One of the most celebrated hip-hop acts to emerge from the greater Bay Area during the '90s, Blackalicious made a triumphant return with the release of Imani Vol. 1, the duo's first new studio album in a decade that just came out two weeks ago.
[jump] Rising to fame from the unlikely hip-hop Mecca of UC Davis, rapper Gift of Gab (aka Timothy Parker) and producer Chief Xcel (born Xavier Mosley) actually met while still teenagers at John F. Kennedy High School in Sacramento. But it was in Davis that Blackalicious was formed and the duo — along with fellow SoleSides collective members DJ Shadow and Lyrics Born — would conspire to elevate the art of hip-hop during the '90s.
Two years before Shadow's landmark 1996 debut album Endtroducing raised the bar for beat production to stratospheric heights, Blackalicious put the SoleSides crew on the map with the stunning Melodica EP. Featuring Gab's cerebral rhymes and dizzying, tongue-twisting delivery over gritty yet cinematic beats from Xcel and Shadow. Classic tracks like “Swan Lake” and “Lyric Fathom” established the duo as creative players on the global hip-hop scene.
Though not as prolific as some of its underground contemporaries, Blackalicious more than made up for the lack of quantity with the remarkable depth of the albums that followed. Both Nia from 1999 and Blazing Arrow three years later still stand as two of the most thoughtful, soulful rap recordings released during an era dominated by gun-toting gangsta rap.
Blackalicious took an extended break from recording after its 2005 effort The Craft, but continued to tour regularly, maintaining its reputation as one of the best live hip-hop acts around. During the recording hiatus, Gab also faced health issues, struggling with diabetes before eventually getting a kidney transplant (though he still managed to produce several solo albums despite the challenges).
The 10-year silence finally came to an end earlier this year when the duo began previewing songs from a promised trilogy of albums. The first disc, Imani Vol. 1, came out two weeks ago to rave reviews. The recording features the group's trademark mix of thumping, jazz-inflected beats and songs that range from cautionary tales (“Escape”) to jubilant storytelling raps (“That Night”) to rhyme showcases exhibiting the verbal dexterity that have made Gab an iconic MC (“Blacka,” “On Fire Tonight”). Chief Xcel spoke to All Shook Down just days before the album's Sept. 18 release about the return to recording for Blackalicious and how collaborations with outside artists helped shape Imani Vol. 1.
Was it easy falling back into recording with Gab after such a long break from songwriting?
Yeah, working with him is like effortless mastery, you know what I mean? We just know each other so well creatively that we just get in and we go! There’s not a lot of time spent kind of walking around the side of the pool. We just dive right in.
To what extent did you road-test the songs on Imani Vol. 1? Were there some that changed significantly before you actually ended up recording them?
You know, the cool thing about touring while you’re working on a record, is you get to do just that. You get to kind of field test. So “Blacka” was the only one out the gate that Gab would do. He would do the verse acapella. And then as we got closer to the release of the record, we were pretty much doing the whole song. He’d do the first verse acapella to the chorus, and then do the second half to the beat.
But the thing that we were doing during the whole recording process was after the Blackalicious set, I would do like a 15-20 minute DJ set of things that I was working on for the album. So I got to sort of test people’s reactions to it. And if it was moving people, I was like “Ok. We’re on to something. We’re connecting.”
You, Shadow, and Lyrics Born were known for haunting the stacks at KDVS during your time there. As much as the industry has changed as far as using and clearing samples, do you still find the same inspiration from records as you did then?
Man, even more so, because I hear things differently. As time passes and you develop your craft, your ear develops as well. So as I’m going back and studying records, I hear things, different aspects of records that I had never noticed or may have overlooked, especially the recording techniques.
I’ve said quite often records to me are like books to any professor. You can never have too many records, because each one can teach you something. They can teach you what to do and what not to do [laughs]. So it’s all about, for me, continuing to expand my sonic vocabulary.
As much or maybe more than any other hip-hop group, Blackalicious has always celebrated the revolutionary poets from the '60s and '70s. You’ve featured poems or performances from Nikki Giovanni, Gil Scott Heron and now, on this album, you have Amde Hamilton from Watts Prophets on “Faith,” the first song of Imani Vol. 1. How far back does that influence go for you? Did you discover those recordings at Davis or was it earlier?
That goes back to childhood. Those were all records that my parents listened to. Then into adulthood, my first production ever on any major label was actually for the Watts Prophets [on their 1997 album When the ‘90s Came], so Amde and I go back more than 20 years, you know? So to be able to work with him was just an honor. He’s like a godfather to me. It was a great, great honor to have him open the record, as well as the poem right before “Love’s Gonna Save the Day” called “Love Remembers.”
In your songs, you can definitely hear echoes of those poets as far as common threads of spirituality and positivity. Do you think of Blackalicious as an extension of that lineage artistically?
It’s all one continuum. We’re all part of the same continuum. That’s the continuum that gave birth to our art form. Our genre of music came into being based on what they did.
How has your beat-making process changed since you started back in the ‘90s? Is it mostly just a function of the technology that you’re using?
I would like to say that it’s more a function of the creativity and creative development. The drum machine is like my sketch pad. What the pad and pen is to Gab, the drum machine is to me. So the ideas start there, but once the idea is brought into fruition, then I go into the lab and bring in the musicians and really start crafting it; from beat mode to song mode or composition mode.
It sounds like you and Gab work in concert as opposed to you coming to him with a finished song. So he has input on the beat construction and the arrangements? That’s all done in full collaboration?
His input on a lot of the songs comes via his reactions. I know instantly if it’s connecting with him. And then based off of that, I know what direction to go in and what to build off of. Or if I know something is not connecting with him, I know what to deconstruct and go back to the drawing board on.
A lot with us in our creative process happens in non-verbal communication. It can happen in just a head nod, you know what I mean? He can hear a beat and I know I’ve connected if he makes like the “thizz face” when he hears the beat. That’s when I know he’s thinking in his mind, “I’m gonna murder this!” That for me is the goal: to get that expression when I play a beat for him.
The use of “Imani” as a recurring theme is similar to what you did with Blazing Arrow, where you had the title work as a repeating refrain that gives the album cohesion. Did you know you wanted to do that going into the recording, or the idea surface during the process?
It kind of came after. We recorded “Imani” midway through. Around that same time, I was working with Marie – Zap Mama – on some stuff for her project. Gab had come up with the hook and demoed the hook. I played it for Maria and she really liked it. She lives in Brussels, and I played it for her on the night that she was getting ready to fly back.
We didn’t have time to cut the vocal part in Oakland, so she took the track back with her to Brussels and cut it in her studio and sent it back to me. And then after that, I just knew. I had it, you know what I mean? So based on that, we decided we wanted to create the different interludes.
They’re all in the same key and chord progressions as “Imani.” So I wanted to go back and create the different interludes that were inspired by different genres of music. We went in and did like a prog version and a sort of funk-rock version. We did an Afrobeat version and a straight-up, almost jazz standard version of it. It literally became the glue that helped tie the songs together.