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Blackalicious Hip Hop Duo Keep The Faith

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Wikimedia Commons (Flowizm)

"Shout out Harry Potter."

Gab is winding down post show. We're chatting about Daniel Radcliffe's late 2014 take on the Blackalicious track 'Alphabet Aerobics' and its viral consequences. A younger audience was made aware of the group and they're buying actual records. "It's kinda crazy, man, because I've seen this resurgence with the younger fans, which is surprising," remarks X. "A lot of people are hitting us up for vinyl all the time. The cool thing too is that when we left the States, [the vinyl edition of Imani] wasn't even done. The first time we saw it was in Paris. They did a good job."

Imani, Swahili for 'faith', is a landmark release for Timothy Parker (aka Gift Of Gab) and Xavier Mosley (mostly known as Chief Xcel), the duo otherwise known as the legendary Blackalicious. Crowdfunded via Pledge Music and released ten years after their previous album, The Craft, it's a return to form that captures the energy of their live shows on wax: the magical, fast-paced lyricism of Gab and the unique production ear of X.

"We put our records together like pieces of a puzzle, so we may have three or four songs that are cornerstone songs," explains Xcel on the making of the record. "For Imani, 'Blacka' was a cornerstone song, one of the first we did. 'On Fire Tonight' [featuring soul singer Myron of Stones Throw Records' Myron & E, the video for which addresses spates of police brutality] was another cornerstone song: Gab spitting, straight down the middle.

"From there, we figure out what's needed, like a feel-good joint, so we go in and work on 'The Sun', and work on 'The Sun' until we get it right. That song probably took the longest to finish, because we did maybe three or four different choruses for it until we finally hooked up with [singer and songwriter] Imani Coppola.

"This record took a few years," elaborates Gab. "We're already working on Imani Volume Two. We did 60 songs and we picked the best 16 for this record. So Volume Two is underway, then we'll be going into Volume Three. There's going to be a lot of music coming out from us in the future."

The impetus for new work was born out of Gab being diagnosed with kidney disease, hours on dialysis on a regular basis providing opportunities to focus on writing. A short film entitled Gift Of Gab, directed by Michael Jacobs and receiving its premiere at this year's Tribeca Film Festival, documents Gab's work ethic. "It's just to show people that, whether you're on dialysis, or whether you've got cancer, you can still thrive in life, you know. When it happened to me, I discovered my creativity was still there. I realised as long as my creativity is here, I'm free. I can always create, I can always express myself creatively, and travel around the world doing it. I do everything I did before I was on dialysis. I just go to dialysis three times a week. But I refused to let it stop me from doing anything that I was doing before."

But his perspective on life must have changed? "It's made me a little bit... definitely more health conscious than I used to be. Health is very important to me now. I plan on being around a long time. I think I'll be 70 or 80 doing music. Right now, I look to people like Maceo Parker and ZZ Top, even people like Chuck D, who's in his 50s and doing it. Paul Simon, Aretha Franklin, who are in their 70s and still touring. I look to people like that because I feel if you're blessed with a gift or a talent then you're supposed to use it. Why stop if it's still flowing and you're still inspired? I plan on being here for a while, but health has definitely become a priority." Gab is near the top of the list for a transplant and hopes to be undergoing that later this year.

Although on the surface Imani took some time, these are two artists who don't sit still, finding space to collaborate with others on the regular. What do they bring back to the Blackalicious table from these experiences? "I equate it to travelling. You live in your home town, but it's great to go out and visit other countries, other places. Me and X have a certain chemistry, but it's always good to go out and work with different people, dig off of their chemistry and how they get down. When you come back to the mothership, which is Blackalicious for us, then you're both more strong and have more ideas to throw onto the table. It's like when you travel. You come back home and your vision is broader in terms of how you see the world.

"With this specific chapter, it's been a certain discipline and efficiency," expands Xcel. "It's been a certain creative athleticism, and it's been specifically from other people I've worked with in other projects. I have a project called Burning House with RV Slaters of General Elektriks, then another project called Loudspeaker with a singer called Ledisi, and both of them are extremely, extremely focused and very methodical in their approach.

"Just from those experiences, and over the past eight years now, I've been doing a lot of music for film and television, scores and stuff like that. Scoring is completely different from doing songs. The structures and the different versions of things that you gotta have. You may have to come up with 20 different versions for just one clip. That within itself has taught me to just get to it more efficiently. I still toil over things, and tweak and tweak, but I don't obsess over it."

While Xcel still digs for records, it's not just about finding another sample now. "It's more about the science of how the records are put together, for me. I'm trying to learn, trying to study. How is this drum kit mic'd? How is the bass recorded? How are the vocals recorded? And then from there, trying to study what type of outboard gear would you use, what type of plates were used for reverbs... All that kind of stuff, man. It's infinite.

"I been doing this a long time, and I still feel like I'm at the bottom of the mountain looking up. And the mountain is like Everest. Right now, one thing that I'm really studying is a lot of mid to late 70s Brazilian stuff, and early 80s stuff. Obviously [multi-genre musician] Tim Maia, but also those Sandra de Sá records, like late disco kinda things, and soul kinda things, were really, really dope, especially the way the drums hit on those. Right now, that's the freshest thing on my mind.

"But the thing that's cool about it is, I always said from day one, that I always, no matter where I was at in my career or how long I was in the game, I always want to have the mentality of a student. I never want to lose that hunger. I've watched so many people lose it. They get complacent and then they just fall off. For me, it's keep learning, keep doing."

Learn more

Imani Vol. 1 is out now on Blackalicious' own label, OGM Recordings.

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