By Reed Fischer
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Blackalicious are adults. Making a major-label debut in their early 30s, MC Gift of Gab and MC/DJ Chief Xcel are old enough to remember the children's cartoon from which they sample Harry Nilsson's "Me and My Arrow," yet young enough that Gab can claim hip hop as the only music he has ever known. He's speaking figuratively, sure--he'd have to be a strange cultural anomaly to have heard Eric B and Rakim before Thriller-- but he's speaking figurative truth. Blackalicious's upcoming Blazing Arrow (due at the end of April on MCA) shares with the work of many more callow hip-hop undergroundlings less an ignorance of than a lack of interest in the wider world: Hip hop is the only music it knows. And that sonic microcosm is world enough for Gab and Xcel.
The hip-hop underground is full of kids who care little for anything outside of their chosen music: Their musical lives no more extend prior to 1980 than your average rocker's predates 1956. This shortsightedness afflicts listeners more often than creators: A DJ is certainly more likely to encounter music that pushes back the perimeter of his paradigms. But this worldview is pervasive enough in all quarters to account for why a big chunk of underground rap is sonically sparse. And why those few pre-hip-hop sounds idealize the fluffiest soul-funk of the Seventies, lacking the context that history lessons provide: Every sound from one's childhood is as misprized as it is prized.
Blackalicious's 2000 full-length debut, Nia, survived just such a dousing in Seventies sonics. Here the duo gave off more than a whiff of Afrocentric incense, complete with a stately womanist poetry reading from Nikki Giovanni, and prissy flute loops. At times the packaging was so conscious you wanted to buy the guys a 40. But while this would seem to make Blackalicious a perfect fit for MCA, a label that has all but made the Roots its house band, Gab and Xcel are too restless to slip into a single style. In other words, their skill and dexterity made an argument for their culture that's louder than all the distracting accouterments.
Though the duo met in a Sacramento high school, where they were inundated early on with battles and breaking, they found their voice a few years later at UC-Davis. There they helped form a scrappy label called Solesides, later redubbed Quannum, which is still in business. In this isolated environment, Gab and Xcel discovered a mixed crew of hyperactive and insanely talented white, Asian, and black kids--the most prominent being Josh Davis, who grew up to be DJ Shadow (and is also working on a project for MCA). Moving from a hip-hop-infused town such as Sacramento to a rarefied environment such as Davis was the sort of experience that would lead any maturing artist, especially one creating within the racially charged environment of hip hop, to reexamine his race. Nia was that reexamination.
Blazing Arrow, however, travels further than its predecessor. Sample-happy hip hop has always liked to play up the choppy clash of its various sounds: The most dramatic achievement of De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising, after all, was that you couldn't dance to it. But like early Jungle Brothers, Blackalicious unite disparate elements to achieve a flow--a simulated natural process. What they call "a journey through music" on Blazing Arrow is one that attempts to meld sounds together at their common points rather than highlight their incongruities. This music is not without ominous overtones (check the pseudo-operatic choruses of "Sky Is Falling"), but neither is it apocalyptic. The differences in mood are there for variety, to provide a counterbalance to more ruminative lyricism and boisterous bumps. Blazing Arrow, then, works as a groove album. And Gab's acrobatically multisyllabic spew is, sure enough, an integral part of that flow.
The thing about musical undergrounds is that major voices can take awhile to establish themselves, to hone their sound. The younger West Coast underground hip-hop crews that have found major-label support in recent years, including Blackalicious-endorsed faves such as Dilated Peoples and Jurassic 5, have lacked something in their bottom: Taking the "hop" in hip hop too literally, they bounce along peppily enough for an aerobics class. But the Bay Area has given us Del and the rest of the Hieroglyphics crew as well as the Coup, groups whose members hit stride in their late 20s. That should come as no surprise: De La Soul, the elder statesmen of the movement, are barely a few years older than that now. And Blackalicious join a steady flow of veterans performing at a high level. Perhaps Blazing Arrow will arrive at just the right time to help establish a mainstream hip hop for a thirtysomething audience that doesn't dilute the intensity of the music.
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