Don’t Forget Cola Boyy, California's “disabled disco innovator”
On his solo debut, Oxnard’s Cola Boyy cuts shimmering disco for the post-COVID dancefloor, rich with punk-ready lyrics and calls to action.
It’s felt like, at least for a minute now, Californian multi-instrumentalist Matthew Urango has been a well-kept secret. A “disabled disco innovator,” Cola Boyy thrives in funky palettes and unconventional fusions, and there’s plenty of both on his recent solo debut, Prosthetic Boombox.
That’s not to say Cola Boyy has simply emerged from the ether. His 2018 single, Buggy Tip, straddles rock and string-section disco; Come Mid July channels cosmic folk, replete with psychedelic guitars and panning phasers; and All Power To The People is a classic G-funk cut that serves as “a song, a video and a political leaflet.” It’s not often you hear sentiments such as “let's smash these fascists down” and “we're gonna march on that pig power structure so we can liberate from all sides” duelling with a Zapp-esque voicebox, but then again, it’s not often that you hear an artist like Cola Boyy.
His eclectic tastes have seen him link up with a string of respected bit-players and renowned international artists. In a sense, Cola Boyy bookended my 2020: he played a pivotal role on Nicolas Godin’s Concrete and Glass, the subject of the year’s first interview, and he supplied a similarly show-stealing performance on The Avalanches’ We Will Always Love You, the focus of my last 2020 feature.
These guests reappear on Prosthetic Boombox alongside a string of lowkey names and talented backroom musos. Jubilant single Don’t Forget Your Neighbourhood finds The Avalanches in rare pop-production mode, aided by virtuosic pianist John Carrol Kirby and French producers Corentin Kerdroan and Lewis OfMan. In amongst all these contributions – the pristine production, the instrumental breaks, the Peter Allen-esque piano – the song still resolutely circles about Cola Boyy’s vocal, the arrangement furnishing that key performance.
It’s a reminder to not only remember from whence you came, but to stand up for that community in times of strife. It’s easy to miss amongst the Beach Boys-esque sunshine and nu-disco rhythms, but lyrics such as “fight for your town with your fist closed, strike it and make it more than just a memory” spur action and defiance in the face of injustice. These are messages perhaps most associated with punk, a scene in which a younger Matthew cut his teeth and vented his frustrations.
If it’s not always musically apparent, that punk spirit carries through Prosthetic Boombox, sounds and styles linked by Cola Boyy’s own rebellious edge. “The working class are injured, struggling to pay rent and struggling to put food on the table,” he says, orienting the project. “I want to represent that.” Glimpses of his well-heeled socialist worldview breaking through in empowering refrains, caustic asides and liberating moments of musical release. These crescendos tap into the power of the boombox, Cola Boyy’s weapon of choice in the impending revolution.
On the slow-burning Song For The Mister, Cola Boyy flips hardship to resolve atop a smooth R&B arrangement from AIR’s Nicolas Godin. A string of letters bearing bad news and owed dues threaten to destabilize, but you can’t keep a Boyy down – “I'll pay them / I'll feed us / I'll win her back / I won’t give up,” he sings with conviction. Roses, a collaboration with Ed Banger funkateer Myd, sinks into that tight rhythm, with verse and chorus orbiting about a long-since passed romance. The “black rose” on which he waits is framed about romantic love, but it could just as easily reflect elements of his local activism – the black rose is a prominent anarchist symbol.
The ambiguity here is both creatively liberating and consciously constructed. “I would say I want the content of my music to be political, but I feel there’s a fine line between making art that’s political and opportunism,” he told Dazed in 2018, cognizant of corporate interests and fleeting trends. “It’s nice to see other artists singing about political shit, but I’d also love to see more artists physically engaged in organising, political theory, and building community power.” It’s an oft-invoked platitude, but actions don’t speak louder than words – if anything, they’re the quiet counterpoint, unobscured by slogans and mantras.
Cola Boyy’s brand of pep-heavy pop manages to balance frank introspection with calls for outright action, though much of his worldview leaps from the interpersonal bonds that motivate him. For The Last Time, with contributions from Rico the Wizard, blends wistful recollections of “another life” with an optimistic future, one burnished by both opportunity and old “sentiments that’ll never die.” It’s similarly sunny on You Can Do It, a life-affirming dance track that throws a few surprising juxtapositions into the mix.
Things take an introspective turn on the back end, with cuts like One Of These Winters Will Take Me giving air to existential questions: “The cold touch visits me every year / I smoke cigs regardless / One of these winters will take me / And I’m scared ‘cause I’m godless,” croons Cola. It’s a reckoning that leads into the record’s ultimate track, Kid Born In Space, a single that gives the greatest glimpse of the man behind the mantle. A vague portrait of Cola’s past, marred by childhood ridicule and discrimination, only serves to showcase his glow-up: “when I was a boy I was criticized / now I flipped it and I’m happy inside,” he sings atop a cosmic folk arrangement.
“This track is the culmination of a true friendship,” he reflected through an accompanying press release. “In 2018, MGMT invited me on their tour, during which we became very close. I spent time with Andrew in his studio at home in New York. When I played him Kid Born In Space, he liked it straight away and everything happened naturally from there: James Richardson played guitars and keyboards, Patrick Wimberly (Chairlift) engineered and refined the production, and then Andrew and I finished it up in LA.”
That positivity radiates, even as Cola Boyy recalls his trials, with mean-spirited peers “looking down on my dreams” and “making fun of my voice.” His is a retrospective pain, tinted by the very ultimatum he adopts in the face of such hardship: “I keep on moving forward, I refuse to live in anyone else’s shadow.” Their words are raw even in his triumph, but the very act of creation, burnished by the bonds of friendship, makes Kid Born In Space a proof in and of itself: “I’m a new man compared to the old me / don’t believe it? Then just listen to this…”
It’d be all too easy for a record about the maligned working-class citizens to descend into a dirge, overwhelmed by the systemic injustices and abuses of authority that continue to subjugate and oppress. Cola Boyy knows that story well – Oxnard is home to some 30,000 people who live in poverty – but his gaze is cast ever upward, disposition sunny and the future bright. He explained to NME: “It reflects [the working class’] hard struggle but does so in a way that encourages people to fight it, to be optimistic, to push through anything.”
It’s not just that Cola Boyy finds the delicate balance between music and message: Prosthetic Boombox paints a perfect picture of the man himself, both as a locally-minded radical and a passionate pop auteur. You can tell as much from the album art, which offers some fun insight into his passions and habits. His are the spaces bridging those sequined suits and megaphones, rotary phones and handguns, takeaway boxes and flaming star-spangled dance shoes.
Cola’s got a lot to impart, but he never goes as far as imparting – it’s a lighter approach, nestled in amongst irresistible rhythms and contagious excitement. It’s a relationship split between two visual clues: Michael Franks’ terrific The Art Of Tea and the writings of Marx. The music is smooth and unobtrusive, the message uplifting and liberating.
It’s only by bringing the people together that we can make this world a better place, and as far as Cola Boyy’s concerned, nothing unites us quite like a peppy dance track. It’s a good thing they’re the sort he’s so great at making: shimmering pop excursions, irresistible funk joints and disco-laden grooves, all deceptively radical in their own ways. “The working class has nothing but deserves everything,” Cola told NME last month. “I am trying to send these messages out through my music and I think pop is the best way to do it.”
You needn’t take his word for it, though – the proof is in the Prosthetic Boombox.