Blackalicious have been in the game since their debut album ‘Nia’ rose from the West Coast flip side in 1999. Over 400 miles from Compton, the Sacramento-based, DJ Shadow-affiliated duo invigorated hip-hop’s conscience with Gift Of Gab’s lyrical dexterity and philosophical prowess alongside producer Chief Xcel’s funky grooves. The pair followed ‘Nia’ with 2002’s ‘Blazing Arrow’ and 2005’s ‘The Craft’ before breaking to pursue other projects.
Ten years later they’re back with a three-album exploration of faith, funded by their fan base and launched with ‘Imani Vol 1’, out on September 18 – featuring first single ‘On Fire Tonight’, which you can hear below. We caught up with Chief Xcel – pictured above right – to find out what took them so long, the problematic endurance of the ‘rap gangster’ and what it was like to watch Daniel Radcliffe put his elocution lessons to use in a viral rendition of their 1999 track ‘Alphabet Aerobics’ on The Tonight Show.
You’re back! What took you so long?
Chief Xcel: “Ha! We hadn’t gone anywhere really. Gab did three solo records. I had two other projects, Burning House and Loudspeaker. We continued to work and tour together. People say 10 years, but it’s more like seven. We started recording ‘Imani’ two and a half years ago.”
‘Imani Vol 1’ is the first of three volumes. What can we expect from the other two?
“The story is told in chapters. It’s a journey and faith is the umbrella concept. I’ll leave it there! I’m not big on defining things for listeners. It’s important to me they respond in their own way.”
The first track to come from the album, ‘Blacka’, features a Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry sample and explores what it means to be black, from slave ships to Soul Train. Why was it important to send out that message?
“Because it’s the absolute essence of Blackalicious. Gab’s concept was to deal with the multi-dimensional nature of black and blackness. It’s a play on words and a play on the definition. And the Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry thing was perfect. He’s talking about black arts, so I chopped him up to say ‘black-a’. ‘Blacka’ was the first song we recorded for this project. Sonically and creatively it set the pace for everything else.”
‘Escape’ is another poignant track. It’s a story about getting away from the block and taking control of your situation to create something positive. There’s the line, “Instead of being a gangster, I’d rather be a grown up man” The ‘gangster’ stereotype has always been tied to hip-hop. Is that still problematic today?
“Oh, even more so. Look at the imagery out there. Especially in quote unquote mainstream music. There is such a lack of balance, such a lack of truth.”
Is there a way to change that?
“The only way you can change it is by being OK with who you are. The best art is always made by people who speak their 100 per cent authentic truth. So much that you see and hear isn’t authentic, it leads listeners down a false path.”
So, who in hip-hop is leading them down the right path?
“Kendrick Lamar. Chance The Rapper. Rapsody. Zion I. Brother Ali. The list goes on. We’re students and fans of music and good music is a continuum. Especially hip-hop. They’re all just branches from the same tree, you know?”
Your 1999 debut album ‘Nia’ made a huge impact. It features on NME’s 101 Albums To Hear Before You Die.. What’s it like creating new music when you have that kind of legacy behind you?
“You know, when you hear a rapper say ‘Nia’ was the most influential record in their formative years, you’re so honoured. But you can’t keep making music for that. You gotta only be concerned with your process, not your destination.”
A lot of new fans discovered Blackalicious when Daniel Radcliffe rapped ‘Alphabet Aerobics’ on The Tonight Show. The video then went viral. What did you think when you saw it?
“I thought it was cool, man! I mean, I was surprised. Questlove from The Roots is a friend of mine. He texted me and just said, ‘Yo. Tell all your friends to DVR the show tonight, trust.’ I thought The Roots were gonna play an instrumental of one of our songs in the commercial break. And then I start getting all these calls!”
Are you a Harry Potter fan?
“I can’t say I’m a super, super Harry Potter aficionado. My children are, so they loved it. I’ve only seen two or three of the movies.”
Do you have a favourite character?
“Um… what’s his name. Gandalf.”
That’s Lord Of The Rings! I think you mean Dumbledore, the headmaster?
“Oh shit! Yeah. That is Lord Of The Rings! Haha. Yeah, I mean the headmaster. The dude with the beard.”
Following on from your legacy and from viral hits, how do you stay grounded? How do you keep your head down and cut a three-volume new album?
“You have to maintain the hunger of an intern! When an intern goes in, if they have to make coffee, they make coffee. If they have to answer phones, they answer phones. They do whatever they have to do to soak their craft. You gotta maintain that thirst. Creativity is as infinite as the human experience. And as musicians we paint sonic pictures of the human experience. So in that, there’s always something to learn. Technology has made everything faster, more accessible. Sometimes as an artist you feel like your output has to keep up with that. But honestly, sometimes it’s best to just sit back and live life so that you have something real and compelling to say.”
Technology might have made everything more accessible, but it’s also partly responsible for the surge in vinyl sales. What do you make of that?
“People will always want to have a physical relationship with art. Things on a screen can only go so far. And vinyl is a very personal thing. A person’s collection says so much about them.”
Do you have a collection?
“Yeah. Haha. I have one.”
Is it big?
“Well. Right now it’s in about four or five different warehouse storage spaces. So yeah, I have a few records.”
And if you had to pick one of them?
“Let me go in my record room and pull you one out! OK, Shirley Caesar. She’s a gospel superstar. Anybody who knows me, knows I’m into gospel. But mainly indie gospel, private presses from churches. In the ’70s and ’80s churches would press maybe 100 or 200 copies of a record just for their congregation. OK, I pulled you out another one. ‘The Capital City Gospel Chorus Sings Hallelujah’. If you wanted this album, you had to write to the church! There’s an address printed on it, it’s a sacramental church record. There were probably only a couple hundred copies printed.”
What are your thoughts on the 2016 US presidential election. Are you backing anyone yet, Kanye maybe?
“You know what, no, no. I’m not behind anyone. Right now the field of who is out there is pretty scary. I mean, the fact that someone like Donald Trump can be taken seriously? People take the piss because it’s so ridiculous but I’ll say this, I never thought Arnold Schwarzenegger would end up being the Governor of California and he was. You know, it’s a very serious thing. We’re facing so many monumentally heavy issues, not only in this nation but across the planet. For somebody like that to be a serious contender is a very scary thing. I hope people wake up and I hope they wake up quickly.”