For more than two decades, rap duo Blackalicious has been synonymous with Northern California underground hip-hop. Alongside DJ Shadow, Lyrics Born and Lateef the Truthspeaker, the duo is part of the Quannum Projects collective and label (one of the most successful indie hip-hop labels to ever come out of the Bay Area).
The emcees and DJs on Quannum all have their own voice, but share a vibrant, intellectual vibe—and a strong tip of the hat to the forebearers of hip-hop.
Blackalicious’s 1999 landmark debut LP Nia was a critical and financial indie success story. It hit at the at right moment, when the audience for non-mainstream rap had grown significantly, but the Internet had not yet filled the market with a million emcee wannabes and free downloads.
But it wasn’t just a one album thing. Blackalicious, who prepare for the release of its fourth LP, Emoni this July, have that rare commodity in hip-hop: longevity.
“You have other artists that put out big records, but they’re gone in five years,” says Gift of Gab, the vocal half of Blackalicious who performs Saturday in San Jose at Back Bar. “Not to toot our own horn, but we’ve been putting out records for 20 years. There are artists that make hits, and that’s good, but then you have other artists that have to do it, who literally breathe it. These are the artists with long careers. It comes down to passion.”
Throughout Blackalicious’s run, Gift of Gab has also maintained a successful solo career, releasing albums and touring intermittently. While Blackalicious is defined by a meticulous, old-school, soul-tinged sound, Gift of Gab’s solo albums tend to go into somewhat more unusual directions, like 2004’s 4th Dimensional Rocketships Going Up, which centers around an elaborate sci-fi theme.
“Blackalicious is more like me and Xcel have a chemistry, like we kind of think the same,” Gift of Gab says. “He thinks musically like I think lyrically. It’s more of a natural chemistry whereas with other producers I have to kind of feel their vibe and feel what they’re doing beat-wise—but it’s still a chemistry.”
The new Blackalicious album is a long time coming for fans—almost a decade since the duo’s last release, 2005’s Epitaph release The Craft. They’ve never been ones to spit out half thought out albums. They’ve spent the better part of the last two years working on Emoni, even as Gift of Gab’s been busy releasing his own records. According to Gift of Gab, Emoni will feature guest verses by Lifesavas, Latyrx and will combine a sound that is soulful and epic.
“It’s hip-hop, from hardcore beats to soulful laid-back beats—and it’s definitely lyricism,” Gift of Gab says. “Art is about exploration. It’s always about creating something that hasn’t been created and going somewhere that hasn’t been gone. At the same time, it’s the Blackalicious sound.”
Gift of Gab, regardless of project, is known for his technically complex tongue-twister rhymes. His solo albums have a more varied sound because he works with different producers on songs, as opposed to Blackalicious where it’s him and Xcel. He goes where the beats take him and keeps his rhymes fluid within that.
“I try to approach it like a musician,” Gift of Gab says. “I want it to fit the mode or the energy of the beat of the horns, of the bass line. I pay attention to everything that’s going on. And for me it’s all about finding pockets to where, when you hear it, the lyrics blend in, but they almost blend in like another instrument.”
Part of what made Blackalicious resonate with people back in the 90s, with the duo’s debut EP Melodica and later with Nia, was by that point, mainstream rap had become about excess and the bling—a big departure from its raw, modest roots. Hip-hop heads gravitated to Blackalicious because it harkened back to the traditions of the genre while still pushing forward. In 2014, mainstream rap is even further from its roots than it was back in 1999.
“What we do is a different genre than most of the stuff you hear on mainstream radio,” Gift of Gab says. “I don’t listen to the radio and say, ‘I’m going to make something to counter this.’ I’m not against mainstream artists. As fans of hip-hop, we just make the kind of music we want to hear for whatever time period we’re in.”
Gift of Gab
Back Bar Sofa, San Jose
Sat, 9pm, $10