Hip-hop started out in the park; although, as many have debated, it was simultaneously starting across the country under the west coast sun as well. The west coast has given birth to some integral careers in the timeline of hip-hop, especially when we’re discussing the (golden era) “sub-culture” of alternative hip-hop. Among them, The Pharcyde, Souls Of Mischief, Digital Underground, Jurassic 5 and – of course – Blackalicious.
My first introduction to Blackalicious, a duo consisting of members Gift Of Gab and Chief Xcel, was Alphabet Aerobics. Over a beat ever increasing in speed, Gab worked his way through the alphabet. It made me not only listen like a hundred times trying to catch all the bars but also led me to discover their debut album NIA. Aside from the album being on NME’s 101 albums to hear before you die, which I agree with, it was critically praised and etched the duo’s name amongst the underground elite.
The duo released two more studio albums, Blazing Arrow and The Craft, before calling it quits (on wax) indefinitely. Although, there was no real break-up – in fact, they still did a few festivals. Rather, it was just two friends exploring other options. They both released some albums and collaboration before deciding, at the top of 2012, to breath new life into the Blackalicious brand.
Ten years after the release of their last studio effort, Blackalicious is back with a new LP, Imani Vol.1. Much in the same vein as some recent artists, the album is available for pre-order on a crowdsourcing platform – and to date is 80% funded. Gift Of Gab, being the humble dude he is, took some time to chat with me about the origins of Blackalicious, his fave artists and why Imani is bigger than just an album title.
How did Blackalicious originally get together?
Well, Blackalicious met back in 1987; we went to high school together. We met during economics class, and we discovered that we had a similar passion and a similar vision of how we saw hip hop – and the type of hip hop we wanted to make. From there we started to make music, do little shows, and it began to grow from there. Eventually, Chief Xcel moved to Davis while I was still in LA, and then I moved out back to Davis as well. Over there in Davis I met up with Lyrics Born, DJ Shadow and the rest of the Quannum crew. They made the vision even bigger. All of these young kids had dreams and an idea of the type of music they wanted to put out. The rest is history.
It’s been ten years since the last studio album so what made this the right time for Blackalicious to come back?
You know, we were never silent. I mean, I put out three solo records, as well as a record with Lateef and The Mighty Underdogs, and an EP with The Mighty Underdogs. Chief Xcel has been working with a soul singer named Ledisi. He’s also put out a record with Herve Salters called Burning House, as well as a lot of commercial work. So we haven’t stopped being creative. I think that being brothers, we needed to go out and find ourselves for a minute – and then at the top of 2012 we decided that it was time. We recognized that this is bigger than us, so we needed to do another Blackalicious record. We have always been in contact; we’re brothers you know what I mean?
So tell us about Imani Vol.1.
Well, the name of the album means faith in Swahili. It’s volume one of a three volume series. In the next few years, we’re going to put out three albums. Imani, like all of our albums, pretty much encapsulates where we’re at in our lives and what we’re going through.
This album really represents faith. There’s a lot of things that happen in life that might challenge you. For example, at the top of 2012, I was diagnosed with kidney failure, and through it all, we’ve recorded an album and we’ve toured. I just got back from Europe in February and I’m still on dialysis, so I’m still looking for a kidney. So you know, that was the huge part of it for me, because when my kidneys failed, I thought “wow, what’s going to happen to my career?”
Honestly, I think I’ve strived harder creatively since it’s happened. It’s all about faith.
How different is your approach to a Blackalicious album vs. a solo album?
Chief Xcel and I have a chemistry. Musically, he thinks the same way I do lyrically – so it’s very easy. Once we start going, we get into a zone, and we ride that zone out. With other producers, I have to learn how they make their music, their techniques, their style and adapt to what they’re doing.
You’ve been in the game since the late 80’s, what keeps you guys motivated?
We’re fans of not only hip-hop but music in general. We’re always keeping our ears on what’s coming out, what’s happening in music and where the music is going. We study everybody, and we study all things music and it keeps us motivated. It keeps us wanting to raise our bar. It keeps us wanting to make albums that will stand out – and I think for us, something like that never gets old.
Why did you guys choose a crowdsourcing platform for selling Imani?
It’s a different time; it’s the internet era. The way people put records out now, compared to how people put out records in the 90s, is entirely different. There’s Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and so many other ways to put out music. The cool thing about it is that you have direct access to all of your fans worldwide, so I think that makes the situation better for artists who have a fan base.
Absolutely, for example, look at De La Soul. I think they raised over $650 thousand for their new project.
Oh, my god that’s some serious change! You could even look at what Nipsey Hussle did; it’s so brilliant putting out a thousand copies of a mixtape, selling them for a hundred each and making a hundred thousand dollars. It’s a good time to be an artist if you got the business part down. It’s a great time to be a creative person.
Are there any new artists that you’re feeling right now?
Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Homeboy Sandman, Action Bronson…
Nobody has ever said Homeboy Sandman; I love Homeboy Sandman.
Homeboy Sandman is incredible man.
He’s the truth!
Yeah! Also, Chance the Rapper. What I like now is there is a variety of underground artists. Five years ago, I wouldn’t have said that It seemed like there was no underground, like everything was one way, everything was mainstream. I feel that there’s a rising underground scene now. Danny Brown, Schoolboy Q… The list goes on, you know?
Here’s the last question for you: I haven’t heard the album in its entirety yet, but I’m assuming that I’ll love it, so when can we expect the next volume?
[laughs] The first volume will be released August 14, and the next volume will be released sometime in 2016.
Yeah, and the third volume will be out before 2018.
Have you already started to work on the next one?
We’ve already got the direction for it. We just love making music bro… We love making music.