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Blackalicious: Good Black Music Since 1987

Dan Nishimoto

Nearly 20 years later, Chief Xcel and Gift of Gab continue to spark the fire.

Is it just me or has it been relative freshmen that got the kids' keys clacking this year? Fans ahh'd when Kane and Franz managed to roll two deep apiece, while critics cooed over Fiona and Chris and Co.'s threepeats. And what are the boards fiendin' for: Juelz and Lindsay? Really, take that and rewind it back. Have we forgotten the lifers, the career artists? Critics enjoy trolling out a vet when the old dog shocks with a new trick, but few want to invest in a work-in-progress -- both the slips and the hits.

In spite of this, Blackalicious quietly released their latest album The Craft, seemingly content with continuing on with the grind. This is not such a great surprise, given the group's past. Producer Xavier "Chief Xcel" Mosley and emcee Tim "Gift of Gab" Parker modestly began their partnership in a high school home economics class nearly 20 years ago, but have been deliberate, even painstaking at times, with their subsequent progression. Since debuting in 1994 with the "Lyric Fathom" b/w "Swan Lake" 12", the group has only released three albums and two EPs. Yet they have sustained a career, even built an audience, by using patience -- an anachronism in today's industry. Instead of producing hits, each release finds the group pushing itself creatively. PopMatters spoke with the two separately and found them both focused on their art and maturing in their passion.

As the title suggests, the group remains invested in the process of art-making on The Craft. Without peer among most young lions, the duo realizes the mature idea that music-making can be an art in and of itself. Xcel began as usual with his "sketchpad", the drum machine, but subsequently created a new challenge. After drafting a number of sketches, he brought the ideas to Blackalicious's extended family of musicians -- Herve Salters, Vincent Segal, Teak Underdue, Sebastian Martel, Carl Young, and Alfredo Ortiz -- and had the group reinterpret the songs; in the course of two separate one-month sessions, over 100 tracks were produced. He then selected recorded parts, arranged them into song structure, and with Gab narrowed these cuts down to the fourteen songs on the album. "[The recording] went at varying rates and degrees," Xcel recounts. The album took two years to complete. Still, the collaborative approach yielded worthwhile results in the group's opinion. "It's really just expanded [our conception of the group]. The whole thing is just to continue pushing the music forward," Xcel says.

Described as a "storyteller album" by Gab, The Craft is superficially no more or less intimate than the group's previous works. Gab still cites "personal experiences, people that I know, and stuff that I've read about" as influences, while Xcel emphasizes the importance of "always, always, always studying new music; staying on top of the fundamentals... digging" in finding inspiration. X even agrees that a line can be drawn between this album and its predecessors: "Each thing we do it is important for... one thing to naturally progress out of the other. With The Craft, [Gab] alludes that you have this gift, but with this gift comes a daily responsibility to be diligent with what you do... to work towards your discipline, to constantly push yourself through your art form, to keep challenging yourself, to keep learning. We really view ourselves as students. We constantly say that we always want to approach music with the hunger and tenacity of an intern, as opposed to the complacency of a company owner (laughs)." This hunger has in fact kept the heart of the music in constant motion, which forms the main difference in The Craft. "That's what is so beautiful about what we do," says Xcel, "is that you can never learn everything; there's always going to be a record, or an artist to teach you something you never heard before." With a youthful exuberance, the group finds an endless well of motivation as they skate past middle age.

Although Xcel describes their commitment with equal parts gravitas and humor -- like an adult invoking Scout's Honor -- their hard-won balance of trust and discipline is key. Both find inspiration by constantly seeking stories and voices that enrich their own sensibility. Simultaneously, they look to each other to bring that special something that ultimately makes Blackalicious Blackalicious. This understanding allows each member to rely on, and even wait for, the other. Gab notes of X's work that "the music paints the picture for me and I just add words." Xcel, on the other hand, places considerable trust in his partner to guide the themes and content of their music. Surprises are even welcome, such as on "Supreme People", which Xcel describes as "[catching] me off guard, I wasn't expecting him to go conceptual with it, because I had really constructed the beat for braggadocio, MC flexin'. So when he did go conceptual, it opened me up to another level in terms of what needs to happen next to match where he's going."

More impressive is that the group allowed time for their art to flourish. "The title track [perhaps] floated the most effortlessly because we knew going in that we needed something to put a stamp on everything and wrap it up", Xcel says, "But the song that took the most work was probably 'The Fall and Rise of Elliot Brown' because we really wanted to make it a two- to three-part suite. And each of the parts were recorded at different times, they weren't recorded in the same sequence as they appear on the album. We had to develop an 'overstanding' of the song, step out of it and figure out how to effectively execute everything to make it cohesive." In order to keep sight of the whole, the group ... waited.

"I was talking to Marcia from Floetry," Xcel says of one of the many collaborators on The Craft, "And she said, 'Trying to force a song when you have writer's block is the equivalent of creative rape.' You really have to let yourself be the vessel and step out of the way and the inspiration will come. When you force it, it never ever works. With that song, we recorded Part 2 first. Gab was really trying to find his way around Part 1, because he had to deliver it from the first person standpoint. So he just took his time and when the inspiration came, we finished the song." The secret to Gab and X's successful partnership seemingly lies in a healthy codependence, a musical marr ... you catch my drift.

PM: Let's play a little game. I'll pick out lines from "Swan Lake" and you state your feelings on them now.

Gab: [laughs] Ok.

PM: "Ain't nothin' goin' on but a party."

G: When it comes to the celebration of music -- live shows, creating art/music -- ain't nothing goin' on but a party. You have to let it flow out. You can't sit and think about it, you have to let the creative energy take over. And then it becomes a party.

PM: "Not sayin' I'm the baddest, but I know I got potential."

G: (laughs) That's some MC shit! You gotta strive to be the dopest MC you can be. You gotta strive to be competitive, that's the nature of the MC.

PM: "Cruising down the street in my 6-4 Impala / Is what I'd like to be doin' if I only had the dolla'."

G: (laughs) Shit, I'd still like to be doin' that! (laughs)

PM: "A scholar ain't a scholar if he ain't got scholastic education and if not that / Then learn from life beyond all the material crap."

G: I prefer to learn from a deeper intelligence -- I prefer to learn everything -- but when I say the material crap, I mean there is also a deeper intelligence.

Over the years, Blackalicious has consistently stuck to their values more than to a given sound. This commitment has allowed them to expand their sonic blueprint without wavering on their principles; little surprise then that "Swan Lake" still resonates with them today. Certainly, there has been the temptation to stay the course; the melancholic loops and choice sample selection of their Melodica EP still gets the backpackers unpacking loot on eBay. Nevertheless, the two have challenged themselves to expand their sound. Subsequently, each record represents Blackalicious with a new set of experiences, a new approach; or, as Gab says, "an observation from individuals". Perseverance through age seems far less daunting and, well, unhip when Gab rhymes with conviction, "Used to think 30 years old then the end comes / Now I feel like I'm just gainin' momentum." Xcel echoes this thought as he looks to the future, "Every album process with Gab is an exciting encounter for me because he's coming from a very unique place. As a result, I'm challenged to keep coming up with unique musical ideas to match where he's coming from." A lesson for both the kids and seniors, wouldn't you say?

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