What’s the best thing about living in Los Angeles? If you guessed Amoeba Records, you were close (we’re second-- actually first, according to LA Magazine). The correct answer, or I should say, the appropriate answer, is the surfeit of open-minded music aficionados that breathe and walk the streets every day. Being able to find inspiring and mood altering music readily at your disposal is the sweetest candy; being able to share it with like minded individuals who will appreciate it and celebrate it as much as you is priceless. That is why I heart Stones Throw. The air over at the Stones Throw headquarters is thick with bubbling ingenuity and relentlessness blended meticulously with an appetite for exploring outside the box. With artists like Madlib, Aloe Blacc, Damn Funk and Mayer Hawthorne leaving the swagger and overactive egos at the door, Stones Throw has singlehandedly redefined the definition of cool.
Giles Peterson dubbed Aloe Blacc’s last album, Shine Through, as simply “brilliant” and I agree 110%. It's R&B, it's hip-hop, it's in two languages, and it's magic to my ears. I was fortunate enough to catch up with the bilingual, multi-instrumentalist crooner and emcee to ask him about his relationship with Stones Throw, his love for music, his upcoming album, the return of Emanon, and some of his favorite new artists.
SD: How did your environment as a child and coming from a bilingual household affect your music?
AB: I had a very diverse musical upbringing and my understanding grows more every day. My parents are Black-Panamanians, so in the home we listened to a lot of Caribbean music: salsa, meringue, soca, and calypso. My dad’s record collection also included R&B, Funk, and Soul artists of the seventies and eighties from the U.S. In grade school I played the trumpet in the orchestra, so I learned classical music and some jazz in junior high. My friend’s parents had classic rock collections that we sampled from in high school to make beats. I have taken all of these influences and fused them with my bilingual upbringing in some of the songs that I make.
SD: How has being signed to a label like Stones Throw affected your musical decisions?
AB: Signing to Stones Throw has made me more aware of the business side of the music industry. It doesn’t change what I make because I don’t feel I have much control over the ideas that come to me, but it effects what I release. I started out as an emcee, and the label appreciated my vocalist songs, which is why I released Shine Through on Stones Throw.
SD: What brings you more pleasure-- being a singer, or being an emcee?
AB: Right now I am at a crossroads with both singing and emceeing. I was not satisfied with emceeing for a while because I felt it was too limiting with regard to the broad effect I could have on an audience. Learning to sing and write better has given me tools that I can apply to emceeing to draw on emotion without using too many words. For a time I felt that some of my raps were just too wordy for no reason other than to rhyme at the end of a line and sound cool. Now I want to do that, plus make a complete statement and make the listener feel something.
SD: Did you ever have doubts about pursuing music?
AB: I don’t ever have doubts about pursuing music. I only doubt the method of pursuit. The Internet has changed the game since I started making music. My adolescent niece and her friends discover music and experience it in a totally different way from how I learned [about and] enjoyed music. I am coming to terms with the new school and trying to figure out how to make it feel as real as when I was a kid.
SD: You’re totally right. Things have changed, which makes me wonder, with the lack of album sales, how does an artist make a living in these tuff times?
AB: I have been an independent artist for a long time and have established a good network that keeps me quite busy. Internationally, I am able to tour and record, which helps me to sustain a living. Artists need to maintain relationships and help one another out as much as possible. Sometimes helping another artist is the best way to maintain a relationship with a business contact. People remember who is easy to work with and they return for more business. I introduce my network of friends to others and let the currency of relationships bring new work my way.
SD: Between Facebook, Twitter, Linked-in, and MySpace seems like that would be easy to do. How do you feel about the sudden growth spurt of social media?
AB: I think that the sudden spurt of social media is a double-edged sword. It is great because the new tools help to promote the music, but it is also terrible because it changes the income structure in ways yet unresolved. It seems now that music is the promotional item for a style of artist, brand, or a character. With everything being hyper-marketed, it feels as though an artist has to be a superhuman character to really be recognized. Reality suffers and culture limps as a consequence.
SD: Do you think musical artists have a responsibility to be socially conscious?
AB: I am in two minds about socially conscious artists. I personally want to be a socially conscious artist and often choose to release songs that make a positive or progressive statement. However, I also view art as a very self-centered activity through which people can express transient feelings that have no identifiable socially conscious message. I believe both self-centeredness and social consciousness are necessary in any form of art.
SD: Who are some of your favorite new artists?
AB: I really still enjoy a lot of independent hip-hop like my Stones Throw cohorts Madlib, M.E.D, and OH NO. I am always impressed by my good friend DJ Exile, with whom I have been making music since 1995; he has been able to find new, talented emcees and make wonderful music in the past few years while I have ventured out on solo efforts. Maya Jupiter is also a very talented artist that I am co-producing at the moment.
SD: When’s the next album coming?
AB: I am pretty sure my next Stones Throw release will be out by late Fall 2009. It is produced by Leon Michels and Jeff Silverman of Truth & Soul records. I recorded with musicians from El Michel’s Affair, Antibalas, Dap Kings, Olympians, and Menahan Street Band in Brooklyn. I am also working on another EMANON album with DJ Exile, which should also be released before Fall 2009.
'Till the next time...chew the corners off.