Prior to the early aughts, the line between underground and mainstream hip-hop was drawn with a fat cap. In the mainstream, the hustler, West Coast gangster and East Coast mafioso rappers reigned supreme—while the underground was a little less discriminating. It was a home to everyone from thought-provoking, revolutionary-minded “conscious” emcees to Golden Era revivalists, verbose backpackers and intentionally off-putting horrorcore acts. With everything in between, the underground was unified in one way—its shared disdain for anything deemed commercial.
By 2007, that all changed, however. Aided by advancements in Internet technology, underground artists were able to reach more and more fans. On the flip side, the Internet also changed the way people consumed music—and some indie rap institutions failed to adapt. Furthermore, with the crossover success of artists like Eminem and Kanye West, who wouldn’t have traditionally been considered as commercially-palatable, the corporate music industry recognized that there was more room for (and money to be made from) a variety of voices in the mainstream. That year, Kanye—who had a reputation for pairing underground emcees like Talib Kweli and Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) with artists like JAY-Z and Freeway—destroyed 50 Cent in their 2007 record sales battle, arguably signifying the end of an era for both mainstream and underground hip hop alike.
At the same time, out in Cali, two other visionaries teamed up to break down barriers, themselves. Also in 2007, rapper/producer duo Blu & Exile dropped their beautifully executed debut, Below The Heavens—a unique blend of sounds and styles, void of gimmicks or musical fads. Both progressive and nostalgic, experimental yet rooted, the limited-release was propelled by Internet word of mouth and soon became a highly sought-after cult classic. Ten years and some reissues later, Blu and Exile have decided to revisit the material they created at this important epoch in hip hop-history, releasing In The Beginning: Before The Heavens. Serving as a prequel to their debut, the product of its early sessions, In The Beginning is a testament to the timelessness of true art. UGHH chopped it up with the dynamic duo to break down their decade.
Whenever you have a debut as celebrated as Below The Heavens, there will always be those fans who want a return to that sound or moment. I know you’ve said you don’t really feel that pressure when creating in the past, but is In The Beginning in any way a response to that sentiment?
Blu: Oh my God, yes! Fans always request “Below The Heavens” more than any other piece in my catalogue, and I like all my material, so it was a no-brainer for us to re-release songs from that era.
Blu says you recorded 75 songs while working on Below The Heavens, but you only had about 40 to choose from for In The Beginning, correct? Any idea where those missing tracks are? You keeping ’em on ice for the 20th Anniversary?
Exile: We’ve been trying to track down these songs for a minute. No one has the songs anymore! This was back before I had a laptop and before we had our own recording equipment, besides a four-track cassette recorder, so we didn’t really fuck with hard drives—to be able to keep [them] for ourselves. It was [all] in the hands of the label. They say [the music is] on a damaged hard drive, but I don’t believe it. They released some songs from the old sessions on a reissue of Below The Heavens, so they must have it! Diego, please give it to us! I love ya! [laughs]. We have so many more songs!
Blu: Man, there are only two people left on Earth with those songs. If we had access, I would have put [out] a couple of others we made — like “American Dreams Pt. 2” and “Searching To Find The One.”
Exile: Yup! Both songs are me and Blu going in bar-for-bar, actually. We need to find those! [laughs]. Fire!
What made you guys decide to revisit your old material? Were you just feeling nostalgic, or did you seek it out with the intention of releasing it for the anniversary? Has that been the plan for a while, or did it happen more organically?
Blu: Actually, I just recently started collecting a lot of old songs from my catalogue after my studio and hard drives were robbed. After gathering like 15, I had Exile check them—because he was actually thinking of re-releasing my first album, California Soul. That album is actually the material on ice.
Was it weird hearing all your old songs again? Was it like stepping back in time, or more like hearing ’em for the first time?
Exile: A little of both. It’s a great feeling; hearing them back and reflecting on all the work and time we spent on the music.
Blu: Man, I dig it. It was a great era for me musically, so naturally the songs from the sessions came out nice, as well. Even though they didn’t make the album, I enjoy listening to them a lot. I wish I could listen to my music a lot more, but unfortunately I do enjoy making music to feed my daughter, as well [laughs].
Blu, on “Soul Provider,” you spit a line: “The showstopper, rock spots and flow proper / No album out at Fat Beats, but still know how to pack seats with no problem.” Now Fat Beats not only carries your music, but also helps put it out. How’d it feel to listen back to that line, considering your career since?
Blu: That had to be the first song on the tape [laughs]!
Exile: Yeah, whoa, what a trip!
On “Back To Basics,” you said what you’re gonna do for Black music is “chop it up, loop it and rap to it.” Besides the obvious, what did you mean by that? What’s the message there?
Blu: That was a line dedicated to real hip-hop. Back to basics.
Exile, you told Billboard you wanted “Constellations” on the original album, but that Blu didn’t. It ended up being the first joint released off In The Beginning. Blu, why weren’t you feeling it for Below The Heavens, and what changed after revisiting it?
Blu: Originally, Miguel sang on it with his homegirl, but we only found the earlier version. I liked the song, obviously, [since] we re-released it—but originally we could only afford 15 songs on the record out of 75. So I had to be choosy and decisive, you know?
Exile: I’m glad it didn’t make the album. I think sonically it didn’t make sense for the classic.
When you guys were working on Below The Heavens, did you realize you were onto something so special, or was it just business as usual, at first? While recording, did either of you ever think, “We’re about to drop a certified classic that people will be talking about 10 plus years from now, right here?”
Blu: I was just hoping people would hear it! Our label was going out of business, at the time, and we only pressed up 3,500 CDs—and the CD just had a single ship. We didn’t [even] have money for a photo shoot or videos anymore, so the success of the album was a farfetched wish. Not to mention the complete album leaked a year before it was released. People wanted it, but I was sure it was over—as far as hitting [anyone] with a gem “out of the blue,” you know? But it made it.
I’ve heard you guys have different mentalities when it comes to recording and putting out new music. Blu, you like to drop raw, rough mixes at will, while you’ve claimed Exile is a little more methodical and calculated with it, in the past. Can either of you elaborate on this dynamic a little? Do your styles ever clash, or do you think you end up balancing each other out?
Blu: Really, I’m blessed to work with Exile. I am a fan of his production, and he is a perfectionist, so he has the will to produce artists well. I love making raw shit, and he does too, so we connect there—but most times he tosses my ideas out the window [laughs].
A lot of folks cite Kanye West beating 50 Cent in their record sales battle as the start of the decline of gangsta rap’s dominance, which ultimately helped open the doors for a lot of underground cats to get on in a major way. In turn, some consider it the end of a Golden Era for underground hip-hop. You released Below The Heavens that same year (and recorded the material for In The Beginning prior). Before then, the line between underground and commercial hip-hop was drawn and very clear, but kind of became blurred after. Where did y’all feel like y’all fit in that environment, back then?
Blu: My first album was commercial as fuck, and it had me talking to major labels like Interscope and Death Row. Then I met Exile, and his production reminded me of my favorite music: like Premier, Pete Rock, Dilla, and Hi-Tek. We did a few songs and got signed to do an album, and I already had it in mind to make a hip-hop album reminiscent of the Golden [Era]—dedicated to the underground, this time, and not the majors (since the title [was] “Below The Heavens,” which means the underground). I was also aware of artists [and labels] like Self Scientific, Little Brother, and Stones Throw, so I knew we couldn’t do no half-assed album with such great music…being made in the underground.
How about now?
Blu: Now I’m ready for the underground to drown the mainstream! Especially the West Coast underground!
What’s good with a new-new album? If y’all were to start working on a brand new project, do you think you’d approach it similarly and try to give the fans something familiar, or would you experiment with the sound next time around?
Exile: We are going to make another classic with all that we’ve learned, [throughout] the years. We’re the unsung heroes of the West! Hip-hop, we got you!
Blu: We’re gonna do a trap album [laughs].