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Crackling the pavement with Boulevards

by John Adamian

Raleigh-based funk auteur returns to Phuzz Phest on the heels of his full-length debut

Funk doesn’t shy away from the pleasures of the body. The pleasures of the body are perhaps funk’s main concern. We’re talking sex, pretty much. Or dancing as a prelude to or stand-in for sex. Regrets about the past, anxiety about the future, and soul-searching explorations of personal emotion aren’t entirely at home in a funk song. Jamil Rashad knows this. Rashad, 31, is a North Carolina-based artist who performs and records under the name Boulevards. He’ll be one of many seriously noteworthy acts performing at the Phuzz Phestival in Winston-Salem April 15 and 16, a weekend stuffed with an impressive and overwhelming lineup of exciting artists from around the region, the nation and the world.

Boulevards just released his fulllength debut, “Groove!” (A four-song e.p. came out last fall.) It’s strictly designed for the dancefloor and the bedroom. The music is sexy. It’s muscular and assertive, but it’s also bubbly and funny, aware of the comic game it’s playing. Boulevards makes 21st Century funk that signals back to some of the best dance music of the ’80s, conjuring Cameo, Prince, Rick James and Madonna. In terms of imaginary hybrids, Boulevards is a little like a collaboration between Destroyer and a creepiness-free R. Kelly. Chic, Shannon, Tom Tom Club and Trouble Funk are all points of comparison, for their ebullient good-time-centric jams, though Boulevards is entirely its own thing. It’s not slavishly retro, but Rashad knows his history. His father has worked at the radio station at Shaw University for decades, so Rashad got an earful of good music.

Rashad says he’s never really been into trends — both in terms of music and fashion. And not signing on for the latest look or the of-the-moment sound has made him stand out. “I realized growing up that sometimes fitting in is not always the best way,” says Rashad.

The grooves on “Groove!” are elastic, with bouncy slap-bass lines, hand claps, scrubbed-out trebly guitar riffs, rhythmic heavy breathing that serves as part backing vocal and part percussion, as well as lightning-strike synth squiggles. Rashad rolls out a range of vocal approaches. His exuberant falsetto shrieks can compete with Prince and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, folded in between suave rhythmic talk-singing and comic call-and-response exclamations that fill in the gaps around his own sung lines.

At different points on “Set the Tone,” the album’s rubbery opening track, Rashad lets loose with lines and exhortations like: “Your funk is stankin’,” “Let me see that booty get loose” and “We gonna crack the pavement up in here.”

The sex talk runs steadily through “Groove!” There’s morning sex, bathroom sex, after-the-club sex and all kinds of other variations. It’s not all strictly about getting it on though; there’s a lot of enthusiasm for the whole zeroto-60 of connecting with a partner.

A come-on should be smooth and sexy, but it should also have a dash of humor. A little levity goes a long way, but clowning is probably to be avoided. Boulevards gets the ratio right. “Some of those great funk records were really funny. It wasn’t in a corny way. It was just funny,” he says. “Even people like Andre 3000 and Big Boi, they were very funny. I definitely try to think about that.”

“Up On Your Love” brings to mind the weird and fizzy funk of “Midnite Vultures”-era Beck. “Only a fool would give up on your love/I can’t wait to get up on your love,” sings Boulevards. He draws the word “love” out, pronouncing it something like “luuhhhh.” It’s lascivious and almost ludicrous.

“I wanna make music that’s fun and not so uptight,” says Rashad. “Especially with everything that’s going on in the world, I feel like people just want to dance.”

Rashad takes his role as an entertainer seriously. He’s ready to work to help people cut loose with his grooves.

“If somebody’s going to take some time out of their day to come see me, my job is to make the experience the best possible,” he says.

Rashad went to college in Charlotte, studying art and photography. He’s a fan of old films and black-and-white photos. His visual style is clean, crisp and classic, but with a hint of carefully curated ’80s flair, part James Dean, part Arsenio Hall. While off at school, Rashad got into the hardcore, metal and emo scenes in Charlotte. He was drawn to the precision of some of the music.

“I was so intrigued by the energy of the shows, and the technicality of the music,” he says. “Something fascinated me about that scene that I just fell in love with.”

Rashad played in some short-lived punk bands. He bounced back and forth between New York City and North Carolina for a bit. Boulevards performed at South By Southwest in Austin, Texas, earlier in the spring, prior to the album release. And Rashad, who for now performs with only a DJ, has taken Boulevards to Los Angeles.

“I was able to test the songs before the record even came out,” he says. “People were definitely digging it.”

He’s gearing up for more tour dates following his return to Phuzz Phest.

When asked if his sound has much to do with where he grew up and where he lives, Rashad said he thought it did.

“Oh, yeah, I’m a southern boy,” he said. !

WANNA go?

Boulevards plays The Garage, 110 W. 7th St, Winston-Salem, April 16, at 11:45 p.m. as a part of Phuzz Phest. For a look at the full schedule and for more information on the festival go to phuzzphest.com.

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