Bilal Oliver is an enigma. Though the Philadelphian hasn’t had a studio album since his brilliant 2000 debut, First Born Second and an online album since 2005's Love For Sale, he’s effortlessly garnered a cult following that’s kept him on stage. He plays a number of instruments by ear, been rumored to sing opera in seven languages, will write a song praising soul sistas, then pen a tale about a crack smoking stripper who paralyzed herself after falling off the pole. Above all, though, the classically schooled Oliver is a hell of a vocalist (name one contemporary singers who can cover Prince, note-for-note). It’s why he’s so in-demand by the subterranean (Sa-Ra), the hood (The Clipse) and the greats (Jay-Z), alike.
VIBE caught up with the mystery man in his hometown and got him to speak on the gift and curse of his bootlegged album, he and Beyonce’s past and his new album being his best work thus far.––Bonsu Thompson
VIBE: I’m a huge fan of both your albums but I’m still hard pressed to define ‘em. What were you trying to accomplish with each?
Bilal: Exactly what you said: void of genre. Like Fred Zappas’ approach. Fred approached it that way and Miles approached it that way when he got older. Just bringing musicians together that can play all different styles and then coming up with your own thing. When I was younger I sung a lot of gospel. Once I got to college I started really collecting records and spending time in the library, listening to classical stuff. I started getting into a lot of different types of music and I wanted it all to be in what I was doing. That was my gamut, especially when I found out about Frank Zappa. I was like this is exactly what the fuck I’m trying to do. Everybody in my band can play a little jazz, a little rock, a little funk, gospel ‘cause that’s what we do.
Your most recent music seems to be leaning more to the rock side. Is that where you’ve been creatively over the last couple years?
When I first started, my music was very keyboard driven but I was getting stuck into the Neo-Soul thing and that was never my whole thing. I was about different concepts. So on this album I pretty much went with guitar because that’s what I was hearing.
Love For Sale. Is that album still painful for you to digest or have you gotten over it being bootlegged?
I’ve gotten better. It’s kind of turned into a Catch-22 at this point. I started off like “This is fucked up. Can't believe this shit happened to me.” I was getting rebellious [with that album]. I was like I’m gonna get more into my songwriting and more into playing and producing on my own. At the time I was signed to a production company and they kind of didn’t understand [the music]. They kept saying “It’s so fucked up and weird” and then the shit got bootlegged and I was like “Maybe it was weird.” Everybody except my band was like “I don’t know. This shit is so dark.” But then after it got bootlegged we started doing shows and people would have it on their Ipods and knew the songs. It was kind of a blessing in disguise. We were able to tour off of that album which is crazy. So that’s the thing that really pushed me to say to myself “Man just go with what the fuck you feel.” That was crazy. Title was Love For Sale and the shit never went on sale [Laughs]. Love For Free [Laughs].
“After [Love For Sale] got bootlegged we started doing shows and people knew the songs. It was kind of a blessing in disguise.”
Now the new album’s title is Air Tight’s Revenge. Does the revenge part have anything with you getting back at the industry?
Air Tight is the name I’d use when I’d produce. I just went off that name from like a Donald Goines or Iceberg Slim type of spin. [But] yeah it’s my story. I look at it like the phoenix rising from all of the shit that I’ve gone through. Revenge on how my second album was bootlegged. Certain people would’ve expected me to just stop and be upset but when I saw the response of the people it just gave me a boost to start writing more material. So it’s symbolizing how nothing will stop me from this love. The revenge is more love.
Was there a statement with this album or did you once again just throw stuff at the wall to stick?
I just wanted to write from where I was. When I was signed to Interscope there was a lot of A-and-B situation songs––love songs etc…
But there was a lot of unconventional stuff on First Born Second too. Like “Sally.”
Yeah, and there’s more of that on this album too. I look at it like storytelling. Every song has its own vibe and situation but they’re all dark tales like an Edgar Allen Poe, not scary but almost like the blues. There’s love songs on there too, but I’m older now. I read the newspaper now… well I look at the news at least [laughs]. I think it’s a good progression of me. The thing about this album is every song we started from the ground up. I maybe wrote to one track but everything was pretty much ground up. I’d start off on the axe or from the guitar and just build it like that. That’s what I love about this album. Every song could be a standard. You could write it on and put it in a songbook.
You have a knack for recording with the polar opposites of the music industry. You’ll collaborate with an underground cat like Shafeeq from Sa-Ra then do a duet with Beyonce for the Fighting Temptations Soundtrack. How have you been able to balance both ends?
Well, a lot of the collabs I do people call me. It’s been cool that those type of spectrums all appreciate what I do. I’m not really sure how but I guess it just worked out that way.
So how exactly did you end up doing a duet with Beyonce?