BLU: FULL EATING BEATS
photo by anthony williams
Several years back, John Barnes was set up by many to be the great West Coast hope for hip-hop. By now, his Below the Heavens is the stuff of fables, and if you’re under 25 and from the left coast, you probably have some personal story about how Blu’s first album made you love hip-hop again. Instead of ascending to the mainstream however, Blu took a series of head-scratching left turns. The C.R.A.C. Knuckles project was a new-age De La Soul Is Dead. Her Favorite Colo(u)r was a cinematic heartbroken love note. NoYork! encapsulated the beat-scene movement in a way no MC has been able to do. Jesus sounded like a lo-fi Sunday morning. Along the way, Blu ditched a Warner Bros. deal, produced for other rappers, and revisited his musical bond with Exile on the Give Me My Flowers While I Can Still Smell Them LP. Still, Blu seemed more interested in pushing himself into new territory than in looking back towards the past. Young Azul is one of the only MCs on the planet that can switch his style up consistently and not miss a beat technically. And now, while TDE and YG are shifting the mainstream focus back on the sound of the cul de sac in the age of molly water, Blu has hooked up with Bombay to produce a “G-Soul” record, Good to Be Home. Hood in the way a Charles Burnett film is hood, Blzzo’s newest effort sidesteps ghetto sensationalism for a sound that strikes a balance between the cerebral and the intuitive. He speaks here about the creation of the album, why Bombay was the perfect producer to bring it to life, and if he’d ever revisit a major label situation again. He plays the Observatory and the Terrace this week. This interview by sweeney kovar. (And check out our exclusive interview with Bombay here!)
You’ve said Good to Be Home is your most definitive record. Can you explain?
It’s my most defining and definitive album in that it was a must for me to create this album. Being from the West Coast, I owe so much to the coast for the love they’ve given me throughout the years that has allowed me to be me—a humble, backpack-conscious MC coming out of Cali. What was prevalent was always gangster rap, so to be accepted into the underground it was only right I take the time to turn around and give love back to the city.
If you go through all your older albums—from the Blu and Ex shit, C.R.A.C., Johnson&Jonson, NoYork!—each one has its own distinct sound. This one sounds like its own sound too; it sounds much more like the neighborhood.
It’s not too conscious, it’s not too street, it’s not too lyrical and it’s not too dumbed-down—meaning it isn’t too simplified, like a 4-year-old can go pick up a pistol after they hear it. Or dumbed down to the point where we have been lowered in society—we are still there cleaning up, pulling heads up, yo. It’s a nice, warm, chill record. It’s a double CD, so it’s enough music to satisfy a person. When I decided to do the record with Bombay, I knew he had the sound I was looking for. I was looking for a sound to lay down what I wanted to speak about. I wanted to do the Good to Be Home record before I had the producer to do it. I knew I wanted to do a West Coast record. I had a bunch of beats from producers in mind but it wasn’t until I got Bombay’s beats that I knew his were the beats for the project. I’ve always been a big soul fan—soul music, jazz, blues, all that—but I wanted to do some G shit, you know what I mean? I wanted to bring back some G shit but I was like, ‘How am I going to do some G shit when I’ve done like future-wave shit and very conscious music?’ Then I heard Bombay’s beats and it was like the illest G shit but still very soulful. I don’t think anyone has beats that are drenched with as much soul as Bombay’s. It was a must. Those fat-ass basslines? So West Coast, bro.
How did you first meet Bombay?
I first met Bombay in high school. He was actually the third person I met to play me his beats. I got this beat CD in high school and my homeboy was in a crew that had worked with Daz, RBX, Ras Kass and different MCs out of Long Beach. He swore up and down they were DJ Quik beats: ‘There’s no one in Los Angeles who could make these! These are DJ Quik’s beats.’ We thought they was for a while because the CD had that song ‘Addictive’ with Truth Hurts and they were on that vibe. It was a crazy beat CD—the best beat CD I had ever gotten at that point. I talked to the homie that I had got it from and he hooked me up with a dude and the dude ended up telling us they wasn’t his beats, so he hooked us up with some other guy. I started paying him like $75 a beat and I’m in high school. I go to pay for like my fifth beat and the homie calls like, ‘That’s not even Bombay. That’s not even the real dude—that’s his cousin.’ This is the third person we’ve met claiming this dude’s beats! So we finally set up a meeting with Bombay. We go out to the 909, the I.E., and meet Bombay. I didn’t believe him. He was playing these jazz loops and had fat keyboard skills and crazy sound-chops. He was doing these weird jazz loops, almost like some Madlib shit. He said those [beats on the CD] were his but then he was like, ‘Lemme play this other beat CD.’ He played another beat CD that was exactly what the fuck we were looking for. We knew it was him.
So when did you finally meet him?
I was probably 19, a year after high school. I put out my first album and Bombay did about three beats on there. Miguel was singing on one of his beats too. That was my first underground album. I only pressed 1,000 and sold them all myself. That was called California Soul—that was my first album. It wasn’t until shortly after I did that album that I hooked up with Exile and we started working on what would become my official debut, Below the Heavens. It wasn’t till years down the line that Aloe Blacc asked me, ‘Did you ever start working with Bombay again?’ We hooked up with him [again] and dude had so many beats I couldn’t believe it. They was so dope—I was shocked. I got this fat beat CD from him and by the time I got halfway through it I knew I had to do an album with him. It was time. We did it. It’s coming out, two years in the making [Out now!—ed.]. We’ve known each other for like twelve years, you know what I mean? Good to be home…
Why do you think it took so long for the musical relationship to come full-circle like that?
I think we were busy at the time. Even after I did my first album, Bombay was doing a lot of work with other people and I was doing a lot of work with other people. We were hooking up every now and then but we respected each other highly and we always had plans to do big things.
The sound on this album, it definitely has that bass, a little of that G-funk that—
It’s not the G-funk era, Bombay is the G-soul era. This is my G-soul album.
You also still have that lo-fi grit that’s present on the Jesus LP and other projects.
Even my first album, Below the Heavens, we didn’t do a commercial album. We did an album that was pretty digestible but it wasn’t a commercial record. It had warm samples, soul sample chops—we weren’t doing any electronic bounce-house hits. We both come from an underground scene. We both listened to underground music coming up. We have a similar ear. We love Dilla, Hi-Tek, Premier, Pete Rock, you know what I’m saying? My man is just as deep as I am into the music. He knows what’s hot as well as I know what’s hot. We both like Roc Marciano, Lootpack, Slum Village. It wasn’t like I was trying to make a Jay-Z record and he was trying to make a Jurassic 5 record. We wanted to make a Bombay and Blu record. I knew he had the heat and I knew whatever I needed he’d be able to deliver. He knew I wasn’t going to give him any bullshit cuz of all the albums I’ve put out.
You’ve always been a skilled MC. On this album, it seems like the lyricism is so dense—every bar is maximized. The rapping is gritty and abstract but still very soulful.
Definitely man. The fans know what to look for when they get a Blu record. They’re not going to get anything commercial, they’re not going to get anything cookie cutter. They’re going to get some good soul records. They’re going to get a good vibe listening to our shit. We’re just trying to make you feel good.
Did you feel as an MC you had anything to prove with this record?
Not really. I wanted to carve out my spot in L.A. and let it be known that I am an L.A. artist. I’ve never capitalized on that or over-pronounced that. It was always a part of who I was. I was heading out to wreck everybody, I wasn’t just trying to wreck the West like that. I wanted to eat up everybody on every coast, overseas, down South, wherever you’re popping up at I was trying to eat you up. I did a lot of records not really looking back. After touring and trying to break new sounds, going from independent to major and back, we finally found time to be back home. Right off the bat, we were just chilling at the crib. We turned down shows, just chilled in the studio and vibed out. It was good to be home and it was good to just relax and do an album without any label pressure, any fan pressure, trying to top this record or do that. ‘Let’s cut it, let’s do it.’ What happens when people pressure the artist is a Detox or a Soulquarians album, or the Nas and Premier album, or a new D’Angelo album. We hardheads, yo—if you tryna pressure me for something, nine times out of ten you ain’t gonna get it.
Did you purposefully keep it close to home? Besides a few records you leaked there wasn’t too much information about this album till a few weeks before its release.
It was kind of on purpose. You know me—this wasn’t all that was in the can. I was working with Nottz at the time, I started working a lot more with Madlib and Alchemist. I’m walking into different climates and planting seeds everywhere. Bombay would come through and we’d knock out three or four songs in Long Beach then I would go spend two days at Al’s spot, fucking with Al and Ev. Fuck around and come back and holler at MED and fuck with some Oxnard heads, mess with some Madlib. With Bombay, it was more of making a solo album. With Nottz and Madlib, the things we were creating were more like group projects. With Bombay I felt like I was doing a solo record.
The album feels very cinematic. You even have a cinematic intro at the very beginning. You tell a story without a clear linear narrative—it’s more like snapshots.
We wanted to make a day in the life of L.A. in an album. Being as true to who we are. Keeping it real to shit we play and the vibes we give off, what we’re looking for and what we put into life. We wanted to put all that into the record and we wanted to hear all of that come out of the record. The theme of it was just a day in the life. It was so easy for everyone to fall into character. Just do what you do naturally. It wasn’t hard to get it crackin’ in the studio. We were working with everybody, folks like U-N-I, who I’ve known for years. I hit up Thurz and he’d come down and cut his shit. I hit up my cousin Casey [Veggies]: ‘We need a verse!’ A week later he’s sending me a verse and he’s getting hollered at by Roc-A-Fella and everybody. One of the hardest verses on the album is Casey Veggies’ ‘Well Fare’ verse.
That plays into the cinematic aspect of the album for me. It sounds like it starts with you coming home and then you start venturing out into the neighborhood and you start interacting with the people there.
The story doesn’t really start and end. The more you play the record over and over the more you realize it’s just like a day, over and over. You just start another day. You play the record again and it’s like, ‘I’m waking up, doing the same shit over again.’ It doesn’t stop. The last song is ‘Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop.’
How did you pick the features? You have cats like Prodigy, who are very known, and cats like Sweet Pea, who are much more underground.
I definitely needed to keep the homies involved because we got so much heat. I hate not being able to just cut mad shit with the homies. Soon as we got this rolling, I called everybody up like, ‘Everybody gotta get a piece of the record.’ Everybody contributed and it was fun picking out the heat. It was fun doing mad tracks with mad heads. Home is the realest place you can be, so let’s be real—as much as I wanted a feature from Ice Cube and DJ Quik, it is ‘good to be home’ and the homies got bars and work! Hardheads deserve shine, G—I got mad homies who ready to eat up yo’ spot right now, na mink! Y’all not ready for the crew albums—Dirty Science, the Johnson Family, BRIDGETOWN! ‘Whip Crème’ Part Two coming soon! Sweet Pea is my OG, super OG. He wrote my first rap. Prodigy is the only MC that’s not from the West on the album. Prodigy is the prodigal son, so Prodigy being on the album is a gem, an ultra gem. It’s one of his most classic verses I think. He came through and blazed it. Being in the studio with him was crazy. I pulled up some verses like, ‘Bro, we got some heat.’ He walked into the session and I started playing him something. He wanted to get down and I played him two beats. He picked ‘Red & Gold’ and we went in right there. Getting people like Phil [Da Agony], MED and Oh No was like a no-brainer because we’re just around each other so much. It was being back home with so much talent around you, you can’t really hide it. It was a must for us to collaborate. I definitely was trying to paint my picture and pick my piece out of that L.A. also. Getting certain people like Imani from Pharcyde and [2Mex and LMNO from] the Visionaries on there—that’s some ultra-backpack shit for me. We didn’t have $5 million to do the album, we had like $500. $500 and a lot of love, you know what I’m sayin’?
This album comes at a very interesting time for L.A. hip-hop. The focus has come back to L.A. hood stories, the block. That’s the face of L.A. rap on a mainstream level
It’s definitely there. Nipsey Hussle’s always been there. TDE’s doing their thing crazy with Dre’s camp. The Game’s always been holding it down. Dom Kennedy as well, Krondon. For us it was more like Compton’s Most Wanted. We wanted to paint the hood with soul samples. Today, it’s more bigger produced shit. Back in the day, it was fat loops and we wanted to let that vibe paint the picture. All the beats feel like they’re holding hands. It sounds like one long-ass beat. I love that, bro. We have a couple of instrumentals in there. I’ve done a lot of short songs, with Johnson&Jonson, Jesus and some of the older joints—two-and-a-half-minute, three-minute songs. On this we were trying to do full songs again. With this record it felt like if we put all these songs together fools would drown, you know what I’m sayin? The instrumentals help the record breathe. It helps the listener breeze through the album.
Why did you make it a double album?
We just had so many songs. We were ready to do an album, we were etching it out and it was almost a last-minute decision. ‘Let’s just make it a double album.’ I think we did a good 50 songs. Below the Heavens we did like 75 songs, Johnson&Jonson we did like 50 songs. The Flowers joint, I think I cut like 25 Exile songs in two weeks. NoYork! we probably almost hit the 50 mark there. I think we hit the 50 mark again on this one. It was good to do that again, to not be pressured to do just ten songs. Back to getting E&J instead of bottles of Grand Marnier. Let it simmer slow. We can’t do two blunts. We have the euros rolled up, the euro spliffs, zig-zagging through Long Beach.
What does L.A. sound like to you today?
Today L.A. sounds like it’s coming together, almost forming a huge union. The West is one. It almost feels like we can all get on the same song one day. The South is huge. The South is its own planet. New York is ghost town, you know. They’re getting hard outside of the hip-hop realm, expanding music into more experimental realms and smashing it. On the rap shit our underground scene is nice. We got somebody like Dom Kennedy who has put out mad product in L.A. and is just now getting MTV love. Or like a Nipsey Hussle who I don’t think has ever released an official debut album but he put out a mixtape for $100 a bop. I think he made $100,000 in a day with his mixtape. We’re at a fruitful stage where creativity is king. Kendrick Lamar being at the top of the list is showing how much our ears are open to lyricism or conscious trains of thought as opposed to only some G shit or a fat beat out of a sample my mom used to bump. The kid who can rap circles around everybody got the crown. I think that’s beautiful in the West. The Visionaries never stopped rapping. They are like my inspiration. LMNO put out like fourteen albums in 2011. I just found that out last year. I think the following year Madlib put out what, fourteen albums? Work ethic is crazy out here. Record sales are at an all-time high—that says a lot for the return of vinyl. It’s huge right now. The ball is in our court. It’s beautiful. Independent music is rising. The creator shit is popping. We just kicked back and did a cool ass G-soul album on them, though. Just sat back, sparked the J and let the beats play.
You had that foray with the majors but it sounds like you’re much more comfortable where you are now.
I was in a beautiful situation with Warner Bros., but Warner got turned inside out while I was there. The company was bought out—all the presidents, vice presidents, A&Rs were fired. Artists left. I would fuck with a major again. I had a great situation there but you can’t stop a person. You can’t expect a person to stop. We got out of that situation with four projects already in the air. Most of them are out now. It wasn’t like we got off the label and we were going to sit around until we got another offer. We have music we want to put out. We made sure that came out. If the majors are ever ready to go another round, I’ll be ready. Until then, we’ll see you in the underground. We make music the way we make music—we are free to create freely. Our music sounds the way it does because our creativity isn’t put in a box. We’re not cutting cookies or being expected to do anything. We’re free to create, bro. We drop three verses back-to-back but there’s no major label trying to put out three hardcore rap verses back-to-back with no hook. Is the song called ‘No Hook?’ Nah, the song is called ‘The Evolution of the Mind’s Axis,’ you know what I’m saying? We’re trying to Wu Tang the majors. All the majors have moved down South—what the fuck, man? Go down South, make all your money and when you’re ready to come back and do some ill shit, we’ll be right here.
What keeps you hungry as an MC?
I’m not even trying to eat heads right now. I’m full eating beats. We find hot beats and eat ’em up bro. Heads don’t want to get ate up. We’re happy and full from eating beats, we’re content. Niggas is well-fed. We got the best producers in the underground. Bombay right there just stepped into the realm. He’s about to let out that arsenal and it’s about to get crucial. For me, rapping is turning into songwriting. I’m not trying to progressively push my pen to be the best lyricst or have the most brand-new patterns—it’s more so penning down bars that compliment the beat than the beat complimenting what I’m saying. I’m trying to incorporate more rhythms in my patterns. I think my biggest attribute is the creativity. I think that’s what I strive to do with all my records and it definitely keeps my pen in a great place.
What inspires your creativity?
My imagination. My dreams inspire my creativity. It makes me want to create something that isn’t here. You hear the most amazing beat and the more you listen to beats, you start to hear amazing songs right on top of those beats: ‘I have to capture that song out of the ethers before it’s gone or before somebody takes this beat.’ It’s also being around other MCs like being in the studio with Alchemist. You step into Al’s studio and there’s going to be five other MCs there and it’s not going to be the same five MCs that were there two days ago. You got Roc Marc in the studio, you got Oh No in the studio, you got Action Bronson in the studio, you got Odd Future in the studio—your pen has gotta be sharp! Also doing an album with MED. MED is one of the most slept-on lyricists. We’re doing an album and that is an incredible record. That’s coming up. That should be dropping around the end of the year. Right now though, Good to Be Home. Bombay. Shout out to Pac Div, shout out to Fashawn, shout out to Bridgetown. New World Color. Prodigy. Alchemist. Evidence. Krondon. That nigga Phil Da Agony. Mitchy Slick. PA, Planet Asia. Killa Ben. Big Twin. We goin’ platinum. Pick up the album, it’s crazy.
I remember reading two things in previous interviews of yours. One is that you weren’t sure if you saw yourself rapping long-term. Is that still the case?
I got one way I can answer that question: the last song on the album is called ‘Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop.’ We did that song just cuz I said I was about to retire from rap and I turned around and we did this album. At the end we did ‘Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop’ just to let heads know. Forever, yo. Wu Tang is forever.
The second thing is when you told an interviewer you wanted your career to be like Thelonious Monk.
The way a jazz player will have different players play on different albums as opposed to a band in the 80s who have been the same band through the 2000s. A jazz cat will change up the players every two records. Me changing my producers, working with a new team is the same approach. Exile, Mainframe, Ta’Raach, Flying Lotus, Alchemist, Knxwledge, Nottz, now Bombay.
Is there any sound you haven’t done yet that you want to?
Yes, but that is a secret. Can’t expose the next step. I have to let Kanye drop his record. I always let people know about my record after Kanye drops.
BLU WITH MED ON WED., JULY 30, AT THE OBSERVATORY, 3503 S. HARBOR BLVD., SANTA ANA. 8 PM / $15 / ALL AGES. GET TICKETS HERE! OBSERVATORYOC.COM. AND WITH MED ON FRI., AUG. 1, AT THE TERRACE, 443 E. COLORADO BLVD., PASADENA. 8 PM / $12 PRE-SALE / ALL AGES / GET TICKETS HERE! FACEBOOK.COM/CHINKYEYEDLA. BLU’S GOOD TO BE HOME IS OUT NOW ON NEW WORLD COLOR / NATURE SOUNDS. VISIT BLU AT NOYORK.TUMBLR.COM AND THENEWCOLORBLU.BANDCAMP.COM.