El Michels Affair. Credit: Yesenia Ruiz

El Michels Affair can be found at the intersection of hip hop and soul, as the group’s tracks combine the most attractive aspects of both genres into one cohesive, groove-filled sound.

If tracks of the band’s original music like “Villa” and “Ala Vida” aren’t enough funky, head-bobbing, hip-hop goodness for you, check out Enter the 37th Chamber and Return to the 37th Chamber—two fantastic albums with faithful renditions of some of the best beats by the Wu-Tang Clan and its members. (You’ve really got to hear El Michels Affair’s take on “C.R.E.A.M.”)

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You can catch El Michels Affair at Coachella on Sunday, April 16 and 23.

Leon Michels is at the helm of the group. Apart from this project, he has spent time in other soul/funk projects like Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Menahan Street Band and the Arcs, a side project of Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach—with which Michels performed at Coachella in 2016.

“(Coachella 2016) was kind of halfway through our Arcs run, so we were pretty tight at that point, so that was great,” Michels said during a recent phone interview. “We had the addition of Joe Walsh and Glenn Schwartz, and that was totally insane. No one knew what was going on, so it was a combination of, like, really fun and incredibly awkward. We were all super-stoked on the show.”

Michels views Coachella as a huge achievement—but he admitted to some nerves, seeing as there really is no such thing as a El Michels Affair live band.

“To be totally honest with you, I’m incredibly nervous about it, because we’ve just never played a show,” Michels said. “The first Sunday, outside of a couple of rehearsals, is going to be the first time we play this music to each other and to an audience. It’s an incredibly prestigious festival, and I have no idea what it’s going to sound like.”

While Michels has played live for a number of different projects, he said it’s different playing live at the helm of a band.

“My last name is in the band, so it definitely has more weight for me than, say, playing with the Dap-Kings or even playing with the Arcs,” Michels said. “Dan Auerbach was the lead singer of that band, and he alleviated a lot of the pressure off the other guys, because he’s front and center. I think there’s more pressure on me to make it a good show, and since we’ve never played before, I want it to be good. I always thought that when I was going to do a live El Michels Affair show, it was going to be this incredibly rehearsed event with visuals and this and that—and (the band’s Coachella performance) is going to be an event, but I don’t know if it’ll be incredibly rehearsed.”

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Listeners are drawn into the world of El Michels Affair because of the wildly infectious groove—and how tight the band is on the recordings. Michels said that’s because the current group has had a musical relationship for decades.

“The thing that makes me feel more comfortable is the band,” Michels said. “Most of the band (members) are people I’ve been playing with since I was 14 years old, if not younger, and I make records with them all the time. It’s Nick Movshon on bass, Homer Steinweiss on drums, Tommy Brenneck on guitar, and then Marco Benevento on piano and Dave Guy on trumpet. Those are basically my best friends, and we play music all the time, so at the end of the day, when we get out there, we are a band. Even though we don’t play live, we’ve been playing together for so long and so much that we’re probably more of a band than most bands.”

Michels has often described the sound of the band as “cinematic soul,” and it’s easy to imagine tracks like “Unathi” or “Detroit Twice” in a number of different films. Of course, almost all of the music that appears in films is made in a studio.

“A lot of the music I make is very studio-oriented,” Michels said. “What works in the studio and what works live are two completely different things, so it’s just going to be a matter of trying stuff out. You want to play the quote-unquote hits, even though that’s a very relative term when it comes to El Michels Affair, seeing as, like, Frank Ocean will be on the other stage. Whoever shows up and knows the band, I want them to be satisfied with what happens. I haven’t even put the setlist together, but it’ll be a collection of essentially my favorite songs from the catalog.”

Spending time as a producer of both his own albums and other records has helped Michels feel an even greater connection to the things that attracted him to both hip hop and soul.

“Growing up in New York in the late ’90s, I listened to a lot of what you would expect as a teenager in New York, like Wu-Tang and Biggie,” Michels said. “Hip-hop sensibility was always part of my approach, and getting into hip hop, in a roundabout way, got me into soul music. When I would hear hip hop songs, I would seek out the samples I liked, so hip hop was kind of a gateway to soul music. I would discover music through hip-hop production.”

The combination of hip hop, soul and production led to the birth of El Michels Affair.

“In the beginning, the dream was always to be sampled, so when I was making music, that was always a little bit in the back of my head—like, ‘Let’s make something that could be a hip hop song, but we’re still making soul music,’” Michels said. “A lot of times when I’m making music, and it starts to sound like a hip-hop sample, or it could be a sample, I’ll just lean into it more, and that gets me excited.”

The upcoming release from El Michels Affair features this triple-play front and center, as Michels and his band created an album of instrumentals and then had the songs fleshed out lyrically by Black Thought of the Roots. Check out the track “Grateful” to hear it all come together, and listen to the full LP, Glorious Game, when it comes out April 14.

“The way I approached that record was I made full-on soul songs, verse-chorus-bridge, and I finished them as soul songs, but always with the intention of resampling them,” Michels said. “A lot of the music that’s on the record, they have these full songs that go with them that have sections that never even made the cut.”

Matt King is a freelance writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. A creative at heart, his love for music thrust him into the world of journalism at 17 years old, and he hasn't looked back. Before...