Born in Los Angeles, bred on Big Daddy Kane and religious texts, Blu is simultaneously an anomaly in rap and an archetypal underground figure. Growing up, he split time with his stepfather (a pastor who showed young Johnson Barnes Christian rap and gospel) and his father, who turned Blu on to the then-emerging genre of gangsta rap and G-funk.
Blu spent his early years in L.A. as a hype man for groups like Slum Village before signing to the independent label Sound in Color in 2004—all in all, he's certifiably local when it comes to Los Angeles. But he used the city's influence to create music very different from Dr. Dre and Snoop.
In fact, it was a Chicago rapper that inspired Blu to start putting heavy thoughts into his lyrics. After listening to Common's "I Used to Love H.E.R.," he said, "I felt like I had heard hip-hop for the first time. It made me change my content and my whole approach. It made me serious about writing and wanting to say something."
From listening to The Roots in high school, making his landmark 2007 album Below The Heavens through to his time with Detroit's Danny Brown and the most recent collabs with Brooklyn rapper ScienZe, Blu has been pushing boundaries and testing the genre's limits for decades. Long before Kendrick brought free jazz to the masses with To Pimp a Butterfly, there was Blu's Her Favorite Col(ou)r. He's been an L.A. rapper from the beginning, but never according to anyone's definition but his own.