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The Boston Phoenix True Believers

Blackalicious keep the faith

By Michael Endelman

JUNE 5, 2000:  As a hip-hop cliché, thanking God in the liner-notes ranks up with getting incarcerated, beating down music critics, and blaming the soundman. So it's not surprising when Blackalicious MC Gift of Gab and DJ/producer Chief Xcel begin the liner notes on their latest full-length, Nia (Quannum Projects), with big-ups to the Creator. But as opposed to mainstream or gangsta rap acts who publicize their faith, Blackalicious's thank-you note to the Almighty doesn't come off as a ploy for absolution or forgiveness, mainly because the duo don't have any recidivist tendencies to apologize for. Instead, the note is just one example of the group's spiritual slant, and a reflection of the way that Nia teems with references to devils, spirits, fate, and destiny from the moment it begins -- with a chant and invocation, no less -- until it ends almost 75 minutes later.

On the phone from Portland, Oregon, Chief Xcel explains how religion affects his musicmaking: "My grandfather was a minister and a deacon at a church in the South, so I was raised in a spiritual household. The idea of a higher presence has always been there for me. So asking what part spirituality plays in our work is like asking what part oxygen plays in breathing." After admitting that he's not a churchgoer anymore, Xcel continues: "I don't think anyone can really tell you what your relationship with God should be. Church goes on inside myself, that's where I have those conversations." These conversations spill into Nia, where metaphysical musings on existence, nature, and reincarnation are woven into the disc's breathy crime-noir cuts, straight-up battle tracks, and pan-African poetry. Gift of Gab plays the role of the universalist preacher throughout. He's equally adept at crying out like Job ("Shallow Days"), affecting a Buddha-like even keel ("Sleep"), or giving props like Jesse Jackson ("Making Progress").

Like their boho brethren in the East, Blackalicious are caught up in underground hip-hop's war of the words against the mainstream, except the duo stay away from pointing fingers or naming names. "To a large degree I feel that's it's important for us to give very honest critiques and opinions," Xcel says. "At the same time it's not meant to say, 'Hip-hop sucks,' or, 'Hip-hop is not what it used to be.' Because we are a part of hip-hop, so if hip-hop sucks, then we're responsible for it. It's our responsibility to create something that doesn't suck."

This positivist slant means that even when they attack cheddar-loving MCs in "Deception," the resultant childlike fable is more about the way "money makes the inner vision crumble" than about tearing down bling-bling superstars. And if "Shallow Days" isn't just your typical underground bitch session, that's because Gab balances his basic point of view ("I won't contribute to genocide/I'd rather try to cultivate the inner side/And try to evolve the frustrated ghetto mind") with evenhanded arguments from the other side ("You gotta keep it real so we can feel where you're coming from/Because these streets is ill/So if you're not killing niggas in rhymes then your whole sound is just bubblegum").

As members of the Solesides crew (along with Lyrics Born, Lateef, and DJ Shadow), Blackalicious were part of the West Coast's first indie-rap wave in the mid '90s. But they waited until 1999, when Solesides regrouped as Quannum Projects, to release any new material. The duo spent a good part of their five-year hiatus stoking their international audience, which is how many US underground acts stay well-stocked in Sony Playstations and rare wax. But they also spent many late-nights in their Oakland studio, the Hut, recording more than 40 tracks since 1995's Melodica EP (Solesides).

The 19 tunes that made the cut for Nia rely heavily on Chief Xcel's casually brilliant production, which utilizes the common currency of hip-hop beat science -- chunky drum loops, fat bumpy bass lines, dirty funk vamps -- but adds touches from across the African diaspora. "Smithzonian Institute of Rhyme," as Xcel reveals, is an attempt to re-create a rhythm from a West African record on the DMX drum machine; "A2G" reinterprets one of his favorite gospel tracks.

No matter which direction Xcel takes the music, Gab just picks a matching style from his thick Rolodex of approaches. He can race through breathless rhymes at breakneck speed ("You Didn't Know That Though") or lay back to savor every syllable ("Sleep"). His nasal tenor will slice through a dense mix ("Deception"), or he'll croon like Bill Withers, laying on stanza after stanza of soul-steeped melodies ("Do This My Way"). Alternately humble and boasting, brainy and brawny, restrained and riotous, Gab is Superman and Clark Kent rolled into one blessed MC with a passion for the mike and faith in the above.


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