Ambition. It’s what separated John Coltrane from horn-blowing posers, Muhammad Ali from around-the-way chumps and Philadelphia-born recording artist Bilal from most of his soulful contemporaries on the Billboard charts. Yet, that same ambition could, like Bilal, get you labeled a phony by fans and dropped from your record label, as they refused to understand the big picture of his artistic temperament.
“I have a very punk rock approach to making music,” Bilal says. “This simply means there is no one way of doing things. With my music, I’m always searching for the artful possibilities.”
Sitting in the conference room of his newest label, eOne Music, clad in jeans and sneakers, the 33-year-old has just played a few tracks from his upcoming third release A Love Surreal, which he’s premiering at World Cafe Live next week. Featuring the catchy light jazz (inspired by Weather Report) of the first single “Back to Love,” the Surreal concept began to blossom in Bilal’s brain after viewing a 2005 Salvador Dali exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
“Dali’s work, when you look at it, has many different layers; it’s almost three dimensional,” says Bilal. “I thought, Man, I’d love to make music like that.” Drawing on that visual inspiration, as well as various recordings by Heatwave, Steely Dan, Frank Sinatra and J Dilla, he collected his crew and headed to Studio Pine to record some songs.
“It’s like when Spike Lee makes a film with the same people all the time, but each movie is different,” pianist Robert Glasper explains. “Well, that’s how Bilal makes music.” As a part of Bilal’s cast of musical characters, Glasper met the singer on their first day of college in 1999 at the New School in New York City. He’s played on each of the singer’s albums, including the unreleased 2006 gem Love for Sale. On A Love Surreal, the two did a song called “Butterfly,” a duet featuring just voice and piano. “With Bilal, his ideas just get wilder. He doesn’t want to be labeled as ‘the soul guy.’ Even when we were in school, he was notorious for messing with people musically.”
Drummer, producer and engineer Steve McKie, who opened the Philly-based Studio Pine in 2008, has been down with the crew since 2004. Coming off the moderate success of his 2001 debut 1st Born Second, Bilal recruited McKie to join the crew at Electric Lady Studios in Greenwich Village. This was at the height of the Soulquarian’s heyday, led by Bilal’s homie Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, and D’Angelo, Erykah Badu and Common were also working at Hendrix’s former digs. “Before I joined his band, I was a safe musician who played in a certain ways,” says McKie, who recorded Bilal’s critically acclaimed 2010 album Airtight’s Revenge at Studio Pine. “But, after working with Bilal, I was trying to find different drum sounds, different vibes and just began experimenting much more. We’re always in the studio.”
Bilal Sayeed Oliver was raised in Germantown by a Baptist mother, who had him singing in the church choir when he was four, and a Muslim father, who sometimes took him to local jazz clubs. Sitting next to the cigarette machine in the back of a smoky room, the child clearly saw his future.
“I would watch people do their gigs, and that’s what really inspired me. Everybody was dressed so hip. They looked like their job was so fun,” he laughs. “Chill all day long, then wake up, do a performance, and then go back home.” Once he began classes at the Philadelphia High School for Creative Performing Arts, Bilal realized that if he wanted to be taken seriously as an artist, he’d have to do more than look good in his clothes.
“I never hung out with other singers; I just wanted to be with the musicians,” Bilal says. “Yet, most of the musicians thought singers were idiots because most didn’t know music that well. In order to hang with them, I had to learn the chords, theory and the way they spoke. By senior year, I was the jazz band vocalist and arranger. I would arrange the instrumental tunes and do the horn charts. I had developed a real understanding of music. 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.”
Signed to Interscope Records in 2000 after industry buzz boomed following his performance of the Prince classic “International Lover” at a 1999 tribute concert in Brooklyn, Bilal and the label were at odds from the very beginning of his short stint.
“The demos for 1st Born Second were all alternative rock, but the label wasn’t feeling that direction,” Glasper recalls. In 2006, when presented with his Love for Sale, the label shelved the record and dropped him. “That record sounded like what Andre 3000 did a few years later on The Love Below,” says Glasper. “Bilal was just ahead of his time.”
Taking the same attitude to the stage, Bilal soon got the reputation of being an erratic performer. “People might’ve thought I was on drugs or intoxicated, but that wasn’t it,” Bilal shrugs. “I just didn’t give a fuck 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.”
Seven years after the Interscope fiasco, Bilal, now a married father with three sons, is still a relevant force, much more in control of his life and music. He seems happier these days. And after reveling in the excellence that is A Love Surreal, it’s safe to say, the brother’s lost none of his ambition.
Wed., Feb. 13, 8pm. $20-$38. With Johnny
Popcorn, featuring Hezekiah. World Cafe
Live, 3025 Walnut St. 215.222.1400.
PW's Music Issue 2014