It has been five years since LA MC, Blu, made a name for himself with a soulful debut album with producer Exile, ‘Below the Heavens’ which is now undeniably an underground classic. Since then he has proven himself as one of the most versatile, hard-working and lyrically superior rappers in the game, the new Blu and Exile alum released last month stands in testimony to this. We spoke to the skilful and charismatic artist about the new record, his thoughts on current Hip-Hop and an upcoming Australian tour.
Your new album with Exile ‘Give Me My Flowers While I Can Still Smell Them’ is somewhat a re-release as you first released an un-mastered version on Bandcamp earlier in the year. Was that a conscious plan to do it that way?
Not at all really. We originally cut about twenty-five songs in one week back in ’09. We were fresh off of touring for three years and wanted to throw down some tunes before we hit the road again. Being perfectionists, we decided to let the songs sit but because there was such demand for us to give the people some new material, we decided to shoot some demos out to the Internet world, which were the “flowers”.
Why did it take so long to release? A lot of the album was made in 2009 right?
Well we knew we had a huge record to follow up on, so we didn’t want to rush into a new record just to be us, we wanted to sit down and make something concrete enough to hold its weight after such an explosive debut. The final version of the “Flowers” LP actually became that, even though it was just tunes we had on the side, the record ended up being a pretty mature follow up release.
You mentioned that you recorded about thirty songs in a week or two whilst making this album. Give us an insight of your creative process and the way in which you chose which Exile beats to rap on.
As I said we were both in and out of tours, I myself was touring with Johnson&Jonson as well as CRAC, and Exile was touring his new record with Fashawn and working on singles for artists like Big Sean, Snoop, Bun B, etc. So when we did have time to meet up, we had tons of material lying around. Exile gave me about fifty beats and I had a laptop full of raps I had typed up on the road. I cut the songs the week of in my home studio as demos and we kind of just passed them around to friends and kept them for our own personal listening as oppose to preparing our “follow up”.
Let’s bring it back to the beginning of Blu and Exile. How did your relationship with him first form and the lead up to your debut ‘Below The Heavens’.
Well in 2003, I met Aloe Blacc who brought his DJ, Exile, to a show to check me out for a compilation Exile was working on with upcoming talent. Exile was hyped about how the show turned out and extended an invitation for me to get on the record. He gave me two beats and we set a session to cut those. But on the way there, Exile was playing beats in the car, I was so blown away I just started rapping verses I had on the head to anything he pulled up. We ended up doing all new songs at the session and after we decided it was destined for us to do an album.
How is it different this time around working and touring with Exile again?
Well by now, we’ve had so many formulas to putting together songs as well as shows that when we link up its nothing really, the groove just flows like butter.
I personally, and i’m sure many feel the same, deem ‘Below The Heavens’ as a straight-up classic in a sense in which people refer to ‘Illmatic’ with Nas. Was there any pressure creating projects subsequent to this?
No. I always wanted my debut to crack off like “Amerikkkas Most Wanted” or “Illmatic” or “Doggystyle” and somehow God parted the clouds for me to do so with Exile. I never ever wanted to be put in a box and that is why every one of my LP’s sounds completely different. Not that they are better sonically or lyrically but they are just different. They all stand apart from each other in one way or another. If I’m not setting to make a classic rap album I maybe am trying to break the mold with an innovative album like “CRAC” or I may even test my hand with an experimental album like “No York!” or an album with no rules like “Johnson & Jonson”.
Is it difficult dealing with people who still want you to make a Below the Heavens Two or a project with the same vibe?
No because if they don’t like one project they end up liking the next one, or the next one, or the next one [laughs]
Do you begin with a concrete vision for each of your projects or does that come during or after creating?
It definitely varies. With “Her Favorite Color” and “Below The Heavens” I knew exactly what I wanted to make. While with records like “CRAC” or “Jesus”, we just recorded and made the record from the sessions they’re of.
What musical and personal appeal do you look for in an artist when determining who you would like to collaborate with?
I always hold an artist to there stand out qualities. Like Danny brown is a “monster” Taraach is a “giant of rap”, Edan and Elzhi are “perfectionist”, Exile is always out the box (rapping) and Sene and Cashus King are my “go to” guys who can tackle whatever I throw their way.
Who would you like to work with that you haven’t yet?
DJ Premier, Prince Paul, Elzhi and hopefully Kendrick Lamar, if he ever comes back from the moon.
You released a project on Bandcamp UCLA which had Madlib on all production and then took it down a few hours later. You’ve described ‘UCLA’ as “the hidden gem, an illegal classic”. Do you think you’ll be having a proper release of this album? Tell us how it was like working with Madlib.
MED and I were set to create an album with Madlib but beats were getting sold and the label was busy or what not. So we decided to get the people involved and I through out some songs that weren’t on our record. But like anything I give away, the fans become attached, so Madlib said he’d be down to throw a few songs from UCLA onto the project he’s producing for me and MED. We are still stepping in and out of that record and look to have it out around spring next year.
There’s no secret that you often release songs with that raw, rough and grimy feel. Describe the reasoning of your love of releasing un-mastered low fi music?
Tapes and vinyl. Also I love static. Raw shit is raw shit. My shit is raw, straight up.
Many of your records contain very poetic and honest lyricism tapping into personal experiences whether it be triumphs or struggles. Was it hard writing things that lay out your personal life? How has that helped you become a stronger person and more meaningful artist?
Early on it was good for me to vent because I felt all I had was my pen. Now, I’m at home with anything I write and I feel I can speak on anything the same way I am in real life. People have always known that Blu does not keep his mouth shut so don’t tell him shit. But now everything I write is personal, even when I’m just talking out my ass.
You’ve shed light on Religion and Spirituality in a lot of your music. How has your own upbringing affected your beliefs and made you in touch with your own sense of Spirituality?
Music moves and touches the spirit and when my spirit is stirred it doesn’t sit still and keep shut. So as loud as my heart speaks volumes, my soul does also, and my mind and my spirit. Above all, God guides every word that ever leaves my mouth.
My favourite song on the new album is ‘A Man’ in which you say “It’s like one religion can’t contain it, and I ain’t the man that’s tryna change it, I just want answers”. Can you elaborate on this thought?
Well, God has always been here but religion hasn’t. So for someone to tell you that this book is the “only” way of life is nonsense. What about the other book or words that God gave the people after or before their book! Its just as important, and sometimes more important to a certain demographic. You can’t put GOD in a box.
You have a very loyal fan base. Your fans believe in you and stay on their toes for whatever project you have coming next. How does that affect the way you make music and does that disrupt ideas and concepts you envision for future releases?
Sometimes. With “No York!” I knew some fans would stray or be confused by the direction but it was a must for me to get out this feeling. I needed to create that sound piece and I wouldn’t change it for anything. So some fans haven’t returned since “Below The Heavens”, I don’t know what to tell them. I think the rest of the world is in all my other records fool, wake up.
Do you ever concern yourself with being a bigger artist in a mainstream sense?
Yes, but the question is always how. Especially when I have grown so comfortable with what I do and what I have. But I know there is a bigger task out there for me to tackle and I know my loyal fans know that too.
How do you think West Coast Hip-Hop has evolved over the last decade?
The West is the best. We have become the most diverse, but more underground. Now all of our youth are pushing the envelope in music and the West is the most colourful set in hip-hop today.
How do you feel about the current state of hip-hop? Which artists right now are grabbing your attention?
Wow, If they keep trying to stop us they are gonna create World War Three! We are massive right now, any artist coming out is doing it the right way – their own way. Niggas know the game and know it aint no half stepping or biting and I’m just shocked as hell that all these young guns are really doing it right. I think this is the biggest explosion in hip-hop since the early Ninties.
Being an artist you must have influenced or inspired many of your listeners in one way or another. Do you have a story of something a fan has ever done or said to you that emphasized this?
I hear stories everyday, or all the time and it still surprises me where my music winds up in this world. Just the other day a kid told me he was hospitalized for a month and all he did was digest my entire catalogue, which is huge already. Another kid told me my music healed him while he was in the hospital. I think I’m gonna ink a deal with Kaiser, drop some medicine man music!
What is a piece of advice you would extend onto an aspiring artist that wants to achieve what you have been able to do?
Find somebody else’s shoes to fill kid, there will only be one Blu. You gotta make sure that you are the only you, cause someone will snatch that light right from yo’ ass, no joke.
What do you like to do when you’re not making music?
You’ve said that when you’re done with music, you would want to pursue writing and directing films. Is this still your long-term plan?
Yes. God willing. My film ideas are larger than life. Hopefully someone will help me fit them into a screen somewhere!
What’s next for Blu? Any word on an Australian Tour?
Yes yes! Blu and Exile will be in Australia and New Zealand late November for the “Give Me My Flowers While I Smell The Aussies” tour!
Interview by Shereen Awwad