Is hip hop dead? Before looking Below The Heavens, maybe you’d say yes–but Blu & Exile are a bright light illuminating the soul in hip hop. Their first release has been reviewed by several magazines as one of best rookie albums in 2008. The up and coming duo has been touring with fellow rising star Wale (pronounced Wall-E) and U.C.B. It’s Saturday night at the Mezzanine and the average age is young for an SF show, suggesting the underground following of these acts.
My friend loves to dance, and upon being invited to a hip hop show, he must have thought it would be a dance party. Thing is—hip hop hasn’t always been T-Payne-auto-tune and bling/booty raps about “up in da club!” Instead, Blu raps about struggle, raising kids, growing up, and relationships. Exile’s beats are banging, but they are more Pete Rock and J Dilla than Timbaland. To my friend’s dismay the dancers were outnumbered by head bobbers swaying side to side, from front to back, uh huh uh huh—yeah, what.
Blu & Exile bring a sound from the Golden Era. Their raps are personal, their beats are soulful—it’s a sound you have to dig through old hip hop CDs to find. On stage there are keepin’ it real (if you can say that without sounding cliché). Their image is simple: jeans, t-shirt and cap. Not overly animated, nor sluggish, Blu seemed comfortable on stage. The duo had a chemistry similar to Gangstarr (DJ Premier and Guru), with a mutual respect for each other skills.
“That shit is from five years ago, it didn’t look like this, y’all are hot” said a humble Blu about the crowd at Mezzanine. They’re grounded–no gold chains, no grills, no references to bitches and hos—this isn’t the hip hop you’ve heard on the radio for the last five years. Blu’s lyrics are truthful and his flow is confidant, “but if I say I rap, you’ll be looking for my range, gold chains and my strap / and I can act conscious, but if we talk politics / you’ll notice I’m out of the loop.” Exile is creative and soulful whereas most producers are redoing pop successes. Their set was highlighted by Exile’s finish as he slammed on the MPC like a piano, rewriting a guitar sample into a Led Zepplin “Stairway To Heaven”-eqsue rendition.
After the show, I asked my friend for his thoughts: “If you’re into that, than I say go, if not–don’t,” a simple statement, but true. Blu & Exile bring a style of hip hop which for current listeners of consumer hip hop is different. For me, I’d go—I loved it, but as the SFCritic I also like fellow California underground rappers Zion I, People Under the Stairs, and Murs. The self-declared “soul provider,” Blu & Exile are the reason critics like SFCritic haven’t given up on hip hop.