Crying in the Club: An Interview With Blimes Brixton

Taylor Engle speaks with the Bay Area artist about new single "Under My Skin" and her experience as a battle rapper.
By    January 24, 2020

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Last March was an eventful time for Bay Area MC Blimes Brixton. The month started with a celebration of her 30th birthday and ended with the release of her debut solo album, Castles. But between all the excitement and promise, she was in pain. Stuck in the relationship purgatory between being together and broken up, she had a lot to process regarding her then-partner, whose differences were just too great for them to stay afloat. 

Her story is immensely relateable, illustrating a stagnant torture that everyone has suffered at some point. The biggest question is always, “What now?” Blimes’ reaction was fittingly honest. Rather than leave anything unsaid, she channeled her emotions about the breakup into a song on the same topic: her latest single, “Under My Skin.”

Of course, Blimes isn’t the first artist to write a song about her ex — we’ve all heard Drake before. But she’s one of the very few to write a song about her ex, ask said ex to collaborate on a music video and shoot it all in one day. 

The song and video production was more gripping than anything of hers that I’d previously seen. While the breakup itself inevitably unfolded over many conversations, she was able to depict its complete dissolution in just three minutes and four seconds. The sudden and harsh change in energy between the couple from one minute to the next was a place I’ve been before, leaving me with a knot in my stomach that felt raw and personal. 

One half of Blimes and Gab (B.A.G.), Blimes first gained major recognition with the group’s debut collaborative single and music video, “Come Correct.” Although released on a Friday night — a time considered to be PR suicide — the video reached over 10 million views within a few days and led the two rappers, Blimes and Gifted Gab, to continue making music as a duo. They just wrapped their first tour together following the release of their latest single, “Un Deux Trois.” 

Blimes and Gab is a collaboration that feels predetermined. The pair of MCs have known each other just shy of two years, but their chemistry onstage, in the studio, and on their shared social media accounts (equipped with an array of silly videos and stories) suggests otherwise. The two get along as if they’ve done so their entire lives, Blimes bringing out Gab’s playfulness onstage and Gab inspiring Blimes to keep spitting harder and harder.

As a solo artist, Blimes’ discography has everything from a funky, contemporary R&B influence to her spitting gritty and poetic rhymes, but her newest release has shoved her out of her comfort zone and into a more vulnerable space. 

The granddaughter of jazz musician Sam McDonald and daughter of R&B bassist Randy McDonald (of Tommy Castro and the Painkillers), Blimes grew up surrounded by jazz and began attending her father’s shows as a kid. She was inspired by McDonald, who has been playing in bands since the age of 16. After being gifted her first guitar as a fourth grader onstage while her dad’s band opened for B.B. King (which B.B. King subsequently signed for her after asking photographers to leave the room – it was against his contract to sign a Fender), she became obsessed with learning everything she could about guitar.

Born and raised in San Francisco, Blimes started experimenting with music as sport during her sixth grade lunch period. “Kids would gather in a circle and battle rap. I was always really timid but one day, something came over me. I just jumped in,” Blimes said with a grin. She won that battle, which sparked a pattern of winning and granted her a feeling of acceptance.

After she had left battle rap on the playground for a few years to focus more on songwriting, a 21-year-old Blimes found herself joining in on a group of people rapping at a Cabrillo College party in Santa Cruz. A friend commented on her abilities and encouraged her to pursue battle rapping, which initially made her laugh. She hadn’t realized there was an entire online community dedicated to the practice, let alone a road to making a name for yourself. She began posting videos of her battling on message boards as Oh Blimey, eventually being recognized as one of the biggest female battle rappers of the time. 

The battles were climatically brutal: a constant scramble to put down your opponent and come out on top. The further Oh Blimey climbed up the underground ladder, the more she was being hyped up and praised on the Internet for her skill. Not only was she known for her shocking and hard-hitting punch lines, but she adopted a capricious personality that was notorious for throwing people off, sometimes rapping in Spanish or with an exaggerated British accent. 

After battling at noteworthy events such as Rock the Bells and being co-signed by the Californian battle rapper and radio personality Ghambit, Oh Blimey realized something pertinent: she hated it. She began to recognize how self-critical she had become and didn’t want to tear others down or be torn down herself, so she backed away from the whole thing and changed her name to Blimes Brixton.

It was during this period of confusion, depression and not knowing what her next steps would be that Method Man reached out with an offer from Drop the Mic, a reality show that invites celebrities to compete in rap battles. He expressed his support in her as a rapper and asked her to be a battle coach in the show, which she accepted. This eventually led to their collaboration on the song “Hot Damn.”

Feeling inspired, Blimes poured her energy into Peach House, the all-womxn label she started to “make amends” for her battle rap days and empower rather than tear down. This led to Blimes shedding her battle rap regalia for good and putting forth her most positive self: the solo artist who released the dreamy, feel-good debut album Castles earlier this year; the uplifting rapper who, as a pleasant surprise-ending to 2019, has left me crying in front of my laptop.

Between her experience as a battle rapper and her hard-hitting rhymes, Blimes has rarely shown us her ability to soften up her voice, which is another reason “Under My Skin” is so refreshing. This story of love gained and lost is cooed in a soft lilt, inviting me to connect and reflect on my own relationships. The song’s honesty represents society’s recent and gradual shift from instinctually hiding feelings to being open to vulnerability and change.

After watching the video and being “in my feelings” for a considerable amount of time, I had several questions for the artist regarding her new song, new voice and of course: that video. It was my second time interviewing her, and her smile and energy were infectious even on FaceTime.  – Taylor Engle

So, how are you feeling post-release?

Blimes: It has been so lovely! My phone is flooded with DMs right now of people saying things like, “Blimes got me crying for real right now!” and “Blimes got my crying in the club!” This response has been exactly what I hoped for, in terms of people relating to it and being able to feel the emotion. I’m really grateful.

That was my exact sentiment when I first heard the song, and especially when I first saw that video. It’s so wildly different from anything you’ve done in the past. What made you want to switch things up?

Blimes: Yeah, it’s definitely way different from anything I’ve done before. I didn’t really know if people would be down with this Blimes, but it’s something I’ve been wanting to try for a while and this song is just really real for me. It’s about an actual relationship I was in and have been battling walking away from this entire year. It had so much potential but just wasn’t fulfilling all of our needs in the moment. I was in a space where I was just so conflicted. I was feeling a lot of emotions, and I didn’t know where to put them. My therapy is to write or listen to music, and I’m always so grateful for every writer who picked up the pen when they were feeling something, so I thought to myself, Okay, this time I’ll be the one to do that. It’s usually really easy for me to dissociate from the difficult emotions and sort of just tune out and pour myself into meditation, running, or occasionally less healthy coping mechanisms, but this time I wanted to really tap into my creativity and try.

What was it like collaborating on “Under My Skin” with Mars Today?

Blimes: Mars Today is an amazing solo artist, but also a very valuable co-writer and contributor to a session. This song just wouldn’t be what it is without him and the approach he took. He basically sat me down, played me the beat and made me sing melodies for hours. That was the majority of our first session: freestyle, hum-diddly-humming over the beat. He did this because he wanted to capture a feeling before we even focused on the lyrics, and it really helped.

And what happened after you wrote the song?

Blimes: When I wrote the song I was in a really undecided space. I wasn’t sure if I should wait things out and try to make it work, or just walk away. I went to visit my partner at the time — she lives in Seattle. We were trying things again after a series of splits. I told her I had this song and I wanted her to hear it, and she knew how real it was for me. So I asked if she’d want to collaborate on this music video with me, because we had spent a lot of time in Seattle when we were together and I thought shooting it in that area would be really powerful. The director I always work with, Andrew Imanaka, is based in Seattle, so I did what I always do when I want to collab, which is to text him, “Hey. You wanna get creative?” And he did. His cinematography is insane; he can make anything look good.

That must have taken a lot of maturity and communication to collaborate on a music video with someone you are sort of in the process of splitting up with. It sounds like it must have been very emotional.

Blimes: Oh, definitely. My partner at the time in the video is Merlin the Girl; she’s a DJ, a songwriter and an incredible human. Luckily while we were shooting, we were definitely on a high and in a really good place in our hearts. We shot it all in one day. The concept was mine, and Andrew called the shots on location. My partner and I had come up with some ideas: I knew the story and she knew the area. It was actually really easy to tap into the good stuff, because that’s where we were in our relationship at the time. Having fun and being silly and hella excited to be trying things out again. But the second half of the video was definitely painful to shoot, because we had to face the reality that we had been there before and this might not ultimately work out.

Although that sounds incredibly difficult to navigate, it seems like the more intimate the artist is willing to be, the more interested the fans are.

Blimes: Absolutely! I love that I’m at a point in my career where I can go more raw and real, and start singing more. Gifted Gab and I have plans to release a B.A.G. album in the first quarter of 2020, and after that’s done I’ll have more freedom to work on my own music. More of my friends have shared this song release than anything I’ve put out before, and that just feels really good. I’ve also gotten a lot of support from Spotify on editorial playlisting, and Billboard showing interest in me under the PRIDE division.

Speaking of PRIDE, I’ve always admired the fact that you are an LGBTQ+ artist who raps and sings about queer love without strain. It just feels organic and normal and just as love should be: effortless.

Blimes: That has always been so important to me in music making. I want to be represented by way of achievement rather than by advertisement and respected as an artist before a queer artist. I think I can do more for our voice that way, and that’s always been such a goal of mine. I started performing at Pride events when I was around 19. For the past 10 years or so I’ve played in queer spaces and have seen other artists — and this is not a diss because a lot of artists need those queer spaces to feel safe and I’m not knocking it at all — take the route where they’re almost exclusively playing in queer spaces. I don’t want to get stuck in any circuit. While I’m happy to play at queer spaces, I want to represent our voice on a much bigger scale, because damn it feels good when you get a mainstream opportunity!

I definitely agree with that! Especially with such a notorious history in underground and battle rap. Looking back, what was that experience like just starting out?

Blimes: Straight up high on adrenaline, heart racing out of your chest, terrifying. But there’s something about battle rapping that really forces you to sharpen your mind and use it as a tool, and that really comes in handy. I remember I used to download beats and practice all weekend every weekend in my friend’s basement. You’re just looking someone up and down analyzing them, and the topics are coming into your mind right in front of you. I was in it during the golden era of battle rap, when it was still gritty and grimy and not all commercialized and padded like it is today. You were still able to pay your dues and earn your cred, and that was a really cool thing. As harsh as it is, I couldn’t be where I am today without the journey that was battle rap.

It’s a respect that’s hard to earn but worth it once you do, I’d imagine. What was it like to be first co-signed by Ghambit?

Blimes: For a long time, because I was so different than what people expected to see and hear in hip-hop, it was really risky to co-sign me. Now we’re in this era where honesty is celebrated and I’m stoked on it, but for a while it was pretty cookie-cutter, so for him to co-sign me when not a lot of people wanted to? That was major.

What prompted the name change, other than your desire to move away from battle rap? After being widely-recognized under the name Oh Blimey, it must have been difficult to rebrand.

Blimes: I wanted to erase all history of Oh Blimey and my battle rapping days because I didn’t think it represented who I was. Quite frankly, I was ashamed. I felt fraudulent and phony and embarrassed because of how raw and foul battle rapping was. I came up with the name Blimey when I was 11 or 12. I used to read Harry Potter hella heavily, listen to Lady Sovereign, Dizzee Rascal — hella UK hip hop, so I’d battle rap with a British accent sometimes. The name was derivative of “Cor blimey,” which was British slang for “Oh shit,” but I always heard it as Oh Blimey [laughs]. I was weird. Anyway, I wanted to distance myself, but Blimes still honors that part of me. I knew it was going to be difficult to rebrand and regain a fanbase; there were moments when I thought I wasn’t going to make it. I didn’t think I had a place in hip hop anymore — thankfully, I was wrong.

By the end of 2020, what will you want to have accomplished, as an artist and as a person?

Blimes: [contemplates the question deeply; then, after a deep breath:] Personal growth is really important to me. I think I’d like to continue writing music from a space as honest as this, and have that new Blimes album out by the end of the year. It’s also really important for me to focus on B.A.G. and our upcoming album release. I want it to be received in high esteem amongst the OGs [grins widely]. But yeah, I want a Blimes album that focuses on honest and true feelings. I want to keep digging deep.

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