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LAist Intervew: Aloe Blacc

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LA’s Stones Throw Records are quickly becoming the most important purveyors of independent hip-hop in the new millennium, much like East Coast indie stalwarts Rawkus were in the late 1990s. There is, however, one particularly notable difference between the two. While both labels are known for their independent spirit and bohemian rosters of hip-hop artists (Stones Throw with Madlib and his many aliases, MF Doom, J Dilla, et al and Rawkus was with Mos Def & Talib Kweli, Common, Pharaohe Monch, et al), Stones Throw has also become ground zero for the “Indie Soul” movement. "Indie Soul" is a throwback to Chicago soul and jazz mixed with modern beats and arrangements, and best represented by artists like Georgia Anne Muldrow and the versatile Aloe Blacc.

Born Nathanial Dawkins on El Toro Marine Base in Orange County, Aloe, 27, is the child of Panamanian parents. Raised in a black/Latino/Anglo cultural mashup that’s the epitome of modern LA, the singer and multi-instrumentalist (he plays trumpet, piano and guitar) gained recognition with his 2006 release, Shine Through. The album liberally leapt across genres (and languages), and its highlights included a catchy Spanish-language cover of John Legend’s Ordinary People, Busking, an a capella ode to public transit he recorded while actually waiting for a bus at 30th and Hoover, One Inna, a Madlib-backed love song rumored to contain his actual telephone number (Aloe says the prefix is missing, so don’t bother trying it), and a haunting dance cover of soul legend Sam Cooke’s civil rights anthem, A Change is Gonna Come. Think of his music as the antidote to Pretty Ricky.

During a recent break in his hectic schedule, Aloe sat down with LAist at Lost Souls Café in downtown Los Angeles to talk about his music and being an Afro-Latino soul singer in modern Los Angeles.

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How did you end up singing R&B?
My first real strong musical influence was the music that I heard from my parents. The salsa. The merengue. Soca. Dancehall. Reggae. Calypso. I grew up listening to all of that in the home and at parties. When I was in elementary school, I started playing trumpet, and that introduced to me symphonic music and classical music. Orchestral sounds. In high school, I got heavily into jazz. And throughout all this, I was into hip-hop as well. In terms of what I’ve been doing over the past 10 or 11 years, it goes without saying that hip-hop was one of my major influences. I identified myself as a b-boy early on. At age four.

R&B was actually a late development for me. I had always listened to R&B because aside from the Latin and Caribbean music my parents listened to in the home, in the car they’d listen to the urban radio stations. So, the Pointer Sisters, Peabo Bryson, Marvin Gaye, whoever was on the radio, that was who I was listening to in the car. Actually, my sister was the singer of the family. I wasn’t really known as a singer in my family. For me, singing is a late development.

How did you end up in Stones Throw, which is known primarily as a hip-hop label?
Through a friend, I met a hip-hop enthusiast in France while I was traveling in Europe. It was 2002, a year after I graduated from USC. So I went to Europe to tour, and there was another tour going on in Germany, that was a Lootpack tour, which is basically Stones Throw artists. Madlib wasn't there, because he was working on a project for Blue Note at the time. If it wasn't for that, I probably wouldn't have been able to stow away on the tour. The fact that he was gone meant there was an extra seat on the bus, and an extra bed in the hotel. So I thank Madlib for that.

How would you classify or describe your audience?
People that like my music, I've found listen to a lot of different genres. They don't just listen to soul or hip-hop. They listen to rock, alternative, dance music. They like to listen to good music.

You're Afro-Latino. What do you identify more with being, black or Latino?
Wow. See, in California, I identify more with being black. When I go to New York, I can identify more with being Afro-Latino, because there's more of a community. There's a Dominican community, a Panamanian community, a Puerto Rican community. It exists there, and its much more present. In California, I think the Panamanian community has in many ways muted their culture. They've assimilated, and in New York, it's different. It's very nationalistic.

How are you perceived by other Latinos?
California is largely Chicano, which is very different from Panamanian culture. So, I do feel outside of that community. In some ways, because I'm first generation American, I feel outside my parents' community too, because they have shared experiences I don't have any knowledge of.

There's been a lot of tension mentioned between blacks and Latinos in LA. Have you seen any of that in the response of Spanish-speaking fans to your music?
The tension between blacks and Latinos in LA is something that's really scary now. A lot of the tensions between blacks and Latinos stems from gang activity and bleeds into folks that are not in the gangs. I don't necessarily feel threatened by any of that. I don't think it exists the way the media is portraying it. I talk to Latino fans all the time, and they are so excited that they can listen to some music that's not reggaeton. There's a lot of discontent with reggaeton right now. It's gotten really violent, vulgar and macho. I've received lots of positive responses from Latinos.

In your opinion, what's the current state of R&B in Los Angeles?
The urban stations purport that they're where hip-hop live or the home of R&B, but really what they play is just pop music. It doesn't remind me at all of the rhythm and blues that the name stands for. It doesn't remind me of the soulful feelings I get when I listen to an Anita Baker song or when I listen to Al Jerreau.

"Indie Soul" Do you like the term?
The way commercial music is going, the term "Indie" is almost obsolete anyway. We're just musicians. Artists. We make and release music. Whether it's on a major label or an independent label, we're just artists. Indie Soul is fine, I guess. If you understand the term, then you understand the sound, and it helps someone categorize in his or her mind what I do without hearing my music. But when it comes down to it, someone like Georgia Anne Muldrow is making more than just soul. She's making a type of jazz that is informed through her experiences with hip-hop. The stuff I'm doing is all over the board. The album Shine Through is like a compilation. It's almost like a microcosm of the world and body of music that I have. I make songs in tons of different genres, so it's gonna change soon. But I guess Indie Soul is good for now.

Aloe will be at the Temple Bar later this month (May 30).

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