7 Years Ago Today, Blu & Exile Released Below The Heavens & Changed The Game. AFH Celebrates The Back-story & Impact With Exile (Food For Thought Interview)
Seven years ago today, the Hip-Hop faithful was formally introduced to an obscure assemblage of 15 tracks, constructed by an equally arcane Los Angeles rooted duo, Blu & Exile, that over the subsequent years from its unveiling, would prove to be one of the most compelling and dynamic collections of Rap music ever amassed. While both the budding producer, Exile, and the unprocessed MC, Blu, had preceding musical ventures within their developing careers, the cultivation of their artistic deftness had yet to manifest into the realm of prosperity that they would attain with the release of their first ever collaboration, Below The Heavens.
Below The Heavens is an album entrenched with colossal purpose and conviction. An impeccable matrimony of soul-soaked production and profoundly sincere lyrical composition, rich in unfiltered perspective, lending guidance to the dispirited wanderer, compassion to the conflicting lover, reassurance to the reflective intellectual, and above all else, unwavering faith to the hopeful dreamer.
We caught up with the musical visionary and ingenious architect behind Below The Heavens, producer extraordinaire, Exile, whose birth name is Aleksander Manfredi, and talked in detail about the inception of his and Blu’s friendship, the creative process that went in to the construction of the timeless album, the concepts that were conveyed through their musical expressionism, the standard they set for themselves by attaining such achievement with this project, any impending projects between the two, and ultimately, why Exile concludes Below The Heavens has maintained extensive relevance since its release.
Ambrosia For Heads: Exile, you met Blu through Aloe Blacc, when you and Aloe were creating music during the initial Emanon days. Can you elaborate on that a bit. What year was that, and how did the actual meeting between you and Blu transpire?
Exile: It was in the early 2000s, and Aloe [Blacc] and I were trying to figure out what we were going to do with our music and how to properly distribute it. We were putting it out on our own at that point. Some friends of ours from a group called The Science Project were starting a label with Sony Red at the time. They were trying to get us on board, and they were working with Miguel at that time, and they were telling us about this kid named Blu and had really good things to say about him. So basically Aloe had met him first and then invited me out to check him out at a show. We went to the show, and then Blu and I ended up chopping it up after the show, having drinks and shit. He expressed that he was already a big fan of mine and Aloe’s work. So we really just hit it off that night and started to build from there.
Ambrosia For Heads: So you guys started spending time around each other and connected from a musical standpoint. Did you just mutually decide that you needed to work on an album together, and basically hit the studio and get to work?
Exile: Yeah, I started working with him and we made some songs that we were both happy with, so Aloe and I started bringing him up to perform those tracks with us at our shows. We also had him doing some hype-man and crowd hyping shit along with us. At the same time, we were just always working on music and figuring out what direction him and I wanted to go and how to properly package him. I had already finished the Emanon album [The Waiting Room], and I was approached about making an instrumental album, and I knew at that point that I really wanted to make my beats for rappers. The label was Sound In Color, and they wanted me to do a bunch of instrumental stuff, so I was like let me do this and work with a bunch of emcees. So I was working on that but also working on songs with Blu at the same time, and we just decided to make an album together. Really, after the first song we made together in the studio we both knew we needed to make an album together. So it was more about discussing and deciding what the album was really going to be like and the sound it was going to consist of.
Ambrosia For Heads: Blu had the concept of Below The Heavens established for years prior to you guys recording it. Was that something where you first digested his vision of the album, and then applied that to the way you approached the production? Or was your creative output at that point in time already perfectly aligned with his lyrical visions.
Exile: You know, it was really just a matter of me previously hearing him rap over different kinds of beats, and then understanding what he would sound good on and what would work well for the album. Then it came down to just going and creating those beats, and trying to bring it all to life. As far as making beats because of what he had envisioned for this album, I wouldn’t say that it necessarily moved my production into a certain direction. You know though, maybe there was a couple beats that his vision did influence the way I approached the mood of the production. Really though, I just wanted to make the best possible music that would complement Blu’s lyricism and his vocal tone.
Ambrosia For Heads: You guys had 70+ tracks completed by the time your sessions for the album were done. How excruciating was the process of selecting the ideal tracks for the final product. Did you guys mostly see eye to eye on the album assemblage?
Exile: Was it 70? [Laughs] Maybe it was that many. Man, that’s a lot. Yeah we definitely saw eye to eye for the most part. There was a lot of things happening musically that we were both into and we were really trying to decide if we wanted to go in those directions as well. Not to change our sound completely, but just different trends we were listening to that could have influenced it. But for the most part we had a good amount of songs that we really wanted to fuck with. Now that I think about it though, there was definitely like one or two funny ass songs we recorded that we mutually were both like, “You know what, let’s definitely not even release this fucking shit.” [Laughs] But yeah, we definitely saw eye to eye pretty much on everything.
Ambrosia For Heads: What were those different sounds you speak of, that were potentially tempting you guys to approach the album in a different way?
Exile: You know, I guess it was like a borderline Neptunes sound we were contemplating. The whole “making hits” type approach. I think we had a song that was about like “Cars that go boom” or some shit. [Laughs] We stayed away from that, but it doesn’t hurt to experiment with different sounds.
Ambrosia For Heads: Getting into a few of AFH’s choice tracks from the album, I’ll have you give a little insight into the construction behind each of them. The first track on the album, “My World Is..,” which was actually one of the last songs recorded, is quite spellbinding in terms of the soothing sample of Joni Mitchell’s voice introducing Blu, and then quickly shifting to a heavy lyrical hand. Was that an essential intro track in regards to just showcasing Blu’s raw lyrical ability right off the jump, but also highlighting your affinity and skill set in juggling multiple genres within one individual track?
Exile: Yeah, as we were recording we really knew that we had something special, and we were basically finished, but we didn’t feel like we had a proper intro track yet. Blu had brought that Joni Mitchell sample to my attention, and I finally sat down to start making a beat including that, and it just worked out perfect. It sounded like the ideal intro track. Joni’s voice is like a real welcoming intro into Blu just coming out and hitting you in the face on some raw Hip-Hop shit. Blu started kicking his lyrics over it and when it was completed it just really felt right and made sense to start the album off with it.
Ambrosia For Heads: “So(ul) Amazing,” which is probably the track that was the main liaison in introducing unfamiliar heads to your guys sound, was also the first video made for the album. You’ve been on record saying from a scratching standpoint, this was probably your best work to date. Can you talk a little bit about the significance of that track and how important it was in building an audience and fan base?
Exile: It’s funny because Blu had originally rocked that over what we thought was a [J] Dilla beat. We had a beat CD and we were under the impression that Dilla had recorded it. And I was like, “Man, I really want to make something to this right here.” We didn’t really have a whole lot of access to Dilla at the time, but we ended up finding out that it definitely wasn’t a Dilla beat, and that someone had just thrown it in a batch of Dilla beats and tossed it online just hoping to get some credit for it. Blu ended up re-writing the first verse a little bit and writing another verse to the actual beat. And yeah, that’s definitely still my favorite scratch work of my own until this day. Going from the scratch chorus, to then transitioning into the M.O.P. “soul amazing, still blazing” sample, and then going smoothly into the Afrika Bambaataa portion. I mean, I thought that was pretty genius, if I do say so myself. [Laughs] But yeah man, that track did really feel like a classic when we were recording it, and I guess seven years later it turned out to be so.
Ambrosia For Heads: Below The Heavens is such a personal album. Essentially it’s a musical diary from both a production and lyrical standpoint. Whether it’s highlighting spiritual enlightenment, love, inspiration, hopefulness, or specifically on the track “Dancing In the Rain,” it’s laced with a lot of frustration and depression. Can you talk about that mood on that track a bit?
Exile: That actually happened to be an older beat of mine that I had in the cut. We were probably about a quarter of the way through recording the album at that time, and I remember way earlier before that Blu had mentioned he had an idea that was kind of “on some Emanon shit.” That’s how he would explain it, “I got a cool little Emanon type song for that beat.” And you know we kept on making the album and truthfully, I forgot about him saying that. Then somehow it just came up in conversation again. So Blu ended up recording it and my reaction was instantly just like “Motherfucker! Why didn’t we record this a long time ago? This shit is fucking insane!” It was like one of those tears of joy moments. [Laughs] I mean, it was something he had in the cut that he never recorded, and it ended up being actually one of my favorites on the album, and probably the fans’, too.
Ambrosia For Heads: With it being such a sentimentally driven album, does the production become significantly more difficult in trying to accurately highlight the roller-coaster of emotions throughout it? If so, what are those the hurdles you face when having to accompany such a wide array of lyrical emotion?
Exile: It’s really tough to say, man. You know, I think it’s definitely possible that I would make the music first and then it would quite possibly draw those certain emotions out of Blu. I mean, I wouldn’t say that I was making something knowing that it was going to be a certain type of album. I think I was making beats with him in mind, and then the beats would cause Blu to feel a certain way, which allowed him to revisit these life stories and experiences he was familiar with. To be honest, I hadn’t previously heard any of those stories musically from Blu until I eventually heard them over my beats.
Ambrosia For Heads: So really, the certain sounds you were creating were extracting a deeply emotional reaction from Blu. It was essentially just a perfect marriage at that specific point in time?
Exile: Yeah, and I’m definitely the type of cat to encourage that type of emotion at the same time. I would mention to him to be personable and to come from his heart. Not that he wouldn’t have done that anyways, and I’m not trying to take the credit for it, but it was just the type of vibe we were on. You know it’s like he made this type of emotional album with me, and then he did his party album [Johnson & Jonson] with Mainframe, and did the hard shit [The Dime Piece] with C.R.A.C. Knuckles. I feel like it definitely has to do with the people you are surrounded with when you are being creative, and also the soundtrack that is being laid at the same time. So yeah, it was kind of just the perfect marriage of creativity and emotion we had at that point in time to come together and really create a classic album…I love that I’m calling my own stuff “classic” by the way. [Laughs] My shit is straight classic, homie! I’m just straight classic in everything I do. [Laughs]
Ambrosia For Heads: My favorite track on the album, “The World Is.. (Below The Heavens),“ I believe has a good story behind it, right? Where it wasn’t even made when you guys had the album finished and then you went back and created it?
Exile: Yeah, we had actually made that song to another beat, and I was like “I really don’t want this on the album.” It just sounded like a Kanye [West] beat or something. So I was like “I’m not fucking with that.” Then we re-did it and it just ended up sounding way doper and being a perfect last track for the album. It was one of those like two-seconds-on-the-buzzer-type things where we got it done last minute, and it ended up fitting perfectly at the end of the album.
Ambrosia For Heads: Really, that track is the most vital record on the LP in terms of explaining the whole concept of the album and what the phrase “Below The Heavens” really means, correct?
Exile: Definitely, man. It’s kind of based on a whole philosophy Blu had. I remember him talking about the concept of being able to create your own Heaven based on your own ideas. The song is almost like telling the listener, “Why not believe that this is there for you, you know?” Like, “As long as you believe in your own ideas, it becomes reality.” You know, in a sense it’s young philosophy on his spirituality. It’s not like he was reading all of these different spiritual or philosophy books back then, you know? It wasn’t tainted at all, which I think is special and holds a lot of beauty to it. It was just very raw and transparent. Like who cares if the philosophy or concept of the album was inaccurate to anyone else. It just is what it is, and I think it’s golden stuff.
Ambrosia For Heads: Something that happens a lot in music, is that when a collaboration’s initial album is received so well, there tends to be this bar set extremely high where fans end up unfairly comparing any subsequent project released from either party, to that inaugural release. The unreasonable bar essentially limits a consumer’s ability to appreciate an artist’s progression throughout their career. Do you see that you deal with that in any facet? Where fans are so enthusiastic about Below the Heavens, that it limits their capacity to appreciate your various projects, if it’s not “another album with Blu”?
Exile: I think Blu probably suffers form this a lot more than I do. I know people constantly compare his other records to Below The Heavens, and they definitely hold that bar over him. I’m sure that’s hard for him to deal with, but he just goes through with it. You know, each one of Blu’s projects is so fucking different, and I definitely applaud him for that. Although at the same time, I personally would have likely kept doing something that felt comparable to the approach on Below The Heavens. But I do definitely commend him for doing his own thing. Especially on our second album together, Give Me My Flowers While I Can Still Smell Them. That album is way more chill. It’s kind has like a De La Soul Buhloone Mindstate type of vibe to it. That’s fine though, because that really what he wanted to do.
Ambrosia For Heads: So do you think he is more susceptible to that unfair comparison simply because lyricism in general is more vulnerable to being dissected than production might be?
Exile: Yeah, but then also at the same time, when we made Below The Heavens, I definitely had more control over where the album went because he was still fresh, and he wasn’t really “Blu” yet. So you know, I had more say in the direction of the album back then, whereas on our second album, I let him rock with his vision a lot more. I didn’t really try and turn it a different way, and he was more in control over that. He was the one who essentially picked all of the beats for Give Me My Flowers While I Can Still Smell Them, so if people want to be mad that it wasn’t a similar sound as the Below The Heavens, it’s not my fault! [Laughs] I don’t hold that guilt inside of me. I’m like, “Yo, Blu picked these beats so the pressure is off me!” [Laughs] Let me be clear though, I love Give Me My Flowers While I Can Still Smell Them. It’s such a laid back album, and perfect to ride out and smoke to and get lost in. Sometimes it’s nice when you get lost in a record when it maintains a similar chill vibe throughout it, whereas Below The Heavens was full of peaks and valleys. Our second album is valley’d out, but I still love it.
Ambrosia For Heads: Do you personally feel the above mentioned pressure to maintain a certain type of production because of what your fans may see as your best work, or do you really not give a shit?
Exile: Yeah, I don’t really feel that pressure or give a shit. Fuck it, you know? Maybe I feel that pressure more so when I’m working with other emcees and simply just trying to get the same appreciation for the projects that I’m currently doing as I did on previous ones. But when it comes to trying to maintain a sound or certain type of production because that’s what people see as my best work though, no I don’t really give a shit. I’m always going to do what I think sounds best for the certain project I’m working on.
Ambrosia For Heads: The chemistry between Blu and yourself will undeniably always be present, and that specific sound you guys manifest together will always be desired by fans of both of yours. Is working together on future projects something that is essentially just a revolving door of possibility?
Exile: We definitely talk about what we want our next album to sound like. I do have other projects I’m working on right now, and while I’m doing that, he ends up picking up other projects, too. Blu is a hard fucking worker, man. He is constantly working on something. He just finished an album with MED, and then one with Bombay, and has already started another album already. It’s crazy. We have been working on some shit and we have some stuff in the works already, but I think it’s more for like a Dirty Science type album. He’s probably going to work on another solo album first, which will likely consist of mixed production, but yeah, I’m sure we will make another album together at some point. We’ll always have that creative desire to work with each other.
Ambrosia For Heads: You spoke about some projects you’re currently working on. I know the Dag Savage project was recently released, and you’re currently working on a separate project with an emcee named Choosey. Anything else that the heads can expect from you in the near future?
Exile: Yeah, so I’m just finishing up the Fashawn [The Ecology] album right now, and as you mentioned, I’m working with a new artist named Choosey, too. We recently released a Denmark Vessey project [Cult Classic], and then I’m also pumped as we’re about halfway done with the Crew album as well. And, I’m going to be releasing some new Emanon shit, too, which will be dope. I’m not touring right now, just in the studio getting work done.
Ambrosia For Heads: Great, man. Really looking forward to all of that. Finally in concluding all of this and ending on your overall insights on Below The Heavens, let’s say there’s someone who wasn’t very familiar with Hip-Hop, and was about to embark on a full listen of Below The Heavens. If you had to explain to them before they indulged, why this album is so important, and why it made such an impact and resonated with so many people across the globe, how would you articulate that? What components of Below The Heavens allowed it to hold so much significance throughout the past seven years?
Exile: Man, I feel like it just tells a story of a kid who has been through enough at the time to be able to confidently tell you a detailed story, but at the same time that kid hasn’t been so jaded or tainted by the things that can hurt you in life. He is still bright and shining with youth and with knowledge. Where Blu was at in his life was really the perfect time to be able to tell that story, which gives the listener something to identify with. But it is also attractive because of all the hopefulness and all of the brightness of optimism that is resonating through the lyricism, you know? You get the best of both worlds. You get the best of relating to the pain, but also just the vibrations of a fresh mind and a fresh artist. It’s just a very personal and enlightening collection of lyricism that can apply to everyone who listens to it, no matter where they are from.
Ambrosia For Heads: That’s interesting that when explaining why the album has maintained so much relevance over time, that you don’t mention the production at all.
Exile: You know, I’m just a background. But I happen to be a really dope background. [Laughs] The beats were aligned just right for Blu to guide his own mind to create these gems that were in his head, you know? I definitely like to think of myself as one of the guiding hands throughout the whole process of Blu using this album to figure out who he was and what was one hundred percent himself. The planets were just perfectly aligned.
Ambrosia For Heads: Exile, thank you for taking the time to chat with us, man. It’s appreciated, and we wish you continued success in all of the various musical endeavors you have on your plate.
Exile: Thank you man, I appreciate it, too.