BLACKALICIOUS (CHIEF XCEL AND GIFT OF GAB) ARTICLEChief Xcel The Craftsman
Chief Xcel: The Craftsman by James O'Connor Between all the hip hop references to education such as old school, true school, new school, getting schooled etc., Blackalicious actually see themselves as students in school. The life school of music. "I would probably say I'm in my junior year of college," Chief Xcel exclaims. A year shy of working together for two decades, everyday still seems to be about learning and growth for the Bay Area duo. Long gone are the days of merely doing some hip hop shit, these guys have evolved into skilled and respected musicians. Already having passed the stage of establishing themselves, like the name of their latest album implies, now they are honing their craft. It makes one wonder what their graduation will bring. But in the time between, Gift of Gab and Chief Xcel are breathing life and fresh energy into their music, learning day by day. "I kind of look at my grad school process as being somewhat of an eight year doctoral program. I got a long ways to go, man [laughs]," says Xcel anticipating his musical development. Although there was not as much hype built behind 2005's The Craft, comparing that to their earlier albums like Melodica and Nia, their growth as artists is plain to see. "Each one of our records takes on its own process. With Blazing Arrow, we knew going in, precisely what we wanted to do with each and every song. With this one, we had grown so much, we both wanted to get out all our ideas and really carve the piece of work out of this mountain of music," Xcel explains. Roping in a number of different musicians such as percussionist Alfredo Ortiz from the Beastie Boys, French cellist Vincent Segal, keyboardist Herve Salters and guitarist Sebastian Martel both from Femi Kuti's band, a whopping 120 tracks were laid down. From that point, Xcel went to work carving out diamond grooves from the rough. Using live musicians, as opposed to sampling records, can be seen as an emerging trend in Blackalicious' music. Xcel tells that, "For me, the aim has always been to erase the lines between what is sampled and what is live so that everything is just one. We started it [instrumentation] on Nia, expanded on it with Blazing Arrow and delved deep on The Craft. What I do with the drum machine is the basis and foundation of each track but it's not the limit." Whichever production method is being used, Blackalicious maintains their distinct 'sound'. "We have a definite chemistry" explains Xcel, "and that comes across in what we do so it does become its own signature sound. It's something that just happens. It's not a blatant thing but it is something that we are aware of." While breaking down the creative process between Gab and himself, Xcel explains that their roles are simply and clearly defined: Gab handles the lyrics, Xcel handles the music. "Nine times out of ten, I will give Gab the rhythm tracks to write to, then I go back and rearrange it to fit what he has written. We both draw heavily off of each other." This dependence on each other has been present since the duo linked up in high school back in '87. Gift of Gab was initially backed by a producer named Miestro K, a Jehovah's Witness whose mother didn't want him making secular music. At the time, Chief Xcel was working as a house party and gig DJ. That fateful day when Gab called wanting a DJ, Xcel replied "When do you need me?" thinking it was for a talent show. But when Gab replied "Well… forever," he quickly left all other gigs behind. Despite partnering up so swiftly, the duo took their time deciding on a name. The evolution follows as such: first there was GTI, which compiled their names at the time, Gabby T and ICESKI, which stood for Innovative Concepts Emerge from a Strong King of Intellect. Keep in mind this was during the Lakim Shabazz, X-Clan, and five percenter eras. After GTI was Atomic Legion, which they decided sounded too much like a b-boy crew. It was only after three or four more incarnations that Xcel came up with Blackalicious. Although strong as a team, it was during their time spent at University of California-Davis that the duo attempted to collaborate with other artists, many of whom now have albums that pepper your local record bins. It all began at the college radio station where DJ Zen was hosting a hip hop show. Drawn in like moths to a flame, Xcel, Gab, DJ Shadow, Lyrics Born, and Lateef the Truth Speaker started showing up and hanging out. Once assembled, this group served as the primordial ooze that developed into the Solesides crew. "Zen was the one who said, 'Look, you guys are all talented, why don't we pool our resources together and start releasing our own records?'" This idea came into fruition in '97 with the birth of the Quannum record label. This collaborative effort launched each of the artists into the national hip hop lexicon almost overnight. But the decision to pursue art as a career didn't come easy. Xcel describes his moment of truth, "It was right after I graduated from college and I was asking myself, 'Do I work these three or four jobs and make this dream come true or do I cave in, take my LSAT, go to law school and jump into the Matrix?' We all kinda chose to make the sacrifice and chase our dream...," a dream that began during the late eighties hip hop scene in Sacramento. At the time, Gift of Gab was one of the area's most renowned battle MCs, building his skills during after school ciphers. Xcel explains Gab's status today: "He's kinda like the supreme Shogun warrior, you know what I mean [laughs]? He's had his battles. He's the general now. The level of his artistry and where he is trying to explore has evolved so far past that. The path that he is on now is really being a great songwriter." This evolution is evident in his recent output which conveys an incredible depth, covering a wide array of topics relating to the human condition. On the opposite side of the scale from today's materialistic 'crack' rappers, Blackalicious' sound and message attract an audience with refined ears. And in an era where a positive message automatically equates early-90s throw back, Blackalicious is clearly influenced by, yet distinctly evolved from that era. From arguably one of the best summertime feel good songs ever, "Make You Feel That Way" off of Blazing Arrow, Gift of Gab touches upon a topic rarely mentioned in hip hop, spirituality. He makes reference to euphoria that follows when one's prayers are answered. Looking at what goes on in their lives that would reflect such a positive outlook, Xcel replies that, "We don't set out to say, 'Ok, we're gonna make a positive record or a song that makes you question your spirituality or this that and the third.' We're simply making records that reflect who we are as people and where we are at any given time with our artistic inspiration. That's why making Blackalicious albums is so much fun because you can really travel. You can cover a lot of ground." Over the course of their career, Blackalicious has teamed up with an impressive list of musicians like the jazz poet Gil-Scott Heron on Blazing Arrow to funk magnate George Clinton on The Craft. Not only have these partnerships allowed the duo to expand their sound, they have provided them with invaluable lessons from the best teachers in the biz. "Each time we've collaborated, it's an educational process and when you're working with people of that stature, that learning process is magnified ten fold." Xcel's respect for George Clinton is very evident; X refers to him only as Mr. Clinton. "With Mr. Clinton, I had already given him a demo of "Lotus Flower" so when he came in, he just kinda sat and vibed out to it, really got it in his bones." Watching Mr. Clinton work, Xcel learned a priceless lesson. "He has a very precise way of accessing what he hears in his mind. And the way he constructed his harmonies really gave me a little insight into the way those old Parliament records came together." Although for Xcel, when working with an artist he admires, there is a thin line between being a fan and a peer, "If you're too much on the fan side, you end up becoming a fake version of the person you're working with and if you're too much on the peer side it may make the person shy away from tapping into doing what they do. With each song, it should always be an example of so and so's energy combined with the creative energy of Gab and Xcel." But for every upside there's a downside and for Blackalicious, it is irrevocably the business end that gets them heated. "I don't even like to call the people that listen to music consumers. Having to put economic terms on music, I don't like it. It's that necessary evil, but dealing with the collision of commerce and art is my least favorite aspect of what I do," explains Xcel. In a brilliant career move on their part, the duo has all but avoided any major label hassles. Most of their albums were released on indie labels (Solesides, Quannum Projects, Epitaph) with the exception being Blazing Arrow which was on MCA. Regardless of which label, which guest shots or who they sampled/hired, there's always been a consistent motivation in Blackalicious' art. They are just trying to give back what they feel was given to them; classic hip hop music. Xcel expounds, "As long as I can make something where ten years down the line, twenty years down the line, somebody can be sharing it [Blackalicious music] with their children saying 'Check this record out.' So twenty years from now, that child can listen to it, enjoy it and learn from it in the way that I've been able to learn from and enjoy so many amazing artists." Like those who have come before them, Blackalicious is merely a link in a legacy. Chief Xcel and Gift of Gab are entering their musical grad school, but that doesn't mean things are getting old for them. Just as it was in the beginning, they still derive enjoyment from the creative process and making aural breakthroughs. Xcel explains, "You know that feeling you used to get in elementary school when you got a brand new pair of tennis shoes, just that fresh kind of feeling? I get that every time a make a new song. It's like a new day."