Blu‘s career has been swarmed with collaborating with one producer for an entire project. It started nine years ago with his most acclaimed and notable album: Below The Heavens with Exile. It’s a gorgeous and lengthy coming-of-age West Coast rap album infused with chopped up soul samples while a 20-something tries to figure out his place on Earth until his soul reaches above the clouds.
More small-time collaborations with Ta’Raach and Mainframe, who is the co-founder of their New World Color record label, followed. Then Godlee Barnes and Exile rekindled their chemistry for an EP and another full-length soon after he signed — then left — Warner Bros. (He left largely after new ownership came in and creative indifferences over his debut album No York followed. One side (Blu) wanted to be one of rap’s most experimental project’s of the century and the other side (Warner Bros.) wanted to be Below The Heavens Pt. 2)
Madlib and Nottz, two of rap’s most notable veterans behind the boards, worked with Blu over the next couple years, releasing a handful of projects (along with MED) with the former and a couple EPs with the latter. His last solo album — 2014’s double-disc Good To Be Home — was entirely produced by Bombay, too.
Hopping from producer to producer may get a bit tiring for a fan — and Blu — but he likes the the thrill of the effort needed to form a chemistry with a completely new producer. “I try to keep all my records from sounding the same,” he said.
“Upon accepting the challenge” to take on the San Diego producer’s abstract and bass-heavy beats, the two made Open Your Optics To Optimism.
It’s an eight-track project meant to stimulate how and why one thinks. Fellow underground poets like Open Mike Eagle, Milo and Sene and lesser-known, multi-talented artists like Cheryl, Dolphin and Choker join Blu and Fa†e on their journey through space, the sea or pretty much any reality that isn’t the one you’ve come accustomed to.
I exchanged a couple emails with to the two artists primarily involved in OYOTO about how they met, what they first thought when they heard each other’s music, their careers (or, at least Blu’s career — Fa†e’s is just getting started) thus far and more as they detail a moments from their project and their thought process of bringing the explorative themes of the project together.
Open Your Eyes To Optimism comes out Wednesday (September 28th) on EveryDejaVu. Pre-order the album on Bandcamp.
Fa†e, Do you remember the first moment you heard Blu rap?
Fa†e: Yes, it was back in 2008. I remember stumbling upon Below The Heavens and it changed my music perspective completely.
In what way?
F: At the time I was listening to mostly mainstream music or whatever was on the radio. Once I found Below The Heavens, it opened my eyes to a whole new layer of music. It really led me to a lot of music I never would of even knew of or had access to without first hearing that.
You’ve obviously been a fan for a long time. Was it more nerve racking or exciting asking Blu to work for the first time?
F: Most definitely. I would say a combination of both emotions. Excitement working with somebody I had looked up to musically and inspired me, but very nerve wrecking as I didn’t know what he would think of the music.
So Blu, how did you and Fate first connect and what attracted you to his beats?
B: Fa†e reached out to me for a feature on his first album, The Night Bus Home. I really dug the beats he sent. They had a not-so-conventional-yet-traditional feel. Real abstract boom-bap. I laced my joint, and when the album dropped, I was excited to give it a listen. I did and really enjoyed it. It was everything I was hoping it to be.
Yeah, you’ve worked with the Exile’s, the Madlib’s, the Nottz’s of the world, and Fate’s beats definitely sound a shade different from them. OYOTO is probably the most left-field selection of beats you’ve worked with — outside of making your own — since No York.
B: True, the project we curated was different from all [of mine and Fa†e’s] previous work. I stepped completely out of my realm and made sure my song writing did as well. I try to keep all my records from sounding the same, and with this one, it was definitely easy to do that.
Fate, it must be nice knowing he liked them enough to do a full project with you. Without getting too in depth with Blu, what kind of sonic mood were you going for once he agreed and you were gonna send him some beats?
F: The sound I wanted was something very different for him, but very comfortable for me. Fresh off my release of O†on (a group between Fa†e and singer Savannah Moreau), this project was basically a continuation in that vein of sound spectrum for me but in a more “hip-hop” way. I really just thought Blu could really express something over a new sound in a way he hadn’t before, and he seemed to agree.
Exploration — of the self, of Earth’s history, of your career — is a big theme on this project. Blu, what made you step outside of yourself and this reality and offer a perspective from above?
B: The beats really put me in a different space and gave me a new air to create with. Upon accepting the challenge to challenge myself with [Fa†e’s] unique styled production, I found myself in outer space and under water, and that’s where I decided to take my songwriting as well.
Hopping on Blu’s comments, Fa†e, that your beats helped put him in a different space creatively: I liked how he and the guests were able to match the positives tones of your beats when the mood of them went that way, then they kind of just went wherever they wanted once the beat was left as more abstract.
F: Same, it really seemed to be a good soundscape for the themes of the project and the guests really did a great job matching the energy Blu brought. The production as a whole has this encapsulating presence, that while it is varied, also stays within the same realm (at least that’s what I was going for!)
Blu, you listed the most important events — at least in your eyes — in the history of man on “His Story.” Which one event is the most important?
B: The entire event, His story (God’s) is what stands out most to me. What is He trying to say through this major sequence of events.
What’d you think when Blu told you he was gonna tell the history of the world on one of your songs, Fa†e?
F: Well, he didn’t tell me that necessarily. We had one last studio session scheduled and he just kept telling me “Fa†e, I’ve got the most epic track to record” but he wouldn’t tell me what it was about. So then when we got to the studio he told me the concept of this track “His Story” and I thought it was CRAZY but in a good way. It was one of the last things recorded for the project and I believe it really tied together this concept built on the project.
Blu, at one point on the project (“Cosmophobia (Revisited)”) you delve into the beginnings of your career and how hectic life became once you signed a record deal. You admit you got “caught up in the moment.” This was a pretty rare, career-reflecting moment in your music, given you’re still pretty young. Was it hard for you to look at your past self and admit maybe you could’ve handled things — both personally and career-wise — differently?
B: I don’t think I would change a thing on my part. Selfish as it seems, I enjoyed every moment and every decision made in my career. Outside of my choices, I would definitely tell labels to put more money behind my singles (laughs), but I would keep things just the way they are.
What’s there to be optimistic about?
B: Everything! Stand by the positive side of all situations and always support the best outcome.
F: Just life in general, no matter how down you are or what situations you may be in, look to the positive side of things. Didn’t 2 Chainz just say something along the lines of “If you woke up today, you winning.”
Is this a new way of thinking, Blu?
B: It’s the same concept as my first record: “I don’t say I’m in hell, I just say I’m below the heavens!”
Photos by Mish Khalil.