Words by Eddie STATS Houghton, Photos by Fubz
When we conceived of the idea for our Now Things series focusing on cutting-edge artists across all genre boundaries who happen to have roots in the Caribbean, Aloe Blacc was the artist we had in mind. In the time since we first got hyped about his eclectic catalog of soul, rap and salsa, he has gone on quite a rampage of world domination, performing on Jimmy Fallon, taking a Gold record in France and storming the UK charts with his HBO-placed single “I Need A Dollar” (currently at #3). Although much of the buzz has been about that particular song, Aloe’s versatility as a writer and performer gets clearer and clearer, whether he’s singing about Panama on “Patria Mia” (below), translating John Legend into Spanish or putting down his own reggae cover onstage in Germany. In the midst of that whirlwind, and right before he was set to bring his long-running, Sunday afternoon Los Angeles party The Do-Over to Puerto Rico, Aloe spent the better part of a mellow, thoughtful afternoon to sit in the sun with us at Habana Outpost in Brooklyn and go deep on his Panamanian roots, his Stones Throw LP Good Things and all the unwritten chapters of the book called Aloe Blacc.
Q: I get the sense from you when you talk about all these different styles, like salsa and soul, that emotionally it’s about connecting those different senses of who you are. Is that coming out of leftfield?
A: I feel like because I have been applauded for my music and I have visibility, I have a responsibility, basically, to humanity. So I appreciate the fact that I can walk in many different environments, from corporate to academic, to the hip-hop and urban world, to the suburban world. I take advantage of that. And, ultimately, if I am to do any good in this world, I’ve got to use all of my skills and all of the access I have, to its full advantage. The fact that I can affect schoolchildren in the inner city is an important thing to me. If I can affect a corporate executive, that’s important to me because ultimately one of those kids in school will be that corporate executive. If I can change their mind on something [such as] solar panels or biodegradable packaging, and if I can at least offer the suggestion at age five, by the time they become age 50 hopefully there will be an inkling in their mind that this is the right thing to do, and this is what I should be working towards. It all starts with dialogue and opening the gates of awareness. I could do it with the music and I can do it with interviews. And personally I feel like maybe I’m one of those strong guys in the tribe, and I gotta do what I can.
Q: Your music definitely seems to be about emotion. Is [Good Things] a coherent period of your life in terms of emotion, and do you think that you want to add new things to update it, or is it a snapshot of a certain moment that you want to keepthat way?
A: Lyrically, I think Good Things is a snapshot. I think it’s perfect the way it is. Musically, things to me always grow on stage. So when I perform songs, I may change the rhythm of my lyric a little bit. I might have my band add some extra essence to certain things, speed up the tempo or slow it down. The dynamics of the songs grow on stage and I think a song is generally finished in a performance, not on the recording, but on stage. That’s why you see some artists develop their songs on stage before they record them so that their finished by the time they get to recording. For a lot of what I’ve done in the past and also recently, I record the songs that I’m not particular about, the finished product. I think if I got the idea on wax, then people will understand it, and then when they see the show, they will be like, “Wow, its so much better then the recording.” But in order to sing the songs at the show, you need to have the recording.
Q: What kind of stuff are you writing these days, like when you are on a plane to Puerto Rico?
A: I’m a bit more calculated now. Emotionally, I am all about about social issues, things that get to me that will make me talk [for] hours on end. I think its wonderful we have the World Cup in South Africa but I really think it sucks that a lot of South Africans were displaced. And what happens to all the money that was made, does it trickle down, does it support or better the lives of the people who had to suffer for the world’s entertainment? Things that I would like to address in songs, if I can find a crafty way to do it, would be technology and the minerals that are being extracted from Africa at the price of lives. There is so much bureaucracy in so many divisions of labor, so nobody points the finger and says, “This cellphone in my pocket is causing problems where warlords are killing villages so that they can extract minerals from these people’s homelands, so that they can sell them to buyers who then sell them to secondary buyers and eventually China to manufacture and sell them to distributors who make it to stores the U.S.” We have no idea what’s going on. It’s not just conflict diamonds, there are many layers of issues that nobody seems to recognize.
I trip out on the carbon footprint of water bottles, because it just seems like a massive waste for water. I’m all for capitalism and free economies and people making money, but there’s just some things that don’t make sense, at all. Making your product five percent biodegradable is not an answer. For me, it’s all or nothing. But it’s going to take time to get to that point—for venues like Habana Outpost to be the status quo. I think that we need to initiate, develop and cultivate compassionate capitalism rather then just blind free economy. Where money wants money, I think people should want happiness for people and if we can share that happiness as much as we can, then we are all better off for it. That’s what I would like to put in my next album. But how do I do it and make you listen and not say, “Aww he’s preaching again.” I gotta figure it out. And there are ways to do it, and make people listen forever. James Brown said “Say it Loud,” Marvin Gaye said “Whats Going On.” Those are the forefathers and the heroes that have done it well and I’ve studied them, and will figure it out myself.
Q: You said half of the things you want to say are in the album, and the other half is off-record. So what else did you have on your mind?
A: There is a long list but there is a lot of research that I want to do as well, because there are things I feel emotionally but before I go spouting off at the mouth about it, and not being educated about it completely. I want to be able to say and give statistics and educate people in my interviews as well. Some things would be like, figuring out in the U.S. how to develop a health-care program similar to that of Australia, where my wife is from, or Canada, where people don’t have to suffer. There are enough rich people to provide for the poor people. In tribes, you have the hero, warrior, searcher, and gatherer who is capable of providing for his community. Unfortunately in America we’ve built this tribe that is so huge that nobody feels a connection to anybody anymore. The hero’s like you know, Wall Street, and the corporate elite don’t feel connected to the other people in the tribe. They don’t even feel like there is a tribe, or the tribe is the one they created. They don’t realize that, in order for their tribe to work, resources have to come from people who have very little. But I have to develop these thoughts and make them more salient and more convincing than a rant where a economist could tear me to shreds.
Q: There’s a sense with your connection to Panama, and it’s not nostalgia, but it seems like a longing. Is that a correct reading?
A: Yeah. When I go to Panama and I see how people react and interact. There is still this concept of being “human” and understanding that the earth is where you get your resources. I think in the city, for all its worth, we have this really superficial notion that this is what life is but life is nature. I love human beings and I love animals. Sometimes I feel sorry for dogs and domesticated pets because all they get to experience is concrete. We get to wear shoes, why don’t they?
Q: You said that you felt like “Patria Mia” and the salsa covers you’ve done brought you new fans. Did you get specific signals that kind of let you know that?
A: I got an idea that different people were hearing my stuff when I actually started performing as Aloe Blacc and I was able to book a tour as Aloe Blacc, and not as [Aloe's group with producer, Exile] Emanon. I knew I infected a whole new fan base and, at the time, MySpace was big so I gained new MySpace fans and saw compliments and messages from people, saying they like the music and certain songs helped them like “I’m Beautiful” on Shine Through. I got an e-mail from a teacher who said that her fifth grade class was graduating and that for the graduation ceremony they would sing that song for their parents. To have touched a whole class of fifth graders, to me, is a really good thing. I’m glad that I had a chance to affect a teacher to then pay it forward to the kids.
Q: With the different sides of you that have made you reach different people, do you think your audience is fractured at all?
A: I don’t have a sense that the audience is fractured. People tell me when they share my album with new people, they play it all the way through, and the people who are listening for the first time ask at every new song, “Who’s this?” I think that experience as a new listener makes you a fan of all the styles.
Q: It seems like getting an opportunity to bring The Do-Over to Candela in Puerto Rico is two of your sides coming together. Have you done other things like that?
A: Nah. This is the first step. Do-Over was a really big education for me as well with music, because I was compiling Shine Through at the time that it started. So while hosting this party and hearing five different DJs over an eight-hour span play any musical genre that you can imagine, it kind of suggested this is how people are appreciating music. When you look at media players they got multiple genres and they probably put it on shuffle, so why not make an album that’s kind of like your shuffle, and that’s what Shine Through is. I’m lucky to be involved in Do-Over and going to Puerto Rico to celebrate music is a good thing but it’s definitely my first time going.