Rather than hone one trademark style, Gab flips through lyrical techniques like a Rolodex, selecting the right one for the moment and discarding it before the listener's gotten used to it. "I don't just have one style. I'm a traveler," he says. "I'm constantly dropping new styles, and constantly visiting this area or visiting that area, but I never stay there."
Since the early days of challenging MCs in their high school parking lot to battling in the fierce Bay Area freestyle scene, Gab has proven his gift enough that he can now concentrate his rhyming on topics beyond the battle. Explaining the transition, Xcel says, "A lot of MCs see MCing as just in the skills realm and that's it. And don't get me wrong -- that's the foundation of it, but the next level is saying, 'I'm an MC, but I'm a songwriter. I'm an MC, but I have to use this skill to express this, this, and this. I have to show this color and that color.'"
Blackalicious' Chief Xcel and Gift of Gab, looking at the big picture.
"And you still have to write battle rhymes to keep your skills sharp," Gab adds. "But I think you could write a story rhyme and have your skills sharp. Sometimes I like that, though. Sometimes I could listen to 90 minutes of just braggadocios rap. I'm a student of the music, so the whole time I'm thinking, 'If this MC were to come at me with this rhyme in a battle, what would I come at him with?' I get in those moods, but I couldn't only listen to that, because you're using the English language. There's a broad range of topics."
Blackalicious' distinctive approach to hip hop, coupled with a few strategic business relationships -- such as having its records distributed in Europe by the esteemed Mo' Wax label -- established a following for the duo that reaches far beyond the Bay Area. After releasing Melodica, the pair toured Europe and the U.K. extensively, playing in front of notoriously enthusiastic crowds in Glasgow, Dublin, London, and Amsterdam. Then, after hearing reports from fellow Oakland DIY artists Mystic Journeymen, Gab and Xcel set out for Australia and Asia. "Traveling opened our eyes to a whole new world in terms of seeing the global impact of not only this music, but the culture," Xcel says.
"Unfortunately," adds Gab, "there's a lot of people that don't get to see outside of their city. We just feel blessed to be able to learn from the other cultures we see and spread our music to as many people as possible."
Blackalicious performs with Jurassic Five, Latyrx, and Planet Asia Wednesday, Feb. 16, at 8 p.m. at the Justice League, 628 Divisadero (at Hayes), S.F. Tickets are $20; call 440-0409.