Journalists, by and large, hold true to the mantra that objectivity rules all. We’re supposed to report only the facts, checking our personal opinions and biases at the door.
I will not be doing that today.
How could I even pretend to write objectively about Blackalicious, a critically revered California hip hop duo who provided the funkafied soundtrack to my young, impressionable high school years?
Hell, I even wrote an ill-advised critical analysis for my Grade 10 English class of one of the group’s most recognizable songs, Alphabet Aerobics, a tongue-twisting alliterative masterpiece that must be heard to be believed. Surprisingly, my teacher didn’t agree.
So, it was with sweaty palms and an unhealthy and probably inappropriate reverence that I answered a phone call a few days ago from Gift of Gab, the group’s front man, and one of hip hop’s most imaginative wordsmiths.
Before Blackalicious became the critical darlings of the hip hop world that they are today, they were just two high school friends from Sacramento, Gab, né Tim Parker, and DJ and producer Chief Xcel, né Xavier Mosley, who first bonded over their passion for music in 1987.
Five years later and they had entrenched themselves in the burgeoning West Coast hip hop scene, working with California luminaries and eventual labelmates, as they do to this day, like DJ Shadow, Latyrx and Lateef the Truth Speaker.
“Crews make a big difference because you’re feeding off of other creative people and they’re feeding off of you,” said Gab. “When you’ve got a crew of creative minds, it just makes everybody doper.”
Being surrounded by such creative forces evidently wore off on the pair, who released the rare 1994 EP Melodicaon cassette, a technically and lyrically ingenious album that has since become one of the ‘90s most coveted independent hip hop records, fetching over $100 online until its re-release last year.
Although the group hasn’t been all that prolific during their 20-plus year career, — their last full length was 2005’s The Craft — it has been enough to cement their status as one of independent hip hop’s most innovative and technically skilled outfits.
And with a long-awaited, yet untitled fourth album slated for release sometime in the summer, Blackalicious are prepared to reclaim their spot atop underground hip hop’s throne.
“We haven’t put a record out for a minute, and we want this album to be impactful,” said Gab, who revealed that they have 22 songs already recorded, with plans to do 18 more before they choose the best handful for the album. “We’re definitely doing things that we haven’t done before, but at the same time, it’s the same chemistry that’s always made Blackalicious what it is.”
But with eight years since their last full-length — although both Gab and Xcel have been busy with their own solo projects since then — many hip hop heads are left wondering if Blackalicious still has what it takes to compete with the unabashed swagger of a new generation of rappers.
“I don’t think we’re really concerned about (other rappers),” said Gab. “ I think the level of skill, particularly with MC’s, has kind of diminished.”
While Gab sets the lofty standard in terms of progressive, conscious lyricism in rap, he’s right that today’s young rappers were cut from a different cloth than Blackalicious and their contemporaries, who came of age during a golden era for West Coast hip hop in the early ‘90s.
“Back in the days, you had to battle, you couldn’t just get on the computer and just wake up being an MC. You had to earn that right, you had to go through other rappers, you had to battle, and you had to lose some battles,” said Gab. “You had to earn your stripes when it was just a culture, not just a multimillion dollar business. Some people, I’m not gonna say any names, have gotten a little bit away from that.”
While Blackalicious have always steered clear of the misogyny and violence that paints the bulk of rap records, Gab’s ongoing health issues — he went into kidney failure last March — have given him a newfound appreciation of life and his music.
“I definitely think that it’s made me more humble, made me grow, made me think, made me really count the blessings and see how lucky I am to have the things that I have,” he said.
Gab said he has several donors lined up, and is expecting the transplant to take place sometime this year.
Even with the health concerns, Gab has no intention of slowing down, and just marked one year of sobriety last week.
“I feel very clear, I feel way more focused on what I wanna do,” he said. “I wanna be able to tour and do shows until I’m in my fifties, maybe even ‘til I’m in my sixties. Obviously staying sober and staying healthy is a big key to that component.”
Blackalicious perform at the GLC Saturday (Feb. 2). Tickets are $15 in advance at www.clubzone.com or $20 at the door. Doors open at 9:30 p.m.