Over the past two decades, there’s been a renaissance of sorts within the hip-hop genre. Musicians have taken the classic rap sounds of the ’80s and merged them with the harder-edged rhythms common to the mid-’90s, creating a hybrid of melody-tinged music that speaks to social issues while also extolling the virtues of weed and other recreational vices. Veering wildly from one end of the musical spectrum to the other, these artists have experimented with defiantly percussive hip-hop tones, minimalist patterns and club-oriented bangers—which is to say that there is no right or wrong way to approach the lineages of rap music. It all comes down to experience with those particular sounds and the way musicians have sublimated them into their own development.
And it doesn’t matter whether you’re treading the mainstream waters like Kanye West or Jay-Z or if the environment is slightly smaller, there’s the same opportunity for creative deconstruction of the genre. And among those who look to break down the expectations of hip-hop is Sacramento, California, duo Blackalicious, built around the lyrical prowess of rapper Gift of Gab and the dense rhythmic genius of DJ-producer Chief Xcel. Known for their complex interplay of beats, hooks and elaborate vocal acrobatics, the two musicians look to dig deeper into the psyche of rap music in an effort to draw out the hardened histories, looping ideologies and universal truths inherent to these sounds.
Gift of Gab spent most of his time in Los Angeles as a child, while Chief Xcel grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. Their paths first crossed when they attended John F. Kennedy High School in Sacramento. Their individual thirsts for music were already well-established by that time, and they had already created stage personas to work within. Gift of Gab was known as Gabby T, and Chief Xcel was using the handle of DJ Iceski. But nothing materialized from their close proximity, so after high school, they both went their separate ways.
When 1992 rolled around, it seemed that the stars were perfectly aligned. Xcel was attending the University of California–Davis, and Gift of Gab joined him in Davis to form Blackalicious. During his time at the university, Xcel had been running with Solesides, a hip-hop collective that included DJ Shadow, Lateef the Truthspeaker and Lyrics Born. The group had a label called Solesides Records, and it was on this small imprint that the first single from Blackalicious was released. “Swan Lake” was an attack on compliant mindsets and social apathy, backed by a late ’80s minimalist style of production abetted by some fiery saxophone lines. It was a successful continuation of the independent revolution occurring within the heart of the genre.
And to capture those ever-shifting movements, Blackalicious wasted no time beginning work on their debut EP, “Melodica,” which was released in 1992 on Solesides Records, later reissued on Mo Wax. By the time 1997 rolled around, Solesides Records had morphed into Quannum Projects, a label under which the duo released another EP called “A2G” in 1999. Later that year, they shared their debut LP, “Nia,” and it became a rallying point of sorts for the soul of independent hip-hop. The kind of record that completely disregards the stereotypes and assumptions that cling to the genre, “Nia” was a revelation of unusual production choices and verbal theatrics. But they weren’t done yet.
In 2000, they signed with MCA Records and began work on their sophomore album. Through a split release with MCA and Quannum, “Blazing Arrow” was released in 2002. Featuring guest appearances by Zack de la Rocha (of Rage Against the Machine), Questlove (of The Roots) and legendary musician Gil Scott-Heron, it was another quantum leap forward for the genre. It signaled another break from the banal excess of mainstream hip-hop and revealed that there was more going on in the underground rap scene than people might be aware of. Packed with labyrinthine arrangements and reaching dizzying heights of lyrical insight and technique, the record was necessary at a time when creativity seemed to be ebbing away from rap music.
After a soulful and funk-drenched introduction, the record kicks into high gear with “Blazing Arrow,” a track that blends a clacking minimalism with Gift of Gab’s intricate lyrics and an unexpected sample of Harry Nilsson’s “Me and My Arrow.” It’s a perfect mix of unpredictable production and verbal tumbling—things that would come to define the album as a whole. They followed that up with “Sky Is Falling,” a song that contrasts the stark landscape of early ’90s hip-hop with a mind-melting hook and bizarre orchestrations.
But again, that’s what they do best, and “Blazing Arrow” was a way for them to work through these manic impulses with little regard for containment or restraint. Rather than focus on specific singles, this album feels singularly cohesive, a proud statement of intent from a group whose resolve was perfectly matched by their ambition. Working through songs that feature samples from Dolly Parton, De La Soul and Earth, Wind & Fire, they lay out a comprehensive treatise on their idea of hip-hop.
And all this experimentation culminates in one of the greatest rap songs of the 2000s, “Chemical Calisthenics,” a track where Gift of Gab, Chief Xcel and Cut Chemist disregard the normal order of things and create a sound that was unlike anything that had been heard before. The song barrels ahead with such a forceful momentum that it produces an aural whiplash and sets such a high bar for lyrical dexterity that few artists have even come close. And the same could be said for the record—it is a one-of-a-kind collection of melodies, samples and rhythmic genius that completely reshaped hip-hop’s perspective. Anything was possible, and “Blazing Arrow” is irrefutable proof of that.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.