Aleksander “Exile” Manfredi used to press his ear against the crosswalk signal poles to feel the rhythm. He figured out how to make beats when he was 15, and he and singer Aloe Blacc (whose “I Need a Dollar” you may recognize from HBO’s How to Make It in America) formed a rap group. But Exile is most respected for the shimmering, soul-drenched, near-perfect albums he created with two of the West Coast’s most promising young rappers: the enigmatic Blu, for whom Exile produced Below the Heavens (he was 19 when they began working together) and Fashawn, who was 20 when he and Exile did Boy Meets World.
“I wanted to help bring up the West Coast, find artists like DJ Premier or Marley Marl would do,” he says, citing some legendary East Coast producers.
Exile had an unlikely (and pretty geeky) start in the hip-hop game, coming from a family that insisted everyone learn to play the accordion. Or maybe it wasn’t that unlikely: The accordion “is kind of like an old-school MPC [drum machine],” the hip-hop Renaissance man says of the instrument he plays like a mad genius. By family he means his Italian side, with whom he reconnected due to his mother’s recent death. “Some of the celebrations around her death ended up being among the best days of my life. We went out to the beach, and there were dolphins literally flying out of the ocean at sunset,” he says.
This relentless optimism is characteristic. Exile always seems on the verge of little-kid laughter — the contagious kind that bubbles up from the very bottom of your belly for no apparent reason — even when discussing the dark days. His father, also a musician, was absent for a good chunk of his childhood, and died when Exile was 18.
Yet his memories are happy. He remembers dressing in a bow tie and suspenders so he could impersonate Elvis when he was in preschool, and lip-synching LL Cool J’s “I Need Love” for his mom and sister. A skateboarder, he started doing graffiti at 13. After asking for a name that could do double duty for deejaying and graffiti, his friend Braille, from the Los Angeles crew LTS, christened him Exile. He still does pieces, having just left Germany a fresh souvenir from his tour in March.
He hates the Internet because it demystifies so much, and he says it’s important for him to work directly with an artist, to have moments where they’re really excited about what they’re doing. “Sometimes I’ll pray for me to have a connection with the people I’m working with. I’m not religious, but I believe in putting what you want out there and it coming to be,” he says.
Lately he’s been putting out there stop-motion animation videos that complement the choppy, cinematic feel of his production.
Is there anything he can’t move with his mind? “In every way, really, I’m doing exactly what I planned on doing, making classic records for the West Coast,” he says, pulling off a weird combination of supreme confidence and modesty. And yet, where Exile is concerned, that might actually be an understatement.