In 2006 I was running HipHopSite.com, which made its money by acting as a mail order record store for DJs and fans of underground hip-hop. We built our audience by delivering daily free content, eventually turning readers into paying customers. They didn’t mind waiting 2-to-4 weeks for package deliveries, as this was during an era when digital music was still a bit awkward and piracy was not yet mainstream.
One downside of being a retailer for physical goods was having to do product returns at the end of each month. This required long hours after the shop was closed, digging through physical manifestations of my mistakes that came in the form of piles of unsold records and CDs that I over-ordered.
At that time, we were moving through loads of Stones Throw Records’ product. Albums were selling in the thousands off of HipHopSite alone; it was as if Chris “Peanut Butter Wolf” Manak’s label could do no wrong. One such product from the label that landed in my lap early was Aloe Blacc’s debut solo album, Shine Through. This was Aloe Blacc’s first solo project, which happened after he broke off from a hip-hop duo called Emanon, alongside producer DJ Exile, who would later go on to produce the critically acclaimed debut album from rapper Blu, Below The Heavens.
Shine Through presented Aloe as this incredibly dexterous auteur, who changed styles as easy as pairs of sunglasses, bouncing from hip-hop to R&B to salsa to reggae with ease. Impressively, he closed the Shine Through album with a bonus track cover of John Legend’s “Ordinary People” in Spanish. In my July 20th, 2006 scribbly review of the album on HipHopSite, I wrote: “If hip-hop died tomorrow, Aloe Blacc would still be able to carry on as a musician of some kind. He’s one of the few artists out there that is truly deserving of that title.”
“I released Shine Through as multi-genre album, almost like a table of contents for my career,” Aloe told me when I interviewed him in 2011. “[I was] saying, ‘In Aloe Blacc’s career you’re going to hear hip-hop, soul, dancehall, salsa, R&B, electronic, folk.’”
While Stones Throw releases from MF Doom, Madlib, and J. Dilla were flying off of the shelves, I figured the same would happen for Aloe Blacc, given that his debut album was so incredible. Instead what I was faced with at the end of the month was the depressing returns process, boxing up unsold copies of Shine Through and shipping them back to the distributor.
Things changed for Aloe in 2010, when he released an even better sophomore album for Stones Throw with Good Things. However after disappointing sales from his debut album, then Stones Throw label manager Eothen “Egon” Alapatt was having a hard time convincing Peanut Butter Wolf to release the record.
“Aloe was working on the second album, a record that was all over the place like Shine Through, but didn't have the rough, organic feel to it. It was more of a polished commercial sound,” Egon recalls. “Wolf said, ‘Yo, this is horrible. I don't only not want to put this record out, but I just want to get rid of him. There is no helping this guy.’ I was like ‘Chris, that's insane we payed half of his second advance,’ which was ridiculously low, and we were broke at the time… So if you really don't care about him that much, I'll just go and take the remaining bit of our budget and I'll make a record.’ And that became Good Things. It took me two years to complete the record."
Scrapping the first draft of his second album, Good Things was then recorded with NYC funk outfit Truth & Soul. Aside from having a killer cover of Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale,” it also produced his break-through single, “I Need a Dollar.” As fate would have it, the song serendipitously became the theme to HBO’s How to Make It in America, making it easier for Egon to convince Wolf (who declined to comment for this article) to release it on Stones Throw.
“They had a different song in the opening title sequence. It was the song ‘Fuck What You Like’ by ARE Weapons. It worked perfectly, the entire opening section was cut to that song,” explains How To Make It In America music supervisor Gabe Hilfer. “In the eleventh hour, HBO was like ‘Look, we can’t have the theme song to this show have a curse word in the title and the chorus.’ It would hamper their ability to use it promotionally and all that stuff.”
“So Ian, the showrunner, calls me like ‘Yo man, do you have any ideas? We need to replace this. We have like two days to get six executive producers and HBO on board,’ which is a hard thing to do, even if you had a month,” recalls Hilfer. “I had hesitation about playing him ‘I Need a Dollar,’ because it was too on-the-note. This was a show about guys trying to make a dollar.” And he heard it — by me playing it to him on my laptop over the phone — and he was like ‘Oh my god that sounds good, can you send that to me?”
Egon elaborates, “After that got approved, me and Aloe then had one conversation with Chris, and all the talk of shelving the album disappeared, and the album got to come out how we planned for it to come out.”
Three years later, Aloe Blacc would find himself collaborating with Avicii on the 2013 smash hit crossover single, “Wake Me Up,” which has sold well over 5 million copies worldwide. Aloe now has multiple solo hits and licensing deals to his name.
As someone who championed Shine Through, this tale is not all that surprising to me. How Aloe presented that album — as a “table of contents” for his career, in his words — makes complete sense in hindsight. However that record apparently only scratches the surface of the levels of his talent, as I began to find out that Aloe has an incredibly huge archive of unreleased albums that show him experimenting with different styles of music.
“You gotta understand, Aloe has always believed that he could do whatever the fuck he wanted to do. That’s part of the reason why he’s an international superstar right now,” says Egon. “It doesn’t mean that Aloe Blacc hasn’t done some things that are completely out of left field, some of which make sense and some which don’t. He’s always done what he believed to be a good idea and never let anyone tell him no. That’s one of the main reasons that he is so successful; he has this unbelievable belief in himself.”
“Aloe has probably done every single genre you could think of in his archive. He never would limit himself,” says Exile, Aloe’s old hip-hop collaborator in Emanon. “Sometimes there would be some ‘What the fuck are you doing, Aloe?’ type songs, but then there is a big handful of just amazing songs. I knew he was on a mission to just do it all. Maybe in a sense where one of them is going to take off, but more so to just create, first and foremost.”
Among these things out of left-field is a mysterious, unreleased “children’s album” that Aloe recorded in 2005 during his tenure at Stones Throw, which he distributed hand-to-hand to his close personal friends. The album has otherwise been kept airtight, as it has not been uploaded to the internet and remains largely undiscovered by fans. Even the ridiculously thorough music archive what.cd has no listing for the children’s record, although it has every other release of his career, along with plenty of unreleased cuts from Dr. Dre’s Detox.
“Yeah, I have a copy of it. This was like that ‘Mr. Squiggles’ thing that he did or whatever it was called, right? Something weird like that, it has a really bad cover. It’s CD only and it’s Aloe’s kid’s record,” says Egon. “It was goofy. If I remember it had pitched up voices, kind of like a Quasimoto type thing for one of the characters.”
“That was one of those albums where it was like ‘Aloe, what the fuck are you doing?’” laughs Exile. “But it was great. It was this really strange, quirky children’s album that he did in a munchkin voice. He’s Mr. Idea, he always has some kind of idea. He’s a risk taker and some of them are strange ideas. To me, that was kind of one of them. I could definitely see kids enjoying it. It will probably need some visuals to go with it.”
As my search for info on the children’s album continued, I began to find out there are in fact several unreleased albums from Aloe in the vaults, as his friends wax poetically about these moments of untapped, unreleased genius.
“One of the albums he turned in was him literally singing over Luis Bonfá, the guy who did the Black Orpheus soundtrack. It might even be the Black Orpheus soundtrack. He took one of his albums and just sang over it,” reveals Egon. “He sang what I would describe as a meeting of American and Brazilian folkloric music. One of the songs on that was ‘It Takes a Village To Raise a Child.’ I was thinking to myself, ‘How in the world would we even clear this?’ But Aloe was like ‘This is one of the things I’m working on.’ I’ve kept a lot of those things as artifacts because you don’t meet people like Aloe very often.”
Exile chimes in: “I also have this other album that is some of his most incredible work under the alias Nathan Yell. It’s a mix of dark, wild west meets gothic, grim reaper meets old gospel hymns. A lot of it was recorded Bobby McFerrin style, by patting his body, beatboxing, humming. It’s real experimental, but I think it’s a really cool album. Eventually I think we plan to expand on it and hopefully release it.”
“The guy made a whole bunch of records, man,” says Egon.
Yet to be released is Aloe Blacc’s Emanon reunion album with Exile, which will return him to his early hip-hop roots. They have not released an album together in ten years, and the new record has been in the making at least since our 2011 interview. Back then it was called Bird’s Eye View.
“The title Bird’s Eye View is about looking at the world from up above and seeing the world as a chessboard. Who are the players, who are the pawns? Who’s controlling the game when it comes to politics and other social issues,” asks Aloe. “There’s a song on there called ‘Shine Your Light’ and it’s about people being more aware about things happening in their government and the society around them. Using that awareness to spread light to other people about what’s going on.”
“I’ve recorded 30 songs,” he adds.
Emanon’s Bird’s Eye View has not seen the light of day yet and in fact may now be called Dystopia, according to Exile, along with an accompanying mixtape tentatively titled Bullet. At least one of these projects is expected this year.
“Some of the new material does utilize his aesthetics as a soul singer, but a lot of it still stays true to hip-hop. I have to say that at least for the album he’s still pushing the envelope. It’s actually kind of a darker record. I think it will allow a peek into a view that Aloe has that may not be as bright and shiny that he paints in some of his soul singing,” Exile reveals. “He’s definitely still in tune with hip-hop and there for his original music partners. There are some songs that I’ve heard that are even risqué politically that I’m really interested to see the reaction to if he releases. He’s always had his ears and eyes to the world and how it’s changing politically, environmentally and the madness of it in general.”
I asked Aloe Blacc about the children’s album when I interviewed him 2011, and he kind of dismissed it with a shrug, “Yeah, in 2005 I recorded a children’s album as a Christmas present for my niece. Then I had this bird brain idea to actually make a CD and press it up and actually give it away to friends,” he says nonchalantly, almost embarassed of it.
“I think in the future as my career develops and grows, I think I’ll be able to release something like that as a citizen of the music world, doing something that’s respected by parents and I don’t look weird as some random underground artist recording a children’s album.”
“If you look at the trajectory, it is weird,” says Egon. “The hip-hop stuff didn’t work. The hip-hop/soul stuff didn’t work. The retro-soul stuff started working, and then he did this modern take on it. But it was this weird country house record that crossed him over. How insane is that?”
But even before he was a household name, Aloe had the foresight to see the path in front him would be paved by simply delivering an honest product.
“I don’t feel that I have to play to any particular audience. I think what is communicated is good music. Good music translates across to every different type of music lover.”
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