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Alvin and the Chipmunks

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Justice For "The Chipmunk Song": 10 Reasons It Will Always Be A Christmas Classic

From a Beatles co-sign to a 61-year chart record, take a look at how Alvin and the Chipmunks’ GRAMMY-winning "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)" has proven to be much more than a kitschy holiday novelty.

GRAMMYs/Dec 14, 2023 - 03:11 pm

Forget Gorillaz, The Archies, or any other act that's crossed over from the cartoon world to the charts. The first, most prolific, and certainly the squeakiest two-dimensional hitmakers remain Alvin and the Chipmunks. 

The cutesy critters have released a remarkable 38 studio albums since creator Ross Bagdasarian realized that manipulating a tape recorder to play at various speeds can produce novelty music magic. More than a dozen have made the Billboard 200, four of which went top 10.  

While Alvin, Simon, and Theodore are now more renowned for giving the pop hits of the day the helium-like treatment, their crowning glory is, in fact, an original composition, and one which celebrates its 65th anniversary this December: "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)." 

From GRAMMY wins and chart records to Hollywood soundtracks and contemporary cover versions, here's a look why "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)" remains one of the most beloved festive singalongs.

It Spawned The Entire Chipmunks Franchise 

Following the chart-topping success of his 1958 novelty hit "Witch Doctor" — which featured the then-uncredited Chipmunks on its memorable "ooh-ee-ooh-ah-ah" hook — Bagdasarian was asked by Liberty Records for a follow-up. Instead of continuing to use the rather mundane pseudonym of David Seville, the songwriter decided that not one but three cartoon chipmunks should take the credit. 

Mischievously named after label execs Al Bennett, Si Waronker, and Ted Keep, Alvin, Simon, and Theodore were first depicted on the artwork for "The Chipmunk Song." And within three years, they were gracing their own comic book, animated TV series and numerous full-length LPs. 

The lovable rodents experienced a resurgence in popularity thanks to NBC's 1980s revival, and then again in the 2000s with the series of live-action movies. And their holiday tune has never been too far from their chubby cheeks.   

It's A Multiple GRAMMY Winner 

When guessing which act dominated the inaugural GRAMMYs of 1958, you'd probably plump for Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, or any number of swing, jazz, and blues legends that emerged during the post-war era. But you'd be wrong: the biggest winners on the night were three squeaky-voiced members of the Sciuridae family. 

Yes, "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)" picked up three awards — Best Recording for Children, Best Comedy Performance, and Best Engineered Record, Non-Classical — at the prestigious event. And Alvin and the Chipmunks also joined Ol' Blue Eyes in the Record Of The Year category, although both lost out to Dominico Modugno's Eurovision entry "Volare."  

It Held A Chart Record For 61 Years 

"The Chipmunk Song" became the first-ever Christmas tune to top the all-genre Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, enjoying a four-week stint there across the 1958 holiday season. Remarkably, everything from Wham's "Last Christmas" and the Ronettes' "Sleigh Ride" to Bobby Helms' "Jingle Bell Rock" and Andy Williams' "It's The Most Wonderful Time of the Year" failed to repeat this feat over the next 61 years. 

It was only when Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You" finally hit the No. 1 spot in 2019, a full quarter-century after its release, that The Chipmunks got some company in this exclusive club. Carey has, of course, since made a habit of reaching pole position every Christmas, meaning she's surpassed the rodents' total by eight weeks (and counting). And 65 years after, Brenda Lee released her own holiday classic, "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" has now broken all kinds of chart records to join the list, too.  

It's Had A Remarkable Shelf Life 

"The Chipmunk Song" could never be described as a passing fad. It returned to the Hot 100 throughout the early 1960s before becoming a staple of Billboard's Christmas Records chart (which has since become the Holiday 100, where the song peaked at No. 26 in 2015). And in December 2007, it enjoyed a revival thanks to the box office success of Alvin and the Chipmunks' first live-action adventure. Indeed, a new remix produced specially for the movie entered the Hot 100 (though it only peaked at No. 66). 

It's A Hollywood Favorite 

Along with chart success and its inevitable inclusion in Alvin and the Chipmunks' 2007 big-screen debut, "The Chipmunk Song" has received several onscreen shouts in both movies and television. 

The holiday hit has appeared in films as diverse as, 1993 family comedy Look Who's Talking, 1997 gangster thriller Donnie Brasco, and 2017 high-octane actioner The Fate of the Furious, but was perhaps most memorably used in the sun-kissed opening credits of Cameron Crowe's 2000 semi-autobiographical Almost Famous. It's also regularly graced the small screen including a 1998 festive "The King of Queens" episode which centered around leading man Doug's love of the song, and his father-in-law's pure hatred of it. 

It Was A Sales Juggernaut 

The teenage audience on American Bandstand might not have been a fan — "The Chipmunk Song" holds the unfortunate distinction of being the lowest-scored track in Rate-A-Record history — yet it seems like the rest of America couldn't get their hands on a copy quick enough. The novelty hit sold an astonishing 4.5 million copies in its first seven weeks, which remained a record until The Beatles' "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" sold five million within the same time frame six years later. 

It's also done big numbers in the digital age, amassing more than 665,000 paid downloads and over 112 million U.S. streams to date. In fact, according to Billboard, the two-minute ditty accumulates $300,000 every year for its publisher. It therefore sits comfortably inside the Top 20 best-selling Christmas songs of all time, but has some way to go to surpass the reported 50 million physical sales and more than 1.8 billion streams achieved by Bing Crosby's "White Christmas." 

It Boasts An Impressive Musical Pedigree 

Hailed as the vocal answer to session musician collective The Wrecking Crew, The Ron Hicklin Singers provided backup for artists as esteemed as Sammy Davis Jr., Johnny Cash, and Frank Sinatra. But did you know their frontman also lent his tones, albeit in unrecognizable form, to a trio of fictional chipmunks? 

Yes, although he wasn't credited on "Christmas Don't Be Late," Hicklin and several other "ghost singers" worked painstakingly on the track, as he later told The Hollywood Reporter: "We'd sing in slow motion for everything. It was one of the hardest things we had to do. What was a four-bar phrase for The Beatles became an eight-bar phrase. You'd run out of breath. The sheer work of doing it was remarkable." 

It Even Impressed The Beatles 

In 1964, The Chipmunks capitalized on the rise of Beatlemania with a tribute album covering the likes of "Love Me Do," "Please Please Me," and "I Want To Hold Your Hand." You might think the Fab Four would take umbrage at hearing their perfectly crafted pop songs performed by a bunch of high-pitched cartoon rodents — but actually, The Chipmunks Sings The Beatles Hits had the full blessing of Liverpool's finest. According to Ross Bagdasarian Jr., John Lennon and co. were so impressed by his father's GRAMMY-winning engineering on "The Chipmunk Song" they gave him the freedom to do what he liked with their early hits.  

It Saved Liberty Records 

In a roundabout way, the likes of Bobby Vee, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, and Willie Nelson all have "The Chipmunk Song" to thank for their early careers. Indeed, even with the success of "Witch Doctor," Liberty Records was in danger of going bankrupt as 1958 drew to a close. 

However, thanks to the multi-million sales of "Christmas Don't Be Late," the company was given a financial reprieve. They went on to give several chart-topping acts their big break and remained a thriving label until they were bought out by United Artists in 1971. And all this from a song that Liberty boss Al Bennett reportedly initially turned down

It's Now A Festive Standard 

Smooth saxophonist Kenny G and Latin pop vocalist Jaci Valesquez have both added their own touches to "Christmas Don't Be Late" on duets with the high-pitched trio. But the track has also been covered by artists without any specific chipmunk affiliation. 

Norah Jones served up a typically classy jazz rendition on her 2021 LP I Dream of Christmas. Bryson Tiller and Pentatonix gave it a vocal workout on the former's A Different Christmas album that same year, while on 2016's A Very Kacey Christmas, Kacey Musgraves turned the novelty tune into a charming country waltz. Tegan and Sara, Goo Goo Dolls, and Tamar Braxton are just a handful of other contemporary artists who have put their spin on "The Chipmunk Song" — a further testament to its acclaim as one of the all-time Christmas classics.   

New Holiday Songs For 2023: Listen To Festive Releases From Aespa, Brandy, Sabrina Carpenter & More

 

Peggy Lee at the 1st GRAMMY Awards

Peggy Lee at the 1st GRAMMY Awards

Photo: William Claxton/Courtesy Denmont Photo Management

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Sinatra To The Chipmunks: 7 Things To Know About The 1st GRAMMY Awards

Go back to the very beginning and find out what happened at the inaugural GRAMMY Awards

GRAMMYs/Dec 15, 2017 - 11:49 pm

Every awards show has to start somewhere and Music's Biggest Night is no different.


More than a decade before the annual GRAMMY Awards telecast debuted on CBS in 1973 for everyone to see, the GRAMMY Awards got off to a swingin' start back in 1959. Though no television cameras were present, there was plenty of awards, black-tie formal wear and star power to go around.

Take a journey back to where it all began and learn about seven things that happened at the 1st GRAMMY Awards.

1. 1st GRAMMYs, Two Locations

The inaugural GRAMMY Awards was a bicoastal affair. On May 4, 1959, a black-tie dinner and awards presentation was held at the Grand Ballroom of the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles. Hosted by comedian Mort Sahl, among the music elite in attendance were Rat Packers Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin, singing cowboy Gene Autry, singer Peggy Lee, Tin Pan Alley alum Johnny Mercer, composer Henry Mancini, and pianist/conductor André Previn. At the same time, Recording Academy members convened for a simultaneous function at the Park Sheraton Hotel in New York City.

Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. at the 1st GRAMMY Awards in Los Angeles
Photo: William Claxton/Courtesy Denmont Photo Management

2. The Chairman's First GRAMMY Win

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Sinatra was at the top of his acting and music game in the late '50s, so it's no surprise he emerged as the top nominee at the 1st GRAMMY Awards. His six nominations included two nods for Album Of The Year for Come Fly With Me and Only The Lonely, Record Of The Year for "Witchcraft," and two nominations for Best Vocal Performance, Male. Though the Chairman of the Board didn't win any of these categories, he did pick up his first win for Best Album Cover for Only The Lonely.

3. Count Basie To Ella Fitzgerald: Double The GRAMMY Pleasure

Who were the big winners at the first show? A total of six artists shared that distinction with two wins each. Mancini, jazz bandleader Count Basie, singer Ella Fitzgerald, conductor Felix Slatkin, Italian singer/songwriter Domenico Modugno, and Alvin And The Chipmunks music group creator Ross Bagdasarian Sr. (aka David Seville) picked up two GRAMMYs.

4. Mancini's Album Of The Year Mark

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As the composer of "The Pink Panther Theme," "Days Of Wine And Roses" and "Moon River," Mancini's ability to create memorable film and TV music was unrivaled. When the composer won Album Of The Year for The Music From Peter Gunn, he accomplished something that has yet to be duplicated in GRAMMY history. The Music From Peter Gunn, the music complement for the TV series that aired from 1958–1961, remains the lone television soundtrack to win the prestigious award. Three film soundtracks have been so recognized. Do you know which ones they are? (If you guessed Saturday Night Fever, The Bodyguard and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, you're right on the money.)

5. Winners Recognized In 28 Categories

Speaking of winners, the 1st GRAMMY Awards crowned them in 28 categories. (By comparison, there are now 84 GRAMMY categories.) Six of the categories, representing nearly 25 percent of the entire field, were of the classical variety. In addition to Slatkin, the first GRAMMY classical winners included the Hollywood String Quartet, pianist Van Cliburn, guitarists Laurindo Almeida and Andrés Segovia, choir director Roger Wagner, and soprano Renata Tebaldi.


6. A Children's Song Gets A Record Of The Year Nod

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"The Chipmunks Song," the cuddly brainchild of Bagdasarian, was among the nominees for Record Of The Year. Though it ended up not capturing the award, it holds the distinction of being the lone children's recording to be nominated in the category. (As mentioned earlier, the holiday song did net Bagdasarian two awards. It also earned Best Engineered Record — Non-Classical honors.)

7. Modugno's Foreign GRAMMY Record

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The Italian singer/songwriter Modugno's "Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (Volare)" ("In The Blue That Is Painted Blue") was a huge hit worldwide, landing at No. 1 in the United States. The smooth ballad earned both Song and Record Of The Year honors at the inaugural GRAMMYs. To date, it is the only foreign-language recording to win either of those categories. Can "Despacito" match the mark? The Luis Fonsi/Daddy Yankee/Justin Bieber smash is up for both categories for the 60th GRAMMY Awards.

Want More GRAMMY History? Pick A Copy Of And The GRAMMY Goes To…
 

Sade in 1985
Sade Adu poses in Chicago in 1985.

Photo: Paul Natkin/Getty Images

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8 Ways Sade's 'Diamond Life' Album Redefined '80s Music & Influenced Culture

As Sade's masterpiece 'Diamond Life' turns 40, see how the group's debut pushed R&B forward and introduced them as beloved elusive stars.

GRAMMYs/Jul 16, 2024 - 04:34 pm

"I only make records when I feel I have something to say," Sade Adu asserted in 2010 upon the highly anticipated release of Sade's GRAMMY-winning Soldier of Love album, which arrived after a 10-year hiatus. "I'm not interested in releasing music just for the sake of selling something. Sade is not a brand."

This lifetime of dedication toward achieving musical excellence helped Sade — vocalist Adu, bassist Paul S. Denman, keyboardist Andrew Hale, and guitarist/saxophonist Stuart Matthewman — gain prominence in the mid-80s, also garnering enormous respect from fans, critics, and peers alike. Formed in 1982, the English band is one of the few acts that can still be met with a hungry audience after disappearing from the spotlight for multiple years.

In an industry where churning out a new body of work is expected every couple of years, the four meticulous members of Sade move on their own time, putting out a mere six studio albums since 1984. Every project becomes more exquisite than the last, but it all began 40 years ago with Sade's illustrious debut album, Diamond Life. Ubiquitous hits like "Smooth Operator" and "Your Love Is King" appealed to listeners young and old — offering a unique blend of R&B, jazz, soul, funk, and pop that birthed a new sound and forced the industry to take notes from the jump.

As Sade's Diamond Life celebrates a milestone anniversary, here's a look at how the album helped push R&B forward, and why it's just as relevant today.

It Helped Set Off The "Quiet Storm" Craze

By mid-1984, Michael Jackson, was riding high off of winning the most GRAMMYs in a single night (including Album Of The Year) for his blockbuster album Thriller, Madonna celebrated her first top 10 hit with "Borderline," and Prince's Purple Rain was just days away from its theatrical release. Duran Duran, Culture Club, Billy Idol, and the Police were mainstays, while "blue-eyed soul" in particular had also hit an all-time high thanks to Hall and Oates, Wham, Simply Red, and others. What's more, many Black artists like Lionel Richie and Whitney Houston opted for more of a pop sound to appeal to broader audiences during MTV's golden era. 

Diamond Life was refreshing at the time, as it fully embraced soul and R&B. The album offered a chic sophistication amid the synth-heavy pop and rock music that ruled the charts.

Singles like "Your Love Is King" and "Smooth Operator" introduced jazz elements into mainstream radio. In turn, Sade helped usher in the "quiet storm" genre — R&B music at its core, with strong undertones of jazz for an ultra-smooth sound. Sade and Diamond Life also laid some of the groundwork for neo-soul, which saw a surge in the '90s à la Lauryn Hill, Maxwell, and Erykah Badu.

It Made GRAMMY History

In the 65-year history of the GRAMMYs, a small number of Nigerian artists, including Burna Boy and Tems, have won a golden gramophone. In 1986, a then 27-year-old Sade Adu made history as the first-ever Nigerian-born artist to win a GRAMMY when she and her band was crowned Best New Artist at the 29th GRAMMYs. Still, Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg had to accept the award on Sade's behalf — signaling Adu's elusive nature as she rarely attends industry events or grants interviews.

Since then, Sade has gone on to earn three more GRAMMYs, including Best Pop Vocal Album in 2001 for their fifth studio album, Lovers Rock. The win signified their staying power in the new millennium.

It Birthed The Band's Signature Song…

While Diamond Life spawned timeless hits like "Your Love Is King" and "Hang On to Your Love," "Smooth Operator" became the album's highest-charting single — and remains the most iconic song in their catalog. The seductive track about a cunning two-timer propelled the band into international stardom: "Smooth Operator" skyrocketed to No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and hit No. 1 on the Adult Contemporary chart.

Even non-Sade fans can identify "Smooth Operator" in an instant, from Adu's unmistakable vocals to that now-iconic instrumental saxophone solo. As of press time, it boasts over 400 million Spotify streams alone, and has remained a set list staple across every one of Sade's tours.

…And It Houses Underrated Gems

"Smooth Operator" may be Sade's commercial classic, but deep cuts like "Frankie's First Affair," "Cherry Pie," and "I Will Be Your Friend" are fan favorites that embody the band's heart and soul.

"Frankie's First Affair" offers a surprisingly enchanting take on infidelity: "Frankie, didn't I tell you, you've got the world in the palm of your hand/ Frankie, didn't I tell you they're running at your command." And, it's impossible to resist the funky groove that carries standout track "Cherry Pie," which served as a catalyst for some of Sade's later, more dance-oriented hits, including "Never As Good As the First Time" and "Paradise." Some of Sade's most poignant statements about lost love, including "Somebody Already Broke My Heart" from 2000's Lovers Rock, can be traced back to "Cherry Pie."

Diamond Life's penultimate song, "I Will Be Your Friend," offers both solace and companionship — another recurring theme throughout Sade's music, from 1988's "Keep Looking" to 2010's "In Another Time."

It Was The Best-Selling Debut Album By A British Female Singer For More Than Two Decades

Sade has sold tens of millions of albums worldwide, but Diamond Life remains the band's most commercially successful LP with over 7 million copies sold. Most of Sade's other platinum-selling LPs, including Diamond Life's follow-up, 1985's Promise, boast sales between four and six million copies.

The 7 million feat helped Sade set the record for best-selling debut album by a British female singer. She held the title for nearly 25 years until Leona Lewis' 2008 album Spirit, which has sold over 8 million copies globally.

It Introduced Sade Adu As A Style Icon

When we first met Adu, her signature aesthetic consisted of a long, slicked-back ponytail, red lip, and gold hoops. Sade's impeccable style is front and center in early videos like "When Am I Going to Make a Living," in which she sports an all-white ensemble paired with a pale gray, ankle-length trench coat and loafers.

Adu rocked the model off-duty style long before it became a trend. Her oversized blazers, classic trousers, and head-to-toe denim looks were as effortless as they were chic and runway-ready — proving that less was more amid the decade of excess.

"It's now so acceptable to be wacky and have hair that goes in 101 directions and has several colours, and trendy, wacky clothes have become so acceptable that they're… conventional," Adu, who briefly worked as a fashion designer and model before pursuing music, told Rolling Stone in 1985. "I don't like looking outrageous. I don't want to look like everybody else."

It Shined A Light On Larger Societal Issues

While most of Diamond Life leans into love's ebbs and flows, a handful of tunes deal with financial strife coupled with a dose of optimism, as evidenced by "When Am I Going to Make a Living" and "Sally." The latter song characterizes the Salvation Army as a young charitable woman: "So put your hands together for Sally/ She's the one who cared for him/ Put your hands together for Sally/ She was there when his luck was running thin."

Meanwhile, Adu, a then-starving artist, scribbled down portions of "When Am I Going to Make a Living" on the back of her cleaning ticket. The soul-stirring "We are hungry, but we won't give in" refrain emerges as a powerful mantra in the face of adversity and still holds relevance in 2024. Similar themes appear throughout Sade's later work, including unemployment ("Feel No Pain"), unwanted pregnancy ("Tar Baby"), survival ("Jezebel"), prejudice ("Immigrant"), and injustice ("Slave Song").

Diamond Life closer "Why Can't We Live Together" is a well-done cover of Timmy Thomas' 1972 hit about the staggering Vietnam War deaths. The band wisely doesn't veer too far from the original recording, but Adu's distinctive contralto voice brings a haunting quality that's reminiscent of Billie Holiday.

It Ignited The Public's Ongoing Fascination With Sade Adu

Since 1984, Sade has only released six studio albums, and a remarkable 14 years have passed since the group's last offering, 2010's Soldier of Love. Ironically, that scarcity — both in terms of music and access to the artist — has actually added to Adu's appeal. Case in point: Sade's sold-out Soldier of Love Tour grossed over $50 million in 2011, and the band still brings in close to 14 million monthly listeners on Spotify.

Adu's striking beauty, mysterious persona, and knack for letting her music do all the talking has earned the admiration of her peers across genres and generations. Everyone from Beyoncé to Kanye West to Snoop Dogg have sung her praises. Drake even has two portrait-style tattoos of the singer on his torso. Prince reportedly described 1988's "Love Is Stronger Than Pride" as "one of the most beautiful songs ever." Metalheads Chino Moreno of the Deftones and Greg Puciato of the Dillinger Escape Plan have also cited Adu as inspiration — showing that her influence runs far and wide.

In 2022, reports circulated that Sade was recording new music at Miraval Studios in France. But upon Diamond Life's 40th anniversary, "Flower of the Universe" and "The Big Unknown" from the respective soundtracks to 2018 films A Wrinkle in Time and Widows stand as Sade's latest releases.

Whether fans get new music anytime soon remains to be seen, but the impressive repertoire of Adu, Denman, Hale, and Matthewman is one that aims to be truth-seeking and inspiring while exploring life's peaks and valleys. Diamond Life in particular holds up as one of the purest representations of the group's creative legacy, both commercially and musically. 

From quadruple platinum status to resonating with several generations, Diamond Life will forever stand as a remarkable debut — one that continues to influence music in a multitude of ways.

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Remi Wolf press photo
Remi Wolf

Photo: Ragan Henderson

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On New Album 'Big Ideas,' Remi Wolf Delivers Musical Poetry In Motion

Alt-pop favorite Remi Wolf took inventory of her psychological state while on "back-to-back-to-back" tours, and the result is a winning second album: 'Big Ideas.'

GRAMMYs/Jul 16, 2024 - 02:04 pm

How can you write a song, when you have nothing to sing about? One trusty well to return to is life on the road;  the musical canon is filled with odes to whizzing highway dividers, beds in strange places and, on occasion, a deteriorating home life.

The buzzy and prolific singer/songwriter Remi Wolf just folded these experiences into Big Ideas — her second full-length album, and one born of perpetual travel, transit and transition. (And, it should be said: her Carmen Sandiego traversals led her to NYC’s 2024 GRAMMY U Conference.)

"Well into my 20s, it was like a second puberty, because essentially, I was reborn as this touring musician," the thoughtful and loquacious indie-popper tells GRAMMY.com, over Zoom from her rehearsal space. (Even then, she's in motion, ducking from room to room to evade clamorous comings and goings.)

She evokes her breakout 2021 debut album: "I'd never toured like that before. My whole entire life felt so new after Juno was released."

This led to a white-hot writing streak. Big Ideas' highlights, like advance singles "Toro" and "Alone in Miami," directly address change and upheaval. Goes the former: "Dancing around and spilling wine/ You look good in my hotel robe." Goes the latter: "Met up with Maine, bought cocaine/ Clothes in the lobby waiting for me."

"There's no frills in that s—," Wolf says. "They're quite literally about real life." Read on for a full interview with Wolf about Big Ideas — a locus of that life, in all its nuances and dimensions.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

I love how funky and rhythmic 'Big Ideas' is. Which rhythms from the musical canon got you going? Are you a Purdie head? A Dan head? 

Oh, all of the above. I love a Purdie shuffle. The Purdie shuffle is a pretty legendary groove. I'm a huge fan of Steely Dan. I went to music college; I feel like as a music school student, you kind of have to love Steely Dan. Well, some of the kids choose to hate them, but I chose to love them. 

But yeah, I love a funky groove, a funky beat. I also like simple s—, but we love syncopation in this household. 

What'd you grow up listening to on that front? 

Honestly, not much. I feel like as a young kid, I would just listen to what my parents were listening to, and my dad listened to a lot of '80s classic rock, and my mom really liked Prince 

And then, also, my first album I ever owned was Speak Now by Lindsay Lohan, which is a completely different direction, and I was about eight when I got that album. 

I didn't know she made music. 
 
She had a music career. It was brief, but it was mighty, truly. She had all the best songwriters in the industry at the time working on this album. So honestly, even though it wasn't the pinnacle of musicianship, the writing was really good. Great songs. 

I just flashed back to Hilary Duff jewel cases in grade school. 

Oh, yeah, that's another classic, but I was a little bit more alternative than that. Lindsay Lohan was kind of on more of a pop-punk, like emo front-facing type of songwriting and energy. A little bit more like Alanis Morissette vibes. 

If I ever encounter a Lohan song in the wild, I'll remember your recommendation. 

When I was a high schooler, that's kind of when I started really listening to a bunch of staff that wasn't playing in my house. And that's when I got into Stevie Wonder and the Beatles and Cake. 

I ride for Cake. Great band. 

I ride for Cake, too. Honestly, they're one of my favorite bands of all time. I don't know, I feel super similar to them sometimes. Their lyrics are so wacky and sad, kind of — and bizarre, but they're so funky, and the songs are just great, but they're weird.

Take the readers through the span of time between your first album, 'Juno,' up to this sophomore album. What seed was planted? 

I released Juno at the end of 2021, and I guess the seed that was birthed after that was that I've essentially been on tour ever since. 

This new album, Big Ideas, is kind of the product of: I would go out on tour and come home for a week at a time, because I was on back-to-back-to-back tours. I went on 10 tours in one year; I was only home for about six weeks of all of 2022. And then, going into 2023, I kept touring, and kept doing the same thing. 

Watch: GRAMMY Museum Spotlight: Remi Wolf 

This album is a collection of all these moments and memories, and getting really focused, short amounts of time with me getting home and kind of exploding songwriting-wise — then, going back on tour and building up s— to talk about, and then exploding once again. 

There were about five concentrated week-and-a-half to two-week-long periods of writing that became this album. 

Do you get a charge out of touring? I couldn't imagine doing it again. 

Yeah. I think that there is an adrenaline that I like about it. I like traveling. I like seeing different cities, even if it's for a couple hours. I really like that. 

I like the communal aspect of it. I like getting really close to people and having a routine, to be honest. It's the most routine time of my life. Other than that, when I'm home, I'm just all over the place and doing a bunch of s—, which also has its perks. 

But I don't know, there's something about waking up and doing the same thing every day that kind of is nice for me. And it's cool to be able to just focus on one thing, getting to the next city and playing the show and making people happy. 

What about your life disappearing temporarily? Leaving a partner, your houseplants… 

No, that's really difficult. I luckily don't have a partner right now, but I think that tour is really capable of ruining a lot of relationships, unless you've got a really strong one where they understand the lifestyle and everything. But I've had many houseplants die. It's actually really sad. 

Your life just kind of is on pause. It's like a time machine, or a time capsule. Especially living in L.A. where the weather's the same every single day, you come home, and it's exactly the same as when you left the city. 

Once the emotional and conceptual pieces were on the floor, how did you assemble 'Big Ideas?' 

There are so many iterations of what it could have been. Because like I said, I had five two-week long sections of writing a f— ton of songs. And I'm not kidding, I wrote full albums within those weeks. I would be hunkered. 

I had one week in L.A. where it was five days, and we wrote 10 songs. And then I had another week in L.A. We wrote seven songs. And I had another week in New York, and we wrote nine songs. And then another week in New York, and we wrote 12 songs. And then another week finally back in L.A., and we wrote four songs that time. 

But essentially, I was kind of just doing what felt right. Until I felt like we had an entire album that was cohesive but expansive in its palette, I kept writing. And then finally, at a certain point, I was like, OK, I feel like we have the record. 

But there were moments where I was like, oh, I just wrote an album. I don't have to do anything else. And then a month would go by and I'd be like, I need to do more. 

In terms of choosing the songs, I think I was drawn to the songs that felt the most real to me — that continued to feel the most exciting and real to me. 

Define "real" in this context. 

That is a very difficult question to answer, and I think it is such a gut thing. It's beyond language. I don't know how to describe that. I don't know. If I feel invested. There are certain songs that you write and you like them, but you don't have that same feeling of investment in them. 

Does this really need to be heard? Does anybody need this? 

Yeah. Or: Do I need this? Honestly, it's so inexplicable. 

Do you ever try to work the songwriting muscle of making something specific, universal? Is that part of your calculus? 

Typically, it's not, but there's one song that I tried to do it on very intentionally: "Soup." 

[I had] the intention of making it a song that was built for an arena in terms of the sonics and the expansiveness of the drums and the four-on-the-floor. In my head, I was like, OK, I want this song to play, and then you see the arena with the people pumping their fists and feet. 

I think I'd recently seen Coldplay at Wembley Stadium, and I was like, Holy s—, this is so wild. Their stuff is so arena, stadium-bound. I was inspired by essentially the four-on-the-floor feel — hearing the reverb in the rafters of an arena like that. 

Going into writing that song, I was like, this is the song where it would make sense for me to be blunt and universal with my lyrics. And I think it was a cool experiment and honestly quite vulnerable for me, because I think sometimes I shy away from that type of lyric writing, whether it be out of just wanting to be a little bit more artsy. 

Sometimes I think it's fear-based, in the sense of: I want to hide, I want to be able to be the only one to really know what I'm talking about sometimes. And I think with "Soup," I kind of just let it fly and let that universality shine through a little bit more. 

You don't need to know what songs mean all the time. You mentioned the Beatles: John sang, "Yellow matter custard, dripping from a dead dog's eye." 

Yeah. It's syllables, and imagery. This s— can be anything you want to be, and I always try to remember that. 

What's coming up in your musical life? 

I'm going on tour in the fall; today is our first day of rehearsals. We're starting to put together a big show. More travel, more motion. I never stop moving, essentially. Hopefully I'll be writing more soon.

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Derrick Hodge press photo
Derrick Hodge

Photo: Oye Diran

interview

Meet Derrick Hodge, The Composer Orchestrating Hip-Hop's Symphony

From Nas' 'Illmatic' to modern hip-hop symphonies, Derrick Hodge seamlessly bridges the worlds of classical and hip-hop music, bringing orchestral elegance to iconic rap anthems.

GRAMMYs/Jul 16, 2024 - 01:01 pm

Over the last 50 years, hip-hop culture has shown it can catalyze trends in fashion and music across numerous styles and genres, from streetwear to classical music. On June 30, Nas took his place at Red Rocks Amphitheater in a full tuxedo, blending the worlds of hip-hop and Black Tie once again, with the help of Derrick Hodge

On this warm summer eve in Morrison, Colorado, Nas performed his opus, Illmatic, with Hodge conducting the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. The show marked a belated 30-year celebration of the album, originally released on April 19, 1994. 

As Nas delivered his icy rhymes on classics like "N.Y. State of Mind," "Memory Lane (Sittin' in da Park)," and "Halftime," the orchestra held down the beat with a wave of Hodge's baton. The winds, strings, and percussion seamlessly transitioned from underscoring Nas's lyrics with sweeping harmonic layers to leading melodic orchestral flourishes and interludes. For the album's final track, "Ain't Hard to Tell," the orchestra expanded on Michael Jackson's "Human Nature," expertly sampled originally by producer Large Professor.

Derrick Hodge is a pivotal figure in modern music. His career spans writing and performing the famous bassline on Common's "Be," composing for Spike Lee's HBO documentary "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts," and his own solo career that includes his latest experimental jazz album, COLOR OF NOIZE. Hodge also made history by bringing hip-hop to the Kennedy Center with orchestra accompaniments for Illmatic to celebrate the album's 20th anniversary in 2014.

"That was the first time hip-hop was accepted in those walls," Hodge says sitting backstage at Red Rocks. It was also the first time Hodge composed orchestral accompaniments to a hip-hop album.

Since then, Hodge has composed symphonic works for other rappers including Jeezy and Common, and is set to deliver a symphonic rendition of Anderson .Paak's 2016 album, Malibu, at the Hollywood Bowl in September.

Hodge's passion for orchestral composition began when he was very young. He played upright bass by age seven and continued to practice classical composition in his spare moments while touring as a bassist with Terence Blanchard and Robert Glasper. On planes. In dressing rooms. In the van to and from the gig.

"It started as a dream. I didn't know how it was going to be realized. My only way to pursue that dream was just to do it without an opportunity in sight," Hodge says. "Who would've known that all that time people were watching? Friends were watching and word-of-mouth." 

His dedication and word-of-mouth reputation eventually led Nas to entrust him with the orchestral arrangements for Illmatic. He asked Hodge and another arranger, Tim Davies, to write for the performance at the Kennedy Center.

"[Nas] didn't know much about me at all," Hodge says. "For him to trust how I was going to paint that story for an album that is very important to him and important to the culture, I have not taken that for granted." 

Read more: How 'Illmatic' Defined East Coast Rap: Nas’ Landmark Debut Turns 30

Those parts Hodge wrote for the Kennedy Center are the same parts he conducted at Red Rocks. Over a decade later, he channels the same drive and hunger he had when he was practicing his compositions between gigs. "I hope that I never let go of that. I feel like these opportunities keep coming because I'm approaching each one with that conviction. Like this could be my last." 

Before this latest performance, GRAMMY.com spoke with Hodge about bridging the worlds of classical and hip-hop, influencing the next generation of classical musicians, and how his experience as a bassist helps him lead an orchestra.

Throughout history, orchestral music has been celebrated by the highest echelons of society, whereas hip-hop has often been shunned by that echelon. What is it like for you to bring those two worlds together?

I love it. I've embraced the opportunity since day one. I was a young man showing up with Timberlands on and cornrows in my hair, and I knew the tendency to act and move in a certain perception was there. I knew then I have to represent hope in everything I do. I choose to this day to walk with a certain pair of blinders on because I feel like it's necessary. Because of that I never worry about how the classical world perceives me. 

Oftentimes I'll stand before them and I know there may be questions but the love I show them, what I demand of them, and how I show appreciation when they take the music seriously…almost every situation has led to lifelong friendships. 

I believe that's been part of my purpose. It's not even been to change minds or change perceptions. In serving the moment, even when people have preconceptions, they're in front of me playing music I wrote. How do I serve them best? How do I bring out the best in them just like I'm trying to bring out the best in the storyline of a hip-hop artist that may not relate to their story at all? The answer is just to be selfless. That's eliminated the distraction of trying to convince minds.

With that unifying principle, would you consider conducting the orchestra the same thing as playing bass with Robert Glasper?

The way I try to be selfless and serve the moment, it's no different. Maybe the skillset that's required. For example, conducting or working within a framework of composed music requires a certain way of making sure everybody's on the same page so we can get through these things on time and keep going. But I serve that moment no differently than when myself and Robert Glasper, Chris Dave, Casey Benjamin RIP, are creating a song in the moment.

I actually don't even think about how one thing is affecting the other. I will say the beauty of the bass and the bassists that have influenced me — from Ron Carter to the great Marcus Miller, Victor Wooten — is the way they can stand out while never abandoning the emotion of the moment. Remembering what is perceived as the role of the bass and how it glues things in a unique way. Harmonically and rhythmically. Being aware of the responsibility of being aware of everything.

I think that's one thing that's carried over to orchestrating and thinking about balances and how to convey emotion. I think some things are innate with bassists. We're always navigating through harmony and having a conversation through a lens of placement with drums. Placement with the diction if they're singers or rappers. There are a lot of decisions bass players are making in the moment that we don't even think about. It's just secondhand. But it's how are we serving what's necessary to make the conversation unified. I think that's one thing that's served me well in composition.  

What's one song you're particularly excited to dive into for the Anderson .Paak arrangements?

So I'm intentionally not thinking in that way because we decided to treat it like a movie. Start to finish no matter what. With that in mind, I'm trying to approach it as if the whole thing is an arcing story because I didn't realize the succession of how he placed that record was really important to him. 

**Hip-hop is often a very minimalist genre while an orchestra is frequently the opposite with dozens of instruments. How do you maintain that minimalist feel when writing orchestra parts for hip-hop albums like Illmatic?**

I'm so glad you asked that because that was the biggest overarching thing I had to deal with on the first one. With Nas. Because Illmatic, people love that as it is. Every little thing. It wasn't just the production. Nas's diction in between it, how he wrote it, how he told the story, and the pace he spoke through it. That's what made it. So the biggest thing is how do I honor that but also try to tell the story that honors the narrative of symphonic works? [The orchestra is] fully involved. How do I do things in a way where they are engaged without forcing them? 

Illmatic was a part of my soundtrack. So I started with the song that meant the most to me at that time: "The World is Yours." That was the first piece I finished, and I emailed Pete Rock and asked "How is this feeling to you?" If the spirit of the song is speaking to him then I feel like this is something I can give to the people no matter how I feel about it. And he gave the thumbs up. 

So instead of overly trying to prove a point within the flow of the lyrics, how do we pick those moments when the orchestra is exposed? Let them be fully exposed. Let them tell a story leading into that. Make what they do best marry well into what Nas and the spirit of hip-hop and hip-hop sampling do best. And then let there be a dance in between. 

That first [Illmatic] show was a great experiment for me. I try to carve out moments whenever I can. Let me figure out what's a story that can combine this moment with this moment. That's become the beauty. Especially within the rap genre. To let something new that they're not familiar with lead into this story. 

Derrick Hodge with orchestra

*Derrick Hodge conducts the Colorado Symphony Orchestra at Red Rocks* | Amanda Tipton

The orchestra is just as excited to play it as Nas is to have them behind him. 

And that reflects my story. I try to dedicate more time to thinking about that, and that normally ends up reciprocated back in the way they're phrasing. In the way they're honoring the bones. In the way they're honoring the breaths that I wrote in for them. They start to honor that in a way because they know we're coming to try and have a conversation with these orchestras. That's one thing I try to make sure no matter what. It's a conversation and that goes back to the moment as well. 

I've seen other composers put an orchestral touch on hip-hop in recent years. For example, Miguel Atwood-Ferguson wrote orchestral parts to celebrate Biggie's 50th birthday. Would you say integrating an orchestra into hip-hop is becoming more popular? 

It has become popular, especially in terms of catching the eyes of a lot of the different symphonies that might not have opened up their doors to that as frequently in the past. These opportunities — I appreciate the love shown where my name is mentioned in terms of the inception of things. But I approach it with a lot of gratitude because others were doing it and were willing to honor the music the same. There are many that wish they had that opportunity so I try to represent them. 

With these more modern applications of orchestral music, I feel like there will be an explosion of talent within the classical realm in the next few years. Kids will think it's cool to play classical again.

The possibility of that just brings joy to me. Not just because it's a spark, but hopefully the feeling in the music they relate to. Hopefully there is something in it, aside from seeing it done, that feels that it relates to their story. I have confidence if I'm true to myself, hopefully, each time in the music it's going to feel like it's something relevant to the people. The more I can help foster platforms where people are free to be themselves, and where they can honor the music—I hope that mentality becomes infectious.

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