Next month Bilal Oliver returns with Airtight’s Revenge, his first studio album in nine years.
In this exclusive interview with Beats, Boxing and Mayhem, Bilal delves into the concept behind the album and his struggles marketing a multi-faceted identity as a black musician in today’s music industry.
Airtight’s Revenge features Bilal on the cover mimicking Malcolm X’s famous 1964 Ebony Magazine photo. Instead of holding a M1 Carbine rifle like the revered activist, Bilal peers out the window gripping a microphone stand. The purpose, he says, was to convey his unwavering stance to release his music without artistic compromise.
“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,” he explained to Beats, Boxing and Mayhem. “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.”
That uncompromising position resulted in the dissolution of his first major label deal with Interscope Records. His 2001 debut 1st Born Second was critically acclaimed but failed to reach a large audience in spite of appearances from Dr. Dre, Mos Def, Common and J Dilla.
Instead of altering his sound for mainstream viability, he further experimented with blues and jazz arrangements inspired by Charles Mingus and Howlin’ Wolf for his sophomore set Love For Sale. Interscope flatly deemed the project “unmarketable” and promptly shelved it, informing Bilal to start making a new album from scratch. Following a period of self-doubt, he decided to leave the label after being re-energized by positive feedback from fans who heard the leaked album.
There is a distinct tone of bemusement in Bilal’s voice when he reflects on that situation. With a new album that addresses topics ranging from the current economic crisis (“The Dollar”) to the absurdity of religious fundamentalism (“Who Are You”), the singer notes that black artists today are being pushed by major labels to conformity and not allowed creative leeway bestowed on their white counterparts
“My music is no weirder than any white indie band,” he argued. “But we’re in a system right now where they think white indie and rock bands can experiment all they want but black artists have to follow the corporate guidelines. It used to be the total opposite years ago. All I want to do is push the envelope in music. I want that regardless of the label situation. But now I’m in a good place to do that.”
Airtight’s Revenge will be available on September 14th on Plug Research. It features production contributions from Shafiq Husayn, 88 Keys adn Nottz.
Bilal’s full interview with Beats, Boxing and Mayhem will be published on Monday August 16th.