Interview: Elijah Blake – Rising Star on a Mission to Define His Generation
These days, we’re starting to hear more and more stories about artists who were discovered on YouTube and developed fame through that avenue. The game certainly has changed. Elijah Blake has a similar story, although to his credit, he used his YouTube recognition to put himself in the right position to make moves in the industry. He didn’t blow up as an artist immediately, but he was able to land songwriting placements for artists like Keyshia Cole, Trey Songz and Usher with his #1 hit “Climax”. What followed from there, and rightfully so, was the label attention he so desired which led to him signing with No I.D. at Def Jam. On a mission to help make sure his generation isn’t only remembered for making songs about being tipsy, this special talent certainly has all of the tools to do so. His debut EP “Bijoux 22” gave us a taste of his potential, and now it seems like only a matter of time before he becomes a star. YouKnowIGotSoul sat down with him recently while he was in NYC and discussed being discovered by producer Troy Taylor, the boost he was given by artists like Trey Songz and Usher, the label battle to sign him, originally going by ReddStylez, and much more.
YouKnowIGotSoul: I was reading in 2008 you had the MySpace page and you were putting your music on there and were able to build up a fan base that way. Eventually Troy Taylor took notice. How did that all happen?
Elijah Blake: At that time I just wanted it so bad and I didn’t have any relationships. It’s still crazy to me some of the people I’m cool with. In the back of my head I just hope they don’t remember I’m the kid that used to blow their inbox up and spam them! *Laughs* Like “Yo check out my music!” There’s like mutual respect now. I would put up these songs and I would just kinda just try to get them out there. When the people really started rockin with me, it was this song called “Anniversary”. Troy hit me up and was like “Are you writing this?” because at the time I was 15 or 16. He was like “You sound good, but it’s crazy that you can sing, most people can do one or the other. But you’re 15, how did you experience this stuff?” So we kept in contact and he was like “Yo I’m going to help develop you because you don’t even know how talented and dope you are.” I wanted to be heard so bad I put up half ass songs and just vocals. At one point I just started doing originals on YouTube and I got really popular on YouTube to the point where they made me and my pops a partner. When they first started the partner program, we were amongst the first batch because we brought in so many views. After that, one of the labels reached out. I was working at Blockbuster and I just wanted to do music. I would always get in trouble with my boss for singing in the aisles. People would ask me “Could you help me find a movie?” I would say “The same way you’re going to find it, I’m going to find it, it’s in alphabetical order! Let me just sing my song!” They would call the corporate office and complain I was just singing. There were people who were upset and others who came up to me like “With a voice like that, why are you in Blockbuster”? After a couple of more run ins like that, I just quit my job and my dad thought I was crazy. So my dad said “If you’re going to do this foreal, let’s take it there.” We did original songs. The label reached out and put me in the studio and they didn’t believe I was writing the songs. They would put me in rooms and see if I was really writing these songs. So they wanted to send me down to Atlanta on a development deal, and at the time they sent the video to Troy Taylor who was already kinda keeping in contact with me. They said they thought I was a star, and Troy was like “This is the kid I was trying to tell you about. I think this kid is special, bring him down to Atlanta.” Ever since then him and my dad teamed up and helped develop my songwriting skills. At the time I was so churchy I wanted to do runs everywhere. So they helped tame it where it’s tasteful but I can still go to where I want to. So I owe props to them for all of that.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Eventually Troy Taylor got you in the studio with Trey Songz and you wrote “Jupiter Love” for his album. You continued writing for more artists after that. How did you start becoming more of a writer than an artist?
Elijah Blake: Honestly, I’d be lying if I said that I grew up wanting to be a songwriter. I guess it was kinda selfish of me, I just thought I had a story to tell and I wanted people to hear my music. I didn’t have a budget because I was on a development deal kinda thing, and I’m the type of dude who will make a way out of no way. So I was writing songs for myself and one time Trey approached me and he was like “I think you’re an amazing singer, that goes without saying, but to be as young as you are, you have a gift for songwriting as well. Right now you might not understand it, but I want you to pay as much attention to your songwriting as you do your singing.” In my mind at that time, I was like “Man I just want to get this album done so I can get this record deal and put my music out so that I can pay songwriters to write songs for me.” He wanted me to write a song for him. We started messing around with ideas and then “Jupiter Love” came about. I will always have respect for Trey because it was never anything like “Aw look at this young dude, he think he doin it.” Trey from the beginning always took me under his wing and offered advice if I needed it. He was more like a big brother.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Eventually you got a chance to write for Usher, his #1 single “Climax”. How big was that for you in your career?
Elijah Blake: That was big because for me growing up, it was Michael Jackson, then Usher. When Michael Jackson died, I just kept thinking, I didn’t want another one of my icons passing without me getting a chance to rub shoulders with them. When I got the chance to work with Usher, I was determined to come up with the best song ever. His first words when I got to the studio were “What y’all here for?” *Laughs* Me and my pops were sitting there looking at each other like “Damn, we flew all the way here and they didn’t even tell him we were writing together.” He was like “We’re here to make history man!” I was down for that. “Climax”, with it being one of his longest songs at #1, is a blessing. I was hoping to get a song on the album, I didn’t think it would impact culture the way it did.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Now you’re signed to Def Jam by No I.D. How did he discover you?
Elijah Blake: When I left working with Usher, I had so much creative energy built up and I just wanted to put it into the form of a mixtape. Usher thought I was a star, he would show me love as an artist aspect of things as well. I went back to Atlanta and wanted to do a mixtape. A lot of my A&R people who were in the industry wanted to hear the music. They were shocked I wanted to give it away for free. So my management called me and told me a label had put a deal on the table and that I had to at least get a counter offer because now the ball is rolling. I found a label I thought I was going to end up with, we were really close to signing the deal, it was about to happen, and No I.D. would hear my music sporadically over time. He wanted to meet me, and nobody would ever be able to get in contact with me. After one A&R played him a song of mine, he called me right then, and it was a random Sunday and I got a call saying No I.D. wanted to talk to me. I didn’t even know he knew who I was, so I was running all over the balcony making sure my signal was good! *Laughs* I’m on the balcony and he’s like “Yo man, you’re dope, every time I hear a song I wanted to know who you are. And I’m really picky.” He wanted me to come by the studio that night because he had something special he was working on that he needed my help with. I went by and he actually had an artist named Snow that he was developing. I wrote a song for her and when I went in the booth to do the demo, she was like “Wait, you sing like that? You have the whole package. What’s going on with your deal.” I told her I was about to wrap up my deal. So No I.D.’s wife wanted to hear some of my music. This was a few days after he had got his executive position at Def Jam. So she’s listening and not telling me why, then told me to hold on. So No I.D. came in the room and listened, and he’s really tough to please. He’ll like something and give you a straight face. He heard it and was like “This is special, what are you going to do with this?” He told me about the label he had and that he’s picky and wanted his stuff to be about art. Since the other deal was so far along, I didn’t think it was going to work out. Me and No I.D. had another meeting and I played him some more songs and he told me “I work on special stuff. You can go to these other labels, I think you’ll be a star regardless, but I want to build you and brand you and develop you even more and make you something special. I don’t want you to just be another artist.” I prayed on it and I went and met the Def Jam staff and it was history. The energy was great; they got the music, they got me as an artist, and I felt like this was the best decision that I made.
YouKnowIGotSoul: A few months back you released your EP. What were you looking to accomplish with “Bijoux 22”?
Elijah Blake: At that time Elijah Blake was still new to so many people and I was getting so much love on the feature end like the Rick Ross song, the Keyshia album and Game song. It got to the point where the fans that I was getting were like “I’m excited to hear what you sound like in your element.” It was like “What does he sound like when he’s not on a Rick Ross album?” It was frustrating when I would get these tweets. Back in the day when fans had questions, they couldn’t access the artist directly. Me being so passionate about music, when my fans ask me something I feel like I have to give them an answer. It hits home to me for some reason. I kept going to No I.D. like “These people need to hear something. I don’t want to be pigeonholed as the dude who comes and kills the hooks.” We put together a mixtape. He was like “You have a gift that you’re never going to be in a need for music. You can always write songs so you don’t have to write songs captive. You can write better songs and you get better as you go.” We put together a mixtape and put together some songs that were old and new. We went back in and revamped them. It was like a week and a half process. I wrote the storyline and I just wanted it to be cohesive and where I was at that time because I was in a dark place as well. I felt like I got the deal, but the world hadn’t heard me yet and I didn’t want to wait until I was on the calendar to come out. I wanted to be like “This is who I am now. Get to know me.” I want to get feedback from the fans about what they like to hear. I don’t want it to be on my first album to see what my fans don’t want to hear from me or what’s not working. I wanted to put that out as a teaser to taste test how people would graviate toward it. I didn’t expect to the reaction to be what it was. I really thought it was going to be something I was going to put out there and people who wanted to find it would find it. The love was amazing and it goes to show that you could have all the promo tools in the world, but if you just put out good music, people will just, through word of mouth, pass it along. There’s a need and a thirst for good music. It’s at an all-time high because everything is so formulated. I think it’s a good thing that I did to put that out.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You’ve had a hand in writing a lot of songs for artists like Usher, Trey Songz and Keyshia Cole. Has it been hard trying to break the stigma of being writer?
Elijah Blake: Yes and no because the real artists who I looked up to would always tell me that there was no reason that I shouldn’t have my own album out. When I was working on my album, a lot of the biggest producers and artists would be like “If you want a verse, let me know.” I feel like there shouldn’t even be a stigma because art is art and a songwriter paints a picture. Michael Jackson wrote his songs and he was one of the greatest artists of our time. You would never see someone say “Michael was a better songwriter than an artist.” He was just an artist. I feel like anytime you put a songwriter next to art, it’s the most lethal combination because you know it’s real and you know you can relate to like Lauryn Hill or Prince. My favorite artists like Alanis Morissette, Coldplay or Bono, they all wrote their songs. I think it’s a crime we even separate that sometimes. There are people who are just songwriters, but I feel like there shouldn’t be a stigma for singer/songwriters because that’s an artist. I try not to pay attention to that because if you start off as a songwriter where you crossover to being an artist, what people don’t realize is that a lot of times, these songwriters were artists first. The thing is that as starving artists, you have to get money. I have too much pride to sleep on someone’s couch and blame it on me being a starving artist. I looked at people like Ne-Yo and The-Dream and they were able to prove that they were in touch with culture. I was like “Let me do that and earn my stripes.” I always feel like I never want anything handed to me, only thing I want is a fair opportunity to prove myself. With those songs, now in my situation with the label, I feel like if I get on a table and I stand up and I’m fighting on a song, I can say “I want respect with this song.” They’ll respect that because I respect them and that will create a common ground for everybody and for the politics to fall to the wayside and it’s just about music and how great the song is.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You’ve had the EP for awhile now. You just put out the video for “X.O.X.”. What’s next for you?
Elijah Blake: World domination. *Laughs* I just want to bring music back to the days where music saved lives. I’ve seen interviews where people have been on the verge of suicide and the right song has changed their lives. It’s even songs that I hear that just brings me back to where I was when I first heard the song on the radio. I could smell the scent in the air when I hear that song. I think if we keep writing songs about how tipsy we are and how much money we’re throwing away, when our kids and grandchildren look back at our years, they’re going to be like “Damn there was a Stevie Wonder era, a Michael Jackson era, the Elvis era.” I don’t want them to be like “Your era sucked!” *Laughs* because all we’re talking about is being tipsy. I think there’s a place for those songs too because every now and then, I want to hear those songs. But I think there should be a variety. That’s all I want to offer. I want to offer songs that tell a story and help people to get through a situation. I want to be the dude that can articulate what other guys want to say, but they couldn’t because their anger took over. It’s like every dude’s homeboy and every chick’s dream. *Laughs*
YouKnowIGotSoul: You used to go by the name ReddStylez. You built a fanbase with that name, so have people followed you now that you’ve changed your name to Elijah Blake?
Elijah Blake: I still battle with that because I feel like I worked so hard to go back to keeping it organic. I feel like the music is organic. I stripped the ReddStylez thing and just did Elijah Blake because I don’t want people to hear my music and say “Is he a rapper?”. I remember when I first met Ciara, she was like “I heard about you and I always expected you to be a rapper.” It used to drive me crazy because one thing about me is that I’ve never pretended to be super hard or carry a pistol. I was just the dude who grew up in the suburbs and played with the homies that was in the hood down the street. I never pretend to be hard, I just do me. I feel like the gentlemen side comes across in my songwriting and I can get hood and ratchet when need be, but I feel like ReddStylez just represented me on YouTube. I grew up on YouTube and made a lot of mistakes. Back in the day, people would make mistakes on reality TV shows. If you look at Destiny’s Child, you saw how they went through star search and stuff. I feel like I was learning and developing on YouTube. The were times where I wanted to run track or do something and my dad would be like “You have to go on YouTube because your fans requested this!” The videos would get all these views and people would think that’s me, but I would cringe. They were happy, but they should deserve more because they’re rooting for me. I just wanted to start fresh. Sometimes people will be like “I remember when you were ReddStylez!” I still don’t know how I feel about it because I worked really hard to get away from all that but I have to realize it’s a part of me and there are people who followed me.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Anything you’d like to add?
Elijah Blake: This album is going to be amazing. No I.D. and I put a lot of work into it. It’s cohesive and it doesn’t sound like anything else. I just wanted it to be a breath of fresh air and I think we accomplished that.