History’s on His Side

Alec Foege is a New York freelance writer

It’s 2 p.m. at the clubby Palm restaurant, and R&B; singer-songwriter Bilal is as mellow as can be expected, considering his button-down lunchtime surroundings and the currently jittery vibe in his adopted hometown.

With his shoulder-length dreadlocks and stylishly baggy jeans, Bilal stands out among the somber pinstripes of the business crowd. He coolly slouches into a chair in the legendary wood-paneled steakhouse with celebrity caricatures festooning the walls. But as he talks, a warm spirit starts bubbling through.

In a few minutes, he seems almost at home among the suits, bantering with the uniformed waiter and ordering a plate of the special linguine fra diavolo with a glass of merlot.

“It’s always a good thing to walk down the street and be the odd one,” he says, removing his dark shades to reveal a pair of intense but gentle brown eyes. “I’m young and really experimental, so I hope that at the end of the day I can look back and say I have a sound that’s all mine out of all of this.”

Apparently he has. At just 22, Bilal Sayeed Oliver has carved a prominent niche for himself in the neo-soul revival that includes Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, and the Roots--singer Ben Harper has dubbed it “soulternative.”

A list of talents Bilal has crossed paths with in the course of his short career demonstrates his chameleonic musical appreciation. Earlier this year, he opened dates for Badu on her Mama’s Gun Tour. He also appeared on Guru’s free-form jazz-fusion album “Vol. 3-Jazzmatazz-Streetsoul.” A year before his debut album, “1st Born Second,” was released in August, he made a star turn on rapper Common’s hit single “The Light.”


“1st Born Second” features appearances from a member of the rock group the Spin Doctors, as well as rappers Common and Mos Def, and it’s quickly placed him in the thick of things.

“Whatever this movement is,” wrote Rolling Stone, “Bilal is now one of its major voices.” In The Times, Natalie Nichols said that he “underscores his multifaceted awareness of history, not to mention how a song can slice straight through the gut....This sprawling, 17-track album is steeped in jazz and soul, blends in funk and hip-hop, and has him alternately rapping and crooning with almost religious fervor.”

Other critics have compared him favorably to Stevie Wonder, Prince and Marvin Gaye. For months, the video for up-to-the-minute-sounding “Soul Sista,” which appeared on the soundtrack to the movie “Love and Basketball,” was a staple on BET. It’s as if Bilal devoured the last 50 years of African American music and turned it on its head for the new century.

The offspring of a devout Christian mother and a Muslim father, Bilal is accustomed to approaching the world from a variety of perspectives. The music on “1st Born Second” is a testament to his ability to synthesize those eclectic influences. Formally trained as an opera singer and a jazz musician, he chose a lush, syncopated pop style.

As a high school student at Philadelphia’s School of the Performing Arts, he fell hard for the old stuff. “I was singing classical arias and everything up until 11th grade,” he says. “I wanted to be an opera singer.”

Then he moved on to straight-ahead jazz, particularly bebop instrumentalists such as Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter and John Coltrane. “For a minute I was really ashamed to be a singer,” Bilal says. “Once I started listening to jazz, I didn’t think singing was hip. You know, singers know nothing about music. They never know what key they are in, they never know what tempo. The only thing they know is the words.”

Although Bilal had taken piano lessons, he chose a more novel approach to expressing his affinity for improvisation. He formed a traditional jazz combo--upright bass, piano, drums, saxophone--in which he sang, or scatted, the trumpet part. “I was into a whole Bobby McFerrin-like thing,” he says.

Later, he passed through yet another phase when all he listened to was Indian musicians such as sitarist Ravi Shankar. For a time, he inserted an improvised Indian chant into every song he performed. In another period, he became obsessed with African American spirituals.

By the end of school, he had recommitted to his voice and decided to head for New York City to jump-start his singing career. But his mother, a pharmacist, wouldn’t permit him to go without a clear plan, so he applied to the distinguished Mannes Conservatory of Music in Manhattan and scored a scholarship for jazz studies.

Bilal took easily to the conservatory life, learning how to transcribe music and compose. But another part of him was blindsided by New York’s manic energy. Soon he was frequenting open jam sessions at Smalls, a tiny basement jazz club in Greenwich Village that doesn’t serve alcohol just so it can stay open all night.

“I would just bring my journal down there and write,” he says. “That’s the way I approached the lyrics on the album, like conversation almost.”

That laid-back approach led him down a few different roads. On “Sometimes,” an introspective, Stevie Wonder-influenced funk track on the album, Bilal croons matter-of-factly, “This is a song that makes me spill out all my guts.”

Another song, “Queen of Sanity,” a slow-burning, ‘70s-style rocker complete with “Bohemian Rhapsody"-like harmonies, reveals his hopeless-romantic side. “Home” has a distinctly Bob Marley feel, but with lyrics that are more personal than most reggae songs.

Although he rarely played official gigs at Smalls, Bilal often graced the stage with other musicians to work out his freshly penned lyrics.

In a similar situation at the Sidewalk Cafe, another downtown club, he met up with the house drummer, Aaron Comess of the Spin Doctors. Comess invited Bilal back to the recording studio in his apartment. He was immediately impressed by the young singer’s wide-ranging vocal ability and offered to produce a demo tape for Bilal.

“I remember sitting right here in my kitchen with him,” Comess says. “He didn’t have any money and didn’t have a record deal. And I told him, ‘Believe me, in a year or two from now, you’re going to have a record deal.’ I just knew in my gut. This guy was too good to go unnoticed.” Before long, copies of the tape were being passed around among well-known area musicians like Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest, Chicago rapper Common and Badu.

Bilal often had luck on his side. While still in Philadelphia, he was spotted singing in a gospel group by Fa and Damu Mtume, sons of James Mtume, onetime percussionist for Miles Davis. The Mtume brothers were determined to manage Bilal’s pop career, but the young jazz devotee kept putting them off. He eventually relented, and their father helped facilitate a deal with Interscope Records in January 1999.

“What I was most impressed with was his vast knowledge of the history of the music,” James Mtume says. “Once we sat down and talked, I immediately knew that he had studied it, that it was real. That’s why his sound is unique.”

But even after Bilal had a recording contract, he had plenty of hard work ahead of him--including writing more songs. Sticking to the jazz mentality, the first thing he did was hire a band and begin rehearsing in a New Jersey warehouse.

Bilal sang and played organ, and learned a few things about the creative process. First of all, he wasn’t going to be able to play organ and sing at the same time. He decided to stick to singing. Second, he was going to have to break free of his formal training and take some risks based purely on instinct.

“Music is something you have to hear first and be willing to follow down this black tunnel with vague light,” he says.

This time, he emerged at the other end with an even wider range of material.

“The thing about my album is it has different personalities,” Bilal says. “It shows the schizophrenia of my mind. I’m one way one minute and then it’s like, ‘I’m really into this now.”’

Around the same time, Bilal also discovered the virtues of hip-hop, which allowed him to deftly deliver a succinct lyric over increasingly complicated musical arrangements.

One of the most fruitful partnerships in this area was a pairing with Dr. Dre for two album tracks. Known for his gritty work with Death Row Records and such rappers as Snoop Dogg and Eminem, Dre explored new creative avenues with Bilal--"Sally,” for instance, has an intriguingly haunting sound that blends hard-core rap beats with a 1920s and 1930s feel reminiscent of zoot-suited jazz singers such as Cab Calloway. (Bilal is also collaborating with Dre on the music for the upcoming Dre-Snoop big-screen comedy, “The Wash.”)

Although this free-form style of working had plenty of benefits, Bilal’s label felt the result was too ill-defined.

“When I signed Bilal, I felt like a lot of the work seemed a little abstract, but I knew his voice needed to be heard,” says Steve Stoute, executive vice president of Interscope/Geffen/A&M.; “Then we did a lot of thinking on it, because that’s such a precious instrument he has. We understood that with a performer as talented as Bilal, you’re running a marathon.”

It took nearly another year to bring the songs into sharper relief with the help of other producers such as Jay Dee, who also has worked with D’Angelo and De La Soul.

Meanwhile, Bilal began playing gigs around Manhattan and beyond. As a release from the growing pressure, he headed down yet another path. “My girlfriend at the time was a painter,” he says. “I said ... I’m not going to be a musician anymore, I’m a painter.” He ended up doing a lot of self-portraits.

For now, though, he’ll be sticking with his day job.

“I go through certain periods where I want to retire from music and do something different,” he says.

“Last week I wanted to be a barber. I tend to exhaust myself with music to the point where after a while I don’t even like it anymore. Then I come back to it and I write a whole bunch of songs. And it’s great again.”