Interview by Toshitaka Kondo, published in Complex Magazine, March 2010
When most people hear the gritty “I Need A Dollar,” during the opening credits for HBO’s How To Make It In America, they probably think it’s some old ’70s soul song. The last thing they would expect to find out is that it’s actually a new song from rapper/singer/producer Aloe Blacc, who’s signed to the underground powerhouse, Stones Throw Records. The L.A. native has been steadily cultivating fans since 1995 when he first touched down with hip-hop producer Exile as the critically acclaimed duo, Emanon. He released his debut solo album, Shine Through, in 2006, but his profile has been raised considerably since HBO decided that his haunting vocals—tucked inside urgent pianos provided by the production duo, Truth & Soul—would be perfect for a show about 20-somethings trying to make their mark in New York. While working on his upcoming July sophomore release, Good Things, Aloe spoke with Complex about having the theme song for one of TV’s most talked about new shows…
Complex: When did you make “I Need A Dollar”?
Aloe Blacc: I started writing the song when I was driving in L.A. in 2005. A lot of my songs come to me when I’m driving, ’cause there’s so much traffic, my brain just goes into a mode. So I started coming up with the song, mainly the chorus. The way I write songs often, I come up with an idea and I record it into my phone. I just let it sit for a little bit and then I come back to it. So I had the chorus and I was thinking, “What could I do for the verses?” One of the first verses that came to me was the “Whisky And The Wine” verse, even though it’s buried in the song. Fast forward four years and I produced an entire album here in L.A. at a studio called West Lake Studios. This is where Michael Jackson recorded Thriller and Off The Wall. I turned that album into the label but [Peanut Butter] Wolf said it was too commercial and wasn’t the right fit for the label. Egon said, “Okay Aloe, are you open to working with some producers on another album?” And I said, “That’s fine.” So the label sends me out to New York to work with these producers, Truth & Soul, in February 2009.
Complex: At that point in time, you had written the hook and a skeleton for a song, but you didn’t have the music to it?
Aloe Blacc: Exactly. I had about five or six songs in my head, two of them were just lyrics. The other ones I had demos of the song with my keyboard or whatever. So I went to the Soul Fire studios in Williamsburg with Truth & Soul. They had instruments in the studio like drums, keys, bass, and the guitar. “I Need A Dollar” came about because they started jamming and when they finished I was like, “Wow, this song that’s in my head fits this jam.” The chord progression fit right with the lyrics I already had.
Complex: What inspired the concept for “I Need A Dollar”?
Aloe Blacc: No money problems. That was boom time. The housing industry was up. Everybody was happy. I lived in this house that we called the Monmouth Temple on a street called Monmouth in Los Angeles from 2003 to 2008. A lot of musicians tend to live in this house. One of the guys has a really nice record collection, and he gave me some chain gang field recordings of convicts, largely black, from the South, working on chain gangs. This was in my head at that time. It seemed to me a little bit like a spiritual. That’s the way I originally made the song. I actually recorded it with my friends in 2007 at the Monmouth Temple when we were just sitting in the front room stomping on the wooden floor and clapping our hands. Kind of like a spiritual you could do it in church. So that’s how I always heard it. At least the melody in my voice, that’s always remained and it worked perfectly with the music that these guys made in New York.
Complex: How did you get the song on How To Make It In America?
Aloe Blacc: The show already had a theme song, but I think the title of the song had the word “fuck” in it. And HBO didn’t want to go to air with a theme song that the producers choose because of the word. If you look online for the trailer, I think the song is in the trailer. From what I understand it was the 11th hour, and the producers sent their music supervisors out to find more music. They contacted Stones Throw and they sent about 20 songs, four of which were mine from my new album. They choose “I Need A Dollar.”
Complex: When did this all happen?
Aloe Blacc: This happened in December [’09]. Nobody was at work. Christmas time. I think they definitely needed to find something soon because the show went on the air in February. It was very serendipitous for me. I was excited about it, but a lot of opportunities come through, but nothing is final until you sign. So I kind of kept it to myself because you don’t want to blow too much steam saying its going to happen, and then it doesn’t happen.
Complex: Were you already excited for the show?
Aloe Blacc: I wasn’t necessarily looking out for it and I don’t really watch TV like that. I did not realize that it was a theatric drama and scripted. Whenever I heard about it, I thought it was a reality show following different people trying to make it in America.
Complex: Have you been watching the show?
Aloe Blacc: Yeah, I think that it’s a good show. I really hope that it survives and I think that people like the show more than what the critics are saying. The critics have been a little harsh. I like the show for what it is and think that it can be successful.
Complex: Were you happy with the way the song was cut to the opening credits?
Aloe Blacc: Actually, when I heard it I figured I could probably cut a better sequence to the opening credits. But it’s not offensive what they did. As long as it didn’t offend me, or offend the song, I thought it was fine. One thing I would definitely change is the ending [of the opening credits]. It sounds a little too predictable, the way they make it end with the horns.
Complex: Have you felt like the show has given you a lot more exposure?
Aloe Blacc: It’s definitely more exposure. The label says that every single Sunday and Monday they see a sales spike. I don’t know the exact number now, but I know it’s more than 10,000 [digital copies] which is cool for less than a month. Lots of applause and accolades from the friends and fam, and lots of new fans.
Complex: Is it the first single for Good Things?
Aloe Blacc: It already is because we released it to iTunes. The 12-inch single will be released in April.
Complex: Has their been any other opportunities that have come about because of your song being on the show?
Aloe Blacc: Right around the same time the show selected my song, I got an email from an A&R at Universal who was trying to connect me with Kid Cudi. I was in Australia at the time and I guess Cudi was going to Australia, and since I was out there they were like maybe we could link up and do something. Cudi liked the song. But I was on my way home and Cudi was going out there, and I was like, “Is Cudi going to be in L.A. at any time?” And he was like, “Maybe.” So I gave him my number but I never heard anything back. So it was a near miss, basically.
Complex: Are you happy with the experience of having your song on How To Make It In America?
Aloe Blacc: Yeah, definitely. I think the biggest barrier for a lot of independent artists is getting the visibility. But it’s just about getting that exposure and it being sincere. Not beating people over the head with it like they do on pop radio. This song is growing organically and it’s really nice to see how people are coming to find it.