festival was held in Houston, because of Hurricane Katrina). In 2020, the festival was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite this, the annual festival continues to be one of the most sought-after and attended festivals in the United States. 

This year’s Essence Festival of Culture will be held at the Superdome from July 4-7, replete with legendary and fast-rising talents. On July 5, Birdman & Friends will celebrate the 30th anniversary of Cash Money Records. The following day will feature a special performance by Charlie Wilson, while Usher will commemorate the 20th anniversary of Confessions.

Janet Jackson and Victoria Monét will headline the festival's final night, while Frankie Beverly and Maze close out the festival with the return of All-White Night. Other performers include The Roots featuring Mickey Guyton, Ari Lennox and T-Pain, Busta Rhymes, Raphael Saadiq, D-Nice featuring Shelia E, Big Boi, and many more.  

Read more: Music Festivals 2024 Guide: Lineups & Dates For Lollapalooza, Coachella, Bonnaroo & Much More 

EFOC has been compared to SXSW, Coachella, Austin City Limits, and other notable festivals, yet it stands out for its empowerment-centered approach. It is not simply a festival, it is a family reunion. The one festival in the United States that does not pander to or take advantage of Black audiences, but truly celebrates them and their achievements. Although music has always been an integral part of the festival’s ethos — Aretha Franklin and B.B. King performed at the first iteration — the festival excels in its multi-generational and interdisciplinary programming. On any given day, attendees can attend sessions on Black entrepreneurship, politics, mental health, and literature, as well as seminars focused on issues impacting the Black community.  

There’s a reason why the festival is referred to as the party with a purpose. For decades, it has operated as a celebratory convening place for Black people, Black families, and Black communities. Now, more than ever, spaces like EFOC are needed, as the Black community experiences an onslaught of changes — from Historically Black Colleges and Universities in North Carolina and Tennessee being subject to intense government oversight, to Black women-owned venture capital firms being targeted by conservatives, and Black voting rights becoming at risk during an election year. 

Ahead of the festival’s 30th celebration, Michael Barclay, Executive Vice President of Experiential for ESSENCE Ventures and Barkue Tubman Zawolo, Chief of Staff, Talent and Diasporic Engagement for Essence Ventures, spoke to the Recording Academy about the history, legacy, and future of the Essence Festival of Culture.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Are you part of the generation that grew up with the Essence Festival of Culture? If so, how does it feel to be a part of it?

Barkue Tubman Zawolo: I'm originally from Liberia. And even being in Liberia, prior to my family moving to the U.S. in 1980, Essence was always a thing for my mom and my aunts. When we came here, fast forward to me, as an adult, [after] graduating college, I got into the music industry. I've managed artists that have gone through the Essence stages and pages in different ways.

Essence Fest has always been something that we were familiar with. I have to say, I had not really experienced Essence Fest until 2019 when Essence was actually a client. One of the things that I was doing [at that point] was integrating the Diaspora and African creatives within the festival in fashion and music.

To be in the role that I'm in right now and to be on a team with people who have been a part of Essence for a long time…. Essence seems to be ingrained in all of our fabric. [What] started as a music festival now is the Super Bowl of Culture that is the Essence Festival of Culture. To be on the team that helps bring this to life for our community is a daunting but rewarding task all in the same. 

Essence is something that I don't think anybody in our community takes lightly. Even our partners understand the value of it. We certainly understand that we serve the Essence-inverse and, and we are in service to this community. It is a huge honor to be able to be a part of the team that brings this to life and, and, and constantly hear what it means to the community globally too. 

One thing that I admired, especially about last year's festival, was GU Kickback — a music event hosted by Girls United, the publication’s Gen Z vertical. I saw a number of local artists from New Orleans, such as 504ICYGRL. ESSENCE just released a series of cover stories celebrating the 30 year relationship between the publication and New Orleans; how do you highlight the city and their history?

Michael Barclay: As somebody who's worked in experiential, creating gatherings and experiences for almost 25 years now, the venue is always important when you're trying to set the box where you are creating for your community, for your audience. New Orleans has been that backdrop for us for almost 30 years now. 

New Orleans is the convergence of our mission, our brand, in a city that is perfectly matched for that energy. New Orleans is as much a part of Essence Festival of Culture as Essence Magazine is to Essence Festival. 

It is very much a partnership that has created this cultural movement. To be more inclusive, and highlight more of those local relationships and talent is very intentional. It has been something that we have put a lot of energy and effort into over the last couple of years. 

This will be my third festival this year. I think Barkue, you started maybe a year or two before me. We're a fairly new crew that is working to help grow and reshape and solidify those relationships. Even with how we handle the management of the festival. 

Our VP of Essence Festival, Hakeem Holmes is a hometown boy from New Orleans. He's the pride and joy. They love to see him coming. He's always enlightening us on the things that we need to be focused on for the city and how we make the best partnership and make the best impact on the area.

It was intentional what you saw last year. It's intentional this year. We dedicated our entire festival edition of the magazine as a love letter to New Orleans. It's a symbiotic relationship that is one of the key reasons why this festival is the Super Bowl of Culture.  

I would love to hear about the talent aspect of the festival. Last year, Megan Thee Stallion headlined. In previous years, Beyoncé and Prince have served as headliners. What is the formula between balancing local talent, national talent and diasporic talent at the festival?

Zawolo: As we grow the festival, the intentionality becomes even more and more important. And, what we do in understanding where we are as a brand. 

We're 30 years into the festival, the brand is 55 years. What's traditionally known as the Essence Woman is now bringing her daughter. It's multi-generational. We also know that the world is as big as your cell phone, so people are now exposed to different types of content and music. 

We see the influence of Afrobeats and Caribbean music. We are intentional about making sure that every night really speaks to multiple generations, but it's anchored in a generation. It's like, who's bringing, who to the concert on Friday? Is it the daughter bringing her mama? 

It's anchored in  that younger demo, but we're going to make sure that they're going to have a collective good time there. Saturday is usually our heaviest night. We have our living legends that show up there; that really cuts across generations. This is anybody can bring anybody, but let me tell you, you're going to be able to teach each other, connect with each other with the different groupings of talent that we have.

We try to make sure that there is something that speaks to us, but that that connects with the diaspora on as many nights as possible. Sometimes it's not because they're from a different country, but because we know the music also resonates.

If you think of Janet Jackson, you can go anywhere in the world. She can check off that box, although she's not from there. You can create those ties, but we also are intentional about having Ayra Starr and Machel Montano. Last year we had Tems and Wizkid. The goal is to continue to grow what that looks like, because we are a global brand and that is our diasporic and global intent in connecting the global Black community is really important.  

We are intentionally multi-generational. We intentionally lead into where a multitude of generational communities can come together and have fun together. There is something for everybody. We have a unique opportunity with Essence as the brand grows to be able to not only speak to what they want to call the aunties, I call the punties. I also think that this is where we get to educate the next generation on where we're coming from. We also get to learn from them on where they are and where they want to go. 

What a beautiful way to kind of tie all of these connections. Last year, the festival celebrated 50 years of hip-hop; this year you're celebrating the 30th anniversary of the festival. What is the intention behind this year’s music programming?

Zawolo: Paying homage to people who had done some historical things on our stages. We have Janet [Jackson] back. People are like, “Oh, we saw Janet two years ago,” but Janet is also one of the highest sellers in the festival's history. 

If we're going to celebrate, let's celebrate, because we know Janet never disappoints. We also want to lean into some of the [older] talent, like Charlie Wilson, Uncle Charlie. He's graced that stage so many times, but yet it's still very relevant. Using this moment to reignite things that we've done in the past and bring them back to life that we know the audience missed.

Frankie Beverly, who is going to come, this is probably going to really be his last performance. The passing of the torch. This year was about having to be intentional about what other milestones are happening that are important to this culture. Cash Money is also celebrating 30 years. Who better, right?  

Essence has been in New Orleans for 30 years. Cash Money and crew are from New Orleans. Juvenile just got the key to the city from the mayor. We want to honor and celebrate him, but we also want to recognize the influence that this group of very creative, entrepreneurial, rappers and artists have had on culture, because there was a time where we all were backing that ass up. 

Making sure we highlighted milestones, connecting with people who have historically been a part of making history with us, introducing some new ones — that's what we have to do. We have to set up now for the next 30 years. We want to go to the soul of what appeals to our audience, and we're really all about good music.  

I think the 30th year just continues to do what we do. As we look to grow and connect demos, Megan Thee Stallion is a very viable option because again, the daughter now is going to bring the mama. Intergenerational diasporic and connecting demos, I think that only happens at the Superdome. That's also happening in the convention center, which I believe is honestly the soul of the festival. 

What are your hopes and aspirations for the next 30 years of the Essence Festival of Culture? Will Essence Fest always be in New Orleans? Are we going to have an Essence Fest in Lagos, Nigeria?

Barclay: Being on this side of [EFOC], seeing the true impact of the festival and how it impacts the communities, how it impacts the folks that come to New Orleans, and now, because we've expanded to our virtual audience, the 1.7 million that are viewing around the world, my hope for the festival is that we continue to show up where our community needs us.

We're going to be in New Orleans. We're going to be in our official world as we call it. If you can't make it to New Orleans, you can tune into Essence.com and you can see what's going on there. We are creating virtual experiences, AR experiences, VR experiences, all those things, so really keeping up with the way that people continue to connect with each other, whether they're physically in the same place or halfway across the world.

I think that type of innovation is what I want to continue to see us do and allow us to create that joy that we generate in New Orleans and wherever it's needed for our community.

PRIDE & Black Music Month: Celebrating LGBTQIA+ & Black Voices

Missy Elliott performs onstage during the Lovers & Friends music festival at the Las Vegas Festival Grounds on May 06, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Missy Elliot

Photo: Aaron J. Thornton

interview

Celebrating Missy Elliott: How The Icon Changed The Sound, Look & Language Of Hip-Hop

In celebration of Missy Elliott's incredible legacy — and very first headlining tour, which kicks off July 4 — GRAMMY.com spoke with Missy's colleagues and collaborators for an insider’s view on what makes the four-time GRAMMY winner unique.

GRAMMYs/Jul 1, 2024 - 03:52 pm

We’re fortunate enough to be living in the middle of a Missy Elliott resurgence — not that she ever went away.

Three decades into her groundbreaking career, Missy is readying her very first headlining tour, which begins July 4 in Vancouver, British Columbia. The Out of This World Tour runs through August and features her longtime collaborators Timbaland, Busta Rhymes, and Ciara.

The fact that it is her first headlining tour may be surprising, given that she’s been on the scene since debuting with the group Sista in the mid-1990s, and has been a chart-topping star since becoming a solo artist in 1997.

The hip-hop icon released her last full-length album, The Cookbook, nearly two decades ago but time hasn’t diminished her influence at all. In fact, we’re all still catching up to the futuristic vision that Missy and Timbaland introduced to the world in the late 1990s in their songs and videos.

Missy began her career as a member of Sista, which was a part of the Swing Mob, a musical collective working under Jodeci’s DeVanté Swing. That crew included a number of future world-changers, including Missy, Timbaland, Ginuwine, Tweet, Stevie J., and two legends who have since passed on, Magoo and Static Major. After Sista was dropped from their label, Missy, by all accounts, would have been perfectly happy to settle into a life as a songwriter and producer. But something bigger was beckoning. 

Persuaded by Elektra’s Sylvia Rhone with the promise of her own label, Missy agreed to turn in one album as a solo artist. That album, 1997’s Supa Dupa Fly, made Missy not just a star but an icon, and changed the course of her life. It began a career that, over a quarter-century later, found her inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame — she was the first female rapper ever to be nominated for the latter.

And that’s just the beginning of the accolades. There are the four GRAMMY wins and head-spinning 22 nominations. She was also honored alongside Dr. Dre, Lil Wayne (who has not been shy about calling Missy his favorite rapper), and the woman who gave Missy her first solo record deal, Sylvia Rhone, at 2023’s Black Music Collective’s Recording Academy Honors event. Missy was also a key participant in the GRAMMYs tribute to a half-century of hip-hop that same year.

Throughout it all, Missy has remained humble. When speaking to GRAMMY.com in 2022, she reflected on how she and longtime collaborator Timbaland had no idea of their impact at the time.

"We really just came out with a sound that we had been doing for some time, but we had no clue that it would be game changing, that we would change the cadence — the sound of what was happening at that time," she said. "No clue!"

"Her whole existence is based on moving us and influencing us," says her longtime manager Mona Scott-Young. "She wants to be able to touch people."

And that she has. To celebrate the Missy-aissance, GRAMMY.com spoke with Missy's colleagues and collaborators for an insider’s view on the course of her career and what makes the four-time GRAMMY winner unique. 

The quotes and comments used in this feature were edited for clarity and brevity.

Missy’s Impact Began With Her First Guest Verse 

The first time many people took note of Missy Elliott was her verse on the 1996 remix of Gina Thompson’s "That Thing You Do."  

Gina Thompson (singer): I was in the process of completing my first album, Nobody Does It Better. Actually, it was complete. So what happened was, my A&R at the time, Bruce Carbone at Mercury Records, wanted to have Puffy do the remix.

Puffy was like, "We have this person that's really talented. Her name's Missy, and she used to be with the group Sista, and she's a phenomenal writer. She's working with a lot of other artists, she’s definitely the next big thing in the R&B/hip-hop world." We were like, cool.

I believe we actually heard it over the speaker phone in Bruce’s office. I know that I said that I loved it, and I felt her style was unique and different. It grew on me in a great way. I just felt like it was a smash. She definitely had added a great touch to it. I was super-excited about it.

Merlin Bobb (former Executive Vice President, Elektra Records): I was blown away by the simple fact that I knew she was a great songwriter. But when I heard her rhyming, I thought it was the most unique style that I had heard in some time.

Digital Black (former member of Playa, part of the Swing Mob): A lot of people only knew her as a writer or an R&B artist, but when she came on that Gina Thompson record with that rap, it changed everything. It allowed her to be even more herself.

Mona Scott-Young (manager): Oh my God, have you heard that song? It’s her ability to use expression and evoke emotion without even using words. She said, "He he he haw," and we all found a new way to bounce. There was something fun and magical and different that spoke to what we would come to know was this incredibly vivid imagination that would take us places sonically and visually that we didn’t even know we needed to be. 

Read more: 50 Artists Who Changed Rap: Jay-Z, The Notorious B.I.G., Dr. Dre, Nicki Minaj, Kendrick Lamar, Eminem & More 

She Changed The Sound Of Hip-Hop With Her Debut LP 

Missy’s first solo album, Supa Dupa Fly, came out the following year. It gave new energy to a hip-hop scene that was still reeling from the deaths of 2Pac and Biggie.

Anne Kristoff (former Vice President of PR, Elektra): She 100 percent did not want to be an artist. She's like, "I'm not an artist. I want to be Diane Warren. I'm going to write the songs. I'm going to be behind the scenes."

Merlin Bobb: I started talking to her regarding being an artist. She was totally against it. "No, I want to be a songwriter." And also, just to be honest, [Sista] had been dropped from Elektra prior to my conversations with her, so she wasn't too eager, I think, to jump back aboard.

It took about six or seven months of us discussing ways to do this. I spoke to Sylvia [Rhone, then-head of Elektra], and I said, "She's an incredible songwriter. Let's offer her a production deal or a label deal where she can not only just look at herself as an artist, but at the same time develop and nurture artists under her own banner." Sylvia thought it was a great idea. 

We both talked to Missy about it, and she said, "Okay, I'll do one album." I was ecstatic because she was writing some great songs, but she also gave us her first album, which was, needless to say, a classic.

Kathy Iandoli (author, "God Save the Queens: The Essential History of Women in Hip-Hop and Baby Girl: Better Known as Aaliyah"): In God Save the Queens, I referred to her as the Andy Warhol of hip-hop, in the sense that she took the art and the cultural aspect of it, and she just put this spin and interpretation of the art that no one had ever really done prior.

With Missy’s arrival around ‘97, we were at a point in time where hip-hop was in a complete state of confusion. We did not know where it was going to go. Missy made high art hip-hop that was commercially accessible. And for that, she changed the entire game. 

Gina Thompson: When she had her first project with the whole vision — not only her sound, but her songwriting style, the look — everyone was like, "This girl went out on edge. I'm gonna do a little bit of the same thing and not be so worried if I don't sound so average, what people are going to think. Because she's out on the edge doing it." And I promise you, ever since she came out, that you started hearing a lot more of female rappers tweaking their voices.

Lenny Holmes (guitarist): In hip-hop, everybody would think that it's a whole bunch of computer generated stuff. Missy Elliott does not approach it like that. She loves live instrumentation, but she likes to take bits and pieces of it. She simplifies it, and it is placed uniquely in the track at certain points. That's what makes up the structure of the song.   

Mona Scott-Young: Everything from the way she looked to what she was talking about to the way she delivered that music and what she represented in terms of being nonconforming, not looking like the other female rappers of the day — I think all of those elements were the perfect lightning in a bottle. The way she rode that beat, both lyrically and with her delivery, was very, very different from everything else that we were hearing. 

Read more: Revisiting 'Supa Dupa Fly' At 25: Missy Elliott Is Still Inspired By Her Debut Record 

She Reinvented The Music Video 

You can’t think of Missy Elliott without picturing her iconic music videos, many done in collaboration with director Hype Williams. 

Brian Greenspoon (former International Publicist, Elektra): I mean, she came out of the gate wearing a garbage bag, and made it the coolest thing anyone had ever seen. 

Merlin Bobb: She said, if I put out this album — initially we were talking about a single deal, but we went into an album — there’s two things very important to me: the dance aspect and the visual aspect.

Kathy Iandoli: The thing that I really loved about Missy's music videos, she was a big budget music video person. She got the men's music video budget.

Anne Kristoff: When you think about the "Rain" video — I'm just guessing, I don't want to put words in her mouth — but I think when she saw that the vision in her head could become real out in the world, that anything she could think of could happen, that maybe it made it a little more fun for her to be an artist. I hope.

Digital Black: Missy is one of the funniest people you’ll ever meet. People maybe don't know. She loves joking. So that was just her being her. 

Gina Thompson: You started seeing a lot of people doing certain robotic-type images or moves in their videos to almost mimic her "Supa Dupa Fly." She’s the creator of that.

Earl Baskerville (manager/producer): Missy would get with the director, and she would sit there and go over the whole treatment. A lot of the visuals came from her. She was very hands on. Today, you can shoot a video in four or five hours. But Missy’s video shoots was so long, I used to hate it. We would be there fifteen hours for a three minute video!

She Was Avant-Garde But Still Pop 

Missy’s musical and visual style was like nothing anyone had ever seen. Yet she still became a star. How did she manage to be both innovative and accessible? 

Kathy Iandoli: You can't make something that the general public can't access, or speak over their heads.

Digital Black: Even if you said it sounded weird, it still had some soulfulness to it. I think that was what allowed her to touch so many different people. 

Merlin Bobb: When you have an artist that stands out, but it doesn't go over your head musically, artistically, lyrically, then it works. People, when they heard and experienced something new and fresh that was easy to digest, but it was unique, they gravitated to it. 

Brian Greenspoon: How was it sold to a mass audience? I mean, the sound was breakthrough. What Timbaland was doing with drum sounds, and the way they were building these very sparse rhythms and sound beds, they were breaking ground. But the thing that worked is that they had these incredible songs that Missy was writing and that she had these incredible featured artists on. 

Gina Thompson: To try to figure out what her brain is doing, I’ve been gave that up.

Earl Baskerville: Nobody could figure out what we were doing, because they couldn’t understand the sound.

Lenny Holmes: Her rhythmic style of how she would do the vocals was just unheard of. Like, doubling up accents. The things that she started doing — you would hear a deejay do a scratch on a record. You would not hear a singer do it. I was like, What in the world?

Anne Kristoff: She was doing these really creative things that no one else was doing visually. And the sound was different than whatever everyone else was doing. So it wasn't a hard sell for the press.

She Was A Master At Working With Other Artists 

Missy was far more than just a solo star. All throughout her career, she continued her first love: writing and producing for other artists — including Ciara, Aaliyah, Destiny’s Child, and Whitney Houston. 

Lenny Holmes: Missy had a great relationship with singers and rappers, because she could do both. A lot of people don’t know, but Missy can sing. So when we worked with groups that had singing parts on them, a lot of times she would go ahead and lay down the guide track for the actual artist to sing.

Kathy Iandoli: Missy just really understood the artists that she worked with. She saw their strengths, and she helped them utilize them to the best of their capabilities. 

Angelique Miles (former music publishing executive): She was able to relate to the artist and express that artist. She was able to customize and express that artist's story. Whatever she wrote for 702 didn’t sound like what she wrote for Whitney Houston. 

Digital Black: She was good at listening to the artist, seeing what they do, and then, how can you enhance what they do well? Those are the best records. She was great at tailor-making records for people, just from her doing her due diligence on learning who the artist is. Not just going in, "I’m Missy, I can write whatever." I'm gonna write something specifically for you that enhances what you’ve already done.

Merlin Bobb: She would have made an incredible A&R person. I would have hired her back then. She was able to come up with lyrics and melodies and songs and chords and production that to me stood out. She worked with both male and female artists. She really knew how to get an artist not only to sing a great song, but to sing very uniquely and in their own way, because she was a great vocal production coach.

Mona Scott-Young: She's always listening beyond what we hear. Even if there's a song an artist has [that she’s not involved with], she'll say, "Yeah, I would have done this thing differently with this artist. Because if you listen to what she did on this one part of the song, you can hear that there's more range there. But for some reason they didn't push her to go there." That to me is just one of the things that makes her such a great producer and star finder, because she always is looking for what more they can do and how they can challenge themselves to be better.

Earl Baskerville: She had signed an artist that I used to manage named Mocha. And she told Mocha to go in there and just rap. I think Mocha might have did 30-something bars, 60 bars. know. Missy listened to all of the stuff she did, took it, and dissected it. She went in there and took eight bars, not from the beginning of the track — I don’t know where she found it, in the middle or something — and put it on the Nicole Wray record "Make It Hot." When Mocha comes in, that’s actually the middle of the verse somewhere! That was crazy to me.  

Her First Love Was Always Songwriting 

Through it all, Missy’s strength remained (and remains) her songwriting. But what makes her songs stand out, and stand the test of time? 

Earl Baskerville: Missy didn’t want to be an artist. She just wanted to be a songwriter. 

Merlin Bobb: Her songwriting was very soulful, but it also had great melodic edge to it. They’re very realistic lyrics to a young scene that was happening in R&B and hip-hop at the time. So it was somewhat of a fusion of R&B and hip-hop lyrically, and she just had a very strong sense of melody and great hook lines.

Mona Scott-Young: She wasn't talking about the same thing that we were hearing from a lot of the other females in the genre at the time — overt sexuality and material possessions and that kind of stuff. She was engaging, having a good time lyrically, and holding her own with her male counterparts. 

She was giving us music that was great, and it didn't matter that it was coming from a female. She was kind of this androgynous being that was delivering great music. You listen to the song, you just want to party.

Read more: Missy Elliott Makes History As First Female Rapper Nominated For Songwriters Hall Of Fame 

She Changed The Artists Who Came After Her 

As with all major innovations, it didn’t take long after Missy broke big for her influence to be felt. 

Kathy Iandoli: The special relationship between Aaliyah, Missy, and Timbaland was the fact that together they all created a new sound that would set the standard of hip-hop and what we now define as alt-R&B. They invented a new subgenre. It was something that Missy was able to continue along and then create a sound on her own terms. 

Gina Thompson: Many people were trying to emulate her whole different style.

Lenny Holmes: [Were people copying her?] Most definitely. But there's only one Missy. And I got to say, there’s only one Timbaland too. You hear that trademark voice or the trademark lick, and you just know that's them. 

Brian Greenspoon: I think she influenced just about everybody that came after her. The sound of hip-hop changed after her and Timbaland dropped that music. The way the people produced their drum sounds and their beats, the use of hi hats, it all changed based on Missy and Timbaland.

Merlin Bobb: Most hip-hop/R&B collaborations at that time were hip-hop records with vocal hooks from R&B artists. She kind of flipped it, where she worked from the R&B side and made the vocals and the production more hip-hop friendly.

Mona Scott-Young: Her whole existence is based on moving us and influencing us. She wants to be able to touch people. So when we see artists who you can hear or see the influence, then you know that she's done her job.

There's so many artists — Flyana Boss, a little bit Cardi, a little bit Nicki. They all, I think, have been influenced by Missy, her look, her sound, in one way, shape or form. And that is the greatest compliment, to inspire a generation and see them take what you've done to another level. But then she's constantly also evolving and keeping everyone on their toes.

Learn more: 8 Ways Aaliyah Empowered A Generation Of Female R&B Stars

Considering Missy And Her Legacy 

Everyone interviewed for this piece had so much love for Missy. Here’s a small sample.

Brian Greenspoon: Missy is one of the most professional, talented, creative artists I've ever had the luck to work with. I'm happy to see that she is being recognized for being the icon that we all saw that she was becoming back then. 

Lenny Holmes: Even today, in whatever we're doing, we use what we've learned from Missy Elliott. It’s mixed in whatever we do. It’s amazing what she has done for herself, but she has definitely helped people along the way, and we will forever be grateful to her.

Digital Black: She's a one-of-one, God-given talent. She earned every award, every accolade, accomplishment. Her work ethic was phenomenal, and nothing was given. Big sis earned everything, and I just want to say I love her, and it's been a pleasure and an honor to be a part of her career.

Kathy Iandoli: There’s so much of the art that we have right now that we have to thank her for.

Mona Scott-Young: This has been an incredible journey. I always talk about being incredibly blessed to have had the opportunity to play a role when you have somebody like her who has touched so many people globally and whose music and entire presence hold this special place in fans’ hearts. 

Every day it's just about, how do we continue to push forth, break boundaries, challenge ourselves to do things bigger and better than we did it the last go round.  

Explore The Artists Who Changed Hip-Hop

LL Cool J

Credit: Paul Natkin/Getty Images

list

Celebrate 40 Years Of Def Jam With 15 Albums That Show Its Influence & Legacy

From the Beastie Boys' seminal 'License To Ill' and Jay-Z's 'Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life,' celebrate Def Jam with 15 of the label's essential albums.

GRAMMYs/Jun 24, 2024 - 01:31 pm

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Def Jam Recordings, the New York label that made history in hip-hop, R&B, pop, and even thrash metal since its founding, and continues to do so today.

A label that began out of an NYU dorm room in 1984 quickly became an artistic (and business) powerhouse. Early acts like LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys, and Public Enemy were raw, adventurous, and risk-taking. Def Jam's roster opened new pathways in a still-young genre, seemingly every few months. 

After that initial explosion, the label experienced a brief lull in the early 1990s when one label founder departed and the other expanded into fashion and comedy. Def Jam came roaring back beginning in 1994, and by 1998 the label was home to some of the most popular and influential artists in the game — including burgeoning megastars DMX and Jay-Z. To this day, Def Jam maintains a roster of both commercially successful and critically beloved artists in hip-hop, R&B, and pop.

To commemorate the anniversary of the label that gave us, well, pretty much everyone, here’s a list of 15 of Def Jam’s essential releases. While Def Jam brought audiences plenty of singles, EPs and remixes, this list primarily focuses on albums. Each project has a mix of artistic merit, popularity, influence and longevity, originality, and played a key role in the story of Def Jam as a whole. Think of it as a chronological run through the key albums that built one of the most lasting labels in modern music. 

And finally: it must be said that in recent years, a dark shadow has begun to loom over Def Jam’s legacy. Label co-founder Russell Simmons been accused over the past seven years of numerous instances of sexual assault, dating back decades. In spite of these accusations, the label (in which Simmons hasn’t been involved for a quarter-century) remains on top, safeguarding its valuable archive while looking forward to another four decade run as fruitful as the first one.

T La Rock & Jazzy Jay - "It’s Yours" (1984)

The one single on this list is also the first piece of music ever released with the now-famous Def Jam logo. "It’s Yours" was a single produced by Def Jam co-founder Rick Rubin — his very first hip-hop production. Instrumentally, it was perhaps only comparable to Larry Smith and Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons’ contemporaneous work with Run-D.M.C. Both "It’s Yours" and D.M.C.’s early work were severely stripped-down, consisting of a few drum sounds, an instrumental stab, and some scratches. 

Lyrically, though, "It’s Yours" is worlds apart from "Sucker M.C.’s" — or pretty much anything else going on in hip-hop at the time. T La Rock, the brother of Treacherous Three member Special K, came from a family of educators, and he put every ounce of his erudition into the track. It begins, "Commentating, illustrating/ Description giving, adjective expert" and goes from there.

LL Cool J - 'Radio' (1985)

In the early 1980s, the state of the hip-hop album was very grim. Only a few existed, and they almost exclusively consisted of a few singles mixed with often-confusing filler. Two things changed that. First, Run-D.M.C.’s 1984 self-titled debut, which GRAMMY.com examined in depth a few months ago. Second was LL Cool J’s debut album Radio, the very first full-length album Def Jam ever released.

In many ways, Radio kicked off hip-hop’s Golden Age. The record shows LL, then still in his teens, as a versatile artist who can be boastful, funny, aggressive, lyrical. The album shows many different sides of his personality, and helped set the template for what a rap album could be.

Read more: 20 Iconic Hip-Hop Style Moments: From Run-D.M.C. To Runways

Beastie Boys - 'Licensed to Ill' (1986)

The Beasties would release more complex and enlightened albums than Licensed to Ill, and one of the members would eventually apologize for some of its lyrics. But there’s no denying that it was a smash hit. It was the first rap album to ever top the Billboard 200, got the group onstage with Madonna, and would eventually sell over 10 million copies

Was some of that success due to their race? Sure. They were a credible group, signed to a hot rap label, at a time when it was still novel for white people to be performers in hip-hop. And yet, that’s not the whole story.

Licensed to Ill is a catchy, unique, energetic album, and the group members show undeniable chemistry. To this day, shout-filled, guitar-heavy anthems like "No Sleep till Brooklyn" and the ubiquitous "Fight for Your Right" can still get the party started.

Read more: The Beastie Boys Provide A License To Party

Public Enemy - 'It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back' (1988)

There’s not too much you can say about this album that hasn’t already been said in the years of books, conferences, academic papers, and deluxe re-issues. It has ended up at or near the top of many all-time best lists. Its abrasive, collage-like approach to composition was never equalled (and, in light of current laws and practices around sampling, can never even be approached). The comic stylings of Flavor Flav bring just the right amount of levity to balance Chuck D’s takes on life-and-death issues. 

Decades after its release, the album still sounds urgent. And sadly, in an America still roiled with tensions over race, incarceration, drugs, and the media, its concerns remain as relevant as ever.

Read more: 5 Things We Learned At "An Evening With Chuck D" At The GRAMMY Museum

Slick Rick - 'The Great Adventures of Slick Rick' (1988)

Slick Rick is the ultimate rap storyteller, and his debut album is the best example of his artistry. "I wrote them like an essay," Rick once said of creating the batch of songs that make up Great Adventures. He also compared it to doing stand-up. So you have exactly what those two reference points imply: stories that are well-constructed, and also frequently riotously funny.

Rick is the master of the telling detail (remember "Dave, the dope fiend shooting dope/ Who don’t know the meaning of water nor soap" from "Children’s Story"?), the humorous twist, the morality tale, the bedtime story, the character voice. His influence lives on in perhaps his most devoted protege, Ghostface Killah, as well as in any rapper who has tried to craft a song with a beginning, middle, and end.

Learn more: Essential Hip-Hop Releases From The 1980s: Slick Rick, RUN-D.M.C., De La Soul & More

Warren G - 'Regulate… G Funk Era'(1994)

A bit of an edge case here, as technically the record was put out by Violator Records and Rush Associated Labels, the latter of which was a sort of umbrella organization Def Jam ran in the mid-1990s. Many albums that could have made this list, including projects by Redman, Onyx, Domino, and Nice & Smooth, were released under the RAL banner. But Warren G’s debut, a giant hit in an era where Def Jam really needed it, became inextricably associated with the label, to the point where an article about the album on Universal Music’s website mentions Def Jam five times in the first two paragraphs.

Regulate is a pop-savvy take on the G-funk sound that was then ascendant. It was a huge success in a year that saw the introduction of tons of amazing rappers into the game. And Warren G being associated with Def Jam meant that the East Coast-centric label had expanded its geographic footprint. 

Read more: Warren G Revisits 'Regulate: The G-Funk Era': How The 1994 Album Paved The Way For West Coast Hip-Hop's Dominance

Foxy Brown - 'Ill Na Na' (1996)

Def Jam wasn’t always a friendly place for female artists (despite many of the most important employees being women, including one-time president Nana Ashhurst). In fact, the label didn’t release a rap album by a woman until Nikki D’s Daddy’s Little Girl in 1991. So Foxy Brown’s impact — on Def Jam and on the rap world as a whole — cannot be overstated. Ill Na Na was an album that changed everything for female rappers. It had songs for the clubs, the block, and the radio. Foxy’s sexuality, versatility, and first-class rhyming would have an influence on countless rappers, most famously her number one fan Nicki Minaj, who has been effusively praising Foxy for more than a decade.

Read more: Ladies First: 10 Essential Albums By Female Rappers

DMX - 'It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot' (1998)

No less an authority than Nas referred to 1998 as "The year DMX took over the world." It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot is how he did it. The album set fire to Bad Boy’s so-called "shiny suit era" by embodying its polar opposite: a dark, grimy vision full of gothic synths; raspy, full-throated lyrics; and, sometimes, actual barks. Without DMX, there’s no NYC street rap return: no G-Unit mixtape run, no Diplomats.

The record is consistent and captivating from start to finish, and its thematic centerpiece comes, appropriately, about halfway through with "Damien," which reminds all of us that the most difficult battles we fight are the ones with ourselves.

Jay-Z - 'Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life' (1998)

Jay-Z has made more critically beloved albums than Vol. 2 (Reasonable Doubt and The Blueprint both fall in that category). He has made albums with bigger hits (The Blueprint 3 had a No. 1 hit with "Empire State of Mind"). But he has never made a more important LP.

Vol. 2 was the album that made Jay a superstar. Its Annie-sampling title track (produced by the late 45 King) sent him to the stratosphere — a process he actually documented on his follow-up album. But the record wasn’t just a commercial novelty. It showed Jay at the absolute top of his game: cocky, funny, and brilliant. Case in point: his novel approach to storytelling in "Coming of Age (Da Sequel)," where all the important action takes place in just a few seconds, inside the characters’ heads.

Read more: Songbook: How Jay-Z Created The 'Blueprint' For Rap's Greatest Of All Time

Ludacris - 'Word of Mouf' (2001)

Around the turn of the millennium, Def Jam had its sights set on conquering new territory. Specifically, the South. So they set up Def Jam South and hired Scarface to head it up. The entity’s biggest success came from an Atlanta DJ who went by Chris Luva Luva on the air, but began rapping as Ludacris.

Word of Mouf was Luda’s second album, but it was the one that really cemented his stardom with songs like "Rollout (My Business)," "Area Codes," and the immortal "Move Bitch" (the last of which has had an artist-approved second life as a protest chant). The album proved that the South was here to stay, and that Def Jam would have a role in determining its hip-hop future.

Learn more: A Guide To Southern Hip-Hop: Definitive Releases, Artists & Subgenres From The Dirty South

Scarface - 'The Fix' (2002)

Speaking of Scarface and Def Jam South, Face had no intention of dropping music while running the label. But, in his telling, Def Jam exec Lyor Cohen insisted on it, paying handsomely for the privilege.

"There were so many things working in my favor on that album," Scarface wrote in his memoir Diary of a Madman. "For the first time, I was working on an album for a label that believed in me 100 percent and didn’t want anything from me except for me to make the dopest album I could possibly make. And they went out of their way to make that possible."

Def Jam’s history of putting out classics inspired Face on The Fix, he writes in that book. And in the end, the album stands up there with any of them. It is one of only a small handful of rap records to earn a perfect five-mic rating from The Source, and it belongs in that rarified air with projects like Illmatic and Aquemini

Kanye West - 'The College Dropout' (2004)

Yes, today Kanye West is the worst: a Hitler-loving, Trump-supporting, paranoid, antichoice, antisemite who stands accused of sexual harrassment. But two decades ago, the world met a Mr. West who at least seemed very different. 

The College Dropout presented an artist who was already extremely well-known as a beatmaker. But Kanye’s carefully crafted persona as the bridge between mainstream rap and the underground — "First n— with a Benz and a backpack," as he put it — meant that he appealed to pretty much everyone. The College Dropout wasn't West at the top of his rap game, but it did show his skill at developing song concepts, at beats, and at creating an artistic vision so powerful, and so relatable, that it captivated an entire generation.

Cam’ron - 'Purple Haze' (2004)

It’s impossible to talk about Def Jam without discussing Roc-A-Fella. Jay-Z’s label hooked up with Def Jam in 1997, and had a years-long hot streak with artists like Kanye, Beanie Sigel, Freeway, the Young Gunz, and of course Cam’ron’s Diplomats crew — Cam, Juelz Santana, and the overall group all released projects there.

Purple Haze came at the very tail end of Roc-a-fella’s golden age. It has Cam at the absolute peak of his absurdist rhyming powers, keeping computers ‘puting and knocking out eight-syllable multis about Paris Hilton like it was nothing. During the Purple Haze era, it was Cam’s world, and we were all just lucky to be living in it.

Rihanna - 'Good Girl Gone Bad' (2007)

Rihanna’s first two projects were full of Caribbean sounds and ballads. But when her third album came along, she needed a change. Riri wanted to go "uptempo," and history shows that was the right choice. Good Girl Gone Bad began the singer’s transformation into the megastar we know today. It spawned five singles and two separate quickie tie-in albums (Good Girl Gone Bad: Reloaded and Good Girl Gone Bad: The Remixes).

"Umbrella" was the way forward. Rihanna had a No. 1 record prior, but she’d never made a sensation like this. The song (with a guest verse by then-Def Jam president Jay-Z) not only made it to the top slot, it also won a GRAMMY and was undeniably the song of the summer. The album also contained the sensation "Don’t Stop the Music," a track that kickstarted the EDM/pop hybrid that dominated the late aughts. Without Good Girl Gone Bad, it’s safe to say we’d be living in a very different, Fenty-less world.

Read more: Songbook: The Ultimate Guide To Rihanna's Reign, From Her Record-Breaking Hits To Unforgettable Collabs

Frank Ocean - 'Channel Orange' (2012)

One could fill a whole blurb about Channel Orange simply by quoting the extreme praise it received. "A singular achievement in popular culture." "Landed with the crash and curiousness of a meteor." Two days after its release, Pitchfork was already saying that it "feels like a classic."

And yet, somehow even that kind of acclaim doesn’t do the album justice. You really had to be there when it came out, when Frank looked into his soul and, in doing so, connected deeply with so many listeners

Read more: Frank Ocean Essentials: 10 Songs That Embody The Elusive Icon's R&B Genius

"Channel Orange is the most concentrated version of 2012 in 2012 so far," wrote Sasha Frere-Jones at the time, in one of the most dead-on statements about the album. It expressed the contradictions we all lived in. Its fragmentation mirrored the social media that was beginning to take over all of our lives. Ocean left bits of his biography scattered throughout the album, but they almost didn’t matter. He was speaking for all of us, in the way only great artists can. 

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