Twenty-five years into their genre-defying electronic music career, Thievery Corpora-tion’s founding principles of D.I.Y. and inclusion have become key themes in main-stream social conversation. After a dozen highly acclaimed full-length albums, remix LPs, concert recordings, and over two decades of incendiary live performances that have thrilled audiences worldwide, Thievery Corporation’s music and message is more relevant and important now than ever.
Independence is one of the primary factors in why Thievery Corporation have had such a long and fruitful lifespan. While co-founders Rob Garza and Eric Hilton bonded over their mutual love of Brazilian music in Washington DC in 1995, it was the local punk scene that became their North Star. Hilton says: “Ian MacKaye is a real hero of ours, his DIY philosophy. We modeled ESL Music after Dischord Records, how we ran our label and did recording contracts.” Garza concurs: “Being independent enabled us to be here for 25 years. Never having a boss or needing someone’s approval, we’ve always said what we needed to say with no filter.”
That lack of filter enabled Garza and Hilton to mine their musical inspirations and create one of the most unique bodies of work in electronic music, respectfully incorporating tastes of international cultural styles, without ever falling into the trap of cultural appro- priation. “We always wondered: with so much incredible music in the world, why would anyone limit themselves to one genre? Well, we found out – it’s far easier to stay in one lane than to genre hop!” laughs Hilton. Garza elaborates: “When we started, we were influenced by music from all over the world, flipping through bins in second hand record stores for LP’s from Brazil, India, Iran, Jamaica, jazz records…..we wanted to make music where you didn’t know whether it was recorded today or a decade ago.” Thievery Corporation’s music has always looked toward the future while paying homage to the past, starting with their groundbreaking debut LP, 1996’s “Sounds From The Thievery Hi-Fi,” which both introduced the world to Garza and Hilton as producers and set their course as pioneers of song-based electronic music with wildly diverse vocalists.
The band’s legendary D.C. headquarters, the Eighteenth Street Lounge, became an epicenter for a diverse group of people and staff from all over the world, which in turn had a profound influence on their musical output. “D.C. was very cosmopolitan, lots of places to see international live music and jazz,” says Garza. “We’d run into people from all over the world and invite them to play with us – so Thievery became an extension of that, both on our records and in our live performances.” Indeed, Hilton and Garza’s “Outernational” approach created a world reflected by the artist’s ideals of diversity and acceptance. “25 years after we started, it seems like the world is catching up,” Garza opines. “Social consciousness is more mainstream, awareness of the importance of inclusivity…it’s so encouraging to see so many people working towards these goals in America.” Hilton agrees. “Thievery is a reflection of who we are, it evolved from our musical tastes. Artists who were for the people, like The Clash, Fela Kuti, Manu Chao were so important to us, and engaging in social ideas has always been a part of what we’ve tried to do.” People don’t refer to Thievery Corporation as “World Music,” but it’s safe to say that their music and ethos is global in its scope and ahead of its time at every turn.
In a live setting, Thievery Corporation avoids any electronic dance music tropes. Yes, you’ll dance, sweat and put your hands in the air….but their concerts are true perfortures. No two shows feel the same. “Our shows are VERY live, lots of energy, the combination of multiple instruments and singers that take you on a musical journey,” says Garza. “We have a sitar player, songs are in different languages – it’s a multicultural experience, people connect to the band and to each other, it’s beautiful.” With a world cautiously beginning to emerge from isolation and towards communal events, Garza is eager to return Thievery Corporation to live performance. !I feel like people have been waiting to celebrate together after being forced apart for too long. We’re all craving that.”
Eric Hilton’s presence at Thievery gigs, however, has become an increasingly rare event. “I never really embraced touring; some of the world tours were interesting, seeing new places and cultures,” he says. “For me, touring was tourism. The creative process of making music is more my thing.” And Thievery Corporation have brought the sounds of the world to listeners throughout each of their albums. “There are so many highlights for me. 2014’s Saudade is my favorite record that we’ve done, a real creative stretch for us. Quiet music is hard to make! Symphonik also. To hear our music done with an orchestra was incredible.” Hilton concedes that over time live performance influenced the studio records. “After Cosmic Game (2011), we orchestrated jam sessions and built the records from those. For Temple of I and I (2014), we went to Jamaica to jam and rec-ord, which gave that record a different feel and authenticity.”
Looking back over their career, Rob Garza and Eric Hilton acknowledge that what drives each of them may be different, but the mashup of personalities, sounds, cultures and experiences birthed something wholly unique. “We love all kinds of music, which is why Thievery Corporation sounds the way it does,” the founding partners agree. “We couldn’t possibly incorporate all our tastes into the music, but we do it more than most.” By not following trends or the whims of major labels, and embracing the cultural diversi-ties that make the world such a wondrous place, Thievery Corporation has created a legacy that runs deep and continues to expand.
“Over 25 years, we’ve left nothing undone. We far exceeded what we thought we would do,” Hilton and Garza agree. And Thievery Corporation’s music will continue on to reverberate and influence the next generation of listeners with an ear toward a global mu-sical experience.
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