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Pressing play on Miles: From An Interlude Called Life, the new project from Los Angeles producer-rapper duo Blu & Exile, is like catching up with old friends after a long time apart. Some of that is due to the nostalgic nature of Exile’s warm, jazzy beats. The rest can be attributed to the autobiographical cut of Blu’s earnest, spiritual rhymes.
Songs like “The Feeling” featuring Jacinto Rhines, “Dear Lord” featuring Jimetta Rose, and “To The Fall, But Not Forgotten” draw sketches of the eight years between this project and their last, 2012’s Give Me My Flowers While I Can Still Smell Them, yet with a more electric chemistry between the rapper and producer, as on their seminal 2007 debut, Below The Heavens.
Both readily admit that this alchemy was less easy to capture than they thought it might be, despite the fact that they’ve collaborated and remained friends since. Exile says that they had to rebuild their “trust” in one another as partners, finding their footing in shoes that have changed sizes and styles many times in the years since their groundbreaking debut.
With the inclusion of fellow longtime collaborators Aloe Blacc, who once performed in a duo of his own with Exile called Emanon, and Miguel, who grew up with Blu in the Los Angeles area city of San Pedro, Miles feels like a family reunion as well. Other members of their colorful tribe to appear here include Cashus King, Choosey, Dag Savage, and Fashawn, while LA underground rap elder statesman Aceyalone also brings fresh blood to the proceedings.
This interview is something of a family reunion for Blu, Exile, and I as well. With a personal and working relationship that goes back to their first few shows as a group, plenty of our conversation is taken up just by catching up — yes, Blu’s returned to Pedro, no, I moved out of Compton, and Exile could only take about 15 minutes of Hamilton — but soon, a rhythm is established, just like on Miles. We find ourselves deep in discussion about lessons we’ve learned from time apart, how much work goes into finding your way back together, and how Blu remains one of hip-hop’s premiere – if underrated — rappers and storytellers, 13 years after descending from the heavens.
How in the hell are you guys getting through this quarantine? Because I know that as independent artists, that affects things financially, artistically. What have you guys been doing both personally and professionally to keep it going?
Blu: I’ve been working. I’ve been trying to work, trying to write, you know what I mean? But other than that, unemployment, bro.
Exile: Yeah. I mean the only thing that’s different is women and going out to the bars, and missing tours and going to the beach whenever I want. But I’m still hitting the beach, you know, I’m wearing my mask. Maintaining, just need to find a sponsorship so we could still kind of get some money that could cover what we would make on tours and still give the people somewhat of a live experience.
Man. I’m also just thankful for, when this first happened it felt a lot more real. We’re a lot more used to it now, but when it first happened, it really made me appreciate the relationships I have with these humans. It’s such a gift, and it’s something that we take for granted. It just put it in a perspective where I wouldn’t want to take these things for granted anymore.
Blu: It brought me closer to my family.
I want to know more about this trap album that almost happened. What happened there? Why did you guys want to make a trap album and what happened to it?
Exile: Basically, I made all kinds of different beats and always have, and even like back in the Below The Heaven Days I would make like, you know, I guess back then we call them bounce beats, you know.
Blu: Double-time beats.
Exile: Double-time beats. I had a beat with a sample in it and then at the end it goes into double time. I also did a flip of Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man.” And it flipped at the end. So, you know, I’d always experiment with stuff. Even electronic stuff that’s not even “trap” also. But around this time I just went through a few runs of a beat phase, just bouncy, trap, electronic beats. And I just like to show Blu beats that I’m working on. I know that he loves electronic stuff, too. I was showing him the stuff and I didn’t really expect it to get back like urges. But yeah, he did, he rapped over the beat.
Blu: The trap album is way loud, bro. It’s too loud.
Exile: That’s a good way to put it. You know, it was Blu just experimenting with what he can do. And I think it could work as an alias or something like Blu’s Dr. Octagon record or something, but it wasn’t answering the call to…
Blu: An angle for the return. It wasn’t answering the call of the return.
And then you guys did return like you had never left. I know you guys said you were working on the chemistry at first, trying to get back into the groove. So Exile, what’s something that you learned about yourself and then what’s something that you learned about Blu while you were technically on hiatus and then when you started working back better again?
Exile: I think we had a lot of life happen in between from Below The Heavens until now. My mother passed, you know…
Blu: Both my grandmothers — my grandmother and my great grandmother — passed.
Exile: Our life was living. It was going and lots of shit was happening. We were different people in the between time. And I think at some point we may have even lost faith in each other to some degree. And even though it didn’t affect us working with each other, it definitely made it so we worked differently. I think what I learned from this is to just be patient with people and communicate what you want. And I think that’s what I did — and we did, in a sense — to be able to work with each other. In a similar chemistry that we had in the past to make it work again full throttle, full force.
Blu, I think what struck me on this was, I’ve seen your writing process and I know how you get inspiration for individual bars. I’ve seen how it works. But what I don’t know is, is that it’s almost been 20 years we’ve known each other, you have maintained the same level of hunger for this thing that many, many, many of our peers lost. How do you maintain that level of motivation? That level of still caring about each individual line, like the way you do?
Blu: It’s the people, it’s the fans. It’s the love. The love that I received, man. I try to give back and I’ve received so much love that I absorbed.
Exile: If I may, I think it has to do with you being a fan yourself, Blu.
Blu: Yeah. And I’m a huge fan of the music too, man. That is my whole M.O. If you ask who am I as a rapper, I am first a fan. I’m a reflection of hip-hop. Blu like the ocean, is like the sky is a reflection of the ocean. You know what I mean? I’m just like hip-hop. I just reflect everything I’ve learned from hip-hop.
With Miles, I’ve felt like it was a happy medium where I could feel like a fan and I could feel like your guys’ bro who grew up with you guys, and seeing two names on that tracklist made this huge smile come across my face. You know what two names I’m going to go off on because that was how I encountered both of you guys. I encountered Exile through a mixtape that had an Emanon song on it. Ex, if you could sum up the feeling of working with Aloe Blacc again in just one word, what would that word be and why?
Blu: You always work with Aloe.
Exile: There’s just no question about it. It was just perfect. I know with his range, he can do anything. And I knew he could tap in on that African vibe [on “African Dream”] and he did his thing and it wouldn’t be right to not have him on the album.
Blu, same question. You and Miguel, I know you guys go all the way back. I met you because of Miguel. What does it mean to you to have him come back and be on a record with you and Exile again like it was 2005 all over again?
Blu: One word: everything. It was like sealing the deal. It made everything worth everything.
When you look at those guys’ career, arts, and their talent and what’s happened for them, what does that make you guys think about?
Blu: I mean, yeah, we didn’t spark things for years off of those joints, but it was definitely like, you know, we helped lay down some of those milestones.
I noticed that you guys get so much love for Below The Heavens, but almost nobody ever mentions Give Me My Flowers While I Can Still Smell Them. And it’s crazy because that’s the entire thesis of that album title: “Hey, notice this when it exists in front of you.” And even now people are talking about it as a reunion to the Below The Heavens days. What are you guys’ impression on that?
Exile: Below The Heavens had high art, but it also has just like lots of digestible stuff.
Blu: We actually worked together on Below The Heavens. Below The Heavens was done over the span of two years. Flowers was done over the span of like a couple of weeks.
Exile: Blu was a different person and he was even on a more higher level of art [on Flowers], but also just like spirituality. Man, he just saw the world differently and I think it really comes across. I think that album, Flowers, is at a higher level of artistry. At least for Blu’s sake, if not my own. The song, “The Seasons,” it might be one of my favorite songs he’s ever made. He just taps in. It feels like he kept tapping in with the ancient ancestors and just like…
Giving us bars.
Exile: He wasn’t giving those simple bars for an average hip-hop fan.
Right, he was giving those “you got to sit there with a calculator and figure it out” bars.
Exile: He’s like, “I just shot like a whole tribe of ghosts through your brain.”
Blu: You know, I think it just may have went over people’s heads, but I think the people who got it, some of them say that they like it better than Below The Heavens, you know? There’s a lot of Flowers fans out there. Hopefully, some Miles fans soon, too.
Miles: From An Interlude Called Life is out now through Dirty Science Records. Get it here.