“There’s no rules,” says American musician Aloe Blacc. “My hero Quincy Jones used to say, “you shouldn’t worry about labels and genre and categorisation. Music is music.’”
And if Jones said it, then Blacc – born Egbert Nathaniel Dawkins III – lived it. After coming up through LA’s indie hip-hop scene during the late ’90s and early 2000s, Blacc hit the big time in 2010 with I Need a Dollar, a modern soul classic (as well as the theme song for the HBO series, How To Make It in America.) While his discography features a strong urban flavour – see his hit single The Man, a stirring celebration African-American culture – Blacc has done everything from supply vocals for international dancefloor anthems (Wake Me Up, the song he recorded with Swedish DJ Avicii, hit number one on charts around the world), perform at the influential Montreux Jazz Festival, and star in America’s Musical Journey, the Morgan Freeman-narrated documentary chronicling the country’s most important musical moments, figures and cities. The latter was a particularly apt project for Blacc.
“Because of hip-hop I was exposed to so many different genres,” says Blacc. “I would sample from so many different genres and I would try to make all those different genres I was sampling from. When I had a chance to have a career as a vocalist, I didn’t limit myself. I had opportunities to do throwback soul music on Good Things. I had the opportunity to do more pop-leaning stuff on Lift Your Spirits, and I had the opportunity to do very experimental everything on Shine Through.”
This month, Blacc will be touring his diverse, soulful sound around Australia. While many American artists cite Australia as a favourite destination, Blacc has stronger claims than most: he met his wife, Australian DJ Maya Jupiter, while touring the country in 2006. In addition to bringing up two children, Jupiter and Blacc have created an organisation called Artivist Entertainment to support artists who use their talents to create positive change across the world: just like Blacc does.
“I’m going to continue to tell stories in whatever way I can,” says Blacc. “Whether it’s behind the camera, in front of the camera, behind the pen, in front of the mic, on stage, or with text. Whatever I do going forward, I want to have the freedom to do whenever I want however I want.”
Ahead of his arrival down under, Blacc talks about five of the artists that have influenced him over his career.
“I was really impressed and inspired by Nas and his album Illmatic. It was an era where there was a lot of battle rapping going on but Nas isn’t know for battle rapping. He’s more of a jazz artist. You can hear it from the way he puts lyrics together. He was certainly inspired by the jazz he listened to and his father who was a jazz trumpeter. It gave me a sense of how you can be really visual and use different poetic devices in hip-hop. The way Nas put words together gave me license to be a bit more free in the way I chose to rap”.
“She has a really, really unique style. Even the way she strummed her guitar was unique and different to everyone. I think she had a whole iconic method of song writing and presentation. Her voice was angelic but the way that she used it, the melodies that she sang and the runs she chose to employ were pretty different from everyone else. She could write a song like everyone else if she wanted to and she did once in a while, but for the most part, she wrote really intricate, poetic stories that tugged [at] your heart or made you laugh or painted a really vivid picture of a scene or moment in her life.”
“He was a contemporary of Joni Mitchell but not as well known. He had a few hits that were sung by others, like *Compared To What that was popularised by Joe Sample and Les McCann and Feel Like Making Love which was popularised by Roberta Flack. But my favourite album was Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse. Together with his previous album Outlaw, both are unapologetic in their lyricism and artivism. He spoke truth and power and because of that his music was silenced by the Nixon administration. I became aware of it because my favourite hip-hop group sampled the album. Because it had been banned by the government, the album became somewhat of a cult classic.”
“He was another artist from that time who was equally powerful with his words. He wasn’t political, but he was very spiritual. He sang a lot of ballads About being strong and handling the obstacles in life with grace. His seminal work is an album called It’s Good To Be Alive. That title song is about all these problems in life but at the end is the refrain that it’s good to be alive.”
“I can’t not put Bob Marley in the mix. He’s one of the most influential for me because of his activism. He wasn’t always political in his music but he always had spirit and heart and kept the community in mind. He was a really strong artist in that way.”
Aloe Blacc plays Perth on February 15, Adelaide on February 16, Cairns on February 20, Sydney on February 21 and Melbourne on February 22.