If Aloe Blacc was incarnated in any other physical form, he says he would be a tree. But he wasn’t. He was born a musician. Classically trained in trumpet since the third grade and experienced with the piano and guitar, Aloe makes music, just music. He calls much of it “alternative,” not in the KROQ sense, but rather as a term denoting no easy categorization or genre assignment. He crafts tunes in the corner of his bedroom amongst heaps of free t-shirts, old bills, books from college and half-(un)packed suitcases. His recording booth: a cloth partitioned closet with a mic that dangles alongside overcoats and button-ups. Not the most elaborate tools of the trade, but his sound is one that booms out the box well beyond its humble origins.
A smooth and collected Renaissance man of sorts, Aloe began as one half of the L.A. underground tandem Emanon. Along with producer Exile, the two created introspective hip-hop with intellectually driven rhymes, culled at a time when creativity was budding in the indie sector of the rap game. Influenced by a healthy diet of Freestyle Fellowship, Hiero, Hobo Junction, Digable, De La, Tribe and the like, Aloe and his cohorts (DJ Drez, June 22, Zaire Black, Exile) vowed to venture from their suburban So Call upbringing to L.A. to carve out their own cubby in the ever expanding mid ’90s West Coast scene.
“A lot of the early stuff was very introspective because of the literature I was reading in school. My mind-state at the time was really wide open. I was exploring different religious beliefs and understandings about the world… reading Thoreau and Emerson and learning about modernism, post-modernism, existentialism and also paying attention to conspiracy theories about world government [and] secret societies. All of that stuff was in the lyrics back then,” Aloe recollects. Henry David Thoreau as an integral influence? Blacc was surely on some other ish. On one of his first EPs “Acid-9” he quarrels with a hypothetical record exec who encourages Aloe to “hold a glock or chew on a stick or at least roll up a pant-leg or somethin’.” No such conformity or compromise to be found. “I gotta be me,” Aloe retorts.
And that he does. After a slew of successful releases with Emanon, Aloe forged a natural progression into his own solo creations. Embracing his inclination to sing, Mr. Blacc began crafting songs for personal enjoyment, shifting the stress from his lyrics to delve more deeply into salient concepts. Regarding his departure from stream-of-consciousness style writing Aloe reflects, “College made me want to be more specific when I wrote songs, made me want to complete a story. Now I’m trying to bring forth and complete ideas and thoughts. So by the end of the song you could tell somebody what it was about, rather than being like, ‘It was great but, uh, I didn’t know what he was talking about.”
Shine Through, Blacc’s latest full length effort off Stones Throw, marks a point of emergence for Aloe as an artist. Veering off the straightforward avenue of his hip-hop roots, Blacc has found space to pay homage to the myriad of influences that have guided his previous efforts without hiding behind a mask of posturing bravado. Aloe has no problem wearing his inspirations on his sleeve, which range from Cat Stevens to Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell to Bill Withers, and Elton John to Donny Hathaway. Recognizing the sample-based nature of hip-hop, Aloe found it proper to allow those fundamental forms of jazz, funk, soul, reggae, and folk to come to the forefront of his tracks, while acknowledging that everything he does is still regulated by the hip-hop aesthetic. “I’m paying homage to where a tot of Black music comes from… even if I do a bossa nova crooning joint, my understanding of it is informed by hip-hop.”
A Latin flavor is heavily pervasive throughout Shine. Raised by Panamanian parents, Aloe grew up in a Spanish-speaking house where salsa, meringue, calypso, dancehall, reggae and other music from the Caribbean Islands and Central/South America were in constant rotation. “I grew to love it, but I noticed that in my early years I never incorporated it into my music. The more I played trumpet on my songs, [that element] started to play in with it.” The album, ripe with folk tales, affirmations and good ol’ booty-movers, is a testament to Aloe’s free-spirited love for life. His music pulses with a vitality and exuberance that he accredits to just letting his “soul shine through.”
The title track of the album actually arose one day when he returned home to find a housemate in the midst of an impromptu jam-out on the guitar in the living room. “I started singing and went in my room and pressed record on the Pro Tools, hoping to pick up what was going on in the other room and that’s what ended up on the album, I didn’t add or edit anything. It was a complete, spontaneous, effortless spill of soul,” Aloe recounts.
The neo-soul stylings of Shine Through have garnered Aloe attention from BET, The Washington Post, and NPR with lofty comparisons to John Legend, R. Kelly and Kanye, but it was Stones Throw’s Peanut Butter Wolf who first hopped on the one-man-band’s wagon. Aloe first connected with the camp when he stowed-away on a Lootpack tour through Europe, filling Madlib’s vacant spot while he was busy refreaking the Blue Note players. After sparking a strong connection with Oh No, Aloe’s demos found their way into the Stones Throw office speakers and PB eventually sat down with the songwriter to select the cream of the crop in the early stages of the album’s fruition.
“My sister was the singer, she used to clown me when I tried to. I never really considered myself a singer. I still really don’t. I just feel like I can write a good song and carry a note once in a while,” Aloe modestly admits. “A lot of the songs I write aren’t really for me; they’re better suited for someone else’s voice. So for me to do it is a stretch. But until people are hollering at me to get joints, I’m gonna just go ahead and present them. Shine Through in a lot of ways is really just a demo to my contemporaries, just letting them know that I write songs too. And if you’re looking for a song… I got plenty.” In fact, dude touts that he’s got 400 of ’em waiting in the wings, but time constraints have kept them from evolving from the page to the production booth.
Blacc stays on the grind like coffee beans, juggling his own tour scheduling, in stores, coordinating promotion efforts, licensing, loads of travel and a weekly event he emcees in Hollywood. “The practicality of life has kept my music very practical as well,” music which may still be underground, but not by choice. Aloe attributes it to exposure, “My music is for everybody. In essence, I feel like it’s bigger than where it is. I want to eventually have all my music be free. Make it and give it away and have the money come from elsewhere. I feel like music should be free.”