10 Years Ago, Blu & Exile’s “Below The Heavens” Resurrected Underground Rap
Ten years ago (July 17, 2007), Blu & Exile combined forces for their Below The Heavens album. At a time when so-called “underground Hip-Hop” was sounding like a passé term, if not taken as an unintended diss, these two Southern Californians excited the culture through very straightforwardly channeling their souls on a release that went under the radars and steadily climbed upwards.
In 2007, Rawkus Records, as Heads knew it, shuttered its doors. Just a half decade removed from making hits, the beacon of the Indie Rap crop was stunted. The imprint released seven projects that year, missing the Top 200. Def Jux, Stones Throw, and ABB Records were all evolving, namely through artists that had climbed into wide recognition during the late ’90s, early 2000s boom. Aesop Rock, Sean Price and Little Brother had attracted audiences, however, the reception was less welcoming for artists like Rob Sonic, Panacea, and Median, no matter the artistic merits. If new artists were getting attention in Rap, it was hit-makers such as Soulja Boy, Hurricane Chris, Plies, Lil Mama, and the like. As far as the industry was concerned, the masses seemingly wanted catchy, not conscious.
Blu was not a new face in the City of Angels. While new to distributed wax and CDs, John Barnes III had gripped mics at important local venues. He had been courted by a Death Row Records desperate for a rebound artist, as well as Nas/Puff Daddy hit producer Megahertz. As neither apparently met what Blu was looking for, he linked with producer/DJ Exile. Following two Emanon LPs, the Dirty Science producer boasted major label credits for Mobb Deep, Jurassic 5, and Kardinal Offishall.
That said, when Below The Heavens dropped on Sound In Color, there was no groundswell reaction. Unlike with Little Brother’s arrival, no veterans told the masses that this was must-hear music. There weren’t a plethora of videos, or feature-driven remixes waiting in the wings. In a year when sizzle was everything, B.T.H. was the anti-2007 album. It just tried, executed, and was out there.
Blu and Exile’s release was a word of mouth album, something people heard about it, above an ad, a review, or radio airplay. 2007 yielded great albums (Pharoahe Monch’s Desire, Kanye West’s Graduation, and JAY-Z’s American Gangster), but it was not a great year for the lean-back experience. The aforementioned new crop of rappers pushed singles that made a body of work seem antiquated; “artistic” suddenly gave way to “relevant.” More than ever before in Rap, people were talking about numbers.
Blu and Exile changed that, at least the part about albums. In the era where buying albums online seemed to gain momentum, physical copies of Below The Heavens sold out, demanding additional pressings. Making matters complicated, thanks to the LP’s courageous sampling (from Joni Mitchell right into The Dells to jump things off), it was not always readily available online either. Listeners truly had to dig in the crates to find and enjoy the pair’s brand of soulful Hip-Hop.
During the emphasized information highway, Blu and Exile took the sidewalk in making Below The Heavens. When they reached their destination, and the album reached its listener, it seemed to rarely disappoint. While Rap’s ’07 narrative was about getting money, Blu rapped about big dreams, and knew that his path to them were far from guaranteed. Exile, proved he was a master at taking artists to the next level. He’d done it with Aloe Blacc, and would do it again with Fashawn two years later. No two albums sounded alike, and he found the perfect whimsical sound for Blu to be taken seriously.
Below The Heavens was a slow-burning sage stick for Hip-Hop. It reminded all who encountered it (over the years that followed) that if Hip-Hop wasn’t dead (as Nas had prematurely declared in 2006), the Underground wasn’t either. It was still worthwhile to listen to music without all the sizzle, trimmings, and built-in marketing.
Ten years later, the album’s low profile (even despite early Miguel features) is part of its nostalgia and legend. It stood out then, as it does now. As Blu and Ex’ are back in the lab once more, the world waits with expectations of more music that is simply amazin’.