Though it has many aspects, “Oblivia” is, most of all, a cypher on which underground rap veteran Blu takes a moment to just rap. The song—a spacey collab featuring Milo and Open Mike Eagle—is the latest single from Open Your Optics To Optimism, a collaborative EP between Blu and rising producer Fa†e. The project stems from years of work between the two; the first being on Fa†e’s slept-on (and damn good) debut album, 2013’s The Night Bus Home.
That track and subsequent team-ups laid the groundwork for OYOTO, a project that arrives September 28 via rap blog-turned-indie label EveryDejaVu. On its own, “Oblivia” is all sweeping production and razor-sharp lyricism, but it’s also a meeting of the minds—some of rap’s greatest minds, for that matter. Brothers-in-art-rap Milo and Eagle show up to kick knowledge atop a spacious beat, anchored by its swirling vocal samples and slapping drums.
Not surprisingly, the rappers deliver verses you need to play multiple times to fully understand. And Blu, a wildly popular L.A. rapper, punctuates the track with well-intentioned bravado. When he’s not high-fiving the L.A. skyline and carefully placing condoms in his utility belt, the lyricist finds time to tear down walls and knock Superman out of his kicks. What does this all mean? Who knows. That’s why we spoke with Blu and Fa†e about it.
From Exile to Mainframe to Bombay and now Fa†e, a lot of your projects are collaborative and with a single producer. What makes you want to do that?
Blu: I love the consistency of rap records like [Common’s] Like Water For Chocolate, Gang Starr albums, records that Pete Rock does. Those end up being my favorite albums. Like the Prince Paul albums with De La. I really dig those, so I try to do the same thing with my catalog.
What made you want to go that route?
It was really “Cosmophobia” (ed: a previous collaboration, and one of Blu’s favorite words related to this project). “Cosmophobia” opened my mind in a different way. When I received the topic, it was very deep and very simple at the same time. I was able to dive into it and really explore another realm that I’ve never tapped into. So we decided to tap into the cosmo realm, the astral realm, and see what we could pull out and bring back.
Given the EP’s title, does that have any reflection on how you view the world today and how important it is to remain optimistic?
That was like the underlying theme of my first record as well, Below the Heavens. That was about seeing yourself being in hell, but also seeing yourself being below the heavens. It’s just another way to open your eyes to something optimistic. It was like a return to a similar concept that we’ve touched on before, but in a different dimension.
That makes me think of how in “Oblivia,” you make a reference to a line from “So(ul) Amazin (Steel Blazin).” Was that on purpose, or did it just kind of happen?
We were just on a journey in outer space, fighting UFOs and eating planets and that kind of stuff. And Superman just kind of got caught up in the adventure [laughs]. We just met up again. Props to Superman, though.
I heard how you recorded that verse, and then went to have a tooth extracted?
Yeah, man, that was crazy. That’s like the most severe pain, that’s what they say. I’m sure getting a leg amputated or some shit is way worse, but they say it’s like the craziest pain.
Do you remember that experience at all?
Yeah, I was just in there and I felt like busting [my mouth] open with a bat or something.
On “Oblivia,” what made you want to have a track about rapping more than the concept?
“Oblivia” went with the concept, because it was like also having the ground to talk about anything. Everybody had the cypher to open their mind up to anything. To kind of be oblivious and at the same time, be tapped in.
Getting Milo and Mike on there, did you seek them out or was it something you and Fa†e agreed on?
Yeah, it was something that me and Fa†e agreed on. I knew Open Mike personally; we’ve toured before. So we’ve had our chemistry and always talked about working together on something. And Milo, I wasn’t too familiar with, but I was glad to be introduced to his music. I’m actually a big fan of him and his style. So it was a pleasure working with both of ‘em.
Fa†e, Blu has done so many projects and a lot of them sound different, but this is a step in another direction, in a good way.
Fa†e: Yeah, he’s done the off-the-wall electronic stuff with NoYork! and even some of Good To Be Home was sort of off-the-wall for a West Coast hip-hop record. But the way me and Ryan [Magnole, of EveryDejaVu] thought about this project was like, “hipster Blu.” He’s got the hipster glasses on and rapping over this different style of production. I was excited, because I started out as a really big Blu fan when I got into underground hip-hop. I was worried a lot of the hardcore Blu fans who just want Below The Heavens parts 2, 3, 4 and 5 were going to trash it. But so far, there hasn’t been anything negative said about the single—other than they couldn’t understand what Blu was rapping about, but that he rapped in a cool way.
So with “Cosmophobia” as the genesis, what made you guys decide to do an EP?
On that original record, I just loved Blu’s verse so much. It was in the same vein of Open Your Optics, and I was just like, ‘Wow, Blu really sounds good over this style of production.’ So after a couple of months, I proposed the idea of, ‘Hey, I really like the idea that you rapped on that. Do you have any interest in doing a project with that style of production?’ He basically was like, ‘Yeah, I’m down to do that.’
That was back in January of 2015. That was back when I was also working on Otion, this ambient indie project with a singer, and he did a feature on there that also had Kevin Abstract on the song. He was digging that [song], and I was like, ‘OK, you’re diggin’ this production, I think you could make a really great project with it. Let’s see what we can create.’
How did it transform into a conceptual project? Was that all him, or did you guys work on that together?
I know from the get-go he loved the [concept of] ‘cosmophobia.’ He’d email about how cosmophobia is his new favorite word. He was really diggin’ that, so I would make a batch of beats and send them over with spacey, out-there [names] like UFO, kinetics, that kind of stuff. So when he got it, he was like, ‘OK, I like these, I’m going to get to the studio and let you know.’ From that point, I didn’t really know what direction he was headed in, I just knew he was interested in space and time and that kind of stuff.
The first songs we did were “UFO,” “Otionography,” and “Think,” which is the opener of the album. Once he sent me those, I knew exactly where he was going. And from there, we bounced ideas back and forth like,“Where else do we see the project going? What kind of production do you want?”
It was cool, because I titled one beat “UFO,” and he used it, but created this whole concept of a song where he’s lost in space on this Apollo mission. When he sent me that, it was just his verse and he’s like, ‘This song’s gonna be me and my friends going to space. I’m getting Scienze on this, I’m getting Sene on this.’ I was like, ‘OK, dude, whatever you want to do. This sounds great to me.’
I can imagine you were a fan of his, and I think of how that would feel: ‘Oh yeah, I’m doing a project with one of my favorite artists.’ That’s pretty fucking rad.
Yeah, it’s crazy, I used to listen to Below The Heavens every day and NoYork! all the time. It’s almost surreal, in a sense, because it doesn’t even click to me because I’m on a personal level with him. And he’s such a different person than you would imagine a rapper to be who’s making all these records. He’s just the most humble guy, such a genuine guy.
The thing I really worried about is, if I’m working on this with this rapper who I grew up listening to, am I gonna be able to tell him, ‘No, I don’t like that.’ But during the process, we had a lot of things come up where me and him… not necessarily butted heads, but just kind of went back and forth. We understood where the other was coming from, and worked to make what we thought was best between the both of us.
How would you say “Oblivia” fits the theme of the project?
The way we viewed this in the concept of the album was we didn’t really have a record where it was just a rap cypher, where he could go out and just rap. Milo’s rapping, Open Mike Eagle’s just rapping, there’s no hook—that’s it. It doesn’t necessarily fit into the theme of things as in, ‘Oh, he’s talking about space, he’s talking about time,’ it’s more of, ‘OK, we’ve created this world but Blu’s still a rapper. He still wants to rap here.’
I talked briefly with Mike and Milo about their verses and deciphering it, but listening to it more and talking to you, they’re just talking about being artists and rapping.
Yeah, that was actually the last verse [Blu] recorded for the whole project. We were down here in San Diego at a studio, and he texts me at 5 that morning and was like, ‘Hey man, I don’t think I’m gonna make it down. I have to get a tooth extracted. It’s been bothering me for the last week, I don’t think I’m gonna make it.’
I told him I understood, but that it would be a shame because it was our last studio session we had to get done. But I understood, of course. And then he texts me a few hours later, ‘On my way, let’s get it done.’ He came from L.A. down to San Diego, got here and wrote and recorded that whole verse with a tooth that needed to be extracted.
He was on Advil and stuff, and his mouth was really hurting him. I could tell because he was really quiet, but he went in there and knocked the verse out in two takes. It was insane. He wrote the verse in probably like an hour.
When you see someone who just has that talent, it was really cool as a fan, too, to see that. But it was like, ‘Dude you need a tooth extracted and you’re out here, two hours away from LA and writing a verse and knocking it out?’
It was unbelievable.