It’s difficult to find a better collection of songs than Blu and Exile’s modern classic, Below The Heavens. The two California impresarios are not blind to the origin of their international reverence. Nor are they burdened by it. While crafting their follow up, Give Me My Flowers While I Can Still Smell Them, as Blu explains in this wide ranging interview with HipHopDX, they never felt any pressure. Since Below The Heavens‘ 2007 release, Blu and Exile have released a slew of projects individually, collaborated extensively, traveled relentlessly -- never sacrificing their creative expressions to that fiendish gaggle of fanagers. Neither has ever been allergic to experimentation. Reveling in the past is pointless when blazing new frontiers.
With Give My Flowers While I Can Still Smell Them approaching its September 4 Fat Beats release, Blu and Exile discuss the recording process and why the album was originally posted unmastered on Bandcamp. Exile also talks 4 TRK Mind, while Blu shares what happened when he met Nas.
Blu & Exile Explain Leak Of Give Me My Flowers While I Can Still Smell Them
HipHopDX: I know that this in essence is a rerelease for [Give Me My Flowers While I Can Still Smell Them]. The project was put on Bandcamp.com earlier in the year and now it’s being released through Fat Beats.
Exile: It got released before it got mixed and now it’s all mixed and has added instrumentation as well as scratches. We’ve got some new songs on there as well. Blu and I are actually working on a new song right now just to add to the digital release. So it’s a little extra bonus joint in addition to the other one.
DX: Was that the intended strategy to put this project on Bandcamp first? Or did this sort of happen after the reaction to the unmixed release?
Exile: It wasn’t intended. It just kind of happened. Hopefully it will work for our benefit.
DX: Last week, Snoop Dogg announced that he’s changing his name to Snoop Lion. During the press conference, Diplo was there as well since he’s producing Snoop’s Reggae album. While describing what it was like to work with Snoop, Diplo said, “...of course having the opportunity to work with him and work with a whole album is the dream for a producer.” You’ve left your biggest mark by producing entire albums for artists, and to a degree introducing those artists to the masses. Is there something special about working on a full length with one artist versus doing one off tracks for whoever comes to commission your work?
Exile: I think it creates something unique when it’s produced by one artist. It gives it its own sound and, to me, lends itself open for the chance of being a classic album more than a mixed production album - even though there are albums that are mixed production and still classics. I think it just lays a sound that’s familiar throughout the whole record because it’s one producer. But then you’re able to see how the producer can go into different styles but still maintain the same sound. I love hearing stuff like that. For instance, Ice Cube’s Death Certificate it all has the same sound but all these different styles. I like how it stays within the same sound as that one producer. There’s something about it. There’s something about how the vocalist rides the wave of the same sound over different styles. It feels like a unit.
DX: Blu, when you and Exile get together, does it feel like an event? What does it feel like?
Blu: It feels real good being in the studio with Exile because Exile is the definition of a specialist. He takes his professionalism to another level. When you're working with somebody like that, you feel special. [Laughs]
DX: What's the difference between working on this album and working on Below The Heavens?
Blu: [With Give Me My Flowers While I Can Still Smell Them], we did it in a few days. We did about 30 songs in a few days that were just a bunch of sketches; songs we did for recreation as opposed to work. After we did it, we just cut it, banged it for ourselves and the homies and just kept it because we knew it wasn't a strong follow-up to [Below The Heavens]. But it was something we enjoyed personally. So after a few years of people hounding us for material, we decided to just give them the songs for free online. After that, a few labels caught buzz of it so that's the reason why we decided to go with Fat Beats [Records] for the official release.
DX: It seemed like you two caught a bit of flack for the lack of mixing and mastering on online Bandcamp.com version.
Blu: Yeah, the leaked version is the Blu version. The Blu version is unmixed. It's raw and it's unmastered. The Exile version is mixed, mastered, and has additional instruments and a cool T-shirt. [Laughs]
DX: You like putting out raw releases. You've mentioned before that the difference between you and Exile is that Exile likes to do one album every two years. He likes to mix and master and remix and remaster every release. You just like to put it out.
Blu: That's correct, bro - mixtape after mixtape. My fans are like fiends. They can't stop bugging me. They know we're sitting on a wealth of material. They know that every time they see us.
DX: Are you concerned with the obvious criticism by putting out albums before they're mixed and mastered from a listener stand point? Does that affect you at all?
Blu: Nah. That's how we came into the game. Other than the Blu & Exile release, we did about four or five free [projects]. When MySpace was crackin', we were just giving away shit just to give it away. The label started to get mad. Around 2009, they started releasing our older material; our free material. Fat Beats wanted to do the same thing with the Blu & Exile unreleased project, which is the Flowers album.
DX: My favorite joint on Flowers is "A Man." It's ill the way you dig into the psychology behind people of faith.
Blu: I was telling people to find God. The song "A Man" was just telling people that I'm just a man. Find God. Find out who God is. If it's in yourself. If it's Biblical. If it's Islamic. If it's Jah. Whoever your God is or however you perceive God. Some people think their higher self is God. It's tons of religions so there's tons of answers. But it depends on you as an individual or as a man is looking for.
DX: You've been able to tap into your base in a way that's unique from maybe 98% of the emcees who've ever picked up a microphone. People actually believe in you. Your fans, as you mentioned earlier, are fiends for everything that you have to say. Does that ever creep into your creative process?
Blu: Right. Yeah. Man, I think my main fan base has to be fans of Brazilian music. As long as our music is easy going, it's Blu & Exile. Easy Listening, bro. It's Easy Listening Hip Hop. We try not to disappoint. We try to deliver every time; whether it's free or whether it's vinyl. Ten-inch or 12-inch. Or 45s, you know.
DX: Exile, were there any unexpected challenges making this record following Below The Heavens?
Exile: I’d say with Below The Heavens, I definitely had more control over the record than I did with this one. Blu was a brand new artist and I was just a little more established than Blu. It led me to be able to have more control over the record. With this record, Blu is an established artist. He definitely had more control over this record. This one was approached more like I did my part, Blu did his part, then I went back over to do my part again. As opposed to us going through and nitpicking all the way through at the same time. This was just a little bit different type of approach to making an album together.
DX: One of the things I really love about your beats is that there are always these subtle allusions to my childhood. You sampled Sesame Street on [“I Am”] Below The Heavens. You sample Mr. Rogers on this one [“Good Morning Neighbor”]. Those brief shots of nostalgia always come in right on time.
Exile: [Laughs] Word. Yeah, I’m actually glad Blu had more control over the beats that got chose for this record because I probably would have did something that was a little closer to Below The Heavens. Not that this record was far off, but I’m glad that Blu chose the beats that he did. I feel like it’s a different enough album from Below The Heavens which I think is a good thing.
DX: So you made a bunch of beats and Blu picked out the 17 or so that he wanted to rock over?
Exile: He picked out less than that. And then I gave him more batches of beats to go with the sound that he wanted to go for.
DX: I’m always curious about how emcee/producer combos work on the second album. In my mind, there’s always something unique about that second one because the surrounding circumstances are always so much different.
Exile: Yeah. I was like we need to do the hard record. But then eventually as I listened to the album I [realized] it doesn’t even need it. This is what it is: chilled, laid back, sunny day with some cloudy day scenes in there. It has like an indie flick feel to it.
DX: Now that you have the rerelease of Give Me My Flowers While I Can Smell Them coming up on September 4. You're always working on something. I looked up one day and I realized had 11 different Blu projects. I was like, "When did I get 11 different Blu projects?!"
DX: I realized that I had the same number of projects in my iPod by Blu as I do by Nas, for example.
Blu: [Laughs] That's pretty amazing! But a lot of those are fan projects, though. A lot of those help spread the word. I was looking at my Wikipedia [page] like, "This shit is crazy!" I feel like Canibus or some shit. [Laughs]
DX: [Laughs] I've heard you explain this before. Your Warner deal was initially was supposed to include a movie with every release. You've stated how you can't see rhyming after 30 years old, but you know want to get into movies at some point. You're 29 now, if I'm not mistaken. You're right there at 30. What are you thinking about now? Do you still have the same passion for emceeing or are you planning your escape?
Blu: [Laughs] I mean, I still want to get into movies, but it really dawned on me from being young in my twenties and looking at it, to being like 30 looking at it. Film is some big shit, bro, you know what I'm saying. You don't want to go into something half-assed. That's one of the most beautiful careers to embark on. If you can step in, step in as official as possible, man, to make that stamp. Right now, man, I'm back in a fan perspective myself. I've met a lot of people who've gone to school and really delved into film. They know what they're doing. So, I'm back to a fan perspective and looking at the young generation and seeing what they'll bring to theatre and cinema, especially coming from a digital era.
DX: Of course Below The Heavens is a great album to me. But my favorite song from you is actually on Johnson & Jonson. It's "Wow."
Blu: Wow! [Laughs]
DX: At the time it came out, for the next seven months after, that was my hangover joint. Every Friday and Saturday morning that I woke up hungover, that was the first thing I put on. But it sounds like you were just having so much fun on that joint. What was that recording process like?
Blu: Man, "Wow" was just a loop and I just bodied it. Johnson & Jonson was all just rare loops. We would just go in on 32 bar loops. "The Only Way" was a 32 bar loop. That's like unheard of in Hip Hop. Like how the hell do you loop 32 bars of a song and just rap over that shit? Johnson & Jonson was like...we should've called that album "Getting Away With Murder," bro. We were killing the loops. "Wow" was one of those. That was an ill loop, too.
DX: What did the little red baby on the cover mean?
Blu: That's because we was little Bloods and shit. We thought we was bangin' in Long Beach and bringin' them Bloods to Long Beach. But we was still being [cheeky] so we put a little red baby on the cover. [Laughs]
DX: I thought the production on 4TRK Mind was phenomenal, Exile. I’ll be honest with you, listening to the record, I wondered whether it was a serious foray into emceeing. Were you looking to establish yourself as an emcee? Or was it something you just wanted to do for fun?
Exile: I’ve always rapped and I knew I really wanted to just say, “Fuck it” and express myself and put [4TRK Mind] out there for people to check out. I was just doing it. I didn’t plan it any certain way. I just wanted to do what I did and if it took me into a direction to be a more serious emcee then I’d go there. I guess it can be looked at as just another art piece that I did. I never really took myself so serious as an emcee but I’d always be freestyling on tour or out getting faded or whatever. I think there are definitely things I can talk about in my life that I can’t with beats so I wanted to get that out there for the people to hear.
DX: Was it different putting together a solo album from beats to rhymes? Do did you learn anything new by going all in on your own that maybe you didn’t realize beforehand?
Exile: That if there’s some sort of emotion or something that you went through that inspires you to write lyrics, whether it comes up when you’re about to fall asleep, just get up and do it. For myself, right after writing something, it’s very important to just record it right then when you’re free to get the feeling out of you that you felt while writing it and also to remember the pattern that you created when you were writing it. I also did a lot of freestyling on that record. I was just freestyling say eight bars, and if I fucked up I would just punch in and keep it going. I think I realized that patterns and feelings is just as important as the lyrics.
DX: “Younger Days” is an exceptional joint. The verse where you describe your junior high school crush and she flipped on you when she found out you were getting free lunch, that joint is moving. I always wanted to know, what was that girl's name?
Exile: Ah...Shit. She was just some fucking dumb-ass bitch that thought she was cute. That’s all. Damn. I thought she was cute at the time. Damn. I don’t know her name. That was actually an interesting story. Speaking about writing something when you’re feeling it, Blu was going through something and he didn’t have a ride at the time. So I was going to give him a ride to his mother’s [house] and she wasn’t anywhere to be found. I was driving all night and ended up dropping off Blu at three in the morning in Long Beach and then had to drive all the way back to [Los Angeles]. Some Johnny Cash song had come on about his father. My father passed away a while ago and it reminded me. The song kind of touched me. So I went home and wrote that whole song. It’s definitely not all about my dad, but the last verse definitely is. It just made me think about my dad and if he would appreciate me making music. If we knew each other now, would he appreciate me making music? It just kind of inspired me to write a song that had to do with my father that also incorporated my mom and my sister and my whole life. So I get home at four in the morning and just decided to write the whole song and record it. I stayed up all night. It was a cool moment for me recording.
DX: Do you think your father would be proud of the music you make?
Exile: Yeah. Definitely. I think he would and I definitely think we would be making more music together. He was a musician. He wasn’t in my life all that much. I was watching “Colors,” the Ice-T video back in the day and he was like, “This is the stuff you like?” [Laughs] I never had the chance to really show him what I do musically. We never got to bond with each other like that. At the time I kind of resented him for it. Looking back, I know that we’re very similar and the musicianship that I’ve learned since then he would definitely appreciate. We would definitely be able to work with each other.
DX: There are a lot of artists now that are shying away from sampling because it’s expensive and makes it more difficult to exploit other revenue opportunities. You sample often. Do you ever find it difficult to clear samples? What is it about sampling that you still love?
Exile: I definitely have been incorporating more keyboard work in my music. I just don’t want to limit myself to the way that I got used to making music. I’m a digger, a record head, so I still haven’t broke buying a stack of records and going through it and doing what I normally do. It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks. I definitely have been making stuff that has no samples, too. Don’t get me wrong. There are songs on Below The Heavens that don’t have samples. There are some songs on this next album that don’t have samples as well. That’s just how I learned how to make Hip Hop and I definitely think it’s a big part of Hip Hop. I don’t think it should ever go away but I’m definitely not mad at Hip Hop that doesn’t have samples at all.
DX: Has sampling been expensive?
Exile: It hasn’t been expensive to where I’ve had to come out of pocket, but it’s definitely put me in situations where I’d have to make less money.
DX: I've seen you twice live now, Blu. The first time I saw you was in 2008 at the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival. And then I saw you again at 2011 at Rock The Bells in New York. It was cool seeing you, Exile, and Fashawn rock on the same stage at the same time. You guys seem to be the first wave of what's been this New West...
Blu: New Wave West. New Wave West.
DX: What does that feel like to you?
Blu: I feel like Snoop Dogg of the underground and shit. I feel like I'm gonna put out a Doggfather album. Just put all the little homies who came out after us on that shit.
Blu Clarifies No York Leak, And What Happened At Warner Bros.
DX: At that same Rock The Bells tour, you gave away No York for free to the audience. Was that an effort to get out of your Warner Bros. Records contract?
Blu: No, not at all. That was the last operation that Warner Bros. [Records] did for the No York record: Press the [No York] promos. We got the promos right before [Warner Bros. Records CEO and Chairman Tom Whalley] got fired and the company got bought out. We were like, "Fuck, man. The company's in turmoil and shit." Everybody that was working the record got fired. It was just us and a box of promos. So we took them to New York and just gave them away instead of just letting them sit. No better place than Rock The Bells.
DX: The news coverage on that made it seem like you went rogue.
Blu: Not at all. We were actually in a good position with that because we actually had something to give to the people as opposed to the unfortunate situation where artists get shelved and they can't even share the music that they created for the fans with the fans. We're in a position where the label pretty much fired itself and we're sitting here with an unreleased project that everyone's been waiting for. It's a good thing we had promos because we would've just been floating around like, "What have you guys been doing for the last few years?"
DX: True that. I thought the Open album was a great example of where you're willing to go sonically as a producer.
DX: I think it's difficult to take risk in Hip Hop when everyone is so scared; when employees are worried about keeping their jobs; when artists are worried about staying hot. You never seem to let that creep into what you're working on. That Open project is interesting because it seemed to confirm your special relationship with New York City. Leading up to the promo for No York, you did an interview with LA Weekly and you said that "you think the culture is dying out. So in a way it's No York, too." What did you mean by that?
Blu: Man, nobody ever got an Illmatic [by Nas] again, know what I'm sayin? Everybody loved it like it was The Bible of Hip Hop but nobody ever brought that shit since. I've been hounding heads for classics. So I was on New York about not having classics for a few years of falling off. The South was mainly prominent. New York started following the South. It changed a lot. But I think after our No York album, New York definitely sparked off again, but I think it was in a very unique way. It was more so through the love of their new underground freestyle battle scene. It's huge right now. I think the biggest heart in Hip Hop is coming from New York once again. I feel like I threw a shot over there and they knew what to do with it. They threw a shot back. [Laughs]
DX: It feels like you threw more than just a shot. You collaborated with Sene frequently. You've got Scienze and Fresh Daily on Open. You collaborated with Jesse Abraham on his One Day EP. You've got Homeboy Sandman on Flowers. There seems to be a definite respect for the New York scene.
Blu: There was a question mark. A lot of interviews cleared it up, letting the people know that [No York] wasn't a diss. It was more of a statement coming from California. But as far as what I would tell New York is to wake up. That's what I was saying at the time because we was running. Pac Div, U-N-I, Blu, J*Davey - we were about to come through and smash all of that shit. Flying Lotus. We was about to get crazy. So we were like, "Yo, wake up." That's the way we was moving. And then Low End Theory made it's way out there. Homeboy Sandman and everybody started releasing their albums; got signed and everything. Sene, who I did a record with before that record, started putting out a few releases afterward. It kind of woke up that independent scene. But I'd say the biggest spark after that was that King Of The Ring shit. That shit is insane!
DX: You brought up Illmatic. To me, Below The Heavens is an Illmatic-type album in the sense that it's an absolute classic that came along at a time when people were searching for something that might be next; something real and tangible in Hip Hop. Is there pressure behind having an album the caliber of Below The Heavens in your catalog?
Blu: Uh...no, man. I knew I had to have a record like that in my catalog and I just think it's the illest that it was my first record. It just feels good. We always wanted to make a classic. We went in hoping to achieve that. And when we dropped it was like, boom! It was moving great all over the world. But when it got back to putting up as a classic, I was kind of shocked. It rose from the ranks. I come from under-underground Cali music, you know what I'm sayin? None of them niggas at the time was in New York. So for us to let alone make it to New York to go out there with a backpack of respect already was a beautiful feeling.
DX: I got a chance to see you live at the 2011 Rock The Bells in New York, Exile. You have a pretty dynamic stage presence. Did you always intend to be a performing artist, banging out production live or did the opportunity rise just given the evolution of the deejay/producer?
Exile: I come from a family of musicians and I definitely get a hard time for doing Hip Hop. I just wanted to make sure I was doing something that has some musicianship so they would show up. [Laughs] In addition to that, I just wanted to do it -- do more musicianship in the shows -- to make it fun for myself. When I put out an instrumental album called Exile Radio in 2009, I didn’t want to just go up there and deejay. I wanted to actually be real time creating music on stage as well. It’s just to make it fun for myself and just actually do some musicianship other than scratching on stage.
DX: Live production is really popular these days. Especially in the Dubstep scene. What are your thoughts on Dubstep? Does it feel sustainable; like a sound that’s going to stick around for a while?
Exile: I mean, I’ve stepped in some Dubstep clubs where I felt like chewing my arm off and running out screaming. I couldn’t even stay inside the joint. In the right context, I’ve heard it played where it’s the perfect energy for it to come in. I think audience’s attention spans are open to all different kinds of music. Me personally, I prefer to hear different things played in deejay sets instead of just one thing. I think any song played at the right time can work and can be entertaining for me. As far as Dubstep, I don’t know. We’ll see. I think it definitely has the potential to play itself out because it is definitely getting kind of mainstream - being used in commercials and whatnot. I think as long as it’s done right and challenges itself to be different it could be something that sticks around.
DX: Considering everything that you’ve learned, accomplished, and experienced over the course of your career, what still surprises you about Hip Hop?
Exile: Groups like Black Hippy and Odd Future. It being able to reinvent itself. It being able to borrow from high points of creativity from Hip Hop of the past and being able to give it new life again. To be able to grasp onto the music without it being crammed down are throats from the radio. And also what surprises me about Hip Hop is how it has been moving to an area of just instrumentation without vocals. The deejay has taken on a whole new realm aside from just as a producer and scratching and all that stuff. That kind of died out and now people are just getting super intricate with the beats. The music is evolving. It’s changing. There are some aspects of Hip Hop that have stayed the same and are very conservative. I’m also seeing other aspects that are constantly evolving and constantly changing. I’m thankful for that.
Blu Recalls Nas' Security Getting Him Removed From A Club, Praises Life Is Good
DX: Blu, what still surprises you about Hip Hop?
Blu: That Nas is still the illest, bro. That shit is mad surprising. After all these years; after Rick Ross, Drake, Jay Electronica, all these niggas - that [Life Is Good] came out and he's still the illest. That's the most surprising shit ever.
DX: Word up. Are you guys going to get into the studio together? Have you guys been talking?
Blu: Hell nah. I seen that nigga in the club and he didn't even want to see me and shit. I was like, "Nas, I'll eat you up right now." He was like, "Dude..." Talked to his security. Escorted me out of the area and shit.
DX: [Laughs] Are you serious?
Blu: Yeah! I was like, "Nas, I'll eat you up right now. Let's get in the studio." He was like [to security], "Get this dude out of here." So, I'm gonna work on how I approach him next time. [Laughs]
Another thing that I'm surprised by about Hip Hop is the volume that it's explode by throughout the year. From 1983 to 1988, 1988 was a huge explosion. 1995-96 was a huge flood out of New York. Then like 2009 to 2010 Internet generation was just flooded all over. Niggas got videos. Niggas been out for two years and got more videos than Bjork, you know what I'm saying. I'm always surprised by how well the culture of Hip Hop moves.