Produced by: Dan Hwang
Written and Interviewed by: Jesse Carr
The music business has a well-chronicled history of roadblocks and impediments to an artist’s success. A myriad of factors determine the proper marketing, release, and availability of a given artist’s work. Inspiring work from fledgling artists often never sees commercial release, and with the music business in a crisis because of the availability of free digital content, the chances of rising from obscure name to radio success are even more daunting today. Today, more than ever before, it takes more than a catalog of great music to make it in the music worldâ€”it takes a break.
Aloe Blacc, the gifted soul singer from California, has a story which embodies the modern music game quite well. He’s no new-jack to the scene, as his work with Exile in a duo called Emanon has been circulating since 1995. While he functioned as more of an MC during his work with Exile, Blacc has recently made a name for himself with his singing on the track, “I Need a Dollar,” which became the song that was used for the HBO Series How to Make in America. But the recent success of the single follows years of hard work as a solo artist who never had goals of mainstream conformity. In fact, “I Need a Dollar” sounds more like a popular song from the late 60s than an auto-tuned R&B song on today’s airwaves with it rich piano loop and brass swing. Blacc sings, “Bad times comin’ and I and I reap what I done sowed. Well let me tell you somethin’, all that glitters ain’t gold. It’s been a long, old, troubled, long, old troublesome road, and I’m looking for somebody to help me carry this load.” While the track may have a throwback feel, its lyrical resonance couldn’t be any more contemporary.
While the timbre of the single is dour, things are looking bright for Aloe Blacc, who is waiting on the release of his third solo album, Good Things, produced by Truth and Soul for Stones Throw Recordings. His second album Shine Through, enjoyed critical success, but Aloe Blacc seemed poised for more, especially in the wake of the resurgent emphasis on vintage soul music fueled by pop success of the UK’s tabloid-mainstay, Amy Winehouse. Blacc won’t ever fill the gossip columns with his exploits, but if the music ever gets the same exposure those songs from Winehouse, he will certainly gain notoriety.
Aloe Blacc represents both the plight of and rewards of an embattled contemporary artist. He’s multi-faceted in his talents and has weathered the storm in the music business for over 16 years before he caught a well-deserved break. Mainstream audiences may never hear his name, but his single’s use on every episode of a popular HBO series certainly caught the attention of many who may have asked, “What old song is that?”
We got the chance to catch up with Aloe Blacc and ask him some questions about his career and recent notoriety, so please take some time to read through this interview with an artist whose work seems to mirror the plotline of a show about fighting it out in order to get a crack at fulfilling a life’s dream.
A Conversation with Aloe Blacc
I watched all the episodes of How to Make it in America, and I find it interesting that the timbre of the show–scrapping to survive in a dog-eat-dog fashion industry, a design company hustling to get clients, keeping a parole officer happy–seems appropriate for the music industry. As an artist in a rough industry, have you seen parallels between the show’s themes and the business side of music?
As an independent artist, I see many parallels between the show and my experience in the music business. Back in high school, DJ Exile and I would record, mix, master, and manufacture our EMANON projects ourselves. It was a constant hustle to sell them but we eventually got our music around the world just like the guys in the show hustle to get their t-shirts to Japan.
How did “I Need a Dollar” eventually end up being the theme to the show?
When I was in Australia supporting Maya Jupiter on a national tour I got an email from Stones Throw with the good news. A music supervisor from the HBO show asked the label to send some music and “I Need a Dollar” was chosen from the selection.
I imagine that your notoriety has significantly increased since the show aired. How has the song’s inclusion changed your career?
The show has helped introduce my music to a more popular audience. It is nice to know that good music is still appreciated by people around the world. I get emails from fans in Germany, France, Japan, and many other places who know my first solo album, “Shine Through,” thanking me for continuing to make honest and original new music.
The video, like the cinematography in the show, is conceptually and aesthetically striking. Explain the concept behind the video.
The concept of the video was developed by the folks at What Matters Most production company. It is about the hustle of a youngster in Harlem who is making his way through the city. By the end of the video, it becomes a bit more obvious that whatever he is involved gets him into some trouble with the guys he is dealing with. This is a very realistic approach to the concept of “needing a dollar” because I see the same scenario play out in real life in many different ways.
In the video, there is a second song that follows “I Need a Dollar” that is a melancholic, brooding soul song. What is that song? Why was it chosen for the second half of the video?
The second tune in the video is a song from the coming Good Things album called “Life So Hard.” It was the perfect fit for the scene and the director, Kahlil Joseph, really liked the song when I played it for him. At first he wanted to use the cover of Nico’s “Femme Fatale,” which is also on the album, but we both agreed this song was a much better fit.
For those who are unfamiliar with your work, explain “I Need a Dollar” and it’s connection to your overall sound. Is the single just a glimpse of your dexterity? What else should people just hearing about you know about your music?
“I Need a Dollar” is another soul song in my ever-expanding catalogue of music. In my first album, the title song, “Shine Through,” is a traditional soul anthem about being yourself and letting your soul shine. This new album is all soul, and other projects I have include elements of Hip Hop, salsa, dancehall, folk, and other styles. I am doing some songs with my friend In-Q and co-produced an album for Maya Jupiter. Exile and I are also working on another EMANON album.
What is your next release? Who will you be working with on it?
My next Stones Throw release is the album that “I Need a Dollar” is on titled Good Things produced by Truth and Soul. For now, I am just focused on this project and making sure everyone gets to hear my version of brand-new-old-soul.