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Favorite things
Blackalicious just make you feel good
BY HUA HSU

On their most recent single, "Make You Feel That Way," Bay Area hip-hop duo Blackalicious commit the ultimate hip-hop sin: praising corporate life. The loping, horn-driven cut finds rapper Gift of Gab ruminating on lifeís little pleasures: sunny days, getting paid, home-town championships ó and "earning a promotion to upper management." Not exactly the stuff that street cred is made of, but then, neither is taking inspiration from The Sound of Music. "With ĎMake You Feel That Way,í it was almost like a hip-hop rendition of ĎMy Favorite Things,í " Gab explains over the phone from Oakland. "Just a song about things that make you feel good, you know what I mean?"

Hip-hop has become an over-serious exercise on all levels, whether itís the preening of the commercial thug or the angst of his underground peer. In contrast, the satisfied, heartfelt vibe of Gab (Tim Parker) and his partner, producer/DJ Chief Xcel (Xavier Mosley), makes Blackalicious the ultimate rap throwbacks. Built on carefully knitted samples and Gabís everyman wanderings, their music just feels good. Unafraid to smile, cry, laugh, or occasionally school, the duoís new Blazing Arrow (Quannum/MCA) is a passion play for hip-hopís soul at a time when the genre seems bent on brinkmanship or detached intellectualism. "You have to look at the album as if itís one song," Gab says. "We try to bring something to the listener to where they can listen to it all the way through and feel like theyíve experienced something."

Although hip-hop would eventually bring Gab and Xcel together, they initially butted heads over their common love when they met as teens in the late í80s in Sacramento. Gab, who had just moved from the San Fernando Valley, was an avowed Ice-T man; Xcel, born and bred in the Bay Area, swore by Oaklandís Too Short. The pair continually debated who was the doper MC, Gab explains, "and then one day he was telling me about this song ĎTop Billing,í by Audio Two, and he was like, ĎMan, this is the dopest song I ever heard in my life.í And when I heard it, I agreed! From there . . . instead of being rivals, it was kind of like, okay, we got a common love for hip-hop."

Upon graduating, Gab moved back to Southern California while Xcel, one year his junior, finished high school. The two would collaborate on Blackalicious material whenever they had a chance, making short trips for all-night recording sessions or composing songs over the phone. The following year Xcel enrolled in the University of California at Davis, just outside Sacramento. With its serene, landlocked setting and a modest local economy built on farming and college students, Davis doesnít exactly seem like a hip-hop hotbed, but it was here that Xcel met DJ Shadow, rappers Lyrics Born and Lateef, and the conglomeration of artists and writers who would later found the pioneering indie hip-hop label Solesides (it became Quannum in 1998). Upon hearing about his partnerís talented clique, Gab decided to relocate to Davis and try doing music full-time. "It was like a brotherhood," he recalls fondly.

Blackalicious, Shadow, Lateef, and Lyrics Born formed Solesides in 1993, and the label quickly became the vanguard of a burgeoning do-it-yourself indie hip-hop movement. In 1995, Blackalicious released the Melodica EP (Solesides), a polished collection that matched Gabís philosophical wanderings and battle-hungry sass with Xcelís mature soul-jazz production. The EP became a regional hit on the strength of singles like "Swan Lake" and "40oz for Breakfast," a bluesy confessional of the alcoholism that was then destroying Gabís life.

It would be nearly five years before Gab and Xcel pieced together their debut CD, 2000ís masterful Nia (Quannum). From the optimism and invincibility of the opening "Searching" to the cathartic release of Gabís autobiographical "As the World Turns," the albumís sprawling stories, moods, and textures felt like a lifetime in the making. "It was a struggle and it was a blessing," Gab remembers wearily. "People was working two or three jobs, trying to make ends meet, and music was the release from all of that."

The duo signed to MCA shortly after Niaís release. Blazing Arrow features a diverse array of guests (Zack de la Rocha, Saul Williams, Ben Harper, Gil Scott-Heron) but the same organic Blackalicious mood. "Itís just us, man," Gab enthuses. "Lyrically, itís who I am, the thoughts that I have, how I see life and how I envision life can be. I just be me, you know what I mean? I just write what I feel. Itís almost like therapy sometimes, a way to get it out."

Issue Date: May 9 - 16, 2002
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