meta-scriptUK Drill Is An International Sensation. Will It Be Censored To Death? | GRAMMY.com
Digga D Performs At The Royal Albert Hall
Digga D performs at Royal Albert Hall in London

Photo: Joseph Okpako/WireImage/GettyImages

feature

UK Drill Is An International Sensation. Will It Be Censored To Death?

UK drill is on the cusp of international popularity, quickly becoming the dominant form of drill. But with mounting censorship in its home country, what does the future of the genre look like?

GRAMMYs/Feb 29, 2024 - 07:26 pm

Popular British rapper Digga D was just 18 years old when police first attempted to control his creative output. 

A 2018 criminal behavior order controlled where the artist could go and who he could meet, as well as what he could say in his lyrics. It also meant that within 24 hours of releasing a new song, Digga D had to submit the lyrics to the police – if the court found that his lyrics incited violence or mentioned certain areas of London, he could be found in violation of his parole. 

Digga D is one of the most prominent artists in UK drill — a raw, energetic form of drill with dark instrumentals and tresillo hi-hat patterns popularized by young artists like Central Cee, Digga D, and Unknown T. Originating in the early 2010s and popularizing towards the end of the decade, UK drill is a cultural phenomenon and wildly popular among young people throughout the United Kingdom and beyond.

In many ways, the future looks bright — the biggest UK drill artists are on the cusp of becoming not only huge in their own country but bona fide international stars with recognition from London to Lagos, Brixton to Brooklyn. However, UK authorities have been trying to censor drill artists, with restrictions on their abilities to make and perform music, so what’s the real future for the movement?

From underground to the top of the charts: UK drill's eruption in popularity

UK drill has steadily become one of the more popular genres of music among young people in its namesake country. Popularized on social media and YouTube, UK drill is resonant for the ways it discusses issues such as life on the streets to financial struggles. It's also translating to significant ticket sales and charting hits.

Ticketing marketplace viagogo noted a shift in demand for UK drill artists over the past year, telling GRAMMY.com that when tickets for Digga D’s Royal Albert Hall show went on sale  — he became the youngest rapper ever to headline the famous London venue — his page views on the platform spiked five times higher than average. 

Digga D has over 3 million monthly listeners on Spotify, with his most popular track getting over 110 million streams. His contemporary Central Cee, whose music is a mix of UK drill, trap, and more traditional British rap, has over 26 million monthly listeners on the platform; his track with rapper Dave, "Sprinter", became the longest-reigning rap track in UK chart history with ten weeks at No. 1. It’s amassed over half a billion Spotify streams. 

Since 2022, fans from 50 countries have bought tickets to Central Cee’s shows on viagogo, with most of them coming from Canada and the US. Music Week reported that, per the Official Charts Company, he was the biggest breakthrough artist in the UK for 2021.

Cee featured on a remix of Ed Sheeran’s "Bad Habits," which was engineered by Fumez the Engineer and featured Tion Wayne; the song remained at No. 1 on the UK Singles Chart for eight weeks. 

Fumez has had a huge impact on UK drill, and British rap more generally. The audio engineer helped to launch the rap platform Pressplay Media in 2012 at the age of 18, before moving to Link Up TV and then returning to Pressplay when he began his "Plugged In" freestyle series in 2020. 

Just as grime gradually became more mainstream, UK drill is following a similar path. Collaborations between UK drill artists and huge names in UK rap like Stormzy and Dave have increased its popularity and widespread appeal, as do projects worked on together by UK drill artists and American artists. In 2018, Skengdo x AM released "Pitbulls" with Chicago drill icon Chief Keef, for example, while Brooklyn drill pioneer Pop Smoke worked closely with UK producer 808Melo.

AS UK drill spreads across borders, it's criminalized at home

While UK drill has spread around the world, it originated in the multicultural south London district of Brixton, an area of the city with high levels of deprivation. While it’s influenced by the aesthetics of Chicago drill, UK drill has significant stylistic differences.  

Whereas Chicago drill is heavily influenced by trap, UK drill is in some ways an offshoot of road rap, a British equivalent to gangsta rap. Drill artist Loski’s father is a member of road rap group PDC, and big names in road rap like Giggs and Nines have collaborated with drill artists too. 

However, it has influence from British genres like grime and UK garage too — influential grime MC Jammer even said that, without grime, there wouldn’t be any drill, while drill producer Mazza said that drill and grime have a similar energy and raw feel. Drill’s tempo is similar to that of grime, while the use of 808s and fast-tempo snares is ubiquitous in both genres. 

However, it’s not all success and star-studded collaborations. Although the censorship of UK drill music is similar to the ways grime was criminalized and censored in the 2000s. However, it seems policing of UK drill has gone further.

UK drill faces a battle as it’s being censored by the UK authorities. High-profile politicians such as former Home Secretary Amber Rudd and journalists including Ben Ellery have linked drill to criminal behavior. Project Alpha, a London Metropolitan Police taskforce, was developed to gather intelligence from social media to prevent gang-related crime. Their efforts include monitoring music videos released by drill artists.

Hundreds of drill music videos have been taken down from YouTube as a result, including "Next Up" by CGM featuring Digga D. At the time of its removal in 2018, the song had received over 11 million views.

The same year Digga D was placed under a criminal behavior order, Skengdo and AM were subject to a gang injunction by the police, which prevented them from entering certain areas and from performing music that the police said was inciting violence. In 2019, the duo were both given a suspended jail sentence for breaching the injunction, with the court finding evidence that drill music can, and was, encouraging violence. 

And Digga himself was charged with "being concerned in the supply of cannabis" after police raided his London home this February. The raid was said to have taken place in the early hours of the morning, when the rapper was in the middle of an Instagram Live. 

Fumez describes drill as "freedom of speech and creative art." He tells GRAMMY.com "sometimes more gets said than needed, but everyone has their own story and their own background and their own form of expression."

In November 2021, Fumez’s first-ever headline show in London was canceled 20 minutes before doors opened after police imposed a Section 60 order on the area. The order gives police stop and search powers. 

Meanwhile, rap duo Krept & Konan released a short film called Ban Drill in 2019 and began a petition asking the police to stop criminalizing the genre. Diane Abbott, then of the UK Labour Party, invited Skengdo x AM and Krept & Konan to the Houses of Parliament to address lawmakers about censorship that same year. 

"Britain has a history of vilifying its young people all the way back to the teddy boys back in the ‘50s. So when things have been implemented to try and stop grime, for example, or sound system culture and things like that in the ‘70s and ‘80s, people pivot and find a way around it," explains Dr. Monique Charles, a British cultural socialist, theorist and methodologist and assistant professor at Chapman University in California. 

These circumnavigating measures may include releasing a film (like Krept & Konan), or as Skengdo, AM, and Drillminster did in 2019, teaming up to release a video, "The Media." Drillminster even ran to be mayor of London in 2021. At his Royal Albert Hall performance, Digga D referenced his troubles with the law more than once, and was "detained" onstage.

Fighting back might be as simple as continuing to make music, even if it's just freestyling between friends rather than releasing music online.

"People always need an outlet — a place to blow off steam. People want to come together, they want to be in a space, enjoying music at the same time," Charles adds. 

This sort of censorship isn’t unique to the UK, either. In the United States, advocates including the Recording Academy are addressing the issue of artists’ lyrics being used against them. The Restoring Artistic Protection (RAP) Act was first introduced in 2022 and was reintroduced to Congress last April. At present, it has been enacted in two states: California and Louisiana.

Despite efforts to tamp it down, UK drill dominates internationally 

Many UK drill artists are second or third-generation immigrants from Africa, and UK drill beats often have a structure that’s influenced by African music. Unknown T is of Ugandan and Congolese descent, Headie One and LD are of Ghanaian origin, and Tion Wayne’s parents came from Nigeria. 

"One of the unique things about me as an artist is the intersection of my UK upbringing and my Nigerian heritage, and this is prominent throughout my music," says Dr. Adaku Agwunobi, an academic at the University of Oxford who also has a music career under the name Dr Adaku.

Her music spans a number of genres from Afrobeats to highlife to drill — something she thought would be a "seamless way to highlight the essence of my upbringing and heritage."

Perhaps in part because of its varied influences, UK drill is fast becoming one of the most dominant forms of drill internationally. Dr Adaku explains that she sees fusions of drill growing across the world — particularly in Nigeria, with some Nigerian artists starting to become popular in the UK too. She cites Psycho YP and Odumodublvck from Nigeria, as well as Ghana’s Asakaa Boys and FL EX from Egypt. 

In 2017, actor, comedian and rapper Michael Dapaah (a.k.a. Big Shaq) released "Man’s Not Hot" which sampled a drill instrumental used on 67 featuring Giggs' "Let’s Lurk." It soon became a viral success both in the UK and overseas — whereas UK drill before this was largely a success at home, "Man’s Not Hot" took it worldwide. 

Dapaah says he visited and performed in countries that previously had little awareness of UK rap or drill, and "Man’s Not Hot" became their introduction to the UK scene. The track has almost 300 million streams on Spotify; beyond London, the cities listening to the track the most are in Australia or Belgium. 

Dr. Charles says that UK drill is also on the rise in the U.S. — something that Dapaah has definitely been a factor in. A year after the release of "Man’s Not Hot," Dapaah was making YouTube videos with Kevin Hart, Tiffany Haddish, and Malcolm Lee. 

"I've had a couple of students who were asking me if I knew what various slang terms were. There are some pockets in L.A. and on the East Coast with an interest because our diction, the way we phrase things, and the way we ride over the beat are phenomenal to Americans," she says.

Despite challenges, UK drill is growing — and its male dominance is being confronted

Drill is often associated with young men and hyper-masculinity, but female artists such as Shaybo, TeeZandos, Ivorian Doll, and Abigail Asante are also making their mark on the genre. Asante says that she became a musician "by accident" after writing lyrics over an R&B instrumental and creating the track "The Situation" with Ivorian Doll. The track trended on YouTube and Twitter, and kickstarted their careers. 

"The moment you hear drill you automatically affiliate it with gangs, violence, drugs, and weapons," she says. "I wanted to change that, be unique, and have my own spin on that narrative."

The pair became the first UK drill duo to get over three million views and streams — something Asante credits to their audience being 70 percent female. The group also discusses female empowerment and confidence to "challenge a very male-dominated genre and prove that girls are just as talented."

Asante, however, has said that she’s decided to "hang my boots" with drill, moving onto genres like Afroswing and Afrobeats. "I think drill is wearing out and people are getting bored of it – I’m most definitely bored of drill, it’s too repetitive and being known as a ‘drill rapper’ doesn’t allow my versatility as an artist."

That said, she says that drill beats have a "contagious, unique, upbeat sound that automatically gets people dancing," while it’s also a way for people to express themselves and their personal experiences. 

Fumez admits that he doesn’t think about the future of drill too much, or look too far into the future. He suggests that it might get a new name, and points out similarities between drill, garage, and grime, and says that the international appeal of drill — with even huge stars like Drake getting involved —  "brings longevity."

Dr. Charles believes that UK drill will become the dominant form of drill, though with influence from other scenes, and will continue to grow and expand. New generations of listeners will gravitate to UK drill's DIY ethos and put their own tweaks on it.

"I think one of the reasons why it will continue to grow and continue to expand is because the UK’s major cities are diverse places and because of British history, international connections, people migrating, moving around," she says. "Music travels with people, music migrates with people."

What Is Trap Gospel? How A New Generation of Christian Rappers Are Grabbing The Attention Of Believers & Non-Believers

Central Cee performs in Madrid

Photo: Aldara Zarraoa/Redferns

news

5 International Hip-Hop Scenes To Watch Now

Acts around the globe are shifting away from imitating American artists, creating an audible international shift toward sounds that are truer to location. Read on for five countries with distinct hip-hop scenes worth checking out.

GRAMMYs/Dec 12, 2023 - 02:16 pm

Fifty years since the recognized beginning of hip-hop culture in the United States, its beats, rhymes and life have been inspiring artists and doing serious business around the world. These days, though, there’s an audible international shift away from imitating American acts and producing sounds that are truer to location.

"Overall, we’re definitely seeing the decline of the dominance of rap music on a global scale," notes Nima Etminan, COO of Empire. Headquartered in San Francisco, Empire is included among
Billboard’s 2023 International Power Players and has offices in New York, London, South Africa and Nigeria. An experienced A&R executive, Etminan is originally from Germany and frequently works from each base to scout and sign talent.

What
is working, Etminan has noticed, are emergent international styles that may count rap music and hip-hop culture as ingredients or influences. Artists around the globe are breaking new sonic ground, whether it’s Puerto Rico’s Bad Bunny rapping and singing, or the hip-hop appeal of the corridos by Mexico’s Peso Pluma.

"I think that the essence of African American culture when it comes to talking and dressing and stuff is definitely still there, but it’s just less because [America has] less global influence," he says. " Now everybody kind of has their own local scenes that are bigger. So the American stuff still plays into it, but just on a much smaller scale because they have their own heroes and their own superstars who are big that they are looking up to."

With all that in mind, GRAMMY.com asked Etminan and other global music minds to recommend international rap scenes that are worth watching now.

Brazil

In November, Brazilian hip-hop artists made a big impression at the 2023 Latin GRAMMYs. Planet Hemp and Criolo were the first to win the inaugural award for Best Portuguese-Language Urban Performance with their song "Distopia." They were nominated alongside three other Brazilian rap acts worth watching: Luccas Carlos, Dallas and Filipe Ret.

Empire, which is both a record label and distributor, just hired its first employee in Brazil. The company has good reason to watch and invest in this region.

"I think Brazil is one of the fastest rising areas," says Etminan. "I think as far as their own sound and culture that’s really big but hasn’t exploded outside of that yet, and hasn’t had mainstream success yet, it’s probably Brazil."

Read more: A Timeline Of Brazilian Hip-Hop: From The Ruas To The Red Carpet

France

French rap music may not be on the radar of the average American fan, but France is the second largest market in the world for hip-hop — behind only the United States.

"Take a look at the country's Top Spotify lists and it's strongly dominated by domestic artists in the genre who come from Paris, Marseille and from various regions across the country," notes Alexandra Greenberg, the U.S. consultant for CNM (Centre national de la musique), France’s national music office. "The country also has Les Flammes, an international awards show celebrating rap going into its second year this coming April."

Paris-based hip-hop journalist and author Epée Hervé Dingong suggests becoming acquainted with the likes of Ninho, an MC of Congolese descent influenced by American Southern rappers, who recently collaborated with Lil Baby. Dingong also pointed to Booba, who has had three NO. 1 albums and eight other Top 10 releases in France since his 2002 debut.

"Booba is not new," says Dingong, who is working on a book chronicling the history of the hip-hop mixtape, "but he is still the king." 

Nigeria

The world’s embrace of Afrobeats originated with Nigerian artist Fela Kuti, who was likened to be the James Brown of Africa. Current Nigerian superstars who are poised to eclipse that success internationally, like Burna Boy and Olamide, have grown up under the influence of the Kuti family (including Fela’s recording artist sons, Femi Kuti and Seun Kuti) and the allure of American rap.

Ahead of the 2024 GRAMMYs, the Recording Academy introduced a new category of Best African Music Performance, reflecting the continent’s current breakthroughs in the North American music business. And a remix of "Sittin’ on Top of the World" by Burna Boy featuring 21 Savage is one of the nominees for Best Melodic Rap Performance in 2024. Fellow nominees in the category are "Attention" by Doja Cat, "Spin Bout U" from Drake & 21 Savage, "All My Life" by Lil Durk feat. J. Cole, and SZA's "Low."

Though these artists are beloved around the world, the worsening economic climate in Nigeria has made it challenging for them to succeed at home, explains Etminan.

"The inflation in Nigeria was so crazy this year," he says, "and the Nigerian currency lost so much of its value, so a lot of the money these artists were making was devalued at the same time. So that’s stuff that plays into [their ability to work at home and] that’s really tough. And that’s outside of anyone’s control, you know?"

Read more: 2024 GRAMMYs: How The New Best African Music Performance GRAMMY Category Is A Massive Win For The World

South Africa

A&R executives like Etminan are still heavily focused on the talent and potential in South Africa, though the man who was arguably the biggest star in the South African scene with the most international appeal lost his life in 2023. AKA, an MC who was the top-selling South African hip-hop artist of all time, was shot and killed in Durban in February when his career was still on the rise. He was 35.

Presently, South Africa gets the most attention globally for amapiano, which takes influence more from house music and the more local kwaito music from the Nineties, but there is a growing cooperation and
collaboration with the South African rap world. Like most specifically rap scenes, South Africa’s is male-dominated, but a notable exception is Nadia Nakai, an Artist Of The Decade nominee at the South African Hip-Hop Awards and reality star in the Netflix series Young, Famous & African. Nakai and her contemporaries reflect an aspirational lifestyle in their music.

England

"The UK market for a long time was very tough," says Etminan, adding that the market is small, saturated, and generally concentrated around London. "Especially when it comes to hip-hop, a huge percentage of the Black population in the UK is centered around London and once you leave London it’s very white."

Hip-hop with an English accent may not have had as much success catching on internationally as other UK-bred styles like drum & bass and grime have, but a current set of stars are demanding the world’s attention.

"I think Central Cee is probably a perfect example of what can happen," Etminan adds. "Everybody loves Central Cee and I don’t know if part of it is his look — he’s very racially ambiguous, he’s good looking, girls love him. He makes music that obviously has a UK accent and stuff like that, but it’s very adaptable and catchy. I feel like Central Cee is probably the one that I hear played the most from people that just listen to regular American rap music [in England]."

Central Cee won two 2022 MOBO Awards for Best Male Act and Video Of The Year for his song "Doja," which was directed by Cole Bennett, the popular Chicago video director from Lyrical Lemonade. He celebrated his 25th birthday in 2023 with the release of Split Decision, a joint project with Mercury Prize-winning English rapper Dave, also 25 and a still-rising star who appeared on the UK series "Top Boy" (which became a US hit for Netflix). Cee is also bridging countries with collaborations such as "Eurovision," a song and video featuring rappers and producers from France, Spain, Italy and across the United Kingdom. 

Luckily, YouTube offers a free passport to experiencing the creativity from these scenes and artists as well as music from all across the planet. A true benefit of the streaming age is that hip-hop fans of any age who appreciate originality, flow and bumping beats can learn about how an American-bred art form has inspired the world.

6 Highlights From "A GRAMMY Salute To 50 Years Of Hip-Hop": Performances From DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, Queen Latifah, Common & More

Leon Michels, center, poses with Black Thought, Kirby and members of El Michels Affair backstage at "The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon."
Leon Michels, center, poses with Black Thought, Kirby and members of El Michels Affair backstage at "The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon."

Photo: Rosalind O'Connor/NBC via Getty Images

interview

Behind Leon Michels' Hits: From Working With The Carters & Aloe Blacc, To Creating Clairo's New Album

Multi-instrumentalist turned GRAMMY-nominated producer Leon Michels has had a hand in a wide range of pop and hip-hop music. Read on for the stories behind his smash hits with Norah Jones, Black Thought, Kalis Uchis, Aloe Blacc, and others.

GRAMMYs/May 27, 2024 - 03:17 pm

A child of New York’s ultra-niche soul revival scene of the early 2000s, multi-instrumentalis turned producer Leon Michels has had an extensive reach into global pop music. As both producer and session man, Michels has worked with the Carters, Norah Jones, Black Thought, the Black Keys, Kalis Uchis, and Aloe Blacc — to name a few.

He has held to a specific creative vision for more than two decades, first through his heavily sampled El Michels Affair projects and a healthy schedule of releases through Truth & Soul records and later, Big Crown, the label he co-founded with DJ Danny Akalepse in 2016. He runs a studio in upstate New York called the Diamond Mine North, where he does most of his work since relocating from New York City in 2017. He has two GRAMMY nominations to his name, for Mary J. Blige’s Good Morning Gorgeous and Lizzo’s Special.

Trained originally on piano, he took up drums and eventually saxophone through the guidance of his high school music teacher, Miss Leonard. "[She] is actually the person I owe it all to. She started this jazz band when I was in fifth grade, and there's no drummer, so she asked me if I would learn drums," he tells GRAMMY.com. "I did that, and she would give me Duke Ellington cassettes, Sydney Bichet, Johnny Hodges. She would just feed me music."

Daptone Records co-founder Gabe Roth recruited and mentored Michels while he was still in high school, and the teenager soon became a regular touring member of what would become the Dap-Kings, backing singer Sharon Jones during an early run of success in the mid-2000s. " I joined Sharon Jones when it was the Soul Providers. We went on tour in Europe with them. Somehow my parents let me do it. I don't even understand. Gabe came over and sweet-talked them."

Michels left the group in 2006 after seven intense years, wanting to spend more time recording than enduring the grind of touring. His chosen timing caused him to miss out by mere "months" on the group’s recording sessions for Amy Winehouse’s four-time GRAMMY winner Back To Black. Despite what appeared to be a major missed opportunity, he turned his focus to his group El Michels Affair after initial encouragement from the 2005 album Sounding Out The City, released on Truth & Soul, the label he had co-founded. 

**Finding his inspiration in the intersections of soul and hip-hop, as a fully committed instrumentalist producer, he was able to develop an analog soundscape that quickly caught the ears of artists including Raekwon and other Wu-Tang Clan alumni, with whom he toured in 2008. This led to the follow-up album Enter The 37th Chamber in 2009. Samples from El Michels Affair, including those by Ghostface Killah, Jay-Z, Just Blaze, J. Cole, and Travis Scott quickly proliferated and opened doors. Via the Lee Fields album My World, Michels' work caught the attention of Dan Auerbach, with whom he and his longtime collaborator and bassist Nick Movshon toured from 2010 to 2012.

Producing the Aloe Blacc song "I Need A Dollar" in 2010 further enhanced his credentials and provided the financial stability to allow him to be true to his creative spirit, which he has done successfully over the last decade.

Leon Michels spoke to GRAMMY.com about some key career recordings, including his latest release with singer Clairo.

Clairo – "Sexy to Someone" (Charm, 2024)

I met Clairo almost three years ago. I made a record with her that took three years to complete, which is actually one of the longest stretches I've ever spent on a record.

She’s made two records before this. Her first record, Immunity, came out when she was 19. It's a pop record, and it was very successful. But she's a total music nerd like me. She’s constantly scouring the Internet for music. The way people, especially young people, ingest music these days is just insane. She's got great taste.

Her first record was super successful. She made her second record, Sling, with Jack Antonoff, and it was an ambitious folk record, and a huge departure from her first record. I think it caught her audience off guard, but it was kind of a perfect move because now she can make whatever she wants. 

When she came to me, I was excited but slightly confused. What do I do? Because in those situations, you think, well, I need to facilitate a successful pop record, but she just wanted all the weird s—.

It’s this cool mix of pop elements, but some of the music sounds like a Madlib sample. All of it is steeped in pretty cool references and older music, but her perspective is a 25-year-old’s, and she’s an incredible songwriter. It's a really cool mix.

Norah Jones - "Running"  (Visions, 2024)

Norah used to hit up me and Dave Guy, trumpet player in the Menahan Street Band and the Roots, if she needed horns.

As we were coming out of the pandemic, she hit me up and wanted to make some music. We made a few songs and then after that, she asked me to produce her Christmas record, which was super fun because I've never listened to Christmas music. I started to enjoy it, which was weird because I had thought I hated Christmas music. I mean, once you start to dig for Christmas records, pretty much all of your favorite artists have them. I was listening to Christmas music from March to October the entire year. 

After that, we made Visions, which is all original stuff. Norah's just so talented. Her musicianship is actually some of the most impressive I've ever seen or worked with. She's so good that when I play with her, I get intimidated and I forget basic harmony and music theory!

Read more: 5 Inspirations Behind Norah Jones' New Album 'Visions': Nightly Dreams, Collabs, Harmony Stacks & More

We cut that record,  mostly just the two of us. There's a couple of songs where we got a band, but most of it was in my upstate studio. She would just come over from nine to three. She would come after she dropped her kids at school and then have to leave to pick them up. It was super fun to make, essentially just jamming all day.

[Overall] it’s not a huge departure for Norah, but sonically it is a departure, and it's got this very loose, "un-precious" quality. That's maybe a little different from her other stuff.

"Running" was her choice as a single. When it comes to singles — the songs that have actually been most successful — I've wanted to take those off the record. I have no idea what's going to be the hit or not.

Black Thought - "Glorious Game" (Glorious Game, 2023)

That was a total pandemic record — at the start of the pandemic when everyone was completely locked in, we had no idea what was going on.

Black Thought texted me out of the blue, and I think he was just trying to stay busy. So he just said, "Can you send me songs?" I sent him maybe two songs and then he sent back finished verses three or four hours later. Most of that record was just me sending him s— and him sending it back, and then going like that. We had probably 20 songs. 

The time I did spend in the studio with him was, he's a total savant. He sits there while you're playing a song, and it kind of looks like he's on Instagram or f—ing around, you know what I mean? Does this guy even like this song? And then 45 minutes later, he’ll be like "Aight, ready." And he goes in there and, and he'll rap four pages of lyrics in one take. It's insane. He remembers everything;  we'll do a song and then three years later, he'll have to redo it, but he'll know the lyrics from memory.

There's a couple of things that I figured out on that record. One: The thing I love about sampled hip-hop production the most is it's almost always pitch-shifted, which makes a giant difference in the sound. And if the piano has decay or vocals have vibrato, when you pitch it up, it becomes something that is so uniquely hip-hop. The second thing was, with hip hop, one of the best parts about sampling is the choices a producer has to make when they are limited to chopping a two-track mix.  If you have multi-tracks, there are too many options. 

I think that record resonated with people who are hip-hop aficionados who really love the art of emceeing. 

Aloe Blacc - "I Need A Dollar" (Good Things, 2010)

We had just recorded the Lee Fields record, My World. Eothen Alapatt, who used to be a label manager at Now Again, was a friend of mine. [Jeff Silverman and I] started Truth & Soul, but we had no infrastructure. We thought My World would have a bigger reach if Stones Throw took care of the press and distribution. And so Eothen said "Yeah, we can do that, but instead of paying us, just make a record with this artist we have, Aloe Blacc."

I had no idea who he was. And so that was the business deal. We didn't get paid for the record initially. The payment was that they were going to promote Lee Fields record for us. So [Aloe] came to New York, and I did it with my partner at the time, Jeff Silverman, also Nick Movshon, who played on the entire record.

He wanted to do this Bill Withers thing. "I Need A Dollar" was probably my least favorite song on the record. I think I have this aversion to anything that's slightly cheesy, but I've gotten better at it. But at the end of the day, it's just a good song. It got picked up as the theme song to an HBO pilot called "How To Make It In America." And then, it just blew up in Europe. It was No. 1 everywhere. But it never hit in America.

It kind of set me off on a weird path for a minute, because I got a taste of success. And made some poor career decisions. I tried to a do lot of songwriting sessions with strangers.  It was maybe four years until I decided to just make El Michels Records.  

The Carters - "SUMMER" (EVERYTHING IS LOVE, 2018)

At the time, I was making these sample packs and sending them out to producers. One of them was this slow jam, and so the producers called me up and said "We used one of your samples. It's for a giant artist. We can't tell you who it is. You have to approve it now. And you can't hear it, but it's going to change your life." That’s what they kept saying to me. Then they said "It's coming out in two weeks."

So I figured they used one of my samples and chopped it up and did their thing to it.  And so when the record came out, it was Beyoncé and Jay-Z. It was the first track on that record they did together, the Carters. And it was mostly just my original sample with some new bass and string section. So basically it was just Beyoncé and Jay-Z over an El Michael's Affair track. The track was called "Summer," and my original never came out. 

So just hearing Beyoncé, hearing these giant pop voices that I associate with absolute hits, over my song, that was pretty cool.

Liam Bailey - "Dance With Me" (Zero Grace, 2023)

Me and him just have a very crazy chemistry when it comes to music, because it all happens super fast and with very little thought. Sometimes I'll listen to Liam's stuff, and I actually don't know how we did it. That is actually the goal. That’s why Lee "Scratch Perry" is the greatest producer of all time, because he could access that instant input, instant output type of creativity. It just passes through him and then it's on the record. Making music with Liam is like that; I'll make some instrumental, or I'll have an idea and then he'll freestyle lyrics one or two times.

To me, it sounds gibberish, but then he'll go through it and change one or two words and all of a sudden has this crazy narrative, and it's about his childhood [for example]. When I’ve worked with him, he has this same process where it's just kind of "hand to God" s—, just let it happen. I was trying to make something the way Jamaicans did, [like] that brand of Jamaican soul from the mid-'60s. 

Brainstory - "Peach Optimo" (Sounds Good, 2024)

I met those guys through Eduardo Arenas, who's the bass player from Chicano Batman, and he had recorded a couple of demos from them. And they had one song in particular that really caught my attention, which made it onto their first record called "Dead End."

They’re three jazz kids. Their dad was a gospel singer and loved soul and Stevie Wonder. So they grew up on all that stuff as well. Producing a band like Brainstory is super easy, because they rehearse all the time. Most of their songs are written; all I have to do is maybe shuffle around sections or just essentially cut stuff out. Because a lot of times when bands write music and rehearse every day, they just love to play, so sections are endless. 

I'll…have a sound in mind for the record, some reference for me and the engineering hands to kind of work from. And in the case of Sounds Good, the reference for the whole sound of the record was that this is Gene Harris song called "Los Alamitos Latin Funk Love." This is kind of the vibe of the entire record. We just cut that record over the course of a year, but it was two sessions that were maybe six days each. 

Kevin is the main vocalist and he's amazing. He can do that sweet soul background stuff perfectly. And when he does [his own] background vocals, it's this thing that not a lot of people can do where he changes his personality. So he becomes three different people. Then the background sounds like an actual group. 

Behind Mark Ronson's Hits: How 'Boogie Nights,' Five-Hour Jams & Advice From Paul McCartney Inspired His Biggest Singles & Collabs

Twenty One Pilots performing in 2022
Twenty One Pilots perform at GPWeek Festival in 2022.

Photo: Mauricio Santana/Getty Images

feature

Twenty One Pilots' Road To 'Clancy': How The New Album Wraps Up A Decade-Long Lore

Three years after 'Scaled and Icy,' Twenty One Pilots' seventh studio album is here. Dig into the rock duo's journey to 'Clancy,' and how it further showcases their knack for vivid world-building.

GRAMMYs/May 24, 2024 - 07:28 pm

Long before Twenty One Pilots developed a cult following, the Columbus, Ohio natives were determined to not be put into a box. From their first EP, 2009's Johnny Boy, they've blended elements of emo, rap, alt-pop, electronica, incorporating hardcore and hip-hop into their shows. "No one knew where to put us," drummer Josh Dun told USA Today in 2014. "But we've approached live shows as a way to build something from nothing."

In the decade since, the band's sheer determination and eclectic onstage personality have made them one of the biggest rock groups of their generation. They're equally as spontaneous and intriguing in their music, building an entire world through dynamic soundscapes and visuals — and their new album, Clancy, ties all of it together.  

As the band revealed in a press release upon announcing the album in March, Clancy "marks the final chapter in an ambitious multi-album narrative" that began with Blurryface in 2015. But it certainly doesn't feel like an ending; Clancy further expands on the theatrical style and eclectic sound they've showcased from the start, offering both a resolution and an evolution.

While the makings of the signature Twenty One Pilots aesthetic began with its original formation as a trio — lead singer Tyler Joseph and his friends Nick Thomas and Chris Salih — it truly took shape when Dun replaced Thomas and Salih in 2011. Dun and Joseph had a common goal to re-formulate the way songs and shows were crafted; the drummer utilized samples and backing tapes at their gigs, helping the band dive deeper into their alternative style by fusing everything from reggae to pop together.

As a newly formed duo, Twenty One Pilots issued their album Regional at Best in 2011 — their last release before they signed to a major label (though, as they told Huffpost in 2013, they since consider the record a "glorified mixtape"). After significant social media buzz and selling out a show at Newport Music Hall in Columbus, the duo was courted by a dozen record labels, which set the stage for their big break.

"We went from no one in the industry caring to all of the sudden it was the hot thing for every label, independent and major, to be interested in some way," Joseph told Columbus Monthly in 2012 upon signing to Fueled by Ramen, which the singer said they were drawn to because they were able to retain "creative control" — a factor that would become increasingly more important with each release. 

Their 2013 album Vessel — which featured a combination of new and re-recorded songs from Regional At Best —spawned the band's first charting single, "Holding On to You," a rap-meets-pop track that oscillates from sensitive indie ballad to energetic anthem. Not only had they begun making a mark commercially, but it seemed to be the album that Twenty One Pilots felt they were hitting their stride creatively, too: "I know some people might not like this, but I kind of view Vessel as our first record," Joseph told Kerrang!at the time.

Though the character "Clancy" first came about with 2018's Trench, Twenty One Pilots actually introduced the world that Clancy would eventually live in with 2015's Blurryface, which focused on a titular character who embodies depression and anxiety. "It's a guy who kind of represents all the things that I as an individual, but also everyone around me, are insecure about," Joseph said of his alter-ego in a 2015 interview with MTV.

To convey the "feeling of suffocation" caused by insecurities from what he creates, Joseph began wearing black paint on his neck and hands in music videos and on stage to represent the "Blurryface" character. As Joseph told the Recording Academy in 2015, the "common thread" of all of the songs on Blurryface was that Joseph's alter-ego would be defeated, and each song wrestled with the dichotomy between darkness and optimism.

While Vessel kickstarted the band's commercial success, Blurryface saw their popularity explode and resulted in the band's best-selling single, the eerie rap-rock anthem "Stressed Out." The commercial success of Blurryface helped their hot streak continue into 2016 with the release of "Heathens." While the song served as the first single from the Suicide Squad soundtrack, its haunting production fits right into the world the pair had begun building with Blurryface. Their acclaim continued to grow, with Twenty One Pilots earning their first GRAMMY in 2017 for "Stressed Out" in the Best Pop Duo/Group Performance Category — and, in line with their affinity for stunts, dropping their pants as they accepted their award.

Ahead of the release of their 2018 concept album Trench, the lore surrounding "Clancy" really began. Twenty One Pilots began leaving clues for fans on a website known as DMAORG, which featured black-and-white images and letters from "Clancy," who ultimately became the protagonist of the album. Twenty One Pilots fans (often referred to as the"Skeleton Clique") began clamoring to deduce puzzling clues and posting their theories about the narrative's endgame online.

With Trench, they found more characters and a deeper narrative. The overall album depicts "a world where nine dictatorial bishops keep the inhabitants (Tyler included) of a fictional place named Dema from escaping its controlling clutches, with the help of the Banditos — a rebel organization (featuring Josh)." On a larger scale, the album grapples with mental illness, suicide and an expansion on Joseph's insecurities from Blurryface

But Trench isn't one cohesive story; rather, it's a series of songs with clues embedded within. For instance, in "Morph," the character Nico is introduced, who is also the subject of "Nico and The Niners." From there, fans gleaned that Nico was one of nine bishops controlling the citizens of Dema, and those nine bishops were represented by each of the songs on Blurryface. The bombastic "Pet Cheetah" references that the house has vultures on the roof which alludes to it — and Joseph's home — being Dema. 

As with Blurryface, visuals became an integral part of the album cycle. This time, they used them to illustrate life in the dystopian Dema, which personifies depression through the trilogy of music videos for "Levitate," "Nico and The Niners" and "Jumpsuit." While Joseph's black-painted neck and hands signaled the Blurryface era, dark green clothing marked with yellow tape signaled the Trench era. During this time, the "Clancy" character remained shrouded in mystery — though through videos and letters shared by the band, fans theorized that it is an opposing force to "Blurryface."

By the time Twenty One Pilots' 2021 album, Scaled and Icy, came around, fans quickly noticed that it paid homage to "Clancy" as an anagram for "Clancy is dead," while also acknowledging the COVID-19 pandemic as a shortened phrase for "scaled back and isolated." While Twenty One Pilots could have leaned into the harrowing events of lockdown, they instead chose to focus on what has driven the band itself, the power of imagination — something that has been behind much of the band's work since Blurryface.

With the album came three singles — the propulsive "Shy Away," the heartwrenching banger "Choker" and the funk-pop-tinged "Saturday — which were recorded when the duo was working virtually during the pandemic. Unlike the past two projects which grappled with this doomed slant, Scaled and Icy pivoted toward a sunnier sound, signaling a shift in the narrative. But it didn't mean the dark world of Blurryface and Trench were completely in the past; upon Scaled and Icy's release, Joseph revealed to Apple Music that there would be "one more record" and "an explanation and book end" before moving onto another story.

Three years following the release of Scaled and Icy, fans began receiving letters from the "Sacred Municipality of Dema" — a reference to the fictional city featured on Trench, signaling what appeared to be a new era diving deeper into the band's lore. Since the previous record featured an anagram about "Clancy" in its title, it seemed natural that the next album would be named after the character. 

"'Clancy' is our protagonist in this story we've been telling, stretched out over the last several records. 'Clancy' is the type of character who, for a long time, didn't know if he was a leader or not, didn't want to take that responsibility," Joseph told BBC Radio earlier this year.

As the singer had hinted in the Scaled and Icy era, Clancy brings fans back to the darker narrative that began with Blurryfacet. After Joseph's character escapes Dema a handful of times, joins a rebellion, then is captured again, he finally has the same abilities as the bishops and aims to free the people of Dema. The album attempts to answer a few conceptual questions along the way.

Clancy's blistering first single, "Overcompensate" is inherently hopeful, and answers the long-lingering question fans have been wondering: Who is "Clancy"? According to the psych-funk number, it's been Joseph all along ("If you can't see, I am Clancy/ Prodigal son, done running, come up with Josh Dun.") As Joseph further explained to BBC Radio, "[With] 'Overcompensate', there's a bit of a confidence and swagger in it that the character needed to embody in order to take on the new role in the story we've been telling, and Clancy is gonna rise up as that person."

But much of the album focuses less on the literal lore, instead tackling the overarching themes of its counterparts: Joseph's struggles with mental health. Despite the darker, anxious nature of the album's lyrics, the majority of Clancy has a self-assured breeziness to it, jumping off of the upbeat Scaled and Icy sound. 

On the ballad-like closer, "Paladin Strait" — named after a fictional body of water off the coast of Dema —Twenty One Pilots really digs into the narrative of "Clancy" the character in a literal way again. What's revealed is the final battle between "Clancy" and "Blurryface" with no apparent winner — alluding to the idea that there is not necessarily a triumph over depression. In the final line, the band offers a callback to a lyric from Blurryface: "So few, so proud, so emotional/ Hello, Clancy."

While the ending may remain ambiguous, it may not be a coincidence that Twenty One Pilots postponed Clancy's release date by a week (from May 17 to May 24) in order to finish filming music videos for each of the tracks, all of which were unveiled upon the album's release. So, there's still hope that fans will find out definitively what happened to "Clancy" — or maybe it means his story isn't completely finished. 

How Andrew Watt Became Rock's Big Producer: His Work With Paul McCartney, Ozzy Osbourne, Pearl Jam, & More

Nathy Peluso Talks 'Grasa,' The Mob & More
Nathy Peluso

Photo: Kito Muñoz

interview

Nathy Peluso Is 'Grasa': How Hard-Earned Lessons, The Mafia & A Lost Album Led To Her Most Vulnerable Work

Both honest and brash, Nathy Peluso's first album in four years is the culmination of therapy and deep musical work. "It’s important to bring that energy to the music, like, rude, strong, dangerous," she says.

GRAMMYs/May 24, 2024 - 04:45 pm

Those who follow underground Spanish music have known the name Nathy Peluso for a while, but in 2020 the Argentine-Spanish artist came to the attention of a broader audience. That year,  the rapper and singer released her official debut album Calambre, which won a Latin GRAMMY for Best Alternative Album and received a GRAMMY nomination for Best Latin Rock or Alternative Album in 2021. 

Four years later, Peluso is back with Grasa [Grease]. Out May 24, the 16 track follow-up is simultaneously bolder, more vulnerable and more revealing than its predecessor, crystalizing the artist's iconoclastic and often cinema-inspired vision.

At Legacy Records, a hotspot for haute Mediterranean fare in Manhattan's Hudson Yards neighborhood, Nathy is draped in an oversized blazer and pants. She looks like a relaxed, elegant CEO and the style becomes her, especially as she balances it with ultra-feminine touches. Today, its long nails tipped in fire-engine red.

Her fashion choices are as pointed as her manicure, on and off stage. In the recent video for "Aprender a Amar," she raps ferociously into a mirror, sharply dressed in a pin-stripe tie, a jacket with exaggerated shoulders, and delicate black lace gloves. These sartorial choices ask, Why settle for a mob-wife aesthetic when you can be a don yourself?

Both visually and aurally, Nathy Peluso is part cinematic diva and part underworld kingpin, with a fair amount of Missy Elliott swagger. Her tough, independent persona was on full display on her now-multimillion streamed 2020 Bizarrap session, which smoldered and crackled with her bombast. It was fully formed on "Business Woman," from Calambre, and returned with a roar on her 2021 single "Mafiosa," a high drama salsa track.  

Her powerful energy is pure hip-hop in steel-toe Timbs, but she performs with the generous spirit of a burgeoning pop star ministering to a big house of fans. On Grasa, Nathy Peluso brings humanity to her braggadocio. This doesn’t stop her from picking up the mafia saga where she left off on Calambre. The opening track is titled "Corleone." 

Ahead of the release of her first album in four years, Nathy Peluso spoke with GRAMMY.com about overcoming creative burnout, taking inspiration from mob movies, and the true meaning of "grasa."

This album is more personal than your previous releases. What led you to open up more lyrically?

I think it just happened because I am growing. I am learning and I need to tell my truth. The way for me to do that is music. It’s been four years, but, when the moment came, I was ready.

Speaking of four years ago, 2020 was a very big year for you. A lot happened. What are your most vivid memories from that time?

Calambre was the moment. It was really special for me. Winning the GRAMMY was the moment, and then touring with that album was an amazing learning experience for me. I grew up on the stage. 

I grew up as a woman, as an artist, as a performer, maybe as a lover too. You are traveling around the world with so much pressure. Physically, it was a difficult show. I was alone on stage, with my musicians, but no dancers. It was a challenge. 

I grew up in so many ways, but when I finished that tour I was broken. My soul was broken. I was empty. I started looking for myself. It was very tough. 

It sounds like you were experiencing creative burnout.

Yes, my brain was broken, but it was necessary in order to start again. I did an album then, but I decided not to go with that album and to start again. So, it was a very long path. 

You wrote a whole album and then discarded it? What wasn’t working about it?

It was working, but it wasn’t the feelings I wanted to share and the music I wanted to share. Sometimes there are projects whose purpose is just to learn from. It was a process of learning for me. That was a very special moment. 

You start feeling like a failure, but no. It was necessary to go through that to get to Grasa. The things I learned were exactly the things I needed to know to then make this music. 

So, how did you overcome this period of burnout and get to the point where you were feeling creative again?

A lot of therapy. A lot of working on my s— and confronting it.

Is there one song on Grasa that is more intense to perform, or more emotional for you than the others?

"Envidia" is talking real s—. Things happen around you and you need to know who you are and what your intention is. You have to be focused on what you want to bring to the world and not care about anything besides your craft. People are going to talk. Things are going to be crazy. You’ve got to know your choice, your path.

Can you tell me about the song "Corleone"? How do gangster movies inspire you?

I have a song called "Mafiosa." It’s a character I love to perform and I see myself in that character. It’s relatable. The mafia have codes that represent me — not everything [laughs] — but, you know, the family, the legacy, working hard, respect. That kind of feeling in music, in cinema, is what I was looking for. I love the aesthetic. I love Tarantino. I love Tony Montana, the character. On stage, I feel like him sometimes. 

I love for a woman to be that type of character. I think it’s interesting. Usually, those kinds of feelings in music or cinema are represented by men. It’s always that way in salsa. If you look at Celia or Gloria, they were always more romantic. Maybe La Lupe was dangerous. For me, it’s important to bring that energy to the music, like, rude, strong, dangerous. Be careful, bitch!

What were some of your specific musical influences while working on this album?

Always folklore and roots, salsa and bolero, but then I was paying attention to Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West. They are a big inspiration for me. 

How do you bridge the gap, or find the connections among your different influences?

I don’t even know. I just do music, really. I go to the studio and I start singing. I just feel it.  I go to the studio, and suddenly I want to sing, and I want to cry. And then another day, I feel powerful and I want drama and aggressive stuff. It’s very honest. The starting point is always the way I feel.

Is it important to you to make music that empowers other women?

Yes. For sure. But it wasn’t ever a strategy, like, "I want to do music for empowering women." I just did my music without direction. Then I discovered people were feeling the power and using it. I feel inspired by that, but it wasn’t the point. 

What does the word "grasa" mean to you?

I chose that word because it’s the strongest word. It’s dirty. It’s funky. But it’s a word that, at least in Spanish, has a lot of meanings. So, I want people to choose the meaning. After listening to the album, you can choose the meaning and maybe redefine it with the album.

How Danna Paola Created 'CHILDSTAR' By Deconstructing Herself