By Lilledeshan Bose, published in OC Weekly Tue., Sep. 28 2010
Retro-soul singer Aloe Blacc grew up in Laguna Hills, but these days, he’s making music all over the world. Currently recording in New York, his album Good Things, out today, reflects his desire to promote social change with songs like “Politician” and “I Need a Dollar.”
He says, “Even if the music itself does not explicitly express anything that may signify positive social change, the product of the music will.” In Good Things, he tackles “joblessness, homeless, the misappropriation of wealth, pillaging of resources, and a universal lack of compassion from the capitalism at-large.”
Aloe Blacc, now in his early 30s, had made a name for himself as half of hip-hop group Emanon, where he was the emcee/singer to DJ/producer Exile. The first-generation American offspring of Panamanian parents graduated from USC in 2001, and was thrown into the world of conscious hip-hop. How he transitioned into soul singing is a story in itself.
OC Weekly: You grew up in Orange County, right? What was your upbringing like?
Aloe Blacc: I grew up in a couple of military bases–Tustin, El Toro–and then we moved to Laguna Hills, in the suburbs. It was fine, I was like any young kid, doing young kid things.
I was probably the only black kid in school so instantly I stood out. But I was a cool kid to hang out with, energetic and athletic. I don’t know…I don’t have anything to compare it to.
How did your upbringing influence your music?
My growing up was a lot of fun. I had a good time. I had fun in school and I did well…my childhood friends are ones I’m still really close to. I went to Laguna Hills High School.
The music I do now is something I graduated to. In elementary school I was a trumpet player. I had a neighbor who was into hip-hop and he was letting me borrow his hip-hop music CDs, i listened to a lot of hip-hop radio. The original hip-hop radio station K-DAY was hard to get in OC; he showed me that station when I was 8-years-old.
In high school I always ended up in LA for parties and to watch shows, or I’d drive to KUCI to freestyle on the radio and listen to records. I got into hip-hop and eventually got into hip-hop samples. Listening to all the jazz, R&B that hip-hop sampled from–educated me to be a soul singer.
Did you move to New York for music?
No, but Good Things was recorded on the East Coast because that’s where the musicians live. I’ve recorded with musicians who play with the Dap Kings, etc.
How did you transition from hip-hop to soul singing?
When Emanon started out we were doing our own thing in hip-hop, and I started doing some singing in the rap songs, and eventually started writing some singing songs. But they weren’t the best songs, they were just me trying to approximate what I heard from people I listened to like Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell and James Taylor.
Later I had the opportunity to go on tour in Europe on my label (Stones Throw), and I met Ono while on tour. We started recording together when I got home, I sang on a couple of songs we did togehter. The label heard those songs, and even though the label knew I was a rapper–I think they were looking to sign a signer and figured I was as good as any–so they signed me for an album [as a soul singer].
Do your politics always come out in your music?
My personal music is a range of all topics, but I’m always integrating socio-political, sometimes economic topics in my album. It comes from being aware of government and capitalism and for me, it’s just being conscious of having knowledge of who’s in control and who makes you do what you do.
Before I went to USC I was really interested in social engineering, which can be used in good or bad ways. The worst of it was like, with Hilter, but the good comes out in NPR and public programs. It comes from being conscious of being in the game of life and having always in control over what you do (and developing desire). It’s a socio-psychological fetish I have, and I like to be vocal about it.
Is there any irony in having your song “I Need a Dollar” in the HBO show How to Make it in America?
I’m not sure it’s that far of a stretch. It kind of fits. I think it helps with visibility–radio airplay is difficult to get, but to get some visibility via a TV show is really good. Network would be good, but cable is fine. It’s already a big hit in Europe.
Are you doing any live shows locally?
In November I”m starting my North America tour. I’m looking at booking an OC show but I first want to see how well people respond to the LA dates. It would be nice for OC kids to drive to LA–I used to do it in high school almost every weekend!