We were fortunate enough to have some time with Blackalicious to talk shop before their highly anticipated gig in February. Words were swapped on various subjects; Harry Potter, Hip Hop’s Golden Era and the genre’s forgotten gems. Read on for a more detailed and agreeable account.
After the usual social courtesies are exchanged, Chief Xcel assures us that all is good in the Blackalicious camp. Currently he is on tour with the other half of Blackalicious, Gift of Gab, in the US, their schedule as relentless as it was in their heyday.
The pair met at High School with their shared love of rap music quickly cementing the foundations of a robust friendship. Their independently released Melodica EP was, for many, a game changer. The EP took Hip Hop to new heights by blending soul and Jazz into the genre. Their long-standing working relationship has stood the trials of time and creativity, making them one of the most loved, innovative and revered Hip Hop acts.
Talk moves swiftly to the duo’s new album which is due to drop in March. “The album is called ‘Imani: Volume 1.’” Says Chief Xcel. We point out that it has been a while since they released an album, The Craft being dropped in 2005, and wondered if it had always been their intention to come together again eventually. Chief Xcel acknowledges that he and Gift of Gab “took time to record other projects” but that they were fixed with a deep-set intention of “always coming back and doing more Blackalicious records.”
“We never stopped working together,” Chief Xcel says after we ask how it has been working together after having an elongated break. He assures that even though the duo hasn’t put anything out into the ether for public consumption in a while they “continued to create.”
Anyone with the internet and a keen eye for a popular YouTube video will more than likely have come across Daniel Radcliffe taking to task the tongue-twisting talk of Alphabet Aerobics on The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon. In a convincing American accent Radcliffe bounces through Gib of Gab’s intricate lyrics, much to the delight of the 31 million people who’ve viewed the clip. Chief Xcel thinks it’s cool that Harry Potter rocked their gear, “We are glad he likes the song and took the time to memorize it. You never know where your music will reach.”
Our Hip Hop geekery starts to show as we put to Chief Xcel, “You guys arguably caught the tail-end of the ‘Golden Era’ of hip hop with your ‘Melodica’ EP back in ‘94, though you’re actually one of the brightest lights of the post-Golden Era, we feel. What changed in hip hop between, say ‘92 and ‘99?” His response is considered and measured, “Seven years in this art form is an eternity,” he states, “there were many different movements that happened throughout that time period. New underground and sub genres emerged while the genre as a whole expanded and became a part of pop culture.”
Conversation takes a more serious lilt when we discuss the recent incidents in the US in which Black youths have being the targets of what appears to be racist, heavy-handed policing. We posit that Hip Hop used to have the positive power to unite and wonder if Chief Xcel feels that the genre in its current form still has the power to pull people together. “It could,” he muses, “if it is focused. It’s just one aspect of a multitude of dynamics that must converge to make real change.”
Contemporary Hip Hop has travelled far from the genre’s roots, yet any musician will concede that musical evolution is a must if a genre is to survive. When asked who he rates highly in the contemporary Hip Hop world Chief Xcel is quick to name Afro, Joey Badass, Clear Soul Forces and the much talked about Kendrick Lamar before conversation turns once more to the Golden Era of the genre and acts who we feel got slept on. We both agree there are too many to name but Chief Xcel verbalises “ Too Poetic, Wise Guyz, 415, Ill Mannered Posse, The CUFF, OG Style, The Whoridaz, Another Level, CPO and E Train,” before adding, somewhat sombrely, “the list goes on.”
The last time Blackalicious visited the steel city was back in 99/00 (we reckon) and we still hold fond memories of that soiree. It’s easy for a fan to remember so long back butwe assume an artist must have a torrid time of it. Rather pleasing, however, it turns out Chief Xcel remembers that outing rather well. “That gig was dope,” he says, “and we did some recording at this really great home studio before and after the show.”
Queens Social Club seems like a fitting location for the duo, a somewhat intimate and sweaty venue where the pair can wheel out their honed show. We gush about our expectations for the gig and ask what to expect. Will Blackalicious be rolling out new material? Can we expect to hear the classics? “We’ll be performing new material from the upcoming LP as well as our classics,” says Chief Xcel which causes us to throw a celebratory fist into the air.
Easing the interview to conclusion we ask a simple question to round proceedings off. “You’ve been in in the game for a long time, now. If you could meet yourself when you were just starting out, what advice would you impart?” Chief Xcel’s response is short, but well-considered and poignant, “Keep doing what you’re doing and you’ll be ok.” Words are exchanged about our shared excitement for the gig on February 1st and then our conversation finishes. It’s been a pleasure talking to Hip Hop gentry and our expectation meter is all aflutter for the first day of February when we will be at the front of the crowd dancing to Chief Xcel’s beats and trying to keep up with Gib of Gab’s rhymes.
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Words by Hal Walker