The Liberator Magazine 7.1 #21, 2008
With an impressive resume of features with artists as diverse as KRS-One, the late J Dilla (on the posthumous ‘Jay Love Japan’), Bugz In Da Attic beatmaker Daz-I-Kue, and original Slum Village member Baatin -- as well as a string of collaborations on the way with The Platinum Pied Pipers’ Waajeed, German house/brokenbeat collective Jazzanova, and recent Kanye West signees The SaRa Creative Partners -- it may surprise readers that Los Angeles emcee/producer Blu (née John Barnes) hadn’t yet composed an official full-length release prior to August 2007. However, the world finally saw the release of Blu’s longawaited, and highly-praised, debut album Below The Heavens on Sound In Color Records this past summer.
A collaborative effort with producer Exile (of hip-hop outfit Emanon), Below The Heavens serves as a return to the Golden Era of hip-hop, a time when vocalists and producers created a coherent and cohesive soundscape, rather than assembled an itinerant pastiche of the countless contemporary “who’s who” of producers, and a seemingly innumerable collection of guest features. Instead, Blu and Exile’s record is the product of two keenly-gifted artists combining their prodigious talents to create music that sounds as natural to the ear as it is trenchant and innovative.
Below The Heavens serves as a platform for Blu to showcase his gifts as lyricist and song-writer -- as he captures, and encapsulates, moments in time, through stark, relatable openness, and imaginative story-telling, revealing the innerworkings and the sublime machinations of this 24-year-old budding hip-hop star -- through at times straight-forward, and other times dexterous rhymeschemes. In short, Blu is the truth. Introduced to NWA and Public Enemy by his father, he has a lot on his mind. Yet what is most endearing about Blu is how relatable and relevant he is. He doesn’t require you have street cred or a college degree to feel his music or what he’s about.
Liberator: For a relatively-unknown artist, your talents are surprisingly well-respected throughout the industry. Everyone from Sa-Ra to KRS-One, Moka Only to Carlos Nino, Benji B to Mark De Clive Lowe, has praised your work. In words, how would you introduce Blu to a listener who has yet to hear your music?
Blu: I see my music as almost like the mood of the color suffused into the mood of the music. As far as writing the rhymes, it’s a personal process. I make real personal music that is down to earth. It’s chill. It’s not really deep. It’s not really flashy. It’s not too far out that you are unable to grasp and swallow. It’s just simple and chill, but the mood of it, the tone of the lyrics and the color is more blue.
Liberator: What audience are you trying to reach? And what impact do you hope to make?
Blu: I feel as if I am moreso trying to fit in, than trying to make an impact in hip-hop. As a fan, I see hip-hop as comprised of everyone that is in it -- they make hip-hop what it is at the time. And I feel that if I find my position in it; if I can get to a certain point where people acknowledge me and consider me as what they think of when they think of hip-hop, that’s pretty much where I want to be. If someone thinks of hip-hop, and then they think of me, that’s more than I could have asked for.
Liberator: Who do you think of when you think of hip-hop?
Blu: Right now, it’s hard, because I feel so disconnected. I don’t listen to it anymore. Or, I don’t really listen to it as much as I used to. Right now, seriously, I think of Lil Wayne. And I think of friends that I know that can just bust their ass off. People like Ca$hius King and Malcolm Red. People that when they bust in front of me -- they are the only people that give me the feeling that I used to feel, as far as what hip-hop used to feel like to me. As far as what hip-hop is, to me, when I think of it: it’s Andre, Common, Mos Def in their previous albums, when they were in their prime -- the early 2000s, late 90s. That to me was when I was probably the deepest into hip-hop.
Liberator: You contribute to the makeup of a diverse and avant-garde urban music scene in L.A., that features J*Davey, Sa-Ra, Flying Lotus, TaRaach, the Dirty Science crew, and others. How would you describe the scene? And with some of those acts recent major label signees, what do you think the scene’s prospects are of attaining broader exposure?
Blu: The scene to me right now is what we’ve been waiting for. What I think all these artists that you mentioned do is push the boundaries. I feel more vintage compared to them. They definitely are innovators. Like [Flying] Lotus is the next sound. J*Davey is the next soul-slash-hip-hop sound. Sa-Ra: funk, soul, hip-hop. It’s a fusion: the new “thick” word. It’s a fusion. Music in L.A. is a fusion of styles and colors and textures meshed together. And it’s creating its own unique sound.
Liberator: So if you hear J*Davey, and then meet the singer [Ms. Jack Davey], you’re not surprised she has a mohawk?
Blu: No. It’s 2007. I’m surprised that everyone doesn’t have mohawks! And you see Sa-Ra, with the hair, looking like Gumby. You know, their whole style, they’re on something else -- from their music, to their appearance.
Liberator: Your debut album is entirely produced by Exile [of Emanon], whose beats have appeared on projects by Mobb Deep, Jurassic 5, Slum Village, 50 Cent, and so on. How did his and your album come together? Was it an organic relationship? What distinguishes your record with Exile from his freelance work?
Blu: When I first met Exile, the first song we did was “Party of Two” [the Bside to Blu’s 12’’ single “The Narrow Path”]. I actually did it for his record. And that night, after we did that one song, we were resolved, like, “Alright, we’ve got to do an album together.” We didn’t think we would end up working on it as soon as we did. “Party of Two” was presented to Sound In Color, which were putting out Exile’s record, and they were interested in doing a project with me. First, we started working on a record for me, but it wasn’t with Exile in mind to do the entire record. I started off working with Oh No [Stones Throw Records MC/producer, and the brother of Madlib], and other producers I grew up with. But the sound that I always wanted to attain, was Exile’s sound. He had a real, deeply-rooted hip-hop sound. His beats made me feel what I felt when I heard Premo and what I felt when I heard Pete Rock. I found all of that in there. But I think most of all, what I saw was where I fit. And so we began working, and it kicked off well. It was just easy to work with each other. He could tell me to do something, and it could be done. I could tell him “change this,” or “do something like this,” and it would be done. It was just easy. I would say it was very organic. In comparison to everything else -- I think with the album, it was what me and Exile wanted to do at the time, or the type of music he... the type of feeling he wanted to give off. I think that’s what our record was. And yea, it’s different than his freelance work, but that’s not a bad thing. His freelance production helps show his diversity as an artist, the other sides of his production and his personality; how he can and chooses to express himself.
Liberator: Your lyrics are at times deeply personal, such as on “Cold Hearted And Young,” where you recount witnessing your father, a gang member, physically abuse your mother, and address the impact it has had on you. Or, on “Show Me (The Good Life),” where you ponder what to do when your girlfriend tells you she is pregnant, as you imagine speaking to your unborn child. It seems as if most cats are quite comfortable fronting about and glorifying lives they have never known, but your lyrics appear to come from the soul. How important is it for you to create sincere, relatable music? Is it a conscious decision to put your life into the music?
Blu: Often when I write, I end up reflecting on moments in my life that I feel I should write about, moments in my life that have impacted my course and my worldview. And I end up trying to put myself back in that time, to capture that same feeling I felt. Like for example, I rapped one time over Exile’s “Pearly Gates” [a song Exile produced for Mobb Deep’s past album], and I talked about my stepfather, and how he restricted me from listening to music. And my attitude was, like “Yea, fuck him! This and that.” But that’s how I felt then! You know, my reaction to “You’re not going to let me listen to music?” is rebellion, and it’s rebellious. That’s just how I felt, then. It’s not as if it carries on now, or to the present times. But I’ll always feel like that, when I write. Like on “Cold Hearted,” or on “Show Me (The Good Life),” they’re time capsules. Songs become time capsules when I write them. I try to give an image, an experience, like a scene in a movie. I try to depict it in a way that you can visualize when you hear it.
Liberator: As an emcee, you have been compared to Elzhi, Phonte, and Planet Asia. What do you think of the comparisons? Are these artists whose work you respect? And what sets you apart, and makes you unique as an artist?
Blu: In comparison, those are favorites of mine, so being compared to them makes me say, “that’s what’s up!” Those fools are super-G. They’ve all taken their separate paths. And Elzhi is an extremely talented lyricist. He’s taken lyricism so far. Phonte: he’s brought back a feel we’ve missed for a long time. It’s as if he would’ve been the next Native Tongues member. And Planet Asiais what the West always needed. We just never knew he was here, for some reason. I feel, all three of them have definitely influenced me, influenced my style. Yet I feel that I am different, even though I relate, and am similar to all of them. It’s hard for me to say what sets us apart as artists. It’s just the music.
Liberator: Along with the Blu and Exile record, you have another LP set for release later in the year, as Johnson&Jonson, with your partner Mainframe on the beats. Can you describe the nature of the album? How is it different than the Blu and Exile record?
Blu: When you are working with someone on a record you’re not completely entitled to your own vision, you can’t do everything you want to do. If you want it to come out well, you have to come to a medium, and I feel like Exile and I came to a happy medium. But there were a lot of things I wanted to express, there were a lot of emotions or feelings that I just wanted to get off, and I feel like that is where Johnson&Jonson came in. I think we brought it back to the essence, instead of a more polished sound -- of 8 hook, and 16 bars, etc. There’s no format with Johnson&Jonson. There were no rules. We just went at it. But it ended up to me, afterward, when I look back at it, I see how Snoop influenced me, and how De La influenced me. In a weird way, I think that’s what Johnson&Jonson became. It was like those influences on record.
Liberator: Are you talking about Snupe of Hiero [Extra Prolific], or Snoop Dogg?
Blu: Snoop Dogg! [Laughs] Snoop Doggy Dogg! It’s like ‘Doggystyle’ to me! It’s like ‘Doggystyle’ meets ‘De La Soul is Dead’, but it sounds nothing like either record. But that’s what it feels like to me. I feel like it came from those records.
Liberator: You have mentioned the respect that you have for TaRaach [fka Lacks], of Breakfast Club and J Dilla: Welcome To Detroit fame, whose recent album, The Fevers, you appear on a few tracks with. What influence does TaRaach have on you? How long have you known one another? Can you speak on that relationship?
Blu: Yea. TaRaach has shown me so much, as far as ways to grow. He showed me other ways to think. And other ways to think of things, and broaden my perspectives of everything from music to life. Our relationship goes deeper than music, which is rare with me and other artists. A lot of times, when I collaborate with other artists, after the music is done we have nothing to say to each other -- which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because music is so broad. But with ‘Raach, it’s more like life, it’s spiritual, it’s something else. And I appreciate everything he has taught me and showed me. He’s more like a mentor than a friend. He has come through on some other shit for me, like “What!?” Out of the clouds type shit. Like “What, TaRaach?” It’s like “Word, good looks, dog.” [Laughs] He’s like family. Or well, he is family. I knew of him from Welcome to Detroit. I wasn’t really familiar with Breakfast Club, until I got the Lacks album, and even then, that was after I met him. I remember Aloe [Blacc, of Emanon] called me and said, “I’m working with this guy Lacks, or TaRaach,” as I know some of them know of him as, and he said, “Come over and do a verse on this song.” And when I came back I decided to do research on who this guy was. So before I really got to know him, I was able to catch up on his music, and see how the music made me feel, without so much of his personal life influencing it for me. You know how when you meet people, and they change the way you look at their music? I didn’t know TaRaach enough for him to be able to change the way I felt about his music. So when I got around to the song “Hey!” [which appears on TaRaach’s album The Fevers], the dude became my favorite MC at the time! I mean, I put all my boys up on that song. I couldn’t believe the lyrics. I was like, this is it! The standpoint, the colossal-ness in the song, it’s like a Titan rapping! It was like “Whoa, this is some ill shit to me.”
Liberator: You’ve said that you feel blessed to be involved in music. Why is that? Do you think feeling that way gives you a sense of purpose with your art?
Blu: I definitely feel blessed, and the reason why is because I haven’t been in this as long as a lot of cats have been in it. I had been restricted from listening to hip-hop all the way through 10th grade. And I just happened to hop into it. And I mean, I hopped into it on some DMX, and Ma$e, and on some BS. I just ended up running into some fools who have been into the game for years, who just enlightened me. And it was all so quick. I know it had to be a blessing. It was nothing. Like my boy Basic, who worked at The Wake Up Show from its inception, he was the videographer, he filmed all their episodes. And he has the vastest hip-hop collection. I was in 12th grade when I met him, and he started putting me up, giving me a CD a week -- from De La Soul, to Outkast and all kind of shit. I really didn’t know anything, but he blessed me. Hip-hop became so central to me. I loved hip-hop, and it was rebellion that brought me into it. But then it became like a father figure. I have three fathers, but hip-hop became like my fourth father. It just showed me so much that other people didn’t show me. When I was like “fuck school!” hip-hop was there as my educator. It’s definitely a blessing. I can’t call it anything else.
Liberator: Since you say hip-hop educated you, do you feel that it has also miseducated you?
Blu: Definitely! Definitely! But that’s with everyone. You can’t accept everyone’s opinion 100 percent, and just run with it. You have to just build with your own, and remain critical of what you take in. You have to take people’s words to a certain extent. You can’t say: this person says this, so this is how I am going to live. I feel the same way about the Bible, religion, music and the people I meet. You have to make your own vision and make your own path, based upon looking at everything you’ve obtained in a critical way. With hip-hop, if you believe everything, you’ll be all mixed up, man!
Liberator: Any final words?
Blu: Be genuine, just do what you feel is right. After all, everybody sees the same thing. We don’t look at it the same way, but we all see the same thing. We all see the news, we all see how fucked up shit is out here. And it’s your choice if you want to follow that, or if you want to break the mode to save everyone from it. Just do what you feel is right. Don’t copy anybody. [Laughs] Please don’t do that. I mean, we’ll see where it goes. I have a good feeling though. I have a majorly good feeling, because, this shit in our culture is so low, I mean this shit is so low, it cannot get any lower. There’s no way to go but up. But I feel it coming back.
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