interest in the guitar was kindled by the sounds of Nirvana and the West Coast ska-punk band Sublime, and Eric Clapton's Unplugged led him to investigate Robert Johnson, Elmore James, and the driving rhythms of Johnson's "Dust My Broom." Belhaj would eventually take lessons at the Herb David Guitar Studio and study privately with pianist Tad Weed. He recalls being moved to tears by a rehearsal tape of Billie Holiday singing "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good."
His personal pantheon of musical heroes has grown to include swing guitarist Al Casey, early modernist Charlie Christian, staunch traditionalist Eddie Condon, Romani guitar virtuoso Django Reinhardt, western swing archetype Bob Wills, and Hawaiian lap steel wizard Sol Hoopii. Long connected to U-M's student-run WCBN-FM, Belhaj cites radio broadcasts of historic early jazz and blues recordings as a powerful inspiration. He made the decision to form his Crescent City Quartet while under the spell of vintage recordings by clarinetist Joe Marsala, cornetist Muggsy Spanier, and New Orleans reedman Sidney Bechet.