It's starting to feel like this year will be a reunion party in terms of albums - we eagerly await the new Jill Scott album "Light of the Sun", Sade "Soldier of Love", Ty "Special Kind of Fool", Erykah Badu "New Amerykah II Return of the Ankh", Sharon Jones and the Dapkings "I Learned the Hard Way", and albums from Maxwell, Marsha Ambrosius, and Plug Research's latest signing, Bilal. Here he is song writing with his good friend Hezekiah.
Read a recent interview with Bilal from Okayplayer after the jump, as he discusses his "alternative" Grammy nomination, the blues, being kicked out and more >
OKP: How’d it go down when you found out about the Grammy Nomination for “All Matter” from Robert Glasper’s album?
Bilal: Oh man, when I found out about that I was doing a show in Boston, and Robert called me like, “Yeah man, what you doing? We just got nominated for a Grammy.” And I was like, “Shut up—stop playing,” and I hung-up on him.
He kept hitting me back: “Yo, what you wearing [to the Grammys]?” And he was like, “If you don’t fuckin’ believe me, Google it.” And I Googled it, and we all sat backstage just laughing. It’s funny—I think it’s funny.
It’s an honor, though, to have the music recognized, particularly for Best Alternative Performance. I been pushing that for a long time, just trying to mix my music to a point where it’s genre-less, and they have to call it “alternative.” So when I read the nomination, I said, “Dope,” because I was expecting it to be for jazz. But when I saw that it said alternative, I was like, “Ah, we made it, we made it! We’re alternative!”
OKP: How’d you and Robert Glasper hook up?
Bilal: I went to school with Rob, we went to the New School together—college buddies.
OKP: Which one of your early Philly performances really stands out?
Bilal: The first time I came to the [Black] Lily [a weekly showcase in New York in 2000 and in Philadelphia from 2000-2005, hosted by The Jazzyfatnastees and The Roots]. I came with Ahmir [?uestlove] and James [Poyser]. We were working at Larry Gold’s studio, and we came in, and Jaguar [Wright] was on stage, singing. I came up and sang, and then Jaguar started singing about how she was going to steal me from my girlfriend—who was there. That was the first time I saw Jill Scott. That was a magical time back then. And I saw Musiq for the first time; he had dreadlocks. We looked at each other like, “Who’s gonna cut their hair?”
OKP: The unreleased album, Love for Sale, has a blues influence. Where’d that come from?
Bilal: Muddy Waters. That album came from me buying a record player. I bought a record player and started a record collection, and the only music I bought was blues and jazz, especially Mingus and Howlin’ Wolf. Ever since then, I really haven’t been the same. The Mingus album that really stands out to me has a weird-ass name I don’t remember. Ever since then, I got kicked out of that place; I got kicked out of that apartment because I was playing Mingus and the blues too loud.
I started having jam sessions. I wanted to play bass for a minute. Then I wanted to be like David Bowie, and I got kicked out of there. I started doing graffiti all over my apartment, and the landlord came over to the fix the toilet, saw all the graffiti everywhere. Ever since then I just been feeling like the blues.
One of the biggest influences that made me start singing that way is my guitarist, Mike Severson, who played with me tonight. He hipped me to a lot of different music. A lot of shit comes out of the cats I affiliate with.
OKP: Why don’t more singers reach back to the Delta or Chicago blues for inspiration these days? It seems like for many their influences stop at Prince.
Bilal: I think it’s all about information. A lot of people just don’t know—they draw from what they grew up listening to, what their parents listened to. Me, I grew up in the church. As a little kid I was singing in a church choir, and I really didn’t check out music other than that. My brother listened to different music; he’s a big Wu-Tang Clan fan. But it seems like every year I change more, because I come across more music.
OKP: So what’s the vibe of the new album?
Bilal: It’s kind of alternative. This time, I didn’t really draw from writing from tracks. Usually, I would get a bunch of tracks and then write to them. This time I’d sit down, either with the piano or with other musicians, and try to write songs from scratch, and then try to make a track that way. It’s a lot more organic.
Love for Sale was organic like that, too, but this album is even more genre-less. My main goal is to mix jazz, hip-hop, soul, blues, and experimental free music into one.
OKP: If you had to pick one song that embodies those values, what would it be?
Bilal: I’m still working on it. I wouldn’t say I’ve reached it yet. We’ve come close.
I’m like my biggest critic. My mom’s always been very critical, so it’s kind of turned me into a big critic. I’m, like, never satisfied.
OKP: Earlier you talked about how your growth as an artist had to do with picking up new music, new influences. We’ve got the Internet. People feel entitled to free information, free art, and they’re exposed to different things that they might not have known about. Is that fair play, given how it’s affected you?
Bilal: I have been burned by the Internet. But I think it’s cool, too. We in the Information Age, and anything you want and you know about you can find it. You know, Google it.
The thing that’s a drag for me, because I’m an organic kind of person, is that I miss going to record stores and just buying an album because I liked the artwork. You can’t really do that no more. You rarely go on YouTube and find something new. You kind of gotta really know what you like. Although, my little sister, she finds stuff. I’m a dinosaur. I don’t really know how to find new shit. For me I like to just go to record stores and find shit like that.
OKP: How do you stay grounded through the highs and lows of being in the music industry, from having a great album not come out and get its due to being nominated for a Grammy?
Bilal: Life keeps me grounded. I’m a really spiritual person, and I do things that keep me grounded. I like exercise, fresh air, fresh food, real people, you know. Everyone I hang around ain’t a musician, you know. But mostly my kids—just being straight-up with them puts me right back where I’m supposed to be.
- Purnell T. Cropper