Producer Sunny Levine comes from one of the most famous musical families. His grandfather, Quincy Jones, worked with legends like Michael Jackson and Frank Sinatra, and his father, Stewart Levine, produced albums for Simply Red, B.B. King and Minnie Riperton. Sunny’s own résumé is also pretty stacked: The producer has worked with Pete Yorn, Scarlett Johansson and Lenka, to name a few.
On his latest album, Volume 1, Levine — working under the alias Boss Selection — fuses the old with the new, collaborating with artists such as Orelia, Brenda Russell and James Gadson, as well as another famous member of his family: his aunt Rashida Jones. Jones not only shows off her vocal chops on the smooth single “Flip and Rewind” but also co-directed the Nineties-inspired music video with writing partner Will McCormack.
Jones and Levine interviewed each other for Rolling Stone about music, family and the special day they spent shooting the fun, throwback clip together.
Rashida Jones: Sunny let’s start with some basics for the people who don’t know you as well as I do. What is your name?
Sunny Levine: My name is Sunny Levine, you know what I mean?
RJ: And you are a musician …
SL: I am a musician. I am a record producer, songwriter, sometimes a singer and now I’ve done this Boss Selection record where I’m trying to take all of those things and combine it with the fact that I like working with people that I dig, and you are one of them.
RJ: Thank you. That is very nice. My opinion is that you like to create a vibe …
SL: I like to create a vibe in totality, and I love working with people. I didn’t want to wait for the phone to ring to get work or to get hired to produce someone’s record that I lik,e so rather than doing that, this is me reaching out to people that I love to work with and just doing a song with them. For the most part, it was pretty casual. Everybody just came in, and we knocked out a song together, wrote it, made a track, sang on it, and I would sit there and tinker with it and make it a little bit better. Then I’d check with each person, and that is my favorite thing to do. If I could do that every day with a different person, I would be the happiest man ever.
RJ: Well, you can, and you have! For now.
SL: Yeah, so my happiness is so reachable.
RJ: It is so reachable. But in terms of the vibes on the album, you have a very diverse roster of guest musicians: Brenda Russell, Hugh Masekela, me, myself and I, Pete Yorn, James Gadson. Your references are so deep musically and you’ve managed to work with people who are legends in the business and then you have also “broken” some people. How did you curate the balance between working with people that have been in the business for a long time and then working with new people and breaking them out? Was that an organic process or did you strive to achieve a balance with that?
SL: It was all pretty organic. It all worked out the way it was. I made the record in a really short period of time, and I just kept reaching out to the people I could think like, “Oh, I want to work with that person. I know how to get in touch with that person. Let’s do it.” It all came together really quick, and it sounds like I thought about it, [like] I had a list of 100 people and narrowed it down, but these were the people I reached out to and it sort of happened like this. It seems to be the perfect mix of new flavors and older, classic flavors. “Everybody Needs” really does feel like a Brenda Russell song but it’s got just enough of a new twist on it to make it feel like a new look at her. Sometimes I do that a little aggressively and I was trying to stay away from that.
RJ: That is one of my favorite songs on the album because I’m getting what I missed from Brenda Russell, but there’s also something really fresh about it but also true to her and respectful of who she is as an artist.
SL: Yeah, I guess it’s like you’re catching Brenda or Hugh through the lens of what I bring to records.
RJ: Right, which is probably a little bit of fandom, even though you’ve known them both your whole life and have relationships.
SL: Deep fandom, yeah.
RJ: But that’s the thing: to approach something as a fan is a tricky thing because you’re going to be somewhat deferential to these people, but you want to take it to the next level. But in a weird way, it can be the best combination, because you’re never going to totally abandon what’s great about them, because you love them so much.
SL: That’s a good way to put it.
RJ: I wanted to talk a little bit more about the sound of the album. Not a lot of people do what you’re doing, which is to create a vibe in totality, as we’ve established, but also produce the album and co-write the album. It’s an old-school concept, this idea that you get together with your friends, the people you respect, and you kind of just jam it out in the studio, and the thing that feels the most natural is the thing that’s going to end up on the record. In terms of the glue, if you had to describe your Boss Selection sound, what would you say?
SL: Whenever I think about it, it’s just how I wake up. It’s where I live. It’s basically some sort of R&B, very California-tized and very London-ized, somehow. …
RJ: What was the last word?
SL: London-ized. I’m inventing words here.
RJ: “California-tized and and London-ized” — I like that.
SL: It’s like a prism of California in the Seventies and London in the Eighties.
RJ: With those influences, there’s going to be an Afrofunk vibe in there. There are going to be jazz vibes. There’s going to be a little bit of that London sound that’s not New Wave, but was …
SL: Yeah, like, Curiosity Killed the Cat and intellectual London Eighties stuff, which is my favorite thing. Pretty obscure bands like Prefab Sprout and the Blue Nile. That’s what I’m really based off of. And Thomas Dolby production. Quirky English pop that somehow had a lot of jazzy stuff in the background of it.
RJ: I think that’s a good description: R&B, California-tized, quirky-London-pop-itized, with a little bit of jazz. Now let’s talk about our jam, “Flip and Rewind.”
SL: “Flip and Rewind” has been a little trip we’ve been on.
RJ: When did we first sit down in the studio? I’m trying to think … two and a half years ago?
SL: Yeah, but that sounds so long ago. It’s scary to say that.
RJ: But I feel like it’s actually not that long because the truth is, we’ve both been so busy. It’s not like we’ve been hammering it out for two years, you know?
SL: Yeah, we sat down and did it, and it came pretty quick. Now it’s had all of these lives already.
RJ: What I love about this process — besides the fact that it’s so nice to work together because we have a shared language, and it’s easy to communicate about everything — is that we have the same kind of childhood references. We have similar taste, and we have similar goals, so we’ve skipped so many steps by the time we sit down in the studio together. It just makes it such a joyful experience.
SL: Yeah, and I’m only relatively busy, but you’re such a busy young lady that it’s always such a cool excuse to hang.
RJ: Totally. And we found that every time we get in the studio — even though I wish it was more, and it will be more — it just flows really easily. Even this song, which I remember when we first started, we weren’t exactly on the same page. Then something clicked, and it all kind of made sense. I feel like that’s my naïve-artist perspective because I probably went away, and you did a lot of cool shit to it, and then I came back and was like, “Oh, my God — it totally worked!”
SL: [Laughs] That means you’re a real artist.
RJ: Yeah, I am. I’m like, “Don’t talk to me about math. I’m out!” Originally, we kind of wanted to do a late-Seventies, early-Eighties, post-disco vibe.
SL: That’s pretty much where we ended up, right?
RJ: Yes, it is. As references, we talked about Brenda Russell, Meli’sa Morgan, Alicia Meyers … that kind of romantic, late-disco, dance-with-feeling type of stuff. Almost like romance-dance or something. Now I’m just making up genres.
SL: Just on paper, it’s a really kind of heartfelt, almost sad song. But then the setting of it makes this groove thing where it’s like, “Ah! I want to flip and rewind.” Like, it’s empowering to flip and rewind.
RJ: Then, our next step was basically … We share a deep love for the Nineties. …
SL: From whence we came.
RJ: And as every person approaching adulthood does, we romanticize and idealize the time when we had less responsibilities. This is true about us, but it’s also true about culturally where we are as a country, as a world. Artistically, politically, we’re in kind of a tough time, and the Nineties was kind of a dope place. I mean, Bill Clinton playing the saxophone, budgets were flush, the clothes, the music …
SL: The clothes were baggy, and you could just, like, relax in them.
RJ: Comfortable, bright. They were brightly colored. The inspiration for the video that Will [McCormack] and I directed was to try to evoke the feeling of the Nineties, but not in a mocking way. I think for you and I both, it’s such an important time musically, emotionally and psychologically. Every part of us formed during the Nineties, and we took all of the quintessential R&B videos from the Nineties and did our best to recreate them.
SL: We got to time travel. It’s the best day I’ve had in years, when we all went back to the Nineties.
RJ: Me too, Sunny. It’s so sad. It’s almost inexplicable how happy I was that day. It’s, like, almost fucked-up [laughs]. One of my favorite moments of the day was when me and Kidada and Martina, my sisters, your other aunties, and my friend Samantha were in the car, and we just finished filming and were fully decked out in Nineties gear: dark lipstick, bandanas, door-knocker bamboo earrings, jerseys, Star Trek cell phones. We were pulling into the lot, and two real guys pulled up next to us and were like, “Hey, what’s up? What’s your name?” And Kidada goes, “Oh, no, no, no. This isn’t real life. We’re in the Nineties.”
SL: [Laughs] They thought they found some kind of gold mine in a time warp.
RJ: They wanted to go back! They wanted to go back with us! And the minute she said that, they were like, “OK, cool.” And just drove off. Saddest real moment ever. We had some great guest stars, too. Some really good, solid Nineties cameos. Do you want to run it down?
SL: Tevin Campbell, who was such a big part of our Nineties life as kids. He was basically part of the family. It was cool to have him. He didn’t want to dance and then he was like, “Uh oh.” He couldn’t stop dancing once he started.
RJ: [Laughs] Exactly. We have Ben Baller, who was kind of a DJ legend, who we’ve also known since the Nineties because he was roommates with my sister Martina. But he’s a giant celebrity now.
SL: He’s a jeweler. He was very happy to be back in the Nineties as well.
RJ: That was another funny moment. He was wearing a striped shirt and like a baseball cap and overalls, and at the end of the video, he was like, “Alright, I’m gonna go.” And Tina looks at him and goes, “You came in those clothes?!”
SL: And Jennifer the stylist walks in and goes, “Well, we don’t need to do anything to him. He’s perfect.” Rashi, I know you did lots of funny singing before this, but did you make any records before “Flip and Rewind” as a singer?
RJ: I’m friends with all those guys from The State and Stella and Wet Hot American Summer. Craig Wedren, who’s in that band Shudder to Think, scored a lot of their movies, so I was on call for him. I did a song on the Reno 911 soundtrack, and then I did a song on the Baxter soundtrack. Any time those guys needed to fake a style, they would call me to sing a song. So, that’s probably the last time —besides funny singing — I seriously sang anything. Well, I guess it’s still funny singing.
SL: But serious, funny singing.
RJ: You know, Sunny, I have a giant respect for music and all the musicians in my family, and because they’re all so good, I don’t really like to step out on my own. I have too much respect for it. I’d want to go back to school and study jazz theory for like two years before I did anything and seriously called myself a musician.
SL: That’s why this was cool. You could sort of do this under the guise of “doing this cool thing with Sunny. It’s fine. It’s not a big deal.”
RJ: It’s definitely the more relaxed version for me, and because I think you’re so talented and we’ve worked together before — you scored Celeste and Jesse, and we wrote that movie to your album Love Rhino — I feel like I really trust you musically, and it just feels easy for me in a way that approaching an album on my own or sitting down and writing songs doesn’t. That feels hard and like a lot of pressure, but this does not.
SL: That’s a big step, but this is just a nice, chill step, but you get the same results you get with a record.
RJ: It feels like an extension of our family vibes and of our family friendship.
SL: In the video, one of the best things in the video was you had all your girls come and dance. That’s been your dancing crew since you were little teenagers and your best friends. Since I was a kid, I remember seeing you with all these girls, and that was the coolest thing about the video.
RJ: That was definitely a huge highlight for me, all of my Buckley dance-squad friends. We all get together at least once a year. We’re all still really close, but they live everywhere. When I said I was directing a video with Will set in the Nineties, they were like, “I’m there. First plane out, I’m there.” That’s the thing that really sealed it and made it feel so authentic.
SL: I think Martina’s still dancing off of it.
RJ: Last night, I was thinking about maybe the first Maata Haari show that I went to at the Mint. Were you in high school? Or maybe you were just out of high school?
SL: Just out of high school.
RJ: And you were in a rap group in the Nineties called the Trilambs with two friends, and I was actually just talking about this with Jonah Hill the other day because you guys still have like a cult following. Once I realized you were killing it in music, I just remember being so surprised and shocked and impressed with not only your musicianship, but also your taste level. It’s hard to go on the record and say you’re my favorite family member, but you’re kind of my favorite family member [laughs]. But watching you grow, from being in bands and then being a solo artist, and then you dug really deep with Love Rhino. … I know that was a really hard time for you, and to me, that’s the seminal breakup album. I’ve seen you grow, and now you’re killing it. I feel like you are now the best version of yourself as a musician because all these little things that you’ve picked up along the way, I feel like it’s all crystalizing right now.
SL: That’s so cool Rashi. You’ve been the biggest champion of all my shit for forever, which has been so cool, including right now.
RJ: I’m into it. I’m just trying to ride your waves [laughs].
SL: Nah, we on a wave togetha.