Aloe Blacc: You Make Me Smile
Somewhat like a young Bill Withers just before his prime, with the release of his new album Good Things first generation Panamanian American singer, rapper and musician Aloe Blacc (government name: Egbert Nathaniel Dawkins III) has, with the assistance of Stones Throw Records and Truth & Soul productions, comfortably asserted himself as a force for modern American soul music. Fittingly, in light of his socially articulate song-writing eye, a background which includes status as a graduate of the University of Southern California and a love of transcendentalist thought, existentialism and the monologues of contemporary social critics such as Cornell West, at the heart of his work is a desire to make moves a little deeper.
As he puts it, " My philosophy is an amalgam of concepts ranging from spirituality and philosophy to economics and social-psychology. The key force shaping my present approach is capitalism. I believe it is an overwhelmingly powerful force that needs to be modified. As consumers, we need to be more aware of our needs and curb the desires that lead us to conspicuous consumption. We also need to understand the impact made on people in other parts of the world with regard to the products we purchase. Similarly, corporations need to be more compassionate about the effect that a product's life cycle has on the ecology and on culture. I want to use my voice to make some change or at least start the dialogue about how we can make positive changes in the realm of resource distribution and improved quality of life for all people."
Raised in Southern California, Aloe Blacc, as he puts it, " fell in love with hip hop at an early age." Thinking more inwardly on the path that has, over an EP, two solo albums, countless tapes and records as a member of both Eamanon and Bee, positioned him with a global career as a recording and touring artist, Aloe Blacc sharpens the focus on his past. "My love for music is largely due to my participation in hip hop culture as an emcee, b-boy, and producer," he reflects. " The Latin vibes in some of my music comes from my parents who are Panamanian and used to play a lot of salsa, merengue, soca, and calypso when I was growing up. Influence from the Caribbean is especially [evident] in the songs on Shine Through. Songs like 'Patria Mia' and my salsa cover 'Ordinary People' are just a few examples of the direct expression of Latin vibe."
On Good Things however, Aloe Blacc steps away from the future beats tinged, Latin/Caribbean accentuated rap'n'soul of Shine Through to weigh in with a swaggering body of observational soul arrangements, as spearheaded by his breakout hit 'I Need A Dollar'. First drafted up in an incomplete form in 2005, after numerous false starts 'I Need A Dollar' came together in a studio jam session. As Aloe Blacc admits, "The lyrics in the second verse are autobiographical about getting got laid off and the other verses are about experiences of people around me." Built at the same time as a few other Good Things numbers, 'I Need A Dollar', despite the fast spike of momentum in generated through placement as title track on HBO series How To Make It In America was far from a factor in the records direction. In Aloe Blacc's words, "The intent all along was to make a soul record."
Still, that didn't mean he wasn't going to take the accolades associated with a breakout commercial underground hit. " The placement has been a big help in gaining new fans," he says. "Since the song has become so popular, I have been back and forth to Europe to promote Good Things and have had the chance to perform on TV shows several times in France, Belgium, Germany, and England. The most exciting of them all being the Jools Holland show where I got to sing in front of Sir Paul McCartney, who danced and bobbed his head all the way through."
The wider record though, much like 'I Need A Dollar' was handcrafted with assistance from Williamsburg, Brooklyn's much lionised modern soul production team Truth & Soul (Jeff Dynamite and Leon Michels), the men behind acts such as The El Michels Affair and Lee Fields and The Expressions. " I met Truth & Soul through Egon at Stones Throw and I went to record the album with them in their studio in Brooklyn," Aloe Blacc remembers. "At first, they gave me a CD of instrumental tracks for me to preview and write lyrics. Then we jammed in the studio to come up with other songs, and finally, I shared songs that I had written with them to recreate for the album. The album is what I like to call "brand new old soul" because it feels like it comes from decades ago, but it still has a freshness to it that makes it relevant today. Several of the songs on the album were written before the recording sessions and the influences range over the years from Cat Stevens to Sam Cooke and Curtis Mayfield." And upon considered listening reflection, brand new old soul it is indeed.
By Martyn Pepperell
On Thursday the 27th of January, Aloe Blacc, backed by his band The Grand Scheme, will bring his meditations on modern life to New Zealand for one exclusive show at Backstage (12 Galatos St, Auckland) with support from David Dallas. Tickets are available via www.undertheradar.co.nz or Conch Records (115A Ponsonby Rd)