By Ronda Racha Penrice
Even before the release of his official debut 1st Born Second in 2001, the buzz surrounding Bilal was deafening. His collaborations on Common’s Like Water for Chocolate are still classic. And despite his then-label Interscope shelving his second album, Love For Sale, it somehow leaked to the delight of his many fans.
Known especially for his live performances, Bilal is a favorite among Atlantans and, when Erykah Badu hits Chastain on August 14, Bilal will be right along with her. Even better, his new album, Airtight’s Revenge, drops September 14. In this exclusive interview, Bilal talks about Atlanta weather and why now is a good time for indie-minded artists like himself to make music.
Where have you been?
I’ve been (pause) chilling.
I know you’ve been out there performing but now you seem to be making an effort to get out there in a more grand way?
Well, when my album that was supposed to be my second album got bootlegged, I had to reevaluate a lot of things on the business end of my career and iron certain things out.
That sounds like you thought it was an inside job.
Well I just felt like I had to take that time to cleanse a lot of things.
Since that cleansing, did it kind of change the direction of your music?
I’ve come into music in a more freer place now. It feels a little more free-flowing now, I would say.
So you’re going to come to Atlanta. You’re performing with Erykah Badu. Have you consistently been on the road with her?
I’ve done a few shows with her but I wouldn’t say that I’ve been on the road with her. I’ve just done a few spot dates with her.
What makes coming to Atlanta special? I think that you were supposed to perform here in February and you didn’t make it? [Note: Writer confusion. Foreign Exchange didn’t make it. Also, a few years back when the NBA All-Star game was here, Bilal was supposed to come but the weather grounded the plane and he couldn’t make it.]
Oh, I don’t know about that. I recently did a show there though. Not too long ago.
I hate that I missed you. I wonder where I was.
It was snowing when I came there. It was crazy but it was still packed out though, but it was crazy. I’ve never seen it snow in Atlanta. I was like ‘Wow it’s snowing here.’
Does that touch you, given that so many other artists, I know this is not you saying this, but in my opinion, are lesser talents than you are, have so much of the pr/marketing machine working in their favor and, though you haven’t had consistent play on radio, to be able to perform and have so many people come out , does that really, like, amaze you?
I’m fortunate every time that happens because I’m in a space where I just don’t want to conform my music and do my music in a certain way just to . . . sell records. I kind of just want to do music in how it’s coming to me and put it out . . . and do what I do further, to be able to experiment, that’s where I’m thinking I’m taking my music.
Do you think earlier in your career you were more willing to conform then?
I’ve always been this way. Just when I was on Interscope, their major thing was a single but I don’t make music for singles. Even now they just kind of say, "Well, we’re going to make this the single." When I had gotten to a place when I felt that that was happening to me like "this isn’t a single yet," it created friction because I don’t know how to make songs like that.
Are you encouraged by coming out at this time because the pendulum seems to be swinging back to where people are a little bit more appreciative of artists who are trying to be artists and not these corporate conglomerate ideas of what music is?
I think it’s a good time right now for people to just be indie and do what they want to do. They don’t have to be subject to only getting their music out through a machine. We’re in a time where a lot of people use music as an avenue to be rich and do what it is to make their money but I view music as an avenue to do art. I’m very happy that I make money from it, you know. Initially I don’t really need a lot to sustain myself. I’m a simple type of cat. I like to music though. A lot of my money winds up going to that. Anyways so it’s cool to just be a musician because that’s what I’ve always wanted to do and be.
$25-$65. 8 p.m. Sat., Aug. 14. Chastain Park Amphitheatre, Stella Dr. and Pool Road. www.classicchastain.com. Check out Bilal’s acoustic performance of “Think It Over,” off his new album Airtight’s Revenge, at Ace of Spades in Soho on July 29. Follow him on Twitter: @bilal_oliver.
*Christ, Lord sorry
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