“Never let life’s troubles block your flow. Have faith and keep where you’re trying to go, like a winding river in search of the ocean, you must keep your faith in motion.”
Those are the opening words from “Faith” off Imani Vol. 1 (off the label OGM) – which came out last week – the first Blackalicious album in a decade. The words are inspiring to listeners, but they also fit the hip-hop duo from Sacramento like a glove. Between Chief Xcel’s fire beats and Gift of Gab’s creative rhymes, this twosome has been an important pillar of California hip-hop for about two decades.
We caught up with producer Chief Xcel just days after Blackalicious rocked The Roxy in the midst of a tour that will feature heavily tracks off their new record. Though this was the first time they’ve recorded together in awhile, they’ve constantly been touring while taking on other projects. It’s crazy to think how far they’ve come since their days in college in Davis, California.
“Back in the Davis days, everything was really trial and error, we didn’t know where it was gonna go, we just knew we wanted to make records,” said Xcel on whether or not they thought they’d attain the career they’ve attained.
“I think right around the time that NIA came out, around 2000, at that point we knew we’d be doing what we’re doing. At that point, the goal line had changed in that we were very clear at that point we wanted to develop a body of work. In the Davis period, we were just happy to make a record.”
“When we were recording the first one, DJ Shadow had told me something that I’ll never forget. He said, ‘You know this feeling you have right before your record comes out, hold onto that. Because after your record comes out it changes forever and you can never get it back.’ He was right.”
Blackalicious has been a stalwart in the NorCal hip-hop scene but they recently obtained some unexpected mainstream success when Daniel Radcliffe, aka Harry Potter, performed their song “Alphabet Aerobics” on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, backed by The Roots. It went viral and garnered millions of views within days.
“It was really cool. We had no idea that he was going to do that and we didn’t speak to him about it beforehand,” Xcel said about it. “It was great because it brought a lot of new people to our music that may not have been familiar with us. It shined some new light on a song that is almost two decades old. We were really taken back by his performance and thought he did a great job, and it was just great exposure for us overall.”
As mentioned before, Imani Vol. 1 is the first record from these two in a decade. Despite the time off, Xcel said they didn’t miss a beat when they hit the studio.
“Have you ever had a friend where you guys are so close you may not see each other or speak for years but when you do speak it’s like you just talked two days ago? That’s how me and Gab are,” Xcel explained. “So for us, when we get in the studio now at this point, it’s almost like an effortless mastery. We don’t even really have to talk. I can just play him stuff and I can tell by his facial expression if he’s into it. Once I see that he’s into it, he just goes. Then we just go in.”
“So with this record, I think we had both grown so much from doing our other projects that there was a lot we wanted to say and do when we came back together as Blackalicious. That’s the reason why this record is three volumes, not just one, it’s because we’ve amassed so much in the process of recording. The answer to your question is it was really easy.”
“Even though we stopped recording for awhile, we never stopped performing. We’ve been touring and on the road since 2005. Even when we would do our side projects, whether it was him doing Mighty Underdogs, or me doing Burning House, we would still do Blackalicious shows. That’s part of the reason why when we got back to the studio, it wasn’t like anything was unfamiliar at all.”
One of the other things we touched on in our conversation was today’s mainstream hip-hop. I asserted my opinion that Kendrick Lamar has the ability to be this generation’s Tupac in terms of cultural significance. Xcel had an interesting point when presented with the idea.
“I think Kendrick has the ability to be the Kendrick of his generation, you know what I mean? I don’t think there’s really – Tupac is a once in a lifetime kind of a thing,” Xcel reasoned.
“And the thing about rap music is it’s a continuum, meaning there’s no beginning, there’s no end, it just continues. And we all contribute to the continuum. Tupac came, made his contribution. Biggie came, made his contribution. Snoop came, is making his contribution. Kendrick’s here and he’s making his contribution.
Imani Vol. 1 is out now and definitely worth checking out. It’s garnered critical acclaim for being “real hip-hop.” Their alternative rap sound blossoms on the record and you can tell how much effort Chief Xcel and Gift of Gab put into it. “Ashes to Ashes” and “I Like the Way You Talk” are standout tracks along with “Faith.” As Gab raps in the opener, these two never let life’s troubles block their flow.
Words: Mark E. Ortega