By Isa Jones
By Mary Willson
By Brian Turk
By Drew AIles
By Taylor Boylston
By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
"It's like a renaissance going on with all of these groups," says Gift of Gab of the group Blackalicious, who has been trudging his way through the Northern California underground scene since the early '90s. "East Coast and West Coast, like Common, Mos Def, Planet Asia, Dilated, the Roots, Slum Village -- it's just a good time in hip-hop right now."
Blackalicious is a name that can safely be added to the list of artists who are participating in the creative uprising. Gab and his partner, Chief Xcel, have helped diversify the flavor of Bay Area hip-hop; though their music goes down as smooth as Swiss chocolate, the two are often as smartly defiant as a sultry Nina Simone singing tales in exile about the African diaspora.
The title of Blackalicious's first full-length album, NIA, released in February on the Quannum Projects label, is a Swahili word that means "purpose." Indeed, the disc reveals a tight focus and original vision -- something made all the more clear by an emphasis on the duo's songwriting skills -- while showcasing some of Gab and Xcel's musical influences and inspirations. The effort has them traversing "everything from funk to gospel to rock to psychedelic to reggae," says Xcel. "It's an infinite world of music out here," he explains. "It's an infinite world of creativity out there, and we just consider ourselves students of it. We're just really trying to synthesize all of our influences into our sound."
Hip-hop fans have waited a long time for Blackalicious to drop this joint. After the primo EP Melodica blazed the underground when it hit in October 1995, heads had to wait until the release of the A 2 G EP in 1999 for another sample of the crew's lyrical skills and funkified jams. So why the wait?
"We just kind of wanted to work on our own schedule," says Xcel. "We considered NIA to be the first real chapter of our book. We're really working to develop a real solid body of work, and we considered Melodica and A 2 G the preface. With chapter one, we wanted to make sure that we took our time and just really put it together exactly the way we wanted it to be put together. So we did a lot of weeding out and a lot of soul-searching with a lot of songs."
Bearing in mind Blackalicious's episodic approach to its release schedule, one might consider everything that preceded NIA as foreplay. And if the critical and fan acclaim that has greeted this disc since its release is any indication, NIA was well worth the wait. In the end, Gift of Gab and Xcel selected eighteen songs out of more than 45 that had been recorded, and from the first moments of the disc's intro, the group shows off a refined sound that complements its consciousness-raising rhymes. Lyrically, the release brings forth a message-oriented vibe that commingles a Black consciousness with a Native Tongues-era positivity.
"You have to take responsibility as an artist," says Gab. "There are a lot of things that are ill and messed up in the world, but you have to focus on solutions. When you have a problem, you can't focus on the problem; you have to focus on solutions."
On the album's opening cut, "Searching," the Gift of Gab and Quannum affiliate Erinn Anova set the album's course by intoning, "The struggle is the blessing"; in the chorus that follows, voices repeat the word "Nia." In "Shallow Days" Gab speaks out against those who feel that "If you ain't killing niggers in rhymes, then your whole sound is just bubblegum." He defiantly replies: "I said I won't contribute to genocide/I'd rather try to cultivate the inside and try to evolve the frustrated ghetto mind." Another track finds Anova reciting "Ego Trip," a poem written by Black poet Nikki Giovanni that's aimed at young people of color. Xcel explains, "We felt like right now in the 2000 environment, there are so many messages and images put to our children of color from every angle that, if not interpreted with guidance, can let them feel not important, not really special. So we put that there to say 'Celebrate yourself. You have a rich heritage, you have a rich culture, this is you, and this is yours to celebrate.'"
Blackalicious takes a more political stance on "Cliffhanger," sampling a well-known speech in which activist Kwame Turé (the black activist and American exile in Africa known in the '60s as Stokely Carmichael) addresses issues related to African identity. "We must understand that for black people, the question of community is not a question of geography but a question of color," the sample blares. Xcel constructed this dub-tinged track around the time the bicoastal beefs in American hip-hop began to escalate. "That [sample of the] speech by Kwame Turé was actually put together and recorded during the time of this whole East Coast/West Coast thing," he explains. "That was really just a statement of the silliness of that. The African diaspora, whether you go to Brazil or Cuba or Norway -- you know that's where your people are, and it's ludicrous to be tripping off geographical boundaries."