A dollar is what he needs
LAUREN MUPHYtalks to hip-hop soulster Egbert Nathaniel Dawkins III – aka Aloe Blacc – about how his version of a chain gang song propelled him into the big time
First things first: your real name – Egbert Nathaniel Dawkins III – is pretty memorable in its own right. Why did you adopt a pseudonym?
Y’know, every hip-hop artist has a pseudonym, so as a teenager I chose to use one, rather than go with a name that sort of promotes a dark history in the Americas.
You’ve been around for a few years at this point, but people on this side of the Atlantic aren’t necessarily very familiar with you.
I’ve been touring around Europe since 2002, but largely I’ve just had a niche audience – mostly underground fans of future soul and hip-hop music. The past year and a half, I’ve spent a lot of time in Europe. There’s been a lot more people at my performances and a lot of attention from radio and media since I appeared on Later with Jools Holland.
A lot of people would probably know your song I Need a Dollar, which sounds like an old Bill Withers tune.
I was inspired by field recordings of chain gang workers, so I kind of wrote I Need a Dollaras my version of a chain gang song. I worked on the lyrics for a few years, and when I was in the studio with a producer, I put these lyrics on top of soul music that we were jamming on, and it worked out perfectly. I’m definitely flattered by the Bill Withers comparisons.
Considering that it’s been your biggest hit to date, have you got sick of singing it yet?
No, no. I’m happy to make people happy, and that song definitely does it whenever I play a show. So the happier they get, the more energy I get from them.
You began your musical career as a part of hip-hop duo Emanon in the 1990s – what caused the switch to soul music?
I spent a few years working on music as a solo artist so that I could explore other genres; really, I just wanted to write songs that could affect people in different ways, and touch different emotions – and soul music just ended up being the best use of my voice, after I’d tried so many different genres.
It’s a similar route taken by Cee Lo Green, with his Goodie Mob background...
I think there’s a strain of hip-hop artist that grows and becomes more than just a hip-hop artist, just because they are fans of music in general. So you have artists like Mos Def, Lauryn Hill, Andre 3000 and, of course, Cee Lo Green, who fit that mold. I’ve always been a fan of music in general, and I grew up playing the trumpet and the piano and guitar too. I’ve always listened to a wide range of different genres, so it was just a natural step for me.
You’re a bit of a musical chameleon, having also worked with jazz bands in the past – but what’s your favourite genre?
I don’t know if it’s a genre, but for me, it’s the folky singer-songwriter sort of stuff – just the voice and guitar. Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens, James Taylor.
Lyrically, you tackle a lot of social issues in a way that soul singers don’t usually do.
Yeah, I prefer to write music that has a message in it. I use the music itself, the instrumentation, to help people celebrate – but I use the lyrics to help make them think, and hopefully make decisions about their lives that can change the world for the positive. When it comes to hip-hop, there’s really no one in the mainstream that’s doing that right now; it’s become about ego. But hopefully, if I can build a big enough profile in the US with soul music, I can switch back to hip-hop and do some good.