It was way too hot at Montreal’s Osheaga festival for the cap and blazer Aloe Blacc wore on stage, but somehow, neither he nor his band seemed to be feeling the heat. Maybe they’re just that cool. Since his breakout moment two years ago, thanks in part to HBO’s How to Make It in America using his “I Need a Dollar” as its theme song, the man’s been all over the world performing his soul music. After his set at Osheaga, he dropped the blazer and the hat and talked to Complex about how he’s gotten to this point, his rap past, and his next album.
Interview by Brad Wete (@BradWete)
Your live show is great. How much work goes into putting it together with your band?
We’ve spent the last 18 months developing the show, doing over 250 performances. So we have a groove with the old material, and we’re trying to work in the new material. It feels good and I feel like it’s translating to the audience.
Your popularity blew up after the How to Make It America in America placement. Talk about your journey as an artist.
My beginning’s in hip-hop. In 1995, I started making music with DJ Exile. In about 2004, ’05, I introduced Exile to Blu. Then I was like, “Exile’s got an MC to work with, I’m going to experiment on some singing." Stones Throw ended up signing me as a singer, and I started releasing music that was kind of a mix of different genres. In 2008, I traveled the world promoting Shine Through music and working on new stuff. Just being creative doing side projects here and there. And then Stones Throw said, “Why don’t you go to New York and do a record.”
It ended up being really good album. A few months after we finished the album, HBO was looking for the theme music for How to Make It in America. From hearing the whole album, they picked “I Need a Dollar.” DJ Green Lantern made a mixtape for the show with the music that was in the show. That went viral and “I Need a Dollar” ended up being one of those tracks that everybody heard. It blew up in Europe. That went to the Germans and the Brits. It’s been a great ride ever since.
I didn’t know you rapped.
I’m an MC. I started rapping ever since Beat Street. My favorite acts were A Tribe Called Quest, N.W.A., Nas, De La Soul, and Pharcyde. When hip-hop became violent and misogynistic, it really wasn’t working for me and I’m not going to make it on any level doing what I’m doing because my sound was what was hot anymore. I went and toured in Europe with Oh No, Madlib’s younger brother. He’s a really dope producer. I came home and recorded an album with him. We never released the album, but two of songs were ones I was singing on. Stones Throw ended up signing me off of one of them. And then we just started working out how I’m going to be a vocalist.
It’s crazy that singing was an afterthought for you. Now you’re killing it vocally.
Nah, I don’t even have it. I’m still developing my voice. Everybody believes it, so we’re going to keep running with it until they’re like, “Ah! It’s like the Wizard of Oz! Ain’t nothing going on behind the curtain.”
I finished another album with Exile already. We just need to mix and master it. We’ll probably release it independently to the fans for free. The live show is really where we make our mark. It’s about the live show at this point.
Were you always a fan of soul singers, though?
I grew up playing the trumpet, so I listened to a lot of jazz and learned about jazz vocalists like Mel Tormé and current ones like Anita Baker. My parents are from Panama, so I grew up listening to a lot of meringue and salsa. Also calypso, soca, and reggae. But I grew up in the suburbs of Orange County. Most of my friends were white and their parents were listening to classic rock. I was learning about The Who and The Beatles and that kind of stuff. I loved singer-song-writers like Cat Stevens and James Taylor. I thought I could make songs like that, so I tried. It’s worked out.
Is the new song you performed, “I Wanna Be With You,” your new single?
It’s not out yet. We’re testing it out on audiences to see if it works and then maybe it’ll be the next single.
When do you think you’ll release your next album?
Hopefully, before the end of the year. I think I have enough songs for it. I think I have the right ones for it. It’s just a matter of producing them right. So I’m testing them out on the road. I had time in June to write. When I finish this tour, I’ll have time to record a bit more.
Can you describe the sound on your next album? Will it be a departure from the old school sound or a continuation?
It’ll be a continuation. It’ll be soulful. It’ll be political and social with content. It’ll have a broad appeal. I like to make music as the greats of the past did. Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” is a soul song, but it’s a pop song. Same goes for Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour.” That’s ultimately where I’m going to make my mark.