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Yellow Days' George Van Den Broek Finds The Funk (And Gets Out Of One) On 'A Day In A Yellow Beat'

Yellow Days

Photo by Frank Felber

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Yellow Days' George Van Den Broek Finds The Funk (And Gets Out Of One) On 'A Day In A Yellow Beat'

GRAMMY.com talks to the indie-funk pioneer about his sprawling sophomore effort, which features generation-spanning guest appearances from Shirley Jones, Bishop Nehru and Mac DeMarco

GRAMMYs/Sep 22, 2020 - 07:44 pm

"They don’t want you to say what you want to say…but you got to be free!"

George van den Broek doesn’t mince words. Right out of the gate, on "Be Free," the opening track of A Day In A Yellow Beat, his second album as Yellow Days, the 21-year-old U.K. singer and songwriter makes it clear that he’s going to do things his way, and more than ever, he has. The result is thrilling.

His musical gifts are no news to anyone who’s followed the soul prodigy since his come-up four years ago, when, as a teenager working out of a garden shed-turned-studio in Haslemere, Surrey, he crafted Yellow Days’ debut EP, Hidden Melodies, and a first album, Is Everything Okay In Your World? Marrying a love of jazz, soul and the blues—Howlin’ Wolf, Etta James, and personal hero Ray Charles were early influences—with a Gen Z teen’s honest, poetic bouts with depression, anxiety, heartache and ennui, songs like "A Little While," "The Way Things Change," "A Bag of Dutch" (weed was a recurring muse, too) and "A Gap in the Clouds" resonated with disaffected youth. With R&B legends as inspirations and voice that often sounded well beyond his years, Yellow Days offered a fresh take on classic sounds. It was something to hear, and see—as sold-out crowds on several continents did. At the end of the day, though, save for a few players and producer Tom Henry, the project was, creatively, George, alone. But a new vision for Yellow Days soon developed—something more ambitious, collaborative, and as George began to discover the grooves of 1970s Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye and Weldon Irvine, funky. 

Which brings us to A Day In A Yellow Beat, a sprawling sophomore full-length that in scale, sound and mood is on an entirely different level to those moving but modest garden shed creations, and will challenge any notions of Yellow Days as an unassuming indie-soul project, forever caught up in melancholy feels. The new album is being released on Columbia Records, partly because it takes behemoth Sony Music’s money to make an LP as ambitious as this one: 23 tracks recorded over two years in two cities—London and Los Angeles—with dual teams of seasoned musicians bringing the funk and soul heat, plus multiple engineers and production collaborators, all overseen by a musician who only this year turned 21.

That a major label allowed a Zoomer who in the digital age really ought to be sitting at a computer making cost-effective music and staying in his lane to instead sow his musical oats like the old cats did half a century ago, at considerable expense, is a testament to Columbia’s faith in George's talent, a faith that has paid off beautifully. A Day In A Yellow Beat is an expansive ride that is not pastiche revivalism, but rather George's own modern addition to the legacy of funk, disco, jazz fusion and soul. There’s romance (the breezy "Let You Know," the wah-wah of a "drugged up ballad," "You"), a sexy, spacey jam ("Keeps Me Satisfied"), a dancefloor gem (“Love Is Everywhere”) and generation-spanning guest appearances: Shirley Jones, of '70s R&B trio The Jones Sisters, on three tracks; Bishop Nehru, on "!," an unlikely stoner rap track; and George’s do-anything inspiration, indie-rock everyman Mac DeMarco, playing guitar on highlight "The Curse."

Most of all, though, the new album delivers positivity. Even as he explored funk, George also emerged from one. That "Gap In The Clouds" he sang about through dark times in 2016 has given way to full beams of sunshine: you won’t hear a record this year that is more start-to-finish unrelentingly upbeat. The song titles alone are those of a man on a mission of optimism: "Keep Yourself Alive," "Let’s Be Good To Each Other," "Open Your Eyes" and "Love Is Everywhere." "It’s bout time I broke out this funk," he croons on "The Curse"; on "I Don’t Mind" he carries a "little bag of sunshine / just to keep those clouds away"; and the most full-throated statement of peace of mind comes in "Getting Closer": "It’s been a long time/ It’s been a while/ Since I spent the whole day/ With a smile," he sings. George calls it a track about "getting over a hump in life," and an "unapologetic ode to positivity and better days ahead."

There may be cynics greeting all this cheer—there always are—and George acknowledges as much on "Let’s Be Good To Each Other." But Yellow Days, for here and for now, is about peace, and offering something to hang onto. "You have to give them hope," the late, great Harvey Milk famously said. And in a year in which hope has often seemed in short supply, we’ll take it—especially when it’s delivered in as fun and funky a musical package as this.

George and I talked at length about A Day In A Yellow Beat, over two Face Time calls—one found him at an airport in Berlin and a second at a studio in London where he and his band, along with U.K. soul singer Lynda Dawn, were rehearsing a soon-to-be-filmed gig showcasing this electrifying, inspiring new album. 

George, I was gonna start by asking what is different about this impending release as compared to the last two. But then I thought—between the sound, the size, the expense, the guests, the locations, this COVID year, no tour—I guess pretty much everything is different?

Definitely. I would agree entirely. It’s been a transformation for me! I mean, I have now had a few years to write and to travel and to tour, and to be inspired. And I think those two years had a big effect on me, and I think coming back with this record, I think that people can hear that. I’ve signed my big deal, I’m hooked up with all these players, and I’m coming at it from a slightly older perspective. And my writing’s got better, my playing’s got better. I’ve been listening to Marvin, to my Curtis, listening to Al Green! I’ve just been so inspired by '70s fusion acts like Don Blackman and Weldon Irvine. And so all those things cumulatively have kind of caused this kind of change. But I think you can still hear me within it.

Doing something of this size, coming from a mostly D.I.Y. situation before—had you always had dreams of something on this level?

I toured the first two records for like two years, and we were just kind of surfing away having fun. And I think I became very ambitious from touring. I think maybe sitting and watching other acts, in their headline slots, and sitting back and thinking, "You know, I could write songs that put us up there." You know what I mean? I think I was sitting up there and I got very hungry, and ambitious. And I think you can hear that on this thing. I think that I am kind of amping myself up, firing myself up for something in a way that I haven’t done.

So the record began in London?

Yeah, with this fantastic producer called Blue May, he’s worked with Kindness, other people. He's a great guy, and a real gear head, knows analog gear in the studio. It was at Konk Studios in London, which is actually owned by The Kinks. I can’t remember which one of The Kinks, but so I used to see him kind of wandering around the studio. We would kind of bump into each other, and yeah he’s a real interesting character…

Ray? Or Dave?

I think it was…Ray? But anyway that was incredible, and it was his studio so we were using all his kind of stuff. And I mean he didn’t know who the hell I was—I was just that goofy kid smoking weed and running around the studio!

So you did the Konk sessions and is that kind of how it went, and then Blue moved to L.A. and then you ended up migrating to Los Angeles?

That’s correct. I love Blue, but he left me in a fairly sticky situation, moved from London to Los Angeles, which definitely added six months onto our plan, you know?

And so we had to re-approach. And funnily enough we ended up going with an American producer called Mike Malchicoff. And me and Mike just kind got on like a house on fire. I think it’s important to note that Blue and Mike, both of them took a very like old-school engineer approach, which I think really helped anchor the whole thing.

There's this beautifully designed booklet that comes with the record, and the care you take to actually offer some nice thoughts in there about each and every person on this near-30-person production, down to the engineer's assistant. It’s very thoughtful and, I think, too rare.

Definitely, man. You know, one thing for me—I am a self-taught musician. I’ve kind of come out of nowhere. I didn’t go to school for it, I didn’t train or anything, and I’m sitting with these amazing jazzers, and they respect me for what I do, because they know I can write. So, we kind of complete each other, and we had a great time. And I think I’ve been introduced to the L.A. community, a bit of London, a bit of New York. And I just love these people, and respect them so much. And they inspire me massively. And I am trying to do what other people don’t do right now, and kind of put them out there

Was there a difference between the London players and the L.A. ones, in terms of performance?

Definitely, I would say the U.K. players are incredibly authentic, incredibly vibe-y, and they have a great sound. But I would say there is something about the L.A. players where there is just a funkiness. That’s what I would say is the difference. I would say my U.K. players bring hold down such a warm, authentic, almost like maybe a '60s sound, or '70s. But the guys in L.A., they’ve just got the funk. It’s as simple as that. They’ve got the pocket and the feel—cause they’ve been playing on like, disco and stuff.

I imagine you learned a lot.

Oh yeah, I am a bit of a sponge. Just being around people like that, who’ve played with Kanye, Nas, Frank Ocean, Mark Ronson—they just change things. Just spending an evening playing with these guys, it’s something else. Because they come with so much authenticity, so much passion, so much talent. And for me, who’s a young musician who’s just progressing, they have helped me unlock so much and see beyond so many hurdles.

It’s not every 19, 20-year-old who can get Columbia Records to sign on to a project that is this ambitious. How did that happen?

So the story is, my A&R from my very first deal [Scott Jason], he got a job over at Sony/Columbia, and we definitely were looking to sign a big deal and all the rest of it, but he came through and said, “Look guys, I’m here. Why don’t you come hijack the system with me, and we can take this thing for a ride? See what happens?"

So did you go into Sony and say, "Look, this is the kind of record I want to make. I am not going back to the garden shed, folks." Were you that blunt about it?

Definitely! Yeah I think I had to be, there were times when I had to say, "Look, this is it," you know. It kind progressed, honestly, though. It kind of was a long journey, to doing it. And really as things became clear exactly how it was gonna go, I’d say it was about one year before everyone was booked in and they were with me on this funky thing. I had to work harder as well. But I think musically, and in terms of production, I think the extra work has paid off massively. Because I’ve been doing this whole thing based on trying to pioneer something. That’s been the bottom line for me, is trying to bring a new sound. I’m not trying to recreate something that exists; it’s more an idea of trying to pioneer, trying push a genre in a new direction—to continue the story.

I mean you pretty much lay it all out there in "Be Free"—it’s kind of a shot across the bow of anyone who’s gonna try and tell you what to do.

Exactly. That was the most important thing for me was making that statement, straight away. You know, to them and to everybody, because creatively, you have to be free. There’s no two ways about it.

There are some amazing guests on here: Shirley Jones, kind of an unsung R&B legend; and you’ve got Bishop Nehru on "!" which, I have to say, I wasn’t prepared for a rap track in the middle of this funk 'n soul album!

Well, Shirley is just such an amazing lady. I started digging into The Jones Girls a few years ago, discovering them, and she is carrying the torch for her sisters who sadly have passed away in the time since they stopped making records. But Shirley has  been a huge inspiration to me. And then Nehru, we actually haven’t met because of this crazy lockdown—that was all done online. But there is such stamina to the way he raps, a young guy, but another one kind of carrying the torch, for hip-hop. And I just wanted to bring some Cypress Hill-type stoner beat, some "green energy" to the record.

And then of course there's Mac [DeMarco], who turns up on "The Curse" and who I know to be one of the nicest dudes in music. He was also a longtime hero, right?

For sure. I remember when I was a kid, like 11, watching the family computer, I was on YouTube, and there was a video for "My Kind Of Woman" [2012] and he was running around naked, and cross-dressing, all this stuff, and I was just a kid but I remember looking at it and thinking, "Wow, yeah, this is incredible. This guy represents everything I want to pursue in life." Like, he cared so little what people think and he was so sure of himself. And I remember thinking, "Yeah. This is it." And that was my moment with him. So to think that years later we’d become friends, I’ve opened shows for him, and to think that I would be sitting with him making music with him is just crazy.

Apart from the musical shift, I think some people who kind of thought they knew what Yellow Days was about will also be surprised at the happiness and positivity that kind of radiates from the record.

It’s definitely just a peaceful time for me, and I think it’s funny—you know, you talk about people not expecting this to be what Yellow Days is about. I think Yellow Days is whatever the hell I do! And I think anyone who says different is crazy, you know? But it’s funny, there is a real thing about that with kids at the moment, where they just can’t get their head around that someone does one thing and then they want to do another thing. You know you hear artists saying that all the time. You know, "I just wanted to try this, do that, and the kids are like.." with Mac they’ll say, "Where’s Salad Days?" or with Tyler [the Creator], "Where’s Wolf?" You know? It’s always the same. But yeah. I took inspiration from The Beatles, you know? Where on every single record they would reinvent themselves and progress and be inspired by a new thing.

For me there’s nothing more kind of blissed-out than "Getting Closer." And I love the way you described it as "an unapologetic ode to positivity and better days ahead."

That’s right.

So my only question about that is, why you use the word "unapologetic"? To me that suggesst that you anticipate there might be people going, "Why’s he so happy all of a sudden? What’s he got to be so happy about?"

Yeah yeah—that’s exactly the crux of it. It’s, you know, the expectation that people won’t be enamored with it. But no, I think "Getting Closer" is, to date, one of my most positive tracks ever. I was having a conversation with my manager, we were talking about it and looking back, and I think probably "Baked In the Sunshine" and "Gap In the Clouds" were maybe the only kind of feel-good tracks I had ever written to date, before this record. But to me, I’m not concerning myself with those kinds of things. The truth is, I’ve gone through spouts of depression and mental illness, since I was, you know, 14, 13. It’s just who I am. And I’m lucky to have had a girlfriend—we’re best friends—who has been there with me this whole time. But this is a good time.

Your honesty about that depression obviously connected with a lot of young fans. In 2018, you told VICE about a girl who told you she didn’t kill herself specifically because of Yellow Days music. That’s a lot. Are songs like "Keep Yourself Alive" meant for those people?

Definitely. It’s a message to them, and I think it’s a message to uninspired musicians—you know, those musicians who can’t quite finish that EP, or musicians who really need to work on stuff, or feel like, "Oh I really want to do this, but I just can’t write that song"—who are having trouble writing. And also to people in my life—to my girl, as well. You know, like saying, "Keep yourself alive, life’s just begun" kind of thing. You know, like, "Don’t get disheartened. You’ve only just started."

That’s a sentiment echoed by Shirley at the end of “Getting Closer” when she says, "Life may be tough, children. But don’t give up now! It’s only just begun." And I know you’ve said before that Yellow Days is a project for the youth, but as someone who is, let’s say, no longer a youth… I can tell you that your messages resonate with older people as well!

Yeah, I would genuinely say it’s for anyone who’s alive right now. Because we’re all subject to the craziness of this 21st century world, you know? No matter how old you are. And I think my crowds—they vary in age. We see all kinds of ages come through. Because we’re all living in a world where there is a camera looking at us on our phone all day long, a world where celebrity culture and reality TV is more prevalent than ever, where there’s a synthesis of everything, and corporate greed? There’s a lot to be worried about. And people are full of thoughts and anxiety, and nothing to do with them. I think we’re all in the same boat, you know?

I think the mind is an incredible thing. I think we’re all really lucky to have the most complex thing known in the universe, sitting inside our skull. And we live in a world that is completely overstimulating this beautiful organ, and we’re all struggling. But I think you have to express mindfulness, and there’s no better way to do that than to listen to some soul music. So that’s what I’m here trying to do.

Yellow Days’ A Day In a Yellow Beat was released Sept. 18. George and the band will tour the U.K and Europe beginning in March, and, COVID permitting, North America after that.

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

Rotimi

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

The Nigerian-American singer and actor sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about what inspired his latest album, 'Walk With Me'

GRAMMYs/Jul 8, 2019 - 10:04 pm

In 2015, Rotimi stepped into the New Orleans Superdome for the first time to experience the magic of ESSENCE Fest. Four years later, in 2019, the "Love Riddim" singer returned to the celebration as a performer, something he said was spoken into existence.

"Last year me and my manager had a conversation and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be on the [ESSENCE] mainstage this year. 365 days later, we did it," Rotimi told the Recording Academy at the 25th annual ESSENCE Fest.

Rotimi, also an actor on Starz' "Power," has evolved since his last album, 2017's Jeep Music, Vol.1. The singer said he really hit home with its follow-up, the recently released Walk With Me, a project he worked hard for, putting in hours in the studio after filming on set.

"Walk With Me is the first time I actually felt like I was giving myself as an artist, and personally I feel like with everything else I have going on I wanted to show people that this is really what I do," he said. "I wanted people to understand who Rotimi is, who Rotimi was before, who I want to be and just understand my growth and the journey and my passion for what I do."

Part of why the album felt like such a representation of him is because it embodies beats of his African roots, something he said was very present growing up Nigerian-American. 

"I grew up with a lot of Fela Kuti and I grew up with Bob Marley," he said of his musical roots. "But I also grew up with Carl Thomas and Genuine and Usher, so there was a genuine mixture of who I am and what I've grown up to listen to. The actual Walk With Me project was a mixture of influences of Akon and Craig David."

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Quarantine Diaries: Joan As Police Woman Is Bike Riding, Book Reading & Strumming D'Angelo

Joan as Police Woman

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Quarantine Diaries: Joan As Police Woman Is Bike Riding, Book Reading & Strumming D'Angelo

As the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic continues to rock the music industry, the Recording Academy reached out to a few musicians to see how they were spending their days indoors

GRAMMYs/Apr 7, 2020 - 07:21 pm

As the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic continues to rock the music industry, the Recording Academy reached out to a few musicians to see how they were spending their days indoors. Today, singer/songwriter Joan Wasser of Joan as Police Woman, whose forthcoming covers album, COVER TWO, includes tracks by The Strokes, Prince, Talk Talk, and more, shares her Quarantine Diary.

Thursday, April 2

[10 a.m.-12 p.m.] Went to bed at 4 a.m. last night after getting drawn into working on a song. Put on the kettle to make hot coffee while enjoying an iced coffee I made the day before. Double coffee is my jam. Read the news, which does not do much for my mood. Catch up with a few friends, which does a lot of good for my mood. Glad it goes in this order.

[12 p.m.-2 p.m.] Make steel cut oats with blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, fresh ginger, fresh turmeric, a sprinkling of cinnamon and cardamom, and of course, coconut butter to melt on top. If you’re not into coconut butter (sometimes marketed as coconut "manna"), I’d suggest just going for it and getting it (or ordering it) and putting it on your sweet potatoes, your oats, anywhere you’d put butter. I’m not vegan but I do enjoy hearing the tiny scream uttered by a strawberry as I cut into it. 

Contemplate some yoga. Contamplate meditating. Do neither. Resume work on the song I want to finish and send today. I have a home studio and I spend a lot of my time working on music here. The song is a collboration sent to me from Rodrigo D’Erasmo in Milano that will benefit the folks who work behind the scenes in the music touring system in Italy. 

[2 p.m.-4 p.m.] I traded in a guitar for a baritone guitar right before all this craziness hit but hadn’t had the time to get it out until now. I put on some D’Angelo, plugged into my amp and played along as if I were in his band. Micahel Archer, If you’re reading this, I hope you are safe and sound and thank you immensely for all the music you've given us always. 

[4 p.m.-6 p.m.] Bike repair shops have been deemed "necessary," thank goodness, because biking is the primary way I get around and I need a small repair. I hit up my neighborhood shop and they get my bike in and out in 10 minutes, enough time to feel the sun for a moment. 

I ride fast and hard down to the water's edge and take in a view of the East River from Brooklyn. There are a few people out getting their de-stress walks but it is mostly deserted on the usually packed streets.

[6 p.m.-8 p.m.] Practice Bach piano invention no. 4 in Dm very, very, very slowly. I never studied piano but I’m trying to hone some skills. Realize I’m ravenous. Eat chicken stew with wild mushrooms I made in the slow cooker yesterday. It’s always better the second day.

[8 p.m.-10 p.m.] Get on a zoom chat with a bunch of women friends on both coasts. We basically shoot the sh*t and make each other laugh. 

Afterwards I still feel like I ate a school bus so I give into yoga. I feel great afterwards. This photo proves I have a foot. 

[10 p.m.-12 a.m.] Record a podcast for Stereo Embers in anticipation of my new release on May 1, a second record of covers, inventively named COVER TWO. Continue to work on music (it’s a theme).

[12 a.m.-2 p.m.] Tell myself I should think about bed. Ignore myself and confinue to work on music. 

[2 a.m.-4 a.m.] Force myself into bed where I have many books to choose from. This is what I’m reading presently, depending on my mood. Finally I listen to Nick Hakim’s new song, "Qadir," and am taken by its beauty and grace. Good night. 

If you wish to support our efforts to assist music professionals in need, learn more about the Recording Academy's and MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund.

If you are a member of the music industry in need of assistance, visit the MusiCares website

Report: Music & Culture Infrastructure Can Create Better "Future Cities"

Hero The Band perform at the Recording Academy Atlanta Chapter Annual Membership Celebration
Photo: Marcus Ingram/WireImage

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Report: Music & Culture Infrastructure Can Create Better "Future Cities"

How sound planning for a creative future in our urban areas makes all the difference for artists and musicians

GRAMMYs/Oct 24, 2019 - 01:27 am

The future, as they say, is now. And for music makers around the world, building a future for themselves often starts at home, in their local creative community and in the city where they live. While technology has expanded communication and made the world smaller, cities continue to grow, making planning for the future a critical cultural mission of the present.

To that end, a new report by global organization Sound Diplomacy titled "This Must Be The Place" examines, "The role of music and cultural infrastructure in creating better future cities for all of us." The 37-page deep dive into community planning and development highlights the importance of creative culture in what it calls "Future Cities."

"The government defines ‘Future Cities’ as 'a term used to imagine what cities themselves will be like," the report states, "how they will operate, what systems will orchestrate them and how they will relate to their stakeholders (citizens, governments, businesses, investors, and others),'"

According to the report, only three global cities or states currently have cultural infrastructure plans: London, Amsterdam and New South Wales. This fact may be surprising considering how city planning and sustainability have become part of the discussion on development of urban areas, where the UN estimates 68 percent of people will live by 2050.

"Our future places must look at music and culture ecologically. Much like the way a building is an ecosystem, so is a community of creators, makers, consumers and disseminators," the report says. "The manner in which we understand how to maintain a building is not translated to protecting, preserving and promoting music and culture in communities."

The comparison and interaction between the intangibility of culture and the presence of physical space is an ongoing theme throughout the report. For instance, one section of the report outlines how buildings can and should be designed to fit the cultural needs of the neighborhoods they populate, as too often, use of a commercial space is considered during the leasing process, not the construction process, leading to costly renovations.

"All future cities are creative cities. All future cities are music cities."

On the residential side, as cities grow denser, the need increases for thoughtful acoustic design and sufficient sound isolation. Future cities can and should be places where people congregate

"If we don’t design and build our future cities to facilitate and welcome music and experience, we lose what makes them worth living in."

For musicians and artists of all mediums, the answer to making—and keeping—their cities worth living in boils down to considering their needs, impact and value more carefully and sooner in the planning process.

"The report argues that property is no longer an asset business, but one built on facilitating platforms for congregation, community and cohesion," it says. "By using music and culture at the beginning of the development process and incorporating it across the value chain from bid to design, meanwhile to construction, activation to commercialisation, this thinking and practice will result in better places."

The report offers examples of how planners and leaders are handling this from around the world. For instance, the Mayor Of London Night Czar, who helps ensure safety and nighttime infrastructure for venues toward the Mayor's Vision for London as a 24-hour city. Stateside, Pittsburgh, Penn., also has a Night Mayor in place to support and inform the growth of its creative class.

Diversity, inclusion, health and well-being also factor into the reports comprehensive look at how music and culture are every bit as important as conventional business, ergonomic and environmental considerations in Future Cites. Using the Queensland Chamber of Arts and Culture as a reference, it declared, "A Chamber of Culture is as important as a Chamber of Commerce."

In the end, the report serves as a beacon of light for governments, organizations, businesses and individuals involved in planning and developing future cities. Its core principals lay out guideposts for building friendly places to music and culture and are backed with case studies and recommendations. But perhaps the key to this progress is in changing how we approach the use of space itself, as the answer to supporting music may be found in how we look at the spaces we inhabit.

"To develop better cities, towns and places, we must alter the way we think about development, and place music and culture alongside design, viability, construction and customer experience," it says. "Buildings must be treated as platforms, not assets. We must explore mixed‑use within mixed‑use, so a floor of a building, or a lesser‑value ground floor unit can have multiple solutions for multiple communities."

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Nearly 30 Years After Their Debut, Body Count's 'Carnivore' Is The Thrash-Metal Band's Most Fully Realized Album

Ice-T In 1993

Photo by David Corio/Redferns

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Nearly 30 Years After Their Debut, Body Count's 'Carnivore' Is The Thrash-Metal Band's Most Fully Realized Album

Led by iconic rapper Ice-T, the L.A.-based seven-piece keep their socially conscious themes consistent and the music louder than ever on their seventh studio album

GRAMMYs/Mar 10, 2020 - 10:06 pm

In early 1992 Ernie Cunnigan visited the Burbank office of Howie Klein. The guitarist (who goes by Ernie C.) and the then-president of Reprise/Warner Bros. Records were listening to the upcoming self-titled debut from Cunnigan’s band, Body Count, fronted by his Crenshaw High School buddy Tracy Marrow, already famous as rapper Ice-T. Ice, with the savvy creative connectivity that guides his multi-hyphenate media career to this day, introduced his forthcoming metal band in 1991 via tracks on O.G. Original Gangster, his fourth album.

It's not unusual for high school pals to form a band. What was unusual, though, was that Body Count was a hardcore thrash metal band comprised of all-black musicians, with point-blank lyrics that were both insightful and incite-ful concerning racial and social inequities and the climate of America. Listening to the 18-track debut, Klein praised it, while voicing concern about the lyrics of "Momma's Gotta Die Tonight," a song about the matricide and dismemberment of a racist parent. Turns out it was the last track, a ditty called "Cop Killer," that should have given the executive pause. 

While Klein was and remains stridently opposed to censorship and is a dedicated free speech advocate, Body Count, per the era, was released with a parental advisory sticker (as was Original Gangster). Less than two months after Body Count dropped, Los Angeles exploded in fiery violence in reaction to the acquittal of four policemen in the beating of Rodney King, as well as the shooting death of black teenager Latasha Harlins by a Korean grocer. (The grocer was given only probation.) It was the worst possible climate for "Cop Killer," with lyrics including "Fk the police, yeah!" and shout-outs to then L.A.P.D. chief Daryl Gates, Ice's "dead homies" and King. The blowback went all the way up to then-President George Bush, and though Time Warner supported Ice-T in his fight against the song's opponents, he eventually pulled the cut from new pressings of the album.

Currently, streaming services including Spotify and Apple Music offer the version sans the group's most (in)famous song, replacing "Cop Killer" with "Freedom Of Speech" from Ice's 1989 solo album, The Iceberg/Freedom of Speech...Just Watch What You Say, edited to add samples of Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady" and the voice of political punker Jello Biafra. On YouTube, "Cop Killer" has more than 1.5 million views, with most of the comments thoughtful and positive, understanding the intentionally incendiary messages Body Count was delivering. Ultimately, if Body Count isn’t a classic record in the way that critics consider Nirvana’s Nevermind or Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back to be, it’s an important and groundbreaking one. As Ice-T has said, Body Count is: "a protest record,” not the norm in the metal world, but still the way BC's songs operate today.

Indeed, 28 years later, things haven’t changed. Biafra is also on Body Count's powerful new album, Carnivore. Police actions like "stop and frisk" (the NYC law enforcement program that was proven to disproportionally target black and Latino men) wasn’t legally discredited until 2014. Body Count’s one-time bassist, Lloyd "Mooseman" Roberts III, was murdered in South Central Los Angeles in 2001 in an accidental drive-by; in the last 12 months, 126 black men were killed by guns in L.A. County, as opposed to 23 white men. And Ice-T and Body Count are still raging against the machine.

Ice-T enjoys pushing buttons lyrically, and if they’ve sometimes been heavy-handed or misguided ("KKK Bitch" or "Bitch In The Pit"), Ice-T is a politically eloquent, passionate and personal songwriter, which can be too easily overlooked given Body Count's volume-heavy metal chops and Ice's delivery, a speedy vocal style that’s been traditionally more aggro-rapping than melodic singing.  

That said, Carnivore is Body Count’s best album to date; it’s the most fully realized musically, and there’s a cohesion to the vocals and music that led Body Count bassist Vincent Price to lay out the band’s growth in a Metallica timeline: "Manslaughter [2014] was basically Kill ‘Em All; Bloodlust [2017] was our Ride The Lightningand Carnivore’s our Master Of Puppets."

He's not wrong, and though Ice-T’s more than 20-year stint as detective Odafin "Fin" Tutuola on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit has precluded lengthy Body Count tours, the buzz is loud for this seventh album.

Ice-T may be the original gangster, yet he’s patient, articulate and fervent in explaining songs and motivations to audiences and the press alike. "When I'm Gone," featuring Amy Lee of Evanescence, was inspired by the killing of Nipsey Hussle. It’s a reminder, as he says in the tune, to "tell the people that you love, that you love them now. … Don't wait; tomorrow may be too fking late."

His prolific musical social criticism and seemingly left-leaning views are thoughtful and targeted, despite the vitriol of so many Body Count songs. In the nearly 30 years since founding his revolutionary band, Ice-T observes, "I think you’ve got less racism; less people, but more avid racism. It’s unnerving to think that we’ve come so far but there’s still so far to go." As he advised in a 2017 interview, "Don’t just be angry. Know what you’re talking about so you don’t alienate someone who should be an ally."