From No Name to Known Names
For a group that gave themselves “No Name” (backwards) as a moniker, Exile and Aloe Blacc are quickly becoming well known. Together, the duo took Emanon to great heights within underground circles and they have shot to even more success as solo artists, making a name for themselves, paving unique lanes along the way. Each talented, they trudged through the independent scene to shed light on the left coast. Now, while Emanon is still alive, they can also stand alone and still shine.
For this session of HipHopDX’s Underground Report, the two were interviewed separately. They have already started working on the next Emanon release but they have also been crafting their solo material. Read on to hear why Exile calls Aloe his “big little brother,” why they thrive on diverse sounds and how their individual cultures, personalities and gifts helped make them who they are today.
HipHopDX: Many artists can cite experiences from childhood that helped them grow creatively or gain an appreciation for the arts. What are some memories of your childhood that you feel helped you grow with creativity?
Aloe Blacc: Well, I think definitely the day that my dad purchased the trumpet for me. When I was in elementary school, I had the option to take music class outside of the regular music class, where they have the music teacher come to the classroom. They had a separate class, where, if you had an instrument, you could go and learn the instrument and not just sing, basically camp songs, and shake a tambourine. So, my dad was in the military and during that time, I think third grade, he was gone for months at a time. My mom rented a trumpet so that I could play in school. Then, my dad came home from his deployment, I forget where he was, probably Korea or Japan. He said, “By the time you finish paying renting a trumpet for six months, you could pay for one. You could buy one.” That was a very specific moment because it forced me to be serious about it. I couldn’t just do it to get out of the classroom. Another one I would attribute to my dad was, I was in a play. I was supposed to perform to a Michael Jackson song, “Bad.” My dad went to the record store to buy the song so that I could choreograph my own dance steps and practiced to it. My dad, he didn’t know what “Bad” to get. He picked up [LL Cool J’s] Bigger and Deffer and he picked up Michael Jackson’s “Bad.” So, that summer, I became LL Cool J’s biggest fan. That might have been fourth grade, or something. That wasn’t too far off from the trumpet moment. So, those are two moments. You have a Hip Hop moment and a musician moment. I think another moment was when I got my car...I shouldn’t say “my car.” It was just a car. It definitely wasn’t something I was proud of. I had to pick up my sister from elementary school. I was in high school and I used to sit and wait for her to come around the block outside of the school and I’d listen to a Jazz station. Listening to the Jazz station, I heard a song by Dizzy Gillespie and he didn’t have a title for the song. He ended up naming it “No Name,” but “No Name” backwards [“Emanon”]. I liked that idea so I made a song and I didn’t have a title for it. It was just some freestyled lyrics and I named it “Emanon.” That, I think, sort of begins my career in music as an artist.
DX: I find it interesting that you mentioned things from different sides of your artistic arsenal. One of the things that really struck me when I first heard your debut solo album [Shine Through] was your ease with Spanish and Latin American music. I know your parents are from Panama and they influenced you in many ways. Can you talk a bit about how your love of Latin American culture has influenced you and your music?
Aloe Blacc: Yeah, the music that my parents used to play at family parties and gatherings, salsa music, loud and blaring, was, I think, formative. It suggested to me, that for celebration, there was this music other than what I hear on the radio in America. There’s this music other than what my friends’ parents listened to in the area I grew up in. Plus, it’s a different language so it’s this other world that I’m connected to. Most people wouldn’t expect that because, when you look at me, most people probably think, “He’s Black American. He probably likes Rap and his parents listen to R&B.” There’s this whole other world that I’m open to, that has so many different shades of color that you can’t even imagine how broad and diverse it it. Then when you get into Latin music, how many different sub sects and styles and flavors there are. For me, the appreciation comes from my parents, the fact that they played the music and I learned about the music in fun ways. It wasn’t ever in a negative situation.
DX: You recently made a trip to Panama. How was it?
Aloe Blacc: Yeah, recently, in ’09, I went to Carnaval. It was very fun. It was nice to be back to Panama and celerbate life with the people in the way thatthey do. There’s not the same hustle and bustle. There’s music everywhere. I actually just got back from Mexico with my wife. She’s Mexican and Turkish. We spent some time out there and it’s just like Panama; music all the time. You can’t wake up and not hear music coming out of somebody’s car, or somebody’s window or out of their front door. They party on their front step, whether it’s a workday or a weekend. I guess the difference is, people aren't so closed into their own world. Even if they are in their own world, they’re not hiding it from anybody. Everything’s open. There’s nothing to lose. Everybody’s poor anyway but it doesn’t matter because they have so much pride. Really, that’s the energy and the vibe that I get.
DX: Well, that diversity is really interesting but also, your choice not to rap as much on your solo albums has been interesting. Do you view your work with rhyme and your work when you sing differently or was there a different reason to separate the genres?
Aloe Blacc: The major reason for separating the genres was because Stones Throw [Records] signed me as a vocalist, not as an emcee. The second reason was because I was becoming uncomfortable with writing rhymes that ultimately didn’t say much. I was uncomfortable with the state of Hip Hop being largely about the expression of ego. I wondered, how could I be more crafty at writing songs in the form of a Rap, that actually express more than ego, style and finesse. I figured I would educate myself to learn more about songwriting and apply that later to Hip Hop.
DX: You’ve definitely found that but did that give you a refreshing view of rhymes, to come back to Rap?
Aloe Blacc: Yeah, definitely. I’m actually back in the lab with Exile and we’re about thirty songs deep on an album called Bird’s Eye View for the next Emanon release. I’ve definitely learned more about how to be specific and carry a message and use the tools that I have in songwriting to either be completely topic-centric or to extend myself to be outside of the topic.
DX: Recently, we spoke with Exile, who referred to you as his “big little brother...”
Aloe Blacc: [Laughs] Yeah, physically I’m smaller than him, a couple of years younger than him, but, our relationship is such that I’m showing him new things or teaching him other things because I have experiences in a lot of other realms of life and he’s heavily focused just on music.
DX: So, he also said a bit about Bird’s Eye View. When can fans expect that?
Aloe Blacc: I’m hoping Spring of 2011. I think that would be a great time to drop the album and start touring. We have a song that I put out on Aloeblacc.com/Emanon called “Death is Fair.” It’s basically a socio-political indictment against capitalism and corrupt politicians and our ways as human beings. You could listen to the music and you could read the lyrics and you could even click on links in the lyrics to see exactly what I’m talking about with the different topics, like people getting hands cut off in diamond mines in Africa or political unrest in Iran, or a list of lobbyists in [Washington] D.C. who are making things tough for people to get what’s needed because they’re paying off politicians.
DX: I love that idea of providing links. I think a few groups have done that in the past. What made you want to do that?
Aloe Blacc: I just think it’s important. It’s a way of me to say, to other emcees, if you’re talking about anything relevant, you’ll be able to do this with your rhymes. If you’re not, it’s going to be difficult and everybody can see through that. That’s how I get my ego out in music. Another thing, as an emcee, musician and an artist, I accept the responsibility of being a public individual, a representative of people, a leader of a tribe and starting a dialogue and educating folks.
HipHopDX: Having a father who worked with music and passed early on, what was it like to find all of his old recordings and drum kits? How has that experience influenced your work since then? Still planning on re-releasing the material?
Exile: Well it was amazing going through all of his old stuff, finding old pictures of him on the accordion and what not. He has two huge storage areas, and I only went through a quarter of it. So, I had three goals. One was to find a box of his reel to reel tapes. [The second was] to find his band’s first 45 [RPM record and the last was to] find a photo of my grandfather with his Mariachi band. So I found three boxes, big boxes, of his reel to reel tapes from the '60s to the '80s. One of them has my name on it from when I was like three or four. I found the photo of my grandfather and his band, but I did not find the 45 until I got home and looked through some random vinyl of his [that] I took. Then, bam! I fuckin’ found it! So, I am a happy man with what I found. Now I just need to find the right four-track to play it all. Been through like four of them.
DX: Kids coming up look to you as one of the greats of today and can definitely learn from your work. How did you first learn to scratch and experiment with sampling?
Exile: I had a cheap Sanyo stereo with a turntable on top, a radio and a dual tape cassette at the bottom. In the sixth grade I learned how to scratch by holding down on the phono button and the tape button at the same time, creating a transformer scratch. Later, I used the tape cassettes to create loops. I would scratch in a James Brown riff and there would be a blank space that i would later fill in on the other tape deck. If this process is repeated, I can have infinite tracks but a lot of tape hiss. No computers back then, kids.
DX: How has your beat making process changed or stayed the same over the years?
Exile: Well I def got away from loops. My goal is to manipulate sound as much as possible. That’s the meaning of music. I fuck with loops sometimes, but not as much as I used to. I also have been getting into playing the [Akai] MPC live for beat-making.
DX: When we spoke with Fashawn in 2009, he said you two started Boy Meets World before ever meeting but then continued the record after he came to Los Angeles to work face-to-face. In an era of email collaborations, what makes working in the same room together different, for better or worse?
Exile: Well, we got to feel out how we sound with each other so once we worked in person, it went real easy. The chemistry was right. I mean, we still got the face to face in what is needed to make a classic LP [in Boy Meets World]. I think it’s important to get a sense of who each other are when being creative so you can cater to the personality. When you work in a room with an artist, you can help them rap in a way you feel fits the track or you can have them write on the spot and give input, Or we can even try new beats that work with the same lyrics. One time I just played the MPC live and [Fashawn] spit at the same time. We have a version of “Freedom” like that. I’m gonna put it on a mixtape. [Laughs]
DX: It seems that since Below the Heavens was released, fans have been anticipating a second album from you and Blu. Is that something you two are working on or plan on working on in the future?
Exile: We have songs, a good amount of songs, no one has heard. Word. Coming soon.
DX: You've been able to make quality projects with lesser known emcees (at the time of the initial recording). What do you look for when you listen to emcees and how to you tailor your beats to specific styles? Do they offer sample selections, drum patterns, etc?
Exile: When I first work with an emcee, I usually like to hear them spit different verses to me on the spot to different beats so I can get a sense of what fits them or what they like. Either that or just have them write on the spot.
DX: I read that you speak to artists to get them to open up about certain parts of their lives or to rhyme about things they would normally stray away from. How does that process take place? How does that allow the writer to get to a different level with the depth in their lyrics?
Exile: Really, I just suggest a mood, a sarcasm or be like, “Rap about all that makes you mad in the world to this beat, even if you don’t feel that right off the bat. Sometimes that creates a juxtaposition that wouldn’t normally be there. I just communicate the type of lyrics I feel work good with my music, or what I want the album to be, and they do the same.
DX: Radio was such an intriguing concept when it was first released, that many wondered where this idea came from. Was it something you always wanted to do or did it come from an a desire to challenge yourself more than ever?
Exile: I just wanted to do an instrumental project. It was time. I just wanted it to not be another beat tape. I wanted it to be themed and to speak to the listener in a way that’s unique. I loved being able to record the voice of the people in Los Angeles and have it communicate things I believe in. It was truly a spiritual experience for me.
DX: How did the AM/FM Radio Remixes project come about? How did the artists reach out?
Exile: I just put the word out there to cats I respect musically and waited to see what happened. I got a lot of feedback from a lot of great artists. But Evidence was doing vocal versions of my album before he even knew that I was working on an album. So that worked out perfect.
DX: With all the collaborations since Emanon, it seems appropriate to see another album. Any shot of that? Also, what can be said about working with Aloe Blacc and his progression as an artist from your perspective?
Exile: Aloe [Blacc] is like a big little brother to me. I have been there to see so many sides of this man’s talent. Trust me, Aloe has tried every type of music and he can do it all. I am so proud of the new album he has with The El Micheals Affair and [I am proud of] the way he performs the material live. He found his voice so well in his style of performing. I enjoy watching his show very much. Yes, we have pretty much a whole album finished but we are both kind of doing other things and have not found time to mix the album. But, it’s coming soon and I’m sure we will make plenty new material for it as well.