Interview: Aloe Blacc

To the masses, Aloe Blacc is best-known as the singer of the opening theme song for HBO's TV series "How to Make It in America." In part thanks to that, "I Need a Dollar" is considered the unofficial anthem for twenty-somethings on the grind. Having spent about sixteen years in the business, Aloe Blacc certainly knows something about the hustle. Blacc's years as an emcee has expanded into creating conscious music that spans the sounds of rap, soul, hip hop, jazz, and R&B, culminating in his most recent soul album, Good Things. In many ways, his stirring music is reminiscent of sounds from the sixties, but the lyrics are decidedly current, and tinged with a political slant. A graduate from the University of Southern California, Blacc and his distinct sound are quick to be described by music journalists and bloggers alike as smart, but his music is more than that, as Blacc straddles the worlds of art and life. Check out LOOKOUT's interview with Aloe Blacc and don't miss him live with his band The Grand Scheme on November 16, 2010 at Le Belmont.

You describe your music as "brand-new-old-soul." How is your music in dialogue with the past and how do you see yourself fitting in with "neo-soul" (if at all)?

I am a disciple of great and classic soul artists and my goal with this new album is to carry on an important tradition in soul music of making songs with social and political commentary. In my music, there are elements of some of my heroes like Al Green, Bill Withers, and Curtis Mayfield. These are just a few of the artists who have informed my style on Good Things. Quincy Jones gave some very important advice at an ASCAP conference I attended. He said that an aspiring artists should study the greats to learn all that they have done, and from this knowledge and understanding create something unique. I agree. I want to create something that is unique that has a quality of its own. I am sure that I will make soul music of all brands in the future from neo-soul to future soul and my very own brand-new-old-soul.

As a musician, do you feel like you have a responsibility to address political and social issues?

I think every adult with a conscience has a responsibility to address political and social issues. Whether you are a day labourer or a filmmaker, it is important to be aware of the issues that affect your life and have a constant dialogue about the problems and solutions. I feel like all public figures have a responsibility to address issues that affect their communities. It's important that people with access to speak loudly do so, to be a voice for the people who can not. I really appreciate someone like Michael Moore who, right or wrong, uses his access and visibility to start conversations about social, economic, and political ills. The first step is to be aware and start talking.

How did your do-it-yourself approach impact the final outcome of Good Things and your musical vision as a whole?

My first album, Shine Through, was one I wrote and produced all myself with the exception of a couple of beats from OHNO and Madlib. I worked with outside producers and musicians on Good Things and played a more hands-off role in the post-production aspect of the songs, which is much different from how I usually work, but I figured it was worth a try. I think that the beauty of working in this way is that I get to take these recordings to the next level in my live performance. It's fun to rework the songs with my band, The Grand Scheme, and produce the tracks in my own way with just the instruments we have on stage.

You've been getting quite a bit of mainstream success, especially thanks to "I Need a Dollar." As an indie artist, how do you negotiate between the industry (and the potential profits that come along with it) and your personal values and goals?

I will let you know the real answer when I get my first check for profits on the sale of the album. Album sales aren't what they used to be but I am extremely grateful for the popularity of the song. It's helping me to reach more people with my music and ultimately bring happiness to folks all over the world. I get emails and messages from fans who say that my music has helped them through hard times or brightened their day. This makes it all worth it, more than the money, or lack thereof. I look up to artists like Bono, Michael Jackson, and George Clooney who use their influence and money to make positive change in the world. I think this is the best way to deal with potential profits that come along with success.

How did focusing more exclusively on soul music in Good Things (as opposed to the multi-genre Shine Through) transform your artistry?

Focus is a good thing but I don't feel like it has transformed my artistry as much as it has transformed my growing audience's perception of me. I am still making songs in every genre because my muse has no stylistic filter. I am going to release another EMANON album with DJ Exile, which is all hip hop as usual, and every day I am coming up with new song ideas in all different genres. From a business perspective, focusing on one genre is helpful because it offers listeners the chance to develop a simple idea about me as an artist. The soul artist is an archetype that exists and is well-understood. Fortunately, a new music lover is born everyday and the tastes of music fans are broadening, so I imagine artists will not have to be so strict with genre-centrality.

Referring to the title of your album, what are the good things going on in your life right now?

Right now, I am able to travel the world with my friends who are all talented musicians. I get to write and create songs and deliver performances that make people happy. Things are quite good.

Aloe Blacc LIVE  in Montreal, with full band Grand Scheme, Maya Jupiter, Effusion A Cappella, DJs Scott C + Rilly Guilty.  November 16, 2010: More info