Photo: David Corio/Redferns
Toots Hibbert of Toots And The Maytals performs in London in 1983
Toots Hibbert, GRAMMY-Winning Reggae Pioneer And Founder Of Toots And The Maytals, Dies At 77
Considered to be "one of the fathers of reggae music," a genre he helped globalize, Hibbert was the first known artist to use the word "reggae" on a record
While no cause of death has been revealed, Hibbert was hospitalized in an intensive care unit in his native Jamaica in August after showing symptoms of the coronavirus. While he was awaiting results from a coronavirus test, he was placed in a medically induced coma in early September. "Toots is fighting for his life and his family is asking for prayers," Claude Mills, Hibbert's publicist, told Jamaican daily newspaper The Gleaner.
Toots And The Maytals confirmed the news of Hibbert's passing in a post shared on the band's official social media accounts Friday night, writing, "It is with the heaviest of hearts to announce that Frederick Nathaniel 'Toots' Hibbert passed away peacefully tonight, surrounded by his family at the University Hospital of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica.
"The family and his management team would like to thank the medical teams and professionals for their care and diligence, and ask that you respect their privacy during their time of grief," the post continues.
Born Frederick Nathaniel Hibbert in 1942 in May Pen, Jamaica, he is considered "one of the fathers of reggae music" and is the first known artist to use the word "reggae" on a record, The New York Times writes, as heard on his band's, then known as The Maytals, 1968 song, "Do The Reggay."
Recognized as one of the greatest singers of all time by Rolling Stone, Hibbert is known for his powerful, soulful vocal style, which gained him comparisons to soul greats like Otis Redding and Ray Charles. Hibbert is also known for infusing elements of soul music, gospel, R&B, rock 'n' roll and Jamaican mento into Toots And The Maytals' reggae, rocksteady and ska sounds, Rolling Stone writes.
Hibbert formed his band, originally known simply as The Maytals, in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1962 alongside Henry "Raleigh" Gordon and Nathaniel "Jerry" Matthias; the group changed its name to Toots And The Maytals in 1972.
After becoming a big draw within Jamaica's then-nascent ska scene, the group released its debut album, The Sensational Maytals, in 1965. One year later, they won the first-ever Jamaican Independence Festival Popular Song Competition with their song "Bam Bam," which inspired Sister Nancy's 1982 dancehall classic of the same name; the group would go on to win the national song competition in 1969 and 1972, according to Rolling Stone.
In 1967, Hibbert served a nine-month prison term after he was arrested for possession of marijuana; he alleges he was set up by corrupt authorities or music rivals, according to Pitchfork and Rolling Stone. Inspired by the experience, Hibbert wrote the song "54-46 Was My Number," which became one of his group's biggest songs and their first major hit outside Jamaica, Rolling Stone reports.
The group crossed over into international markets with their third album Funky Kingston, which released in Jamaica and the U.K. in 1972; an alternate version of the album, released in the U.S. in 1975, charted stateside on the Billboard 200 and was voted as one of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time by Rolling Stone.
Toots And The Maytals would go on to receive five total GRAMMY nominations in the reggae field, including a GRAMMY win for Best Reggae Album in 2005 for their 2004 album, True Love. Hibbert, who also recorded and performed as a solo artist, received four GRAMMY nominations, including one win for True Love.
On Aug. 28, just three days before Hibbert was first hospitalized, Toots And The Maytals released Got To Be Tough, his first studio album in a decade and the first LP he produced himself; it now marks the final Toots And The Maytals album.
Hibbert is survived by his wife of 39 years, Miss D, and his seven of eight children, according to the Toots And The Maytals Twitter account.
Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016
Upon winning the GRAMMY for Best Rap Album for 'To Pimp a Butterfly,' Kendrick Lamar thanked those that helped him get to the stage, and the artists that blazed the trail for him.
Updated Friday Oct. 13, 2023 to include info about Kendrick Lamar's most recent GRAMMY wins, as of the 2023 GRAMMYs.
A GRAMMY veteran these days, Kendrick Lamar has won 17 GRAMMYs and has received 47 GRAMMY nominations overall. A sizable chunk of his trophies came from the 58th annual GRAMMY Awards in 2016, when he walked away with five — including his first-ever win in the Best Rap Album category.
This installment of GRAMMY Rewind turns back the clock to 2016, revisiting Lamar's acceptance speech upon winning Best Rap Album for To Pimp A Butterfly. Though Lamar was alone on stage, he made it clear that he wouldn't be at the top of his game without the help of a broad support system.
"First off, all glory to God, that's for sure," he said, kicking off a speech that went on to thank his parents, who he described as his "those who gave me the responsibility of knowing, of accepting the good with the bad."
He also extended his love and gratitude to his fiancée, Whitney Alford, and shouted out his Top Dawg Entertainment labelmates. Lamar specifically praised Top Dawg's CEO, Anthony Tiffith, for finding and developing raw talent that might not otherwise get the chance to pursue their musical dreams.
"We'd never forget that: Taking these kids out of the projects, out of Compton, and putting them right here on this stage, to be the best that they can be," Lamar — a Compton native himself — continued, leading into an impassioned conclusion spotlighting some of the cornerstone rap albums that came before To Pimp a Butterfly.
To Pimp a Butterfly singles "Alright" and "These Walls" earned Lamar three more GRAMMYs that night, the former winning Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song and the latter taking Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (the song features Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat). He also won Best Music Video for the remix of Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood."
Watch Lamar's full acceptance speech above, and check back at GRAMMY.com every Friday for more GRAMMY Rewind episodes.
Photo: Brian Cooke/Redferns
How 'The Harder They Come' Brought Reggae To The World: A Song By Song Soundtrack Breakdown
Fifty years after the breakthrough Jamaican film was released in the U.S., GRAMMY.com breaks down the impact of its star-studded soundtrack — including songs by Jimmy Cliff, the Melodians and Toots and the Maytals.
Half a century after its release, the breakthrough 1972 film The Harder They Come remains remarkable for its unfiltered depiction of Jamaica, its people, their speech and their music.
Produced and directed by the late Perry Henzell, The Harder They Come was the first movie made in Jamaica by an entirely Jamaican cast and crew, premiering in Kingston to an enormous, riotous crowd. When the film opened in the States in early ‘73, it introduced American audiences to rocksteady, reggae, Rastafari and conditions on the island beyond the tranquil images shown in travel brochures.
The Harder They Come was a star-making vehicle for a two-time GRAMMY winner and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee Jimmy Cliff, who portrays Ivanhoe Martin — a character loosely based on the outlaw/folk hero Rhygin who became Jamaica’s most wanted in 1948 after escaping from prison; Rhygin committed a series of robberies and murders before he was gunned down by police. In the film, Ivan is also an aspiring reggae singer and low-level ganja dealer whose endeavors are met with sabotage and betrayals.
Cliff’s portrayal is riveting and authentic. Born James Chambers in a rural community outside of Montego Bay, Cliff lived in the overcrowded, impoverished communities of west Kingston in his early teens. While pursuing a career as a singer, Cliff saw firsthand the crime, violence and the survival of the fittest mindset within the ghetto areas where reggae was birthed.
"That film was the first of its kind, a masterpiece, almost like a documentary with Perry depicting what he saw going on in Jamaica, and what I saw in the ghetto," Jimmy Cliff told me in a 2017 interview following a performance at his alma mater, the Somerton All Age and Infant School. The Harder They Come delineated the glaring contrasts between the island’s elites and the poor Black masses dwelling in overcrowded, squalid tenement yards, the corruption within the island’s music industry, the police force’s control of the ganja trade and their power to ban songs when they want to defeat the message or in the case of Ivan, the messenger.
The Harder They Come is also notable for the many Jamaican music personalities that appear in brief roles. Former policeman turned rocksteady producer Duke Reid portrays, naturally, a police commissioner; artist/producer and ska icon Prince Buster plays a club selector; popular radio personality Don Topping a.k.a. El Numero Uno appears as himself. Leslie Kong — who produced the majority of the tracks on The Harder They Come soundtrack — is the sound engineer working alongside Hilton, the unscrupulous producer. (In 1962, a teenaged Cliff persuaded Kong and his brothers to venture into recording, which yielded Cliff’s breakthrough hits "Hurricane Hattie" and "Miss Jamaica," for the Kongs’ Beverley’s Records label.)
The film’s messaging was underscored by rocksteady and reggae music. While a few hits by Jamaican artists had already reached topped charts — among them Millie Small’s ska ditty "My Boy Lollipop" climbed to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100; Desmond Dekker’s "Israelites" topped the UK charts and peaked at No. 9 in the U.S. and Dave and Ansell Collins’ cheerful, primarily instrumental track, "Monkey Spanner" was also a UK No. 1. — "those songs were seen as novelties, especially in America," Cliff continued.
"The Harder They Come put the audio together with the visuals of where the music comes from, the people who make it; it showed the music’s identity," said Cliff, whose international hits prior to the film include "Hard Road to Travel" — the film’s working title. "My character Ivan was a rebel and back then, in universities in America and in England, the youths were rebellious, too, so the movie and the music came at the right time and had a huge impact, it opened up the international market."
The Harder They Come soundtrack initially appeared in U.S. stores in February 1973 (released on Mango/Island) two months before the release of the Wailers’ seminal Catch a Fire but didn’t reach the Billboard Top 200 until 1975. Music chart metrics, however, don’t wholly reflect the impact of the soundtrack or the film. In 1973, The Harder They Come played for 26 weeks at the Orson Welles Cinema in Cambridge, Ma., then returned in 1974, where it remained a midnight attraction for an additional seven years. At Manhattan’s Elgin Theater, the film was shown at midnight for 80 consecutive weekends. Besides the incidental use of reggae and rocksteady tunes to enhance many pivotal moments, the compelling scenes featuring Toots and the Maytals and Jimmy Cliff performing their songs, also elevated the profile of Jamaica’s sounds.
The Harder They Come soundtrack has topped many critics’ best albums lists over the years; in 2022 the soundtrack was selected for preservation by the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress —the second reggae release to earn that distinction.
"When Perry did The Harder They Come, no one understood Jamaican English, nobody understood reggae or knew what Jamaica really was like," comments Justine Henzell, the director's eldest child. "Perry wasn’t trying to make a movie for everyone; because it was so authentically Jamaican, he found a sweet spot between being culturally specific and universally accessible. He didn’t even know he was doing that 50 years ago but that’s what every filmmaker is looking for because audiences want to be taken into a new world, have a new experience, a cinematic journey."
The Harder They Come’s musical journey begins with "You Can Get It If You Really Want," produced by Leslie Kong, one of four songs written and sung by Cliff in the film. In the opening scene, Ivan is traveling on a rickety, crowded country bus that’s making its way through wet, mountainous roads en route to the capital city, Kingston. Over a fluttering reggae beat, Cliff’s crystalline vocals deliver lyrics that reinforce his character’s determination to make it as a singer: "You can get it if you really want but you must try, try and try, try and try, you’ll succeed at last."
Cliff initially released "You Can Get It If You Really Want," in July 1970; Desmond Dekker’s rendition of the song reached No. 2 on the UK charts shortly thereafter and Cliff re-recorded the song for the film/soundtrack.
Ivan steps off of the bus on a busy Kingston street, and within minutes, a pushcart vendor runs away with all of his possessions, including the mango he brought for his mother. Playing underneath the chase scene is Scotty’s "Draw Your Brakes," an adaptation of the 1965 jaunty ska hit, "Stop That Train," by the Spanishtown Ska Beats (also known as the Spanishtonians), produced by Prince Buster. The song incorporates the vocals from Keith and Tex’s 1976 cover of "Stop That Train," while Scotty’s expressive patois lyrics provide a livelier take on the original’s theme of a lover’s betrayal.
Vocal trio the Melodians had a No. 1 hit in Jamaica in 1970 with the exquisite "Rivers of Babylon"; the song’s verses reference Psalm 137 and its bridge quotes Psalm 19, drawing parallels between the Biblical exile of the Israelites in Babylon and the oppression suffered by poor Black Jamaicans. The song is first heard when Ivan arrives in Kingston to break the news to his mother that her mother has died. Ivan also reveals he wants to remain in the city but his mother tells him he should return to the country because she lacks the resources to help him.
"Rivers of Babylon" spoke to the issues faced by Rastafarians, whose lifestyle — including their worship of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I as Lord and Savior — was much maligned at the time and their settlements intermittently razed by authorities. Rastafarians use the word Babylon to identify police or any system they deem oppressive.
Upon its release, "Rivers of Babylon" was banned from airplay in Jamaica: the authorities considered the song’s direct references to Rastafari "subversive." Producer Leslie Kong challenged the embargo, saying the lyrics paralleled the scriptures recited in the island’s churches on Sundays; the ban was lifted, and the song soared to the top of local charts. Artists as diverse as Willie Nelson and Sublime have covered "Rivers of Babylon," while a 1978 disco rendition by Germany’s Boney M topped the UK charts for five weeks and cracked the U.S. top 40.
The Slickers — brothers Derrick and Sydney Crooks, Winston Bailey, Roy Beckford and Abraham Green — recorded "Johnny Too Bad" in 1970 for producer Byron Lee; here, their voices are complemented by a bubbling reggae beat, and dynamic organ riffs, said to be played by the late Winston Wright. The narrative of "Johnny Too Bad" corresponds with Ivan’s transformation from impetuous rude boy to hardened criminal, and is heard when as the Slickers croon: "Walking down the road with a pistol in your waist, Johnny you’re too bad…you’re just robbing and stabbing and looting and shooting, now you’re too bad."
In the film, the song plays from a radio as Ivan is doing small repair jobs for Preacher, who has taken him in. Wearing a bright yellow hat tilted to one side Ivan’s coworker Longa tells him, "yuh really look like Johnny too bad," meaning Ivan has the demeanor of a tough guy, a rude boy, "but you gotta have a gun to look like Johnny." Ivan does indeed get a gun, but before that, he slashes Longa’s face in a fight over a stolen bicycle.
On the run from the authorities, Ivan, nonetheless, wants his photo in the Jamaica Gleaner newspaper. He arrives for a photo session attired in '70s gangster chic: leopard print shirt, black vinyl vest, striped pants, a white cap and a gun in each hand. Underpinning the scene is Desmond Dekker and the Aces' quintessential rude boy anthem "007 (Shanty Town)," another Leslie Kong production.
Initially released in 1967, "007 (Shanty Town)" became Dekker’s first international hit, reaching No. 14 on the UK singles chart. The song begins with the chiming guitar chords of Nearlin "Lyn" Taitt (the late Trinidad born guitarist considered an architect in the development of Jamaica’s rocksteady beat) which gives way to an irresistibly easy-skanking rocksteady rhythm. "007 (Shanty Town)" references 1960s movies popular with rude boys (Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack’s Ocean’s Eleven, James Bond’s 007) and offers details of their pursuits in the notorious west Kingston ghettos called shanty towns: "dem a loot, dem a shoot, dem a wail, a shanty town."
The despair heard in the epic "Many Rivers to Cross" as Ivan contemplates "committing some dreadful crime" foreshadows his sinister actions in the film. However, Cliff wrote the gospel flavored ballad when he returned to Jamaica after four years of living in England (he references traveling over "the white cliffs of Dover"), frustrated because he didn’t achieve the success he envisioned there. "I've been licked, washed up for years," he wails, "and I merely survive because of my pride."
The song’s ecclesiastical organ chords provide a somber feel that underscores a scene where Ivan is rejected for work at a construction site, then sneered at by a wealthy woman sitting on her patio as he looks for any odd job as a means of survival. These interactions illustrate the condescending views of the powerful towards the powerless — a segmentation between wealthy uptown and indigent downtown that still exists in Kingston and cities throughout the world. Cliff’s heartrending vocals on "Many Rivers to Cross" are a stunning tour de force, arguably the finest performance on the soundtrack album.
As the authorities close in on Ivan for killing three policemen, the soul searching "Sitting In Limbo" plays as he spends time with his girlfriend Elsa, his Rasta bredren Pedro and Pedro’s young son Rupert before his attempted escape to Cuba. The song’s lyrics, ideally suited to Ivan’s very uncertain future, were written and recorded by Cliff before filming began.
After he left England, Cliff returned to Jamaica, where he says he was almost regarded as a foreigner, which, understandably, induced a sense of limbo. He finished writing the song in Argentina working alongside Panamanian singer/songwriter Guilly Bright, pondering what lay ahead: "I can't say what life will show me, but I know what I've seen/ I can't say where life will lead me, but I know where I've been, tried my hand at love and friendship, but all that is past and gone, this little boy is moving on."
Recorded in New York City with session players from Muscle Shoals, Alabama (heard on hits by Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin) the ballad’s gentle rhythm builds to a triumphant orchestration of layered keyboards, blasts of brass, flutes and resonant backing vocals, the sonic equivalent of Ivan’s delight in finally having an escape plan, however it works out.
The Maytals contributed two outstanding songs to the soundtrack, each exemplifying the singular, soulful talent that was the late Frederick "Toots" Hibbert and the tight knit, soaring harmonies of Henry "Raleigh" Gordon and Nathaniel "Jerry" McCarthy. "Pressure Drop" is a gospel-infused, cautionary tale about karmic retribution towards wrongdoers that’s simply phrased but yields hypnotic effects. The track plays as Ivan and José, his boss in the ganja trade, engage in a daylight shootout after Ivan realizes José has snitched and sent the police after him.
"Sweet and Dandy" is a spirited depiction of a rural wedding set to a rollicking mento rhythm. In the film, Toots and The Maytals are seen inside Byron Lee’s Dynamic Sounds studio recording the song; at the controls of the session are Hilton and Leslie Kong (who produced both Maytals’ songs). Ivan arrives at the studio and is transfixed watching them, which solidifies his ambition to make his own record.
At Dynamic Sound studios Ivan/Cliff lays down, live, the first recorded version of "The Harder They Come," backed by some of Jamaica’s finest: Gladstone Anderson (piano), Winston Wright (organ), Winston Grennan (drums), Linford "Hux" Brown (lead guitar), Ranford "Ranny Bop" Williams (rhythm guitar) and Clifton "Jackie" Jackson (bass), with Kong and Hilton at the controls. Wearing the now iconic blue shirt with a six-point yellow star, a cigarette in hand, Cliff is absolutely captivating as he intermittently throws his head back and absorbs the pulsating reggae beat that drives his spectacular, nuanced vocals.
The song’s lyrics perfectly suit the movie’s storyline but also rebel against the religious teachings Cliff was brought up with: "Well, they tell me of a pie up in the sky, waiting for me when I die; but between the day you’re born and when you die, they never seem to hear even your cry."
After delivering his breathtaking performance, Hilton offers Ivan just $20 for the song; like the other injustices Ivan has faced, this sets him on a path to "get my share now, what’s mine."
In 1971, prior to the release of The Harder They Come, Leslie Kong, 37, suffered a fatal heart attack. Cliff and Kong’s scene in the studio together represents a full circle moment in their careers as Cliff records the title track to what is arguably, the most influential project in reggae’s trajectory over the past 50 years.
In observance of the film’s golden anniversary in Jamaica, Justine Henzell curated a multi-media art exhibition inspired by the film at her former home, where many of the film’s scenes were shot and edited. In February 2023, several of those art pieces were exhibited in the lobby of New York City’s Public Theater, coinciding with their presentation of a musical adaptation of "The Harder They Come," written by Pulitzer winner Suzan-Lori Parks.
While Parks’ revisions to Henzell’s screenplay (co-written with the late Trevor Rhone) sanitize Ivan and his criminal exploits, diminishing the grit that’s so essential to the film’s story arc, the musical performances are anchored in the film's 10 song soundtrack — further proof that the the original The Harder They Come remains a glorious document of the power of Jamaican music.
Photo: Rachel Kupfer
A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.
It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.
Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.
Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.
In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.
Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.
There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.
Say She She
Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.
While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."
Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.
Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.
Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.
Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.
L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.
During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.
Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.
Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.
Photo: Steven Sebring
Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage
"One foot in the past and one foot into the future," Billy Idol says, describing his decade-spanning career in rock. "We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol."
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Billy Idol about his latest EP, Cage, and continuing to rock through decades of changing tastes.
Billy Idol is a true rock 'n' roll survivor who has persevered through cultural shifts and personal struggles. While some may think of Idol solely for "Rebel Yell" and "White Wedding," the singer's musical influences span genres and many of his tunes are less turbo-charged than his '80s hits would belie.
Idol first made a splash in the latter half of the '70s with the British punk band Generation X. In the '80s, he went on to a solo career combining rock, pop, and punk into a distinct sound that transformed him and his musical partner, guitarist Steve Stevens, into icons. They have racked up multiple GRAMMY nominations, in addition to one gold, one double platinum, and four platinum albums thanks to hits like "Cradle Of Love," "Flesh For Fantasy," and "Eyes Without A Face."
But, unlike many legacy artists, Idol is anything but a relic. Billy continues to produce vital Idol music by collaborating with producers and songwriters — including Miley Cyrus — who share his forward-thinking vision. He will play a five-show Vegas residency in November, and filmmaker Jonas Akerlund is working on a documentary about Idol’s life.
His latest release is Cage, the second in a trilogy of annual four-song EPs. The title track is a classic Billy Idol banger expressing the desire to free himself from personal constraints and live a better life. Other tracks on Cage incorporate metallic riffing and funky R&B grooves.
Idol continues to reckon with his demons — they both grappled with addiction during the '80s — and the singer is open about those struggles on the record and the page. (Idol's 2014 memoir Dancing With Myself, details a 1990 motorcycle accident that nearly claimed a leg, and how becoming a father steered him to reject hard drugs. "Bitter Taste," from his last EP, The Roadside, reflects on surviving the accident.)
Although Idol and Stevens split in the late '80s — the skilled guitarist fronted Steve Stevens & The Atomic Playboys, and collaborated with Michael Jackson, Rick Ocasek, Vince Neil, and Harold Faltermeyer (on the GRAMMY-winning "Top Gun Anthem") — their common history and shared musical bond has been undeniable. The duo reunited in 2001 for an episode of "VH1 Storytellers" and have been back in the saddle for two decades. Their union remains one of the strongest collaborations in rock 'n roll history.
While there is recognizable personnel and a distinguishable sound throughout a lot of his work, Billy Idol has always pushed himself to try different things. Idol discusses his musical journey, his desire to constantly move forward, and the strong connection that he shares with Stevens.
Steve has said that you like to mix up a variety of styles, yet everyone assumes you're the "Rebel Yell"/"White Wedding" guy. But if they really listen to your catalog, it's vastly different.
Yeah, that's right. With someone like Steve Stevens, and then back in the day Keith Forsey producing... [Before that] Generation X actually did move around inside punk rock. We didn't stay doing just the Ramones two-minute music. We actually did a seven-minute song. [Laughs]. We did always mix things up.
Then when I got into my solo career, that was the fun of it. With someone like Steve, I knew what he could do. I could see whatever we needed to do, we could nail it. The world was my oyster musically.
"Cage" is a classic-sounding Billy Idol rocker, then "Running From The Ghost" is almost metal, like what the Devil's Playground album was like back in the mid-2000s. "Miss Nobody" comes out of nowhere with this pop/R&B flavor. What inspired that?
We really hadn't done anything like that since something like "Flesh For Fantasy" [which] had a bit of an R&B thing about it. Back in the early days of Billy Idol, "Hot In The City" and "Mony Mony" had girls [singing] on the backgrounds.
We always had a bit of R&B really, so it was actually fun to revisit that. We just hadn't done anything really quite like that for a long time. That was one of the reasons to work with someone like Sam Hollander [for the song "Rita Hayworth"] on The Roadside. We knew we could go [with him] into an R&B world, and he's a great songwriter and producer. That's the fun of music really, trying out these things and seeing if you can make them stick.
I listen to new music by veteran artists and debate that with some people. I'm sure you have those fans that want their nostalgia, and then there are some people who will embrace the newer stuff. Do you find it’s a challenge to reach people with new songs?
Obviously, what we're looking for is, how do we somehow have one foot in the past and one foot into the future? We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol.
You want to do things that are true to you, and you don't just want to try and do things that you're seeing there in the charts today. I think that we're achieving it with things like "Running From The Ghost" and "Cage" on this new EP. I think we’re managing to do both in a way.
Obviously, "Running From The Ghost" is about addiction, all the stuff that you went through, and in "Cage" you’re talking about freeing yourself from a lot of personal shackles. Was there any one moment in your life that made you really thought I have to not let this weigh me down anymore?
I mean, things like the motorcycle accident I had, that was a bit of a wake up call way back. It was 32 years ago. But there were things like that, years ago, that gradually made me think about what I was doing with my life. I didn't want to ruin it, really. I didn't want to throw it away, and it made [me] be less cavalier.
I had to say to myself, about the drugs and stuff, that I've been there and I've done it. There’s no point in carrying on doing it. You couldn't get any higher. You didn't want to throw your life away casually, and I was close to doing that. It took me a bit of time, but then gradually I was able to get control of myself to a certain extent [with] drugs and everything. And I think Steve's done the same thing. We're on a similar path really, which has been great because we're in the same boat in terms of lyrics and stuff.
So a lot of things like that were wake up calls. Even having grandchildren and just watching my daughter enlarging her family and everything; it just makes you really positive about things and want to show a positive side to how you're feeling, about where you're going. We've lived with the demons so long, we've found a way to live with them. We found a way to be at peace with our demons, in a way. Maybe not completely, but certainly to where we’re enjoying what we do and excited about it.
[When writing] "Running From The Ghost" it was easy to go, what was the ghost for us? At one point, we were very drug addicted in the '80s. And Steve in particular is super sober [now]. I mean, I still vape pot and stuff. I don’t know how he’s doing it, but it’s incredible. All I want to be able to do is have a couple of glasses of wine at a restaurant or something. I can do that now.
I think working with people that are super talented, you just feel confident. That is a big reason why you open up and express yourself more because you feel comfortable with what's around you.
Did you watch Danny Boyle's recent Sex Pistols mini-series?
I did, yes.
You had a couple of cameos; well, an actor who portrayed you did. How did you react to it? How accurate do you think it was in portraying that particular time period?
I love Jonesy’s book, I thought his book was incredible. It's probably one of the best bio books really. It was incredible and so open. I was looking forward to that a lot.
It was as if [the show] kind of stayed with Steve [Jones’ memoir] about halfway through, and then departed from it. [John] Lydon, for instance, was never someone I ever saw acting out; he's more like that today. I never saw him do something like jump up in the room and run around going crazy. The only time I saw him ever do that was when they signed the recording deal with Virgin in front of Buckingham Palace. Whereas Sid Vicious was always acting out; he was always doing something in a horrible way or shouting at someone. I don't remember John being like that. I remember him being much more introverted.
But then I watched interviews with some of the actors about coming to grips with the parts they were playing. And they were saying, we knew punk rock happened but just didn't know any of the details. So I thought well, there you go. If ["Pistol" is] informing a lot of people who wouldn't know anything about punk rock, maybe that's what's good about it.
Maybe down the road John Lydon will get the chance to do John's version of the Pistols story. Maybe someone will go a lot deeper into it and it won't be so surface. But maybe you needed this just to get people back in the flow.
We had punk and metal over here in the States, but it feels like England it was legitimately more dangerous. British society was much more rigid.
It never went [as] mega in America. It went big in England. It exploded when the Pistols did that interview with [TV host Bill] Grundy, that lorry truck driver put his boot through his own TV, and all the national papers had "the filth and the fury" [headlines].
We went from being unknown to being known overnight. We waited a year, Generation X. We even told them [record labels] no for nine months to a year. Every record company wanted their own punk rock group. So it went really mega in England, and it affected the whole country – the style, the fashions, everything. I mean, the Ramones were massive in England. Devo had a No. 1 song [in England] with "Satisfaction" in '77. Actually, Devo was as big as or bigger than the Pistols.
You were ahead of the pop-punk thing that happened in the late '90s, and a lot of it became tongue-in-cheek by then. It didn't have the same sense of rebelliousness as the original movement. It was more pop.
It had become a style. There was a famous book in England called Revolt Into Style — and that's what had happened, a revolt that turned into style which then they were able to duplicate in their own way. Even recently, Billie Joe [Armstrong] did his own version of "Gimme Some Truth," the Lennon song we covered way back in 1977.
When we initially were making [punk] music, it hadn't become accepted yet. It was still dangerous and turned into a style that people were used to. We were still breaking barriers.
You have a band called Generation Sex with Steve Jones and Paul Cook. I assume you all have an easier time playing Pistols and Gen X songs together now and not worrying about getting spit on like back in the '70s?
Yeah, definitely. When I got to America I told the group I was putting it together, "No one spits at the audience."
We had five years of being spat on [in the UK], and it was revolting. And they spat at you if they liked you. If they didn't like it they smashed your gear up. One night, I remember I saw blood on my T-shirt, and I think Joe Strummer got meningitis when spit went in his mouth.
You had to go through a lot to become successful, it wasn't like you just kind of got up there and did a couple of gigs. I don't think some young rock bands really get that today.
With punk going so mega in England, we definitely got a leg up. We still had a lot of work to get where we got to, and rightly so because you find out that you need to do that. A lot of groups in the old days would be together three to five years before they ever made a record, and that time is really important. In a way, what was great about punk rock for me was it was very much a learning period. I really learned a lot [about] recording music and being in a group and even writing songs.
Then when I came to America, it was a flow, really. I also really started to know what I wanted Billy Idol to be. It took me a little bit, but I kind of knew what I wanted Billy Idol to be. And even that took a while to let it marinate.
You and Miley Cyrus have developed a good working relationship in the last several years. How do you think her fans have responded to you, and your fans have responded to her?
I think they're into it. It's more the record company that she had didn't really get "Night Crawling"— it was one of the best songs on Plastic Hearts, and I don't think they understood that. They wanted to go with Dua Lipa, they wanted to go with the modern, young acts, and I don't think they realized that that song was resonating with her fans. Which is a shame really because, with Andrew Watt producing, it's a hit song.
But at the same time, I enjoyed doing it. It came out really good and it's very Billy Idol. In fact, I think it’s more Billy Idol than Miley Cyrus. I think it shows you where Andrew Watt was. He was excited about doing a Billy Idol track. She's fun to work with. She’s a really great person and she works at her singing — I watched her rehearsing for the Super Bowl performance she gave. She rehearsed all Saturday morning, all Saturday afternoon, and Sunday morning and it was that afternoon. I have to admire her fortitude. She really cares.
I remember when you went on "Viva La Bam" back in 2005 and decided to give Bam Margera’s Lamborghini a new sunroof by taking a power saw to it. Did he own that car? Was that a rental?
I think it was his car.
Did he get over it later on?
He loved it. [Laughs] He’s got a wacky sense of humor. He’s fantastic, actually. I’m really sorry to see what he's been going through just lately. He's going through a lot, and I wish him the best. He's a fantastic person, and it's a shame that he's struggling so much with his addictions. I know what it's like. It's not easy.
Musically, what is the synergy like with you guys during the past 10 years, doing Kings and Queens of the Underground and this new stuff? What is your working relationship like now in this more sober, older, mature version of you two as opposed to what it was like back in the '80s?
In lots of ways it’s not so different because we always wrote the songs together, we always talked about what we're going to do together. It was just that we were getting high at the same time.We're just not getting [that way now] but we're doing all the same things.
We're still talking about things, still [planning] things:What are we going to do next? How are we going to find new people to work with? We want to find new producers. Let's be a little bit more timely about putting stuff out.That part of our relationship is the same, you know what I mean? That never got affected. We just happened to be overloading in the '80s.
The relationship’s… matured and it's carrying on being fruitful, and I think that's pretty amazing. Really, most people don't get to this place. Usually, they hate each other by now. [Laughs] We also give each other space. We're not stopping each other doing things outside of what we’re working on together. All of that enables us to carry on working together. I love and admire him. I respect him. He's been fantastic. I mean, just standing there on stage with him is always a treat. And he’s got an immensely great sense of humor. I think that's another reason why we can hang together after all this time because we've got the sense of humor to enable us to go forward.
There's a lot of fan reaction videos online, and I noticed a lot of younger women like "Rebel Yell" because, unlike a lot of other '80s alpha male rock tunes, you're talking about satisfying your lover.
It was about my girlfriend at the time, Perri Lister. It was about how great I thought she was, how much I was in love with her, and how great women are, how powerful they are.
It was a bit of a feminist anthem in a weird way. It was all about how relationships can free you and add a lot to your life. It was a cry of love, nothing to do with the Civil War or anything like that. Perri was a big part of my life, a big part of being Billy Idol. I wanted to write about it. I'm glad that's the effect.
Is there something you hope people get out of the songs you've been doing over the last 10 years? Do you find yourself putting out a message that keeps repeating?
Well, I suppose, if anything, is that you can come to terms with your life, you can keep a hold of it. You can work your dreams into reality in a way and, look, a million years later, still be enjoying it.
The only reason I'm singing about getting out of the cage is because I kicked out of the cage years ago. I joined Generation X when I said to my parents, "I'm leaving university, and I'm joining a punk rock group." And they didn't even know what a punk rock group was. Years ago, I’d write things for myself that put me on this path, so that maybe in 2022 I could sing something like "Cage" and be owning this territory and really having a good time. This is the life I wanted.
The original UK punk movement challenged societal norms. Despite all the craziness going on throughout the world, it seems like a lot of modern rock bands are afraid to do what you guys were doing. Do you think we'll see a shift in that?
Yeah. Art usually reacts to things, so I would think eventually there will be a massive reaction to the pop music that’s taken over — the middle of the road music, and then this kind of right wing politics. There will be a massive reaction if there's not already one. I don’t know where it will come from exactly. You never know who's gonna do [it].