Rapper Blu shops at Artform Records in the Arts District often. It's a used records store that specializes in hip-hop and is attached to a barber shop.
He's giving me a tour of some of his favorite L.A. spots, chauffeured by his limo driver, Jose. Inside Artform he flips through some records and picks out a few - Ice-T's "The Iceberg," the Project Blowed album, and The Rockers soundtrack. Behind the desk is a segregation era relic that reads "Colored Entrance Only."
Blu grew up all over Los Angeles, from San Pedro to Santa Monica, and now lives in South Central. He spends most of his free time downtown, he says. His new album, Good to Be Home, is an homage to the city of Los Angeles. (You can stream the entire thing on West Coast Sound.) "There's going to be five more albums about L.A.," he asserts. "Maybe six."
Blu's a prolific rapper who has reached near-mainstream levels of popularity. He's featured for The Roots and Mad Lib, and rapped over beats by Flying Lotus. His 2007 album Below the Heavens, with producer Exile, was successful enough to land him a deal at Warner Brothers, though he was dropped not long after because, he says, its president got fired and new A&R people came in.
Even after spending hours smoking joints with him in the back of the limo, I had a hard time putting Blu in a category with other rappers. He's a talented and hard-working musician who wants to make it big (like, Nas, big), but seems to embrace his underground status as well. He's a music nerd, but reps South Central as his hood, and seems to think he should present a little bit of that edge in order to sell records.
As for Good to Be Home, which is on venerated indie Nature Sounds: "It's a day in the life album," he says. "A day in the life of an underground rapper in LA."
Blu got into music via his grandfather, a lifetime Angeleno, who passed down a large collection of records. He taught music from an academic perspective, and it made Blu a historian.
"Good to Be Home acknowledges the importance of gangsta rap while working to get past gangsta rap," he says. "We needed that edge in the beginning, but now L.A. is a peaceful place. NWA is West Coast, but so is Pharcyde. That chill is us too."
He suggests we go to Venice, or hit up some stores on Fairfax, but I want to see the neighborhood that Blu raps about in "The 50z," the area around Crenshaw and 50th. It takes some convincing, but finally he agrees to take me to Slauson Market.
"But you can't bring the camera in there," he says. "And you can't just walk around. You gotta come in there ready to spend dough, buy a chain, some new Chucks, whatever." He frowns at my style, which you might call broke-journalist chic. "You kinda gotta come correct."
We enter the big, mostly empty market with stalls selling knock off clothes, shoes and jewelry. Blu hovers over some gold chains under glass.
"Gold is a beautiful natural resource. I want my whole crib to be gold, if there's enough gold in the world to do that."
In between Below the Heavens and Good to Be Home, Blu has seen some valleys. He famously Twitter-beefed with Schoolboy Q over his own misunderstanding of a Q lyric.
As for the Warner Brothers situation, he says they asked him to change the name of his 2013 album NoYork!, to just York, perhaps because they didn't want him to alienate East Coast consumers. (In the end he capitulated.)
In the time since Heavens, Blu has been in a kind of hip-hop purgatory - too big to be underground, too small to be Kendrick. But he's come through it unfazed.
"Below the Heavens was made with fans in mind. It was a headphone album. Good to Be Home is a Cadillac album, the most G album I've made so far."
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After Slauson Market Blu seemed annoyed that he didn't buy a chain, so we settled on barbecue as a consolation prize. At the driver's suggestion, we hit up Phillips, near the 50s in Leimert Park, a small bunker slanging ribs and tips out of a tiny window.
Blu ordered beef ribs (mild sauce) and we posted up on the back of the limo. Finally, with barbecue sauce staining his silver ring, the sun setting over the 50s, Blu seemed to relax. He's found some perspective since Below the Heavens, it seems, and is in the process of settling into himself.
"I've learned that the best music is made when you don't care about what people think. I just want to make albums."
Stream Blu's entire new album
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