Aloe Blacc Is the Man
H/MUA: Monica Alvarez
Photo: Timothy Norris | Design: Dustin Ames
Even hiding behind his icy silver aviators, it's apparent that Aloe Blacc's mind is somewhere else. Small talk ricochets off his lenses on a dark elevator ride up to the seventh floor of a downtown Los Angeles artist loft for a midday photo shoot. He's on a tight schedule of interviews and appearances these days, nearly every hour accounted for from dawn to dusk. Nevertheless, a recent marathon run of nearly two-dozen gigs at South By Southwest—including an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live—to promote his best-selling album, Lift Your Spirit, has barely dented him.
He came to the shoot prepared, toting a pressed, black Armani suit jacket and white dress shirt on a hanger hooked over his sturdy index finger; the leather boots on his feet are impeccably shined. But Blacc is worried he's forgotten something. After taking a few steps into the loft, his left hand grazes the brim of the gray tweed porkpie hat on his head—and then he remembers.
"Ah, damn," he says. "This is the wrong one."
He goes downstairs. At the open crosswalk, his hand juts out to stop oncoming traffic before he glides to his unassuming green Volvo sedan. He pops the door and grabs the right lid—a black fedora snagged from his music video shoot for "Wake Me Up," the second single on Lift Your Spirit. Prior to its release, the folk-tinged track got a major profile boost thanks to a version he sang and co-wrote for Swedish DJ Avicii, which became the fifth-best-selling dance track in SoundScan history; as of this writing, it's reached No. 1 on the pop charts in 102 countries.
Blacc holds the hat to the sunlight and studies it briefly. "Here we go," he says with a smirk. "This one should go perfect."
Though a seemingly small style detail, it's the kind of thing Blacc never misses. He lives for those careful, considerate decisions and style points, controlling every aspect of his career, his sound and his look. The deep pauses he takes before answering interview questions are a sign that he isn't an artist who'll say anything to get your attention—only the right thing. As a singer, his meat-and-potatoes delivery is expressive yet attainable; he's the kind of vocalist you can comfortably sing along to and still feel hip as hell.
Blacc's approach becomes all the more important with each passing day. The Laguna Hills native is on a meteoric rise that started with the hit single "I Need a Dollar," off his sophomore solo album, Good Things, and continues with Lift Your Spirit's sweetly boastful platinum-selling single "The Man," currently featured in a national TV ad campaign for Beats By Dre headphones. Of course, the stakes are much higher now for the artist born Egbert Nathaniel Dawkins III, one of only a few black kids at Laguna Hills High School way back when. In the midst of release week, all the hubbub is exciting, but also amusingly strange to the indie-minded artist—especially after nearly 20 years on the grind.
"You release a record, the first week is not the only week it's available," he says as the makeup artist's brush flutters over his face by the loft's large window overlooking downtown. "You expect people to warm up to it. There's a lot of activity around promotion and marketing. But I'm in it for the long haul, not just for the first week."
Since the start of his career in 1995, Blacc has learned a thing or two about long hauls. There's no shortage of press tracking his route from backpack rapper to star soul singer. But that's a pretty limited perspective on a guy with a deep discography that's dabbled in multiple genres: dancehall, salsa, haunting spaghetti-western operas, touches of funk and psychedelic rock and now (thanks to Avicii) EDM club anthems. It's taken a long time to channel that eclectic energy into a signature sound. And despite the growth of a long-developing career throughout Europe, it's taken even longer to get his due in the States. But while jumping from an indie mindset to a major label has changed Blacc as a businessman, it hasn't deterred his idea of what a good artist is—someone who does whatever the hell he or she wants.
It's that kind of swagger that earned him a slot on the biggest stage in SoCal: this year's Coachella double weekend. He'll be there April 11 and again on the 18th, the same day as Outkast, the Knife, Chromeo, Zedd and tons more. Until this year, Coachella was one of those gigs Blacc said he could never really see himself playing, mostly because the bulk of his success has been on the other side of the world. But as he prepares to set foot on the Indio Polo Fields with his backing band, the Grand Scheme, it seems America is finally willing to accept that Blacc isn't lying when he sings in a melody reminiscent of Elton John's "Your Song," "You can tell everybody . . . I'm the man, I'm the man, I'm the man."
* * *
Detroit Bar's walls seemed to make extra room for the clubgoing faithful on its last night of existence. On Feb. 28, the Costa Mesa staple closed its doors after 13 years with one last huge, sweaty, beer-swilling hip-hop crowd. From the sonic pulpit at the center of the stage, DJ Exile's final tribute to the local bar came in the form of beeps, bass and metallic bangs as he held up an MPC beat machine like a severed head, chopping at it with ninja-like precision. The light-speed sounds he made were incredible; the crowd cheered and threw up their hands for his closing set, which featured his longtime rapping partner Blu. Exile and LA-based Blu started releasing albums together in 2007. The two were actually introduced by Blacc, Exile's childhood friend and first rapping partner. Together, Blacc and Exile (a.k.a. Aleksander Manfredi) started their DJ/MC duo Emanon—"No Name" spelled backward—in 1995.
"[Aloe and I] had done a lot of shows [at Detroit Bar]," Exile says, "and it was only right for me and Blu to be over there and close it out and rock the house one last time." Had he not been touring Europe at the time, Blacc might very well have been performing with them.
During Detroit's heyday, Emanon rocked the stage often as part of a local hip-hop head gathering called Abstract Workshop, run by Josh One, Kosta "Cocoe" Tsimahidis, Scotty Coats and Jud Nester. Emanon's playful street smarts and braggadocio folded easily into the underground scene—but chances are you wouldn't recognize Blacc back then in his striped polo shirts, popped collars and baggy jeans at the original Koo's Cafe in Santa Ana.
"Everybody in hip-hop in Orange County was going there. The scene was really tight-knit," Blacc says. "Cocoe, Jud and Scotty Coats started this party and it was a great opportunity for everybody to get together and hang out, do shows for the locals."
Aloe and Exile also tested their mettle in LA at revered hip-hop nights such as the Root Down and Koo's Cafe in Santa Ana.
"Luckily, we found our people at Koo's Cafe [and Detroit Bar]—all the social rejects, graffiti heads, punk rockers, MCs, DJs, beat heads," Exile says. "Most were minorities there, be it race or not; it was a pretty evenly mixed crowd. We found a home to scream our thoughts and destroy our records with our impromptu turntable percussion, freestyle dancing, spoken word and rapping."
Though they've been dormant as a duo for some time now, those years of backpack-rap hustle were the launching pad for both men—Blacc's rising star in the pop world, Exile's career as owner of hip-hop label Sound in Color and producer for the likes of Jurassic 5, Pharoahe Monch and Snoop Dogg. A mutual friend brought the two together in 1994, before Blacc had ever performed for anyone. They met after a night of partying that found them with a group of friends hosting a cypher in a Denny's parking lot around 1 a.m. Soon after, the two were propping up microphones in Blacc's family kitchen, practicing the art of weaving loops, scratches and rap verses on a 4-track recorder. They sold dubbed, two-sided versions of their music with Exile's turntablism on one side and their hip-hop songs on the other.
As far as earning credibility as an OC hip-hop act touring around the country, Exile says their ability to hone their craft made their style fit in anywhere. And in their hometown, they always managed to find the right audience willing to listen.
"We knew if we could perform in the [hip-hop] circles we looked up to that no one could tell us shit about nothing, and we would be accepted by making dope music and never giving up," Exile says.
As Emanon expanded from their OC/LA nest to national and European tours, Exile and Blacc became seasoned performers by their early 20s. They were able to win over crowds in France, Germany and Italy where, for the most part, audiences couldn't even understand them. "Nobody was speaking [English] as a first language," Blacc says. "So I had to create something about the music that was beyond words, and I had to do it physically with my energy. That's sort of what I've continued to do as a singer."
Though Emanon was his main gig, Blacc toured separately with hip-hop group the Lootpack and did other projects. He says it wasn't until 2002, when he toured with DJ/producer Oh No (younger brother of LA beat scene legend Madlib), that he really refined his singing. "[Oh No] gave me a beat CD and I recorded a whole album over it," Blacc says. "I think that's when the process started, and over the years, it's just been about learning how to use my voice."
* * *
It's about 2 p.m. when photographers for our cover shoot decide it's time to venture around the block and shoot some photos in a nearby alley. Blacc doesn't notice a few lingering stares as cameras snap candids of him walking, then leaning casually against a brick wall next to the giant blue door of the Continental Club.
In conversation, he's considerate of the answers he gives about fame and its effect on an artist like himself, whose business smarts have been as much a part of his success as his musical abilities. He's been featured as a mentor on the hit reality TV singing competition The Voice and has done a campaign of interactive web ads for Lincoln. Some would argue he's edged past the point where returning to a normal, quiet life is possible. Blacc disagrees.
"I could always go back to making songs in my bedroom if I want," he says before a long pause. "But I don't want to. I prefer to make songs that everyone in the world likes, with some restrictions . . . without making it directly pop."
Even for someone as calm and collected as he is, the part of Blacc that explodes into a natural showman when he dons a suit, takes off his glasses and faces a crowd is too strong a drug to ever consider anything else. Onstage, he's all smiles, rocking the dapper look he's cultivated, and unafraid of employing some ankle-twisting James Brown footwork during his upbeat festival sets.
With six-figure recording and licensing deals in his pocket, Blacc is a long way from being the guy who claims to have written the lyrics for "I Need a Dollar" after getting laid off. He talks about his old job as a business consultant at Ernst & Young, which he walked into after graduating from the University of Southern California with a degree in psycholinguistics. The layoff after college was devastating, but he says it gave him the opportunity to be CEO of his own future. More important, it gave him the time to work on his new sound.
By 2003, he'd officially launched a solo career, releasing two EPs as Aloe Blacc. One of his tracks—a mellow hip-hop influenced cover of Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come"—hooked the ear of Stones Throw founders Eothen "Egon" Alapatt and Peanut Butter Wolf (a.k.a. Chris Manak). Alapatt, former manager of the label, says he got turned on to Blacc after seeing him a number of times performing solo at the Root Down. Blacc sang, often accompanied by a guitarist strumming Brazilian rhythms.
The vocals he'd recorded over Oh No's beats blossomed into a full stylistic transition from straight hip-hop to a fusion of futuristic urban and Latin soul. Immediately excited about what they heard, Stones Throw signed Blacc to a two-album deal in 2006 not as a rapper, but as a singer. The switch didn't faze Blacc, who ventured into the studio to produce his label debut, Shine Through. At that point, his music had a scatterbrained charm about it—one part hip-hop, one part soul, one part Latin, coated in bravado and raw ego. Tracks like "Are You Ready" showcased boastful lyrics about finesse, street knowledge and champion-style lovemaking, a very different side of Blacc than the one fans are familiar with today. Though critically praised, the effort was a commercial flop.
"It lost a lot of money," Alapatt says candidly. "And even though some people really loved Aloe, for a lot of people it didn't resonate with them."
Despite the failure, Blacc worked on improving his sound, his direction and the maturity of his lyrics. He spent roughly two years recording his follow-up album, which Wolf promptly rejected. "To be fair, it was kind of a mess," Alapatt says. "It was all over the place, there was no really catchy songs, it really wasn't working and it didn't really have the charm that the first record had."
Wolf wanted to drop Blacc; Alapatt disagreed. After some arguing, Alapatt was allowed to scrape up about $8,000 to revamp the project, and he took Blacc under his wing. He enlisted the help of New York production team Truth & Soul to craft a direction for the album that aimed to harness the dark soul of Bobby Womack and the off-kilter pop sensibilities of Serge Gainsbourg with a spike of social consciousness tucked in between. "I knew he liked more esoteric soul music," Alapatt says, "so if I could get a couple different artists who we could share appreciation of, then maybe we could find a way to breathe some fresh air in this record."
The project was recorded in New York and took about two years to finish with the help of Truth & Sound. What emerged shocked most everyone who heard it. Not only was it a complete, focused tribute to Womack and other soul heroes like Al Green, Curtis Mayfield and Bill Withers, it also sounded surprisingly fresh and of the moment. To top it off, the album's lead single, "I Need a Dollar," was picked up for a sync license by HBO for How to Make It in America. In Europe, which hadn't forgotten Blacc, the album topped the charts in multiple countries.
Even then, Alapatt says, Wolf didn't show much interest in the project and tried shelving it again before it could come out in the States. Seeing that the label obviously wasn't the place for him once his contract was up, Blacc worked out an agreement with high-powered manager Simon Fuller and his company XIX Entertainment, and Universal Music Group (Interscope is one third of the umbrella corporation). He left Stones Throw, despite Alapatt's attempts to get him to stay.
"I had read somewhere about Stones Throw saying we didn't want [Blacc], but no we did want him," Alapatt says. "I wanted him and everybody wanted him, but he knew it was time to go." (Peanut Butter Wolf declined to comment for this story.)
Throughout 2010 and 2011, Blacc successfully headlined several European and North American tours with Fuller as his mentor—though the two never formally entered into a manager/client relationship. By the time Blacc was ready to sign on the dotted line with Interscope for his third album, he decided to become his own manager, a move that stunned a few music industry insiders. But for Blacc, it felt natural, and he openly admits something few artists would: "Even today I would say music is my hobby, and the business of music is my profession," he says.
Various reports state that Fuller has supported Blacc's transition to self-management and that he continues to be a source of advice for the budding superstar. "One of the most important things Simon taught me was that ownership is not always the most important thing," Blacc says. "But control—who controls the copyright, who controls the intellectual property—is what matters as much as ownership."
In February, Fuller offered a statement to Billboard. "Aloe is a unique artist," he said. "He defines what an artist can achieve in these ever-changing times. There is no aspect of his career that he isn't in complete control of and he should be an inspiration to all artists."
That kind of move isn't for everyone, but it's paid off nicely for Blacc, who ushered in yet another chapter in his career: a publishing deal with Warner/Chappell worth, allegedly, about $2 million. He entered the studio in 2012, working primarily with seasoned producer DJ Khalil, as well as Pharrell Williams and Harold Lilly. But as it turns out, Blacc says one of the guiding forces in the direction for his new album—significantly more upbeat than the dark soul of Good Things—was his father.
Since he was a kid, Blacc's parents—Panamanian immigrants who moved to OC in the late 1970s—always supported his music. He learned to breakdance at age 4; he was writing hip-hop lyrics and playing the trumpet by age 9. Blacc remembers his father buying a gargantuan stereo system so there was always loud music on the weekends and there were parties at friends' houses with Caribbean music, laughter and table-slapping games of dominoes.
"What you know about Latin people, like when you think about the stereotypical Latin . . . that's my family," says Blacc, whose Panamanian roots were ever-present in his hip-hop style, and in his singing (sometimes in Spanish). On tracks from Emanon's album The Waiting Room or Anon & On EP, you can hear Blacc's soul music prowess taking shape.
Blacc's father epitomizes the 1970s Latin soul brother. To this day, he still wears pastel shirts, butterfly collars, bolo neckties with turquoise stones and mod-style Beatles boots. It's a style Blacc would eventually jack when it came time to match the look of his retro sound on Good Things. "He definitely suggested that after the last album, because it was so focused on the issues and problems, that I make more positive music," Blacc says. "Fans don't just wanna hear about the problems, they also wanna hear about something that makes them happy."
* * *
Lift Your Spirit reveals both Blacc's musical adventurousness and attention to nuance when it comes to his folk/soul hybrid. Produced by Pharrell Williams (who is also performing at Coachella this year), "Love Is the Answer" is an anthem full of big, brassy, old-school soul. Blacc's intimate, stripped-down version of "Wake Me Up" also appears on the track list, as do such eclectic gems as the guitar-fueled "Can You Do This," the bluesy, hip-hop-inspired stomper "The Hand Is Quicker," and smoldering R&B balladry of "Red Velvet Seat." The haunting, anti-war message of "Ticking Bomb" comes wrapped in ghostlike backing vocals and tense, ominous rhythms, matched by Blacc's sense of urgency in his soaring vocal performance. Fulfilling Blacc's central mission of instilling joy in his listeners, songs such as the gospel-inspired, groove-heavy "Lift Your Spirit" and the harmony-soaked epic "Eyes of a Child" are each a powerfully pure celebration of life and love.
The album's mantras ultimately serve as a reminder not of where society is today, but rather where Blacc is today as a person and as an artist. He has plenty to be happy about. There's his career, of course. And his wife, Australian rapper and activist Maya Jupiter, recently gave birth to a baby girl, Mandela. "We have chuckled to ourselves a couple times, wondering if this is all really happening," Jupiter says. "But we know who we are and why we are in this business. Fame has never been a goal for either of us. It's about the positive change we can make in people's lives."
Though his year seems firmly scheduled with promo and business-related duties, there are slices of time carved out to stray from the looming album cycle ahead. That includes picking up the mic as an MC once more to reconnect with Exile on new Emanon tracks. Blacc is also carving out time to work on Artivist, an LA-based entertainment company he started with his wife and Chicano musical curandero Quetzal Flores to help socially conscious musicians, visual artists, dancers and other creative types in need of exposure and career development.
"It's a really good feeling to walk into a CVS and Aloe comes on over the speakers," Exile says. "Me and my buddy look at each other, like 'Yep, once again.' We'll just start laughing, like 'holy shit.'"
Every iota of Blacc's current success has depended on his ability to follow his vision, trusting his gut and aural instincts in whatever new direction they may take him. It's the same inspiration that ensures the next Aloe Blacc record will not be a rehash of Good Things or Lift Your Spirit. "I paid respect to my heroes with the music I've done and I'll keep moving to the next style and new experiences with music," he says. "And whatever feels good, I think that's the most important thing. Whatever feels good."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.