With his cool-headed SoCal demeanor and everyman charisma, Blu was championed at the onset of his recording career when he collaborated with Emanon DJ/producer Exile for the highly acclaimed LP Below the Heavens (2007). Born Johnson Barnes in Inglewood, California, Blu, whose stepfather was a pastor, was very influenced by gospel and Christian rap when he was developing his MC skills in middle and high school. His musical turning point came when he first heard the Common classic "I Used to Love H.E.R." (1994), as well as the Chicago MC's third album, One Day It'll All Make Sense (1997). From then onward, Blu abandoned his schoolyard freestyle frame of mind and dedicated his abilities to crafting well-written songs. As he started doing live performances, he paid his dues working as a hype man for several underground rap and soul artists, including Slum Village, Steve Spacek, Platinum Pied Pipers, and, of course, Emanon. His relationship with Exile and newfound mindset in making music pointed him toward signing with L.A. independent Sound in Color in 2004, which for the young MC meant brushing off interest from Interscope and Death Row.
Subsequently, he cut a few records for Exile's Sound in Color album, Dirty Science (2006), recorded features for other L.A. artists, and self-pressed his Lifted EP in 2006. When Below the Heavens first hit shelves in August 2007, Blu and Exile were virtual unknowns in underground hip-hop, but Blu's deft songwriting and Exile's soul-drenched, Jay Dee-influenced production quickly amassed them a national audience. Below the Heavens ended up on many critics' year-end lists and, particularly, launched Blu into the public hip-hop eye. Remaining independent, Blu later turned to Sound in Color labelmate and L.A.-via-Detroit MC/producer Ta'Raach (formerly known as Lacks) for the collaborative project C.R.A.C. Knuckles. Over the next five years, Blu released a total of seven albums and mixtapes, including 2011's Open and Blu & Exile's Give Me My Flowers While I Can Still Smell Them in 2012. The previously unreleased albums Her Favorite Colo(U)r and NoYork! also finally saw proper release in 2013. ~ Cyril Cordor
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