For most rappers, even ones whose careers are caught in a rapidly decaying orbit, retirement talk is met mostly with disbelief, perhaps even indifference. Like an aging boxer who can’t hang up the gloves, the tail end of many rap catalogues can be ugly. Yet Blu, who flirted with the notion of early retirement a few ago, has since taken an 180 approach, prolifically dropping solo records, EPs, special side projects and much more to mention.
*Cue “Eye of the Tiger”
For all his astonishingly vivid lyrical acumen, Blu is quite tight-lipped come press time, which sort of makes sense for such an introspective artist. The LA rapper whose rep ascended in the underground hip-hop scene has spit mouthfuls of substantive rhymes through the course of projects like The Piece Talks, Good To Be Home, or Jesus, in addition to celebrated works with producer Exile (Below The Heavens and Give Me Flowers While I Can Smell Them). With no shortage of producers willing to give him beats (Madlib, Alchemist, 45 King, and Pete Rock among many), Blu’s latest is a lucid yet sharp collab with beatsmith Oh No, A Long Red Hot Los Angeles Summer Night.
I was able to speak at length with him for Wax Poetics during a rare, open press window a few years back. Fittingly verbose (in a refreshing way) detailed, and humble, here are choice portions of our talk that never made it to print. Originally published for Nerdtorious, here’s some history with Blu who hopefully has jettisoned all that retirement talk. Not to bad of a career thus far for the gifted MC who started as a hypeman and whose favorite musician is Sun Ra. – David Ma
Tell folks a bit about your history with Exile. Your first release was in 2007. How sure were you at that point that music would be your career?
Blu: I actually wasn’t sure at all. I started working on the record in 2005 at the age of 21, and I knew I wanted to make a strong debut like all the greats I admire like Nas, Ice Cube, Krs, Snoop, and others. It was a huge blessing to get Exile to produce the entire record. I had other producers in mind when we first started crafting the album but after exile and I did one song, I knew he was the perfect person to man the production on the entire record. I always looked up to Premier, Dilla, and Hi-Tek and I finally met someone from California who was on that level of production mastery. He had all the jewels for me to create and get out everything I needed to express for my debut.
You started as a hypeman? How was that experience as an aspiring rapper?
Blu: Well, my cousin wrote my first raps for me when I was thirteen but because I was raised in the church, hip-hop was restricted in my household growing up. It wasn’t until I moved back into L.A. County with my father that I began to buy rap music. It was right after I listened to DMX’s It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot that I started writing my own raps. I was a great freestyle MC for years, it wasn’t until my good friend who worked at Wake Up Show convinced me to start writing and recording songs instead of battling every emcee for my recognition. I thank him to this day. I remember he always said, “Ain’t no money in free styling bro, its free.” Then he hipped me to Aquemini. I would eventually hype man for many California groups and bands before my crew and I would get to the point of gracing the stage on our own.
What’s your work process like and how is it conducive to working with many producers?
Blu: Almost every producer I have ever sat down in the studio and worked with has wanted to create an album. Half the time that ends up being the result. I think it’s my hunger to stay edgy, and ahead of the curb. material gets old quick, so it’s a must to make ever tune as classic and memorable as possible. Personally though, its’ all about eating tracks up though.
You mentioned some favorites earlier, but what other MCs did you grow up listening to? Any specific verses that struck you?
Blu: Man oh man, don’t get me started, I can go on for days. “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa” and “I Am Be” by De La [Soul] and Common’s “I Used to Love H.E.R.” changed my life. All of Andre [3000’s] verses on Atliens, Canibus “Beast From The East” verse, Mos Def’s “Thieves In the Night”, and Eminem’s freestyles. That was my era yo. Pure lyricism. Anything from early Redman, early Ice Cube, early BDP records.
Why there was such a long break between your first release and the years that followed?
Blu: My first three albums were done at the same time. While I was working on Below the Heavens with Exile, I was also doing a duo album with Ta’Raach and working with Mainframe on our Johnson & Jonson album. I was hoping they would all be released at the same time. That was how I wanted to come out. Due to a lot of label drama and hang-ups, it didn’t happen as I planned. It took about 2 or 3 years just to release those records, during that whole time we were busy touring. Soon as I got home I was itching to create and ended up producing I think five albums at once; Her Favorite Colo(u)r, Open, the instrumental album, the unreleased Godlee Barnes project, and the A Day Late & A Dollar Short album I did for a kid named Sene, from Brooklyn.
Talk about the influences that went into Her Favorite Colo(u)r. Who are some of your favorite Jazz musicians?
Blu: Man, I’m a much bigger jazz fan now, during the making of Her Favorite Colo(u)r I was buying my first jazz records and building my collection. I was deep into American music as a whole, from James Brown to Jimi [Hendrix], the Beatles, Miles [Davis], and Nina Simone. It has finally come full circle that I can sit down and really, really appreciate all my jazz. I love all the classic guys. My dream team is Miles, Thelonius Monk, Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker and Phillie Joe on the drums. But my favorite jazz albums come from Sun Ra!
How was working with producers like Madlib, 9th Wonder, or Alchemist?
Blu: I come from a digital era so a lot of times tracks and verses are sent back and forth online. I have never hit the studio w 9th Wonder but we have done a good handful of tunes just sending tracks back and forth. I have never been in the studio with the great Madlib, but it has been an honor to meet his brother and be given an okay to freely record to the mass amount of music he has blessed me with. As far as Alchemist man, haha, I can’t get out of his studio, it’s great working with the chemist. Man, he’s precise and knows his shit. His work ethic is actually crazier than mine and not to mention his track record and clientele is one of the best in the game.
When you look back at your career so far, what strikes you most?
Blu: Man, I think I have just been welcomed into the whole hip-hop scene with open arms. Getting love from folks like Krs-One, Boot Camp Click, Kanye West, amongst many others who I look up to has kept me focused on creating man. But I can honestly say, since the day I started this shit I have not looked back once, and that’s saying something you know.
Well, you already had conflicts with record labels. What happened at Warner Bros that made you leave?
Blu: Man, Warner Bros would have been larger than life. I had an amazing contract with these guys. Thing is, I got signed right before they started to rebuild the entire label. First my A&Rs were fired, then the presidents were booted, all my label mates left, then a new team came in and they didn’t know what to do with my shit. I was trying to create a genre bending rap record with underground producers they had never heard of (like flying lotus, ahem) and it was in my contract to do a full-length film, as well, per album. eventually the whole company was bought out. They made one move, signed Rick Ross and didn’t speak to anyone else. I had to pack up and leave. good thing some good folks from Def Jam helped me walk away with my record at least.
What aesthetics do you look for in a beat before choosing to go in on it?
Blu: I just ask the best guys really. I just got a beat from Pete Rock yo! We did a 12-inch, that’s a dream come true. I wasn’t trying to make a hot chart topping single with Pete and reinvent the remix, but I did want to make a tune close to what I loved most about his smooth soulful production. Elzhi tried to jack that beat from me too, I see you El! [Laughs]
How is your approach to producing different than rapping? What’s your setup like?
Blu: I used to produce straight from Pro Tools because all the studio had was that recording program. So I would stay late after recording sessions and throw in mp3’s of classic drum loops and soul samples and chop right there. I figured if an engineer can loop and layer a hook, then you can loop and layer drums. Now it’s strictly that old MPC 2000 XL, never fails yo. straight raw shit.
You’re prolific for sure – but why release a double album?
Blu: So many reasons. The timing is right, and honestly we just couldn’t stop recording songs for this album. This has been my favorite album to create thus far and I think it has turned out to be the most defining piece in my catalog. It’s about growing up in L.A. I’ve stomped thru L.A. County for so many years but never sat down and paid homage to where and how I was raised. This record is a love story between a kid and his city.
I’ve read about you stating you want to quit rapping at age thirty. Was that in jest or serious?
Blu: I said that thinking I had created my best work and it was time to put down the mic and take my creativity into other places. But man, the last few years I have gotten so much love and invites to work and create that I can’t stop. So my bad for all you fans who thought it was the end, but we just getting
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