Ten years later, we’re still deservedly giving Blu and Exile their flowers for Below the Heavens, one of the most celebrated and vulnerable hip-hop records of the mid-2000s.
On Friday (Oct. 20), the duo will release In the Beginning: Before The Heavens, described by Blu as “a true prequel,” and meant to capture the moments leading up to the seminal work from the Los Angeles-based rapper-producer duo.
According to Exile, “the flowers” found on the prequel were an afterthought “until an employee stumbled upon them under a crate in the corner of the warehouse,” but as is the case with timeless music, the records refused to age or lose their worth.
Though the duo admits that the real “emotional gems” appear on Below the Heavens proper, this audible look back, ripped from the clutches of “evil record label employees,” is a lesson in process. Tracks that Blu vetoed, despite Exile’s love for them (“Constellations”), appear alongside songs that still take the duo’s breath away (“Sold The Soul”).
For all the emotional ground being covered, Blu and Exile are lighthearted as ever. Blu expresses consistent gratitude for everything his career in music has made possible, and Exile muses on their lives ten years from this interview—if you're curious, Exile is going to be extremely buff and Blu will be a yoga master. On the path to fitness and yogi status, Exile also hints at new music on the horizon.
Over the phone, Blu and Exile spoke with DJBooth about arranging the “flowers” for this album, the legacy of Below the Heavens, Exile’s irrational fear of the trap hi-hat, and their advice to aspiring artists who are searching for their voice.
Exile, you once said that after the “seeds of creativity” were planted, you two picked the “plants” that were best for Below the Heavens. What kind of plants are we talking?
Blu: The second album was flowers. The first was dreams in clouds, and these early songs are actually the seeds to our harvest.
Exile: Flowers, mangos, and spinach.
What kind of bouquet will fans receive with this new album?
Exile: It's an assorted arrangement for sure. The flowers are old and have been lost in the shop, forgotten about until an employee stumbled upon them under a crate in the corner of the warehouse. But they never aged or lost their worth, they want to be cherished by humans to invoke imagination in love in their hearts.
Blu: This is like a sample of Below the Heavens. Imagine one extra song on there; well, we are giving you guys fourteen!
How did you decide on these fourteen tracks when the vault contained over forty?
Blu: These are the only ones we could find. There are, I think, two other people who may have more but they are ghosts right now.
Exile: This was all that was left in the rubble, the rest were stolen or were destroyed by the evil record label employees.
Looking back, would any of these songs have made the album?
Blu: Yeah, many, but Ex was working back then with 50 Cent and Mobb Deep, you know? So we had to narrow it down.
Exile: “Constellations” was a joint where Blu had to be like: “Ex, yo, you're not going to like this, but I don't want ‘Constellations’ on the album." But looking back now, that's how it was supposed to be. I don't think none of them should have been on Below the Heavens.
Was there any work done to these tracks, or are they being released as is?
Blu: As is!
When listening back and picking tracks for this album, were there any moments when you stumbled upon a track you had forgotten and surprised yourselves?
Blu: Yes, a few. I love my first album, so you know I dig the tracks from that era.
Exile: "Sold The Soul."
How has your perspective on the original Below the Heavens album changed after ten years?
Blu: It hasn’t, besides getting a little stronger, and I'm proud of it.
Exile: It’s a time capsule reflection of my childhood dreams. When I see new generations taking to it, that makes me happy. Knowing there's no foul content on there, that makes me happy. To sell out shows performing the album in full, and to hear cats singing it word for word, is one of the best feelings.
How do you think BTH would have been received if it came out today?
Blu: [Laughs]. Heads would be like, "When did these n****s do this?"
Exile: It's a timeless piece, but they might say Blu sounds like J. Cole. Cats need to lay off that trap hi-hat. I hate hearing it wherever I go. It's a plague. I'll be at the park trying to relax and then this fucking trap hi-hat comes from behind me. I'm like, “Who wants to hear trap at a park?” Play some jazz or reggae, damn it! Or play some Below the Heavens! I fuck with some of it but damn it's out of hand. If Below the Heavens came out today? I'd love to hear it.
Your fans are so zealous. Do you ever struggle to move forward when they’re always clinging to your older works?
Blu: Yes and no.
Exile: Nah, they seemed to love our second album. To me, Blu's lyrics on there are kinda next-level in comparison. I mean, Below the Heavens is a beast, but we got some heat coming.
How do you keep those diehard fans happy while still growing as artists?
Exile: We just do what we do. We love our fans. But we make music for us, not for the fans. That's why they love it.
How does the energy captured on these early sessions differ from the energy on the album proper?
Blu: These are the steps to the album. It came out as a true prequel.
Exile: They are similar, but we captured more emotional gems for the Below the Heavens album.
I’ve always thought of your work as a blueprint for aspiring artists, something they could look to when they want to know what it means to actually 'give it your all.' Looking back on your career, what would you tell an aspiring artist who’s trying to find their own voice and make their own Below the Heavens?
Blu: Be truthful. Be as real as possible. It pays off in the end.
Exile: Have life experience. Be honest. Know what you love. Do your best version of what you love and learn from it. Show your homies. Don't put it out. Then do that again. Find your own style, find your own truth, be honest with yourself and begin to create with your own voice. Find people whose opinion you trust. Ask them—only people you trust to tell the truth—what they think. Sculpt.
Where do you two see yourselves on the twentieth anniversary of Below the Heavens?
Blu: We gotta do the album live again, yo!
Exile: We gotta do the album live again, 100%! We will have more albums under the belt, and I'll be super buff. Blu will be a yoga master.