Photo: Mia K.
Rising R&B Phenom Blakk Soul Means Business
In many ways, Blakk Soul (born Eric Mercer Jr.) accomplished more before releasing his debut album than many music makers do in their entire career. For starters, the Tacoma, Wa., R&B artist's first job in L.A. was working as an engineer for Mike & Keys, who executive produced Nipsey Hussle. Then, he landed management with the highly influential Rapper Big Pooh of Little Brother, and he's already written, sang or co-produced on records from the likes of Playboi Carti, Jake One, Macklemore, Anderson .Paak and Dr. Dre, who gave him a "master class in the whole song creation process" for a solid year and a half.
With all of his credentials, it should come as no surprise that Blakk Soul's debut LP, Take Your Time, arrives as such a complete package by such a well-rounded artist. He sequenced all the songs and mixed and mastered the album himself with stunning results, landing at No. 24 on the iTunes R&B charts. The album also features guest vocals from Joell Ortiz of Slaughterhouse, Amaal, Cocoa Sarai, and Nana plus multi-platinum producers Wyldfyer, J. LBS, DrewsThatDude, and Symbolyc One.
While the cascading vocal production and varied themes of personal freedom, strong mental health and a heavy dose of sensuality on Take Your Time reveal an artist with a swagger all his own, the work he put in under Dre's tutelage is abundantly clear in his command for the craft, especially the attention to detail.
"I always like to believe I'm a pretty detailed person, but being around [Dre] and hearing in his ear and the way he doesn't miss anything," he says. "I was like, 'Oh. It gets deep. It can get deeper than this.'"
The Recording Academy went deeper into conversation with Blakk Soul over the phone to hear more about his hot seat experience with Dr. Dre, the making of Take Your Time, his thoughts on the country's current climate of racial injustice, the importance of artists understanding the business side of music, what playing sports has to do with making better records and more…
Coming into your career, was there a moment when you said to yourself, "Music is not only what I want to do with my life, but I think I can make this my livelihood"?
I started off as an athlete. That was my main focus. Along the journey I had some musician friends that really saw a career in music for me before I did, but the ball was live so I was like, "Nah, I want to stay focused on this route." But some things just don't work out like we plan for them to, so it was about my sophomore year in college, I really had to sit and think, "What am I naturally gifted at, that if I were to hone those skills I could probably turn it into something?" And it was always music.
Sure. Was there any crossover there, between sports and music? Did you use any of those skills when you started writing songs?
Oh yeah, absolutely. Even in sports I was always a gym rat. I think the same type of discipline crosses over to my music career. I'm always constantly recording, constantly researching techniques, constantly trying to improve. When I made it into some of the rooms that I've made it in with some of the amazing people that I've been blessed to share space with, that's one of the common denominators I've noticed for everybody that's achieving at a high level, is their ability to eliminate distractions and to lock in and get the task done. I definitely feel like some of those same disciplines crossover.
I love that, from gym rat to studio rat.
Can you talk about how the relationship with Big Pooh and Little Brother kick-started and ultimately really shaped your career path?
Well, Pooh is really like a big brother. I got to actually work with him first before I met him in 2011. I was, at the time, working with another brother of mine, Kuddie Fresh. He used to be a part of the production group, Tha Bizness. I had just met him at the time and was doing a bunch of demo references. He had went out to a conference in New York and the old manager of Little Brother, Big Dho at the time, was also present at this conference. He got a chance to hear some of the work I had been doing, word got back to Pooh through him. Pooh was working on his Dirty Pretty Things album at the time. Dho basically told them, "This is this kid at Tacoma I heard. Man, I really think we should reach out. He might be what you're looking for sound wise for some of the records for the album." The crazy part about all of that is that first of all, he reached out to me via Twitter.
Now, me being a fan of Little Brother already, I didn't even think it was real at first. He had DM'd me, sent me his number. We had a conversation and gave me an opportunity to do a hook. I ended up doing a hook to the song called, "Free." Then I had to wait a few months to know if it was going to make the album or not and it did. Then the backstory for it was crazy. He was on tour for that album and I got to perform with him in Portland. As we were prepping for that performance we got to talking about the record and he told me he had never actually heard me sing a note before reaching out to me. He was totally going off of the trust and relationship he reportedly had with Dho. That blew my mind. I was just like, "I could have been terrible for all you knew." He said, "Yeah, pretty much."
When I found that out I was like, "That's pretty crazy." And we've just been working since.
And it was through you were connected with Dr. Dre, right? How did you get in the room with him?
I was actually back in Tacoma at the time working on my Never See EP. I ended up running into a producer that told me that he was working with Anderson .Paak on his album, but he wasn't aware that I knew people that we could verify to know if that was a real thing or if it wasn't. That's what sparked the conversation initially. The A&R at the time of Aftermath was also a previous road manager of Little Brother. Pooh reached out to him to get confirmation on whether the situation was legit. It wasn't. But in that conversation the A&R started asking about me. I was fresh off of landing the Macklemore placement, or, the two Macklemore placements on the GEMINI album, and then he had told them I was working on my EP. So he asked him to send him three of what he felt were my strongest records so he can play them for Dre and see what Dre's thoughts were.
Two hours later he calls back and said Dre loved them and wanted me to come down, so I was on the next thing smoking back to L.A. to session up. Excited, all kinds of emotions running high, trying to map out my next move. By the time I got to L.A., he went on vacation for a week so I was on standby. Then one random night while I was at a friend's house, we got the call to come in the studio. I ended up coming to the studio and as I'm walking in the front, he was walking through the back. They introduced me as a songwriter and he was like, "Oh, you write?" And I was like, "Yeah, I do." He was like, "Okay, we going to see you tonight." And he just walks off. I was like, "Oh. Well, okay. Okay. All right. This is interesting."
I had done my research about the Kendricks and 50 Cent and The Game. I've heard their stories about the infamous hot seat. That's essentially where you try to put your skills to the test. He sees if you can create a song from scratch, figure out the concept, and then build it up. I didn't know that that was going to be my night for the hot seat but it turned into that fast. It went well though.
You always got to be ready, right?
Yeah, you got to stay ready. I successfully passed my hot seat experience. Everybody left the room and it was just Dre and I talking and he told me that he really felt that I had a special gift. Man, after that, I worked with him for about a year-and-a-half and just learned. It was like a master class in the whole song creation process. From getting the instruments for the musicians in there to build up the track, the writers, everything all the way down to the mixing. I learned so much. He taught me how to mix on the SSL board.
Where did you see the biggest improvement in yourself and in your skills coming out of that year-and-a-half with Dre?
I think I saw the biggest improvement in my attention to detail. I always like to believe I'm a pretty detailed person, but being around him and hearing in his ear and the way he doesn't miss anything, I was like, "Oh. It gets deep. It can get deeper than this."
And also patience. One of the things I learned from working with Dre is if there's a bar that hasn't been delivered right, maybe the vocal inflections aren't right or they're missing the timing, the average person over enough takes is just going to move on like, "We'll just, we'll come back to this." He'll ... if it takes eight hours to get that one bar right, we're going to sit there for eight hours until that bar is right before we move on.
I think that's a testament to the quality of his mixing, the quality of his work, is because his attention to detail and his commitment to making sure that it's right is next level. I definitely took that with me and started applying that to my own processes, and definitely this project for the Take Your Time album. I feel like that was a definite growth in terms of sound, in terms of content, in terms of delivery from my Never See EP to the Take Your Time album.
When did this group of songs for Take Your Time really start to come together? Was it during that time with Dre?
Some of them were during the time, towards the end of that, of my time there. They were just all over. Some I created back home. Some I created in L.A. Really just went off a vibe and whenever I got the music in and try to really take my time and make sure that the conversations were authentic to me. Because I'm a songwriter also, sometimes you can get caught up in just doing generalized content or song structures because you want them to be shoppable. But the beauty of being able to work on your own thing is these stories are true to you, these experiences are true to you, and you can deliver them how you see fit.
I saw on Twitter you wrote, "Mixing my own record is therapeutic," and you mastered the album, too. Can you talk more about the choice to handle the entire process like that as an artist, and tell us what specifically you find therapeutic about mixing?
I started learning how to mix out of necessity. At first, I didn't want to do any of that heavy lifting, but early on when you don't have a budget, it's spending. Before I really had a method or a rhythm to my recording process, I was spending a lot of money making it in the studio and not being really satisfied with the product.
And so I took a vested interest in trying to make sure that I understand what I'm doing, understand the sound that I'm trying to achieve. Then I just told myself from there that I'm probably just going to stick with it until I don't have to. But now, the reason why I posted that is I don't know if there's going to be a time where I feel like I don't want to be that hands on on the project. I feel like now it's just become a part of my creative process because I've been doing it so long this way. And then, not to mention, the gems that I was able to take away from working at Dre's studio is like, it only makes me more excited to really try to achieve the best sound possible. And who better than to practice with than yourself?
That reminds me of how Prince made his records. I saw the tribute you posted on what would have been his birthday and I love what you wrote: "He really advocated for understanding the music business and owning your own material." But that can be daunting for artists, so how were you able to do that in your career, to gain an understanding of the industry that surrounds the music you're making?
I know that the business side is definitely a turnoff for a lot of creatives. I think for me, personally, the business side has always been my thing because even prior to doing music whole-heartedly or full-fledged, I was on road to becoming a lawyer. I was a pre-law student. I majored in philosophy and minored in international business, but that was all in process of pursuing a law degree.
And so business has always been my interest and ethics have always been in my interest. I don't necessarily detach the two. I'm just as interested to learn about the infrastructure of the music business as I am on learning how to put a great song together.
I know it's not like that for everyone, but I'm definitely an advocate for it because that was one of the things that I drew to from Prince. I remember, Prince spent 23 years of his life fighting for his masters and advocating the importance of understanding publishing and owning your material. Even more recently, Nipsey Hussle, I was privileged with the opportunity to work with Mike & Keys who executive produced Nipsey's whole album and did a lot of his previous Mixtapes. That was my first job when I moved to L.A., was engineering for them.
"I'm just as interested to learn about the infrastructure of the music business as I am on learning how to put a great song together."
Just being around these great people that all advocate for ownership, they advocate for understanding of the infrastructure of the business and being vertically integrated in your brand, these are all things that I took away and that I felt privileged to be able to be in the spaces to learn this information and apply it. I just have a high respect for people that could create that because I see so many people get taken advantage of just because they don't choose to take a vested interest in the business of their own career. It's like, "I get it. I know we're all creators," but that's the thing. If you're going to take it from being a hobbyist to making it a career, you've got to understand both. You have to have a healthy working knowledge of both.
Right now, the fight against police brutality and racial injustice is at the top of the music community's minds and hearts. From your perspective how you describe the current situation and what does change look like for you?
In terms of describing feelings about it, it's a wide range of emotions trying to process all of the things going on because it's happening in real time. I think it's definitely a marathon and not a sprint. I think it's amazing though that it's transitioned from just being a fight that you would only see Black people fighting for to, everybody is tired of this archaic system that's been oppressing people for so long. I think that speaks to just how bad it was.
For a long time it was only people of color and Black people that were fighting for this equality and then that there were so many people that just didn't understand it or, because based on how they grew up or who they grew up with, there was a disconnect. Now I feel like with technology being the way it is, being able to see what was hidden for so long because of media agendas and whatnot, now it's become a world issue and everybody's taking a vested interest in breaking this system down.
I know it's going to be a long fight but I think so much amazing is going to come from this, like amazing art. I know people, as creatives, we feel obligated to try to put something out right now in the middle of the time, but at the end of the day we're all human. We're still processing everything that's going on, we still have our loved ones. We're still in the middle of a pandemic while all of this is going on and dealing with ramifications of that.
2020 has been a wild time. It's been nonstop chaos, but some of the most beautiful things grow after the storm. I think some of the art is going to be amazing that comes from this. I think people are becoming more engaged in the political process, whereas [before] a lot of things were swept under the rug or bypassed because a lot of people never took a interest in understanding how politics work or understanding infrastructure and how they fit in the pie. But now, everybody's looking at everything with a microscope. I think overall, it's going to be to the betterment of the culture and climate. Not just creatives, but I mean everybody.
Where do you turn to make sure that you're emotionally rested and healthy during such chaotic times?
Man, I think music is that for me. Music is definitely my therapy, is definitely my release. When I'm creating music, when I'm sitting focused on mixing music, it's like my escape for that little portion, a couple hours of work from everything that's going on.
I think it's important because I think some people feel the fight for justice has to be a 24/7, 365 thing, but it's important to take breaks because you're not going to sprint a marathon. It's important to find your stride. It's important to take those breaks and make sure that your energy stays centered because it gets overwhelming. Life in general gets overwhelming. With a lot of the things that we've been seeing it's been a lot of sensory overload. When I start feeling like that, man, I just put Pro Tools on and try to figure out something to create. That usually gives me peace of mind for the day.
You have so many different experiences and talents, and as the cliché goes, "You got your whole life to make your debut album, and just two years or whatever to make your sophomore album." But you could really take your career in any direction you want. What you're thinking about doing next and long term.
Definitely more music on the way. I've been working on another project that's almost done already, actually. I'm working around the clock.
I think my short-term goals is I want to be a successful artist to create a platform that will allow the funneling of information in regards to the music business to make sense for people. A lot of people, it depends on how they see you to be willing to receive the information. You can hear the right information from somebody that you're unfamiliar with, and it may strike you differently if it's somebody you are familiar with. I just understand how that goes and with all the things that I advocate for, I understand that my platform has to be a little bigger for it to really resonate and to stick with the massive. That's my goal.
My goal has never really just been to be rich and famous. I just want to be comfortable. I want to make sure my family's taken care of. And then the biggest part of this pursuit is leaving a legacy that impacts people after me, that's always been my thing. I want to create opportunities. I want to create pipelines for independent artists who want to pursue a major situation or who want to eventually stay indie, but understanding what each of those roles come with and understanding what things they need to have in place to make sure that they're handling their business well-roundedly and successfully.
And then being an engineer. Mixing engineer, master engineer is my long-term thing. I can do that until I'm old. When being an artist is no longer a pursuit of mine, I just want to be the guy behind the scenes getting all the cables out, going through the process and mixing all the records.