Photo: Tony Bee
Brandon Lucas Talks Staying Hopeful, Working With Dr. Cornel West & Empowering Dance Producers Of Color
One might not expect activist/author/scholar Dr. Cornel West to put out house music bangers, but thanks to singer/producer Brandon Lucas, this is one gift the craziness of 2020 has brought us. For the debut release on Lucas' Purple Label Sound imprint, "Got That Hope" features a much-needed inspirational sermon from West set to a pulsing, energetic house bass line and echoed by Lucas' enchanting vocals.
It's the debut dance track from the Inglewood-born artist, who got his start singing in his local gospel choir and later in an R&B group. He first worked with West around 2008, helping him bring his powerful words online and into the digital space. They will be releasing more music together next year, as part of their shared vision to honor dance music's Black roots. This is also the mission of Purple Label Sound, to uplift fellow up-and-coming house music producers of color and bring in more a diverse audience with it.
"You can't talk about the great funk tradition without talking about house, techno music, all different kind of bodies—straight, queer, trans, all connected through the depths of their humanity and allowing what is inside of their souls to overflow. That is what the rave is all about. That is what the groove is all about," West said in a press release for the song.
GRAMMY.com chatted with Lucas right before he delivered a killer debut [virtual] festival set for Rave The Vote, a star-studded voter engagement concert series aimed at mobilizing the dance music community. He shared nuggets of wisdom from West, his vision for the label, the music that moves him and more.
So, you recently released your debut single, "Got That Hope," with none other than Dr. Cornel West. Amazing! What is the message and feeling that you hope listeners get when they hear it?
Music, I think, is a medium that crosses cultures and languages and color lines and political stances, and it brings people together. This song is a message of hope. And during this unprecedented time of literal craziness, it's something to get people moving and grooving and all that beautiful stuff, because you have to find the joy in your struggle to even get through it. So that's what this song is about, but also giving people that stimulus like "Hey, there can be some hope," and getting them to move into that mode.
Whatever you went through during this pandemic, whether it's been good or bad, whether you're affected by the political climate and the racial strife, I think that everyone is exhausted right now. Dr. West always says, "I'm not an optimist, but I'm a prisoner of hope." It's basically saying "Hey, I don't see anything that's going great right now, but I'm going to stay hopeful because that's the only thing that's going to sustain us."
I love that. It's real.
Right? I'm telling you, it's real. And by the way, not to talk too much and not get to your questions, but I created this music at the top of the pandemic, around March. And I was talking to Dr. West yesterday, he reminded me, he was like, "Brother, you remember when you told me you were with your friends in the desert?" And this is when it was hot on the streets, on Fairfax and Beverly where I live, it was going down. And my friends who were semi-public figures, they were like, "Brandon, there's protests." And I couldn't even go home because there was a curfew, but I just felt convicted being in the middle of the desert with my White friends just chilling, while they were not thinking about it.
Fast forward to a couple days after, I wrote him a letter about it, I told him what was going on, everyone was so amazing, this awakening I think has been so powerful for many people across political lines and racial lines. I think that this song of hope brings everyone together in that mindset, because we are so divisive, we need something that pushes us together.
Can you tell me more about Dr. Cornel West's lines in it?
He says, "Still got that hope in you, but you don't talk about the hope, you enact the hope. And it's in your music, that is the blues, a narrative of a catastrophe lyrically expressed but doesn't allow the catastrophe to have the last word."
Okay, so I started working with Dr. West back in 2008, 2007, something like that. And this is when he first came out with his book Hope on a Tightrope. Hope has been a part of his messaging for a long time. Right now, in the news he talks about how he feels that Biden is a neo-liberal disaster, and Trump is a neo-fascist catastrophe. This is Dr. West. He does not hold back how he feels, and he's going to tell it like it is no matter who it is, you know?
But to that point, we can't let catastrophe have the last word. You're going to go through things. Bringing it back to house music, house comes from that black music tradition where these people from cast-out communities would come to warehouses to party all night and to let that funk out, right? These are your Black, brown, and a lot of queer communities coming together, and the roots of the Black tradition is letting that suffering speak through your music. And we've seen that throughout history. With my music and with this label that we're launching, Purple Label Sound, we hope to bring that back in a meaningful way for house music, in a way that makes sense and that's been in the Black tradition for years.
I would say the Black tradition is the American tradition. It's very American. So it's not really a racial thing, it's really about bringing us back to the roots of who we are with this music, and adding that extra culture to it.
I want to talk more about dance music's roots. As you said, it was created by Black, brown, and queer people—and that's not necessarily reflected in the overall space currently. How do you believe that the dance community as a whole can better celebrate, honor and return to its roots?
In the same way I think a lot of industries should. But, to that point, I feel that the dance community is one of the most inclusive communities that I know. I've been doing music and been in the entertainment world for years. I'm from L.A., from Inglewood, so I've been in it. I grew up in the gospel church, and in the R&B world. I was signed to an R&B group back in the day, I did that whole boy band thing.
But when I found house music, around 2010 or so, I found these communities to be so inclusive and so welcoming, the people all the time that you meet in it. It's a beautiful thing. So, to that point, I think that the dance community is in a unique position to do it, but it takes stepping outside of your comfort zone. It takes doing that work to go outside of just who your friends are. A lot of times, your friends don't look like you just because of where you live and who you're about, you know?
And there are a lot of amazing Black Americans or Europeans from the African diaspora who have been killing it for years in the dance industry, like Jamie Jones, Seth Troxler, and the other giants. They get the recognition. Because they've been in it, those of us who are also in it now are a little bit more digestible to people. I think, just like a lot of communities, that unconscious bias runs through, that people don't think about. People who are good people, who are not racist, just go for who makes you feel comfortable, who are your friends. And that's it.
So, with this label, we're going to be a little bit more intentional about—and it's not exclusively Black and brown artists, by the way, but it's what we're focusing on—marketing our artists in a way that I know that these artists of color should be marketed. It can't be cookie cutter. We're going to do it in the traditions of the Bad Boys, the No Limits and the Cash Moneys—the way dance music is marketed today is not the only way.
I honestly feel that most Black people today, when they think of EDM or deep house or house music, they just think "oh, that's techno." A lot of them don't have any clue that it came from us. That's because what gets put on a pedestal, what gets pushed out there to the mainstream, is not what sparks their ears. And by the way, urban music, Black music, the biggest market [today] for that music is White people. So it's not like if we push more of an urban voice in the dance community that it's not for everybody—it's going to be for everybody. It's just making it more accessible to ears who are more used to a more urban thing. That's it.
This has me thinking of a really great conversation I had with Aluna recently—I love her and I'm super inspired by what she's doing now as a solo artist.
She talked about how she, as a Black woman, felt like an outsider in the dance world even though she was part of a duo putting out big dance hits. Once she learned who first created dance music, she realized it's the way things are being marketed and who's being pushed to the top, and she wanted to change it. And she talked about seeing one or two Black girls dancing in the front at their shows, so she was asked "Where are the other Black girls and what can I do to make this feel more inclusive?"
Well, to that point, I know a lot of girls who love techno, and a big handful of them are Black. But it's not a lot of our faces in those scenes, and I've been in the dance community, going to a lot of shows in the underground and music festivals, so I've been around the scene for a long time.
She's right. I've been in worlds where, when you're Black, you're the only face there. But I think it's really a mindset thing. And, from the start, I understood that there was some connection that I felt. When I first heard house and techno songs, like from Kaskade and Above & Beyond, and Avicii, all of those back in early 2010, Eric Prydz—I felt a connection to it. I was like "Whoa, that chord is kind of like a church chord. Oh wait, I know this song, we used to sing that at church." Or "Oh, this is like an R&B track."
At first, I was excited because I loved the music and the musicality. And even with artists like Skrillex, [where some] people were like, "Oh, this noise," I understood what he was doing musically. I understood the chords. It was crazy sounds but I understood it as an artist and as someone who's been in gospel and R&B forever. For a lot of my friends in that space it was new to their ears, but knew when it was a remake of an old classic song that my mom used to play. I knew Black people would love this music if they were exposed to it the right way.
And I think you're right, what gets elevated a lot of times, is non-urban music. When people think dance music, techno music, house music, you don't think urban music. But it's not either/or. There can be urban music that is deep house, that's tech house. But to be honest, I think that a lot of the Black artists that get pushed to the forefront are people who've been doing it forever. The legends, who should be respected, and who we should be pushed forward and lauded. But what about the new cats? Everyone that people talk about, they're in their fifties. We love them, and they're amazing, but who's got next?
And I am talking to Black and brown artists in the space, who are excited about what we're doing [at Purple Label Sound]. The A&Rs, they just don't get it, they just don't get me. They think it's too urban. What's "too urban?" House music is urban, technically, it started off that way. Since then, there's been amazing contributions worldwide, including from the European scene, in Italy, in Sweden. At the root of it, I think if you elevate the right music in the right way, I think it can cross everybody. You know what happened was, and I always say this, I think Beychella made a big impact on house music.
I had a lot of my Black friends who went to Coachella for the first time [in 2018]. They'd been hearing about Coachella, for a while, but when Beyoncé was headlining, it was like, "We're going to Coachella." When they finally went, I had so many friends like, "I'm going back. Oh my gosh, EDM. Wow, this is amazing. Now I get it." Now they feel the music and the culture, and they're starting to understand it, because of Beyoncé.
I want to talk a bit more about Purple Label Sound, because "Got That Hope" is also the debut release from it. What's your hope and vision for the label?
Purple Label Sound came about before even my foray as an electronic artist. I created a few songs, I started creating them during the pandemic. I had time for myself with the self-isolation. And really, it was like, "Wow, what am I about? What do I want to do?" And then the racial strife started to happen, and I created a song with Dr. West. But even then, I didn't understand what I wanted to do as an artist. Of course I was going to release some music, but my focus has always been to elevate other people's point of views, and to take other people to the next level.
I've been working with talent on the music end, on the influencer end and on the actor end for years. My day-to-day, what I do best, is to take people's voices and take them to the next level, and then to great careers. That's what I want to do with this label, is to elevate careers and use my resources and my expertise as an artist, and as an entertainment executive, to help these voices be elevated and marketed the right way to support their ventures. And then I realized I should be putting myself out there too. And the music just kind of ballooned into something where, I was like "I guess I should be doing this as well."
It got to the heart of it. I kept having a lot of people come to me and talk about loneliness. I'm one of those strong friends, where friends talk to me a lot. And it was a reoccurring theme of loneliness and "what am I about?" The music that we're initially putting out is what we call deep gospel. We want to inspire people. That's how came about.
My next release, "Is My Living in Vain," is coming up soon and we're dedicating it to a comrade, a brother of mine, a friend who took his life during this pandemic. He came up with us in the industry, he was an A&R executive. I think you guys have a charity in his memorandum actually, the Quinn Coleman Fund.
I really want to make sure that during this time of pandemic, house music still has a place. It's about joy, about dancing, and about partying, but you have to do that to get through the darkness, right? And so, that's why we're talking about hope, we're going to be talking about loneliness, talking about being introspective, and having music that can move us and get through this.
Yes, Purple Label Sound is about elevating these underrepresented voices, but really it was a call to action for myself—and to the world at large—to take everything that I've done in my life and bring that together to create this label to make an impact on the music industry.
What's one of the biggest things you've learned from working with Dr. Cornel West over the years? I'm sure that's hard.
Yeah, there's so many nuggets. At one point I was inundated with his message so much, it's like I have his talking points in me. He stays on message. He's been saying "last year is the same thing as this year, same thing as two years ago." But I think the biggest thing [I learned] is leadership through service, and using your success and everything you have to generously elevate other people around you. That's the only way you become great. Greatness comes from using, as he says, "the magnanimity of your success." I think that's the biggest one, but there's another big one that's helped me throughout my career, my life, my friendships, and just getting through everything. It's, again, leading through love and service. Being a leader, and leading with your heart, with love and with service.
And one more, I really love how he has a good balance of telling it like it is and being a freedom fighter. He's also amazing at having really thoughtful and curious intellectual discussions with people who he may not agree with. To be honest, the only times you ever see him being in a heated debate is when the other person is disrespecting him. He always says something like, "I'm a gangster, but I'm coming by the blood of Jesus." I really respect how he's always been able to balance having engaging conversations with people across the political spectrum that don't agree with him. There's a mutual respect, and you can intellectualize and hold to your convictions and disagree with someone and hold them accountable and still love and respect them.
That's the hard work.
Yeah. Usually when you hold people accountable, you do it out of love. If you don't care, you won't say nothing.
That's real. What kind of music did you grow up listening to?
So early on, it was a lot of, obviously, gospel. I grew up with Kirk Franklin and the Clark Sisters. The song I have coming out, "Is My Living in Vain," is a deep house cover of the Clark Sisters, who just had a Lifetime biopic come out about then, amazing. J. Moss, Fred Hammond and all those guys, and Yolanda Adams. But also, of course, Michael Jackson and Prince. My three titans going into high school were Missy [Elliott], Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill. And I would say also the neo-soul vibe of Erykah, D'Angelo, Musiq Soulchild. Those are the people who I've studied.
Donny Hathaway, Kim Burrell. You know, R&B, soul and gospel. And of course, I'm a West Coast dude, I'm from Inglewood, so, I love, love Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and DJ Quik and Suga Free. I'm a West Coast hip-hop guy, for sure. I love Biggie, love all of the people on the East Coast, Wu-Tang and all them. All those are great, but I am West Coast, I love it.
And what was sort of the point when you first got into house music, or first were curious about it and sort of dove into that scene?
Well, I've always been into four to the floor songs. Anytime when Justin Timberlake came out with his stuff with Timbaland, like "SexyBack." When Britney [Spears] came out with "I'm A Slave 4 U," and Madonna came out with her songs. I was always into drive-y songs, the disco songs.
But I really understood what it was when I started to hear it in college, when Afrojack had a song playing at the time. I was in the music industry program at USC, and a lot of my friends were into house music. I was exposed to really good stuff, really quick and dove deep into it. So that's how I got into it, by my friends around me in college. I started going to raves, and I really started really listening to the music. My roommate would just give me playlists, and I dove right into it immediately in like 2010, as soon as I got a whiff of it. My first rave was HARD Haunted Mansion or some shit. [Laughs.]
What's your biggest hope for 2021?
I hope that our nation can heal. And I hope that we can party again, man. [Laughs.] I want to travel! I want to go back to Mykonos. I want to go to Tulum, and Croatia, and Ibiza. Shit, I want to go to Miami and New York! I want to travel the world again, and I hope that we can heal as a nation, and as a world. That's my biggest hope, that we can heal, and that people have done the work that this pandemic, and this unique time in history has given us the opportunity to do.
It's really unique, and I'm so blessed to have—I saw that early on in my team. Me and my best friend, Marquees Ezekiel, we were at his house, working from home. He had just built an at-home gym, because we couldn't work out anywhere and had to work out. And the idea of this label just came about. It was like, "Let's go." It's so amazing how God moves, and how that inkling of idea, three, four months ago became this. But it's not overnight. I've been doing this music thing for years. I've been in the industry for years, and it's beautiful, it's crazy how the universe guides us, places everything in the right mode, to set it up the right way to be here and to talk to you.