Chances are you’ve heard Blackalicious and probably failed to even recognize it. “Alphabet Aerobics,” released off the California duo’s 1999 release A2g, spread through dorm computers faster than those pictures of Britney with her nipples showing through. The song was produced in collaboration with Cut Chemist and dizzies the listener with alphabetically ordered rhymes while the beat pumps faster and faster.
Upon hearing it, listeners often sit slackjawed while feverishly IM-ing those with an appreciation for an upbeat, socially conscious hip hop movement commonly referred to as “the positive tip.” Blackalicious further embodies this branch with their 2002 release, Blazing Arrow, and Artsweek catches the group’s lyricist, Gift of Gab, as he strolls down Telegraph Ave. in Berkeley, recounts a decade’s ascent and prepares for Sunday’s show in Santa Barbara.
“I don’t think either one of us sat down and said ‘We’re gonna be political,’ or ‘We’re going to be thought provoking,'” he said. “This is about our experience as human beings. It’s just telling our story.”
The story is about a fifteen-year friendship that began when Gab met his future beat-producer Chief Xcel while still in high school.
“I was originally from Southern California and he was from Northern California so at first we was sorta like rivals,” Gift of Gab said. “We’d argue over who’s better: Ice-T or Too Short.”
Realizing their mutual affinity for melodic, soul-inspired hip hop, the duo began collaborating and eventually created Soulsides Records with an already established hip hop posse that included DJ Shadow, Lateef the Truth Speaker and Lyrics Born. The Solesides crew stemmed from the highly agricultural UC Davis campus where Chief Xcel attended college.
“It was kinda away from everything,” Gab said. “We could always drive to the bay, [but] we were able to just go into our own little world out there and create. It was just a pool of talent with people who pretty much saw the same thing vision-wise.”
Though Soulsides eventually collapsed, it was reincarnated as Quannum Records, the label that released the Blackalicious EP Deception (1999) as well as Nia (2000). For their fourth body of work, Blazing Arrow, Blackalicious collaborated with a slew of high profile musicians and hip hop artists including Ben Harper, veteran soul singer Gil Scott, ?uestlove of The Roots, Zack de la Rocha, formerly of Rage Against the Machine, Chalie 2na of Jurassic 5 and many more.
“It was a blessing,” Gab said. “All of those people we had been running into on the road, keeping contact, and had been talking about working with for a long time. And I think that one of the best ways that you can grow as an artists is to merge out and experiment with other people’s chemistry.”
The end result is an album full of throwbacks to classic soul, catchy melodies and hip hop that speaks of educating the youth, avoiding incarceration and soaring to one’s potential. Also woven through album is a reference to a higher power.
“Everything is spirituality,” Gab said. “To me, creativity in art is spirituality. God is my foundation in life.”
It appears that faith has born fruition for Gab and Chief Xcel, at least for the time being. The success of Blazing Arrow brought the duo into the spotlight while touring with Public Enemy and Jurassic 5, among others.
“It’s been a really blessed year,” Gab said. “People have been coming out to the shows. The awareness on the group has been raised and everybody’s showing their support and love.”
Those stuck scribbling verses on cocktail napkins need not despair. Just listen to Gab, and learn his mantra by heart.
“Believe in your vision,” Gab said. “Do something every day to make that vision a reality. That’s it. You ain’t gotta’ do it all in one day, but just do anything.”
For a moment, Gift of Gab speaks to Artsweek with the Berkeley sounds of bongos and street musicians filtering in through the background. This half of Blackalicious shines with optimism while outlining the group’s future plans.
“We’re also in the lab,” Gab said. “Chief Xcel is working with Lateef on an album and I’m also working on my solo record.”
On Blazing Arrow, Gift of Gab and Cut Chemist update their classic “Alphabet Aerobics” with the aptly titled, “Chemical Calisthenics,” as if to give a sly wink to those who’ve been paying attention for a while. Whirlwind rhymes and hypnotic beats are only half the appeal. The proliferation of bitches-blunts-and-bling only marks Blackalicious as a welcome anomaly.
“You know, as a lyricist, when I write, I’m kinda just baring my soul,” Gab said. “It’s about being who I am, what I see, how I see things, and how I’d like things to be, and visions I may have. We try to be as honest as possible … to just kinda let go, to follow, and let what comes out come out.”
Blackalicious will be performing at Bar Absinthe, located at 500 Anacapa St., in downtown Santa Barbara. Tickets are already on sale for $15. This World Concerts production starts at 7:30 p.m. Call 965-5057 for more info.