Category: Blu

Blu and Exile reunite for 'Give Me My Flowers' LP

Blu and Exile
Four years ago, a scarcely known local rapper-producer combination named Blu and Exile dropped "Below the Heavens" on the independent label Sound Is Color. It's impact far exceeded what everyone could have guessed at the time.

The last decade found underground hip-hop fans periodically seeking saviors. As with Talib Kweli, Common and Little Brother before him, Blu briefly shouldered the burden of being a would-be messiah. Along with that distinction, his debut was hailed as a classic in quarters sympathetic to soul samples and nostalgic lyrics.

The problem was that Blu clearly never relished the role. Rather than make a "Below the Heavens Part 2," he signed to Warner Bros and practically fell off the face of the Earth. While many of his peers concoted slick marketing campaigns or cultivated massive Twitter followings, Blu released under-promoted psychedelic, jazz-tinted mixtape/albums, unmastered and with dubious sound qualities. Some of the music was excellent, some was clearly slap-dash, but the San Pedro-raised rapper's talent always allowed him to keep things interesting.

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Blu and Exile (briefly) reunite on Exile's new mixtape

Exile goes to prom
First things first: Let's give props to the powder blue-clad gentleman known to his family as Aleksandr Manfredi. With just under 90 days left in the calendar year, Exile's "4TRKMIND" is a sure bet for most absurd album cover of the year. It's Lloyd Christmas-endorsed, and an ideal gift for the cellar dweller in your life. 

For the last four years, rap fans with subterranean stripes openly wondered when L.A.-based rapper Blu was going to reunite with Exile, the producer of his highly regarded debut, "Below the Heavens." In that interim, Blu has been darting in artistic directions ranging from lo-fi scuzz raps to Low End Theory futurism, to goofy psychedelic mushroom rap. Even if it hasn't been orderly, it's been unexpected and interesting.

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The jagged Low End rap of Blu's 'NoYork!' mixtape

The cover of Blu's NoYork!The Low End Theory has crossed the threshold where it's as much aesthetic as brick-and-mortar blunt shelter. Sure, you can still sojourn to the Airliner every Wednesday, but its influence has bled out to all parts of the world and all shadows of the city. Witness the latest album from Blu, the San Pedro-raised rapper named Johnson Barnes, who first came to fame in 2007 via the throwback '70s Buick cruise and coming-of-age tales of "Below the Heavens."

Shortly thereafter Blu signed with Warner Bros. and has since taken a sine curve pattern as the model for his career. People close to his camp -- label affiliated and non-affiliated -- twice played me early drafts of what eventually became his latest LP, "NoYork!" It was pretty obvious that the slashing collection of songs was nowhere near commercial enough to ever see major label release. The production list included Low End Theorists Samiyam and Flying Lotus, along with assists from Madlib, and his regular collaborators Exile and Mainframe.

There was something completely commendable about Blu's recalcitrance. Rather than make a "Below the Heavens" Part 2 with R&B hooks and auto-tune, Barnes kept his advance and made psychedelic noise-rap over beats as bright and crunchy as Fruity Pebbles, yet nowhere near as sugary. Rather than release mixtapes laden with the Warner Bros. guest stars, he released jazzy lo-fi jaunts on his Bandcamp with no advance production. When I asked a source close to him why they were never released officially I was told, "Blu lost the files."

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Exile on Melrose: MPC maestro comes to Fat Beats

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Conduct a cursory YouTube search of  “Exile” + “MPC," and you’ll see the Echo Park-based producer/rapper wielding his Akai MPC sampler as a weapon -- delivering clavicle-snapping drum smashes in a way that transforms the machine from a producer’s best friend into a potent live instrument.

Coupled with his surprisingly adroit rhyme skills, Exile’s stage shows and DJ sets rank among the most entertaining in recent rap memory -- particularly when paired with his partner-in-crime, Warner Bros.-signed Blu.

Best known for producing 2006’s acclaimed collaboration with Blu, “Below the Heavens,” Exile emerged as a viable creative force in his own right on this year’s “Radio,” a found-art opus that found him re-configuring taped snippets of everything from old commercials to evangelical sermons to Alan Watts. Sewing them into the fabric of an instrumental hip-hop album in the vein of J Dilla or Madlib, “Radio,” firmly establishes the Garden Grove-raised producer as one of the West Coast’s leading lights.

With DJ Day in tow, Exile -- the beatmaker born Aleksandr Manfredi -- will perform in-store for "Radio" on Saturday night at Fat Beats. He will be doing his 2 MPC / 2 Turntable Set. There will be 10 cases of Colt 45. Good times will be had by all. He chatted with Pop & Hiss to preview the show.

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The Quarterly Report: The best hip-hop albums of 2009, thus far

The first quarter is typically a more barren season for major rap releases, and 2009's first quarter was no different. With major labels increasingly drawn to the Michael Bay blockbuster model, the indies were there to pick up much of the slack.

Doom__ Additionally, the perpetual deluge of singles disseminated via blogs ensures that there's more great hip-hop being released now than at any time in the last decade. The challenge is finding it -- here are a few tips. 

1. Doom, “Born Like This” (Lex Records)

The skeleton key to “Born Like This,” pictured, lurks in the coda of “That’s That.” With an off-kilter, Biz Markie bellow, Doom declares, “Can it be  I’ve stayed away too long? Did you miss these rhymes when I was gone? As you listen to these crazy tracks / Check the stats, and you know where I’m at.”

Indeed, axioms about absence are rarely more apt, as Doom’s redoubled dedication to craft -- after a two-year exile -- imbues “Born Into This” with  steroid-inflated statistics. Check the enigmatic lyrics replete with political and personal interpretations, as well as the shadowy graveyard beats from Madlib, J Dilla, Jake One, and Doom. Then there are the voices of Slug (Atmosphere), Ghostface Killah, Chef Raekwon, and Charles Bukowski, floating in and out like disembodied spirits. Even fellow misanthrope Thom Yorke emerges from his London fog to remix “Gazzillion Ear.”

Plagued by the sour aftertaste of an ill-conceived cartoon collaboration (2005's pairing with Danger Mouse on “The Mouse and the Mask”) and accusations of paying impostors to perform in his stead, Doom returns to remind us why he’s amassed one of the decade’s deepest discographies. In a blog age besotted with fast-food rappers, Doom’s successful comeback illustrates the most basic rule of supply and demand.

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Paid Dues Preview: The bluffer's hour-by-hour guide to backpack rap

Blu

With 13 acts scattered over nearly nine hours of music, Saturday's lineup for the fourth annual Paid Dues Festival can seem arcane to even the most conscientious backpack rap fan. Held at the sprawling NOS Events Center, and presented by Guerilla Union and local indie ground hero, Murs 3:16, Paid Dues seeks to strike a balance between the legends of subterranean yore and the next generation of new jacks. This year’s lineup is no different, including everyone from stoner deity B-Real to emo-rap kingpin Atmosphere to newly Warner Bros.-signed local product Blu (playing with MPC maestro and DJ/producer  Exile). 

In order to make your lives easier, Pop and Hiss presents a bluffer’s guide to this year’s Paid Dues Festival. Jansport not included.

Atmosphere: (11:05-11:45 p.m.)
Along with Jay-Z and KRS-One, Atmosphere can lay claim to defining a blueprint. Arguably this decade’s biggest independent rap success story, the duo of Slug (rapper) and Ant (producer) has risen from selling cassette tapes to local hip-hop shops in their hometown, Minneapolis, to nurturing Rhymesayers, one of indie rap’s most prominent labels. The most recent album, “When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That [Stuff] Gold,” debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard charts and spawned a radio single ("You"). More important, Rhymesayers has done so largely without corporate concessions (the label is distributed by the Warner Music Group). Indeed, by staunchly adhering to the independent spirit, and taking bold creative risks, Atmosphere has retained a sizable cadre of die-hard supporters while expanding its fan base.

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L.A. @ SXSW: Blu

Blu

Pop & Hiss will be covering the South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas, March 18-22. Most of our time there will be spent chasing down bands that don't live in our own backyard, so in the days leading up to the industry event, we'll be looking at some noteworthy locals heading to Texas.

Who: Blu

What to listen to: Start with the 2007 full-length “Below the Heavens.” It’s a showcase for the artist’s descriptive storytelling and use of jazz and soul soundscapes, courtesy of producer Exile. You can stream a clean version of “My World Is ... ” below, which samples the Dells’ “I Can Sing A Rainbow / Love Is Blue,” and sets up “Below the Heavens” as a sort of West Coast answer to Common’s introspective “One Day It’ll All Make Sense.” Blu touches on sports, school and religion in the opening number, opting for realism over aggression, and even pokes a little fun at himself -- as well as at the more materialistic persona that permeates mainstream hip-hop. “Females, I don’t got ’em,” he raps, “but get ’em with no problem.”

He's playing Austin: He'll help close out the Thursday night showcases with an early Friday performance (1 a.m.) on March 20 at the Independent. Blu's performing with Exile as part of a showcase hosted by the L.A. Record. Other performers on the bill include the Henry Clay People and Castledoor. Once back home, he’ll appear at the Paid Dues Festival at the NOS Events Center in San Bernardino on March 28. 

-- Mark Medina

Related: L.A. @ SXSW: Roll the Tanks
Related: L.A. @ SXSW: Afternoons
Related: L.A. @ SXSW: Great Northern

Photo: Ryan Lewis

Long Beach's Blu: 'I’m not going to save hip-hop. Hip-hop is safe.'

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Long Beach-based rapper Blu has released two albums in the last year, "The Piece Talks" with Ta'Raach in a project they dubbed C.R.A.C., and "Johnson & Jonson" with producer Mainframe, but it's "Below the Heavens," released in 2007 through Sound in Color and produced by Exile, that first put Inglewood native John Barnes on the map.

Blu, who will perform Sunday at the Blue Cafe in Long Beach, recently signed with Sire Records, owned by Warner Music Group. His manager Jonathan Kim said about the move to the major, “This is one step further to where we would like to see Blu’s career end up." He added that Blu’s working on an album slated for a fall release.

Critics have praised Blu, 25, for his storytelling approach, such as “In Remembrance of Me” where he says, “We pushing whips/now we used to be whipped/rocking chains when we used to be in 'em/still complaining that we victims of the system.”

He also pokes fun at the materialistic, gangsta persona that defines mainstream hip-hop without sounding self-righteous. In “My World Is...," he says, “Females I don’t got ’em/but get ’em with no problem/and I don’t pack stadiums yet I still rock ’em."

After 120 performances in 2008, Blu appeared on the January cover of XXL as an emerging artist. Blu recently spoke with Pop & Hiss about his success so far:

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