Photo Courtesy of: The Top Shelf Company
I got a chance to catch up with the Philly-bred enigma who they call Bilal, on the steps of The California Plaza this past Friday. To my surprise, our 45 minute interview felt more like a conversation catching up with a good friend versus what you would expect from a such an accomplished, innovative artist. We talked about love, label entanglements, J-Dilla, and of course his highly anticipated album which drops September 14th, titled Airtight's Revenge.
Nikole: Do you think growing up in Philly helped shape your sound? And if so, what were some of your early musical influences?
Bilal: Definitely. I grew up in a dual family; my mom was a single parent and very much into church, so she had me singing gospel at an early age. As far as my pops, he was this big jazz cat, and his best friend owned a lot of jazz clubs. When I would visit my pops, he would take me with him to the jazz clubs, and let me sit in the coatroom. As early as I could remember I would say, "man I want to have my own band, I want to play in a club, it's gonna be dope".
Nikole: What was the inspiration behind Airtight's Revenge?
Bilal: This album came about at a time when I was doing a lot of personal music. - Initially it started off as me doing music for myself, then it turned into an album. I just wanted to make music about topics that was on everybody's minds, that wasn't necessarily about love. Although there are a lot of love tunes on this album, I just wanted to talk about whatever came to mind. A lot of my major influences like Bob Marley, and Curtis Mayfield would do that; they would just talk about a lot of different stuff.
During the time I was making these tunes, I would have a lot of questions on my mind, and I would just use the music to answer them. I talk about a lot of different things, one of them is confusion of religion; like my moms is Christian, and my pops is Muslim, so I grew up with a lot of questions [laughs].
Nikole: Wow, the mix of religions is definitely a different dynamic. Would you say that now you are Spiritual more so than Religious?
Bilal: Yeah, definitely.
Nikole: How do you feel you have changed from 1st Born Second, to this album?
Bilal: I would say that it is more so of a progression, more than saying I totally changed. I'm still soulful, but I have more elements to me now. I have rock elements, blues elements, along with soul and jazz.
Nikole: You worked with a lot of heavy hitters on your debut album, how did that come about?
Bilal: That was crazy man, I just put a list together in my head of all the people I wanted to work with, and I didn't know I was going to work with them all on the same record. It kind of rings true, like whenever I go to that special place inside myself and say, "this is what I want", I don't know if it's God or what, but eventually it comes true.
Nikole: So what do you want right now?
Bilal: I don't know, I couldn't tell you. That's how it works I think...[laughs]
Nikole: How was it working with J-Dilla, do you feel you learned a lot from him?
Bilal: Hell yeah! How could you not! J had this way he would approach the music that made it look so f**king easy you thought you could do it. You would think, "damn this sh*t 'aint hard"! I remember one day we were chillin', and he was walking around and talking to us while he was picking out records, and in 10 minutes, he had the beat to Reminisce. The baseline to Reminisce was like three different records. J's house looked like a library he had so many records, it was like he had a million records and he knew them all. J had it in him; he was just so fluid, he wasn't just a chopper, he could also play instruments, he was a real musician. When I found out that his pops was a musician cat who played on a lot of albums, I was like, "oh I get it, that's why he's so effortless".
Nikole: Where does Bilal go mentally when it is time to create an album?
Bilal: I like to go chill in my moms basement, but every song comes in a different kind of way. I kind of try to steer away from formulas, because when I stay away from the formula, it feels like I am discovering something new every time.
Nikole: What was the inspiration behind the song "Soul Sista"?
Bilal: Maybe I was thinking about my girlfriend at the time. It really kinda came about like a freestyle, then I worked with James Mtume on the writing, and he really helped me bring out the lyrics. I got to work with a lot of cats that taught me hot to carve songs out.
Nikole: I read in a recent interview that you dislike the term "Neo-Soul"; what genre would you put yourself in?
Bilal: Yeah I do. I hate the term Neo-Soul. I don't like genres; that's my whole concept, I want to make music that is totally genre-less. I want to confuse the computer when I make my music [laughs].
Nikole: I know Love For Sale [slated to be Bilal's sophmore album] was bootlegged, however you got a lot of gigs from that. How do you feel about that entire situation in hindsight?
Bilal: I did get a lot gigs off that, it was a Catch 22. But really, I was mad as hell because I put a lot of work and arguments into that album. I was really arguing heavy with my label, like doing crazy stunts and sh*t, you know what I mean? Then for it to get bootlegged, it was f**ked up.
Nikole: What was going on between you and the label?
Bilal: I was really trying to get out of writing a bunch of tracks and sh*t. I was like, "I wanna write songs man", I just wanted to sit down at a piano, make a tune, and then get some producers to come in, and help me make a track from the song I wrote. My label at the time was finally like, "'aight, we'll give you one week at Electric Lady Studios". When we finally completed the record, and pressed play for the label, they were like, "this sh*t is wack, this sounds like some dark, bluesy, muddy, weird sh*t". I was like, "no this sh*t is hot". After that I took it to another music exec and after he listened to it he was like, "oh you're not really singing, it doesn't sound like you can sing all that well". I just lost my mind after that, and the next thing you know it was bootlegged, and I was like f**k it, I'm not even doing music anymore. I went on strike. - Then people were like, "naw somebody put that sh*t online, and a lot of people liked that sh*t".
Then it really rang true to me that from now on, I'm just gonna do sh*t from my heart, I'm not gonna listen to mutherf**kers anymore. If I really feel something and go with my heart, and with my gut, people like it.
Photo courtesy of: Michael Britton Photography
Nikole: What happened to the locs? Why did you cut them?
Bilal: I was watching Maury Povich one day, and a commercial came on, and I just chopped that sh*t off [laughs].
Nikole: [laughs] So there was no rhyme or reason behind it?
Bilal: I had dreads in high school, and I always knew it was for some stylistic sh*t anyway, it wasn't for no deep sh*t. I grew locs because I saw this cat on the train, and he had some nice locs, and I was like, "he's pimpin' that's nice"! So it wasn't anything when I cut them, I just did it.
Nikole: What's in your iPod right now?
Bilal: I been listening to a lot of Led Zeppelin, and then the obvious soul sh*t everybody expects me to listen to [laughs], you know like Prince, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, all that good stuff. But lately I have been listening to a lot of other stuff like Frank Zappa and Howlin' Wolf, just stuff like that.
Nikole: Good stuff. Do you watch TV, or are you anti-television?
Bilal: I go through phases, but I watch a lot of TV on mute, TV is so funny when you watch it on mute. You can see the funniest sh*t, you can literally see all of the bloopers when it's on mute [laughs]. If you watch 106 & Park on mute, you'll be like, "oh noo such & such looks mad uncomfortable" [laughs].
Nikole: Do you still watch Maury Povich [laughs]?
Bilal: Hell Yeah! That sh*t is VERY funny on mute!
Nikole: But every show is a paternity test!
Bilal: Yeah, but it's hilarious! [laughs]
Nikole: I know you recently launched your own column with Madame Noire about Love & Relationships, tell me how you feel about the state of "black relationships" today? Also, what's your opinion on the topic of black men dating outside their race?
Bilal: I think we should just all love each other. Relationships as a whole are f**ked up because people want to stay young forever now, it's like as soon as you can't get hard anymore, it's time to go [laughs].
Nikole: So do you feel that in this day and age it is still possible to find someone to grow old with?
Bilal: Sure it is. You just have to know what you got when you got it, a lot of people take things for granted.
Nikole: What is the definition of love to you?
Bilal: I can't describe it. That's like asking what's God? - I mean I think it's just about being mature, and being there for somebody. I'm only 30, so I'm still figuring it out.
Nikole: Have you been in love?
Bilal: Yeah I have been in love. But it's so delicate and strange, that a lot of times love is not based on your concept of it, but how it's projected on to the person that you love.
Nikole: Finish this sentence; In 10 years, Bilal will be..?
Bilal: In ten years Bilal will be; making more music, yeah...making more music.
Nikole: So the album Airtight's Revenge is dropping September 14th, what kind of things can we expect to hear?
Bilal: A nice mix of a lot of different sounds and genres, I'm talking about a lot of different things. It's epic. A lot of stories, some of them have good endings, some of them have f**ked up endings, but that's life.
Nikole: Did you put a lot of your personal experiences into this album?
Bilal: Yeah, I'll take some sh*t that happened to me, and flip it how I wanted it to go. Or I'll also people watch and listen to other people's sh*t that they go through, and write a song about it; but I'll change it so they aren't like, "why'd you write a song about me"? [laughs] I wrote songs about my kids, I wrote songs about the trickle effect of money, there's a lot of personal sh*t in my music.
Nikole: Ok so last question; if you had to leave just one message to the world, what would it be?
Bilal: Let's all view each other from the present, lets see each other at face value, and not based on stereotypes.
Nikole: Do you feel that you have been judged based on stereotypes? Is part of that message you wanting a clean slate?
Bilal: Yeah. Hell yeah. As a musician, if you are successful at one thing, they expect you to be able to do it over, and over again. But if everyone would experience my stuff for the first time, they would be open to what it actually is, and not what their mind is telling them it should be.
A big thank you to Bilal, his publicist Myleik [of Art of Facts PR], Michael of Michael Britton Photography, and the entire staff of Grand Performances for accommodating me. It was an experience I will never forget!