Blackalicious duo rewards patient fans with their first record in a decade
It’s been 10 years since Sacramento alternative hip-hop duo Blackalicious released their last record. Their fourth album, Imani Vol. 1, which they’ve been working on for the last three years, will finally be released Sept. 18, and fans who have checked the duo out live in recent months have gotten a sneak peek at some of the tracks. I caught a compelling a cappella rendition of the song “Blacka” (which they shared online last month) at a recent show, and it’s not only the strongest song on the album, it’s one of their best to date.
According to DJ/Producer Chief Xcel, half of the Blackalicious duo along with rapper Gift of Gab, “Blacka” was the first track they recorded for the new album. It’s a song that mixes humor and honesty, delivering an empowering message on what it means nowadays to be African American. (“Bodies like the builders of the pyramids in Africa/Funky like Good Times, Soul Train, and What’s Happening/Blacka than the president—well, half of him.”)
“It’s at the core of what Blackalicious is,” says Xcel. “It’s really to show the diversity of blackness. Being black means so many things.”
While the rest of the record isn’t quite as strong as “Blacka,” it’s a consistent and confident album overall, in line with the established Blackalicious sound but a bit more emotive and down-to-earth compared to the heady intellectual records they’re known for.
Imani Vol. 1 is the first in a trilogy of albums that the group will be releasing over the course of two years. That’s as many as they released up to this point in their 20-year career (which include 1999’s Nia, 2002’s Blazing Arrow and 2005’s The Craft).
“It’s really more of one big album with three separate, individual entities,” Xcel explains. “When we went in on this record, we really went in. We recorded 45 songs. How do you narrow that down to 12-15 songs? We look at each record as being a chapter in our lives. That’s why sometimes it takes longer for certain records to be done—cause we need more life to have more to talk about.”
The title of the album means “Faith” in Swahili, and Gab and Xcel have both stated that this is the record’s theme. There were some difficult circumstances around the record, namely Gab suffering a kidney failure in 2012, which motivated them to put their all into this three-volume set. They sound as positive, passionate and hopeful as ever.
“It’s about perseverance. When Gab’s kidney’s failed, we didn’t know if there were going to be any more records, but we knew that this is our calling,” Xcel says. “Being able to share these records with the planet is what our purpose is, having faith in that.”
Xcel says that he used far fewer samples this time, relying more on live instruments. Gab, who bounces off of Xcel’s production, takes a more measured, simplified approach to his verses. The two musicians stay in sync with one another more than just about anyone else in hip-hop. When I interviewed Gab a few years back, he compared their musical relationship to two jazz musicians riffing off of each other.
“Gab is on point,” Xcel says. “But my analogy is like we’re two players in the NBA that are in the prime of their career. We know each other so well creatively that I can see where he’s going with something and he can see where I’m going, and we just develop the song. That’s how our chemistry is in the studio.”
This back-and forth-dynamic has sparked some great hip-hop albums in the past, most notably, Blazing Arrow, arguably one of the best underground hip-hop albums ever made. While Imani Vol. 1 doesn’t have that record’s cutting-edge complexity, they make good use of a more simple approach.
“I think, as time goes on, we find ways to be more efficient at getting that point across, at getting straight to it,” Xcel says. “From day one, our aim has always been to make classic hip-hop that represents who we are as people and who we are as artists and musicians, as well.”
INFO: 7 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 12, Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. $18/Adv, $22/Door. 429-4135.
BACK IN BLACKALICIOUS Gift of Gab (left) and Chief Xcel return to the Catalyst on Saturday, Sept. 12.