Boulevards: Brother!

[New West Records; Dec. 18]

In a sense, Boulevards’ new EP, Brother!, began with a light reset.

It was late 2019, and Jamil Rashad was doing what musicians do: firing off a barrage of email demos out to labels and industry connections, working out his next career steps. A veteran of the rough-and-tumble 2010s American music underground, the Raleigh native had already achieved a degree of success as his longtime neo-funk alter ego, Boulevards.

Some in his position would rest on their former clout and allow their music career to fall off into history—or put out the occasional “back to basics” record every few years. But Rashad, a preternaturally ambitious guy and born performer, has always played the game harder than that.

Up until that point, his music has charted a path through the slick, nocturnal ambiance and jittery rhythms of classic electro-funk. Bold and brash and stridently pro-Black, his music was inextricably tied to the ostentatious fashion and car-rattling synthesized sounds of the ’70s, like Con Funk Shun, Rick James, Funkadelic, etc. His embodiment of that era was apparent to anyone who saw him light up a stage, and his aura screamed that he knew where the afterparty was—and was probably playing it.

“My father and his crew of people put me on clothing,” Rashad says. “Though I love denim—and I mean I love denim, I could sleep in denim if I wanted to—it wasn’t even about all this fashion shit at the beginning. Learning from the old head dudes, it was more about having confidence as a Black man. Feeling your identity in that.”

A number of collaborators in the wider indie-electro sphere have helped throw magic dust on his profile. On 2017’s Hurtown, USA, he collaborated with Alan Palomo from synth-funk revivalists Neon Indian on the track “Nu Burn Ave (Intercruise).” And just earlier this year, he dropped a burner called “Too Far” with “Bulletproof” synth-pop singer Elly Jackson, aka La Roux, whom he tells me he met through friends.

It might seem like a bit of subterfuge, then, that Rashad’s new EP, Brother!, is dropping December 18 via the label Normaltown Records, an imprint of the Americana/alternative country label New West Records. As Rashad tells it, the idea wasn’t to toss all his synths out the window and knee-jerk rewire his sound in a cynical way, but instead to move, slowly and organically, towards an earthier flavor, something rawer. The move was pre-ordained, perhaps, as Boulevards toured extensively last year with Orville Peck, the Canadian noise rock drummer turned country music sensation. As Rashad sees it, it was a natural evolution for what he calls his “Southern-fried punk-funk.”

“I’m really excited about [New West], because they provide what I want from a label: trust, growth, and evolution,” Rashad says. “I still rock with the synthesized funk stuff I was doing, but I just knew I had to come with music that showed progression. That I could tangle with the solo country acts right now, the crossover indie acts, and do it on my own terms.”

“Some bands have these giant industry machines behind them that you never see, making their decisions, and the last few years, a lot of my career investments have come out of literally just me building with people, investing money from my own pocket—whether from records, touring income, whatever. It’s good to be working with industry people I trust.”

Breezy and sun-kissed, “Luv n Pain,” the first single from Brother!, isn’t a total departure from the midnight cruise music of his earlier releases. The funk is still there, but the BPM’s are pared-back, landing somewhere between vintage ’70s pomp and the genre-hybrid, placement-friendly soul of recent indie stars like Khruangbin or Unknown Mortal Orchestra. As he explains it, the song is a classic tale of self-sabotage in relationships.

“In relationships, you can have that resentment, to the other person or even towards yourself, for giving them that power,” he says. “That person loves you—and can also drop you off the fucking wall.”

He credits his morphing sound to the production chops of Chicago-based soul production maestro Blake Rhein. Rhein is best known as the creative force behind the popular soul outfit Durand Jones & The Indicators, though he also works doing research for the esteemed reissue label Numero Group. Smitten with the band, Rashad connected with him over social media. Right around the time when they started cooking up music together, travel became impossible. So the pair started cobbling together tracks for Brother! through internet channels, becoming music geek buddies in the process.

“He’s the man,” Rashad says. “I love working with guys who are real nerds about their craft, who can put me on to crazy ’60s stoner motorcycle metal, Innovative Leisure reissues, all that. Blake is that person for me. He instantly got what I was trying to do.”

Though a lot of the material came together even before the groundswell of this summer’s BLM protests, Rashad’s status as a politically minded Black artist working in the predominately white frame of indie rock means that a lot of the themes on the record speak to his experiences. The very usage of the word “Brother” as the EP title is an intentional exclamation point on this. The song “Shook,” he says, is specifically about being afraid of police officers, whether in “Raleigh, New York, [or] L.A.”

“As a Black man, I have to calculate my every move when I leave the house,” Rashad says. “That’s something I needed to talk about and share.” 

He says he’s not looking to shout down people about his message though. “I didn’t want to do it in a preachy way,” he says. “I wanted to do it like Sly or Curtis Mayfield did, in a way that people of all colors could listen to and relate to.”

The partnership with New West certainly feels like a good fit for him—a situation less prone to the hype-driven business demands that had somewhat dictated his early career. Early in Boulevards’ rise, he had linked up with influential NYC indie emporium Captured Tracks, which was better known for scuzzy guitar acts like Mac Demarco and DIIV, for a 2015 self-titled EP and Groove!, a 2016 full-length. The label was trying to branch out and snapped him up, but common label marketing and interpersonal issues conspired against their partnership.

“The Captured Tracks thing didn’t work out, but it’s all love—those are my people,” Rashad says. “Some of it was writing issues, not agreeing on the way my projects were handled in that high- pressure environment. But shit, some of it was me! At the time, I was out partying a lot, wiling, because I was still so new in the indie music scene. I had to get my ego in check, and sometimes you need those humbling experiences.”

With no touring on the horizon for now, Rashad tells me he misses it with a passion. But as evidenced by the appearance of this EP, he also makes it clear that he is not going to sit on unreleased music for years in the interest of a hypothetical tour marketing push, the unfortunate wait-and-see game that many indie artists seem to be playing at the moment. He’s staying busy and sane in Raleigh, studiously plugging away on a full-length album, potentially for release next year.

“Making this music is exactly what’s keeping me happy,” he says.

Once, during a 2015 RBMA lecture, George Clinton was asked point-blank what “funk” means. 

“Funk,” Clinton said, “is anything you need it to be to save your life at the time.” 

This sounds about right for Boulevards who, amid shifting life and label circumstances, continues to put out a diverse, ever-evolving spread of tunes. The funk always comes with them.

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