May 18 2011 10:25 AM

Aloe Blacc sharpens his message with the help of vintage soul

Aloe Blacc started his career as a rapper in the '90s.
Photo by Dan Monick
Aloe Blacc, a soul singer with a soaring baritone and a penchant for velvet jackets, has a “master plan.” He wants to “infect the world,” he says, with “good music and good messages.” Hopefully, he can make some “positive change”—just like the great politically conscious songwriters who came before him.

“If you’ve got a mantra, like, say, Bob Marley’s ‘One Love,’ and you’re raising a kid and you might be playing Bob Marley in the background and a 3-year-old is singing, ‘One love / One heart / Let’s get together and feel alright,’ those kinds of words don’t fall lightly,” he explains by phone from his home in Los Angeles. “They last. I would hope that they actually make an impression on the psyche of that child.”

But while Blacc cites uplifting songs like Marley’s as inspiration, his album Good Things, which came out last year on Stones Throw Records, wrangles with themes of a darker kind.

Using soul music from the late ’60s and early ’70s as his template, he sings of hardship in American society. For an exceptionally sultry, R&B-style cover of The Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale,” he imagines the title character as the Statue of Liberty, her promises failing to add up to an immigrant’s harsh reality. In “Life So Hard,” a smoldering, mid-tempo track with haunting guitars and spine-tingling strings, he juxtaposes the perspective of the haves and have-nots, singing: Stop bailing out the banks and give the Franklins to me.”

And then there’s “I Need a Dollar,” the album’s most poignant track. In it, Blacc forges a classic archetype of the recession, taking on the character of a man who loses his job, falls into alcoholism and offers his story in exchange for a single bill. “Bad times are coming and I reap what I don’t sow,” he sings over a crisp piano hook and buoyant bass line. “Well let me tell you somethin’: all that glitters ain’t gold.”

The song weaves together a variety of American experiences: The verse has a call-and-response structure that Blacc borrowed from chain-gang songs. The lyrics are drawn from the struggles of his immigrant family and of a friend battling alcoholism. The words are also semi-autobiographical; in 2003, Blacc was laid off by corporate behemoth ernst & Young, where he was working as a business consultant.

The timing of the song’s release last year was perfect— Blacc started writing the song in 2005, but he recorded it in 2009, at the height of the downturn, and the song took off after it was used as the theme for the HBO series How to Make it in America. Still, Blacc says, “I Need a Dollar” is about more than just the recession.

“It doesn’t need to be a financial crisis for it to resonate with people,” he says. “For most of the world, there’s a financial crisis every day. In the West, we’re lucky that we can even probably be using the word ‘crisis,’ for the most part. Most people still have food and clothing and shelter. It’s not really close to what’s happening in developing parts of the world.”

Blacc, 32, isn’t your average soul singer. born Egbert Nathaniel Dawkins III, he grew up in the suburbs of Orange County; his parents are from Panama. He started playing music at 15 and, by the time he graduated from high school, he’d built a modest international following as an MC in the indie-rap duo Emanon.

After ernst & Young laid him off, Blacc pursued a solo music career. In his home studio, he’s written hundreds of songs in various styles (including bossa nova, hip-hop and electronic alt-rock) and recorded several unreleased albums. He showcases his wide range on Shine Through, his 2006 solo debut—in “Busking,” he sings about waiting for the bus while waiting at a bus stop; in “Patria Mia,” a tribute to his parents, he sings in Spanish over Latin percussion. Ultimately, he focused on soul music, partly because he liked his soul songs the best, but also because he wanted to make a concise statement.

Blacc is one of many soul revivalists who’ve gained in popularity during the past few years, but his precision and restraint makes him stand out. Where L.A.’s Fitz & The Tantrums can get corny with their brassy pop hooks and heavy-handed messages, The Grand Scheme—Blacc’s band, who take their name from his “master plan”—specialize in moody atmospheres on Good Things with wah-wah guitar, smoky organs and full-bodied horns.

On stage, Blacc and The Grand Scheme are full of surprises. At The Casbah last December, the band struck up a creeping groove that oozed with feeling. Only when Blacc reached the chorus was it apparent they were covering Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.”

Later, the band launched into a rousing cover of Al Green’s “Love and Happiness.” It’s clearly one of Blacc’s favorite songs. At the end of his interview with CityBeat, when asked if he had anything to add, he said: “Remind folks to spread love. Spread love and happiness. Al Green got it right when he said love and happiness is what it’s about.”

Back at The Casbah, the audience clapped and sang along: “Love and happiness!” Good vibes spread like a virus; the audience was infected. That night, Blacc’s “master plan” was a success.

Aloe Blacc plays with Tutu Sweeney & The Brothers Band at Belly Up tavern on Friday, May 20.