Moment of Truth: Blackalicious Overcome Health Issues to Drop First Album in 10 Years

Gift of Gab, the venerable speed-rapping MC of conscious Bay Area hip-hop mainstay, Blackalicious, suffered kidney failure in 2012 stemming from his Type 1 diabetes. For the past 3 years, he has undergone dialysis sessions three times a week. In 2016, he'll be at the top of the waiting list for a transplant.

Yet, at the same time his kidneys stopped working, Gab and producer Chief Xcel began work on their highly anticipated fourth LP, Imani Vol. 1.  It would be the duo's first album since 2005’s The Craft, and the first installment of the three-volume Imani project which drops this Friday.

[jump] “For me, watching Gab go through this — and his resilience through it — has been inspiring. To see someone go through something so life changing and at the same time be realistically the sharpest he’s ever been, the most prolific he’s ever been, and to be able to continue to work at such a high level…” Chief Xcel begins, on a phone call with the pair before a show in Santa Cruz. “…faith is the overall umbrella. It’s been the rocket ship for him and for us. That’s the best way I can sum it up,” he concludes.

The “faith” that Xcel refers to is the Swahili translation for the album’s title, Imani. And it feeds into a newfound spirituality for Gab: “Sometimes in life, you gotta be snapped into direction — this is just what the creator chose for me,” he says. During his five-hour dialysis treatments he uses the time to write. “It has helped me become a better person spiritually and mentally, and it’s been a blessing because it’s helped me grow and become a more prolific writer.”

With three albums due out within a two-year period, Gab has to do a lot of writing. And both he and Xcel have stayed busy with side projects following The Craft. “We never stopped working. We took breaks to do our own individual projects, but in between I’d still be giving Gab beats, he’d still be writing, and we’d still do shows,” Xcel explains.

By the time they sat down to begin work on Imani, the duo had 55 songs. Rather than plucking out the best dozen or so, the pair chose the ambitious route of releasing the material as a three-volume series. “Certain songs and certain stories require multiple volumes to tell the whole story. That was the impetus for it,” Xcel says before Gab chimes in, “And we wanted people to know that we’re confidently creative. We wanted to come back and just really make a mark. Hit ‘em with a combination.”

The 16 tracks on Imani Vol. 1 don’t stray too far off from the successful Blackalicious formula. If anything, some of the arrangements even come across as more decadent than they’ve been in the past, like the big strings and jazz keys on “Escape,” or the distinct Chief Xcel production forged in funk & soul on “That Night” and “The Sun.”

“It’s about building off of a certain sonic foundation developed from Nia on, that’s been built up, expanded and improved upon over the years. Gab would call them logical progressions.” Xcel says as Gab chuckles at a reference to one of his solo album titles.

Guest appearances on Imani Vol. 1 include the likes of Quannum collective stalwarts Vursatyl and Jumbo of Lifesavas, Lyrics Born, and Lateef of Latyryx as well Myron of Myron and E, Zap Mama, and rising Oakland bandleader Fantastic Negrito.

“Fantastic Negrito is like my brother from another mother,” Xcel says and likening his connection to the artist as a rare connection that he also shares with Gab: “When I first met Gab, the thing that made our chemistry so special is that he raps how I think, and I make beats how he thinks. Now since 2013, when I first met Negrito, all the songs we’ve done together, like “Loves Gonna Save The Day,” have been natural, spontaneous and they’ve all had a fire to them that was instantaneous.”

Negrito appeared with Blackalicious at The Fillmore last week to perform “Loves Gonna Save The Day” and it was a highlight in a set heavy on appearances from the Quannum crew the duo helped form. As a two-month US tour comes to a close on the West Coast at the end of September, Europe and China await the group, to which Xcel says, “We’re touring the whole planet!”

It’s inspiring to think how Blackalicious and Gift of Gab, with regular dialysis treatments, manage to perform at a high-level on a tour schedule that’s just as aggressive as Blackalicious’ three volume album concept. But Gab’s dedication hasn’t wavered: “When its raining outside, you put a coat on,” he says. “It feels like a second beginning… like we’ve got a second wind. I’m excited to get out, make new music and see and travel the world again. It’s a good, good feeling. And there’s no question that Blackalicious is here to stay.” 

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