Sure, Xcel's production and Gab's rhymes have appeared separately on outside projects -- most extensively on the Quannum Spectrum record they did with Latyrx and DJ Shadow as Quannum -- but the special energy that occurs when the two best friends work in the studio together has been missing from the hip hop Doppler radar for far too long. The thunderclouds have been gathering, however, and now the land is parched no more -- the 18-song Nia, four years in the making, is finished and in stores.
Gab is as grateful for that as his loyal fans. "It's like giving birth," he says. As he talks about his creation, he can't stop bouncing his head to the Xcel-scored soundtrack playing in his mind, and makes each point as much with his hands as his mouth. "We're really, really, really excited about this album because we put so much into it. It took us so long -- we put so much of our souls into it."
Nia, which means "purpose" in Swahili, is already being talked about as the first hip hop classic of 2000, a nearly flawless concept album that properly represents the influence Blackalicious has had on hip hop to date. One might wonder, then, why the duo released A2G only a few months prior -- a record that, as it contained three of Nia's cuts, could have stolen a bit of Nia's thunder after six years of silence.
"We were real adamant about keeping our listeners as close to us and as up to date with us as possible," Xcel explains. He's much more reserved and inwardly intense than his verbally blessed partner. He doesn't laugh or make jokes when he's talking about his music -- ever. "We really wanted [A2G] to signify growth from Melodica, our first record, to Nia, where we are right now. For the most part, we try to keep stuff as up to date and current -- not current with the times but current with where we are -- as possible."
A2G served Gab and Xcel's mission well, because where they are now is a fairly rarefied place for popular musicians today. Both are motivated by their spirituality, a force that guides their lives on a daily basis. The lyrics on Nia eschew the usual subjects of microphone prowess and the lifestyles of the rich and famous (besides "Deception," which features the chorus, "Don't let money change you") for direct references to God and conscious living. "It's just how we feel. It's what we're going through. It's where our heads our at," Gab says. "We don't claim to be on a pedestal as any preachers, but it comes across because it's things we deal with every day, things that are on our minds.
"I grew up as a Christian," he continues, "I believe in things that Islam says, I believe in things Buddha says, I believe in things Zen says, I believe in things Christianity says. I think they're all fingers pointing toward the same mountaintop. So for me it's more about trying to have spirituality, that personal relationship with God."
When Gab and Xcel met in high school in Sacramento, their taste in the latest rap records and their shared vision of making their way in the world as artists brought them together. But as they grew older and worked more closely with each other, they realized their connections actually went much deeper. Xcel was also raised a Christian and took a similarly universalist approach to spirituality, believing in the legitimacy of many paths to the truth.
"I don't believe anyone has the right to tell you what your relationship to your creator should be," he says. "That's up to you. The Creator is a driving force behind Blackalicious and a driving force behind our daily lives. We're both a work in progress. We're both striving to become not only better artists, but better people. That's what Nia's about, that sense of purpose, being able to look at the big picture, being able to comprehend where you are in it and where you're trying to go."
Much of Xcel's production on the album has a '70s soul feeling -- a nostalgic, almost sad mood is present on a number of the songs. Since Gab writes his rhymes to mesh and interweave with the instrumentals more than most other MCs -- his meter mirroring the melodies and changes in rhythm effortlessly -- much of Nia sees him looking within, expressing inner convictions, and relating personal experiences. "The music just tells me where to go," Gab says. "X is really prolific, and X is really diverse and original. Whenever I get an Xcel track, I know I'm going to get a new world yet to explore, and I just go where the music tells me to go. It's that simple. I can't rhyme the same over two tracks that felt different to me."
Rather than hone one trademark style, Gab flips through lyrical techniques like a Rolodex, selecting the right one for the moment and discarding it before the listener's gotten used to it. "I don't just have one style. I'm a traveler," he says. "I'm constantly dropping new styles, and constantly visiting this area or visiting that area, but I never stay there."
Since the early days of challenging MCs in their high school parking lot to battling in the fierce Bay Area freestyle scene, Gab has proven his gift enough that he can now concentrate his rhyming on topics beyond the battle. Explaining the transition, Xcel says, "A lot of MCs see MCing as just in the skills realm and that's it. And don't get me wrong -- that's the foundation of it, but the next level is saying, 'I'm an MC, but I'm a songwriter. I'm an MC, but I have to use this skill to express this, this, and this. I have to show this color and that color.'"
"And you still have to write battle rhymes to keep your skills sharp," Gab adds. "But I think you could write a story rhyme and have your skills sharp. Sometimes I like that, though. Sometimes I could listen to 90 minutes of just braggadocios rap. I'm a student of the music, so the whole time I'm thinking, 'If this MC were to come at me with this rhyme in a battle, what would I come at him with?' I get in those moods, but I couldn't only listen to that, because you're using the English language. There's a broad range of topics."
Blackalicious' distinctive approach to hip hop, coupled with a few strategic business relationships -- such as having its records distributed in Europe by the esteemed Mo' Wax label -- established a following for the duo that reaches far beyond the Bay Area. After releasing Melodica, the pair toured Europe and the U.K. extensively, playing in front of notoriously enthusiastic crowds in Glasgow, Dublin, London, and Amsterdam. Then, after hearing reports from fellow Oakland DIY artists Mystic Journeymen, Gab and Xcel set out for Australia and Asia. "Traveling opened our eyes to a whole new world in terms of seeing the global impact of not only this music, but the culture," Xcel says.
"Unfortunately," adds Gab, "there's a lot of people that don't get to see outside of their city. We just feel blessed to be able to learn from the other cultures we see and spread our music to as many people as possible."
Blackalicious performs with Jurassic Five, Latyrx, and Planet Asia Wednesday, Feb. 16, at 8 p.m. at the Justice League, 628 Divisadero (at Hayes), S.F. Tickets are $20; call 440-0409.