Philadelphia native Bilal Oliver grew up on church gospel while also grooving to John Coltrane and Steely Dan. Throughout his decade-plus career—which includes the critically acclaimed discs 1st Born Second (2001) and Airtight’s Revenge (2011)—he’s consistently taken chances, whether rocking the mic or taking it to the stage. A Love Surreal (out tomorrow) is already being hailed as masterpiece by fans. Named in honor of surrealist painter Salvador Dalí, Bilal proves himself a true artist.
Bilal shares a few choice words with EBONY.com on Stevie Wonder, 2006’s unreleased Love for Sale, the new album and more.
On Making A Love Surreal:
“For this project, there wasn’t a big process of getting together a bunch of producers, because me and Steve McKie pretty much did the whole record ourselves—aside from one other track I did with Shafiq Husayn (‘West Side Girl’) from the Sa-Ra Creative Partners. Everything is experimentation. One of the things I got from jazz is, there are no wrong notes. It’s just the way you view it. You just keep moving forward in the flow, and if you keep your eyes open, you can see the beauty.”
On the first single, “Back to Love”:
“The label picked that, I guess, because it has the most straightforward melody on the whole project. But it also has jazz flavor to it. I tried to approach it like Weather Report would play. With ‘Back to Love,’ I did a small little demo at home, and then I bought it to the studio. Drummer Steve McKie added his thing to it. The bass player, everybody added their parts. Then after that, we were like, ‘Oh, forget it, let’s all play at the same time.’ A lot of it came from just jamming in the studio.”
On Past Live Performances:
“People might’ve thought I was on drugs or intoxicated, but that wasn’t it. I just didn’t give a f*ck, because I was looking for the art. I wanted to be out, like when John Coltrane started playing with his wife, Alice. I just wanted to rip open music with my voice.”
On Writing Lyrics:
“In my music, I speak as a reporter would. I see things and I write about it. I don’t consider myself a social activist or anything. I just make music to inspire people.”
“I never liked that term, because to me it’s just a marketing thing. I don’t know who made it up, but it was just a trendy word, and I don’t make trendy music. Look at artists overseas. They never called Amy Winehouse or Adele ‘neo-soul,’ it was just soul music. In America, record companies and critics like putting music in a box, but that’s not what I do.”
On unreleased sophomore project, Love for Sale:
“Lots of sh*t happened which caused Love for Sale not to be released. Interscope Records had their own ideas of where the music should go, but I wanted to guide my own project. I produced or co-produced a lot of [my debut] 1st Born Second, and I wanted to guide my own vision.”
On Working with Dr. Dre:
“When I signed to Interscope, Dr. Dre heard my demo and wanted to work with me. I was like, ‘Hell yeah!’ Dre loves to make music and spends hours and hours in the studio. I’m a studio rat, so it was no problem. We recorded ‘Sally’ in 24 hours. And Scott Storch, who I first met through Questlove in Philly, also worked on the track.”
On Stevie Wonder:
“Moogs [synthesizers], then jumping on the drums. This was before Prince. Stevie as a producer and a writer was just so important to the fabric of our music. He wrote songs for so many people, turned on the radio and just heard his sound. He was really prolific and mixed a lot of jazz into his stuff. The sophistication of his music and the chord changes, his whole approach, just blew me away.”
On Sun Ra:
“One of my biggest influences though is Sun Ra. I love his approach to music and white noise by accident. He recorded a lot stuff out of his house with old school tape recorders and things. He lived in Germantown in Philadelphia and that’s where I’m from.”
“As human beings, when you break it down, it’s about passion. Passion and energy. Before even religion, we worshipped phallic symbols. I think at the core of everything is passion and love and drive. I try to use passion to speak about many things: family, work ethic, worldview and love. Passion can also turn into anger, so I just use a natural emotion to make the music.”
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He's also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.