Jamil Rashad walks into Capital Club 16 and slides directly onto a seat at the bar.
It's lunchtime on a Thursday, but he's impeccably dressed—mirrored sunglasses, denim jacket, a button-down shirt tucked into straight-leg jeans lifted from the early '80s. Rashad asks for his usual, and the bartender knows he means a portobello-and-avocado sandwich. Not having to ask seems consistent with Rashad's entire aesthetic. Like James Dean re-created in the image of a B-boy, he exudes effortless cool with every move and every new song he makes under the name Boulevards.
Many streams converge during this restaurant's lunchtime rush: Business and lawyer types in pricy suits trickle in and seek tables. Bright-eyed, bearded dads corral kids. Assorted folks in casual outfits straggle in for lunch, coffee or the hair of the dog.
But only two streams converge in Rashad: As Boulevards, he's a purveyor of infectious, visceral funk. Despite only a handful of shows and singles, Boulevards now has a promising future. The hip New York label Captured Tracks has signed Boulevards and is releasing his debut LP next year, following a short-but-satisfying EP that came out this fall. Boulevards is a featured artist at SXSW 2016, too. And on the fashion side, Rashad cultivates a very specific look—a sort of street-funk guise meant to perfectly match his sound. It is very intentional. For his ecstatic Hopscotch set in September, Rashad collaborated with local menswear boutique Lumina Clothing, which designed a stunning matched teal suit and baseball cap. Think Miami Vice for the selfie generation.
Boulevards sounds good and looks good doing it. Whether collaborating with local designers for high-profile shows or seeking cool digs at consignment shops, Rashad represents a welcome, rare junction of local music and fashion. So today, he's taking me to Father and Son, the multi-level downtown Raleigh vintage institution.
"When I buy clothes, my mentality is, it's going to last me 10–20 years," he says as we step out of Capital Club and start to stroll up Salisbury Street. "A good jacket, a good pair of jeans, a good pair of white shoes or wing tips, a good, nice pink-button down: I won't have to buy another pink button-down for another 10–15 years, unless it rips."
Several people turn their heads as we walk. It's the early afternoon, after all, and Rashad looks like he just fronted the opening act at a 1983 Lionel Richie concert. He doesn't seem to notice the attention. It's a flashy outfit, but it's his everyday look.
Boulevards, like Rashad's clothing, is heavy on throwback style—squirrelly '80s synth, heavy walking bass lines, eminently danceable backbeats. Again, a sense of permanence matters.
"When I write new music, I want to be able to write music that's gonna last," he explains. "I want to write music people can connect with and can have this nostalgic feeling about. You have bands like S.O.S. or Earth, Wind & Fire or Rick James or Prince, and they were the cutting edge of music. But at the same time, you hear it 20 years later, and it still sounds fresh."
I ask him if those are the same people who come to mind when he envisions what will always be fresh to him, his inspirations.
"Oh yeah," he answers. "Even James Brown's 'Get on Up.' That song was made in 1960-something, but it's genius. His screams..."
"They're insistent," I say. Rashad sings bits of Brown's "Sex Machine" to himself and smiles. Funk seems a source of great soul joy for the guy.
"Yeah! Music like that inspires me to make what I want to create now," he says. "Funk music is something that has been very untouched. You have trap music. You have folk music. You have indie music. You have rap. You have alternative. You have electronic. You have EDM. But nobody wants to touch the funk. Nobody even wants to try to touch the funk. Back in the day, you had so many funk artists."
"Do we have the Chili Peppers to blame for that?" I wonder aloud, backpedaling as soon as I say it. "I say this as a fan, but did people think it was corny after them?"
"I don't know, because Incubus, they had some elements of funk, too," Rashad answers without hesitation. "They're not saying it's funk music, but it has funk sensibilities. They had a lot of it under their music, which I thought was very cool. Nobody is saying, 'I'm a funk artist.'"
He bounds through a list of musicians who have incorporated funk into their music, noting that they paved the way for his emergence but didn't take it as far as he wants.
"For me, that's the goal for Boulevards—funk music, but also crossing over," he continues. "Earth, Wind & Fire crossed over. Prince crossed over. James Brown crossed over. Rick James—all those artists crossed over. You can still make really cool, original funk music that's cutting edge, but you can make it to a point where it's really accessible and everybody still digs it."
Kids, teenagers, his own 60-year-old mother, Rashad says, can connect to funk's high-velocity grooves. He stops to feed the parking meter. Otherwise, we'd be in a hurry at Father and Son, and hurried just isn't how Rashad operates.
"Do you think it's funk's moment again?" I ask, as much to myself as to him.
"It's hard to say, because you don't have enough people trying to do it," he says. "People want to move. People want to dance. Maybe funk music is that lost art, the original kind of dance music. Back in the day, you had those artists that made you dance. They had those hooks and those infectious bass lines and that syncopation on the guitar. They had call-and-response. I can't say if it's coming back, but it's slowly starting to become relevant again. Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars have that 'Uptown Funk' song."
As we cross the street, we're singing bits of the radio hit back and forth, smiling all the while.
"To me, that's a Time song, if you think about Morris Day and the Time," Rashad continues, revealing his funk credentials. "If you think of the production, that's what it reminds me of. I'm not a hater on the track; I think it's a great pop song."
The thing is, Rashad explains, Ronson is not a funk artist. He's a pop songwriter. Funk is Rashad's passion; he'd rather do the opposite and write funk that crosses over into pop, not push pop into funk for a facile hook.
Inside Father and Son, Rashad is in his element. He takes a whirlwind tour through the clothing racks, noting a denim coat lined with a Southwestern pattern as something he might come back to get. He zeroes in on the records, sorting them and muttering artist names as he passes. He pauses at Earth, Wind & Fire's Spirit. "It's a great record," he exclaims.
"Here we go," I say, holding up a War record.
"'Why can't we be friends/why can't we be friends?'" Rashad sings, flipping on. His next pause: a 1987 World Class Wreckin' Cru compilation. "Isn't that Dr. Dre? That has to be young Dr. Dre!"
"This outfit is shiny," I say, pausing at a pretty glitzy LP cover, too hypnotized by the getup to notice the artist's name. He starts telling me about his outfit at Hopscotch, the hat and the designers at Lumina.
"Local guys, young guys, coming-up designers. I respect what they do," Rashad says. "We worked hand in hand. They understand the music, my style."
Both, he continues, are meant to last, the same as the music in the air of the Rashad household when he was young. As he scans the records at Father and Son, he rattles off artists he grew up on: Miles Davis and Wynton Marsalis; Sting and Hall & Oates; Marvin Gaye and Al Green; Bobby McFerrin and Prince.
"Back then, you don't really understand it, because you're a kid. Back then, you want to be a cool rock star or a cool rap star," Rashad says. "When you're older, you understand the genius behind the production and songwriting. I try to study it as much as possible."
Then, just as it seems he's about to wax philosophical, he excitedly stops at the Doobie Brothers' Minute by Minute. He holds it like a precious gem or a prized vintage coat.
"Actually," he says, "I might get this record."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Boogie wonderland"