From his early work in the mid-90s, to his current solo career, soul singer Aloe Blacc has come a long way in the world of hip hop. Starting his career working alongside DJ Exile as the duo EMANON, Blacc continued to expand, working with various artists, including the Jazz Liberatorz and producer and emcee OHNO, who was signed on Stones Throw Records. The result: Blacc was signed to Stones Throw Records, and from there, the singer took his career to a whole new level. His debut solo album, Shine Through, was released in 2006, and was followed by the runaway success of his sophomore album Good Things and its lead single "I Need a Dollar." After that, Blacc's solo career took off, and his name has become well known throughout the music industry, and he has no intention to slow down anytime soon.
I recently caught up with Mr. Blacc to chat about everything from his beginnings in the music industry, the making of both his studio albums, Shine Through and Good Things, touring, the differences between Europe and North America, and what we can expect from him in the future. You can check out our interview after the jump.
Some Kind of Awesome: You began your career in 1995 working alongside producer Exile as hip-hop duo EMANON. Tell me about the early days of your career, from your work with Exile, to your work with the Jazz Liberatorz.
Aloe Blacc: I started out in the music business as an emcee making songs for fun with my friend DJ Exile. It was really just a hobby for me because my main focus was school and getting good grades, which paid off because I ended up receiving a full-tuition academic scholarship to a private university. Exile and I would make mixtapes that eventually made their way around the world, which is similar to how music travels today, but it was a bit slower without the speed of the internet. When I graduated from university, I went on a European tour and met producer/emcee OHNO, who was on Stones Throw Records. During this tour I also met the Jazz Liberatorz in Paris and recorded "What's Real." After the tour, OHNO and I recorded an album together and the label heard the music. They liked the songs on which I was singing best and asked me to record as a vocalist, so I delivered Shine Through, which is a mix of genres but mainly songs on which I'm singing.
SKoA: In 2005, you signed with Stones Throw Records and began a solo career, subsequently releasing your first solo LP, Shine Through, the next year. What were your initial feelings upon being signed? And what were your reasons for beginning a solo career?
AB: I felt really lucky and blessed to have the opportunity to be on this label. As a hip hop artist you’re either going to do the major label thing or you’re going to do the indie label thing and if it’s an indie label then you want to be with the best. As a solo artist, I wanted to explore different styles and genres that I didn't feel were available to hip hop or appreciated by my previous audience. I think the genre exploration on Shine Through was a great introduction to my solo career. It was almost like the table of contents to my future; it showcased soul, salsa, dancehall, hip hop, experimental, dance, and other styles. The breadth of experience in many styles has been a nice education in creating the perfect musical puzzle.
SKoA: Prior to and after the release of Shine Through, you continued to tour and record as part of EMANON, all the while working on your solo career. Are there certain aspects of your solo career that you find to be better or more exhilarating than working with Exile and vice versa?
AB: I just enjoy making music. It's fun with Exile and it's fun as a solo artists as well as working with other musicians who are talented and creative. Now that I have learned more about song writing and performing, there is a lot I can bring back to the work Exile and I do as EMANON to improve our sound and presentation.
SKoA: Your single “I Need a Dollar” served as a major stepping-stone for you in terms of being brought into mainstream attention and focus. How did you react initially to the attention that the single brought?
AB: It feels like poetic justice to be receiving attention for my music after so many years. The success of "I Need a Dollar" clearly indicates how people are hungry for good music if they can have a chance to hear it. Success for me is being able to eat and pay rent and that’s all I need. That’s just life in general. When it comes to making music, success to me is making a really good song that everybody likes. That’s an important thing; I make music for me initially, but after it is released, I want people to like it.
SKoA: Good Things, your second studio album, was released in 2010. Describe the recording process to me? How did it differ from the recording of your first solo album, or even the recording work you’ve done for EMANON?
AB: I went to New York to write and record songs with Truth & Soul and we finished the album in a few weeks. It was a really smooth process. The producers are known for creating an old soul vibe, so I was aware that the songs we would make together would sound like they were from a different time. We had jamming sessions and I wrote songs to the music we created. Some of the songs were ideas I have had for many years. The vision was to make an album that would be timeless and respected by the great soul musicians and artists of the past and all contemporary fans of good music. The process for many of the songs was not much different from how I create with Exile for EMANON because I often just bring lyrics to beats he has already created. Other times I write new lyrics to beats that inspire me.
SKoA: In the wake of Good Things, a greater number of people knew your name and the album itself was received very positively. How did you feel regarding fan and critical reception of the album? And is there anything you would have done differently, or were you happy with the finished product?
AB: I never expected the album to receive such attention, but I am very pleased with the way things have turned out. I'm very used to working independently, and in the future I prefer to write, record, and produce songs on my own. It would be nice to make a "director's cut" of my album and then offer it to other producers to re-work the songs for an alternative or "editor's cut" and see which one fans like best. With Good Things, the live show is the best way to see how I would have done things differently, but songs always need a chance to grow and the stage is the best place for this.
SKoA: In support of Good Things, you’ve been touring extensively. What are your favourite aspects of touring, or even your least favourite? And, do you have any moments (whether it was a specific show or someone you met) that stand out above the rest?
AB: The best part about touring is seeing many new fans and often seeing the same fans return to shows. I enjoy sharing the music in different ways, and adding new songs to the set to create a different feel and surprises for my audiences. The hardest thing is not having much comfort on the road. Sometimes I would just like to be at home sleeping for a week. The best experiences so far have been playing on television with my band, The Grand Scheme, and also meeting Quincy Jones and Paul McCartney.
SKoA: You’re currently on tour in Europe, and, at the beginning of December, you’ll be taking off to do your UK tour. Is there something that excites you about the UK/European fans more so than your North American fans? And, what aspects of performing Europe do you find to be different, whether good or bad, than performing in North America?
AB: I happen to have many more European fans than back at home right now because the album has had more success in Europe thanks to the help of the major labels who licensed the music. I'm looking forward to re-launching the album in the US and touring at home extensively. The major difference between touring in Europe and the U.S. is the hospitality. Venues in Europe are much better at welcoming artists and taking care of them.
SKoA: Following in the wake of your tour schedule, what are your plans for the future? Will you be returning to the studio to work on a new EP or perhaps even a follow-up to Good Things, or will you continue to tour?
AB: I'm always writing and I making demos so I hope to get into the studio soon. I will try to take a break for one month to just incubate and let new ideas develop before heading back out on the road, but I'm also planning a series of special concerts with a string quintet where I sing selections from Good Things as well as classic hit songs and standards.
SKoA: One last question. Tell me one thing about yourself that you don’t think any of your fans know, whether it’s an embarrassing memory, an odd habit, a favourite type of food, or anything you can think of.
AB: I'm pretty sure my fans don't know that I'm an aspiring actor, and am looking forward to telling stories in front of the camera instead of just on stage as a singer. I'm hoping to land rolls in films about important people in history or important subjects that we should give our attention to today.