Those glued to either this week's "American Idol" auditions or Sunday's NFL playoffs have probably been humming Aloe Blacc's new aspirational jam, "The Man." The song has been blanketing the TV airwaves through a prominent Beats by Dre commercial featuring San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and is best identified by the clever appropriation of a short phrase from Elton John's "Your Song."
"You can tell everybody," sings Blacc, an L.A.-based singer best known for his "I Need a Dollar" and a recent collaboration with Avicii called "Wake Me Up." He repeats the line before transforming its meaning into a prideful boast: "You can tell everybody/I'm the man, I'm the man, I'm the man."
As is often the case, the televised airplay bred sales. "The Man" has been hovering near the top of the iTunes singles chart since the Beats ad started appearing.
The track's also been used as a bumper on "American Idol," a cross-platform coup presumably due in part to Beats co-founder Jimmy Iovine. A regular on "Idol," Iovine's also the president of Interscope Records, which released "The Man" and will issue Blacc's forthcoming full length, called "Lift Your Spirit."
Pop & Hiss caught up with Blacc to talk about the success of "The Man."
Did you watch the NFL playoffs this past weekend? I heard “The Man” probably two or three dozen times.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t watching the football games. I’ve been on the road so much that I have to really dedicate time to family while I’m home. But I got text messages every five minutes, basically.
By the end of the day, I couldn’t get it out of my head. Can you talk about how "The Man" was born?
I was working with a producer named DJ Khalil on some music, because I had been working on my album all through 2012, and different producers at the record label were suggesting here and there. I ended up having a meeting with Dr. Dre. Larry Jackson at Interscope suggested that I should meet with Dr. Dre. He said Dre was interested in working with me. He liked “I Need a Dollar,” and he wanted to see what else we could do. I had Larry send him some of the work that I was doing.
When I met with Dre, we had a really good talk about music and our interests and how we could potentially work together, but the long and the short of it was, he basically said that from the music he heard, he didn’t really feel like I was offering my best and that I could do better. So I took that advice. It was motivation to go back to the lab and make something that was a bigger, stronger theme, something that would at least make one of my heroes in music feel like I had accomplished something worthy of his attention.
I went back to the lab, and a couple of weeks I just spent trying to come up with different ideas and different concepts. I come from a hip-hop background, and I’m always coming up with songs. And this idea for a hip-hop song called “The Man” was running through my head, and had been running through for a couple years already.
And the Elton John/Bernie Taupin lyric of “You can tell everybody” has repetitively been running through my head for a couple of years. I figured this might be the time to engage this idea -- but for a hip-hop artist, not for me. I’m just making a beat for somebody. So I made a beat and started singing it. And then I thought, "You know what? I am an MC. I’ve been rapping forever. Even though I’m singing now and that’s what people know me for, maybe I should just try writing for this and making a song out of it."
I took it to Khalil, and he produced a fantastic beat around this concept. Next thing you know, Larry Jackson’s playing it for Jimmy Iovine, Jimmy Iovine’s saying, “I’ve got a great idea for a TV commercial for Beats by Dre,” and then it just takes off from there. I mean, it couldn’t have been a better process.
And Dre ultimately did like the track, so everything worked out.
You included "The Man" on a new EP in advance of your forthcoming album. Why did you time it that way instead of releasing it as a single off the album?
Well, we didn’t know what songs we were going to put on the EP -- I’d finished a lot of songs for the album and I just didn’t want to wait until March to release music to my fans, who have been hungry for a long time. So hungry in Germany, which is one of my major markets, they needed an album in September. They wanted it. So I gave them the album in September. So the question was, if we’re giving them an album in September, what are we going to give the rest of the world? We figured, OK, we’ll give them an EP. Avicii’s version of “Wake Me Up” was doing really well, so we'll put an acoustic version that sounds more like what I write and what I produce on my EP, and we’ll give fans something to tide them over.
Do you credit the Beats by Dre commercial with its rise on the iTunes charts?
I would say so. The Beats commercial has made the song much more visible. Otherwise, I’d have to rely solely on YouTube.
You’re not getting any radio play on it?
Not just yet. And I was asking the label, "When can we go to radio with this?" They were trying to figure out what the best timing was. But radio actually came to the label and said, "We’re going to start playing it now." Z-100 in New York said, "We know you’re going to try and pitch this to us pretty soon, but we’re ready to start playing it now." That was a huge opportunity. And that was largely due to the Beats commercial.
That’s the second time you’ve done an end around radio. “I Need a Dollar” found its success through television first.
I think “Wake Me Up” was huge without radio, as well.
I don’t know if I can continue this streak of good luck, but I’m just going to keep writing as many good songs as I can.
Tell me about the forthcoming full length.
My goal with the full length was to keep my vocal presentation and the lyrics very soulful, in this vein of funk soul that I think is what I do with my voice and lyrics and melodies. But musically, in terms of the production, I didn’t want to go too far back in time like the “Good Things” album. That was a throwback to classic soul. I wanted to update it a little bit, so I had this idea of having the sonic fidelity of a Dr. Dre album, having the soulful musicality of a Stevie Wonder album and the edge, or at least attitude, of a Jimi Hendrix album. And I think I accomplished that with a lot of songs. Even “The Man” sort of galvanizes those three perspectives pretty well.
I feel like I’ve found my voice. I’ve tried everything. I’ve spent a lot of years tinkering away at different styles and different things. And from an artistic standpoint, this is the most comfortable for me, and I think everybody else feels it too. It’s pretty obvious.