The bling-bling of shiny platinum jewels adorning commercial rap and R&B might blind some people to the fact that there is a creative resurgence going on in hip-hop right now. Yeah, that's right -- it's rising up from the underground at this very minute. The strength and success of recent releases by artists such as Common, Dilated Peoples and the Jurassic 5 suggest that 2000 might shape up as a banner year, a time in which hip-hop acts that have remained primarily on the shelf finally find an appreciative audience. Kind of like fine wine.
"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."
Like Turé, Blackalicious believes that it is self-defeating to break down African identity by geographical locale. The point Gab and Xcel stress is that you are still an African, whether you live in Zimbabwe, Bed-Stuy, Compton or the Congo. As such, they aim to erase boundaries with their music by crafting it into a style they hope sounds equally at home in the ghetto and in the coffeehouses where urban griots lay down their verses. Tracks like "A to G" or "Sleep" could flow just as well on the street corners as at a poetry slam. But if any song on the album characterizes the spirit and vision of NIA, it would have to be the cut "Deception." The cautionary tale opens up with Gab rapping, "Don't let money change you" over a funky piano riff crafted by Xcel. Although it is tempting to interpret this song as a straight dis on the rap world, Xcel insists otherwise.
"'Deception' is a story of a guy who is a rapper. A lot of people kind of misconstrue it as a 'state of hip-hop song,' but it's a story of a guy who holds his art true to him, and he lets external forces kind of take him from his sense of purpose. He has to be stripped of everything before he can get it back. We decided to use a fictitious rapper, but he could have very well been a poet, a Web designer or a hazardous technician. What we're trying to say is, whatever passions you have in life, hold that dear and don't lose focus."
NIA is the culmination of Blackalicious's passions and of the journey that brought the group to where it is today. But, as Xcel points out, he sees it "as a smaller body of a much bigger body that we're creating." The duo's journey began when Gab (aka Tim Parker) and Xcel (Xavier Mosley) met one another in 1987 in an economics class at Sacramento's Kennedy High School. They were introduced by a rapper named Homicide who had done some recordings for Priority Records. Gab had already earned a reputation as a battle MC in the area, and Xcel had deejayed parties around town, so when they first met, they felt like rivals.
"It was like an ego thing," recalls Gab. "I was from Southern California, X was from Northern California, so we used to debate who was doper: Ice T or Too Short." But after X turned Gab on to "Top Billin'," Audio Two's classic single from 1987, they found that they actually had mutual tastes. Their burgeoning friendship led to a proposed collaboration with Homicide to form a group à la Run DMC. Unfortunately, "Homicide left school and we couldn't find him," Gab recalls, laughing.
The two tried to keep it together, but Gab relocated to L.A. after high school, and Xcel enrolled at the University of California at Davis, which complicated the collaborative process. "I'd play him beats over the phone, he'd memorize them, then write to 'em, and he'd call me back and say, 'This is what I got,'" says Xcel. "But after a while, it became too difficult to make music like that."
Not one to quit something that he helped start, Gab eventually moved to Davis, and from there the guys hooked up with what would become the renowned Solesides crew (DJ Shadow, Lateef the Truth Speaker and Lyrics Born -- then known as Asia Born -- of the group Latyrx, as well as Jeff Chang, aka DJ Zen). The collective eventually started a label under the Solesides moniker that would go on to release some of the most influential underground hip-hop of the early '90s. Xcel lays down the chronology of this fortuitous alliance. "I met DJ Shadow and Lyrics Born my freshman year in college. Gab moved up to Davis our sophomore year. Around that same time, Lyrics Born was working on his first single, Shadow had been doing remixes for Hollywood Basic, and there was another guy, DJ Zen, who was like the founder, who was kind of the glue to Solesides, and who had a radio show at the campus."
Zen's radio show served as a catalyst for the various members of the collective. Shadow worked there, and Lyrics Born came into fold after constantly winning Zen's "Name that Sample" contest. Soon Xcel and Gab were hanging around the station as well. "We had known Shadow, but not on an artistic level, and then we just started building," Xcel says. "Zen was kind of like, 'You guys are talented, and being involved in radio, we have the information resources.' [We thought], 'Why don't we just start our own label and start putting out twelve-inches?' And that's what we did."
The crew officially formed the Solesides imprint in 1993 and released its first twelve-inch LP, "Send Them," by Asia Born, backed with Shadow's "Endtropy," which featured both Xcel and Gab. In 1994, Solesides released "Swan Lake," the first single by Blackalicious; the Melodica EP followed in 1995. Both of the Blackalicious records moved more than 25,000 units. The buzz generated by the success of the Solesides releases drew the attention of UK MoWax label head James Lavelle, who liked the material and began to release the Solesides records in the UK and Europe.
Xcel looks at the MoWax connection as "a blessing. It really gave us a chance to see hip-hop from a global perspective. It allowed us to tour globally and reach audiences that we may not have otherwise."
Even though the Solesides crew had experienced success with its releases stateside and worldwide, the guys eventually felt that it was necessary to destroy the label in order to save it. As part of their ongoing evolution, the crew remains intact, says Xcel, "but at the end of 1997, we had kind of felt like we had just outgrown the original intent of the label. So we just decided to dismantle Solesides and build it into something stronger, which is Quannum Projects."
After everyone went into retreat mode, 1999 saw the collective return with the Quannum Projects compilation Spectrum, which featured Latyrx, DJ Shadow and Blackalicious, as well as collaborations with Quannum faves such as EL-P from Company Flow, Jurassic 5 and Souls of Mischief. With that release and NIA, which also features contributions from Quannum family members such as Lateef, Lyrics Born, Shadow and newcomers like Erinn Anova and Joyo Velarde, the group has come back strong, with a new foundation for its musical visions.
In the end, Gab hopes his own work with Blackalicious, as well as the whole Quannum spectrum, will result in an dynamic and evolving oeuvre. He says that he and Xcel are dedicated to their work as "an ongoing project, a journey to leave a big body of timeless music."
For those with a taste for intelligent hip-hop, Blackalicious is definitely going to hit the spot.
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