Not many artists can go into album exile for eight years and emerge with much of their fan base still intact. But Bilal Oliver is a fighter and survivor. Instead of bowing under the mainstream demands of his former home Interscope, Bilal opted not to record ready-made radio tunes and completely severed ties with the major label.
On September 14th, he returns with Airtight’s Revenge (Plug Research), his official sophomore project and “unofficial” third offering following Interscope’s shelved Love For Sale. And for the first time in nearly a decade, Bilal is giving fans his art in an uncut and raw form.
Ismael AbduSalaam: You’ve been an artist that’s experienced the good and the bad with the Internet. Talk about what made you comfortable with Plug Research going forward and creating your own label situation.
Bilal Oliver: Well, I think Plug Research is doing their thing. Digitally, they’re one of the biggest companies. With the Internet it’s a gift and a curse, and you have to deal with it in the best way. I think it’s a cool deal I have for an independent venture.
Ismael: A couple years ago Dave Chappelle had a comment about how art suffers when it meets corporate interests. Based on what you experienced with Interscope and the type of music you make, do you believe it would ever be beneficial for you to return to a major label?
Bilal: It just has to be set up in different way. In order for you to get respect and be able to do what you want to do you have to make noise indie first. Once you do that you can get better leverage like a Master P or some shit. My music is no weirder than any white indie band. But we’re in a system where they think white indie bands or rock bands can experiment all they want but black people have to follow the corporate guidelines. It used to be totally the opposite years ago. All I want to do is push the envelope in music and I’m going to do that regardless. And I’m in a good place to do that.
Ismael: On the unreleased Love For Sale album you’ve mentioned people like Charles Mingus and Howlin’ Wolf were influences on the sound. What influences did you pull from for Airtight’s Revenge?
Bilal: I really used a lot of concepts from Frank Zappa on this record; just because it’s a mix of a lot of different sounds with a nucleus of rock and soul. And even with that nucleus there’s a mix of jazz, blues and electronic influences. Frank Zappa was dope at that; mixing a lot different artists in a band to create one distinct sound. And that’s where I was with this type and just musically in general with my writing now.
Ismael: One of your collaborators for this album is Shafiq Husayn (“Levels”). How was the chemistry working on a song from scratch with him?
Bilal: It was real cool, man. I always get a lot out of working with Shafiq. We were just experimenting and having fun doing it. I always like to experiment with cats that are just as experimental as I am. Shafiq is like a scientist and just to watch him is really cool.
Ismael: I know Airtight’s a nickname. How did you get it?
Bilal: You know Common started calling me that. I used to read a lot of Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim books. Com got me into that and that’s a nickname that stuck from years ago. Not that I’m old or anything [laughs].
Ismael: The album cover replicates the famous Malcolm X photo now known as “By Any Means Necessary.” How does that tie in to the work on the album?
Bilal: The concept is getting my art out by any means necessary. Even through all the pitfalls, the dark side of industry and the bullshit you go through. I’m going to get it out in the manner it should be; not watered down or anything against how I want it. That photo is a reminder of that. It’s uncut, raw music that I’m putting out. And I’m willing to do whatever to get it out.
Ismael: I wanted to commend you on the “Who Are You” track. I can really relate to it being that I also grew up a religiously mixed household with a Christian mother and Muslim father. Explain how your spiritual process and evolvement has affected your music.
Bilal: It’s helped me a lot. Spirituality is an ongoing deal every day. I’m the type of person that whatever I’m dealing with or thinking about, it kind of shows up in my music. I just felt like really speaking on religion and how it’s separating everyone when a lot of the religions are very similar. But no one really knows that because everyone likes to focus on the negative. If everyone would really study the other religions they would really see. So I wanted to bring the light that we’re all spiritual beings and should not separate each other. It’s not a gang; we’re all trying to be connected to God.
Ismael: The consistency of putting out albums before was out of your hands due to the label issues. Now that you have that control back, do you see yourself putting out albums often or more extended breaks?
Bilal: I don’t know it depends on how the music comes to me. I just try to empty myself but I won’t rush anything out. I don’t think it’ll take me long. It really took me a long time in the last couple years because of stuff going on behind the scenes. But when I’m in a good space mentally and good recording space I can do music all the time.
One of the main things I’d like to do before my next record is build my own studio and have my own space to do things.
Ismael: What would you say was your weakest point as an artist and what made you decide to keep going?
Bilal: My lowest point was battling with Interscope to put Love For Sale out without changing songs and finding a single. That was the worst; writing a song with the intent of it being a single. And then after doing that it getting bootlegged and the label telling me I had to start from scratch. That really upset me because I had gone through such a fight for the music. To have them tell me they were giving up on it and to start over just left a sour taste.
[What kept me going] was when I started to get responses from people online saying they enjoyed the music. When I got that it really opened me up to saying “man, maybe I can keep going.” Even then I was very reluctant to start music. I would just write music for myself and record with my garage band. I just started doing my own shit privately. But it was really when I started getting responses online that I opened up.
Ismael: What are the touring plans? Are you going to focus on the States or take it international?
Bilal: I’m going to focus everywhere. I just came back from overseas. I plan to do a tour in the States and then Japan. I’m really interested in making music that’ll reach the whole world and not have boundaries. I really try to scale my music down to melody. I’d love to touch the whole world with this.
Ismael: If you could meet the Bilal from 2002, what advice would you give him?
Bilal: I would tell him…shit I don’t know [laughs]. Artistically I’m not mad at anything [I did]. I would have kept my music more under wraps. I wouldn’t have recorded at so many different studios and tried to protect my music a little bit more. But everything happens for a reason, so a lot of times I try not to look back. I make sure I put my best foot forward.