In 2007, the same year that Kanye vs. 50 Cent in an album sales battle dominated headlines in the mainstream, Blu and Exile were carving their own path with an instant classic. The rapper born Johnson Barnes and the DJ/producer born Aleksander Manfredi released Below the Heavens: In Hell Happy With Your New Imaginary Friend on July 17. Featuring soul-infused production with the raw vulnerability of Blu’s rhymes, the album began to receive rave reviews by hip-hop tastemakers and underground enthusiasts. In a review penned by 2DopeBoys’ Shake for HipHopDX, he gave it a 4/5 and noted that Blu is an “an extremely talented lyricist; clever rhymes, technically sound, intensely personal and witty.” Below the Heavens impacted everyone in some way, as it would later end up on many critics’ year-end lists from all over the internet.
Compared to Blu, who was coming off his indie release California Soul and building his name in rap battle circles, Exile had already established himself with production credits on projects by Jurassic 5, Kardinal Offishall, Mobb Deep, among others. According to Exile, he was introduced to Blu through Aloe Blacc, who was the vocalist behind their group Emanon. “Aloe had actually met him first and Aloe had brought me over to see him perform,” Exile says of seeing Blu perform in L.A. in 2003. “It was just this hungry [MC], happy to be rocking on stage, and he was killing it.”
Exile was so impressed by his performance that he wanted him to join Emanon as a hypeman, where he let Blu perform some of his solo work. At the time, Exile was also working on his Dirty Science compilation album. He recruited Blu as one of the featured rappers, giving him a batch of beats to rhyme over. Blu, who was already a fan of Emanon, liked that Exile’s sound was so sample-driven – a hallmark of hip-hop’s golden era. The pair got into the studio to create “Party of Two” (their first collaboration), “Maintain ft. Miguel” and “The Narrow Path.” Their good
chemistry sparked the idea to make a full-length album together. “After that day, we knew we wanted to make an album with each other,” he says. “I remember being in the car after our session and just talking for a long time about the album and what we wanted it to be.”
From then on, Below the Heavens slowly earned its reputation as a milestone for West Coast underground hip-hop, delivering a pure and authentic experience for the Okayplayer heads. Although Sound in Color only pressed 3,000 copies back then and Below the Heavens suffered a premature leak online, the rarity of the physical CD added to the mythology of why people needed to cop and listen or face fear of missing out. Blu had a knack for grappling with his
everyman struggles and conveying them in relatable detail, using Exile’s instrumentals as a vehicle for his emotions. When he touched on thoughts of hopelessness, frustration, love, or spiritual enlightenment, people certainly adored it because he was being so honest.
“People loved those personal stories, all the braggadocio over soul samples, all the sincerity. No one looked at me as if I made a bad decision for making an underground record as opposed to something that could gain commercial success,” Blu said in an interview. “You feel the culture in the record … the nostalgia that makes you reminisce on those classic records. Sample static, drum breaks, raw lyricism and actual content — all for the West Coast.”
During subsequent years, Blu would go on to land a spot on the 2009 XXL Freshman Class alongside rappers such as Wale, Kid Cudi, B.o.B, and Charles Hamilton, largely based on the success of Below the Heavens. Blu and Exile would reunite in 2012 for Give Me My Flowers While I Can Still Smell Them that imbued the rapper’s multi-syllable style and the producer’s contemporary sound. Outside of their collaborative work, they have had fruitful solo careers too. Blu would drop countless mixtapes and EPs and continue to make one-producer albums with Bombay, Madlib, and Nottz. Exile Went on to produce another classic for another XXL Alumni with Fashawn’s Debut boy meets world, as well as a ground breaking instrumental project I EXILE RADIO, as well his work with Big Sean, which Khalifa Snoop Dogg, and producing more albums for his artist such as the album black beans by Choosey.
2020 marks eight years since their last full length released in 2012, but in an effort to make up for lost time they are releasing a double album entitled “Miles” This 20 track album, released through Dirty Science Records, includes features from Blu‘s childhood friend, and now platinum recording artist Miguel, as well as Exile’s childhood friend Aloe Blacc, along with new emerging artists: The Last, Artful Dodger, Choosey and more, they ready to prove they haven’t missed a beat.
Miles: From the Interlude called life is slated for an July 17th release. “We planted the seeds of creativity and grew about 40 plants,” Exile says of the release. “We picked the ones that we thought were the best for an album, but that didn’t mean that the other flowers weren’t beautiful.”