“Man, that is one of my favorite films,” says rapper John Barnes better known as Blu. He’s referring to Killer of Sheep, a 1977 tone poem about black working-class ennui in South Los Angeles.
“I watch it all the time when I’m alone, dreaming of being raised in my parents’ era. It is truly the only movie that depicts the Los Angeles I grew up in, so I have always respected Charles Burnett’s stuff.”
Blu has never toiled in a slaughterhouse, and with his boyish good looks, he resembles a streetwear model more than the sooty-faced serfs in Killer of Sheep. At 35, he is also a legend, someone who commands hushed fealty in underground hip-hop.
Yet in any discussion of Blu’s music, the phrase “everyman” gets bandied about almost reflexively. He emits a warm humility and, like Burnett, speaks for the straggling commoner who can’t catch a break. It’s been 11 years since his breakout album Below the Heavens; produced by Exile, it was the first of Blu’s gently polemical riffs on Los Angeles life. As the language of hip-hop becomes more laconic, many fans have recalibrated their expectations, but there is much demand for Blu’s literarily charged storytelling.
“The people made [Below the Heavens] what it is!” Blu says. “I still don’t fully grasp it. I see it everywhere, and it’s mind-boggling, but the reality of it all has not struck me.”
Today, Blu is still mining the frustrations and infirmities of life in L.A., as complicated a metropolis as any that exists in this country.
“I believe we were given the King’s chair and it was taken before we could make it out the inauguration,” Blu says. “We were on the verge of becoming a new L.A. that everyone dreamt it to be: peaceful, green, active and progressive. But the police started killing children all over America, and eventually that reached L.A. and tore us down as well.”
Anytime a young person dies in this manner, it seems to trigger a chorus of fretful murmurs about the state of modern policing. But Blu is apoplectic. His new album, Gods in the Spirit, Titans in the Flesh is good-humored but aswarm with righteous invective. This has been gnawing at him since at least 2013, when he rapped about unlawful property seizures on “End of the World.” Whatever piecemeal legal reforms have been introduced since then, they cannot temper Blu’s fury with police departments large and small, as well as their pointy-headed Washington enablers.
Like most creatives, Blu draws inspiration from turmoil both personal and political. He would jump at the chance to have it some other, less painful way.
“I hate it,” Blu says flatly. “It destroys my music; it puts you in a position no one wants to be in. Everyone wants peace and happiness, and no one wants to have to fight purposelessly for it, either. It has almost completely changed the course of my music: from easy listening to rebellious war cries! It’s awful, man. I want to rap about women on the beach.” While it has never been his selling point, Blu’s comfort at “war” is self-evident.
Titans in the Flash will stoke jealousy among rappers who aspire to tell stories but who can’t compete with Blu’s flair for expository writing. It helps that the album is funky as a motherfucker. The credit for that goes to Nottz, a malleably gifted local producer who, like Exile, can be as outré—or as conservative—as needed. In this case, his beats are full of arpeggiated tremble and trippy, squelching bass.
“Nottz and Exile are two of the most powerful wizards,” Blu marvels. “They’re the best at what they do; they’re better than anyone who tries to do it.”
“Working with Exile is like the 1800s, though,” he continues. “With Nottz, it’s like up picking beats at undisclosed locations in the forest.” Kind of a far cry from the slaughterhouse.