Bilal Interview \\ “I’ve never conformed. My whole shit is to do what I feel.”

Sought after singer Bilal spoke to Thomas Rees about sleeping under Questlove’s dining room table, working with J Dilla and Kendrick Lamar and speaking truth to power. 

“This is one of them songs that make me spill out all my guts,” sings Bilal Oliver, as the cosy opening chords of Sometimes are drowned out by cheers of recognition. Over the next few minutes he makes good on his promise, recasting the soulful hit as an emotional rollercoaster that peaks with impassioned gospel testifying, and even injecting a little humour, losing his cool on the line “I wish these eyes wasn’t so red” and giggling the final few words. The crowd at London’s Jazz Cafe love him for it.

Ever since the release of his debut album, 1st Born Second in 2001, Bilal has been known for his freewheeling, richly expressive performances. Along with his enviable technique and deep musical understanding they have made him one of the most sought after vocalists of the last two decades. His list of collaborators reads like a who’s who of R&B, hip hop and jazz.

In person, Bilal is every bit the eccentric vocal genius he plays on stage. I find him hanging out in the green room with his rhythm section before the gig, punctuating anecdotes with peals of hysterical laughter and toying with a lighter, holding the flame to a nub of palo santo that fills the room with tendrils of fragrant smoke. He wears a red beanie, short lilac jeans and a black cardigan covered in runic smudges of gold. Together with his sleeve of bracelets and tattoos and the massive chunk of crystal that hangs around his neck, his look is somewhere between Sun Ra acolyte, Brooklyn hipster and Indian Guru.

Bilal’s music is just as eclectic. He’s always rejected the term “neo soul”, deeming it too restrictive, and listening to his back catalogue you can hear his point. His five albums to date might have a core of soulful funk and hip hop, but there are strong influences from gospel, minimalist electronica and gritty punk rock in there as well—not to mention jazz. Sometimes those jazz influences are obvious. 1st Born Second is sprinkled with harmonically intricate scat solos and splintered fragments of free jazz piano. At other moments it’s more a question of attitude and approach. Live, Bilal loves to experiment. He stretches lyrics, phrases across the beat and plays games with his band, leading wild swings in intensity and sudden switches of groove. I’m not all that surprised when he says: “I identify as a jazz musician first.

“That’s the way I translate the music in my head,” he explains. “When I listen to stuff I break it down in jazz terms or jazz theory. That’s the way I analyse. And this band is kind of like a jazz band—we’re just making shit up.”

Wherever possible though, he’d rather not think about labels at all. Today’s genre-fluid musical landscape suits him perfectly. “I’ve never really conformed in anything I’ve done,” he says with a shrug. “My whole shit is to get away [from genre] and do what I feel.”

Occasionally, this uncompromising approach has landed him in trouble. 1st Born Second struck a perfect balance between populist and experimental, selling over 300,000 copies and winning rave reviews. But Bilal got into an argument with his label, Interscope, about the direction of self-produced follow-up Love For Sale.  It ended up being leaked on the internet in 2006 causing the label to drop him, after which Bilal briefly quit the music business, before coming back as an independent.

Looking back now he’s glad it happened, though he still has moments of doubt. “When you’re independent you’re not a slave to the man anymore, but you’re still a slave to this fuckin’ system,” he says, dejectedly. “There’s no way to get out of that, you know what I’m saying? It was a lot easier when you had a cushion—now it’s like raw ass to the fuckin’ rubber—but it’s good cos you can go where you want to go and do what you want to do.

Bilal grew up in Philadelphia and though he doesn’t remember when he first became interested in music, he knows he’s been getting up to sing in front of people since he was four years old. His mother encouraged him to sing in church, while his father used to take him to the city’s jazz clubs. He went on to study jazz at The New School in New York City, one of the top conservatoires in the US. He can also sing opera in seven languages. Without that technical grounding he wouldn’t be able achieve the myriad sounds and textures—the angelic falsetto, raw-throated growls and dizzying leaps—that make him so in demand as a vocalist. The training informs his work “through osmosis,” he says, his voice sliding effortlessly into booming RP. “It’s not that I’m like: ‘And this would be a great place to insert some opera shit…’” The room collapses into fits of giggles. “It more, kind of, comes out. I listen back and I’m like: ‘Oh, some opera chops showed up.’”

After college, Bilal got his big break when he started working with the Soulquarians, a legendary collective comprising (among others) Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, Common, revered hip hop producer J Dilla, and drummer Amir “Questlove” Thompson of The Roots.

“Back in high school and in college I used to sleep on Amir’s floor, underneath his dining room table,” he says, with another hysterical laugh. “Amir used to have a house in South Philly and it was pretty much open to any musician that he thought was dope enough. He never locked his house. He would go out of town and leave it open to whoever. He had all the instruments set up in the living room so it was like an endless jam session.”

Not long after that, Thompson got Bilal a gig as a backing vocalist in D’Angelo’s band, around the same time that the neo soul star was recording his magnum opus, Voodoo. He’s since featured on dozens of other albums, working with everyone from Beyoncé and Solange Knowles to Jay Z, Dr Dre, Mos Def, Robert Glasper, trumpeter Terence Blanchard and drummers Chris Dave and Otis Brown III.

Is there anyone he’d still like to hook up with? Is there anyone left? “Sheesh. Wow… I’d fuck with Nai Palm,” he says after a pause, name checking the Hiatus Kaiyote bandleader. “We talk about it a lot.” When I enquire about his favourite collaborations though, he doesn’t even hesitate: “J Dilla.”

“What was that like?” I ask.

“Dope. Just… dope,” he says, with a grin. “Dilla was boundaryless. Every time he approached it, it was different. He had no set way of doing anything so there were no real rules. It was just everything on the fly. It was amazing. A real master.”

J Dilla and the art of musical translation

Working on Kendrick Lamar’s landmark album To Pimp A Butterfly was another highlight. “Kendrick kind of reminds me of the same kind of concepts I came out of,” he says. “The soul, the funk, the poetry. It’s all nostalgic. When I was working with him I felt like I was working with Common or Black Thought. His consciousness. His understanding of the music. I felt like I was working with a jazz musician. He really is the next level of the culture. He has that same understanding that all of the greats that I’ve worked with have, so it was easy. We was in there just making shit. Throwing shit up on the wall and watching it form.”

Bilal won his first Grammy for a feature on These Walls, a sex jam with a dark twist, but he features on several other tracks and even provides the raspy voice of Lamar’s grandmother on Institutionalized, which fits with the theatrical streak in his work. Both on stage and in person he loves doing impressions and playing different characters. Not long after his RP opera gag, we get onto his process as a producer versus as a vocalist. “Well I wear different clothes and I name myself a different name,” he giggles. “Yeah, when I go into the studio I call myself Pepe Le Joel.” He trills the name with mock pretension and his band are in stitches again.

He can use that same theatricality to hard-hitting effect though. Last year, The Roots brought him in to sing the vocal on It Ain’t Fair, for the soundtrack to Kathryn Bigelow‘s Detroit, a film about the city’s notorious 1967 Algiers Motel incident, in which three black teenagers were brutally beaten and killed by Michigan police. Bilal was originally only supposed to demo it for another singer, but his interpretation of the politically-charged lyric was so passionate and raw that Thompson insisted he do the feature.

“It’s what I was put on this planet to do: speak truth to power, bro,” he says, when we discuss the political content of his own songs, which frequently tackle social injustice and inequality. “It’s all about talking to the talking heads.”

On Home, a reggae spiritual track from his debut album, he paraphrases the poet Langston Hughes, imagining a better world for his people; one in which the streets are paved with gold. Money Over Love, from his latest album, 2015’s In Another Life, is an ironic hymn to avarice with a rapid fire verse from Kendrick Lamar.

“One of the biggest drives is to speak to the times,” he says. “That’s the charge of a true artist, I feel. You put that shit on and you go where that shit was made. You go right back to what the consciousness of the people was, where we were and how we’ve grown. It’s like a photograph with sound.”

In a recent interview for the podcast Song Exploder, Thompson says Bilal is “beyond a singer”, hailing his work as “performance art” and describing him as “your favourite musician’s favourite musician.” We can expect more art from Bilal’s new album. He’s just started work on it, he reveals, as he reignites the palo santo and watches the smoke drift across the room.

He’s also been shooting a movie. “You’ll be seeing that soon,” he says, manipulating his kaleidoscopic voice once again and delivering the line “I love you” in a robotic monotone. “I’m a horrible actor,” he snorts, when he finally stops laughing. Meeting him and watching him perform, I find that hard to believe.

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EZH | Thomas Rees