Aloe Blacc Talks 'America's Musical Journey' & Louis Armstrong's Influence

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Aloe Blacc performs during Musikfest at PNC Plaza on the Sands Steel Stage on Aug. 8, 2017 in Bethlehem, Penn. 

As an avid music listener growing up in a Caribbean household, Aloe Blacc was introduced to a bevy of sounds from a young age that resulted in the blend of musical styles heard in his music today. Before dishing out hits like “Wake Me Up,” "I’m the Man” and “I Need a Dollar,” Blacc's musical journey began with LL Cool J’s Bigger and Deffer album.

I was supposed to dance to Michael Jackson’s 'Bad' for a community play and my dad, totally unaware of what I was asking him for, just bought whatever record said 'Bad' on it. So one of my first style icons in terms of rap was LL Cool J because I had the Bigger and Deffer album,” he told Billboard over the phone. “I wrote all my first raps in his style over the years and I just continued to write and develop my own style as an MC."

After studying a slew of sample-based hip-hop songs that featured jazz, rhythm and blues and folk sounds, Blacc made his transition from rapper to singer and birthed his own distinct style, fusing his soulful folk voice with his love for classic boom-bap. Now for his upcoming documentary, America’s Musical Journey, Blacc is embarking upon his own trip to explore America’s musical roots and the cultures and legends that helped build America’s music heritage.

Below, Billboard caught up with Blacc to discuss America’s Musical Journey and the influence musical luminaries had on his career.

Where does your musical journey start?

My musical journey started at a very young age. When I first really started recognizing music was at four, probably earlier than that, but age four for sure. I was seeing my friends outside of my front door with cardboard, breakdancing on the sidewalk and I was going out to break dance with them, listening to hip-hop music. Then, by the time I was six years old, I started taking a bus to first grade and borrowing headphones from one of the older kids to listen to early hip-hop groups from the '80’s.

That’s when music really started to become something important to me because otherwise it was just my parents playing it and they’d play their records in the house or play music on the radio in the car but it wasn’t something that was my own or that I had control over.  I was supposed to dance to Michael Jackson’s “Bad” for a community play and my dad, totally unaware of what I was asking him for, just bought whatever record said “Bad” on it.

I started to fall in love with hip-hop when I started writing raps in a little notebook. So one of my first style icons in terms of rap was LL Cool J because I had the Bigger and Deffer album. I wrote all my first raps in his style and over the years and I just continued to write and develop my own style as an MC. It wasn’t until after high school – after making hip-hop records and albums, CDs and vinyl with my crew -- that I started to get into singing. That was more in the college years.

Did you have a rap name at the time?

I mean, I chose Aloe at a very young age in high school, at about age 15 or 16 and then it followed me into my singing career.

You said that you used to write your raps in like the style of LL Cool J, so how did you then transition from rapping into singing?

It was a long a long process. From high school, it was all rap and I had already made my own style by the time I got to high school, developing my own kind of rhyming schemes and patterns and that kind of thing, but then I started listening to the records that we were sampling from. I started listening to folk songs and you know old Beatles’ releases and listening to Cat Stevens, Tony Mitchell and James Taylor and becoming very familiar with all different styles and genres that were not present to me in the home, stuff that my parents probably never heard. I also began studying vocalists and listening to lyrics that were intentional and not so extemporaneous as a lot of hip-hop lyrics are and that was more emotional.

I went on tour with a hip-hop group in Europe called the Loot Pack and I had saved up some money so that I could just put myself on tour. I kind of paid my own way to get on this tour and made friends with the guys that were on the tour. When I got back from Europe, I recorded an album with one of the producers -- his name is Ono -- and the label that he was on at the time heard the songs that I recorded. Some of my choruses were a bit sing-songy, I had a melody on this one track I just decided to sing Sam Cook’s “Change Is Gonna Come,” over this hip-hop beat and that’s the one that ended up getting me signed to this record label as a vocalist rather than a rapper. So I figured if their gonna give me money to pay rent then I’m gonna sing and so I did, and that was the beginning of my career as a signed artist and I just followed that from one opportunity to the next and just tried to get better at writing songs.

How did your Panamanian roots play into your singing style and music?

I haven’t really contemplated how, but I think the simplest answer is that there’s diversity in Panamanian music. My parents are apart of a cohort that doesn’t really exist anymore. Their parents and grandparents come from the Caribbean; from the islands, they moved to Panama to work on the canal and they brought reggae and calypso and soca to a Spanish speaking country.

Then, there’s the soul music that was happening in the U.S, so that diversity showed me that there’s tremendous range with what is possible with music because as I look into what they played, stuff that my friends have never heard, or the stuff my friend’s parents were playing like The Eagles, Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, you know the classic rock and then obviously on the radio there’s pop music and R&B; I was just being fed all of this musical information.

There are particular rhythm and styles that um sneak into my music in certain ways and I can pinpoint where kind of a calypso rhythm is in my music or a salsa montuno is in my music because its just a certain rhythm that’s been in my blood since I was very, very young.

How’d you get involved with America’s Musical journey?

The film company was interested in working with me and I thought it was a great idea to lend my voice to the story because they’re unlike I think, a lot of folks who might shy away from real history. They’re very much concerned with telling the story of American music as being rooted in the tragedy of slavery and the African diaspora, the transformation of pain and sorrow through music, the travel of sound and rhythm and ideas and concepts through the transit money trade.

Like jazz traveling from New Orleans with The Great Migration to the north to Chicago and spreading across the world, all of that made me really interested in being apart of the film because I’m eager to tell history. My dad spent 30 years in the Marine Corps and told me when he leaves the U.S, he’s an ambassador to the U.S even though he’s not an official or holds a governmental role. As a singer and an artist, I represent the country as well so this film in a lot of ways was created for that purpose as being a representation of what America has contributed to the world.

You trekked across the states making stops from New Orleans, Detroit, New York and Miami. Talk to me a little bit about some of the discoveries that you’ve made that you didn’t initially know going into this project.

So, I’d say in terms of discovery it was little things like Louie Armstrong wearing the Star of David given to him by the family that supported him and gave him his first trumpet. It’s an important story about America and how cosmopolitan we are; stories like me sitting with Ramsey Lewis and having him tell me about his relationship with Maurice White and how Maurice White was a drummer in his band. Maurice White was very shy and didn’t ever want to be the center of attention, but once he learned to feel comfortable taking solos and showing his face to the audience, he quit Ramsey Lewis’ band and started Earth, Wind, and Fire with his brothers.

That’s a beautiful story I kind of already knew, but these little tiny details that were really special to me. Sitting with Cory Estefan and Emilio Estefan and learning about how they were able to combine their sound and their love and feel for the music of Cuba with the energy of what they experience in Miami to create the Miami Sound Machine. Also, going to Memphis and seeing Graceland and hearing the story of the guy who signed Elvis Presley, learning that he had Sun Records and tried to break into the industry but it was so difficult because all they had were black artists and the radio wouldn’t play race music. The owner of the record label said all we need is one white boy who can do what the black guys do and we’ll make it and then they found Elvis Presley and he sure as hell made it. Those are the interesting stories that stuck with me, the things that I learned.

Now, something that stuck out to me as I was watching another one of the clips was when you said that if we were to remove jazz from the musical history in Americ,a we’d still be in this dark, weary place.

Jazz broke all the rules and gave everyone license to break the rules. With the popularity of it spreading and growing it kind of just gave everybody the ability to feel free be expressive in ways that a composer wouldn’t normally have. In jazz, you’ve got the freedom to play your part in whatever expressive way you feel, and there are different types of jazz. There’s free jazz; there’s big-band jazz, there’s Dixieland, I don’t want to speak out of term but there was an expressive freedom in jazz that gave license to musicians to be creative and I think that’s where we have so much development and growth in music today with jazz offering that kind of expressive freedom, wherein the past musicians generally would play what a composer had written.

Can you talk a bit about the influence of jazz in your music?  You spoke about Louis Armstrong and his influence. So in what ways has his musical work influence your style?

I think the real thing about it is his showmanship, stage presence, personality, character and so much more about the man than it is about the music when it comes to Louie Armstrong for me. My familiarity with Louie Armstrong comes from playing the trumpet and studying his music but what I was really intrigued with was the way that he became an iconic representative of blackness.

He was I believe one of the early figures who’s instrumental in normalizing blackness to the world, especially white Americans because he was on TV being admired and applauded so kids of any race could see that this was a human being worthy of admiration. It sort of dissolves away the concept of race for these young kids who grow up and he opened the door for the next artists to come and do the same as Sam Cook and Sammy Davis.

So it’s so much more about the man and what he was able to do for civil rights in the long run. Where is it in my actual music? I would say that it’s in the way I write lyrics, I would say that it’s in the way that I produce songs. My goal -- and it seemed like his goal as well -- is to bring joy and make people happy. The title of my last album is Lift Your Spirit and that’s what I set out to do with my music.

What was one of your favorite experiences while filming the documentary?

One of my favorite moments in shooting the documentary was being able to spend a day with my buddy Jon Batiste. There are few people in the world who are like Jon Batiste and he seems to be the physical embodiment of New Orleans. His energy, his style, his personality, his character and his skill in playing -- I’m so proud of the success that he’s had and I’m sure that he’ll have more. There is a lot of music out there that’s just for sale but not for keeps and Jon Batiste is one of the artists that’s for keeps.

If fans could take away one thing from this documentary, what would you want it to be?

What I would love for fans to take away from this documentary is that music is a human experience; it’s not a digital experience. There are people living, breathing, creating these sounds that touch your heart, that make you dance, make you smile, cry and that it’s a participatory experience. It’s not just a spectator sport where you only listen and consume. Music is for all of us, its one of our earliest forms of communication and I want them to understand it’s coming from somewhere. The things that you take for granted, that seem so inventive today are rooted deep in activities, events, styles, people, trends that started decades ago.

Have you reached that point where you’re not really too concerned about the accolades?

I mean the only accolades I’m really concerned with is Songwriter Hall of Fame and that’s a career move where for your whole career you have to write amazing songs. That’s the one that matters to me the most because your peers decide that at the end of your career. All the stuff in between would be a great icing on the cake, but you know, there’s a lot of politics involved in that other stuff, so it doesn’t really move me so much. I want to tell stories that are longer than 3 minutes and 30 seconds. I want to tell stories from behind the camera and write TV shows and films so I’m working on things like that right now.