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Interview: Boulevards

16 February 2022

Photo by Alec Basse

When asked about who Jamil Rashad, better known as Boulevards, thanked in the credits on his New West Records debut, Electric Cowboy: Born in Carolina Mud, the son of a jazz radio DJ admits that, among a small list of others, he thanked himself.

“I have to believe in myself, that I can make these records,” Rashad says. With three albums indebted to retro sounding funk and R&B, Rashad believes that he’s finally found his true voice as an artist. “I always knew that if I had the right label and the right pieces, I could make a great fucking record. Not saying my records weren’t great in the past, it’s just that they were lacking something. I needed to make those records to get to this point.”

While Boulevards is a one-man project, Rashad pulled together a talented group of people (producers, musicians, background singers) to bring his dream to life and it’s evident in speaking with him how proud he is of the record.

To get a better understanding of how Rashad got to where he is today, I started the conversation by asking about his childhood and his earliest exposure to music.

You grew up around music. Is that something you were born into? Was it pre-ordained that you would be a musician?

JAMIL: I guess I had no choice, right? My mom, she’s into music but she wasn’t surrounded by music the way my father was. My father grew up in Philly, on the Philly Soul scene and, obviously, coming down to Raleigh, North Carolina, he taught Radio and Communications, him bringing records home and always playing records on the weekends. It’s something me and my sister were always surrounded by. And, him giving us free promotional CDs and records was something that was a plus about learning about different kinds of music. I didn’t have a choice, I was born into. My dad was more of a tastemaker/curator, he didn’t play music, he wasn’t a singer. He’s a radio host, a DJ. He had a good ear for radio music but also good music in general. He was always playing that type of soul, jazz, funk, World music in the house and putting me and my sister onto it, whether we liked it or not.

What era music did you grow up with? Was it older music your dad was introducing you to?

JAMIL: My dad was always putting me onto ’60s and ’70s soul music and funk music but I grew up in the ’90s. I grew up on MTV and all the video DJ-type stuff, Rap City on BET, ’90s hip-hop and ’90s R&B, all the pop stuff. That’s the stuff I was growing up on but as I got older, I was listening to the older stuff. The stuff I was buying … the first CD my dad took me to buy was the Nas album, I Am. I was big into hip-hop, listening to The Fugees, Camp Lo, 2Pac, The Pharcyde and all that ’90s rap stuff. A lot of that is built around soul samples and funk samples.

I heard somebody say that for the bands in the ’60s and ’70s, they didn’t have as much recorded history to use as influences for their music. Current artists have 60 or 70 years of music to pull from. Whatever is on the charts today has a wider variety of influences just because there’s so much more music to use as reference and inspiration.

JAMIL: I think the difference is, and I can only speak for myself, but back in the ’60s and ’70s, whether it’s the punk scene, the pop scene, the soul scene, those artists had peers, they had each other. They had the scenes within their neighborhoods or on the radio that they were competing with. Now, you have artists like myself, and other artists, whether it’s pop, whether it’s punk, whether it’s country, outlaw music, R&B and soul, a lot of the music that influences us is the past music. There’s no peers that I hear on the radio that really have an influence on my music. I can only write old school stuff, stuff that my dad introduced me to and the records that he gave me – Rick James, the Brothers Johnson, Sly Stone, Funkadelic, Parliament, The Delfonics. That was the stuff that my dad was putting me on and it’s something I took on myself and started digging. Now they call it e-digging because you have Spotify and Apple Music, you just have so many things you can go electronically e-digging but, obviously, going to the record stores and going crate digging, that’s where I would find a lot of stuff that really influenced me, those rare records. You had different punk bands and rock bands and metal bands or even soul bands that were under the radar because of the popular music. Those bands didn’t get too far because you had Prince, Rick James, you had Fleetwood Mac, you had AC/DC but you have all these other bands that were just as good but they weren’t making hit records. Their music is still good. There’s so much stuff out there that is so good, you’re like, “How did I miss this?” Some of it is because they had bad record deals or there were drugs within the band or conflicts. A lot of those rare records are what really inspired me.

Is Boulevards just you or is it a band?

JAMIL: It’s just me. I have guys that I hire to go on the road with and tour with and I hire producers I work with but Boulevards is solely encompassed around Jamil. It’s me, it’s my idea, it’s my vision. It was supposed to be a side project years ago but it ended up being the forefront. I just stuck with Boulevards and went with it.

You have a number of guests on the record. Are those people you knew that you pull up on your phone and you call or are those people that you dreamed of working with and shot off an email in hopes that they’d respond?

JAMIL: Let’s start with the producers, because I got Blake Rhein. He’s a producer and performer in Durand Jones and the Indications, a well-respected soul group. Those cats have been doing it for a minute and are very well respected. On the side, Blake works for the Numero Group. I wanted to work with someone who is a nerd like me, that likes rare records, that has a wide range of music they listen to but also can take Boulevards to the next level. I thought he would be the guy for that, he’d understand what I wanted to do musically and the influences I wanted to incorporate.

I got Colin Croom. Colin’s in the band Twin Peaks. Colin’s been a longtime Instagram friend but, also, I used to be on Captured Tracks and he knew some of the people that worked in that office. We just kept in contact, we’d chat every couple months about working together but never made it happen. Finally, since him and Blake live in Chicago, it was like, “Okay, let’s see what happens.” I wanted to work with guys who understood funk, that had a love for funk just as much as I did.

And then Adrian Quesada. He works with the Black Pumas and is a 5-time Grammy nominated dude. I like his older stuff than his Black Pumas stuff. Not saying his Black Pumas stuff is not good but I like the really lo-fi, funk, soul, World music. To me, that was more interesting. I wanted him to take that type of energy and put it on the record.

Blake, being in Durand, or Adrian, they’re a little bit restricted to the sound. Now that those bands are so big, they’re basically feeling it in one sound now, what they are expected to be like. With Boulevards, I wanted to give them creative freedom, things they couldn’t do in those bands, they could do with me and express themselves and show what they can do as composers and producers. And, Colin, being in Twin Peaks, a well-respected underground indie band, I wanted him to bring his experience with his band and bring it to my record and express himself more. I kept reminding them, “This is a Boulevards records. It’s not a Blake record.” They kept that focus and, at the end of the day, it came out a wonderful record.

Moving on to Ashley Wilcoxson and Leisa Hans, I’m a fan of liner notes. I’ve been a fan of The Black Keys. When I was in college and hearing “Lonely Boy” on the radio, I thought these chicks were some black gospel singers. These are two white girls. I thought they had the perfect soulness, the perfect harmonies, and textures of background singing. It’s like listening to Parliament, Isaac Hayes, Brothers Johnson, and all of my favorite funk and soul records, they always had really great female vocals and I definitely thought that would bring the light of the record up a little bit more. I reached out to them on Instagram. I was expecting a “No”, to be honest with you, because they are so big and Grammy nominated and have awards. The Black Keys are a massive, massive rock band. When I reached out, I was like, “Hey, I’m on New West. I have this record. I know it’s a pandemic, I don’t know what you have going on, are you still making music?” But I told them that I found them in the liner notes and I’ve always been a fan of the records. I love listening to The Black Keys records just to hear their background vocals. I was like, “Do you want to be part of a great record?” And they got back to me! They were like, “Fuck yeah, let’s do it.” I told Blake and Blake was down with it. The label was excited. I wasn’t expecting a “Yes”. To me, they really brought the pieces together. I’m very thankful for those cats.

Working with Nikki Lane, she’s on the label. She has a very soulful, country voice, something’s that very different from normal artists out there today. She’s in her own world, in her own lane when it comes to that type of style of singing. I wanted something that wasn’t like your normal, soulful singing. I wanted something that was different. It reminded me of Alison Mosshart of The Kills. That’s the kind of vibe I wanted. I love The Kills and Dead Weather.

Then we got Macie Stewart playing all the strings. She’s in the band OHMME which is a very dope indie band. She has a great ear and helped make everything very cinematic because I wanted this record to be cinematic. Isaac Hayes and Superfly and all the Blaxploitation movies, the music is all very cinematic and I wanted to incorporate that kind of mood and vibe to Electric Cowboy: Born in Carolina Mud and take people down to where I’m from. She definitely helped.

How did you hook up with New West Records?

JAMIL: I was introduced to George Fontaine through a friend, another person that had a label down in Athens. I just kept being persistent with him. I kept sending him my shit and I knew my shit was good (laughs). I kept sending him demos and was like, “Dude, listen to my shit.” He finally was like, “Let’s do it. Let’s make a record.” I knew it would happen, it was just a matter of time. He had to see that I was serious and a hard worker and I was someone who takes his craft seriously. This was during the pandemic, I wasn’t playing any shows, nothing like that, so he had to go solely off what I was creating with Blake. I think he understood the vision. He has his ear to the street, not like a lot of people at labels, and that helps.

The Electric Cowboy: Born in Carolina Mud cover is one that is unforgettable. It’s big and loud. It’s quite a statement.

JAMIL: It’s a vision I had. I worked with an artist named Benjamin Marra, he’s a comic book artist out of Canada. He’s done some things with Numero Group. He’s been nominated for a Grammy for artwork. I wanted to take a chance. I told the label, I wanted to put this album in the pool for a Grammy, whether it’s engineering or mixing or as an Alternative record or Progressive R&B record or for the artwork. That’s why I worked with these certain people. Ben is a talented dude and he’s so cool. I was a comic book nerd in my teens and my high school years. I’d always beg my dad to take me to the comic book shop in Raleigh. Or, I’d always go to Food Lion or the grocery store and buy comic cards. I was always into the X-Men, I would go to school and hustle and trade cards with other homies. I was going home and watching Batman and X-Men on Saturdays. I was knee deep in that. I wanted to take that love for comics that I had and put it with this Electric Cowboy vision. He was able to nail it.

When people look at the cover , I want them to say, “I want to listen to this.” A lot of people could put their face on the cover or just put some boring photo. I wanted to change it up and make it a beautiful piece of art that’s included with the music. I got the inspiration from, I’m not going to lie, Kanye. He had the teddy bear. That helped me with the vision I had for Electric Cowboy. I wanted this character, this cowboy, slaying his demons, going through these different trials and tribulations and have that be a theme through the records to come from Boulevards.

The idea behind “How Do Ya Feel” is great. “How do you feel? How are you doing?” has sort of become just a regular, every day greeting. It’s almost like saying, “Hello.” We never really know what’s going on in someone’s life but it’s easier to answer with “I’m good” than to share how you’re really feeling.

JAMIL: I wanted to bring that to light. There’s an element, when you hear the music, it’s a very groovy, uplifting and funky song. But, I wanted to shine a light on how I always hear people ask, “How ya doing?” and people say, “I’m good” and me just going beyond that and telling my story. “I sold my soul for a bottle of wine.” “My girl took my son.” I’m elaborating how I’m feeling or when I’d be at post office or the doctor’s office or grocery store and I’d hear these crazy stories where people are saying how they actually are feeling.

“Ain’t Right” is the song that really stood out to me.

JAMIL: You’re the first person that’s finally asked me about that song! I played it for a lot of close, close friends in the industry and some friends. It’s the dark horse on the record. When I hear that beat, I always envision you going out to a club or a lounge or a dance party, some hip shit in Palm Springs or LA or New York and some DJ is dropping that bass line in.

“Ain’t Right” is about going through my addiction. I was going through some dark times. In those times it was about being hungover, doing drugs, drinking lots of alcohol, being depressed in a room with all the blinds down and basically drowning in my sorrow and self pity. It’s talking to myself, saying, “This ain’t right. It ain’t right how I’m living but I’m still doing it.” I know it’s not right but I’m still doing it and that’s when that song came to light.

It’s funny how me and Blake and Colin wrote the song. When I first did the demo, it sounded nothing like how it came out. I’m very inspired by Funkadelic and those type of compositions with group vocals and the raw guitars. I’m a sucker for wah-wah and fuzz guitar and hard drums. We just wanted to have a hard banger of a dance track. Everybody that I’ve played the song for, they’ve said, “That song is angry, dude.” The bass line is cinematic. I’m glad people are saying that, that was the vision for this whole record. In a way, these songs are the soundtrack to my life and what I’ve been through in different moments.

Did you come up with the sequencing of the songs or was it a collective effort?

JAMIL: I’m a control freak and I did it all myself. I feel like the sequence works and tells the story the best. I feel like the flow of the record, the way I put them together, it makes sense to me. I wanted to end with “Problems” because it was one of my more Americana-type outlaw songs with steel pedal on it and a lot of strings. I wanted to end with that and it’s my favorite track on the record.

I wanted to make a record that, in my opinion, had no skips. It goes back to me listening to some of my favorite records like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and a lot of other Kanye records that just flow, like Outkast records that flow, like The War on Drugs records that flow, Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder records. The songs alway had something interesting where, the moment you might want to skip, you’re like, “Oh, wait. No. I want to keep listening.”

Electric Cowboy: Born in Carolina Mud is an experience. It’s a good listening experience. I listen to the record quite a bit. My friends probably get tired of me playing it but it’s one of those records that can be there with the other indie acts out there now. I hear the Khruangbins, the Gary Clark Jrs, the Curtis Hardings, the Durand Jones, even the Black Pumas of the world and I wanted to make a statement with this record like those bands do.

When I heard “Turn,” when we produced it, that guitar lick, I was like, “That’s what people are going to hear when they first put on the record.” I want people to hear that and think, “Oh shit” with the strings and the horns. That was the mood starter for letting people into my world. It’s like how you open up the door to someone’s house. “Hey, come on in, take your shoes off.”