Blu & Exile Talk Comeback Album 'In the Beginning: Before the Heavens,' Stream New Project: Exclusive
On July 17, 2007, Blu & Exile dropped their debut collaboration, Below the Heavens. Widely regarded as a classic album that has helped West Coast hip-hop, the set gained a cult following over the years, praised by many fans for Blu’s conscious rhymes and Exile’s soul-drenched production. At the time, 50 Cent and Kanye West dominated headlines with their SoundScan clash between third LPs Curtis and Graduation, yet Blu & Exile were making less-hyped history in the underground with an album that directly paid homage to hip-hop’s golden era.
Part of the album’s legacy was its rarity: After suffering a premature leak online months before the release date, the physical CD was hard to come by, as only around 3,000 copies were pressed. Blu & Exile have added to the mystique of Below the Heavens, long teasing an eventual release of the remaining songs they’ve worked on from the original 2007 sessions to the public. 10 years later, the duo have finally done so with In the Beginning: Before the Heavens, which Billboard is premiering today.
“Below the Heavens was about being underground, while comparing mainstream success to living in heaven,” Blu tells Billboard. “This is before that. The only thing that happened before God made the heavens and Earth [is God] says, ‘In The Beginning,’ so this is like the training wheels.”
In the Beginning contains previously heard songs and unreleased gems – the best songs the duo felt could be represented as a proper prequel to their legendary LP. You’ll notice some familiar names from their Dirty Science crew as guest features: Aloe Blacc, Donel Smokes, Trek Life, Cashus King (f.k.a. Co$$), Blame One, Dr. Oop, and Lyric Jones are back to rock with them again. Highlights include “Constellations” and “On the Radio,” but you also shouldn’t sleep on “Back to Basics” or “Soul Provider.”
If you loved Below the Heavens, then this is the perfect complementary piece, a chance to hear the duo’s full vision for the first time. You can stream In the Beginning exclusively on SoundCloud, and pre-order the project via Bandcamp and Fat Beats. You can also read our conversation with Blu & Exile on putting together In the Beginning, below.
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If you were able to do things differently, would you release Below the Heavens as a double disc?
Blu: No, not at all. Below the Heavens was designed to be one solid LP. It just so happens that it took us a good amount of songs to be able to narrow down to a classic fit for our first presentation.
Exile: We made all of these songs trying to find the style we wanted to rock with. Then, once we found that, we wanted we keep creating to figure out what we wanted those styles to speak, to represent... what it would feel like, what it would sound like. The songs we have for the Before the Heavens album have the style, some fit the story. But Below the Heavens is the polished tale and soundtrack to what is Blu and Exile.
Below the Heavens has earned such a cult following even after it fell victim to a leak and sold with limited copies available. With In the Beginning: Before the Heavens out now, what do you hope fans will take away from these records?
Blu: Well, Below the Heavens is the highest-selling and most sought-after release in my collection since it was made. It was natural for us to decide to give the fans more music directly from that era. They are always asking us for new material at the same time, wishing we made more music similar to our first collaboration, so here you go!
Exile: I hope fans can learn about the creative process. I want Before the Heavens to be like a documentary, so to speak, to show the work we put into making the classic Below the Heavens. Sometimes you have to get rid of classic songs to make a classic album.
Are there any songs on here that you guys wished was on the original tracklist?
Blu: Not necessarily, I think we chose all the right songs to make our original statement.
Exile: I personally always wanted "Constellations" to be on the album. When we were putting the album together, Blu was like, ‘Yo, you may not be feeling this, but I want to take 'Constellations' out of the album.’ And we rocked with it that way.
Below the Heavens was such a milestone for West Coast hip-hop. Are you guys grateful that fans have supported your other collaborative projects over the years?
Blu: It's pretty cool the majority of our fan base has come from that first album together.
Exile: I'm very grateful to be able to accomplish making a "classic" hip-hop album. It's always been a dream of mine. I'm grateful fans fuck with all the music we put out with each other, from Blu and Exile, Blu, Med and Madlib, to our crew DS, Dirty Science: Choosey, Dag Savage, Fashawn, Cashus King f.k.a. CO$$, Blame One, etc.
Let’s talk about the original title, Below the Heavens: In Hell Happy With Your New Imaginary Friend. Blu, what did that title mean to you then, and does that message apply to this re-release?
Blu: Below the Heavens was about being underground while comparing mainstream success to living in heaven. This is before that. The only thing that happened before God made the heavens and Earth [is God] says “In The Beginning,” so this is like the training wheels.
How long was the process to dig through the 40 tracks and slimming it down to a 14-track album?
Blu: It was actually 75 tracks. We put out 15 and were only able to track down about 20. There are at least another 30 songs. We had three versions of the title track alone.
Can you talk about the features on here? Some of these artists you two have worked with for many years.
Blu: It has always been super tight knit crew. Dirty Science all the way!
Are there any bonus songs in the vault you want to release once In the Beginning is out?
Blu: If we ever find them and if they sound hot enough!
Exile: Yes, they are many, I would love everyone to hear everything we've ever made.
Blu, there’s a track called “Back to Basics” that has you retelling your love for hip-hop and paying homage to the culture. Can you tell us how that song came together? Why is it special to you?
Blu: “Basic” is actually a person, a role model in my life who showed me what it meant to be a true emcee. Top to bottom. So when I was working on my first album, It was only natural I made a song paying homage to my mentor, you know!
“On the Radio” was a song you guys laughed about back in the day. Listening now, do you think the lyrics apply to hip-hop in 2017?
Blu: I personally think it does relate to the radio now. Yes, definitely listening to Power 106, this song is definitely relevant to today. I mean there is plenty of dope hip-hop out right now but there's also a bunch of stuff that is super wack. And when I hear kids saying lyrics about popping pills, stealing dudes' girls over and over, stuff like that, it kind of makes me furious. Although there is a lot of good stuff out right now, it's definitely not all up on the radio.
“Constellations” was a record that originally featured Miguel. Have you guys talked with him on collaborating again?
Blu: Not in a while. He has been trailblazing for us and many others in many ways, no doubt.
Exile: Yes, I have been speaking with Miguel and we have been trying to lock in the studio.
You guys were in the studio recently this year. Are there plans on releasing a new project in 2018?
Blu: Naw, fuck that. [Laughs]
Exile: [Laughs] Yes.