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?

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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