Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Aloe Blacc: Breaking new ground

Aloe Blacc
Aloe Blacc Aloe Blacc Aloe Blacc Aloe Blacc

Riddle me this? …When is a Hip-Hop artist not a Hip-Hop artist? Answer: Simple! It's when he's a soul artist!! To explain fully, filling in the Blacc's (as it were) …Our hero, Aloe Blacc, started his musical journey as a more than credible Hip-Hop artist. BUT like a groundbreaking Michael Jackson video, he literally morphed before our eyes into an overnight soul sensation!

Ok, not exactly "overnight" if you've followed this artist since day one. But by the time you read this, his poignantly hard hitting/thought provoking single 'I Need A Dollar' should have done some half decent business on this side of the pond. …I also hold my hands up to the "soul sensation" comment, a tad overzealous at this point maybe, BUT that particular dye has certainly (in my humble opinion) been cast!

So here are the Aloe Blacc facts you need to know… His real name is Egbert Nathaniel Dawkins III, he was born to Panamanian parents, he MC'ed in a group called Emanon (with DJ Exile). In 2003 he started his solo career, and after an EP release in 2003, 2006 saw his first album release called 'Shine Through'. His next album brings us bang up-to-date, well almost, as second/present album 'Good Things' was released in 2010. The first single lifted off this album 'I Need A Dollar' hit the top ten in a plethora of European countries whilst achieving almost cult status in the U.S, this was mainly due to it's recession tapped subject matter which struck a chord with the now "resiliently in tune" American public.

So onto today, as 'Good Things' gets a re-release on these shores; This one time underground artist, is now set to star in the big league with a little help from one of the majors - Epic Records to be exact. Said hit 'I Need A Dollar' is now unleashed on the unsuspecting, tune seeking, CD buying U.K. public. And helped along nicely by an appearance on that last live musical TV bastion, Jools Holland's Later. And "what a performance" that was!

We now find a somewhat excited Editor, Lee Tyler, hot footing it to Kensington to meet this super star in waiting - and waiting for me he was…

LEE: After I saw you on the Jools Holland show, I wanted to talk to you... We reviewed your album straight away and gave it a great review.

ALOE: Thank you…

LEE: No, thank you! ...Can I start by asking, where did the name Aloe Blacc stem from?

ALOE: It’s from my Hip-Hop days as am MC, I picked it when I was about 15 years old, just really young looking for a name that I thought that would fit my rhyme style. And so I choose Aloe Blacc as my MC name.

LEE: I’ve listened to both your album’s (new and previous) and the style... When people say that Aloe Blacc is a rapper, I wouldn’t say that you were like an archetypal rapper - to me, not to say that you’re a gangster rapper... would you say that you are evolving since rapping. Would you say that this was now your calling maybe, in the style you are now doing?

ALOE: Yeah you know I’m still rapping, I’ve got a group that I called Emanon that I started years ago with a DJ, and so I’m still doing the MC thing and rapping. The style is not what you would likely hear on the radio, unless it was something like The Roots or A Tribe Called Quest or Mos Def- more of an eclectic brand of Hip-Hop.

LEE: That was with DJ Exile?

ALOE: That’s with DJ Exile. The singing, the soul music is more err... You know, it helps for me to really write songs that are – with melody! The problem that I find with Hip-Hop a lot of the time is that. I’m unable to communicate ideas in the same way that I can with singing because melody holds a lot of emotional weight, and so, chanting words without melody quite often. It doesn’t allow me the kind of depth that I think that I have with singing. Because a note by its self or a series of notes by themselves with no words can evoke emotion and that coupled with words, the right words, is much more powerful.

LEE: You don’t think that you can do that with rap?

ALOE: I’ve been trying myself to, I’ve been learning from what I’ve learned from song writing as a singer and trying to translate that back to rap and few and far between. You know? There hasn’t been many Hip-Hop songs that actually evoked a visible response in that sense, but I think I’m learning and I think that I am accomplishing something.

LEE: We have an artist here called Plan B who essentially started out as a rapper... But this guy has released a soul orientated album and sounds similar to Smokey Robinson – who knew! [Laughs] His album was one of the best selling albums of last year and won a ton of awards. You would think that he has now found where his niche is and where he’s making money, but then he has just been quoted as saying that his next album will be a reggae album – this is presumably because he is trying to evolve as an artist – can you see yourself now sticking with this style?

ALOE: Well, a lot of the reasons why I released ‘Shine Trough’ as a multi-genre album, was to suggest to my fans and future fans that these are all the styles of music that I enjoy and that I plan to make in the future, and it could be even more broad that this compilation of songs. So Soul music, I think, is a really good place for me to start because it’s foundation for a lot of Hp-Hop music. It’s a foundation for finding a place for my voice as a singer. Moving forward, I think my audience is gonna hear a lot of different things - but I think I’ll use as a starting point, as a foundation, try to keep everything from I guess the branch of soul music.

LEE: So essentially you’re a soul singer who raps now?

ALOE: I’m a soul singer who raps now... yeah.

LEE: The single was absolutely massive in the US; I am very surprised that after you recently appeared on Jools Holland here, that the single wasn't an instant hit here… Were you surprised how it's been received in the Sates - I gather that people there, due possibly to the way of world at the moment, have taken the song and it's message to their hearts?

ALOE: Yeah, I think the song is a source of comfort for people in a difficult economic position right now. There's not a lot of media that is addressing the issue in the way my song does and for a lot of people songs are a sort of medicine - it's kind of the lullaby of the times! I wrote a song on my first solo album 'Shine Through' called 'Busking' where I'm basically at a bus stop singing about waiting for a bus. A lot of my fans sent me messages saying "this is the song I sing when I'm waiting at the bus stop waiting to go to work, or waiting to go to school. I feel like there are anthems that apply to our lives in different ways, when I think 'I Need A Dollar' is an anthem that applies a lot because of the current financial crisis - in any given time there's going to be a sector in the population that is struggling. At any point in your life! Coming out of collage is generally when a lot of people are saying "I Need A Dollar , cos I've got university loans to pay back and that kind of thing…"

LEE: From what I read, it was quite a prevalent time in your life when you wrote it… was that correct that you had been made redundant from a job?

ALOE: It was a couple of years after but it was still something that was present to me because I was still an artist that was trying to make it. I had been listening to some field recordings of chain gang workers, very folk driven and kind of a derivative of folk and gospel. So this idea of call and response was in my head and the idea of someone who is down and out, down on their luck, and that stylistically was an influence.

LEE: Do you see yourself now as an artist who, because of that album and your first song, was received and now this is pretty much the same - that any future material, that you have a job to do if you like. Because you've been put in that position because of the great response to a message you put out there.

ALOE: Yeah, you know what it comes down to… I want write songs that resonate with people in a real way that means something to their lives. The reason why a song like 'Busking' works so well, there was no music on 'Busking', just me singing - no instrumentation. And the way that 'I Need A Dollar' started, four years before I actually put instruments to it, was just a vocal and vocal melody. It's very much the kind of song that a person can sing to themselves without needing the accompaniment, and I think that's what the beauty of it is. It's bare, naked and raw and real. These kind of songs will always stand the test of time.

LEE: Where you surprised at how well it was received?

ALOE: I was. I never thought that I would have the kind of visibility that this song has given..

LEE: Something like six million (and the rest!)…

ALOE: I didn't think that would happen. As an indy artist you kinda get used to a thousand You Tube hits [both laugh], so having the success it's had is for me for me… you know…

LEE: I noticed that you have also recently covered Sam Cooke's 'A Change Is Gonna Come', which is in the same kind of vain. Is Aloe Blacc a militantly here for the long haul, or are you here to say what you gotta say and get out?

ALOE: For me it's always going to be important to always have a statement to make about politics about politics and economy and capitalism and ecology. I have a platform, I have voice, I have ideas - I am going to entertain people of course but to entertain myself I have to say something relevant.

LEE: This album is not a "new album" as such, the subject matter is not brand new - what sort of material are you working on now. What interests him?

ALOE: Man! I'm still making music as varied as 'Shine Through', I'm still writing songs in every different genre. Preparing an album that's tailored for this audience I'm building - following up from 'Good Things'. I've basically collected all of the soul sounding songs together and maybe modifying some of the songs that weren't necessarily soul to sound like they belong in the genre - songs with messages and songs that are more fun! 'Good Things' is an album that is about the problems in the world 'Life's So Hard', 'I Need A Dollar', 'Loving You Is Killing Me', 'Misfortune'. I've spent time discussing the issues, I think the next album probably won't be about the solutions but it's gonna be about celebrating life in a way that 'Good Things' wasn't.

LEE: Is it because you're at that place?

ALOE: It's because really deep down inside I'm a happy person! 'Good Things' was the way it was because I wrote the album right smack in the middle of finical crisis. The government in the U.S was bailing out banks and automobile industries, people were loosing jobs and families were loosing houses - so I thought it was relevant at the time and absolutely necessary because none of my peers were doing it in the music industry and definitely in the major scene. So I felt that somebody needed to speak for the people and I've always felt like I could do that. I think NOW, moving forward, the topics for discussion are set out there - hopefully my audience picks up and continues the discussion. Maybe we can find solutions to some of the issues I bring up in the album, but just for the sake of creating some joy in the world, I'd like to write songs that make people happy. It's funny because 'I Need A Dollar' makes people happy but it's got kind of a dark sentiment to it, but it's got kind of a dark sentiment to it - but I would like to write songs that genuinely make people happy.

LEE: Can I ask, on the new album, what made you cover the Velvet Underground classic 'Femme Fatale'?

ALOE: I really liked the story behind the song, I think the story behind the song is beautiful and really developed. I mean, you've got a lot of parts to it - Lou Read writing this almost as a Cyrano de Bergerac, writing this story for Andy Warhol who wanted to court, or was infatuated with Edie Sedgwick. Then Lou Read penning the song and then giving it to Nico to sing and Nico being this, she pretty much is a Femme Fatale. She used to be a fashion model but now is like this, at the time, going deeper and deeper into heroin abuse and making her son addicted to heroin as child. Just really, deep dark history surrounding the song itself, i thought that was kinda interesting. Two other things I thought was interesting, one was because my album is a lot about America and capitalism, and the Statue Of Liberty sort of being the Femme Fatale - luring people from around the world to come to the land of opportunity. To then be disappointed when they don't really achieve much opportunity! …And another is, the idea that this very celebrated rock group making rock and roll music - their music can still sound good when it's filtered and brought back to it's basis, the root of rock, which is Blues. That was part of the idea as well.

LEE: Are they a group you listen to, or did you just know that song existed?

ALOE: It was partially knowing the song existed and partially knowing the rich history behind the song, because there are so many old songs to choose from. Rather than do something glaringly obvious…

LEE: Sure. Can I ask what your influences were, firstly growing up music-wise?

ALOE: Music-wise a lot of Hip-Hop, but then again Hip-Hop is made up of every genre right? So learning about rock and jazz and R&B and Soul through Hip-Hop. In my late teen years I was listening to a lot of more classic rock and singer songwriter, folk music. Early 20's a lot of Brazilian forms of music.

LEE: Yeah, I noticed on your first album there was a South American tinge…

ALOE: Well my parents are from Panama, so I grew up in the home and at family parties and everything with Salsa music, meringue, soaker, calypso…

LEE: There's a John Legend…

ALOE: Yeah a I did a Salsa version of 'Ordinary People'. So growing up lots of influences from the Caribbean, Central and South America. Also because I'm from America, growing up with pop music that was on the top 40 stations and…

LEE: What do you, are you listening to now if you stuck your IPod on?

ALOE: I'm listening to mainly old stuff. Like psychedelic soul jazz, I'd say, if you're familiar with Eugene McDaniels or Gary Bartz or even Traffic - Steve Winwood.

LEE: Not stuff that if I was asked "what do you think he listens to?"

ALOE: Mmm, well I think I have heard enough… you probably would think soul music…

LEE: Soul, Hip-Hop…

ALOE: Yeah I mean course Donny Hathaway and Stevie Wonder and Brenton Wood.

LEE: Has it surprised you to realise that you have such a great soul voice?

ALOE: I don't even know that I have a great soul voice…

LEE: OHH COME ON, COME ONNN, COME ON! Right, this interview is over! [Laughs]

ALOE: [Laughing] I'm just happy that everyone else thinks I do.

LEE: I can go through what people have said about you time, after time, after time… I know when someone is rewording other peoples words and these people mean it! Even our guy Emrys, who reviewed this album, said you sound like Bill Withers. I hate say that people sound like others and artists don't like being pigeonholed but Joe Public needs to know why they should buy your records.

ALOE: I know that my voice is best suited for soul but I'm not competing with Donny Hathaway and Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, I'm just luck enough to be a student of theirs and learning and appreciated for carrying on the tradition in the way that I am. I hope that I can achieve, what artists like they have achieved with their voices. But I'm still learning …I'm coming from Hip-Hip.

LEE: Well, you're on the right road now that's for sure… I love the album, in fact I loved both albums, and for me you can only go all the way!

ALOE: Thanks Lee.

Aloe Blacc's superb album 'Good Things' and single 'I Need A Dollar' are both out now and available through Epic records.

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