To many, Bilal needs no introduction. The Philly crooner has been winning fans all over the world ever since his stints at Black Lily earlier this decade. Since then, he has become a cultural and underground icon, and he is set to release is latest album, Airtight’s Revenge on Plug Research on September 14th.
You’ve been blessed to be one of the few if not the only artist to work with 3 of the greatest producers of all time…Dr. Dre, J Dilla and DJ Premier. What was it like working with them and what did you take away from each one?
Yeah the 3 greats! The thing I took from Dilla was just his flow. His flow was unmatched. The way we flowed and made music it just looked so effortless. Plus he had this concept like he could do just anything. He could get on instruments and just find the groove in that. He was just a really really dope dude.
What I got from Dr. Dre was his knowledge of the studio. Dre really has so much knowledge behind the board and on sound in general and how to get a humongous sound out of the computer and the console. I’ve never seen that matched the type of techniques that he knows. He can make a sample sound bigger than I ever heard anybody do and to this day I don’t know how he do it. It’s like he pulled out a special briefcase that had a lock and I guess that’s where he keeps all his secrets at and shit. He had this silver fucking briefcase that had a lock on the shit and when he opened it up it had mad hard drives, mad old discs and shit and I’m talking about every drum sound on there was like the biggest shit you ever heard. It was like he had a suitcase full of bombs (laughter)! I’ve also seen him take other people’s drums and just re-tweak those drums and make them sound humongous and cats are watching him like how did you make my drums that big? He just has this knowledge and technique for sound. I guess that’s why he came out with those headphones! He really has the knowledge on how to make shit extremely humongous and big. He’s a genius at that.
Premier–it’s just dope to watch him. He still has his way that he’s been doing it since the beginning and he’s really just refined it into just a beautiful deal. Like he still works off the MPC 60 and the sampling time is mad slow on there. But his whole take on that is that’s why the MPC 60 is so hard and grainy because it samples so slow. I remember it taking us the whole day to put the beat together. You gotta really have patience. Prim is really like a tailor or a craftsman the way he spends all day and meticulously put the beat together. He’s a meticulous cat and particular about his sound and how to place his samples. Because he takes from so many different records, at least 10 records to make one joint. Meticulously going through each song to find the one piece that’s gonna go with the other piece he found. It’s dope to watch him.
Now it’s been 9 years since your last commercially released CD dropped, but you’re one of the most popular artist to collab with. Why do you think that is?
I don’t know. It’s just a beautiful thing. People like what I do and they wanna rock with me. I look at it like it’s a blessing you know…it’s humbling.
Normally you usually work with different producers on your albums but for “Airtight’s Revenge” you and Steve McKie produced the bulk of the album. Was that done on purpose or did it just work out that way?
It was kinda on purpose. I’ve really been in this singer songwriter mode for this record and for Love for Sale. I’ve really been into making songs from scratch and making a tune that can stand on its own even without having a track. Just sitting down at the piano and playing a tune and it’s holding its own weight. I’ve really been on that vibe, making music like that. So even when I worked with other producers, like I worked with Nottz, Shafiq Husayn from Sa-Ra and even then we made the song from scratch. I wrote the chord changes on the piano and then it kinda went into a jam session. I’ll start playing a song and cats get on the drums or whatever their frequency of rhythm is and we make the track from there. So it’s in that whole vein of singer/songwriter mode.
What’s your favorite part of the game; being in the studio or being on tour?
I enjoy them both. I enjoy going on the road and playing the music and letting evolve into something and just having fun. But I really love being in the lab and be creative and have on my scientist jacket.
Who are some of your favorite artists?
Some of my favorites? ….Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, Betty Carter, Marvin Gaye and Jimi Hendrix.
On “First Born Second” you said you worked with a lot of hip hop artists because that’s who you were hanging around. Who are you running with now?
I’ve accumulated my whole zone of people and they’re mainly musician cats. I’ve kinda developed into my own zone. So these days I’m more of a musician head. I’ll always be inspired by hip hop. It’s just my palate has increased. I’ve put on more hats now. On my first album I was still doing the singer songwriter thing, but I was working with a lot of producers writing songs from beats. Now I’m just really into creating songs that can kinda go in a book. But I’m still lyrically and content and things that I choose to speak about they come from being exposed to those caliber of mc’s and that really opened my head to that you can speak about a lot of different topics, not just love and relationships.
You’re one of the few artists that every album sounds totally different from the last one. Now personally I love that because I feel it enables us (the fans) to watch you grow but I know there are people who wanna hear Soul Sista part 2. How do you feel about that?
I feel like there’s a tune for everybody. I feel like the people who really sit down and get into me as an artist or into my music they kinda dig that I’m growing and everytime I do it, it’s not that I’m on something new but I’m still finding my sound and my thing I feel. I see myself as still growing especially more so now then anything because there’s been a layoff of projects that I wanted to jump on and do and create a lot more but politics have really held me back. My overview is to have my own thing. And I think that everybody’s who’s been checking me out kinda would understand that. I really trying to find a niche all my own. When I first started doing First Born Second I had just come out of high school I was checking out my contemporaries, people who I started working with. Ahmir [Thompson]of the Roots, Raphael Saadiq, D’Angelo, erykah badu, these were the people I was checking out coming up in high school and it really was reflected on my first album but now I’m 30 years old, I’m trying to carve my own niche as a musician my own sound. I don’t wanna sound like nobody else. I feel like I’ve got a lot to bring to the table, but first things first is having my own voice. So there won’t be another Soul Sister or something like that because I’m always curious into finding my own sound.
I’m gonna name my 5 favorite Bilal songs, tell me where were you mentally when you came up with them.
“Sometimes” was an impromptu jam session type of deals. That’s really how that song came about. It was like a freestyle. We were freestyling, and Ahmir [Thompson] of the Roots was on drums, James Poyser was on keys and we just started jamming. A lot of the song just came out of the jam and we recorded it all on a dat [tape] and we started listening back to it, I kept a lot of the lyrics and the structure of the song but the whole song was like a jam session.
With Home, I was inspired by a lot of Betty Carter and I came up with the chords while listening to a lot of her albums at home. I wrote that song…man…that was so long ago…I know I wrote that tune at home…the apartment I was living in at the time. It was my first couple of years in New York so I was homesick a lot.
All For Love
I kinda wrote that song by accident. I came up with the chord changes on accident at home and I kinda put the beat together on my MPC 60. The beat didn’t really come to total fruition in my head til I heard this one Frank Zappa record. And the way the drummer was playing. He was playing this 8 in 7/4 but it kinda felt like a strange 3. That vibe and that drum beat, that was kinda like the ticket. Right after I heard that beat. We sampled that one little bit of the 7 like he was playing and switched into 3 and then I had my man replay it.
It’s a tune I wrote at home on the piano and then went to the studio. The song went through a lot of changes. Me and Steve Mckie, he got on drums and I played the song as I wrote it at home but it took us a while to find a good groove on that joint. The one beat that we liked had a White Stripes vibe but I remember going to do a gig with Jay Z in Las Vegas and this idea came to my head cause a long time ago I had did a song that never made it on the Love for Sale album. But it was a heavy straight up rock David Bowie tune, but the drum beat that Steve McKie–my co-producer on the album was playing; I remembered the beat from that song. As soon as I called him up to tell him about that beat, he knew exactly what I was talking about and as soon as he laid that and I got back in town and we put that other guitar on and it just made sense. So that song was like a jigsaw puzzle.
I was inspired by this style of dance music called Wu Tang. I know my little sister does it in Philly. It’s based off of a four on the floor dance rhythm. It’s really sped up. So I went in the studio and I beat boxed that dance rhythm and then we created the record around that beat box. My inspiration on the lyrics really stemmed from a poem I wrote about Einstein and his laws of matter, relativity and gravity.
How has being from Philly shaped you as a musician?
B: A lot. Philly’s a big music town. Just from the Philly soul to the doo wop to all of that it inspired me. It’s a small town but a very musical town. So coming up I was around a lot of music.
If you had to take the 15 hour ride from Philly to Atlanta and you can only bring 1 cd, what would it be?
B: From Philly to Atlanta? Oooooh…I can’t bring my iPod? (Laughter) What would I take? Dude…I don’t know. I would almost not even listen to anything. (Laughter)
Aiight, if you can bring your iPod, who would you, be listening to?
B: Now on the iPod, I’d have to bring some MF Doom, Madlib. I’d bring the Roots. I like landscaping type of music so I’d bring some Square Pusher some Anthony Phillips. I’d have to bring some “Here My Dear”
that’s one of my favorite albums from Marvin Gaye and I’d bring some live evil Miles Davis. I be mixing it up. When you’re doing a long drive you need that kinda deal, that’s why I said I’d need the iPod!