Great artists often speak up for us when we don't even realize we need them to. It's not due to some supernatural power; it's their courage to actually be open—a fear that many spend a lifetime trying to overcome. They reveal their uncertainties, lapses, and vulnerabilities as a way to heal themselves and end up caring for us in the process. Some of those artists, like the bulk of us, are activated when their surrounding world appears to be malfunctioning on some level—or when that malfunctioning is magnified. Others are so receptive to everything around them that they dedicate their lives to questioning and analyzing how our lives could be better, and asserting that we actually deserve for them to be.
Houston's B L A C K I E is the latter. Since starting his career in 2005, the noisy rapper has viewed the sheer act of performing in white-dominated punk spaces—as loud as legally possible—as an act of resistance. For those who haven't experienced him live, it's his chaotic instrumentation and introspective lyrics that have mirrored their innermost feelings and won their support. On his 2013 album Fuck The False, B L A C K I E denounced moving through life in fear and promised to love himself more. In 2014, the first year I got to witness his live show, he released his deafening free jazz album, Imagine Yourself In A Free and Natural World. Poetic imagery in that album painted vultures transforming into revolutionary fists and corrupt police getting what they deserve.
2014 was also the first time I'd made a personal connection with the Houston native, born Michael LaCour. In March of that year, we stood and talked outside of an Austin bar during SXSW. He'd just finished an emotionally taxing set that had two onlookers in tears for most of its duration. He looked around at all the billboards surrounding the festival and confessed that the commercialization of the event and music, in general, was getting to him. Later that year, when he dropped Imagine Yourself, he told me that he planned on taking a break, especially considering the increasingly publicized killings of black people by police in the States.
It led to the longest gap between projects of his career, and it seemed as if B L A C K I E may have retired from music. But—in very B L A C K I E fashion—the noise rap vet unexpectedly returned earlier this month with his eighth album, Remains. A text from a friend the night that Donald Trump won the presidential election helped spur his comeback. In sound, Remains is his most polished to date, combining his noise and protest origins with more refined instrumentation than he's displayed before. Studying greats before him, he switched from the alto saxophone he played on Imagine Yourself to the tenor to give this album a needed upgrade. To get some insight on the album's creation and what life has been like for B L A C K I E since his departure, we spoke on the phone.
Noisey: This was the longest break you've ever taken between albums. What was life like for those three years?
B L A C K I E: I remember telling you before the last one that I was gonna take a break. The last one came out how I wanted. Because that was when the cops was killing niggas like every damn day so I was like, "Yo, I'm gonna go get this job and make some money first to get straight." I was just working in an office and supporting my family. Man, working in an office sucks. I started losing it.
I was in an office job for about a year and a half before Noisey, and I was slowly but surely losing my mind. I really felt like I was a number in there.
It's the same thing, man. Just on the computer all day. Sitting down all day. I gained like 20 or 30 pounds. All my jobs before that had been pretty physical, so just to sit down all day, and make more money than I'd made at any of those olds jobs, I could eat what I wanted to eat.
There's been a lot of publicized turmoil in the US since you dropped an album. How have you been processing all of it?
To be honest, I was blocking a lot of it out. Working with white people everyday and having to smile at the office just to keep the office morale going. Then I'm getting home and checking the news and see they killed Sandra Bland, and all this shit going on, they wondering why I'm not smiling at the office parties. I'm trying to grind it out and get a check, but in the back of my mind I'm like, man. I knew the time to create would be coming. I didn't even watch the election. I just went to bed like, "Fuck this shit." I knew Trump won because my friend texted me 'Looks like you gonna have to start rapping again, Mike.' It was like five or six in the morning, and I just yelled, "FUCK!"
Were you purposely not creating during your time away?
I never stopped. I got instruments all over the house. Since I had money coming in, I was buying synthesizers. My job included travel, so I'd be in the hotel playing around with it. I was still picking up gigs. I had linked up with those Show Me The Body kids and was looking into more shit. I played the alto saxophone on the previous album and noticed all the greats played the tenor, so I switched. So I was plotting the sound. I take a lot of time to get the sound right. Working 40 or sometimes more hours a week, I couldn't apply the time. I just ended up going crazy in the office. Literally.
I thought the light was talking to me and shit. It told me to walk out of there. I was losing it, but I made a deal with whatever voice in my head like, "Yo, if you come back tomorrow, I'll do whatever you tell me." The next day the same shit happened: I was staring at the light coming in the window, and it said, "Go home and record." That's all it said. It wasn't me because I had been thinking that the whole time. I stood up, took my company card out and just left in the middle of a meeting. They were yelling, "Mike, stop!" I walked straight the fuck up out the office.
That sounds like some movie shit.
Yeah ( laughs).
This is a really full album in terms of sound. In some ways, it feels like all of your projects wrapped into one. Was that intentional, or do you think it's just your natural progression as an artist?
I don't like to think about it too much. I like to think about it just enough to get it hitting right. I really just was thinking about playing instruments as being crucial. So much of the shit is digital now. You get a program, you make a hard beat, you rap, the computer helps you sing on it. So much is digital now that I'll probably continue to try putting instruments in the motherfucker. There's an old Pimp C interview when he talked about his dad who was a music instructor. His dad told him "That rap shit is cool but it'd be better if y'all put some actual music on that shit." So I just think about that. It can't just be noise. You gotta play some notes or learn a scale, and really try to apply some music theory to this shit. This one has all the noises like the old ones, but I tried to make sure shit was actually in tune before I started banging on it.
What was your recording situation this time around? I remember you telling me you knocked out Fuck The False in one take off the whiskey, weed, and Red Bull.
I tried to keep that energy in it but tried to orchestrate it. Like, I'ma freak out, but let me get it so it sounds good this time when I'm freaking out. Basically, losing my mind and locking myself in the house and just waking up and doing it until it's time to pick my kid up. Letting go of the job allowed me to do that.
Does your son influence your music at all? Like, how you go about making your music or otherwise?
In a broader sense, he led me to really go in on this one. Because being in that job, it was cool because I was supporting my family, and he'll respect that his old man was doing that, but we gon' all be in the dirt one day. If he knows that his dad made all this music and then just plugged into a machine at an office, that's not really too respectable. One day he's gonna know that his dad was making music, so I really just wanted to do it for him. I wanted to show him like, you can do this. Like, let me walk up out this office and do what I'm supposed to be doing. Let me follow my passion so he can look at that and follow what he wants to do. If he wants to be a chef or a soccer player, or whatever. In a stricter sense, I know the song is hard when he starts head banging. He loves heavy shit. I don't know how. Before he was even born he was kicking when we'd put on a Fela Kuti album or a punk album. So I knew he was a little punk rocker already. I tested the album out on him first.
Back to the album, "Numbers Not A Name" is a song that really sticks out. It feels like a take on reclaiming your own humanity and fighting against a homogenized way of thinking.
I internalize everything, so by the time it comes out, it's kind of already structured in a way to where I don't have to auto-correct too much. You're totally right about that. Also, the real message I was trying to kick off in that joint was like, seeing all the hashtags, the black bodies. A hashtag is a number sign. So I was like, they turning us into numbers. Yeah, it's a name attached to a hashtag but that's a number sign. Fuck that. It was a real political thing.
I really enjoy the journey that "Academy Academy" takes me on, too. What was the thinking behind it?
When I was younger, I got into college early, and it was one of the worst experiences of my life. I just need a different form of education than most people do. So I ended up dropping out. I read some stuff, and the education system is just another form of indoctrination. The song is just rebelling against that and about how some people love being intimidated, love to be dominated, love to be told what and how to think. It's about a character and their partner deciding to rebel against the formal strictures like academies, universities, military, whatever. You can say social media is a form of indoctrination, too.
Are there any songs here that, while recording, you felt like you were really in a pocket? You know, where you felt possessed or led by something deeper within yourself that you're not always able to access.
It's been times on that last track, "Turn You Off," when I was performing it live, I started screaming so hard that I felt like I hurt my body. Just watching my mom and watching other family members, and thinking how they kind of take your life from you while you still alive. That's why I scream that shit: "I watch them turn you off." You watching people be turned off and turned into machines. Performing that and thinking about my mom working her whole life—and, you know, she has a cool life, it's nothing bad about it, but she had many other things she wanted to do, but she made sacrifices. I think about that shit. I don't wanna be turned off. I wanna keep going. I wanna pursue my individuality and humanity.
I remember a while back we were kicking it at SXSW and you were looking around at all the billboards and saying how they were taking away from the experience and what the festival was supposed to be. I know you were struggling with the business side of music in general, too. Where are you with that now?
I feel like I doubled down on it because a lot of the delays with releasing this was because of a label. I had the contract man. I was about to be signed but the contract was wack. They wanted me to sign the masters to everything I already made over just to have this new one out. It was kind of a compliment; after being slept on for the duration of my career and having to do everything myself, it was cool to finally see that they wanted to make some money with me. But I was just like, fuck all that. The label was running me around for months to the point where I had to get a lawyer. I would have been on all the festivals and blogs, but I know they would have been screwing me. So let me do this on my own one more time and whatever happens, that's what's going to happen. I know I put everything into it.
I've noticed since Trump won, any music that questions the way society works, even if the artist has done this for their entire career, it's now labeled as Anti-Trump music. If someone was to categorize your music as such how would you feel about that?
Yeah, Trump is just the biggest imperialist right now. I feel like my work has been political from the start. Even just the act of doing it. You know, a skinny black kid showing up with all the speakers, and he's going harder than the rock bands. I feel like even that in Texas, where I'm from, my white friends was telling me, "Mike, people don't like what you're doing around here. They love you but certain people have a problem." So even the act of picking up the microphone is a damn statement. I feel like it is that time, though. Even when my friend texted me that I had to get back on it ASAP, I feel like that. It's the end of the decade; music and creativity, I've read, when the end of the decade starts coming, they start amping up. We about to be in 2020 soon, so I think you're gonna see bands and people take more risks and be a lot more active with their messages.
Is there anything you're trying to get through to listeners on REMAINS that they may not get off the top?
This album, even though it is political in nature, is really telling a story that calls for love. You don't fight hate with hate. You fight hate with love. Making a real rowdy political anthem might not be the best thing when everything is so fucked. An R&B album like Marvin Gaye did might be it. I'm not gonna give away the meanings it has to me. It has this edge where you can take it as political, but the story I was trying to tell, in my mind, is a love story underneath all of that.
Photography by Daniel Jackson. Visit his website here.
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