Artist in Studio: Boulevards

Jamil Rashad finds his way home

by James Hatfield
photographs by Gus Samarco

When Jamil Rashad, who goes by the stage name Boulevards, showed up to play his set at CAM Raleigh for the 2015 Hopscotch music festival, he had no idea what to expect. But for Rashad, crowd numbers didn’t matter. “I try to play every show like it’s my last. Whether I’m playing for 20 people or 2,000 people, I try to keep the same energy.” There were over 300 people in the audience that night, and Rashad cites the show as the kick-start to his local fan base. “It had people talking about me as an artist and what (I) could bring to the table,” he says.

At that time, Rashad had recently signed to Captured Tracks, a Brooklyn-based music label with a current roster that includes indie rocker Mac Demarco, and an alumni list of indie-rock and groovy-punk musicians a la Beach Fossils, Tim Cohen, and the Blank Dogs. Three years later, the Raleigh native has returned home to release his latest album, Hurtown, USA. This sophomore release is Boulevards’s first label-independent foray, and it marks both a leap of faith and a homecoming. “I want to do something for Raleigh. This is where I’m from, this is where I was born and raised. This is where I learned to be a man. Everything I learned was from here, growing up on these city streets. I wanted to embrace where I was from more. I’ve always had a love for Raleigh, man.”

Picking a lane
Rashad, 33, grew up in Southeast Raleigh. From an early age, he gravitated toward creative pursuits. This was thanks in large part, he says, to the influence of both of his parents. His father is a former DJ at the 88.9 WSHA radio station, which broadcasts out of Shaw University and showcases R&B, soul, and jazz music to the Triangle, and his mother supported exploration. “I’ve known since I was four years old, when my mother gave me my first coloring book, that I was going to be an artist,” Rashad says. “I wanted to express myself, but I just didn’t know how I was going to express myself.”

Self-expression is serious business to Rashad. Changing any part of the music or its style to suit anyone else’s preference is a denial of self, he says, and he’s always known precisely which unique style is his. This make-no-deals mentality didn’t always pave an easy path. “I think it goes back to me in middle school and high school trying to be different,” he says. “Being an outcast. Never wanted to be doing what everyone else is doing.”

Rashad found an outlet for his outcast teenage sentiment in punk music in the late 1990s and early 2000s, while he was in high school, and he immersed himself in understanding the genre. Rashad says going to local concerts as a teenager was crucial to his musical self-discovery. “I was always really interested in the punk scene: the energy at the shows, the energy in the musicianship, the techniques of the shredding, the double pedals, the screaming, and all that stuff, I just really loved.”

When he went to UNC-Charlotte to study illustration, he joined several bands, but couldn’t find the right mix of energy, bold sound, and funk. One night at a bar in downtown Charlotte, a friend threw out an idea: Go solo. “I thought, maybe she’s right.”
This was the birth of Boulevards. Rashad says he wanted to make music that reflected himself, his way. But he wanted it to be about the music. Which is why he chose – but didn’t overthink – a stage name: Boulevards. “Exciting, down-to-earth, in-your-face. I wanted to make music like that,” Rashad says, “and I’m also a funky dude.”

After college he moved back to Raleigh to live with his parents. During this time he began working out exactly what kind of sound Boulevards was going to have. Rashad says he bought up as many albums as he could find: pop, funk, EDM, jazz, punk, and metal. He studied the music simply by listening; he noticed what struck a chord with him and what didn’t, regardless of genre.
He fine-tuned his approach and identified the techniques concordant with his identity. The collective exposure of different genres cross-pollinated to create bright synthesizer sounds floating over soft but focused anchoring beats. There are falsetto background vocals reminiscent of ’70s-era funk, and deep narration reminiscent of Barry White. The influence of the punk music Rashad watched and played is evident in Boulevards’s stage performance: There is no fatigue. Jamil Rashad, Boulevards, is a dynamic
performer, a true entertainer.

Afresh
The Rashad you see today is the best yet, new and improved. He’s at the beginning of a four-month tour with recording artist Rhye, and he’s scored brand partnerships with the likes of Wrangler. You might run into him in downtown Raleigh, wearing all-denim with sunglasses on, regardless of the weather, walking with a confident stride so graceful it seems like he might be gliding. It’s important to be conscious of how you appear to the public, Rashad says, but without losing sight of your art. “Just make sure you’re making dope music.”

Hurtown, USA was Boulevards’s own refocusing act. Years of partying, touring, and living in New York City had taken a toll on the funk-punk musician. For the music to continue, he needed to get sober. Rashad’s aha moment came during a visit home a year ago, when he ran into a familiar face at Devolve Moto. “I saw a close friend of mine … she had a certain light in her eye. She said she had been sober for three years.”

It was the push Rashad needed, and he says his music has ultimately benefitted from his struggle. “I didn’t like who I was becoming. I poured that into my music.” He remembered the way musicians like Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Rick James, and James Brown would “put heartbreak songs over these funky dance beats.” Hurtown, USA, the newest album, “is about reflecting on loss. It’s about being able to grow from those experiences … It wasn’t about playing the victim, it was about putting myself on (full) blast.” Boulevards performed in January at a packed Lincoln Theatre in downtown Raleigh. It was his first show completely sober. He’s relieved to report that performing is just as fun – if not more so. “It’s just a fresh start. Get all this bad energy away. Let’s move on.”

Solo frequency
2017 was a defining year for Rashad and for Boulevards, and it’s all reflected in Hurtown, USA. Rashad’s Raleigh friends and family encouraged him to finish the album, so it marks a homecoming; and Boulevards released the title independently, so it marks a career leap.

After the release of his album Groove! in April 2016, Rashad parted ways with label Captured Tracks, who signed him just before that legendary 2015 Hopscotch show at CAM. “We had a lot of creative differences. That happens in the music industry,” Rashad says. “Not on the same page, not on the same frequency. So, for me, I had to distance myself from that … I don’t want no one telling me how I should write.”

But amidst the partying and label independence, when recording Hurtown, USA later in 2016, Boulevards hit a lull. Rashad questioned self-releasing an album with a markedly different sound than what was on the circuit. Hurtown, USA emphasizes the synthesizer-heavy, bass-driven beats and features more in-depth lyricism than his initial EP and subsequent album. He still felt there was a missing piece.

So he packed his bags, left New York City, and moved back to Raleigh in October 2016. He came home, he says, to remember why he started making music in the first place. “Even when I moved to New York, I was a Southern man.” He never lost his love of Raleigh, he says, and so when he returned, he reconnected with small local producers and music enthusiasts who had supported him before his first Hopscotch festival. “You don’t have to be in New York or LA to make it anymore.” He reunited with his community, finished the album, and it dropped December 2017. A few months into the album’s release and about a year into returning home, Rashad says everything, finally, feels right. After all, this is about Boulevards. “It comes down to the music.”