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Hometown heroes Blackalicious achieve mediocrity with The Craft

Wednesday, Oct 5 2005
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Blackalicious is easily one of this city's biggest sacred cows, musically speaking. The brainchild of high school friends MC Gift of Gab and producer/DJ Chief Xcel, Blackalicious was founded all the way back in 1987, and is responsible for some of the touchstones of the conscious hip hop movement (that strain of the genre that prizes things like spirituality, self-improvement, and social criticism over big-ballin' and shot-callin') on albums such as '99's Nia and 2002's Blazing Arrow. As co-founders of the Quannum Projects label, for which their band serves as the bellwether (even though its latest is released on Epitaph subsidiary Anti), Gab and Xcel not only inspire artists around the world to make less gaudy hip hop, they also discover and sign them, too.

Now the band has delivered its follow-up to Blazing Arrow, The Craft, which arrived last Tuesday. Because Blackalicious is a benevolent, forward-thinking, community-building entity, I am not supposed to say anything bad about its new record. And really, there's nothing too terribly bad to say about it. It's solid, if not mind-blowing. Gift of Gab is still a force on the mike: Whether he's nimbly racing around an uppity beat on tracks like "World Vibrations" and "My Pen and Pad" or dripping his rhymes over slower songs like "Your Move" and "Give It to You," his tight flow, his singular ability to fling syllables like so many ninja stars, is as impressive as ever.

It's the production that is somewhat lacking. Xcel is a fine beat-maker, adept at whipping up a good thump and accenting it with details like a metal-riffing guitar ("Your Move"), flitting high-hats ("The Fall and Rise of Elliot Brown"), and even the occasional cello ("Powers"). But these skills, honed though they may be, are becoming pedestrian in this, hip hop's third, decade. I may be put off by Little John's pimp-cup posturing or Kanye West's outsize identity crisis, but I can't deny the ingenuity of their beats; mainstream or not, Missy Elliott's "Lose Control" is one of the most fascinating songs, hip hop or otherwise, I've heard in years. Listening to The Craft, I'm left wishing Chief Xcel and Gift of Gab would take a few cues from some of their peers on the side opposite KALX on the radio dial, lest their socially conscious hip hop become socially irrelevant.

This was pretty much my conclusion as the band, augmented by a pair of backup singers and dancing keyboardist Herve Salters, warmed up the crowd at the Independent last week with new songs like "World of Vibrations" and "Rhythm Sticks." There were the usual "throw your hands in the air" antics, complemented by big, bouncing beats and Gift of Gab's commanding stage presence, complete with the hand he waves like a conductor's baton as he grumbles up, over, and around Xcel's compositions. It was fine, it was a party, it was pretty much the same scene that was taking place five years ago when the Independent was called the Justice League. The jampacked floor sang along to classics like "First in Flight" and all the ladies in the house said, "Hooo." The audience consisted entirely of white folks.

Which could be construed as an indication of Blackalicious' relative innocuousness in this day and age. As the band has pointed out, naming its new album The Craft represents the obvious: an emphasis on craftsmanship, on refining a sound that's been established. Well, I'm not much of a fan of virtuosity in music. I'm more interested in adventurousness, and The Craft is anything but adventurous. It's safe, much like Blackalicious' stage show. And playing it safe is fine -- I like security and certainty as much as the next guy -- but it's no way to lead a movement.

About The Author

Garrett Kamps

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