In 2007 Blu emerged as one of hip-hop’s most thoughtful young lyricists with his debut album with producer Exile, Below the Heavens, an aughts indie rap classic. In the years since the prolific emcee/producer’s eccentric introspection has continued to evolve with collaborative efforts with Ta’Raach, Mainframe, and Madlib, last year’s beautifully cryptic gem, Jesus, and the jaggedly experimental No York. With the recent release of Blu and Ex’s Heavens follow-up, Give Me My Flowers While I Can Still Smell Them, we asked the rapper also known as Johnson Barnes to contemplate his creative roots a little further. Here, in his own words, are a few of the records that changed his life.
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1. Nas - Illmatic (Columbia, 1994)
illmatic. the perfect album. how would one start.
Blu: i believe anyone who hears this record becomes an instant believer, anyone.
i remember going to the barber a year after i finally bought my first copy, which was in 1999. an 11 year old kid was like, “yo i heard you’re an emcee, i was like yea and so forth.” he was like, “i rap too”, i was like, “oh yeah, who’s ya favorite?” he was like, “nas yo. illmatic.”
he was like, “yeah, all 45 minutes and 36 seconds of it,” i was like, “damn kid, me too, deep.” years, years after the record dropped, a million miles away and still it hits you like you were there in ’94.
the perfect record, from the amount of songs, every beat and every verse.
let me get the illest producers in the game, let me shut down any emcee who has ever picked up a mic, and let me do all this at 18 years old. queens finest, new york’s best. perfect schemes and content. immaculate imagery. potent lyricism.
“world is yours” was my favorite, then “halftime,” then “it aint hard to tell,” and then finally “ny state of mind,” i couldn’t turn it off til i heard and understood every bar, every word. it was that record that made me go get all the premier i could find, all the pete rock i could find. it was illmatic that made me want to create the perfect album.
2. Common - One Day It'll All Make Sense (Relativity, 1997)
Blu: deep. okay after you’ve heard every style of rap from the east to the west to the south. where do you go. to the north, or rather the mid west. i first heard of common visiting my aunt somewhere in the boonies and i aint have shit to do but watch music videos. i remember hearing this jam, “you remind me of sef,” and i was like damn, i gotta see this again. i hadn’t felt anything like it. it reminded me of my dad and the soul music he would dance to while driving. they played the video about four more times that day and i was hooked. but i never remembered the name.
years later, i finally started buying hip-hop myself, and not just listening to what my pop played or what was on the radio. i only had 3 cd’s at the time, ma$e, dmx & the firm. dmx and the firm got me into canibus. and from there i decided to buy anything canibus was on. i saw he had a song with an artist named common, who subconsciously i had completely forgotten about. so when my birthday money came around i bought redman the whut album and the common album one day it’ll all make sense. doug.
i was like ok, the redman is gonna be ill as hell so let me peep this common first. i popped it in on the ride home, we cooling out to the intro and then boom, “invocation.” my doug. i ain’t know what the fuck this nigga was saying but it was the deepest, smoothest shit i ever heard and the beat, my god, the beat. bro, when he said, “i strike like lightning and don’t need thunder, inhale imagination and breath wonder,” nga, i thought i was a genius for catching the line. little did i know i would be sitting on the record a good week before i even opened the redman. and the biggest treat was i found the song that i fell in love with from back in the day, “you remind me of sef.”
i remember my dad came down stairs like whats this, i was like common, the nga i was playing on the way home, you was fronting on him. he was like let me see that. this nigga aint wanna give me the record back, g.
“real nigga quotes,” “hungry,” “invocation” and the joint with canibus were my favorites cause they were the rawest ones. then joints like “all night long”, the “stolen moments” trilogy and “g.o.d.” were the ones that made me realize i was listen to some grown man shit. this album matured me bro. fuck puberty and pussy!
3. Redman - Muddy Waters (Def Jam, 1996)
Blu: okay, I’m on now, I’m back in school and I’m a hip-hop head cause i bought a few rap albums. I’m thinking i know all the shit and i meet this kid named joey. he’s like, “nga u don’t know no krs-one by heart, you don’t know shit.” i followed him home and he revealed his vinyl collection. i died. he was like, man since you don’t know shit i’ll give you what my brother gave me to get me started. he gave me three tapes, the roots’ illadelph halflife, jeru’s wrath of the math, and redman’s muddy waters.
at the time i had already had redman’s the whut album so i decided to play muddy waters first. nga, my nga, I’m saying. “all aboard my balls cause my dick don’t gotta lotta room for the rest of y’all.” the rawest record i have ever heard. not one girl song. not one conscious effort. not one political statement (except fuck the police). and not one break from the madness. 20 plus tracks of straight spitting. i was like damn, this is the rawest nga on earth and it just so happened he was. i didn’t even know the song titles i would just play the tape over and over and over. i just wanted to leave school just to hear that album. i woke up to that shit and went to sleep to that shit. eventually “do what you feel” became my favorite and i rewound that song so much i was afraid i was gonna break the tape. finally buying that cd was like winning a trophy my g. the illest art. the nga was in mud. its called muddy waters i ain’t even know who the fuck muddy waters was.
the rawest rap album ever.
4. Jay-Z - The Blueprint (Roc-A-Fella, 2001)
Blu: by this time, once again, I’m thinking i know my shit. new york is the illest, battle rapping is at its peak, and all the hip-hop heads is hating on what all the kids from the hood was playing, which was cash money, no limit and jay-z. i couldn’t stand jay-z. i thought he was the epitome of a sell out. all he talked about was money, cash & hoes. i ain’t wanna hear that. i was tryna hear a nigga say, ” i snatch ya crown with ya head still attached to it.” even after hearing conscious brothers like the roots and common, i couldn’t get into this math rapper, jay-z.
so it’s summer and “i just wanna love you” drops. a little guilty pleasure. i ain’t no why. i think it was the bubble beats that were coming out at the time. so i was like man, let me go get this jay-z shit. and i stole the dynasty album. i was like ok, this nigga is a beast. i got reasonable doubt but i was more on illmatic, couldn’t understand it. i got volumes two and three of in my lifetime, but i never been to a club, so i let my sister rock it. but bro, the crew of niggas on the dynasty, i was like this shit goes hard. i finally gave him his props but i never thought he had a classic.
then boom. summer of 2001. “h to the izzo,” jackson 5 beat, the illest single. I’m feeling it. it’s got the bubble pop production, the smooth reintroduction to the man behind the music, and it’s jay-z, the guy i grew to appreciate somewhat. i could dig it.
then i caught wind of the new york summer jam concert. oh my god, jay-z dissed nas. what! dissed nas! nas, the illest nga of all time, no way right. they was like yeah, it was a mobb deep diss but he said, “nas don’t want it with hov.” i was like all shit, it’s going down. then I’m working at my shoe store gig and they play the nas comeback song over the radio before i even got to hear jay’s shot at nas. it was called something, over a rakim beat i think, i was like damn, nas DISSED that nga jay, fuck yea! i thought it was a wrap for jay, this nga nas busted on his whole dynasty crew. it’s over.
so I’m in long beach, a week before jay-z is slated to drop the blueprint and hear that the og store in long beach is suppose to have the album early. so i go down to v.i.p. records and pick up the album. off the top, immaculate packaging, we pop the shit in. doug. dope intro, I’m like okay okay, then “the takeover” rolls in, hard ass beat, then i hear the mobb deep diss and boom he says the nas line, I’m like o shit this was the joint he did at summer jam. then the dude goes in on the king, nas, and bro he goes hard, he shoots down anything that i have ever known of the legend, i could’ve cried. then he follows up with the single, all happy like nothing happened and the record continues and never drops a notch. “girls girls girls” with q-tip, biz and slick rick, my g. then “u don’t know,” shit got like 8 plays before i even made it to the next song. “i sell ice in winter, fire in hell, i’ma hustler baby, i’ll sell water to a whale.” crush. then I’m like bro, were the fuck did all these sweet ass beats come from. i check the credits and it’s all new niggas. like who is kanye west, who is b!nk and who the fuck is this nigga just blaze? shit kills. then it has one guest feature, with eminem, and that shit kills on some political anti-america shit. the record closes out perfect, with “moma loved me”, probably to me one of the most personal records from jay to this date next to “song cry” which was also on the record. the “girls girls girls” remix too. i almost liked it more than illmatic, sorry sincere.
p.s. the release date arrives and i wake up to the twin towers collapsing.
5. Ice Cube - Death Certificate (Priority, 1991)
Blu: yeah. i’m from the west. i slept on pac. i only banged snoop or dj quik if they were on the radio. i never heard compton’s most wanted or nothing. herb, i know.
tell you the truth, i can’t even remembering buying death certificate but all i know is when i heard it, nothing compared. it brought me back to the streets of l.a. that i grew up in but had no idea what was really going on. all i knew was niggas was on crack, gangsters was killing each other over colors and 2pac died. i was never into gangsta rap. maybe because i was into so many progressive artists who came out after all the gangsta rap shit that i thought the shit was ignorant or something. there was no respect really for west coast music outside of hip-hop. it was the lowest of the low, it was gangsta.
so yeah, i finally get death certificate. i remember my step moms’ favorite was ice cube so i was conscious that i wouldn’t let that “corny” fact ruin my listen. my nga, what the fuck. the 40z, the bean pies, the korean liquor store, uncle sam running in hoes in the hood, the message, the gang banging, and all where i grew up. this shit reminded me of my aunts, my uncles, my dad, my block, the blocks i never went down, the korean liquor stores, the bean pies, my g. this was the definitive l.a. shit. i remember going back banging pac, n.w.a, too short, ice-t, all them shits and nothing came close to death certificate, except amerikkka’s most wanted, go figure.
ice cube was like krs-one but like eazy-e too. he wasn’t the deepest but his message felt the most potent. it was straight to the point and the way he delivered it was hard, hard my nga, ice cube. I’m listening to the beats like damn, bomb squad did their thing but really it was sir jinx. the nigga learned everything bomb squad did on the first album and took the wheel and banged that shit harder on the second album. i was like damn, i remember ice cube but i had no idea this was ice cube. what he did for l.a. is unprecedented in music. i don’t think there has ever been a record to paint a demographic and capture the time period of a culture as great as death certificate.
the hardest rap album of all-time.