Best known for his club bangers “I Don’t Want Her” and “Valet,” singer-songwriter (and sometimes rapper) Eric Bellinger prides himself on quality, authenticity and passion in not only his music but his everyday life.
Having traveled the world tearing down stages across all major cities and clubs, the 32-year-old hasn't forgotten his Compton roots. Having entered the industry as a songwriter and producer — which led to a Grammy win for Chris Brown's F.A.M.E. in 2014 — it was his debut effort, The Rebirth, that secured his place as a solo R&B singer, mixing the nuances of ’90s soul and contemporary production. Fast-forward to 2018 and he has unleashed his fourth studio album, Eazy Call, showcasing his versatility in catering to both older and newer generations alike.
At the end of the day, Bellinger is just “trying to be the innovative spirit behind today’s culture in music, especially R&B.” In between being a husband, father, mentor and mindfulness advocate, he finds time to entertain the masses with his voice, charm and affectionate personality.
L.A. WEEKLY: Talk about being from Compton. I feel like you don’t necessarily really promote you’re from Compton, do you?
ERIC BELLINGER: I just say L.A., but whenever people ask what part of L.A., I definitely go crazy. Naturally, I moved around so many times. I’ve been all over the place. High school is when I lived in Compton but I went to school in Norwalk/Santa Fe Springs. I was commuting every single day. It was dope, though, because I got the best of both worlds. I got to experience the ’hood when I get home — sirens, gang shit, all that — then when I went to school, it was a brighter day.
I grew up around a level-headed, solid family. All my friends, we all had both of our parents growing up. I got to see family values and morals — that’s why I promote that more so than anything. That’s what needs to be promoted. My main objective is to show and be the example that you can still be in music, you can still be an R&B singer, you can still be cool, you can still be wavy (whatever you wanna call it), and promote things that are of value. I definitely promote both, but my main objective and narrative is to show the culture. Look at me: I love my wife, I love my son, we out here.
Did you make it a point to stay out of the streets?
Man, I would get home so late — ’cause I would play sports. Every season: “OK, football’s over, time for track.” Or “Track’s over, time for basketball.” Whatever it was, I was always staying busy after school. When I would get home, it was either homework or going to church. My upbringing was real simple, real routine. I had my select friends. Me and Neiman [Johnson, his manager] actually went to junior high together.
Since the beginning! That’s rare.
Beginning, beginning. Over 20 years, basically, we’ve been growing together and still growing, still learning. It’s the bond that really keeps this thing moving. What most people would have given up on or when they would have quit — Will Smith, for example, says divorce is not an option. You don’t even think about it. In a relationship, it needs to be the same purpose, the same goal, the same foundation. So when you see a problem, you’re able to look past it. Some people don’t look past problems because they don’t see the further end goal result and the longevity of it; they just look at now. Whenever you’re too much living in the now, you can destroy the plans of the future.
What was it like seeing Kendrick Lamar come up from your city?
Man, it’s so dope. Seeing his success and remembering doing shows with him, it’s just incredible. Our camps are really close. Both being from Compton, I actually got to really watch and see all the different stereotypes, roadblocks, obstacles and challenges just be washed away. It’s inspiration and hope. It’s inspiring to see him and Dave and their relationship, and then see me and Nieman with the same vibe, same chemistry. If they did it, that’s a great example.
We saw them not compromise and stick with what they believe. To see the other people believe one at a time from the beginning, even before Section.80 way back in the day, then see Dre come in and help with the co-sign, see Power 106 show love and support, the different major artists and major platforms support the authenticity and the movement. Really it was Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. Everything about it was real and you could relate. The album was a great album.
Did you and Kendrick ever make music together?
No, haven’t made music. That’s one of the highest things on the bucket list for me. I’m real patient in the timing and having the right song. A lot of people tend to take the relationship and maybe prematurely do certain things. With him, I just want to wait. When I’m ready, it’s all going to come together the right way.
I know you travel the world, but did you ever move out of L.A. for any reason?
Nah, never moved away. I love L.A. When I leave town, it’s like I can’t wait to get back every single time. It’s always great, I’ve just gotten used to enjoying when I’m gone. But for a while, it was like, “Why am I leaving?” I know this is what I’m wanting to do, but I just love being home with the family. Actually lately, I’ve started enjoying the fruits of my labor rather than looking at it as me getting homesick. I’m like, “We out here, let’s get it.” We gone, let’s have some fun.
L.A. has been this market for every artist, every out-of-towner to come through. What’s it like seeing everyone come here to pursue their dreams while you’re in it?
It’s interesting because a lot of people are unsure of what L.A. is. They have this built-up perspective and opinion based on what they see on Instagram or reality TV, then they get here and realize it’s tough. [chuckles] The glitz and glamour, it’s hard to keep up with that lifestyle. Especially because it’s cheaper everywhere else. It’s way more expensive here. Everything you want to do, you really need to be prepped. If you’re not, it's tough, because you’re hit with all kinds of different things.
Everyone’s busy, running around, hitting events. “We gotta do this, we gotta do that.” It’s tough to fish and sift through the chaos, but I like it. The cream rises to the top. If you can navigate and still mingle, that’s always important. Outta sight, outta mind. The old morals of the mysterious, those are gone. You have to have the perfect balance of being able to exist in it all but still somehow have your own lane.
At what point did you realize this music thing was for real?
I always had a job until I got a cool check from publishing. That was a lot of money at the time for me. When you first get a publishing deal or any advance coming from Compton, coming from buckets, coming from “gimme $3 and a number 18.” I did a pub deal in 2010, but even before that, I had been doing singing groups for so many years and never got paid. It was a fantasy vibe but I loved it. Once that came, I was like, “I quit! I’m rich, bitch!
What did you do with your first advance?
I got a Benz, an apartment and a studio. That’s it, then I was good. I had my studio down the street from the apartment. I thought I was doing it.
Your name has been a staple in the game for a minute. Was there an artist or mentor that helped bring you up?
Erika Nuri is somebody that I always want to big up and give love to. Because I was doing a bunch of different things in a bunch of different situations — writing songs, singing groups, solo mixtapes, you name it — and Erika was somebody who believed in me through it all. Was just like “Come through, I got you,” and took me into the big rooms with the big guys. Guys like Rodney Jerkins, Harmony Samuels, MIDI Mafia paved the way for guys like myself to be able to show what I can do, and then further get my shot. Because it’s always up to the artists, no matter what. At the end of the day, how far you’re willing to go and what type of work ethic you’re willing to put in addition to your talent to take it there. It’s a lot of people with talent, but there’s more people willing to work for it.
How did she help you?
I’m actually signed to her publishing company. I came into the game and actually got my big break from being a songwriter. Being able to collab, she taught me everything about songwriting formula-wise. When it comes to actually writing a song, it’s completely opposite. Knowing how to actually formulate a song is what has formed my longevity in the behind-the-scenes realm. I actually know how to write a song rather than I’m a writer.
Did you enter wanting to be an artist and writing fell into your lap?
The singing groups is what really got me into it. I was playing football when I was younger, and entering and transitioning from football into music by myself was a little nerve-racking at the time. But entering with a group, with some brothers that would help me — I would just learn my note, everybody else has their note, and we’re harmonizing Boyz II Men style. Singing “In the Still of the Night” and all these different harmony songs that made me fall in love with the blend of music. From then on, I started just writing. After the writing took off, that’s when I slowly eased back into my original passion, which was the artistry.
Was it difficult at all transitioning from songwriter to artist?
For sure. It was interesting because the writing was going so well — I didn’t expect it to — but it was one opportunity after the next. You’re writing over there, we want you over here, etc.
It’s hard to pass up that check, too.
Exactly. Maybe two to three years in, me and Nieman felt it was necessary to take some time to focus on me, focus on my records. Make sure I had some singles, some club records, so that I’d be able to perform in the club, travel and be able to be on the radio. Especially in our time, in order to break, you really needed a West Coast song, a ’90s BPM type song.
Me being from here was my perfect window. Being able to create it, go for the tempo, go for that sound, we really nailed it. Shout out to Jaynari, Problem, the whole team that made that happen. Getting the peers to really support in a way that’s like, “Wow, they got my back.” Transitioning is the toughest part because once people introduce you as one thing, they expect that from you. Thinking outside of the box and seeing you as something other than what their first impression of you was, it’s tough to redirect that narrative.
I have so many friends who are stuck in that space of songwriter/wanting to be an artist.
That’s the thing too. The people that know me as the artist first, they champion more than the people that knew the songwriting first. But then it’s only a matter of time before the people that knew the artistry first quickly come on the other side, too. I just always knew it would be a process. The same way I built up my writing career, I would need to build my artistry. The patience came with it, but I had the success of the writing to massage my back in the meantime.
I mean, a Grammy ain’t bad. Can you talk about the moment you were nominated?
I think I was just at home. I didn’t understand the severity or how serious it was. It was so early in my writing career, I was just like, “Oh cool, OK, dope.” [laughs] When it actually won, I was in Atlanta working with Usher actually, on the Looking 4 Myself album. Mark Pitts was in there, Usher, we’re doing his album, and the Chris Brown album won as we were working. I remember that being a defining moment for me because it was like the big accolade, the big accomplishment, then you always wanna do it again. You always wanna keep it going. It just let me know, “We doing all right, we doing the right thing, we on the right path, we in alignment.” To have the support of those guys that I look up to so much definitely keeps me going.
I want to talk about your creative process. Three things you need in the studio?
We gotta have dark and laser lights. It has to be really dark and moody. My favorite is a fluorescent vibe. Then I need tree, some marijuana. Honestly, just the vibe and my mind needs to be clear. Until then, I don’t even go in the booth. I’m cool to just chill, relax and talk to people until my mind is free. Once I get all my text messages out — I’m not thinking of a post or caption, what I need to do later or if I’m hungry — all conversations have been put to rest, and I look around and I’m just floating, then I’m like, “All right, we can go in the booth.” That whole process might take four hours but the song process, that’s gonna take 30 minutes.
Do you write your lyrics down or on your phone?
I just go for it. If I’m in a co-writing session, I always write it. Because you’ll sit there with somebody for 10 hours and you don’t know what’s going on. But if you’re like, “Oh here, this is the verse, this is what I got so far,” they can even say yes or no. Boom, let’s move to the hook. But if I’m by myself, I don’t need nothing. I just go in the booth and boom. But even just being in that atmosphere is not enough, that vibe still gotta be right. ’Cause that’s when I can pull and create and really get in my bag.
“Main Thing” with Dom is at over 2.5 million views on YouTube. Bring us back to that studio session.
Actually, that was a record that got put together over a long time. [whistles] Because we had the hook idea, and then I needed to throw some verses on it. I got in with Dom Kennedy and I knew I wanted him on it. I wanted that West Coast/L.A.. He came and it was interesting. He was like, “So wassup, you gonna do the rap?” [laughs] I was like, “What are you talking about? I’m trying to get you on this song!” He was like, “I know, I know, I’m just thinking over here, you gotta trust me.” I was like, “All right.” He was like, “You need to go in on that verse. You need to start if off like Usher did when he was like, ‘They call me U-S-H-E-R,’ but you need to say, ‘They call me E-R…’”
I did it and had a verse in 10 minutes. I was just standing there, we were vibing, and I just started writing it. I was like, “I think I got something!” He was like, “See, I told you.” I was like, “Yo, that was hard!” But I would’ve never did that. That was a dope moment. To have his support all the way through is one thing — for people to do a verse or do whatever — he still did a cool intro and an outro, and then did a remix verse for us to put on later. All that really just happened but in the beginning, it was dope to just have his support.
I love that you guys shot that at World on Wheels, too.
Exactly. He came through and shot the video, then he came through at various performances and performed it with me. That’s what happens when boys link up, when West Coast artists come together. You’re able to do those things that keep creating, rather than, “Oh, this artist over here, he jumped on a song. I don’t know him, no participation, he never post it.” The fans and the consumers can see that, but when you’re really working with your family and your people, you get to see an organic blossom happen.
You recently put out a single called “King.” Talk about your mind state creating this one.
The mind state is the MP3 version of my thoughts on the subject, for the past 10 years anyway. I really feel like the energy that I bring to the R&B storefront as a whole is beyond anything that anyone could say in this current time. I’m not even saying of this generation, I’m saying of this current time. What I have contributed to over the past couple years consistently shows for itself. What I’ve done for myself in an independent state speaks for itself.
I look at everything as a pound-for-pound vibe. Even in being content in my standing — you know when people are like, “Well how come you're here and not here,” and “you should be here,” I’m so content because I know the people that know, know. I’m not gonna spend time worried about the people that don’t know, I’d rather nourish and massage the people that do know so it can grow in a way that it’s intended to.
So are you justifying you’re the king of R&B?
All I’m saying is that the work speaks for itself. At this point, Jacquees is the self-proclaimed king of R&B. I don’t ever wanna be that. I wanna be the people’s champ. I want the people to say it, I don’t wanna say it. You can say it, that’s cool, but I want the people to say it. I just let the work be so crazy that once the right person of influence says it first, I’ll just be here driving the train. Welcome all aboard to the bandwagon!
Talk about this #KingsChallenge you started.
I was originally gonna put it out just by myself. Somebody was like, “Yo, let me put a verse on it,” so that’s why I had screenshotted and posted it. I want people to see the the whole process of being real transparent, because there was so many talks of the people that are huge and have already done this for the past 40, 30, 20, 10 years. I knew that if I’m thinking, “Hold up, my name holds some weight, there’s also some people that still do their thing that may not have the platform.” It’s one of the challenges I did in the past where I let my fans, consumers and the world showcase their talents with my platform and my page. I figure why not try it again? Open verse to whoever got something to say. ’Cause a lot of people are insanely talented, they just need a little window.
As an artist who’s been in the game for a minute, what game do you have for these new cats?
Find out who you are first, find out why the game needs you, and find out what you can bring to the table that the game is missing. Those three things are huge. Once you got those, you can start making music. You’ll know the type of music you need to make because you know who you are and what people and what lane are counting on you. For me, it’s because I need to show the young generation it’s cool to be in a relationship, it’s cool to floss your girl instead of every other person talking about everything else. I don’t need to. I can talk about my life and what’s real because not only will the people relate but they’ll also be able to decide if they want to be a real Eric Bellinger fan or not.
You gotta just lay out yourself and your qualities so people can have the ammo to say, “I rock with you, or I don’t.” ’Cause they’ll just always be on the fence if all they have is music. It’s just, “All right, I like that song. But if you don’t have a hot song out right now, I’m not really rolling.” If they’re invested into who you are, they also wanna know that you took your son to the aquarium yesterday. Then that will also be the thing that can keep them attached to you and keep growing with you. You definitely gotta know who you are. You gotta know what it is you like and not waver from it. There’s so many people out there that aren’t themselves. If you spend your life as a carbon copy of another person, that’s already a huge indication that there’s not much use for you.
Where are we with ReBirth 2?
Man, I keep saying I’m done but the thing is, I keep going to the studio. I feel like every song I write beats the last one. ’Cause now, there’s a certain standard. I won’t even write it. I won’t even waste time. It’s easier at this point than when you’re just trying to create and figure out what the album is. When people are just in album mode, they are kind of in question. When they’re like, “Yeah, the album is done,” at that point, it’s the best time to create (low-key). Now, I can potentially beat out four songs because I know what I’m up against. When I used to play football every week, we would look at the scouting report. Not only would I watch my film from the last week, I would look at the plays from the team we’re about to play. I’m using that same type of judgment and outlook on records. “OK, that song has this strong point, this pro, this con. But this one over here…” I’m able to beat them out. It’s a real competition. My tracklist right now is in triple overtime.
Did you see The-Dream just put out a three-part mixtape? He told us it was over three hours worth of music.
OMG! Yeah, that’s crazy. See, I got a whole ’nother approach. My shit gonna be long but it’s different. I got some new songs. I got some greatest hits that people might have never heard. I’m gonna break the album down into new fans and old fans.
Talk about your upcoming show with Ro James at the Avalon on Jan. 13.
That one’s gonna be good because I actually like Ro James’ music a lot. A lot of times, I got a show and I’m in the back. But bro, I’m finna watch for sure. No matter what, I gotta see him. I just respect what he is doing. Just organic, he’s raw. Him as a person. That’s what I mean about the music is secondary. I know him, so I know he’s gonna act a fool. It’s dope to be able to combine that with a great voice and vulnerability. He reminds me of the new Prince, in a way of him just letting go and not caring. The style, the fashion and the vintage.
It’s actually the launch of Young Legend Nights, a monthly R&B series.
With him and me, it’s real R&B. When people see and meet me, they’re like, “Wow, you’re the same.” That’s really who I am. I’m love. I’m spreading love. I’m smiling. When you mix all these different energies combined in one night, one venue (great venue) — I didn’t even know it was at the Avalon, that’s gonna be good. It’s going to be real intimate. There’s gonna be real fans in the R&B world. You can expect a great night. He’s probably gonna be giving out roses and shit. [chuckles]
What goes into your live performances?
Just a lot of truth. When I’m picking the songs for the show, I’m a realist. I can cater to each show. If it’s a hip-hop show, I’m doing a hip-hop show. If it’s an R&B show, I'ma slow it down. This is L.A., so I know what I can do where. What boundaries and what markets certain songs are stronger in. Being home and with it being Christmas time, I got a couple Christmas songs…
“Kisses on Christmas”!
That’s the new one. This is actually the first song that I produced and released. I always do beats on my own time but putting it out, I’m always like, “It’s not good enough.” It needs to be crazy and I’m not the one that needs to be like “I produced this,” just to say I produced it. I don’t care. I was just like, “Let me get my chops up and when it’s good enough, then we’ll have a song.” I brought it to my boys Ayo and Reggie, and I’m proud of this one. I’m excited to get it out and let the people see another avenue of me creatively.
Anything else you want to let us know?
2019 is gonna be the setup year for the new decade. That’s my year. I’m just gonna be working ’cause I really wanna just own the next decade.
Eric Bellinger plays with Ro James on Sunday, Jan. 13, at the Young Legend Night Series inside the Avalon Hollywood.