Get to Know Aloe Blacc: A Primer on the 'Wake Me Up' Singer
Best known for the hooky "I Need a Dollar" and Avicii's current EDM hit, there's more to the SoCal native than meets the eye -- or ear.
Get used to hearing the name Aloe Blacc. With every move the Los Angeles native makes, he cements himself further as an essential part of our musical climate. The 34-year-old Blacc earned his chops spitting bars in the L.A. underground as an MC before L.A.-based hipster hip-hop label Stone's Throw discovered his singing voice. The gem they unearthed is arguably the classiest soul crooner in the game right now. Listen to his undeniable "I Need a Dollar" and you'd be hard-pressed to say otherwise.
Blacc's work carries with it all the gravity of a classic soul singer, tinged with a modern sheen and a staunch commitment to keeping it real. Recently, "Wake Me Up," his cross-genre collaboration with Swedish EDM overlord Avicii, went to No. 1 in 22 countries.
The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Blacc between high-profile gigs -- he landed a role in Get on Up!, the upcoming James Brown biopic produced by Mick Jagger, and a broadcast TV performance on NBC's The Voice, airing tonight (Dec. 17). Can he school the starry-eyed hopefuls with a lesson in soul?
What is your role in the James Brown movie?
I'm playing the guitar player in The Famous Flames, James Brown's first band. This is definitely a new experience. It's pretty cool. I'm getting good feedback from the directors and the more seasoned actors.
Is there a difference between your performing self and yourself in private?
In private, I'm generally very pensive, quiet, relaxed. But the performer is an entertainer, and I want to make sure that everyone has fun at a show. I keep it really high-energy. I think I got that from hip-hop. I was an MC in my early stages. It's helped me from the performative side.
You grew up in Orange County. How did you see L.A. from that purview?
My version of L.A. was the great escape. Orange County was boring, there was nothing going on. We called it "behind the Orange Curtain," and on the weekends I'd be heading up to L.A. with a carful of friends to get into whatever underground hip-hop was going on. Even back then, the rave scene was booking a lot of hip-hop artists. We just got cultured. We learned a lot. It was my stomping grounds as soon as I got my driver's license.
What sort of cultural influences color your perception of music?
Growing up listening to soca, merengue, salsa, and calypso, I had exposure to rhythms that you don't necessarily hear in contemporary pop music. Understanding the energy and emotion that goes into Latin music and Caribbean music informs the way that I make music nowadays.
Is there an absence of class and soul in music today?
I think there is -- in commercial music. There are a lot of cheap renditions and mimicry that don't have class or soul. It's watered down, put on the shelf to sell. I think that's really unfortunate, when people want pure, honest art. Don't get me wrong -- I signed a contract. I'm in the ring. My gloves are on. If I didn't want to be part of the business, I would have done what I had done 10 years prior: stayed home in my bedroom, made music and found a job.
It wasn't lost on fans of the song "Wake Me Up" that Avicii didn't thank you at the American Music Awards when he won favorite Electronic Dance Music Artist. Do you feel you haven't gotten enough credit for the hit?
No. It's fine. I enjoy kind of being the mystery man behind the song. It's paid off for me in really beneficial ways. People are recognizing the strength of my songwriting. I have a lot of fans that are kind of upset, though. They're tweeting about it. But, you know, I think of it, like, if people recognize me for it, that's great. If not, there's only one person who can sing that song like that.
Do you miss the days when nobody knew who you were?
No way. I have two goals in the music business. One is the songwriting hall of fame. All of my heroes are there. That's what will make me feel like I accomplished something in this field. The other is to match or exceed Michael Jackson's charitable giving. If I can do that, I know that I've built my career in a way that has meant something. That's why I named my band The Grand Scheme. My master plan is to create positive social change.
On that subject, tell us about your involvement with Malaria No More.
I really believe in their cause. They invited me to Ghana to see firsthand how malaria is affecting folks. In Ghana, and a lot of wet and jungly areas, they have to reorganize the infrastructure toward avoiding standing water and mosquitos.
You recently signed with Interscope. When can we expect new music?
In spring 2014. The album is called Lift Your Spirit and will include songs from the EP and a few more that I think are really special.