Has there ever been an era in music where everything didn’t sound the same? That’s how it goes, right? A sound strikes hot, it becomes the trend, then the industry follows suit. Bilal is unique in this context. Very few artists drop music that sounds like nothing else at the time of its release – but Bilal does. Listen to 2010’s Airtight’s Revenge and try to finger its 2010 twin. You can’t do it. Of course it contained many predecessors and contemporary strands in its DNA. As a composite, however, Airtight was a one-of-a-kind. It wasn’t R&B. It wasn’t soul. It wasn’t electronica. It wasn’t world music. It wasn’t hip-hop. It wasn’t jazz or gospel or blues. It was all of that. And it was cold.
Folks took notice, too. Last year – as far as accolades – was a good one for Bilal. He earned two 2011 Grammy nominations. One for “Little Ones,” his compelling ode to his autistic son and another for “All Matter” – not the one off Airtight, but his collaboration with jazz pianist Robert Glasper. For a man that didn’t drop an official release in almost 10 years, it was quite the return.
Bilal took some time out from creating and rehearsing for the summer’s festival circuit to catch up with XXLMag.com on a range of topics. —Vincent Thomas
XXLMag.com: I know you probably get tired of people asking you this, but, almost a decade passed between 1st Born Second and Airtight’s Revenge. Now, of course plenty of us got our hands on Love 4 Sale which never made it to shelves, so to speak, but, give us an idea of what was going for most of the last decade.
Bilal: Just that [laughs]. I was making music and it was getting bootlegged. That was basically what was happening.
Well at what point did you start working on Airtight in earnest? Because it sounds nothing like Love 4 Sale.
Around 2008. Yeah, about then. That’s when I started creating the music for it.
What accounts for the stylistic and sonic change?
Well, with me it has to do a lot with what I’m checking out at the time. And also what’s going on in my life when I’m creating. So it’s never going to sound like what I’ve done previously, because I’m going to be in a different place, you know? Creatively, I mean. And then we go in and just start playing. It’s like jazz, we improvise – like a Led Zeppelin show or something.
Speaking of shows, I’ve gotten a chance to check you since you dropped Airtight and your show is pretty free form. One night will be different from the next I assume, because of how much you and the band rely on that improvisation. But I always notice a few folks that are taken aback, at first…like it’s not what they were expecting, at all. Does that frustrate you?
Not really. I mean, sometimes I’ll get a heckler, you know? Someone in the front like, “Ahhhhh, man! Play ‘Soul Sista” or, “Play my song!” But we just ignore them muthafuckas! [Laughs] Because, by the end of the show we’ve won them over. It’s just takes some time. It’ll take them to, like, the fourth song and, by then, they understand that it’s an experience.
What wins them over?
They just start to get it. They start recognizing that we’re just up there flowing and improvising and eventually we win them over with the creativity.
What do you think about some of this so-called expansive R&B music that’s starting to pop up now, specifically by some of the younger generation? Like, for instance, The Weekend is getting a lot of traction lately. Are you down?
What are they called? The Weekend? I’ve never heard of them. Man, I’m really just into my own shit, because I like to keep my sound my own. So I don’t really keep up with a lot of the new music. But I’ll check them out now. I check out stuff people put me on to. It’s not like I walk around, like, “Man, fuck that young shit!” I check it out, but I kind of live in my own world. I didn’t come up in the information age where I know how to surf through shit on the net and find stuff. Plus, I’m kind of just in my own head.
But I know you check stuff out, because you can hear so many influences in your music. Like, what do you listen to?
Man, I really dig a lot of the old shit. Classical, jazz. I like electronic music. One of my main groups I’ve been listening to a lot lately is Steely Dan – their older work. I love the way they blended R&B with jazz. They gave it this edge that I try to give my music.
What about contemporary artists? You listening to any new hip-hop?
Man, I’m not as up on it as I used to be. I mean, let me see, I heard Kid Cudi’s new album, Lupe’s new album. I liked those. Kanye’s album was dope. And this new culture joint – I forget their names. [Editor's Note: Bilal is speaking of Odd Future.] But man, they’re some young kids and there’s like a dozen of them muthafuckas. They’re like on some new Wu-Tang shit. And they’re dope. I was hanging out with J*Davey the other night and they put me on to them.
J*Davey is one of the dopest new artists.
Aw, man. I love what they’ve been doing. They’re like my favorite new group. They inspire me.
And finally, man. What are your recollections about that Philly soul scene of early last decade? It was like a Philly soul renaissance. Do you miss it?
I do, man. That was so fun. Just actually going out and playing and shit. Just trying your shit out on the audience instead of holed up at home, playing it on a laptop. New cats back then would actually go out and fight to get on stage and do their shit. A lot of freestyle battles. It reminded me of what the bebop era was probably like. Philly had a real community vibe back then. It was a great time.