How Blu and Exile's Underground Classic Below the Heavens Changed West Coast Hip-Hop
Sound in Color
Sometime in the lukewarm first months of 2007, an emotionally raw and soulful song cycle quietly leaked to message boards. The rapper was a willowy San Pedro ex-basketball star, barely into his 20s, raised by a fiery pastor who had banned rap in the household. The producer was an Orange County native chopping loops at the fringes of the underground to modest acclaim. No one foresaw what happened next.
Almost immediately the pirated album, Below the Heavens, received more adulation than almost anything to come out of L.A. in the previous half-decade. Before there was Kendrick Lamar, there was Blu, nee Johnson Barnes III, whose debut album reconfigured the idea of what contemporary West Coast hip-hop could sound like.
“Aside from Freestyle Fellowship, the region was mostly known for gangsta rap,” says Exile, the sole producer for Below the Heavens. “We wanted to make an L.A. record that was conscious and had heart. Something reflective about life and growing up.”
Blu shattered the reductive binaries that continually plague underground L.A. hip-hop. He was unabashedly sentimental for a recently vanished adolescence and the rugged hip-hop that he was raised on. He was unafraid to be vulnerable, admitting to abuse from a violent stepfather, the stresses of impending fatherhood and the anxieties of being homeless and couch-surfing. Still, he exhibited the effortless swagger of someone destined to rock stadiums (even if they still spelled his name wrong on the flyer).
In gestation for several years, the record had a genesis that can be traced back to Exile catching Blu’s show at a hole-in-the-wall club in Studio City. Exile recruited the locally buzzing rapper to collaborate on a compilation slated for release on the fledgling indie, Sound in Color, but their chemistry was so innately strong that after one song, they opted for a full-length.
Sometimes they’d work at Exile’s apartment in Long Beach; sometimes in Dominguez Hills, where RBX and Miguel also were working. The future R&B superstar was a childhood friend of Blu and wound up singing on three songs on Below the Heavens.
“Sometimes, we thought we might have a classic,” Exile says. “Other times we were like, this is wack.”
“I had no idea this record would stand the test of time the way it has,” Blu adds. “I was just trying to be as real and ill as possible without sounding like someone else or sounding like I was trying to impress someone. Exile made my vision a reality every step of the way.”
In total, 40 songs were recorded — many of which will see their first release in the coming month. But it’s the final batch that became instantly canonized, spreading virally on a pre-SoundCloud internet. Upon its release 10 years ago this month, the album immediately sold out of its 3,500-unit first run; then it sold another 3,500 directly after.
It’s easy to see why the Okayplayer masses immediately anointed Below the Heavens as a classic. Released shortly after the death of J Dilla, Exile’s soul chops and un-quantized drums paid direct homage to the Detroit legend while gleaming with their own swing. Blu rapped like the second hand of a Rolex, optimistic but never naive, positive without being preachy, offering a harrowing coming-of-age saga that nearly everyone could relate to.
“People loved those personal stories, all the braggadocio over soul samples, all the sincerity. No one looked at me as if I made a bad decision for making an underground record as opposed to something that could gain commercial success,” Blu says. “You feel the culture in the record … the nostalgia that makes you reminisce on those classic records. Sample static, drum breaks, raw lyricism and actual content — all for the West Coast.”
BLU & EXILE’S BELOW THE HEAVENS — THE LIVE EXPERIENCE | The Regent Theater, ?448 S. Main St., downtown | Thu., July 27, 8 p.m.? | $25-$30 | 21+ | spacelandpresents.com
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