Harlem-based artist Kahlil Blu recently dropped his second full length album, DOG, a sparkling, pop confection, with bright, imaginative beats that pulsate with life. Blu has also created a musical style all his own, in which he raps, sings and chants over breezy instrumentals that he also crafted. Blu’s style is eclectic; he has a varied musical palette and range, and draws from bedroom pop, dream pop, hip hop and even alternative rock. Unlike some of his contemporaries in the New York hip hop scene,
Blu mostly eschews the dusty production that remains very much in vogue, speeded-up or slowed-down soul and R & B samples that crack and pop. Instead, his music radiates sunniness, even if his lyrics, at times, do not. The music’s shimmer, combined with Blu’s introspective words, can create a tension in the sound, an almost foreboding pull of opposing forces, that give his music an instantly recognizable dynamism. The music hits hard at the pleasure receptors in the brain, perfect for head nodding, walking or running, the beats all fluid motion, like Kraftwerk, but with more warmth, and less robotics. Great for headphones, too. When he harmonizes with himself on “Brand New,” it is the kind of layered, stacked and intricate sound that will delight any one who hears it. Then, go study his lyrics.
But Kahlil Blu is more than a creator of addictive nuggets of pop. He is a prolific beat maker, who has produced tracks for friends like Medhane, GRIMM Doza and MAVI, among others, and MAVI is featured on DOG‘s single, “runway talk.” He also designs clothing for his burgeoning fashion line, http://abluplace.com, and he is adept at the basics of film-making, which, with his active mind, may lead, who knows where? Blu also does the artwork for his albums. In the cover art for DOG, which you can see above, a friendly canine is wearing what looks like a pair of Kurt Cobain’s old sunglasses. Khalil Blu is a Renaissance Man, a polymath, and, right now, an artist to watch.
Kahlil Blu sat down with Backseat Mafia to give us some insight into who he is as a person, his creative process and the ambitious goals he has set for himself.
Backseat Mafia: Your new album is called DOG. I think that you’ve also posted pictures of yourself on social media with dogs. Can you tell me about the dogs in those pictures?
Kahlil Blu: The dogs on my page are Rex and Day Day. Rex was a puppy I had to give up because I had to move back home from Pittsburgh. I miss him dearly, never felt a loyalty or love like a dog has [to give]. I’ve dealt with loss before but I was never attached to it like I was with a puppy that I raised and saw grow up. Day Day is my friend Sage’s (rapper Navy Blue) pup. She’s a pit- malamute mix. She’s a cutie.
BSM: I have two dogs. They add so much good karma and they’re never judgmental!
BSM: Any musicians in your family? Anyone musical?
KB: I’m the only musician in my family right now. My mom used to sing, though.
BSM: When did you start making music? Was there a moment in your life where you thought, I want to give it a shot, to be an artist? When was that? When did you began to take creating music more seriously?
KB: 2013 or 2014-ish? I don’t know. I just saw Tyler/Flying Lotus/Thebe (Editor’s note: rapper Earl Sweatshirt) and was instantly drawn to what they were doing. I knew then. I got serious after high school. I was determined not to go to college anymore and to drop out and go crazy. Man, I really hated college.
BSM: Can you tell us about your influences? Who inspired you to make music?
KB: I don’t have any influences, currently. I grew up and started believing I was just as good as, or better than some of the people I idolized. Then I stopped idolizing human beings. I really like Lil Uzi Vert, a lot. Flower Boy-era Tyler, Krazy, Amerie, Daft Punk, Tame Impala, Skepta, $ilkmoney, Cyrax, Medhane, , MAVI, Yellowman (Editor’s note: legendary Jamaican DJ).
BSM: When did you become an active listener of music? Who were some of your favorite artists? Did you have an artist you really identified with or felt passionate about?
KB: My mom, father, older brother and Harlem affected my baby ears the most. Sitting in the back of my dad’s car while he played No Limit [Master P’s record label] cassettes, soca and heavy Paul Wall and Mike Jones stuff . Gave me a real affinity for the South. My mother country, musically, is Trinidad. On top of my parents being immigrants and my mom’s father from Alabama. So, I guess my love for southern culture was transplanted through that. She also was the first to bring Kanye’s first album home. She would play The Miseducation of Lauren Hill so much that, to this day, I cannot listen to a Lauren Hill record! My older brother was the coolest guy to me growing up. He put me on to everything, from clothes to music, even though I had my own drip. It got blended because I valued his ideas and opinions so much. I started paying attention to music around 14 to 16. Early Odd Future made me an active listener. At that age, I only cared about Kid Cudi, Tyler, The Creator, Kanye West and Pharrell and N*E*R*D.
BSM: Are there other significant people in your life who influenced your musical path?
KB: Not really. Just maybe like OG Jedi-P. He was my older brother’s friend. I remember watching him make beats, using Reason, on YouTube and being so amazed.
BSM: Where is your work space? Do you create in a room? Tell me specifically about where you record, mix and master? The physical process of putting the music together.
KB: I hate studios. I record myself at home, in my bedroom with a $50 CAD Audio USB mic, Reason (software), and a midi keyboard, sometimes. I just got an interface and have been playing with keyboard sounds from my little brother’s Casio that he let me have. Zeroh and Mike Bloom mixed my stuff on DOG but on 11, (Editor’s note: Kahlil Blu’s previous full length) everything was mixed and mastered by me.
BSM: What is your process for creating/writing your lyrics? Do you keep a notebook and write ideas down? I think your lyrics are very emotive, very personal.
KB: I freestyle and write down the lines and then record them. I have no writers and never will. I make whatever comes to me. I’ve made plenty of beats that I have passed on to Medhane or $ilkMoney, just because I knew they would do it more justice than I could. Usually, in 10 minutes of making a beat, if I’m going to record to it, I immediately stop working on the beat and just freestyle lines. Then, I jot them down in my notes. It’s usually really easy because I put real life things in my music. Finish that process, then finish the beat and record that day, or sometimes even the next week or month.
BSM: I think you have a unique, recognizable style. I’m not sure what I would call it. In reggae, there are sing-jays, people who chant and sing. You sing AND rap and mix it up, too. What would you call what you do? How did you discover your voice and develop your style?
KB: I don’t know what to call it. I still haven’t really discovered my voice. I can sometimes be pretty flat, vocally. A few songs didn’t make it onto DOG because I couldn’t get the right tones and notes. I just do what comes and try not to be too fearful or judgmental about it.
BSM: What would you call your style of music? Is it hip hop? Your music is “labeled” as hip hop, but your influences and style are disparate. Is that label, hip hop, too confining for you?
KB: I don’t trip about stuff like that. And, yeah, [an artist] should be able to label [his own] music. I hate being called emo-rap, cloud rap, trap, and lo-fi. I feel like it’s a cheap cop out, when more work could be done to explain what a [listener] likes about me. I don’t rap like Gucci. That’s trap. He talking that talk. If [Roland] 808s and hi-hats are trap, then Destiny Child’s song Jumpin’ Jumpin’ is some trap shit . I talk that talk, just not his, Gucci’s talk.
BSM: Do black artists unnecessarily and unfairly get confined to genres because of music industry group-think and stereotyping? They use lots of euphemisms, like urban, R & B, soul. Isn’t it all pop?
KB: I’m definitely a pop star. I rap and I have strong ties to that community, but like I said, I’m trying to be the first actual independent [artist] who never took a deal. A huge artist, period. Black ownership is important. Because I realize the stigmas of my blackness, I moved myself out of the hip pop/rap arena. We [black artists] are extremely marginalized, uncredited, and overlooked, for changing the whole bounce of all other musical genres.
BSM: I agree with you.
KB: And pop music sonically changes. All of these white artists sing and rap over hi-hat rolls and 808s now. That’s not Tears for Fears which is way harder, or a random Hanson song like “MMMbop,” or a Bowie cut, which is what pop used to sound like. Pop music today, sound-wise, IS hip hop/rap. I also want bigger artist to stop fucking signing with labels.
KB: It’s important that the Drakes [of the world] go 100% independent. The system relies on those folks, not the other way around.
BSM: How long did it take to make the album, DOG, from start to finish?
KB: DOG took a year and two months.
BSM: MAVI handles the second verse on “runway talk.” How did you connect with MAVI and how did the feature come about? Can you tell me something about the other features? Fifthpower? $ilkMoney? Na-Kel Smith? Give them a shout out?
KB: I’ve gotten to know all of these people personally, before there was ever music involved. That’s my thing. If you know someone, it just makes the music better. Also, I consider myself an underground king, as a producer. I have been around since the early Yatchy, Uzi, Divine Council (Editor’s note: Richmond, VA music collective), SoundCloud rap days. I have been around for a minute. I helped produce three of $ilk’s albums. Like I was actually physically around when they were all doing tours and I would be backstage and on stage at all the New York Divine Council shows. Plus, plenty of records for Medhane, Grimm Doza, and Ama [Jones], back in the day. I guess all my features on this album just come from the strength of my talent, my loyalty and my friendship.
BSM: Are you inspired by other forms of art? Books, poetry, film?
KB: I was supposed to go to art school for college. I was a Cooper Union Saturday program kid and I loved illustration. (Editor’s note: Cooper Union is a college in lower Manhattan, that for many years was tuition- free for accepted students.) The school changed from being a free program to a paid one, the year that I decided I wanted to go. I then went to school for visual arts, at Borough of Manhattan Community College, but I hated it.
KB: I went to Carnegie Mellon, in Pittsburgh, but I was never an official student. All of my friends went there and I would just use their wonderful facilities. If you want to duck off and be super creative, Pittsburgh is one of those places. Fun fact: I’m a few credits away (one class) from getting an associates degree in visual art. I learned how to write scripts, block scenes, light sets, all that good stuff. But, I’m fully into music right now. I can always go back and finish one class and that will be just for my mother. To be honest, I plan to do everything I can, mentally and physically, for what I want for the planet. So I guess, film and art, (subjectively), inspire me the most.
BSM: You blow up, you’re on top of the charts and you have the opportunity to tour any where in the world you choose. Where would you go and why?
KB: Africa. I came from slavery and I’d love to go home. To see the people I came from.
BSM: What would you like listeners, fans and readers to know about your art?
KB: I don’t care about fame or anything of that nature. I care about ownership. I’m a human being with real life problems and this music comes from [both] trauma and happiness. I’m a black man in America, and my cultural identity doesn’t matter to white folks here. I’m hurt, I live in fear, and I feel pain.