For anyone who was a fan of the early 2000 contemporary soul movement, the name Bilal is hard to escape. He’s collaborated with a slew of popular artist that are commercially and artistically respected (Dr. Dre, Common, Erykah Badu, J-Dilla, and Shafiq Husayn immediately come to mind) in the midst of a career that’s seen its share of peaks and valleys. Bilal, who also happens to be a classically trained jazz singer, recently released his much anticipated second studio album, Airtight’s Revenge, four weeks ago and fans instantly recognized that it had been a resounding nine years since his first proper release. How could such a prolific singer who’s guest appeared on damned near every meaningful urban release of merit over the past decade only be on his second album? The answer is actually a harrowing story and during a recent hour-long interview, Bilal checked in with lastnightsmixtape to chat about new music, what he’s been up to during his assumed “layoff,” his latest inspirations, raising a son with autism, and lot’s more.
And if you didn’t already know, Bilal performs in Seattle this Saturday at Nectar with Xperience, DJ Topsin, and Choklate also supporting the show. Check out the full interview with video and mp3′s spliced in if you’re still trying to figure out if you should go.
You went quite awhile in between studio releases, but I’m sure that doesn’t mean you were unproductive during that stretch. What do most people not know about how you spent that time?
Bilal. A lot of people that haven’t really heard from me in awhile probably didn’t know that I was doing a lot of shows during this lay off. I’ve been with the same band for the past eight years now. We’ve been doing shows off the last major record that got bootlegged a couple of years ago, Love For Sale. So we been gigging in certain markets, but everyone doesn’t know that.
What’s the biggest thing that kept you from pushing to release a new album until now.
Politics. Changing labels, changing people in my camp that didn’t have my best interests at heart. Changes that I had to go through outside of music. It was the business side of the music really.
Within all of that, what set you back the most?
The bootleg. When the album [Love For Sale] was bootlegged, I really had to assess how it happened, who was around me, and a lot of things started to come into play. I had also… well, I felt like I needed to sit back and think for a minute. I was really into that music that I was doing and all of the songs on that record. Not being able to release it properly took a lot out of me. It went into the negative side for awhile. I stopped making music for a minute. I did shows, I lived life, but I really had to change things on the other end and the spectrum of music. And once that got cleared out, I saw music again.
DJ Mensa’s Best of Bilal mix
Did not recording music for a long period affect your happiness during that time?
The music shows up in my brain. If it doesn’t show up, I don’t force it. I was at a point where I was like let me make some music, but wait, this sounds contrived, so fuck it. It wasn’t happening and there was nothing I could do about it. I was doing jazz gigs, improvising, painting, but really, I go by the whole philosophy of flow. If that’s where I’m at, I flow with that situation. It’s not really about trying to try to make it work. Because it comes out like that. Miles Davis didn’t play music for 10 years, and then came back and changed the game. Basically, I use music as therapy I don’t use it as validation.
How long did you go without creating new music?
I probably didn’t make any music for like two years.
Your voice, it’s probably one of the most unique octaves in all of R&B right now. Vocally, exactly what are you?
I don’t know. I never really counted the range. I look at it like a tenor saxophone. I kind of see myself as a tenor but I use my falsetto a lot. I play keyboards a lot. I listen to a lot of instrumental music. I love Wayne Shorter and John Coltrane. I listen to a lot of Miles Davis too. I think I get my falsetto and scat from him. I use my voice like an instrument basically and go up and down depending on what’s needed.
What was it like working with Miguel Atwood-Ferguson?
Well I did two projects with him, I did the string thing with Miguel for the Suite For Ma Dukes orchestra piece… I sang on that, then we worked in L.A. and did this thing with a band and horns, and he had Flying Lotus involved as well. I like to jam and play and meet new musicians so when he asked if I’d do it I said ‘yes.’ I sang a Donny Hathaway song.
Why did you choose that song in particular, “Someday We’ll All Be Free”?
Miguel actually chose the music, and he asked me if I wanted to get on it, and I was cool with it. Donny Hathaway, yeah. Haven’t sang like that in awhile. I used to sing like that on my first album. I sang a lot of chest voice, full on sound. Like church, kind of. And it was cool to pull that out again (laughs)
Who were the main producers that you worked with on this album?
Myself and Steve McKie did the bulk of it. I also did some production with Shafiq Husayn, Nottz, and 88 Keys.
What was it like collaborating with Shafiq?
It was amazing. We made the track from scratch in his studio. It was the type of scenario where I did something for his album, and then right after that, we did something for my album. That’s the way a lot of collaborations come about these days, but yeah, the man is a genius and we had a really good time working together.
Lyrically, what were your main sources of inspiration during the writing process for Airtight’s Revenge? What were you drawing from?
I was drawing from my life and real life situations. Not so much just the regular. It feels like a continuation to me. I’ve always written songs about my life and I’ve written a lot of freaky, janky music too. But the core of my music is always still there. The blues, hip-hop, and jazz. And I hear that in all the things I do. This album is more guitar heavy because what I wanted to make my music a little more open for the aspect of adding jazz elements when we play it live. Usually when u give it a guitar feel, it opens up the music for improvisation. I was also inspired by British rock.
Why British rock?
I’m really fascinated by Britain’s take on the blues actually. Led Zeppelin and the Beatles… and Pink Floyd too. I’ve always loved Steely Dan as well. They’ve influenced my music from early on.
They’re not even British.
Yeah, but Steely Dan added a lot of sophisticated changes in their music early on worth paying attention to. Like what Wayne Shorter and Jaco Pastorious used to do. They had some sophistication to the changes and that’s one of my favorite things to do. I did that on my first album. The song “When Will You Call,” is a good example of that. More linear type of chords. Earth Wind and Fire used to do that as well. They add a real sophistication to their funk.
What’s the main thing that you want to get across to your audience on this latest album?
I was trying to get across to them where I feel where we are today in society. I took an overview of where we are and put it to music. Like any artist would. Mainly I want people to identify and hear some things in this music. I flirted with a lot of topics that would make people go away talking about that subject. I talk about money, capitalistic views, the robotic type of things in our life. The song “Robots” touches on that. I flirted with the topic of religion at times as that’s an issue that we’re going through since people look at Islam so differently too.
Autism causes people to see the world through a different lens… sights, colors, etc. I’m wondering, does raising a son with autism cause you to see the world through a different lens as well?
Aw yeah. I have to understand how he’s looking at things. Autistic children really can focus on certain aspects of things and that’s how they understand it. My son really likes to focus on details of things. To a point that he tries to do things on his own. He’s always really good at puzzles because of that. And drawing. A lot of autistic children have that ability. A lot eventually go into art. It’s really a brilliant thing you know. I have a song on my album dedicated to my children called “Little Ones” that gets into a little bit.
Another one of your sons has Sickle Cell. There’s information about Sickle Cell obviously in the black community, but not enough info about autism. Why do you think that is?
Sickle Cell is a black disease. It’s not in white people’s blood gene. So we know more about it. But autism is something relatively new. For awhile, black people just look at things like, ‘you’re being a bad boy, now go sit down,’ without realizing that a child might have a larger problem. We don’t really view the psychological side of things. We leave that to the church. We just go and pray about it. But I think it’s something that really needs to be viewed more in the black community. So many kids are being born with autism now. People think it might be the vaccines. They have this super vaccine where, instead of getting all the shots that you’re supposed to get from the time a baby is born until he’s four years old, you can get all of those vaccines at once. It really shocks the system. My son Bashir had that shot. And… [voice trails off]
I think it’s really about focusing on your child. Get into your child and give them all the love that you can because they’re all unique.
Do you do anything to bring more awareness to Autism nationally?
I’m going to launch something eventually for autism. Everything is in the works. I really want to do it right. Thus far, I’ve done countless walks though.
Alright, quick check-in. The term neo-soul, are you for it or against it?
Totally against it.
Choklate is hosting the show here in Seattle. How well do you know Choklate?
Yeah.. Choklate is a good friend of mine. We did a show together in New York not that long ago. I like Choklate and I like her swagger on the music. She’s got a lot of rawness when she sings which is usually a good thing.
You’ve done so many cuts with artists from a certain strain of rap, Common, Guru, J Dilla, etc, do you ever consider yourself the Nate Dogg of “conscious hip-hop” for a lack of a better term.
I wouldn’t want to consider myself the Nate Dogg of conscious hip-hop I’ve done music with everyone from Dr. Dre to the conscious cats, Jay-Z, Scarface, MOP, I just kind of fuck with shit that I think is dope. But I went through an era where I was doing shit just to keep my name out there. I wasn’t putting albums out and I was changing labels so I’ve been on some of everything.
Who are your favorite contemporary soul/funk singers and who is your favorite old school soul/funk singer?
I’d say Erykah Badu has been consistent in her soul and her funk the most for me. And for old school, I just like George Clinton’s swagger. George came out as a doo-wop singer/jazz singer in his early career, and then he flipped it. George reminds me a lot of Miles Davis. He started so classical with his jazz and flipped it into something totally crazy. And George did that with his vocals. He knew the appropriate way to do shit, but he was totally inappropriate. He could really sing, but he was an inappropriate motherfucker and I love him for that.
Official video for Bilal’s “Restart”
Tickets for Bilal’s Seattle show are $15. Doors are at 9 p.m. Support Airtight’s Revenge.