Published Jan 01, 2006As part of the Solesides collective, MC Gift of Gab and DJ Chief Xcel, better known as Blackalicious, were influential players on the Bay Area independent hip-hop scene. After releasing two EPs and the critically acclaimed Nia independently, the duo, like fellow Solesides alum DJ Shadow, have gone the major label route with their sophomore effort Blazing Arrow.
Despite this move, their approach to making music has remained the same. "The foundation of our sound is always gonna be diggin' and from a digging perspective," says Chief Xcel, explaining the importance of scouring for vinyl. "Even in a situation like Blazing Arrow where there's only like 35 percent samples on the record, it always starts from me just diggin' in the crates." It's only after Xcel gets his fingers dusty that Blackalicious's musical journey begins, as Gift of Gab usually writes his lyrics reacting to the sounds Chief Xcel concocts. "The whole thing is with us, it's really about travelling," says Chief Xcel, "it's really about exploring sound and Gab really thinks of himself as an MC first and foremost, but he also views himself as a musician and uses his voice as an instrument. I want him to travel the same way I would want ?uestlove [of the Roots] to travel if he were playing drums, or the way I would want Money Mark to travel when he plays on the keyboards."
These artists along with proto-rap godfather Gil Scott-Heron, Ben Harper, Hi-Tek, and members of Dilated Peoples and Jurassic 5 comprise just part of the impressive guest list on Blazing Arrow. Despite the heavy collaborative emphasis, Blazing Arrow retains the conceptual strength of their last studio project Nia, and thematically represents a logical progression from it.
While Nia, Swahili for purpose, impressed with its musical breadth, Blazing Arrow's themes and music hone in on a focused target of moving forward. While it may sound idealistic, Chief Xcel is quick to comment, "We definitely don't look at the world with rose-tinted glasses," and the Armageddon-like scenario of "Sky Is Falling" or the personal striving on the sublime "Nowhere Fast" underline this. On these tracks Gift of Gab lyrically shines and elsewhere he mixes his straight up displays of mic skills with excursions into experimentation like converting the periodic table into rhyme form.
"To me each track is a completely different mood piece," he said in late 2000, describing his dextrous microphone techniques. "It's like why would I go here when I've already been here, already explored that territory. And the whole point of creation, which is infinite, is to explore new realms that haven't been explored yet." The motivation for this need is distilled by a word Chief Xcel uses constantly: tradition. "What we're doing is a continuum," he says, "and the genesis of it began in Africa with the drums. We kinda felt like it is our calling just to really channel this music and give people something positive, some food for the soul and to do it honestly as we possibly can and do it from our perspective of Africans living in America."