“Funk is stank. Funk is messy. Funk is sexy. Funk is… everything.”
– Jamil “Boulevards” Rashad
Despite our attempts at trying, there is no true way to define why you feel the way you do when a funk song pops into rotation—on the radio, at the bar, at home. Funk is a feeling, an in-your-bones instinct that requires you to move under any circumstance.
The sound, the vibe, the conjuring of both when they’re blended together… there has always been something tangible about the magic of funk music, and like any iconic art form that just works for the masses, it has cycled back into favor in recent years.
From the indie—like Theophilus London’s early work, which added a hip-hop edge to funk classics, or Dev Hynes’s funky and free-flowing Blood Orange project—to the mainstream—like Pharrell’s turn on Daft Punk’s world-dominating “Get Lucky”—funk is in the air.
Even artists with plenty to prove are turning back, to the funk.
Take D’Angelo, who released his first LP in 14 years last December. For his “Black Messiah” comeback, R&B Jesus offered up a new dose of feel-good funk that was absent on previous efforts. Or Kendrick Lamar, who despite penning cerebral and politically-charged sentiments on his “To Pimp A Butterfly,” found serenity in funky rhythms and horns provided by new-age leaders of the sound.
Perhaps funk’s resurgence is owed to the fact that modern musicians, facing the appropriation of hip-hop and R&B, are reverting back to and reopening their files on funk, a genre they know is largely (not counting well-meaning borrowers like Chromeo and Mark Ronson) their own to explore.
Enter Boulevards, a North Carolina native and funk star-in-the-making, who is owning the genre in earnest, offering up his unique take on a sound in the midst of a global rebirth.
While Boulevards, who still holds down a job at a local Best Buy in his hometown of Raleigh, takes cues from spiritual mentors like Prince and George Clinton as well as current peers, he is a new sort of auteur, well-versed in a variety of styles by dint of his ongoing experimentation with a permanent sonic stamp.
Before settling on funk as his forte, Boulevards played in a hardcore band, dabbled in rapping and offered up a reverby 80s alt revisit on last year’s ACKRYLIC CITY EP, inspired by his year spent living in Brooklyn.
Finally, at 30, Rashad has found his sound, and it is a spectacular one.
Soaked with action-packed ad-libs, feel-good nostalgia and clever songwriting, Boulevards’ recent output is made all the more magical by beautifully layered synths a la Parliament and sequin sheen soundcapes reminiscent of Chic.
On the eve of his breakout moment, Boulevards took a weekend trip to New York to record with longtime producer Dan Walker (formerly of punk band The Death Set) and take meetings with agencies and labels interested in his sound.
On a snowy afternoon after a few hours spent mixing a pair of new records, he discussed the funk, the feeling and the visions he sees when creating a sound so vivid.
Prior to Boulevards, you experimented with a lot of different sounds and creative outlets, like punk, rock and hip-hop. Did you always just have a general thirst for self-expression?
Everything is an idea, man. To me, it’s just all ideas, and sound. Ideas turn into sound then those sounds turn into melodies and those melodies turn into songs. And I just put the songs out.
“EVERYTHING IS AN IDEA, MAN.”
I got the focus with Boulevards because I’ve always loved funk music. Growing up in a house with jazz and soul and pop and boogie, it was rooted in those walls. I always had love for it but I never knew how to create it. I think when Dan helped me create that vision of the ACKRYLIC CITY album, it brought some things to light, like, “I can do this!” And then last year, I was living in New York and I met up with a couple DJ people who inspired me and I was listening to a lot of funk. Finally I was just like, “I just want to make funk music—party funk records.” I feel like people want to let go, and I want to make music that’s not made for wallflowers. You have no choice but to dance to my music.
How do you think about your music when you’re writing the songs or recording?
It’s not something to overthink. It’s not something literal. It’s about the melody. It’s about the guitar. It’s about the baseline. It’s about the charisma. It’s about the ad-libs… It’s that funk. It’s that beat.
“IT’S THAT FUNK. IT’S THAT BEAT.”
The first I saw of you was a series of portraits Lauren did during one of your New York visits. You looked very composed and self-aware in each one. Talk to me about image and how you want to portray yourself, whether to fans or friends.
This is me. The way I dress and the way I carry myself, my dad used to carry himself the same way. Jewelry, jeans, turtleneck or just t-shirts. Nothing overly crazy, just classic. Everything has to be classic. Classic is life. Trends are not classic, they leave.
Are you mindful of creating a consistent “look” when it comes to your style? For instance, always rocking acid-wash denim, or a turtleneck, so that the world can make that association with who you are.
This is how I always dress all the time. This is the way I always carry myself. I’m not going to change images on different records. To me, the music comes first. The music is the most important thing. People are not stupid; people care about the music first. It always starts with the music, everything else will come secondary.
“PEOPLE ARE NOT STUPID; PEOPLE CARE ABOUT THE MUSIC.”
You’re recording in New York and you have meetings with a licensing agency and a label this week, but you still have a job and a life back home in North Carolina? What’s this moment like, for you?
It’s crazy, but I’m just productive now. I’m still a little impatient but everything is a process. You gotta be patient. But it’s cool to come up here to New York and set up these meetings with people who are showing interest in what I do and are willing to help me catapult my career or help me grow…
You’re from North Carolina, a place I’ve heard is hard to break out from because of locals failing to support their own. Why do you think that is and what are some of the challenges you’ve faced performing your music there?
Well, I’m not really in the scene. I don't really go out. So I'm kind of a stranger in my own city. I live in Raleigh and I'm from there, but a lot of people don't even know that I make music. So I'm still new on the scene there. I play these shows and it's still new and fresh because I'm not like all these rappers and indie bands who are trying to play a show any place they can get. I'm just playing really cool shows and releasing this music online. But as far as support, it's very surprising when I have great shows. I'm always surprised… The funk always prevails, man.
“THE FUNK ALWAYS PREVAILS, MAN.”
Have you found that people are more supportive because you’re not doing the same thing as everyone else, whether it’s DJing or rapping?
When I see people after the show, they say, “I wish there were more people doing this music. I’m glad that you’re doing this.” Being an African-American male, people assume you gotta be associated with hip-hop and rap… I think people show support because the funk is the feeling. When people come to my shows and support, they realize that I’m not like these other rappers or guys trying to rap. I’m bringing something fresh to the table.
You’ve worked with Dan for a few years now and earlier he was telling us about how you’ve evolved. Tell me about how you’ve developed and dealt with some of the frustrations of wanting to sound like something but not being able to deliver that.
It’s challenging. I’ve gotten better. The good thing about being in Raleigh versus being in New York is that I have my own personal space now. I don’t have to worry about someone hearing me through the wall. I feel more confident. And I’m working with these producers and I ask them, “Do you like it or no? Be honest.” It can be nerve-wracking. But my whole creative process has changed because I have my own little studio set up now. So before I go to a studio, I like to try these ideas first and then I listen to them back and bring them in… I’ve gotten better at singing. I would never consider myself a singer. I’m not Luther Vandross. But I have a sense of melody. I have a good sense of writing cool pop songs. So, I’m more focused on developing my own style. That’s my focus right now, and sometimes it can be frustrating. Sometimes you hear certain things and you’re like, “I didn’t hear it that way in my head!” But then your producer is like, “No, it’s on point.”
Listening to your new music, it inspires visions of a full-on dance party breaking out in the middle of the street. It just feels like summer fun. How do you visualize your music when recording?
I see those moments. When I record these songs I try to read reactions to see what it’ll feel like live. It’s hard to describe… I want to be able to create songs for that moment when you meet a girl or boy and you guys are just enjoying the moment for that one night. You don’t have to see each other again. But tonight is your moment to share on the dance floor. That’s the feeling, when you just want to go out and dance.
“TONIGHT IS YOUR MOMENT TO SHARE ON THE DANCE FLOOR.”
Generally there’s something very elemental about funk that makes everybody who hears it want to dance or at least step along to it. It’s almost a physical reaction. How would you define that quality in your own music?
Funk is a feeling. I just try to make stuff I like, stuff I know I’m going to want to sing and dance to and repeat. I want to be able to pull that up and play that joint on repeat and repeat and repeat. Funk is fun and it comes in different shapes and forms and sizes. My form of funk is just party. To be able to let go. So when people hear that baseline, they start dancing. They start feeling.