Blu soundlessly materializes in Silverlake's La Mill coffee boutique. The rapper's aura is so serene it forms a barrier against the sounds of jittery fingertips flitting across keyboards and conversations that seem to be in fast forward. I think of a line from "Down to Earth," a song from his just-released latest album, NoYork!: "My feet stay planted so you shouldn't have to ask what I stand for."
Other rappers with the 28-year-old San Pedro native's resume--he turned down both Interscope and Death Row in the early aughts, appeared on The Roots' last album How I Got Over, and is at the forefront of "best rapper alive" blogosphere debates--might have long been breathing the rarefied air of superstardom. Although Blu sealed his place as one of the greatest lyricists in hip hop with his 2007 album produced by Exile, Below the Heavens, he prefers his underground fame and rabid fans. "I never saw myself as a Nelly," he says. "Common and Mos Def get their videos played, but never [excessively]. That's always what I aspired to be. I never thought Below would catapult us like it did."
Ahead of his show tonight at The Airliner, the emcee, now signed to Warner Bros. Records, discusses being sick of Below the Heavens, making his exit from rap, and why Lil B should be as big as Kanye.
Why did you name the album "NoYork!"?
I have so many explanations about the title I forget what I'm supposed to say in interviews. I always wanted to live in New York. New York is the state that runs the U.S. I don't know a state that works as hard as New York. I was like yo, if the United States was in a state of anarchy, it would be No York; it would be stateless. But this is a really Cali album to me--"NoYork" is me in Cali, and it's also like a new name for California.
So why aren't you living in NYC?
I always have horrible trips there [laughs]. But the culture is so rich, even though I think all that culture is dying out--so in a way, it's NoYork, too. Still, there are tons of artists there who are under the radar. From Matt and Kim to Cubic Zirconia, they all perform in the same small ass club on the Lower East Side. So much untapped, unheard talent. NYC's underground artists aren't as known as ours.
Creatively, what was your intent with NoYork!?
I usually do very consistent sound pieces. This album was supposed to be a three-part record, produced by three different producers. But instead, it's in a three-part format: dark, synthful and bright, and traditional hip-hop sampling. People were expecting something soulful or lo fi, and this is more about energy, mood, colors.
j e s u s [the EP Blu released in May] is probably my favorite record, but it's like a Cadillac, and NoYork! is a Range Rover. A cassette tape for the coupe, and something slicker, more high-tech for the Range. Below the Heavens is headphone music.
You have other artistic aspirations, don't you?
I have like three films I would love to shoot. But I would need a budget for it. I've never seen myself rapping after 30. I've always seen myself doing film. I would like to make films for j e s u s, NoYork!, and Memoirs, but the films are all interchangeable. When I signed to Warner, the contract was to do a film per record. It was a big contract! But many different things have happened: the president was fired, owner replaced, A&Rs replaced. The only thing they've done is release Rick Ross records. So we just choose to move in our current, where everybody knows us.
Your fan base is very devoted.
Exile and I have a record we did in '09. Right now it's titled Memoirs. My fan base is waiting to hear that. They haven't gotten a record as personal as Her Favorite Colo(u)r or Below, but Memoirs should be out possibly by end of the year. We debate whether we should leak it because it's very personal, a lot of compassion in it. Exile's a "one album per two years" kinda guy ... real stubborn on that. He wants it remixed, remastered, and I just say put it out like it is.
Do you ever wonder why you aren't bigger, in a mainstream sense?
It's cool cause it's the music I wanna make. Mainstream has its format, and I hate being put in a box. Pitchfork should be MTV, but it's not. MTV and BET haven't stepped up--they became corporate instead of keeping up. They're keeping up with the top five. I don't think they realize it's not just rap and R&B anymore. Lil B should be as huge as Kanye. He's not, but he is.
Lil B could do Rock the Bells with Nas, but they're not jumping on Lil B because they're very cautious. So it's keeping shit at a stagnant place. His last album really walked that commercial line, but it had a bold title--I'm Gay. If it weren't for the title, he would be on MTV.
I've seen you do shows where you were very animated, but also ones where you were in your head the whole time. Do you like being onstage?
I love doing the intimate shows. I prefer those over something big and commercial. People pack our huge places and I'm glad, but I love raw shows. If I'm in your face, you're feeling the spirit. I've seen J*DaVeY revive nonresponsive crowds. People are sitting in front of their computers too long; they aren't walking around with boomboxes on the street, so they come to the club like zombies.
Are you sick of performing Below?
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I'm sick of it. I'm sick of it. It's "Forever 21." [laughs] Since Rock the Bells made artists doing entire albums a trend, clubs have been calling us to do Below. So I do it because fans want to see it. I would be devastated if Snoop didn't perform "Drop It Like It's Hot."
Is it hard dealing with people who want you to make Below the Heavens Vol. 2?
I think soon as they realize I'm not gonna try to do the same record, the better off they'll be as fans. [laughs] I'm working on a new album right now, finishing up a collaboration with Medaphoar produced by Madlib, and I'm also doing another solo record. I wrote my first rap in my head. It's pretty dope. You'll hear it.
Blu performs tonight at The Airliner, 2419 N. Broadway, Los Angeles 90031. 8 p.m. 18 and over. $12