By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
"Every time, I get nervous," says rapper Gift of Gab at soundcheck for a February performance at L.A.'s Wiltern Theatre. "Like, two minutes before I go on. Every time." Across the stage, DJ/producer Chief Xcel fiddles with the knobs and needles on his turntables.
"Can you put my MPC at the same level as the mixer, and can you run my EQ completely flat?" X calls politely, but resolutely, to the sound engineer, drawing an imaginary horizontal line with his outstretched hand. "Can you turn the turntables up 3DB?" He's motioning now with a thumbs-up. X nods his head in approval as bass bounces off the high ceilings in the ornate Wiltern.
Gab's butterflies aside, the duo--known as Blackalicious--is quite at home on a stage. Their new album, Blazing Arrow, may be many listeners' first introduction to the group, but Gab, X and their hyper-creative antidote to commercial crap-rap have been rocking crowds for a decade.
Earlier that day, Blackalicious sits in an office at its new home, MCA, replete with plush couches, platinum plaques lining the walls and a pretty assistant delivering lunch. The trappings of a mega-label are fairly new to the duo, who have spent the past 10 years pressing up wax out of their own pocket, distributing their music by hand, paving the path of their career brick by brick. Today, with Blazing Arrowbacked by the might of the world's largest music distributor (Universal), they're still modest. X sports a T-shirt and ball cap, Gab's in a short-sleeved button-down, wire-rimmed glasses and his trademark newsboy cap, worn the traditional way, not backward or tipped cockily to the side. Both wear goatees and baggy pants, their necks and wrists free of any diamonds or platinum or other miscellaneous "bling-bling," their attitudes free of even the slightest hint of pretense.
More than low-key, they almost seem...shy. Gab's head is sunk down into his large frame like a tortoise retreating into his shell, craning up only to speak.
"[Being at a label like this] is all a blessing; it's humbling," he says, surveying his posh surroundings. "At the same time, it's something we've been working at for years." His head sinks back in its hole. Between the posture and the specs, it's hard to imagine a relentless stream of unlikely metaphors gushing out of his mouth like ink from an exploding fountain pen; bar after bar, staccato punch line is layered upon the next, rhythmically spiraling upward and reaching a thunderous climax. Anyone who's heard Gab's gift live or on record knows that the man shreds microphones like Arthur Andersen shreds documents.
But today it's X who does most of the gabbing. He grins as he recounts the long, patient journey that brought them to this point: "Almost 10 years ago to this month, we'd be all piled into our van, going record store to record store asking people to take our records on consignment. And our careers have just built from there, stepping-stone after stepping-stone after stepping-stone."
The first stones were laid in high school.
Gab (Tim Parker) lived in Pacoima in the San Fernando Valley until age 15, when his mom passed away and he moved to Sacramento to live with his older brother. Born in Sacramento, Xcel (Xavier Mosley) lived in Oakland until he was 14, when he and his family moved back to "Sac," as he calls it. The two met in 10th-grade home economics class and bonded over their mutual appreciation for Audio 2's "Top Billin'," which, with its raw, basement style, "just blew my wig back," says X.
They ultimately began collaborating, X fiddling with borrowed drum machines, keyboards and a four-track, Gab honing his skills by battling MCs at all the local high schools.
After high school, X enrolled at UC Davis, and Gab moved back to L.A., doing odd jobs like telemarketing and working at KFC. The two continued to write and create, exchanging tracks and rhymes over the phone. Realizing that running the deep fryer just wasn't where his passion lay, Gab ultimately moved to Davis to work "hard-core" on music with X.
In the hip-hop wasteland that was Davis, they found like-minded souls in future instrumental hip-hop collagist DJ Shadow; DJ Zen, who hosted a rap show on campus station KDVS; and classmates Lyrics Born and Lateef, who later morphed into the duo Latyrx. Blunted freestyle sessions and casual tinkerings in the studio ultimately gave way to the indie label SoleSides. The crew began releasing vinyl 12-inches, including Blackalicious' 1994 underground anthem, "Swan Lake."
"It was really informal," X explains. "It was, 'I got a student loan check, you got a student loan check, let's do it.'"
Once records were pressed up, the guys serviced them to college radio jocks across the nation via the KDVS database and peddled them to retailers out of the trunks of their cars. Between its lyrics about patience and peace of mind, and its unconventional rhyme schemes, "Swan Lake" set the tenor for Blackalicious and quickly branded the group as NoCal's answer to L.A.'s Freestyle Fellowship.
UK-based label Mo' Wax, which had signed a deal with Shadow, agreed to distribute Blackalicious' first EP, Melodica, throughout Europe, but in the States, they continued to do it all themselves, region by region through indie distributors and one-stops. After X and crew graduated from Davis, they moved to the Bay Area, opened an office in Berkeley, put out an album by Latyrx and a host of 12-inches. Somewhere along the way, the artist-run collective changed its name to Quannum Projects and nabbed solid national distribution through Caroline and TRC. With a stable of songs already in the can, Blackalicious was poised to drop its debut LP on hungry hip-hop heads nationwide.