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[whitespace] Blackalicious Quannum Physics: Xcel and Gab contemplate the future.

Back in Black

Oakland's Blackalicious gets fired up on 'Blazing Arrow'

By Todd Inoue

FOR 10 YEARS, Oakland hip-hop duo Blackalicious has been a testament to the power of independent thought. Producer Chief Xcel and rapper Gift of Gab toured the world and released progressively and sonically smarter albums, all through their own label Solesides, later Quannum.

Things are changing for Blackalicious in 2002. The duo's new album, Blazing Arrow, is the result of a new venture with MCA Records. Blackalicious didn't sign to a major to rest and count cash; it wanted to grow.

"To a lot of cats, getting signed is the finish line. For us, it's another phase," Xcel says. "The objective is to amass a comprehensive body of work and get it out to as many people as possible. For us, it's a natural progression. There's more work, less sleep. In the words of W.C., 'Ain't a damn thing changed.'"

To Xcel (Xavier Mosley) and Gab (Tim Parker), the decision hinged on progress, not economics. Even with MCA's publicists working radio, and street teams plastering telephone poles, they are toiling harder than ever. Blackalicious just finished the Sno-Core tour and plays a show, April 3, at the Cocoanut Grove Ballroom in Santa Cruz.

During the courtship, some labels wanted Blackalicious to spend the next year promoting Nia and the back catalog. Xcel and Gab were already too far ahead. Two months after Nia was completed, they were busy working on new tracks. Blazing Arrow is the child born from these sessions and is one of hip-hop's most ambitious and forward-thinking records of the year. The album sees release on April 30.

"The arrow represents faith, while fire deals with purification or putting you through something so you come out stronger," Xcel explains.

Gab was conscious of his lyrics, careful not to trample X's musical arrangements. He approached many of the songs from a songwriter perspective, building around a core emotion. "Sky Is Falling" is an ambitious piece about feeling good. "First in Flight" addresses procrastination. "Purest Love" tells an autobiographical tale about looking back. "Aural Pleasure," a reggae stomp, features Jaguar Wright on the hook ("She's like the cool older cousin you be kicking it with," says Xcel). Other key Blackalicious constants--the staggered kick drum, the sick, soulful loops--are blown up to IMAX proportions.

"It's our most developed work," Xcel says. "For me, musically, I got a chance to explore and execute things I'd been working/developing toward in the past decade. I feel like it represents us artistically coming into full stride."

Collaborations helped Blackalicious bring its vision into full scope. Jurassic Five's Cut Chemist and Gab reprise their mind-blowing roles from their accelerating "Alphabet Aerobics" routine, this time tackling the Periodic Table of Elements ("Chemical Calisthenics"). Gab's voice follows a complicated beat pattern that speeds up and slows down like a washing machine on the fritz.

"Brainwashers" has Ben Harper on the hook, closing to the sound of African drums. Zach de la Rocha, Saul Williams and Lyrics Born bring the heat on the album's nine-minute climax, "Release."

On "First in Flight," Blackalicious worked with one of their heroes, urban griot Gil Scott-Heron.

"When I wrote the hook, I was going to sing on it," says Gab. "We put it down, [and] X was like, 'You know who'd sound good over that is Gil Scott-Heron.' I didn't want to believe it because it was such a long shot. Could we actually do a song with Gil Scott-Heron? Then we went out to Harlem, picked him up, played it for him, vibed to it, got in the studio, put it down in an hour and, boom, there it came."

"It was emotional," adds Xcel. "The greatest joy was seeing how the music still lives in him, just to see how truly happy he was to be in his element, all other bullshit aside."

The new songs possess a big-brother feel, not in the Orwellian sense, but as in the brother who's got your back. Blazing Arrow collects events and images Xcel and Gab have experienced, and like all good brothers, they pass on the lessons learned.

"It's a trip because we live out all of our records--they reflect what we go through at certain points of time," says Xcel. "You can find your purpose, and that's cool, but it's one thing to know the path and another to walk the path. Blazing Arrow deals with faith and conviction and to keep pushing along and keep making it happen."

Blackalicious and Talib Kweli perform Wednesday (April 3) at 9pm at the Cocoanut Grove Ballroom, 400 Front St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $21. (Ticketweb.com. 866.468.3399)

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From the March 28-April 3, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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