"From day one, our sound has been a hybrid of [live instrumentation] and what I do on the MPC," Chief Xcel tells New Times during a recent phone interview. "The Craft is the next logical progression in that whole sonic approach."
Popular among hip-hop producers, the MPC is the sampler/sequencer behind Chief Xcel's sounds. His tracks provide a blueprint for the session players who often join in, expanding Xcel's concepts into a fluid, heavy funk experience. Among The Craft's guests are vocalists like George Clinton and Floetry.
Tougher-sounding than the watery neo-soul of the group's previous release, the equally excellent Blazing Arrow, The Craft's beats are gritty and girded by supple bass (courtesy of Vincent Segal and Teak Underdue) and skittering, mindful percussion (thanks to Alfredo Ortiz), yielding a sound that's hard-hitting and deep.
"We'd like to introduce you all to the world of vibrations," Gift of Gab raps on the album's opening track, "World of Vibrations." The song features a chorus from soul singer Ledisi and ends with a metaphysical manifesto on "time and space" from vocalists Kween and Joy King. "Matrix-driven rules haven't fooled me," Gift of Gab raps in a quick-fire patter. "Cuz I still think abstract/And stay metaphysical/And challenge what's really real/And keep creatin' with the force to bring rap back/Not that it's away/But everybody got somethin' to say/So let me speak the opposite of what's hot now/And make that hot."
Blackalicious is part of the Quannum collective, a highly respected crew of hip-hop artists based in San Francisco. (Quannum is also the name of the record label that publishes the same artists.) Its other primary members are DJ Shadow, Lyrics Born, and Lateef the Truth Speaker. Originally called Solesides and based around this core group, Quannum the label now issues critically acclaimed recordings by APSCI, Curumin, General Elektriks, and others. Chief Xcel is Quannum's president and says he oversees the label's "executive decisions."
In the late '90s (when Quannum was still called Solesides), Blackalicious began creeping up in popularity. Following the excellent full-length Nia in 2000, Quannum signed a deal with MCA Records to distribute the group's next album.
Two years later, Blackalicious released Blazing Arrow. As a nonmainstream hip-hop album, it performed reasonably well, peaking at number 49 on the Billboard album charts. In 2003, Geffen Records bought out and dissolved MCA, leaving the group without its support system at the label. "When MCA was dismantled," Chief Xcel says, "all the staff that originally brought us in was gone, even the president of the company, who was involved in signing us directly. At that point, we didn't know anybody at Geffen directly, so we just didn't really feel comfortable being in a place where we didn't feel fully understood in terms of our vision and what we were doing."
After breaking with MCA, Quannum struck a distribution deal with Epitaph for its album releases, including Blackalicious' The Craft. "Epitaph is a good company. I don't have anything bad to say about them," Chief Xcel says. "Every record that we've done has been on Quannum through another label, whether it's licensed or strictly being distributed by that label. Whatever record we do will be on Quannum. Who Quannum partners with, you never know."
Though Blackalicious has been around for nearly two decades, the group has released only three full-length albums. Part of this is because of their deliberate, meticulous nature. Each full-length represents a fully realized artistic statement addressing Chief Xcel and Gift of Gab's thoughts, dreams, and ambitions, from cautionary tales on the record industry and its excesses (Nia's "Deception") to an uplifting tale of a former felon who learns to shed his criminal behavior and embrace life (The Craft's "The Fall and Rise of Elliot Brown.")
"For me, from day one, I've always been plagued with being able, or not being able, to actually create music at the same rate that I think of music," Chief Xcel says. He also notes that he and Gift of Gab are busy with other aspects of their lives. Chief Xcel takes part in projects like the Maroons, a group he shares with Lateef (and who released Ambush in 2004). Meanwhile, Gift of Gab has a solo career; his second album is due this fall. "An incredible amount of time and thought is put into every move we make with these records," Chief Xcel says.
The result of such careful precision is an album like The Craft, whose title refers to the "intense dedication" Chief Xcel and Gift of Gab lend their music. "When we started making records, we were in our late teens, and now we're full-grown men," Chief Xcel says. "For us, the end has always been to have the music be a very, very honest depiction of where we're at in our lives and who we are as people. It's important that our music grows with us and never, ever stays the same."