Blackalicious: Clockwork

Duos and groups come and go. Their careers skyrocket and plummet in the blink of an eye. After a decade of making music together, not too many acts can even say that’s they’re still going strong together, let alone drop a new album that sounds totally unlike anything they’ve done before. Keeping your freshness seal-tight […]

Duos and groups come and go. Their careers skyrocket and plummet in the blink of an eye. After a decade of making music together, not too many acts can even say that’s they’re still going strong together, let alone drop a new album that sounds totally unlike anything they’ve done before. Keeping your freshness seal-tight in today’s music game isn’t as easy as some make it look.

Ten years into the game, Blackalicious is bringing a new album and a new sound to the table. The North California team has forged Quannum Projects as a label to watch, and Blackalicious as a group to hear. Going into The Craft this Fall, Chief Xcel and Gift of Gab are getting all sorts of reviews. talks to the duo about the new album The Craft, as well as the span of their careers, the chemistry they have, and drinkin’ on 40’s for breakfast. I’ve been listening to the new album, The Craft, and it’s really crazy. It has been described as having “sonic depth,”—can you elaborate on that for me?

Gift of Gab: I think that musically alone, the way Xcel put the album together was ingenious. He got live musicians that we knew and brought them all together and had them jam for days at a time. Then what he did was take the parts that he thought were best and made them into songs. There’s a lot of live musicians and instrumentation on this album. And the thing that’s really dope about X’s sound right now is that you really can’t tell if it’s live or sampled. Is live music something that you usually incorporate into your albums?

Chief Xcel: Yeah, pretty much in all of our records. The thing about The Craft is that there are just as may samples on the record as there are live instruments. For me, pretty much since Nia, the aim had really been to sort of erase the line between what’s live and what’s sampled so it sounds like it’s all coming from the same source. The other day, as I was listening to The Craft while driving, I caught a slight case of road rage and usually I’m very calm in the car—especially listening to a Blackalicious album. It all reminded me of “Mashin’ on the Motorway”. Now, is that strong feeling that the album puts forth something that was intentional is was I just a mad driver?

Gift of Gab: [laughs] I think that a lot of the songs are more fast paced then stuff we’ve done in the past just on an energetic level I can see how you’d say that. How was it to work with George Clinton?

Chief Xcel: Well, Mr. Clinton, as you know, is a legend and to be able to be in a session with him is almost like being in school. Each time you collaborate with someone is really a learning process because different artists have different ways of accessing their creative energy and to watch his process in action was really amazing. When we first did the song, Gab had originally written the hook and done the demo so Mr. Clinton came into the studio, listened to it and vibed out for 15 or 20 minutes. It was almost like he was going into a trance, started kind of mumbling melodies and harmonies to himself. Then after about 20 minutes, he was like, “Okay, I’m ready” and then to watch his mind work and watch all these different vocal arrangements unfold kind of gave me a little insight into how they made all of those great Parliament records. Is there any particular song on the album that meant a little more to, or that you really put your heart into?

Gift of Gab: We put our heart into all of the songs. I know you’re expecting me to say that… Yes and no…

Gift of Gab: We kinda went by this theory about Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson making Thriller. And the way they went about making that album was by saying “We can’t keep any songs that don’t give us goose-bumps.” So we sort of went by that blueprint. X did over 120 beats and I wrote to about 50 of them, and we cut it down to these 14 because there were a lot of songs we did that were good songs, but after listening to them we’d ask “Okay, but does this song move you? If you had never heard us before and you heard this, would you say ‘Whoa, what was that?’” And if the song didn’t give us that feeling when we were done listening to it, then we’d cut it. We really set a high benchmark as far as what moves us musically in terms of this record. So when you say ‘one song’—each song really stands on its own. So you would trust him to tell you if you were spittin’ mediocre and would you tell him if his production was average?

Gift of Gab: Yeah, we know that the worst thing to say to each other either after I spit a rhyme or after he makes a beat is “Yeah, it was cool.” We don’t want to just do “cool” stuff. We want a reaction. We want to see that we area affecting the person listening. You can tell when it’s sincere and when it’s not sincere. Well one of my favorite songs from you guys is “Release” with Saul Williams. Before he got on that track, did you point him in any specific direction before he took the song where he took it?

Gift of Gab: We were just building on the concept of releasing, letting go and being free. He just really went there—he completely created some new s**t. There was no way we could have guessed that he was gonna come with what he came with on that one. You guys have had quite a few albums now, from Melodica to Nia, and now The Craft; is there any album you feel particularly strong about or is it all love?

Chief Xcel: They’re all kind of like your children, you know? It’s almost as if you have all these different yearbooks on your shelf. Of course if you’re just going into college you have an affinity towards senior year, because that’s what’s closest to you and to where you’re at. But it doesn’t make freshman, sophomore and junior year any less important because that’s where you were at then. So for us I really just look at it as one body of work with various chapters to it. It’s hard for me to go back and listen to anything that I’ve done in the past because that’s who I was then. It’s sort of like revisiting the past as opposed to moving forward in terms of where I am now. So I rarely ever listen to any of our old records. Gab, your solo album, 4th Dimensional Rocketships Going Up—when you approach your solo music, do you approach it any differently then when you’re working with X?

Gift of Gab: Well, me and X have a chemistry. The difference between my solo album and a Blackalicious album is the chemistry. I can only make a Blackalicious album with X, and he can only make on with me. We can make other albums with other artists and make good records, but we can only make Blackalicious albums with me and him. Melodica was ten years ago, and that album is very rare now. It’s worth hundreds of dollars if I’m not mistaken. As a record collector, how does that feel knowing that it’s hard to find some of the music you made?

Chief Xcel: It’s cool, as long as its maybe one or two records in your catalog. If it’s your entire catalog then that’s not cool—cause that means nobody’s buying them. But in terms of Melodica, that’s always going to be a very special piece for us because that was our first record. Just to know that it’s sought after is a very dope thing. And do you see that one being repressed?

Chief Xcel: Yeah, we’re actually talking about re-releasing it some time next year on Quannum. Looking back at your collection of yearbooks, really not knowing where you are in your career—you’re not at the beginning, there’s no way of telling where the end is, how do you feel about the spot you’re at right now?

Chief Xcel: It’s like, you know when you’re on a long ass road trip and say you’re drving from—where you at right now? Rhode Island.

Chief Xcel: Say you’re driving from Rhode Island to Oakland and you’re in Austin, Texas right now and hella stuff has happened since you’ve been on the road. You’ve just been through experience after experience after experience and it’s so intense that you just need to stop and be like “Damn I’m only halfway there and I’ve already gone through this, this, this and this.” That accumulation of experiences sort of puts you where you are now and that’s really what you want to show. You’re in Texas, but you have half the journey to go. At this stage in the game, I have about 18 years of beats under my belt and I’m just now really discovering music. That’s where the adrenaline rush comes from. Every single day you get a little breakthrough in the studio, or you learn something new and it’s exciting. Every day feels new. So lastly, in tradition of one of your most popular records – when was the last time you had a 40 ounce for breakfast?

Gift of Gab: [Laughs] It’s been a long time since I’ve had a 40. I’m not gonna say I don’t have some wine every now and then but it’s been a looooong time since I’ve had a 40.