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It’s a good thing Aloe Blacc worked a bunch of shitty jobs in LA, which forced him to spend hours alone in his car, slogging through all kinds of traffic. Instead of killing those mind-numbing moments with cellular communications or radio waves, he used the time productively, conjuring all types of musical numbers in his mind. Some of those numbers—now a decade or so later—emerged on his latest release, Good Things. That he used his time in traffic so well speaks to Blacc’s prolific songwriting and near-phobia of slacking.
“I’m always writing or thinking about creating something new,” he said in a phone interview. “That time alone in the car gave me a chance to get lost in my mind and just work on new ideas. It’s rare that I get opportunities alone like that.”
Those ideas seem to flow aplenty for the Laguna Hills native, 31, who began his career in 1995 as half of hip-hop outfit Emanon. Back then Blacc was the emcee/singer to DJ/producer Exile. In 2001, the first-generation American offspring of Panamanian parents graduated from USC. He then gravitated from the world of conscious hip-hop into soul singing after touring and writing songs with Stones Throw label mate Oh No in Europe.
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In fact, prolific may not be good enough to describe Blacc’s penchant for churning out new material. He’s already recorded four unreleased albums whose genres span from bossa nova to hip-hop, neo soul and rock. In all of his compositions, the stars are his unflinchingly pure soulful vocals and a penchant for social turns-of-phrase that leave you thinking and inspired.
On his breakthrough hit, “I Need a Dollar,” (which moonlights as the theme song for the HBO show How to Make It in America) his smooth croon feels familiar. It’s filled with the same kind of tense bravado that underscores Stevie Wonder’s work on Living for the City. The tone makes you want to dance, but there is a vulnerability there that paints a darker picture of life in America.
That type of sentiment is what has been missing from soul music for generations—which is probably why critics from Pitchfork and Rolling Stone are all rallying behind Blacc. Everyone needs a good love song now and then, but the socially aware vibe of protest and reality wrapped up in a funky-ass package is what made artists like Wonder, Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye so enduring.
“I’m influenced by every one of the greats that had substance and something to say,” Blacc said. “When the songs have something to say, they last longer and have more of an impact.”
Most of Blacc’s lyrics are built around a central chorus or theme; he claims to fill in the rest in a matter of minutes, a skill he attributes to his hip-hop MC heritage. Often hammering on repetitive, catchy phrases to propel them along, the songs leave no doubt about their message.
“Once I get that hook or that chorus in mind with a melody, everything else just kind of builds around that,” he said. “It’s a pretty natural process for me.”
Spitting lyrics and melodies, however, is only half of the equation. Blacc’s onstage persona, replete with a mini-’fro, James Brown footwork and ’60s soul ensembles—tight pants, big collars, pointy shoes, etc.—is electric enough to keep you moving, yet tempered enough not to miss the content.
“I like being on stage because it gives me the opportunity to showcase my creations and connect with the people that are there . but to me, the real creativity is in writing songs and making something that wasn’t there before,” he said.
Blacc has been approached by several producers who’d like to team up with him on his next effort, but for now he’s strictly focusing on songwriting and touring. Thanks in large part to the success of “Dollar,” Blacc plans to be on the road extensively into 2011, which, while exciting, does put a crimp in his release schedule. Still, the nonstop writing and recording continues as he lays down myriad ideas regularly from the road using his laptop.
And while that ever-growing bank of recorded material bodes well for future releases, combing through all the tracks to craft a cohesive collection for his next official release poses its challenges.
“With my first album [2006’s Shine Through] I was kind of all over the place, style-wise,” he said. “Mixing it up like that can make things interesting, but I think there needs to be some cohesion of music and lyrics to make it feel like a more complete work.”
Aloe Blacc & the Grand Scheme perform at the Echoplex, 1154 Glendale Blvd., Los Angeles; www.attheecho.com. Fri. Call for time. $14. 21+.
This article appeared in print as "Blacc’s Blues: How Southern California traffic made Aloe Blacc the musician he is now."