After a long period away, the last twelve months have been busy for hip-hop duo Blackalicious, with Chief Xcel and Gift of the Gab finally following up on The Craft and putting out their first new album in ten years, Imani Vol. 1.
This is where things get wacky, though. Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, found himself rapping Blackalicious’s “Alphabet Aerobics” on the Tonight Show at the end of 2014 — something that the group certainly wasn’t expecting when they got a call from Questlove of the Roots that night, telling him to DVR the show.
“That was kind of surreal,” says Chief Xcel. “I originally thought that the Roots were going to be playing one of our instrumentals going into a commercial, because they’ve done that in the past. Then about three hours before it aired here on the West Coast, I had people hitting me up from New York saying, ‘Yo, what’s up with the Daniel Radcliffe thing?’ I didn’t really know who Daniel Radcliffe was, and then they told me he’s Harry Potter. The thing that’s cool about it is that it introduces new generations to our music.”
Not to be outdone, Blackalicious reworked that same track for a Bleacher Report ad campaign this year, turning the tune into “Sports Alphabet.”
But the highlight of the year is the release of this new record. “I just feel like we dived deeper this time,” Xcel says. “We always considered ourselves students of music and of this art form. We decided very early on that we never wanted to lose that hunger and drive. As a result, we just keep pushing each other to make better records.”
That’s particularly admirable when considering the fact that Gift of the Gab has been on dialysis for two years while he waits for a new kidney. Medical issues aren't, however, what caused a decade-long wait between albums. “We were just working on other projects, really,” Xcel says. “We continued to tour, but when it came to working on another Blackalicious album, we just had other creative avenues we wanted to explore. [Gift of the Gab] went on dialysis right around the time we started recording Imani, which was about two years ago. So that didn’t really have anything to do with it.”
Thankfully the dialysis isn’t holding Gift of the Gab or, indeed, Blackalicious back at all. “We pretty much have the science of it dialed in,” Xcel says. “He’s got dialysis three days a week. We usually play five days a week. He’s just firing with his drive and focus – he’s a force of nature.”
The duo hopes this display of strength — in the form of touring and recording while on dialysis — is inspiring for others, as it shows that a full life is possible.
“When it first happened to him, that was the main thing,” Xcel says. "That’s what the whole concept of Imani is all about. That faith to push through, to thrive, and to make every moment that we’re alive on this planet count.”
The group is promising that the wait for a new album won’t be anything close to ten years this time around. Imani Vol. 1 is the first of a trilogy: Vol. 2 is expected out in the summer of 2016, with Vol. 3 due six to eight months after that.
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Before that Blackalicious plays three Colorado dates this week: in Denver, as well as in Aspen and then Fort Collins. “We’ve got a long history with Colorado,” Xcel says. “Typically Denver and Boulder. We’ve played there quite a bit over the course of our career. We’re always excited to get back out there.”
The shows will be typically high-energy and interactive experiences, and they only signal the beginning of a year that will see the band on a continuous tour-record-tour cycle. That’s okay with Xcel.
“I just want to keep making beats this year,” he says. “New music, new journeys, new explorations, new inspiration.”
Blackalicious plays with Beak Nasty and Stay Tunes at 9 p.m. on Thursday, January 7 at Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox, 1215 20th Street, Denver, 303-993-8023; $20-$40. They also play the Belly Up in Aspen on Friday, January 8, and the Half Note in Fort Collins on Saturday, January 9.