Little Richard. Chuck Berry. James Brown. Marvin Gaye. Prince. Michael Jackson. These are the names of a mere handful of multi-faceted soul men whose studio recordings and live performances electrified audiences, captivated fans’ imaginations, and became widely accepted as the standard of excellence to which young artists would (or, should) aspire. Add to that list, Bilal.
Née Bilal Oliver, this Philadelphia-born musician has cultivated a loyal and diverse following that prefers its soul with a little more edge, a little more raw energy. And while Bilal has consistently delivered gorgeously crafted songs styled with healthy portions of R&B, hip-hop, rock, and funk, it’s his stage show that is truly mind-blowing. Eschewing gimmicks and schtick in favor of straight-up groove intensity, Bilal’s fiercely passionate, unrestrained, uninhibited performances are what make him stand out from his contemporaries.
Observing Bilal’s incomparable dynamism first-hand just recently–first at his performance at Oakland’s New Parish and next at Harlow’s in Sacramento–it became more than evident that, as gifted as he is as a singer, songwriter, and arranger, Bilal’s shine factor kicks up exponentially the moment he glides across the stage to the mic, and opens up his entire body in song. Whether the audience is singing along in full voice to crowd favorites from his 2001 debut 1st Born Second, 2006’s beloved underground yet unreleased Love for Sale, or his latest collection, Airtight’s Revenge (2010), a Bilal concert is, veritably, something to behold.
Just days ago Bilal dropped a mixtape, aptly titled Retrospective Of the Man Called Bilal, curated and produced by Vikter Duplaix. Perched to release his new album, A Love Surreal, just in time for Valentine’s Day 2013, the enigmatic and boundlessly energetic Bilal allowed SoulTrain.com a glimpse into his world of love, life, and spirit-shaking soul.
SoulTrain.com: For many artists, there seems to be a moment or an era during their lives that they pinpoint as the turning point, when they knew for sure that music would be their path. What was yours?
Bilal: Since I was eleven years old, I’ve wanted to do music. It wasn’t until high school that I wanted to do secular music. I grew up in a really religious household, so I only sang church music. But when I went to my dad’s house on the weekends, I used to sing a lot of Michael Jackson for my grandma. I went to a performing arts high school, and that’s where I started to get into a lot of other styles of music, like jazz, opera, and R&B.
I was a vocal major. I sang in choir and studied opera. I was in the big opera choir and the magnet choir, and also in a jazz band. Casually, I was one of the piano players in the jazz band and I got into arranging for the jazz band. High school really got me into music like that.
SoulTrain.com: Let’s talk about your approach to songwriting. Do you typically write on your own, or build a song from the ground up with other musicians?
Bilal: On this album (A Love Surreal), it was very much a collaborative effort. I write in many different ways, however the inspiration comes to me. I’ve been playing with my band for like, the last ten years, and we’ve never really done an album where it’s all the cats playing at the same time. With this album, I wanted to make a sound. With my last album, Airtight’s Revenge, the cats were involved, but it was pretty much me and the drummer in the band [who] did the whole album. Then we’d just call in different cats to overdub. This time, we got everybody in the same room, set up in a circle almost like James Brown would record, and we grooved. Sometimes I would come to the studio with a sketch idea that I came up with at home, and then we’d flesh it out there. And sometimes we would just throw ideas at each other and come up with an idea at the studio.
SoulTrain.com: Are you playing at all on the new album?
Bilal: I play on all my albums. I usually play keyboards and I usually write from the keyboard. This album was a change for me. I wrote most of the songs on guitar, so I play guitar on this album, too.
SoulTrain.com: Most of the artists I’ve interviewed for this column classify themselves as independent, although many have been on major labels at some point during their careers. And for those who’ve been on major labels, almost all of them have had…challenging experiences, to say the least. With more and more artists taking the DIY route, do you think having the backing of a major label is still necessary?
Bilal: I don’t know about everyone else, but for me, I wouldn’t be mad at a major situation if it was beneficial and they let me do what I wanted to do and kind of stay out of the way. I need that bank–that bank makes a lot of sense. A lot of people that go independent have outside people helping them and funding them, but I move with a lot of people. And a lot of times, it’s coming out of my own pocket. At the end of the day, it seems like I should be making money, but for me paying out of my pocket I’m not making much. So if I had that major label bank account that they could throw in for that tour bus or the hotels, it would be awesome! Hell yeah!
SoulTrain.com: Yours is an iconic voice, and your style tends to be rather eclectic. Still, there is this extraordinary breadth to your sound, from the more traditional R&B/neo-soul energy of 1st Born Second to the highly experimental vibe of Airtight’s Revenge. What informs your creative process when you’re preparing to record an album?
Bilal: Airtight was definitely experimental in every aspect. As far as the music was concerned, I was really not giving a f***. I wanted to stretch. That was totally independent, on a very small label, Plug Research, no real money involved. I just went bare-bones as far as the music goes. Even on topics and what I talked about…it was really geared to a man in America, and a man’s perspective on life in general. I was really trying to work out things I was thinking about–religion and the context of God and society right now, propaganda, money, my children. Few love songs, and if it was, it was dark tales, some Edgar Allen Poe-type sh**. On [the new] album, I gear it toward women. I’m talking to women on this album. It’s a lot warmer, and sensual. I’m inspired a lot by visual art. I took on Salvador Dali as my muse, and I wanted to make music that was very visual and multi-dimensional. I look at this album like a sonic art piece. Every song…I wanted it to be in a way where you could take a bath or whatever women do to relax, close your eyes and almost see or feel like you’re in a different world.
A Love Surreal is still experimental, but more accessible than Airtight.
SoulTrain.com: Earlier this week you released a new mixtape, Retrospective of the Man Called Bilal. Tell our SoulTrain.com readers about it.
Bilal: I just wanted to prepare people for this new record. There’ve been a lot of gaps in my career. Most people only know my first album. They don’t know that I was doing an album, Love for Sale, that got bootlegged. A lot of people don’t know about Airtight’s Revenge, so I just took all my past and present songs, and songs I hadn’t put out yet, and mixed everything together, to prepare people for the new album. I wanted to get people ready. Vikter found a bunch of old tunes that I forgot all about. He brought out old sh** from when I first started doing music. I’d done a few songs when I was 18, 19 with Ahmir [Thompson, aka ?uestlove] and James Poyser, and he pulled those out. I was like, ‘Who is that chic? Her voice is so…[laughs]’ That was before the cigarettes! My voice was crystal clear, like my high school voice. My little sister always messes with me, like, ‘Man, when you were younger you sounded just like me!’ Erykah Badu joked that when she heard those songs, she asked Ahmir, “Who’s this chic, man? She’s really dope!”
SoulTrain.com: Throughout your career you’ve worked with some of the mightiest figures in soul, R&B, funk, and hip-hop. Who are some artists you’d like to work with in the near future?
Bilal: I’d like to work with Flying Lotus. I’ve done a lot of stuff with Lotus, but it’s never really come full circle. We’re friends, so it’s always been me at his house hanging out, and then I have to get up and leave, so it’s a bunch of unfinished stuff. We’ve always said we’d do something together, so I’d love to do that. People call me up and I’m like, ‘Yeah! That would be dope!’
SoulTrain.com: Let’s say you were putting together the ultimate band of your dreams. Who would you pick, living or past?
Bilal: Oh my God…um…Keith Jarrett, Jaco (Pastorius) on the bass, and (Bernard) Purdie on drums with Tony Williams on drums, too. That would be awesome. I’d have Charlie Mingus come in and arrange…and of course, Miles. But he’s so temperamental, I don’t know. I’d just let him produce it!
Download Bilal’s new mixtape for free by going to his Facebook page, and follow him on Twitter @Bilal.
Rhonda Nicole is an independent singer/songwriter, lovin’ and livin’ in Oakland, CA, currently performing with San Francisco-based soul band Midtown Social. Download her EP “Nuda Veritas” on CDBaby and iTunes, check her out on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter and Instagram @wildhoneyrock.