Duos and ‘90s Hip Hop are not mutually exclusive. Yes, we’ve come a long way since the heydays of Eric B & Rakim, Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, and Gang Starr, but so too has Blackalicious. In a day and age where the DJ and emcee pairing is a dying dynamic, Gift of Gab and Chief Xcel continue to thrive as a package deal.
Last time we heard from Blackalicious was 2005. The Craft, which received universally favorable reviews, would end up being their last album for the next ten years. During that stretch, Gab ground on the solo circuit, dropping three albums, while Xcel did his thing on the freelance tip, as well the European circuit. It wasn’t until 2012 that the duo put their heads together once again and began working on their newest effort, Imani Vol. 1. Little did they know, what they were embarking upon was bigger than they’d imagined: what started as one album has paved the way for a three-part series.
“The initial plan was to go in and create and let the story take shape,” says Chief Xcel in a recent interview with HipHopDX. “As the story started taking shape, we were about 50-55 songs in, so at that point it became clear that this is a story that would take place over volumes as opposed to just a set of 16 songs.”
Imani translates to “faith” in Swahili, one of the seven principles of the Nguzo Saba, the basis of Kwanzaa. Blackalicious’ first album, Nia, is derived from the same creative vein. For the group and their fans, faith is the glue that holds their bond together. It’s part of the reason they’re stronger than ever, sixteen years removed from their first LP. “It works on so many levels: musically, life wise, health wise, growth wise as a human being,” explains Gift of Gab. “It just works on so many levels for everybody.”
Blackalicious Explain Their 10-Year Group Absence
HipHopDX: It’s been ten years since we last heard from Blackalicious as a duo. Were you officially on hiatus, or was that just the creative process for this album?
Gift of Gab: Well, we were working, man. We were creating. I did three albums during that time: Escape 2 Mars, The Mighty Underdogs [Droppin’ Science Fiction], and Next Logical Progression. Chief Xcel has been doing records, he’s been working with Ledisi, who’s an incredible soul singer, he and Hervé Salters have a group called Burning House, and they put music out in Europe. We’ve been busy, man, as well as we’ve been working with each other here and there too. We never stopped, and at the top of 2012, it was time to do another Blackalicious album, so during that whole time we stayed busy, and now it’s just time to get back to the mothership, man. That’s it.
DX: Gab, I know you had the diabetes issue. How’s your health right now?
Gift of Gab: It’s great, man. I’m living healthier than I’ve ever lived, man. I’m eating right, I’m eating good, there’re a lot of bad habits that I used to have that I don’t indulge in anymore. It’s all about taking care of health, man. Preserving and taking care of the health and working on art. I’m feeling great now.
DX: Technically speaking, coming back after such a long break, did the group creative process change at all, not creatively, but to better adapt to the times? Did you guys have to alter anything at all?
Chief Xcel: We’ve never been a group that’s worked from the outside-in. We always work from the inside-out. We’ve never been one to feel like we have to chase a sound. Once you start chasing sounds you’re done. For us, it’s always been about building on a foundation, and continuing to build on a certain foundation. At this stage in our careers, we’re really just reaching that zone of rarified air. It’s like an effortless mastery at this point, to where a lot of our creation is just nonverbal. We get in and Gab can just hear a beat that I’ve done and he can already tune into where to go with it. There’s a level of trust there to where he knows that I know that I’m going to trust where he goes with it, and the direction. At that point, it becomes almost like a tennis match of just knocking the ball back-and-forth. I shoot to him, he’ll take it in his direction, he’ll shoot it back to me and we’ll fine-tune it. So the reason that we can work like that makes it so that we can work extremely fast. We don’t spend a lot of time tip-toeing around the side of the pool, we dive right in and go in.
DX: You’ve been together for 27 years. How long have you been able to have that kind of creative synergy?
Gift of Gab: I would say it’s always kind of been like that. We’re just older, more seasoned now. We’re both fans of Hip Hop music, and we’re both fans of a certain style of Hip Hop music. We kind of clicked on a type of Hip Hop music that we like, and we also clicked on a type of music that we wanted to make. So from the very start, making music is something we’ve always been excited about, and we both know when a song has reached the point to where it’s a dope song to both of us. We have this thing called, “goosebump theory,” where if the song gives you goosebumps after you hear it, then it’s a keeper, and I think we both just roll with that philosophy.
DX: How easily can you achieve that goosebump theory?
Gift of Gab: It’s all about feeling, man. I would honestly say what Xcel does is more technical than what I do, that’s what I would say. But for me, and I think for X as well, it’s always been about a feeling. You feel the music as you create it. You feel the songs that are classics to you, the albums that are classics to you, and the songs and albums that move you the most and we’re just trying to do our interpretation of not the songs, but of that feeling that you get when you hear that album or that song that makes you go, “Damn! Where did that come from?”
Blackalicious Discuss Their New Album Imani Vol. 1
DX: So talking about the new album now, you’ve gone on the record saying Imani Vol. 1 is the first installment of a three-part series. Was that the initial plan from the beginning?
Chief Xcel: The initial plan was to go in and create and let the story take shape. As the story started taking shape, we were about 50-55 songs in, so at that point it became clear that this is a story that would take place over volumes as opposed to just a set of 16 songs.
DX: So are all three parts done and it’s just a matter of mixing and matching at this point?
Chief Xcel: Volume 2 is about 65% of the way through. So now that Volume 1 is in the can and about to come out, now we’re focusing on Volume 2. By the time we get to the end of that process, we’ll naturally be about 50-60% of the way through Volume 3, and then that will come out.
DX: In Swahili, “Imani” means faith. What exactly is the role of faith in this album series?
Gift of Gab: I think everybody needs faith. Faith is just a knowingness that whatever obstacles you face or whatever’s going on, that there’s something higher that’s guiding you, and that we’re here for a purpose, and that this purpose is supposed to take us from Point A to Point B and that we’re meant to be taken from Point A to Point Z. So faith just means moving forward, whether you walking and everything’s clear, or whether you’re trudging through mud, don’t let the mud that you’re trudging through stop you Because it’s some place that you’re trying to get to. So that’s what faith is. It works on so many levels: musically, life wise, health wise, growthwise as a human being, it just works on so many levels for everybody.
DX: Is there a particular Swahili inspiration to this series?
Chief Xcel: It’s really based off the Nguzo Saba, man. When we came up with the whole concept for Nia, that was actually birthed and inspired by the Million Man March, and from that point on, that kind of became sort of the foundation for everything. That would be the inspiration.
DX: In the past, you’ve worked with a slew of popular artists, and this time around you chose a different round, you’ve got some lesser-known acts. In the press release you said you wanted to keep the focus more on you guys rather than the guests. What went into that decision?
Chief Xcel: Just the fact that it had been such a long period in between records, but even more importantly, the fact that it’s a story that’s developing over multiple volumes. So in Volume 1, we really wanted that foundation to be our chemistry and establish a statement on that, then building everything up off of that. I don’t want to go too much on what’s gonna happen on Volumes 2 & 3, ‘cause I really want to leave the interpretation of it to the listener. But we really wanted to just, with the first volume in, be the focus on our chemistry. Blackalicious has been, even just our fundamental makeup, has been inspired by people like Eric B & Rakim, Gang Starr– Gang Starr more than any group I think is who we modeled ourselves after, and it was just that combination of the producer and the emcee, and then taking you on these sonic journeys. So for Volume 1 that’s just what we wanted to do.
DX: I don’t want to say West Coast Gang Starr, but is it something like that?
Chief Xcel: We were heavily inspired by them growing up. We’re Blackalicious, we have our thing now, our signature sound, but what they did and the way they did it, we were heavily influenced by them.
DX: Without putting you guys on a pedestal, do you feel this way you’re giving these artists the shine they deserve?
Gift of Gab: Well at the end of the day we’re fans of music, we’re fans of Hip Hop, and we’re fans of talented people. So it’s always been an experience, whether it was Blazing Arrow, doing songs with Saul Williams, Zach De la Rocha, working in Paul C’s studio. We always tend to meet people on our creative journeys when we’re making records and we always tend to link up with other people that we admire who are talented who bring things to the album, bring other dimensions into the album. So it’s that journey. This time around was Fantastic Negrito, Zap Mama, etc. The list goes on, and we encountered all these talented people and brought them in to add on to what we were doing creatively.
Chief Xcel: Plus the music has always been first. We’ve never approached it from, “Oh, this person is hot right now, so we need to have them on our record,” or anything like that. It’s always been– and I think it’s why people have the affinity for our music that they have, is that the music is always what’s at center-stage, the music is always what’s most important. So in those decisions for us, it’s like, “What does this call for?” So case in point, the title-track, it called for Zap Mama. “Love’s Gonna Save The Day,” it called for Fantastic Negrito. “That Night,” it called for The LifeSavas. “Alpha And Omega,” it called for Lateef and Lyrics Born. The music what’s always first with us, man.
DX: So outside of Hip Hop, you guys must listen to a lot of music?
Gift of Gab: We’re both fans of whatever we feel in our heart is dope, whatever touches us and moves us, we’re fans of it.
DX: On “The Sun” and “We Did It Again,” you’ve got Imani Coppola and Danielle Flax to sing on the hooks. I guess you may have just answered this, but were those two the ones you wanted from the get-go on those tracks?
Chief Xcel: On “We Did It Again,” her professional name is Danielle Dubois, her government name is Danielle Flax. I’d be in a lot of trouble with her if I didn’t say that.
“We Did It Again,” I actually did that beat for Danielle, so we have actually a straight Soul version of that song. With that, we went in, Gab heard it and loved it. Fell in love with it. So he was like, “I’ve gotta write to that.” What he penned was just incredible, so really with that particular song, we’re gonna put that out as a 12” with the Blackalicious version on one side, and the version I did for Danielle on the other side.
With “The Sun,” Imani, she’s just a genius, Imani Coppola. She’s one of the most brilliant writers I’ve ever worked with, and yeah, that was just another thing. We’d done quite a few versions actually of that, and all were really, really dope. But when Imani heard it and she put her thing on it, I was like, “That was it. Cool name for it, ‘The Sun.’”
DX: Blackalicious has always had a penchant for “conscious” and more philosophical rhymes. Gab, on “The Hour Glass,” you say: “Realized I’m getting older / Life is not forever soldier / At some point you gotta grow up before it all just ends.” It sounds good musically, but you say it with particular conviction. Time is the metaphor in the song. So how do you articulate the message without being contrived, or maybe even too smart for your own listeners?
Gift of Gab: [Laughs] I don’t know, I just tell the truth, man. With me, it’s not about trying to be smart. A lot of the things I talk about in rhymes is conversations that I’ve had with people and are actual ways that I feel about situations, man. It’s always about just being honest and speaking my truth. That’s it, really.
DX: That’s always been your style, you’ve never felt the need to– I don’t want to say dumb down, but you’re confident that you can write songs like that and they’ll resonate?
Gift of Gab: Yeah, I read Russell Simmons’ book, one of his books, I forget the title. But he talks about how the best thing to do is tell the truth. Not that that sparked me on telling the truth, I just always felt as an artist that’s what I was supposed to do. Now you know, there’s obviously fiction in some of it. There are metaphors and things of that nature, but, for the most part, everything is really how I feel.
DX: Xcel, give us a glimpse of your creative process. Specifically, do you ever write or transpose the live music that we hear on the beats?
Chief Xcel: Ideas most of the time will start at the drum machine. I’ll sketch out basic rhythms and whatnot. Then what I do is go into the lab with my guys and it’ll just be freeform and just jam out. Then what I do then is go back, take that, dissect it out of– one sort of jam session might be 20 songs, because they’ll play something one way, but I’ll hear it a different way than they played. So I’ll go back to the drum machine and chop that stuff up, then reinterpret it. That’s how a lot of the stuff on Volume 1 came about. Once I get it to that point, having that sort of re-sketched sketch on the drum machine, then I’ll come in and I’ll bring in my guys Tim Armstrong and Teak Underdue, and we’ll just start building it even more. So it’s almost like you’re building up this mountain of sound, you completely deconstruct it, then you build it back up, and then you carve out. So that’s it in a nutshell.
DX: At the same time, though, do you play any instruments? Do you read or write music?
Chief Xcel: I don’t read or write music. Everything is by ear.
DX: Gab, how, if at all, does the lyrical approach to live instrumentation change versus the other beats?
Gift of Gab: It’s all– I have to go back, it’s all feeling, man. The music basically guides me. The music tells me where to go and what to write. When I hear the music it’s about feeling, man, once again. I hate to keep going back to that. Each track has track has a different energy, a different vibration, and frequency, and it sends me into whatever direction it’s going, and it kinda pulls me into that direction. Some songs call for me to be extremely lyrical, like “On Fire Tonight.” Some songs call for storytelling, like “Escape,” and more simplified cadences. It doesn’t have to be super, super, super lyrical. Everything is not meant to be super, super, super lyrical. Some things are better if they’re sparse. Very sparse. But each track basically tells me what to do with that, so it basically sets the tone stylistically and content wise.
DX: I know Xcel is in charge with the beats, but do you ever sit in on that part of the process and voice your two cents or figure out how that is going to inform your lyric-writing?
Gift of Gab: Not usually Every now and then I’ll write lyrics and he’ll put music to it. In the future, I’d like to do that more. I made a solo record called The Next Logical Progression, and 75% of that record was me making up melodies in my head. I think as a lyricist, and particularly as a lyricist that is very style-conscious, I think that’s the next logical progression [laughs] in terms of making music. Obviously Xcel is gonna be the one who puts the beats down, but in the future I would like to interpret music and compose it, and obviously I can’t read or write music, so I would need people that are in bands and actual musicians, but it’s nothing I haven’t done real heavily in Blackalicious yet. But in the future I’d like to do that.
Blackalicious Share Their Opinions About The Evolution of Hip Hop
DX: It’s obviously still a little ways away, but with two more installments to the Imani series, what can fans expect with regards to the artistry on the next two?
Chief Xcel: It’s gonna be a journey. We came up during a time and strongly believe that music is a necessity. We live in times where music is an accessory. There’s a difference. So with us, Imani Volumes 1, 2 and 3, at the end of the day the biggest payoff is when somebody comes up to Gab and says, “I was going through this or that in my life and your record made it a little bit easier.” We were in St. Louis and this cat came up– he came up to me first and was like, “I credit your guys’ record with my sobriety.” Things like that are major, man. Those sorts of things are major. So for us, if anything, we just make necessary music. We make necessary music.
DX: So I guess right along with what you just said, accessory versus necessity, you’ve been doing your thing for 27 years, Nia was 1999, from this vantage point, and from where you’re sitting now, what have you noticed or what have you observed about Hip Hop and its evolution in the last 16 years?
Gift of Gab: Well i think that Hip Hop is in a very good place right now. I’m loving artists like Kendrick Lamar, I’m loving Chance the Rapper’s new album. He’s one of my favorites too. I like what Drake is doing. I think it’s gotten better than it was three years ago or four years ago. As long as young people are continuing to evolve and push the envelope and make creative music, as long as we have the Kendricks and the Drakes and the Chance the Rappers, it’s going in a great direction. You know, like anything, I think money and the success of Hip Hop are having an impact on the way that people make music. But as long as there are pure artists out there, the music is going to continue to grow and evolve and go in directions that it hasn’t gone, and spawn new directions, and spawn new renaissances, you know? So I’m happy with where Hip Hop is going right now.
Chief Xcel: I think just like any other genre of music, whether it be Jazz, whether it be Rock, it’s a tree with many branches. As time goes on, more and more branches grow. So I’m inspired when I hear artists like Rapsody when I hear artists like Clear Soul Forces, ‘cause it’s a certain branch of the tree they’re being spawned from. So that’s what I say, man, it’s no longer just one homogenous thing, one just homogenous sound, it’s multifaceted, multilayered, multigenerational. So yeah, it’s just gonna continue to grow.
Gift of Gab: And then one thing I just want to add is that, like X was saying, it’s so many lanes right now. You’ve got everything from EDM to Dubstep, to Harcore Hip Hop, to Gangsta Rap. It’s just so many lanes right now, it’s going in so many different directions, and I think that’s good and I think that some things for some people may not be for other people, and some rules that apply to this lane may not apply to that lane. But I think that’s good, because just like Jazz, Jazz was free. There were no rules, and that’s a beautiful thing that’s happening right now, there’re so many directions and so many lanes for so many people.
DX: I just want to know, without putting down or knocking their hustle, like a Migos or a Future, obviously that’s not the Blackalicious style or sound per se, but can you still respect what they’re doing or see the route they’re going with regards to the branches on a tree, or different lanes of Hip Hop?
Gift of Gab: You know, I respect what everyone does. Now everything may not be for me, but if I say something is not dope, but there are a million people out there that say it’s dope, that it impacts their life, they want to pay money to see it, then my opinion is null and void. Music is like, everybody has an opinion, man, but at the end of the day, the music that impacts, whether you like it or you don’t, whether you think it’s good or whether you think it’s bad. I respect what everyone does because we’re all really people with opinions, and what I don’t like or what I do like, there may be a slew of people out there that feel the opposite way.