After cultivating a devoted underground following through independent releases and frequent touring, Blackalicious broke through to the mainstream this year with its major-label debut Blazing Arrow, an astonishing, life-affirming album that makes the most of MCA Records' deep pockets. Though Blazing Arrow will undoubtedly introduce many people to the duo, lyricist Gift Of Gab and producer/DJ Chief Xcel have been working together for more than a decade. The group released its debut EP, 1995's Melodica, on Solesides, a label it shared with kindred spirits DJ Shadow and Latryx. In 1999, Solesides changed its name to Quannum, and in 2000, Blackalicious released its full-length Quannum debut, Nia, which derives its title from the Swahili word for "purpose." Blackalicious has been touring hard behind Blazing Arrow this year, and is currently co-headlining a tour with Dilated Peoples and Public Enemy. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke to Gift Of Gab about day jobs and his musical evolution.
The Onion: Growing up, what kind of music did you listen to?
Gift Of Gab: All sorts, everything from The Jackson 5 to Curtis Mayfield to Bob Marley. A lot of gospelthat's all my mother listened to, so there was a lot of gospel around. And, of course, a lot of hip-hop. You know, [makes old-school boom-bap sound] from The Sugarhill Gang, the Cold Crush Brothers, Grandmaster Flash, everything from them on up.
O: Do you think listening to gospel influenced you?
GOG: Definitely. I think that you should be able to hear it in my lyrics on certain songs. I've always been into uplifting people, sort of like Bob Marley or Curtis Mayfield or Gil Scott-Heron, who did that with their music.
O: What led you to start rapping?
GOG: I was about 12 years old, and a guy used to come over to my building and cap on me in rhyme form, off the top of his head. So I wrote my first rhyme in self-defense against him. Me and my friend used to ride our bikes over to his house every day and knock on his door with our papers out and just start rapping. He crushed us some days on the porch, of course, but that's how I developed as a battle rapper. Then I started writing about topics, and that led to writing songs.
O: You met Chief Xcel in high school, right?
GOG: Yeah, we met in 1987 in an economics class. Actually, when we first met, it was kind of on an adversarial level, because I was from Southern California and he was from Northern California, so we used to kind of ego trip. I used to argue with him over whether Ice-T was fresher than Too $hort, stuff like that. But then we heard this one song by Audio Two, a group from New York. It was called "Top Billin'," and we were both like, "Wow, that's the dopest song I've ever heard in my life." From there we realized that we had a common love for the music, so we started building from there.
O: When you first started out, were you cognizant that people hadn't really made that kind of music on the West Coast?
GOG: We just strived to make good music. Whenever we were looking for inspiration, we'd listen to classic albums, like [A Tribe Called Quest's] Midnight Marauders or [De La Soul's] 3 Feet High And Rising. We just had an idea in our minds of what we wanted our records to sound like.
O: How did the making of Blazing Arrow compare to the making of Nia?
GOG: Blazing Arrow was way more concentrated. We recorded Nia over a three-year span. When we did Blazing Arrow, we focused on nothing but the music. We'd wake up, do music, eat, go to sleep, wake up, and do music again. Whereas with Nia, we were working two or three jobs, so it was more of a struggle. It was harder. We couldn't just work on music, because we had to pay bills. We had to work.
O: What kind of day jobs did you work?
GOG: Plenty of stuff. I worked at a lot of telemarketing places, I sold a lot of things over the phone, stuff like that. Odd jobs like that. I don't want to speak for X. I don't know if he wants me to tell people about the stuff he did.
O: Did you find that your facility with language helped you out in jobs like that?
GOG: Yep. That's one of the reasons I worked jobs like that. I mean, man, I was up at work and I was writing rhymes half the time. I'd be working half the time and writing rhymes the other half.
O: Blazing Arrow seems like such an optimistic and hopeful album. To what do you attribute that?
GOG: I think it's kind of where we're at right now, and who we are as people, and who we want to be as people, and how we see things are right now, as opposed to how they could be. Nia was about purpose, and Blazing Arrow represents faith. It's like, "Now that you've found this purpose, are you going to walk the walk?" And Blazing Arrow is about walking into your person. Blazing Arrow is about moving forward.
O: What led you to sign with MCA?
GOG: They came along at the right time. They had Common and The Roots, and they were getting ready to sign Mos Def. They could understand our vision artistically better than a lot of other labels. Also, they came to us with respect, understanding that we had sold 200,000 records by ourselves worldwide. They gave us a lot of stuff on our terms, but we were able to retain creative control. We were at the point where, as an independent, you can only do so much. When it comes to things like videos, major labels have a lot of pull, where independent labels are pretty much blackballed. The whole MCA thing is kind of a tool to spread what we're doing musically to more people.
O: You just got off the Sprite Liquid Mix tour. How does playing a show like that compare to headlining a show?
GOG: There were a lot of different kinds of people there, and a lot of different styles of music, and even a lot of different kinds of hip-hop. It was cool to get out there and play in front of a diverse group like that. We like that, though. We like the challenge.
O: Did you write the song "First In Flight" with Gil Scott-Heron in mind?
GOG: I did. At first I didn't know it, but I did, because I was listening to a lot of Gil Scott-Heron at the time. Just in the way that it's written, you can hear the influence. At first I was going to sing the hook, but then X was like, "Man, Gil Scott-Heron would sound dope over that." I was like, "That would be dope, but is that really realistic?" Fortunately, we knew somebody who knew him, so we sent him the music, and he was down to do it. So we went out to New York to hook up with him, and "First In Flight" was born.
O: Was it intimidating working with someone of his stature?
GOG: It was at first. Before we met him, I was kind of like, "Wow, we're about to work with Gil Scott-Heron, this is crazy." But he was so down-to-earth when we met him that it was like kicking it with an old uncle.
O: Do you think opening for so many different kinds of acts affected the sound of Blazing Arrow?
GOG: I think everything did. I think everything musically and just life-wise that you experience plays a part in the making of an album. When you make an album, you're scraping your soul, so everything that you experience goes into it.
O: It sounds like you're able to focus a lot more on the music now.
GOG: Yeah, lately we've been able to do that more. It's like, "This is what we do now. This is the life we've always dreamed about living." Sometimes, when you get caught up in the day-to-day, it helps to pull back and look at the big picture. We tour, and when we're not on tour, we're at the studio. When we're not in the studio, we go back on tour. I'm not mad at all. We love to do this. This is our passion in life. It's more exciting than anything, because we're always working on new material.