[NEW CLASSIC HIP-HOP] In 2002, Sacramento's Blackalicious had it all: The duo was at the helm of a West Coast underground hip-hop scene just as explosive as the East Coast had been a decade prior.
"We were living our dream at that time," says Blackalicious' MC, Gift of Gab. "We were on a big label [Quannum Projects, home of DJ Shadow and Lyrics Born], we had an album that everybody embraced. It just took us to another level creatively."
A decade can change things. Gab and his producer/DJ, Chief Xcel, followed their critically acclaimed breakout Blazing Arrow with a sonically ambitious—and underrated—album called The Craft for the Anti- label in 2005 before spending six years on solo ventures and other projects. As Blackalicious moved to the back burner, various major-label signings and side projects diluted the perception that Quannum—the most respected label in West Coast underground hip-hop—was one big happy family.
Looks can be deceiving. "I feel like we're strong and we're united," Gab says of his labelmates. "These are guys that I grew up with, this is family. We're not kids anymore, but we're always family."
The year to come is going to feel a bit like a family reunion. Gab is prepping a new solo record for Quannum early next year. Label staple Lateef has a new Quannum disc coming out Nov. 8. Portland's Lifesavas are recording their own Quannum release. And Blackalicious—which will visit Portland alongside longtime collaborator Lyrics Born—plans to release a new disc late next year. "We work when we feel like it's best to work—and now we're back in that season," Xcel says of the group's six-year recording hiatus.
Not that the downtime is a big deal for the West Coast veterans, who met 25 years ago in their Sacramento high school before developing Gab's scientific flow and Xcel's exotic, crisp beats. Besides, for Blackalicious, business has always come second to art.
"Where we grew up there wasn't any industry at all. We only knew one person that had a record deal, and they only had a deal for a 12-inch at the time," Chief Xcel says. "It wasn't until well into our career that we had any contact with the music business, and it gave us a very unjaded perspective on things. We were being influenced by records from everywhere without knowing any of the personalities that made those records. We just knew the music."
"It gave us the chance to be fans first," Gift of Gab adds.
That unbridled enthusiasm for hip-hop culture, along with the duo's tight friendship, lent even Blackalicious' earliest recordings a sense of friendly competition between MC and producer. From the playful sparring between beats and rhymes on the A to G EP to the hip-hoperas on The Craft, this group—with its members now entering their 40s—has evolved gracefully, a unique trait in a genre where artists rarely age well.
"I don't believe the age myths anymore," Gab says. "You don't have to stop or slow down or lose your creativity, as long as you honor your craft. It's a gift, why not use it?"
"I always wanted to keep the mindset of a student, because there's always something new to learn," Xcel adds. "To me, that's the recipe for never falling off."
SEE IT: Blackalicious plays Refuge PDX (116 SE Yamhill St.) on Friday, Oct. 21, with Freestyle Fellowship, Doo Doo Funk All-Stars, MyG and Serge Severe. 8 pm. $20. 21+.