“The contemplative beauty of Exile’s beats fits Blu’s soul-searching perfectly on Below the Heavens.” – Pitchfork
“Blu and Exile’s Underground Classic Below the Heavens Changed West Coast Hip-Hop” – L.A. Weekly
“[Below The Heavens’] timeless production, raw vulnerability, and obscure mythology make the 2007 album a quiet classic.” – Noisey
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 and DJ/producer duo 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.Read more
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,” 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 recently helmed the majority of production for Fashawn’s The Ecology and released a new Emanon album titled Dystopia.
2017 marks the 10-year anniversary of Below the Heavens. One of the interesting tidbits about the album is Blu and Exile made over 40 songs, with only 15 of them making the final cut. Now, the duo is reuniting for their third release, In the Beginning: Before the Heavens, a collection of the best tracks from the original sessions. “I’m super happy to re-release it to people and have it actually get some attention that it definitely deserves,” Exile says. “It’s amazing.”
The 14-track album, released through Dirty Science and Fat Beats Records, includes previously heard songs (“Soul Provider,” “Another Day” and “Party of Two” appeared on Blu’s Lifted EP) and unreleased gems from the Below the Heavens jewelry box like “Constellations,” which was intended to appear on the album and once featured Miguel. These songs are raw and untouched, featuring new scratches from Exile. It’ll have guest appearances from familiar names like Dr. Oop, Donel Smokes, Aloe Blacc, and Blame One.
Hear Exile break down some of his highlights: “‘On the Radio’ is a song that Blu made that we used to laugh about, but listening now it’s dope. ‘You’re Gonna Die Someday’ is actually me rapping and Blu singing the hook. ‘Hot for Y’all’ is how Blu could have done some Roc-A-Fella vibe type shit, featuring the homie Donel Smokes. ‘Hard Worker’ featuring Blame One is some raw hip-hop shit. ‘Sold The Soul’ is a song, a really dope poem Blu did and he sings on it, it’s amazing. And ‘Stress Off the Chest’ is some train of thought, Blu spazzing and rapping type shit.”
On July 27, Blu and Exile threw a special 10-year Below the Heavens anniversary show at the Regent Theatre in L.A. Due to popular demand, they’ve hit the road for a West Coast anniversary tour with Dag Savage, Choosey, and Cashus King. It started on Aug. 30 and will end on Sept. 13 at Chop Suey in Seattle, Washington.
In the Beginning: Before the Heavens is slated for an October 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.”
Blu & Exile Share Some Pre-Christmas Heat with Holiday Track “Christmas Missed Us”
Dream Duo Blu & Exile Turn Back the Clock, Share In The Beginning: Before The Heavens, Premiered by Billboard
Below The Heavens Duo Blu & Exile Unearth Soul-Flipping Jam “On The Radio”
Ahead of Below The Heavens Prequel Release, Blu & Exile Return “Back To Basic’s”
L.A. Underground Heroes Blu & Exile to Reunite for Below The Heavens Prequel, Announce Anniversary Tour Dates; Mass Appeal Premieres “Constellations”