"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 Arrow backed 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.
Three years later, heads were still waiting, their appetites temporarily sated by another EP. The full-length's delay was the result of what Blackalicious' official label bio describes as Gab's period of "personal turmoil," and what Gab himself calls "growing pains." He avoids discussion of his bout with alcoholism, saying only this: "The biggest struggles give birth to the greatest creativity."
In 2000, six years after fans first clamored about "Swan Lake," Blackalicious finally released Nia, meaning "purpose" in Swahili. Specifically, it seemed, the duo's purpose was, as Gab stated in rhyme, to "clean out the digestive track of hip-hop like cranberries" when so many others persisted in clogging it with hollow, violent and materialistic clichés. Conscious, but free of fierce sociopolitical rants, Nia challenged gangsta rap not so much with contempt or bravado but with wistfulness and resolution. The disc also included plenty of tracks whose aim was simply to showcase Gab's gift: an uncanny, often Seuss-like verbal dexterity, served up in a range of rap styles, from gruff dancehall cadence to precise rat-tat-tat. Nia sold 100,000 copies; critics heralded it as an indie hip-hop classic; ears at the major labels perked up; offers were made.
"In the end it came down to, creatively, which situation is going to allow us to be us, and not interfere with our process," explains X.
They chose MCA, home to several hip-hop acts falling within Blackalicious' left-of-center milieu, including Shadow, the Roots and Common. A listen to Blazing Arrow suggests that the guys made the right choice.
Other than the disc's array of cameos (Zach de la Rocha, Ben Harper, KeKe Wyatt, Saul Williams, Gil Scott-Heron, members of Dilated Peoples, Cibo Matto, the Roots, Sean Lennon and Jurassic 5)--something Blackalicious has shied from in the past--the disc makes no commercial concessions. Once again, Gab is "prone to leave your dome blown with the poem, homes" on sweaty verbal workouts like "Chemical Calisthenics" and "Paragraph President," his lyrics free of the gratuitous violence, misogyny, expletives and overall "thugged-out/pimpin'/flossin' my ice/ packing a gat" mentality that litters the bulk of commercial hip-hop.
But Arrow also distinguishes Blackalicious from the more positive, underground contingent of hip-hop. Insert a few "conscious" (but ultimately trite or cliché) nuggets into a stream-of-consciousness rap that goes all over the map, and an MC is said to be "droppin' knowledge." One of Blazing Arrow's strengths is that Gab actually writes cohesive raps that stick to a particular theme, in contrast to so many hip-hop tunes that change course whenever the MC runs out of thematic punch lines. Gab crafts real songs that impart real insight, whether he's chronicling an imploding society on the brink of Armageddon in "The Sky Is Falling," or musing on life's never-ending journey and infinite possibilities on "First in Flight." Rhymes Gab:
"Rise/If you're sleeping, won't you open your eyes again/The greatest high be that natural high within/No need to force the progressions, just ride the wind/You'll know the answer to the where, the why and when/If you keep working for your search you'll find the end/But at the end you'll find it begins again/And everything you learned you're only rememberin'."
That's certainly a far cry from radio-friendly choruses like "Pass the Courvoisier!" or "Welcome to Atlanta where the playas play/And we ride on dem thangs every day." But more important, while many indie, underground or conscious rappers devote a lot of time pontificating on the degenerate state of hip-hop, pointing out the foibles of their gangsta/playa peers, "First in Flight" (and "4000 Miles," "Greenlight" and "Nowhere Fast") focuses less on diagnosing hip-hop's diseased colon and more on Zenlike notions of faith, peace of mind and the simple pleasures along the road of life. Blackalicious, it seems, is leading by example.
"A lot of times within rap," offers X, "we spend too much time talking about what rap should be, instead of making it what it should be. With this record we didn't really focus on the state of rap as we did the state of the world."
Gab, who calls himself spiritual but not religious, takes it one step further: "The whole concept behind Blazing Arrow is faith. Nia was about finding a purpose, and Blazing Arrow is about, now you found it, now you have to have the faith to walk it, to live it. You found your purpose, but 10 minutes later something might come along and distract you. So it's about staying [true] to that purpose."
As on Nia, X's tracks are anchored in vintage soul and jazz, but with plenty of unexpected twists--odd sound flourishes (gurgling noises, ticking clocks), breakdowns played in reverse and crazy tempo change-ups that make you wonder if you're still on the same song. X pushes the envelope further than ever before on cuts like "Release," an epic, three-part hip-hop suite that clocks in at 9:25.
In addition to giving free creative reign, MCA is "backing the record full-force, pulling out all the stops" at retail and radio, according to Violet Brown, urban music buyer for the Wherehouse Music chain. This is partly because of the enthusiasm of MCA President Jay Boberg.
"They are brilliant musically as well as having such strong topical commentary in their lyrics," says Boberg, who has a longtime rep for nurturing and developing bands. At a recent press party for Blackalicious, he proudly boasted that he expects to sell 800,000 copies of Blazing Arrow.
Like a proud parent or coach, or maybe just a savvy salesman, Boberg may be a tad hyperbolic. Like Blackalicious, unconventional rap acts Jurassic 5, Black Eyed Peas and Dilated Peoples each cultivated loyal underground fan bases before signing with a major. But despite big-league promotional pushes, none of them has hit gold status yet, possibly because their music is too heady for the kids and teens who constitute the bulk of rap consumers, and not hard-core enough for the suburban buyers who demand the vicarious thrill of the gangsta lifestyle in their music. Then again, the Roots and Common both blew up once they came to MCA.
As they relish their tuna sandwiches and fruit cups, Gab and X don't seem overly concerned with sales, or about jumping from underground to overground. Rather, Blazing Arrow simply marks a new chapter in what X calls a "natural progression."
The best part of their new situation, they say, is that they can devote 100 percent of their time to their music, without worrying about side jobs and other distractions. In lieu of a fancy new car or a house or diamond bezels, their big indulgence was building their own personal production "compound" at X's home in Sac, where they're free from time constraints or outside pressures.
Says X: "For us, the focus has always been on the music. Our whole mentality was, the deal is done, stuff is finally in place, but we've got all of these songs we've been working on and we want to get them done. We went directly from on the road and straight into the studio. Our plan has always been to be a group that spends six to eight months on the road and six to eight months in the studio."
Gab sums up: "Just because we got a deal with a major, it wasn't like we crossed some kind of finish line."
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