Blackalicious: Interview

    After bonding over hip-hop during high school in the late 1980s, Tim Parker and Xavier Mosley, also known as Gift of Gab and Chief Xcel, respectively, have gone on to invent some of the genre’s most inspired music. While attending the University of California at Davis, the pair steadily accumulated underground acclaim as part of the Northern California hip-hop collective SoleSides, which included fellow UC-D students DJ Shadow, Lateef the Truth Speaker and Lyrics Born. Quannum released the first Blackalicious LP, NIA, to tremendous reviews in 2000. After selling approximately 100,000 copies of NIA — a feat for any label, let alone an independent — they released Blazing Arrow on MCA, a record that redefined hip-hop both musically and spiritually.

    In the midst of the bling-bling revolution, Blackalicious has been creating earnest music that embraces life, love and laughter and delivering it with tongue-twisting rhymes and jeep-worthy beats. Prefix Magazine’s Mike Krolak recently sat down with Gift of Gab, Chief Xcel, and Lateef the Truth Speaker before their homecoming show on the UC Davis campus — one floor above the student radio station that started it all — to discuss their craft, rowdy elephants and the thought of Indiana Jones bumping “4000 Miles.” Blackalicious will sit down in the next few weeks to record their third full-length. Get ready.

     

    [more:]

    Prefix Magazine:
    You had to cancel some shows earlier this year. Did you guys make your dates in South Africa?

    Blackalicious:
    Gab: We did. We were down in South Africa about two weeks ago. It was amazing, it was really amazing. One of the most incredible experiences of my lifetime.

    PM:
    How so?

    Blackalicious:
    Gab: Just being in Africa, meeting the people out there, the way we were treated. A lot of things were eye-opening, seeing the poverty and then the wealth, the whole experience was really good. Lateef almost got attacked by an elephant.

    PM:
    What now?

    Blackalicious:
    Lateef: I was on safari. We were in one of those open, canvas-top vehicles, and our driver was the elephant expert. I guess at this particular game park they brought in some elephants when they were really young, without bringing in older elephants to socialize them. So they started having these ill behaviors, they killed a couple rhinos, started rushing cars, things like that. Since we had the elephant expert, our car would be the one to cut in front of everybody and face down the elephants. The elephant charged us, but we kind of backed him down, and pretty soon he went away.

    PM:
    Hmm. No thanks.

    Blackalicious:
    Lateef: It happened twice.

    PM:
    So … on to safer subjects, you guys got your start here in Davis, what’s it like —

    Blackalicious:
    Xcel: Right downstairs!

    Lateef: KDVS!

    Xcel: 90.3!

    PM:
    –to come back here to play shows?

    Blackalicious:
    Gab: Surreal. Very surreal.

    Lateef: (feigning anger) It should have happened a long time ago!

    Xcel: I don’t even recognize this city anymore. Half of the shit that’s built up here was non-existent when we were around.

    Gab: A lot of the stuff is still the same though. You know, the cafeteria is still the same —

    Lateef: (laughing) Yeah, you know all about that.

    Gab: (glaring at Lateef) Anyway … in a way it’s like time traveling. I feel like whenever I come back to a place after a lot of years, I feel like I’m time traveling. All those old memories start piling up.

    Xcel: (singing) “Memories … the way we were…”

    PM:
    You cycled through a few names — GTI, Elements of Sound, Atomic Legion — before finally settling on Blackalicious. What made you stick with that?

    Blackalicious:
    Xcel: Gab didn’t like any of our old names. I used to come up with all these names and he used to say they all sucked.

    Gab: You came up with shitty names! All the names that you came up with sucked.

    Xcel: They were dope. Anyway, we finally came up with Blackalicious and he liked that one.

    PM:
    Was it the sound of it, or something else?

    Blackalicious:
    Gab: It just felt right. Even when we do music, sometimes we’ll just hear something and know — that’s the song. With the name, it was just like that.

    PM:
    Was there any one record that, when you heard it, you thought to yourself, This is what I need to be doing?

    Blackalicious:
    Gab: “Rappers Delight.” The first time I ever heard that, it was like, Damn. That was the first rap record I ever heard. I used to play it over, and over, and over, and I was just like, I’m going to do that someday.

    Xcel: For me it was “Sucka MCs.” I saw [Run DMC] live at the Fresh Festival at the Oakland Coliseum. Once I heard that record there was no turning back.

    Lateef: For me it was Eazy-E.

    Gab: “8-Ball Rollin’ “?

    Lateef: You know it.

    PM:
    You recently had a song on the Brown Sugar soundtrack. Are you big film fans?

    Blackalicious:
    Gab: Oh yeah, big film fans. We just saw Bruce Almighty, that was hilarious. The second Matrix

    Lateef: I saw X-Men 2, that was good.

    PM:
    Man, you guys are on it. I haven’t seen any of the new releases.

    Blackalicious:
    Lateef: C’mon, you gotta get with it! I even saw Daddy Day Care.

    Xcel: You saw Daddy Day Care?

    PM:
    I hear Harrison Ford is a fan of yours.

    Blackalicious:
    Gab: Yeah, that was a trip.

    Xcel: Han Solo! That’s nice.

    PM:
    The Web design for both Blackalicious and Quannum Projects is pretty slick. Do you see the Internet as an important tool for Blackalicious?

    Blackalicious:
    Xcel: Definitely. For getting the music out and building what I guess you’d call the “post-music culture.” Stuff about the shows, the lifestyle, all of that, to try to build an online community. Especially with Blacklicious.com, [we want it to be] a place where people can just go and talk about music, what’s on their minds, what they’re feeling, what they’re not feeling.

    PM:
    How do you feel about all the file-sharing?

    Blackalicious:
    Gab: (in Damon Wayan’s “Men on Film” voice) Hated it! Nah, speak on it, homey.

    Xcel: I think that in this industry, the business model is very archaic. They’re going to have to shift the paradigm to match what’s going on. You can’t just sit there and say, ‘It’s illegal and you can’t do that.’ People are going to want music. And if they want it, you’ve got to find a fair way to supply it.

    PM:
    You’ve said that NIA, which means purpose in Swahili, was about purpose and finding the path, and that Blazing Arrow was about faith and the strength to endure that path. What can we expect from the next album?

    Blackalicious:
    Gab: (laughing) Uh … the next path? Seriously though, we’ve grown a lot as artists and as people, and more than anything I think it’ll reflect our growth. (To Xcel)

    Xcel: We’ll have a better idea in three weeks when we start recording. I think you should call us six months from now and ask us the same question. But I do agree. With every record that we make we try to show a logical progression throughout our body of work.

    PM:
    Will there be a new installment in the “Alphabet Aerobics/Chemical Calisthenics” vein?

    Blackalicious:
    Gab: (long pause) It’s a surprise.

    PM:
    You collaborated with a plethora of talent on Blazing Arrow: Zach de la Rocha, Chali 2na, ?uestlove, Gil-Scott Heron, Ben Harper. Any idea with whom you might collaborate on the next album?

    Blackalicious:
    Xcel: I want to do a song with Wayne Newton, man. I think that’d be hot.

    Gab: I’m really looking forward to collaborating with Cyndi Lauper.

    Xcel: For reals though, it’s early in the process. But we never sit down and say, ‘Hey, we should do a song with so-and-so.’ It’s whatever the piece demands.

    PM:
    Before you hit the studio, do you have a general direction for the album in mind?

    Blackalicious:
    Xcel: I think it happens organically. For us, there’s no one way to do things. With NIA, we recorded a lot of songs, and the concept of NIA came in the middle of recording those songs. With Blazing Arrow, we knew going in exactly what we wanted to do. We knew exactly what the title was going to be and we knew exactly how we wanted everything to fit within it. With the new album, we’ll know when we sit down in about three weeks.

    PM:
    You guys will be playing with Jay-Z this summer. Seems like quite a different brand of hip-hop than what you’re doing.

    Blackalicious:
    Lateef: I think that there are a lot of ways to look at it. To me, we’re just different branches off the same tree. I bet that there are a lot of people that have both [Jay-Z and Blackalicious] records in their collection.

    PM:
    People are more often just fans of “music” nowadays.

    Blackalicious:
    Lateef: Exactly. There’s the “good music” category and the “bad music” category.

    PM:
    When you’re not on the road, not in the studio, and you have a little bit of downtime, where can we find you?

    Blackalicious:
    Xcel: Right now, ‘downtime’ is not a word that really exists in any of our vocabularies.

    Lateef: You just got back from Jamaica!

    Xcel: Yeah, but that was my first time down there.

    Gab: (laughing) You just got back from Jamaica, dude.

    Xcel: Y’all some haters, man.

    Lateef: For real though, this shit permeates our lives. If we’re not working, we’re looking at when we’re going to work again.

    Gab: And we’re just sitting here like this. (begins rocking in his chair)

    PM:
    Any closing words?

    Blackalicious:
    Gab: Yo, thanks for coming out. Blackalicious coming to a theater near you. The Maroons — Lateef the Truth Speaker and Chief Xcel — have a new record coming out in the fall, Lyrics Born has a record coming out, Gift of Gab solo record coming out in the fall, Lifesavas have a record coming out–