Interview by Dove ~Sheepish Lordess of Chaos~
The line where art and industry connect is a delicate tightrope. Teetering between bass lines and business sense, deadlines and dedication, capitalism and credibility, artists often get swallowed up in the swirling semantics of one-hit-wonderhood versus what art truly means to them. The fast deal often appears to be the glamorous choice for the stereotypical starving artist, however more up-and-comers are choosing to maintain control of their craft, their business, and their destiny. Chief Xcel and The Gift of Gab, better known to the masses as Blackalicious, understand what it takes to keep a logical stronghold on their artistic vision.
After meeting at Sacramentoâ€™s John F. Kennedy High School in 1987, Xcel and Gab joined up with each other when Gabâ€™s deejay at the time, Maestro K, decided that he no longer wanted to do Hip Hop. Not surprisingly, the two men initially met in an economics class. Both were involved in KDVS, the radio station at University of California at Davis, and Xcel was working hard with his crew The Solesides. The group, which included DJ Shadow, Lateef The Truth Speaker, and Lyrics Born released some successful 12" singles between 1992 and 1994, after which Blackalicious released an EP in 1995 called Melodica.
Although many artists will paint overly dramatic pictures of their early struggles, Xcel tells a simple story about his most memorable time working with The Solesides. "I think it was February the Gavin Convention would be in San Francisco, and that was the big college radio convention and thatâ€™s back when they were really having dope Hip Hop showcases. Thatâ€™s also when we put out our first record, and thatâ€™s when me and Lyrics Born had our first show, I was deejaying for him. The first record was called â€˜Send Themâ€™ which was Lyrics Born, who was then Asia Born, was on one side, then DJ Shadow had a song called â€˜Entropyâ€™ on the other side which featured Gab and it was like thirteen minutes of music. My best memory from that period would be, at Gavin, we were all sitting on the sidewalk putting stickers on our test presses to give out to people â€“ we had like two-hundred stickers and two-hundred records. And thatâ€™s my story. I know itâ€™s very unexciting. Itâ€™s just a good memory." Laughter ensues as Gab continues, "Just from that â€“ itâ€™s really just a trip to me â€“ itâ€™s not funny but, just hearing him say that a thought just came to me â€“ just thinking about that and thinking about how far weâ€™ve come from that. Itâ€™s just a blessing."
Gift of Gab insists that his biggest inspiration in Hip Hop, aside from any emcee making records at the time, was a man who harassed him into greatness. "In junior high school, it was around â€™83, around the time Run DMCâ€™s first album was out â€“ this older guy named Star MC used to come down to our building, he was my best friendâ€™s cousin, he would just come off the top of the head and cap on all of us and make us go home mad. So me and my friend used to ride our bikes to his crib every day and have rhymes on the paper and knock on his door - and heâ€™d destroy us every day," he giggles and shakes his head. "Heâ€™d destroy us every day. Then I moved up north to San Francisco and I met X and started battling more, and the thing that really made me say â€˜damn this is what Iâ€™m supposed to be doingâ€™ is I went back down and I had got better than he did. This is the person that used to come over and kill me every day â€“ and he was giving me genuine admiration â€“ and that fucked me up."
When it comes to making their music, Blackalicious has a chemistry that is undeniably fierce. Chief Xcelâ€™s peerless production and Gabâ€™s eclectic rhyme style is inspired by a range of artists so broad that even they cannot name everyone. They pass the mic back and forth listing off a flurry of names - from Aretha Franklin, Femi Kuti, Arif Marden, and Lee Scratch Perry, to Ice Cube, Toshi Yushiro, Jay Dee, and David Axelrod. "Iâ€™ve been finding myself really inspired by the passion and intensity of Jimi Hendrix, says Xcel, ?especially because we did so much of the album at Electric Lady â€“ you canâ€™t go in there and not feel his presence. That within itself has been amazing too. Itâ€™s funny because I feel like where we are today is a result of all these influences, so I canâ€™t say one thing without leaving out something else. There were two producers whose work I studied that formulated the way I look at and approach samples, actually three â€“ Prince Paul, Hank Shocklee and Premier."
As for their Hip Hop contemporaries, Gab is quick to mention Planet Asia, Ab-Rude, Mos Def, The Roots, Common, Project Blowed, Freestyle Fellowship, Ludacris and Rakaa from Dilated Peoples to be among his favorites. Xcel continues to express his dismay for not being able to name enough inspirational people. "Peace from Freestyle Fellowship, Pharoahe Monch, Black Thought, Common like Gab said, Mos like Gab said, Scarface, Iâ€™m a big Too Short fan â€“ you know, gotta represent the town. I always feel like I slight people though, when I say who are my favorites. Chali 2Na. Dilated. Iâ€™m a fan of so many people, but I feel like thereâ€™s sort of a select group of emcees right now that are truly making inspiring music. Iâ€™ve been a De La fan since â€™88, Iâ€™ve been a [A Tribe Called] Quest fan since â€™89 â€“ and of course all the greats â€“ the KRSâ€™s the G-Rapâ€™s the Rakims, the list goes on and on and on. One group I have to mention though that never got their just due that Iâ€™m still a fan of is this group from Houston called OG Style, they was on Rap-A-Lot. Dope." Gab pipes in from across the room, and reaches for the recorder again. ?The most slept on group of all time is Poor Righteous Teachers. I just wanted to go on record and say that.? They both laugh and Gab finally sits back and takes a deep breath. ?We could keep going all night."
Gabâ€™s lyrical influences may have inspired him, but it is his own ingenuity that keeps the group on top of their game and the fans on the edge of their seats. "Most of the time when weâ€™re doing Blackalicious, X will come up with the beat and Iâ€™ll write to the beat. When I write itâ€™s kinda like, every beat is a different mood, itâ€™s a different world to be explored, and itâ€™s a different feeling. Every beat makes me feel like going a certain way, and simply thatâ€™s really all I do is go where the beat takes me - I listen to the beat and wherever it takes me I go with that lyrically." Xcel agrees, "I think that what has to happen in either scenario is that there has to be a cohesiveness between the two â€“ there has to be a marriage between the music and the lyrics, and that marriage has to tell a story."
After parting ways with Solesides, Blackalicious released the EP A2G in 1999, and in 2000 released their first full-length album, Nia. The project was a critically acclaimed independent success story, and it seemed apparent that the crew could hold their own in the business world. Their decision to sign a deal to MCA Records last year was a shock and a surprise to many loyal fans â€“ evoking a sort of underground panic attack. The second album, Blazing Arrow, is due out in April â€“ and curious headz are wondering if the move to a major will have a major impact on the quality of their art.
Xcel realizes that people have a lot of questions about the move, and is quick to explain his stance on the issue. "So far the transition hasnâ€™t been that big of a deal for us because before we even signed we went into it saying â€˜even if we do sign to major we do want to keep our independent mentalityâ€™, because thatâ€™s kinda what has built the foundation over these past thirteen years. I think a mistake that a lotta cats make when they go from doing things independent to a major is they lose that hustle. To me thatâ€™s a recipe for falling off. When you make that step or transition the work is a hundred times more, because you have more tools at your disposal â€“ more resources â€“ so you have to work even harder to make sure youâ€™re on top of all of your business to make the most of those.
"One of the reasons why â€“ and I guess itâ€™s the questions I see on Okayplayer a lot â€“ why did they choose MCA? It was basically a bidding thing going on between MCA and another big label â€“ and of the two, MCA was the one that understood when we went in, we said â€˜look, if youâ€™re gonna try to get in and change what we do weâ€™re just gonna stop making records, because we built up a fifteen year chemistry â€“ we do what we doâ€™. They gave us a hundred percent creative control and freedom to do our thing, and I think Blazing Arrow sorta represents both production-wise and song-wise the next logical progression from Nia. Basically Blazing Arrow would have been made with or without a major â€“ if it was the next Quannum record it would have still been done the same way."
Gift of Gab explains the meaning behind Blazing Arrow, and the theory behind it seems to be extremely appropriate considering their current state of mind. "A blazing arrow is about having faith. If you listen to Nia, Nia was about purpose, about finding purpose â€“ Blazing Arrow is about faith, itâ€™s also about action. Itâ€™s like a force that canâ€™t really be stopped, and anything it lands on itâ€™s gonna affect. Itâ€™s about actions â€“ about walking on the tightrope in darkness, and the wind is blowing, and all the odds are against you â€“ but youâ€™re not trippin on any of that, because your faith is stronger than all of that.? Gab does not feel that their production has suffered in the transition to MCA, and speaks intently with a positive tone. ?We donâ€™t really compromise what we do too much. I think with this album X explores a lot more musically â€“ thereâ€™s a lot of live instruments that are being played on this record â€“ moreso than Nia. With us itâ€™s just about musical evolution. Itâ€™s about growing."
Guest appearances on the album include Rakaa, Chali 2na, Ahmir â€˜?uestloveâ€™ Thompson, James Poyser, Jaguar Wright, Gil Scott-Heron, Zack De La Rocha, Saul Williams, Cut Chemist and Keke Wyatt. Xcel kept most of the song-making process in his own camp. "Actually a good ninety-six percent of the production was done by me, â€˜Nowhere Fastâ€™ was done by Ahmir and me, â€˜Itâ€™s Goin Downâ€™ was done by Hi-Tek and me. Itâ€™s not really any other outside production on the album. I think all the vocal guests we hooked up with the exception of Gil Scott Heron and KeKe Wyatt was pretty much fam, so it was all a natural progression. Chali 2na was originally supposed to be on Nia, because we had actually done a song called â€˜4000 Milesâ€™ which is the song that heâ€™s on with Lateef, but the original beat I had done with Gab, Lateef, Dilated and Chali 2na in mind."
"Everybody that weâ€™ve worked with, weâ€™ve already been talking about working with them for years,? says Gab. ?For the most part it was all organic â€“ like minded artists that we have respect for and that make really good music, who have respect for the music that we would make, and be like â€˜if we hooked up with these people we could really do some powerful stuffâ€™ â€“ and we were able to do it. Weâ€™re on the same wavelength. Weâ€™re creative people and we feed off of each otherâ€™s creativity, and we make each other better at what we do."
Soulquarian percussionist and producer ?uestlove took some time out of a busy road trip to speak on his involvement with the Blazing Arrow Project. "I did a song called â€˜Nowhere Fastâ€™ which is a concept song about procrastination. Itâ€™s a three verse song in which Gab talks about longing for yesterday, and the second verse is about why does he have to deal with the shit he does today, and then the last verse is about putting off what he could do tomorrow. Gab is a really underrated emcee, and I just hope those two stick in there long enough to wait for the pendulum. I actually knew X just messing around, doing early Roots shows up in the Sac. I had copies of â€˜Swan Lakeâ€™, one of their first twelve inches, which he did a very clever addictive usage of â€˜People Make The World Go Roundâ€™. Iâ€™ve always been a big fan of Blackalicious. So when the opportunity presented itself to work with them I jumped at it. Even if we werenâ€™t label mates, I would have still done it for them â€“ I would have worked with them, but it just made it very easy because there was less paperwork to do.?
Considering ?uestlove has warned that there is a few short minutes before they go into a tunnel, he hurriedly describes why he is kicking himself for not being involved with two songs on the album. "They did a follow up to â€˜Alphabet Aerobicsâ€™ [called Chemical Calisthenics] - what these bastards did, if that wasnâ€™t enough, is they did a song breaking down the damn periodic tables. And whew. Just imagine Cut Chemistâ€™s â€“ J5â€™s composition for the Lesson on their albums â€“ like all that innovative scratching and stuff. Imagine someone rhyming like a maniac all that shit about periodic combinations â€“ different chemical combinations. Itâ€™s crazy. I just sat there and watched them create the shit. I got insanely jealous. Then they played me the song that Saul Williams is on?." End of call. Somewhere ?uestlove is kicking himself in a tunnel, anticipating the release of Blazing Arrow and the songs he didnâ€™t help create.
A few months back, an article was written profiling the perspective of current MCA artists on the urban roster and their harsh feelings about the lack of promotion at the label amongst other things. Xcel explains that he did read the piece, but still holds a neutral position about the issues with reference to Blackalicious. "I think as far as the article goes, me and Shadow talked about every day how difficult it is to wade through the shark-infested waters of the music industry â€“ and itâ€™s a task â€“ and itâ€™s why I look to people like Tito Puente and Quincy Jones who have catalogs of over fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty records in just complete awe â€“ because itâ€™s difficult in this business to do. I just feel like for us when people are like â€˜how is it going with the labelâ€™, I mean so far itâ€™s been great. Theyâ€™ve delivered everything that they said they were gonna deliver. But my answer to that question in terms of â€˜how do you really feelâ€™ â€“ itâ€™s too early to tell â€“ we havenâ€™t put out a record yet."
Gab leans forward in his chair. "Where weâ€™re at in this process right now, Iâ€™m really excited,? he says with a smile. ?We made the album that we were supposed to make, and I feel really good about it. Sometimes itâ€™s bigger than â€˜itâ€™s an indie, itâ€™s a majorâ€™ - weâ€™re artists. We make rap music from the heart, and sometimes things are bigger than that. I believe that this is a God-given gift. I believe that some things are just supposed to be as they are. Of course itâ€™s a business, of course thereâ€™s people that not necessarily into it for the culture â€“ but ultimately we make music from the heart and weâ€™re gonna continue, and thatâ€™s our philosophy."
Xcel brings the discussion full-circle in one fell swoop. "Weâ€™ve been together doing this for fifteen years now â€“ itâ€™d be one thing if we were a group who had just did a demo and just got signed or some shit like that. Our last record we sold 100,000 units in America alone independently. Thereâ€™s a lot of people on majors who havenâ€™t been able to do that. Our thing, our goal at the end of the day, is to make a very comprehensive catalog of work. Itâ€™s a step-by-step process, and if this step doesnâ€™t work, thereâ€™s that step, thereâ€™s that step? A lot of people kinda see this? they call it â€˜the gameâ€™ â€“ itâ€™s like this crapshoot. Thatâ€™s the illest thing to me, especially if youâ€™re an artist. I mean why would success at one label or some record deal make or break your career? If God put you here to create, then thatâ€™s what you do - and if the way to get your music out is independent then do it independent, if you have an opportunity to put it out through a bigger vehicle then do that. But major, independent - theyâ€™re all just vehicles for the music. The bottom line is: It comes down to the music."