Who Is…Aloe Blacc
Sometimes rappers sing, and you politely cover your ears and wait for the chorus to end so they can go back to rhyming. Aloe Blacc isn't one of them. The Orange County son of Panamanian immigrants, Blacc and rapper Exile formed the hip-hop duo Emanon in the mid-'90s, releasing several cassettes and, eventually, a couple CDs while Blacc earned a degree from the University of Southern California in 2001. When Blacc lost his corporate job two years later, he decided to get into music, sink or swim. He also began to sing more — and in 2006, released Shine Through, a modest, winning throwback soul album reminiscent of the homespun likes of Bill Withers that established him as a name to watch.
He's now followed it up with Good Things, a tougher, socially conscious look at hard times for its first two-thirds, ending with a clutch of songs that offer a more hopeful point of view. (He also does a lustrous version of “Femme Fatale” that translates the Velvet Underground's 1967 recording into uptown R&B of a similar vintage.)
eMusic's Michaelangelo Matos talked to Blacc while he was promoting the album in New York.
On “I Need a Dollar”:
I started writing it in 2005. There are a lot of songs that didn't make the first album. “Mama, Hold My Hand,” that's 2002. There are a lot of songs that either weren't complete or weren't the songs I wanted to introduce myself with. I think they were bigger than my debut. I wanted to be sure I had a little bit of a profile [before I] released them. Stones Throw has a relationship with a lot of music supervisors, so [HBO] contacted the label. I was really lucky that my album was already done, this song was pretty much slated to be the single, and they submitted it. Of course, the visuals to the intro to the TV show [How to Make it in America] had already been created, and I think this song just happened to fit the visuals perfectly.
The song was inspired stylistically, at least from the lyrical and vocal side, by chain-gang recordings — field recordings of incarcerated workers in the south, working on train tracks, that call-and-response style. It was also inspired by basically the economic downturn and hardships. I lost my job in '03, working for a big consulting firm. In the second verse, when I'm talking about, “The boss man let me go,” that's a personal issue. The “whiskey and wine” verse is about a friend who was dealing with some issues of substance abuse. That song told stories around me.
On the house that Madlib built:
It's a family affair. A lot of the artists on Stones Throw either [Peanut Butter] Wolf has met personally, or they have a relationship with another artist. It's a social hub. Madlib's younger brother [Oh No] brought me into the label; in a way Madlib brought me into the label. I met a lot of the artists on a tour in Europe. Madlib was supposed to be on that tour, but he stayed home to work on a project. So there was an extra bed and an extra seat in the tour van, you know what I mean? I made fast friends with Oh No, came home, and we recorded an album together. On that album, I sang on two songs. And although Stones Throw knew I was an MC, they really liked the songs I was vocalist on, and signed me as a vocalist.
On moving from rapping to singing:
It definitely wasn't expected of me when I started. On my first album, Shine Through, I remember hearing a lot of naysayers crying to me that I should keep rapping, and why am I singing? From personal friends: “What are you singing for? I don't want to listen to this music.” Which is fine. Everybody's got their own tastes. My goal as an artist, and also as sort of a social engineer, is to convince an audience, of any kind, to at least give my music a chance.
But as time goes on I'm building a fan base. Singing is something that translates and is approachable to a much broader audience, my family included. We grew up listening to a lot of soul music. My dad used to play soul in English and in Spanish, because in Panama there were some artists that were mimicking James Brown and Otis Redding. So they really appreciate it. Now, my dad considers what I do legitimate. [laughs] My grandmother can understand the words, because there are fewer words per bar.
I still rhyme. Exile and I have another album coming called Birds' Eye View. I still communicate music in that way. I'm just educating myself, and my audience, on something broader. There's so much beauty in what I'm doing now that I wasn't able to achieve before, as an MC, that now I can translate to hip-hop.
On attending USC:
I studied psycholinguistics as one major and communications as my other major. I was thinking of doing a Ph.D. afterwards, but I was lucky enough to walk into this corporate job and make more money than my parents ever made. I figured I'd do it, because that's what you do in America, right? You go to college and get a job. I wanted to experience some real life before going back into the ivory tower to hit the books, and get a Ph.D. in sociology or something like that. But music was always my passion on the side, and when I got laid off, it became my full-time. I'd rather stay here for a lot longer before going back to academia.
[What I studied] helps me build my personal philosophy and how I deal with situations and with people. Studying language convention and comprehension and language development, understanding how the brain works and interpersonal relationships, social psychology — these kinds of things are really important for an artist, I've noticed. A lot of my artist friends are eccentric. Luckily, I have a little bit more grounding. I can handle some of my own business.
I think I've been pretty industrious since I was young, and kind of had a business mind. I remember my mom gave me $1.25 for lunch every morning. I would not spend the money at school. Before school I would spend the money at 7-Eleven and Del Taco, and buy a 49-cent burrito and a 35-cent juice. I'd spend the rest of the money on candy, and sell the candy on the schoolyard and make a little extra money. [laughs] As a singer, I try to make as much money as I can, because I always like to have my band with me. Whatever extra money I can make, I can break bread with the band. That's one of the most important things for me, to perform with musicians, and have the energy of live music onstage and in the recordings.
A lot of what's going on today is synthesized music and synthesized voices, and that doesn't really communicate, I think, the true essence, the true nature of music, analog music, where things aren't so perfect and there's a little bit of unexpectedness. I think I have an aversion to doing something I've already heard in the popular marketplace, like an artist like Mayer Hawthorne, who's on Stones Throw, or Cee-Lo, who is pretty much capable of doing anything under the sun, and who uses his personal music to take risks.
On the recession:
When I was writing a lot of the songs, it was winter 2009, in the bitter cold of New York City. Definitely, the economic downturn, corporate bailouts, the housing market, all of it was happening, the essence of it all made it into the album. With the title of the album, it kind of fits the structure of the album, because you've got the clouds and then you've got the silver lining. You hope for something positive to happen, and it'd be kind of obvious to name the album a dark title, but that's not really my style anyway. I believe in the power of intention.
On the power of positive thinking:
There hasn't been a moment in my life when I felt like things would not be OK. That's part of the reason I titled the album Good Things. In college, my roommate Brandon Paradise — he works at Rutgers as a law professor — would ask me questions about, I don't know, anything: philosophy, religion, love, just talking. I would always have an answer. He'd ask, “How do you know that?” It's just a feeling that I get. I have a positive life, and I could do pretty much do anything I wanted and not have to worry. That's a visualization I've always had.