“The name of my band is The Grand Scheme because my master plan is to usher forth this concept of compassion, especially in capitalism; for corporations to be more aware of the life cycle of their products and how it affects society and culture, and for consumers to be more aware of their needs and not just their desires.”
Aloe Blacc – singer, writer, musician, thinker and all-round independent talent – calls things like he sees them, and he doesn’t like what he sees. You can hear it in his music, feel it in his lyrics and watch it do its thing on stage. “My purpose for music is positive social change,” says this ambitious Orange County Californian. “I look at things in a tribal way, and I look at myself as one of the strong warrior hunters of a tribe: my goal is to go out and bring as much food back home as possible. Unfortunately in our day and age food is money, so I bring back as much money as I can, and share that with my band or share that with charities or my family.”
Aloe doesn’t claim to have the answers, but he sure knows how to ask the right questions. His sophomore album, ‘Good Things’, is a political yet deeply personal record: part classic, contemporary Soul, part understated Hip Hop, and with just the right amount of Funk, it is held together by Blacc’s gorgeous, effortlessly cool delivery. And it is this deceptively-smooth voice that in part allows him to explore these weighty subjects: joblessness, homeless, the misappropriation of wealth, and the lack of communal compassion. Rather than shout about it, Aloe Blacc only has to sing, in the same way that Marvin Gaye – an artist with whom Blacc is frequently compared – asked ‘What’s Going On’ all the way back in 1970.
In times where many artists, cowed by demography, treat politics like poison, ‘Good Things’ is powerful and articulate statement: a protest, but never preachy. Then again, Aloe Blacc has spent his whole life cruising the road less travelled. Born to Panamanian parents, his father an army officer and his mother a courthouse secretary, Aloe’s introduction to Hip Hop came when he began break-dancing with older kids on an army base at the age of five. He was a bright, driven child, so much so that he was marked out for a Gifted And Talented class in elementary school. Despite this relatively stable start to life and education, Aloe soon found room to express himself: by the age of nine he was already freestyling and writing rhymes. He still has the books to prove it. Blacc also picked up another skill which would stand him in good stead: namely, a strong hustle. “My mom used to give a $1.25 for lunch, and I’d go to the Taco Bell and buy one 49 cent taco, and then go to the 7-11 and buy a 35 cent juice. I bought candy with the rest of the money, and sold it in schoolyard. I was already a businessman!”
If ‘Good Things’ is Blacc’s breakthrough moment, it’s one that is richly deserved. His professional music career began as an MC in the indie group Emanon, alongside DJ Exile, in 1995. The duo initially came to prominence through Exile’s then-pioneering home-grown mixtapes, beginning with ‘Stretch Marx’, which featured a regular mix on the A-side, and the group’s original music on the flip. However, at that time, the music they were making was not enough for a young man as smart as Aloe Blacc. He was accepted into UCL on a full academic scholarship, initially to study Communication Theory. “But I got bored with that,” he says. “What I really ended up falling in love with was linguistics and psychology. I wanted to do a Neuroscience major, but the school didn’t have a neuroscience programme, so I just put together classes that I was interested in around the field and made my own inter-disciplinary major. So I spent a summer doing experiments on rabbit brains. I also did a linguistics thesis on stance adverbials in the Supreme Court: when people say things like ‘positively’ or ‘absolutely’, whether it’s based on fact or not, they’re trying to convince others that they’re basing their statement on truth. So I did a bunch of nerdy stuff like that.”
Poised for a life of Neuroscience rather than Nu-Soul, Blacc became disillusioned with the ivory tower of academia. He felt ostracised from peers who, he says, “hadn’t really lived life yet”, and remained unsure about how to use an education that he had fought so hard for in a way that would actually help people. “That’s the problem with academia,” he now says. “There are these different disciplines which operate in a vacuum, but in real life everything’s interdependent. I’m a more holistic kinda cat.” Instead, needing to earn money immediately, Aloe took a summer internship with business strategy consultant Ernst & Young. This gave him an invaluable insight into the machinery of corporate America, and disillusioned him all over again. “I was on a track to become a really big executive or whatever, but I didn’t feel like I was utilising my potential in the right way. I was also hugely committed to music; still doing shows on work nights and then going into the office exhausted. Eventually, when the company decided to downsize, they squeezed out a lot of the junior consultants, and I was part of that layoff.”
Rather than mourn the loss of his fledgling career, Aloe saw it as a serendipitous opportunity to devote his life to music. By now, he was recording as an MC with Oh No for Stones Throw Records. But label head Peanut Butter Wolf had different plans for his new signee. “Wolf liked the songs I was singing on rather than rapping,” says Aloe. “So I started to explore the idea of singing properly. My first album, ‘Shine Through’, was just me experimenting with different songs, because over the years I had been recording things and tucking them away. The first time I met with Wolf I played him eight different CDs’ worth of music, and we picked the best of what we had for that album.”
Whereas the omni-directional strut of ‘Shine Through’ was something of a compilation, follow-up ‘Good Things’ feels like Aloe Blacc’s first official outing. It is a focused yet far-reaching effort, channelling Aloe’s energy and eclectic history into a record that reflects his impassioned world view. The proof is in ‘I Need A Dollar’, the sublime cult hit which looks set to reach even broader audiences with its official release in 2011. ‘Dollar’ traces a jobless character who finds comfort in “whisky and wine”, and was inspired on a drive in Los Angeles. “I was listening to some field recordings of chain-gang songs,” says Aloe. “Workers would listen to this music to get them through the day, and this idea of a chorus saying “I need a dollar” came to me there and then.”
The finished song reflected both Blacc’s firing at Ernst & Young and, somewhat accidentally, the fate of thousands in similar situations worldwide (HBO swiftly adopted it as the theme tune for ‘How To Make It In America’). As such, ‘I Need A Dollar’ has already been hailed as the accidental anthem to the recession, much to the bemusement of Aloe himself. “It’s super ironic,’ he says, “but it just makes so much sense. How do you make it in America? Well, definitely not by being philanthropic, and probably not by being very nice. How did America make it? Stole a bunch of slaves, then went and killed a bunch of people in other countries to build their military-industrial complex. Conquest. That’s how you make it in America.”
One look at the charts suggests that soul music does indeed shine in hard times, and Aloe Blacc’s adaptation of the genre’s tradition with the Hip Hop that defined his early years has already won him some dizzying comparisons: Gil Scott-Heron, Marvin Gaye, Bill Withers and Raphael Saadiq are frequently mentioned in the media. As an album, though, ‘Good Things’ is more experimental than ‘Dollar’ might suggest. ‘Life So Hard’ is all quivering strings, slow-burning funk and gospel harmonies, neatly complimenting Blacc’s stunning, shimmering cover of The Velvet Underground’s ‘Femme Fatale’. Though he now paints broader brushstrokes, Blacc’s not lost the gritty street-smartness of his early material and formative years: ‘Miss Fortune’ has that delicious, tangible swagger behind its reggae-infused groove, whilst ‘Loving You Is Killing Me’ is a contemporary marriage of big beats with even bigger pop melodies. Essentially, ‘I Need A Dollar’ jumps out, but ‘Good Things’ is an album with real resonance, and real ambition.
Lyrically, ‘Good Things’ is the synthesis of Aloe Blacc’s sounds and experiences to date. It is also deeply personal: see the heart-tugging, piano-led balladry of ‘Mama Hold My Hand’ (sample lyric: “Mama used to be strong, but she ain’t now”), or the title track’s celebration of a break-up (“ever since you’ve been gone, it’s been a lot of good things”). On other occasions, it’s plain surprising: the glorious psychedelic album closer -‘Politican (Reprise)’ – wouldn’t feel out of place on ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’. The album as a whole was written and recorded in 2008, as Barack Obama prepared for his Presidency, but also while America was feeling the heat of a deep and worrying economic crisis. Both events significantly impacted Blacc’s intertwining of the personal with the political, a balance that he has sought for years. “It felt like the right discussion to have,’ he says, “because nobody else was doing it. Hip Hop songs were still talking about being rich and on top of the world. The theme of this album is a discourse about capitalism in America. There is a problem with capitalism, in this growing disparity between the rich and the poor. There needs to be a solution, which is why I titled it ‘Good Things’: that would be the solution.”
Aloe Blacc is a fresh, frank and significant new artist, whose unpredictable life and evident intelligence have fed into his first UK release (Epic Records). And although ‘Good Things’ can, importantly, be enjoyed as just a great record, it does have genuine concerns, and big ideas. “Hopefully, at last,” he says, “people will now listen to me, and I can start to suggest other ideas about what music can sound like. I want to open a door for a lot of good people.” Judging by the quality of his debut album, Good Things surely lie ahead.