The Evolution Of Aloe Blacc The critically acclaimed rapper turned retro-soul crooner has undergone many transformations over the course of his decade-long career. But instead of abandoning his hip-hop roots, he plans to remain in all of his musical outfits, while still exploring new ones.
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The Evolution Of Aloe Blacc

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The Evolution Of Aloe Blacc

(Soundbite of song, "I Need a Dollar")

Mr. ALOE BLACC (Singer): (Singing) I need a dollar, dollar, a dollar is what I need, hey, hey. Well, I need a dollar, dollar, a dollar is what I need.

GUY RAZ, host:

This might sound like some re-mastered Marvin Gaye or Bill Withers track, but it's actually brand-new. It's the work of a young, L.A.-based singer and songwriter named Aloe Blacc.

And the song caught the ear of some producers at HBO, who decided to make it the opening music for the show "How to Make It in America."

Aloe Blacc was better known as a hip-hop artist before he recorded his new album. It's called "Good Things," and it's pure, unapologetic, retro soul.

And when he popped into our New York studios this week, Aloe Blacc said the single, "I Need A Dollar," was written as a literal appeal. He was in trouble.

Mr. BLACC: Well, I used to be a business consultant and during a big reduction of force, I got laid off. So that's where you get, from the second verse - I had a job, but the boss man let me go.

The song, to me, feels like kind of a community song, something that you would sing with a group of friends. And each verse would be sung by a different person about their particular issue or problem or reason why they need a dollar, you know?

(Soundbite of song, "I Need A Dollar")

Mr. BLACC: (Singing) I had a job, but the boss man let me go. He said, I'm sorry but I won't be needing your help no more. I said, please, Mr. Boss man. I need this job more than you know. But he gave me my last paycheck, and he sent me on out the door. Well, I need a dollar, dollar, a dollar is what I need, hey, hey.

I was listening to some field recordings of chain-gang workers. And of course, their styling of songs is very - like the gospel call and response. And so, that's kind of where the, hey, hey comes from and the repetitive, I need a dollar.

RAZ: That song, of course, ended up on the HBO program "How to Make it in America" - which of course, has brought a lot of attention to the song and to you. I mean, it must have been sort of a life-changing thing for you, right?

Mr. BLACC: Definitely a life-changing thing. I mean, I've been making music for over a decade, and to have the kind of attention that a steroid like HBO can put into your life, as an indie artist, is very, very helpful.

RAZ: And you mentioned you've been in music for more than a decade. And interestingly enough, your fans will know you better as one half of the hip-hop duo, Emanon. And I want to actually play a clip of some of your work in Emanon.

(Soundbite of song, "What You Live For")

Mr. BLACC: (Singing) So many brothers caught up in the game of life man, trying to get cash they clash like the titan, keeping secrets in the left from the right hand, eventually leading to bleeding shoot and then fighting.

RAZ: So Aloe Blacc, that's you as a hip-hop artist. Do you see this new record as a complete departure from what you were doing?

Mr. BLACC: Yeah. I think sonically, when you hear it, it doesn't sound like it sits in the same kitchen. But I think the ingredients might be the same - just making a different stew, you know?

RAZ: How does your approach as more of a soul singer differ from the way you approached hip-hop?

Mr. BLACC: Well, with hip-hop, in the beginning, I wasn't really very focused on delivering a message. I became disillusioned with hip-hop because, you know, a lot of the music that I was making - or the music that my peers were making, or that I heard, was just a string of lines that didn't connect. Some of them were witty and funny, but they didn't mean anything to the next line.

RAZ: At first, you say that a lot of hip-hop - in your experience - was about ego.

Mr. BLACC: Yeah, and a lot of that, too, you know? A lot of posturing and machismo. What I wanted to do was write stories, you know? I want to be a storyteller. And I can do that in three minutes or something with a song. And then, I wanted to become a better lyricist. So I started listening to Joni Mitchell and James Taylor and Nina Simone, and that's when I started singing, really.

(Soundbite of song, "Life So Hard")

RAZ: I'm talking to singer and songwriter Aloe Blacc. His new album is called, "Good Things."

You talk about lyrics, and it seems like there's a lyrical theme going through at least parts of this record, I guess a theme about the times we're living through. I mean, you hear it in "I Need A Dollar," and then there's the track "Life So Hard."

Mr. BLACC: (Singing) These families in the street with nothing to eat. Little baby boys and girls, no shoes on their feet. All the men who leave home dying in a war zone, and the women do it all. It reminds me of the ghettoes right here and the 'hoods that I see everywhere that I've been in this country. Stop bailing out the banks and give the Franklins to me. I guess my piece of the pie ain't free.

RAZ: I wonder if this is a nod to Marvin Gaye, because I hear it in - I don't think you can hear it and not hear 'What's Going On.' But it's so timely. I mean, it sounds like you're singing about the times we're living in now.

Mr. BLACC: Well, I am, definitely. You know, when I was writing the album, we were going through just the beginning of this financial crisis and joblessness everywhere, families losing their homes. My cousin called me up and told me that one of her co-workers, unfortunately, committed suicide and killed his family because he lost his job.

And, you know, it's timely now, but a lot of these things are always happening somewhere in the world.

RAZ: What's the song on this record where you're telling a story that you didn't think you would ever tell?

Mr. BLACC: "Take Me Back."

(Soundbite of song, "Take Me Back")

Mr. BLACC: (Singing) No, it ain't right sometimes, but we're running all through my mind. I know it ain't right, don't believe 'em when they tell you that justice is blind.

It's a story about a family, a problem that we had - issue where my family was taken to court. I saw the inside of the judicial system in a way that was -it wasn't pleasing to me. You know, 12 jurors, some of whom have vacation plans, some of whom have power and control issues, and basically not enough compassion or consideration for the gravity of the situation.

So, you know, my family didn't fare too well in this civil suit and we lost, and we lost our home.

(Soundbite of song, "Take Me Back")

Mr. BLACC: (Singing) Oh, I don't need this. I don't deserve it. It ain't my fault. Hey, nobody's perfect. This ain't justice, and I didn't do it. They're just talking but they can't prove it. Give me a chance, start over again.

But, you know, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, so sing about it.

(Soundbite of song, "Take Me Back")

Mr. BLACC: (Singing) Do it over again, do it over again, start it over again.

RAZ: Your parents are from Panama. When you were a kid growing up, was there a lot of music in the house? Were your parents, you know - did they make you play an instrument, and so on?

Mr. BLACC: There was always music in the house. My dad had a stereo system, and he had this sign posted on the stereo system that said: If you value your life, do not touch my stereo.

And he had a record collection, and of course, every Saturday morning, Sunday morning, the sounds that I can remember waking up to were - it's either some soul music, you know, from the states or salsa music from the Caribbean, calypso, soca, something that was just vibrant and energetic.

My parents didn't force me to play an instrument. I kind of chose to play an instrument because I didn't want to sit in class.

RAZ: You play the trumpet, right?

Mr. BLACC: Yeah.

RAZ: Did you ever consider going into jazz, at some point?

Mr. BLACC: Not as a horn player, but as a vocalist. But hip-hop really took over in a strong way. And it wasn't so cool to be a trumpet player in a marching band outfit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACC: So at about that time when I stopped playing the trumpet, I became a huge fan of Mel Torme. And...

RAZ: Which you had to keep private because you were in the hip-hop world.

Mr. BLACC: Well, it was private because it just wasn't - matter of conversation. But yeah, like, that would sound really weird.

(Singing) Lullaby of birdland, that's what I always hear. When you sigh...

His scat is ridiculous. I think he's one of the best. And only recently, you know, I'm trying to find out about more ways to learn how to sing, and I think jazz vocal would be my next step to really improve my singing ability.

(Soundbite of song, "Green Lights")

Mr. BLACC: (Singing) Something special happened today. I got green lights all the way.

RAZ: That's Aloe Blacc. His new album is called "Good Things." If you'd like to hear a few tracks, we've got them at our website,

Aloe Blacc, thank you so much.

Mr. BLACC: Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of song, "Green Lights")

Mr. BLACC: (Singing) See I was driving over the moon in my big hot-air balloon. Floating high into the darkness, I hope I get there soon.

RAZ: And for Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. We're back tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening, and have a great night.

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