Chief Xcel and Gift of Gab—also known as the hip-hop duo Blackalicious—are California natives and high school friends who came together over a passion for rap music. Their 15-year creative collaboration has withstood musical and personal transformations that seem to have strengthened Blackalicious’ sound as well as its members. The two men of Blackalicious had humble musical beginnings as high school kids using a four-track in a neighbor’s basement. They went on to help form the independent label/collective SoleSides, which later evolved into the label Quannum, made up of an array of highly talented hip-hop visionaries.
Blackalicious exploded on the underground hip-hop scene with their wildly successful, independently released Melodica EP in 1995. The group brought hiphop to new levels with the release, blending soul, funk, and jazz. The deejay/rapping team has avoided selling out to the rampant commercialism and ego-tripping that many successful rap stars fall into. Chief Xcel is the producer and deejay who creates challenging and original landscapes into which rapper Gift of Gab can let loose his fiery rhymes. They have a message that challenges the violence, drugs, and sex culture of gangsta rap, while taking on the serious subjects of
Members include Chief Xcel (Xavier Mosley), deejay, producer; Gift of Gab (Tim Parker), rapper.
Group formed in Sacramento, CA, 1987; contributed to first SoleSides record, 1993; released debut EP Melodica on SoleSides label, signed with MoWax, 1995; released A2G EP, 1999; released NIA, signed with MCA Records, 2000; released Blazing Arrow on MCA, 2002.
spirituality, black empowerment, and growth. Blackalicious have released four albums, including Blazing Arrow, their major-label debut.
Blackalicious got their start at Sacramento’s John F. Kennedy High School, in a home economics class in 1987. Bay Area native Xavier Mosley, now Chief Xcel, and Tim Parker, known as Gift of Gab, made an immediate hip-hop connection based on fighting over their favorite rappers. In an article at Australian Hip Hop Online, Xcel recalled, “We’d sit in class for the entire period and just argue over hip-hop. We’d debate stupid sh**, like who was doper: Too Short or Ice T. Initially Gab thought I was arrogant and I wasn’t really feeling him. We found common ground when “Top Billin” by Audio Two came out…. That song actually sparked our first real down-to-earth and ego-free conversation about hip-hop.”
At the time, Parker—who was making a name for himself as a serious battle rapper—called himself Gabby T, and Mosley, who went by the name DJ IceSki, was busy spinning records at high school parties. In January of 1988, Gab’s then DJ, Maestro K, left hiphop behind, so Gab called Xcel. As Gab recalled at Australian Hip Hop Online, “I called X and was like, ‘Yo I need a DJ’; he said, ‘For how long?’ and I said, ‘Forever,’ and it has been on since then.” The two-man combo now known as Blackalicious was formed that day, but they started out calling themselves GTI, then Elements of Sound, then Atomic Legion, until finally settling on their current name in 1991.
In the early days, the deejay and rapper made music in a friend’s basement with two turntables, a mixer, a borrowed four-track, keyboards, and some drum machines. Gab’s former deejay would play keyboard and Gab would write lyrics. This arrangement only lasted for a short while, though, before the young group faced the challenge of Gab moving to Los Angeles. For a year and a half beginning in the summer of 1989, the two men collaborated by telephone. Xcel played beats over the line and Gab wrote to them. They created about 15 songs this way.
In 1990 the duo underwent another difficult transition when Xcel went off to college at the University of California in Davis. There, he connected with a group of ambitious and talented hip-hop artists and the KDVS college radio scene. Xcel’s apartment/studio came to be known as “The Hut,” a place where musicians got together and created beats and rhymes until all hours. Soon it became obvious that Xcel and Gift of Gab would have to be in the same place in order for their music to flourish. “We had to be able to work in person in order to really create,” Gab told Australian Hip Hop Online. “One day X called and said he could help get me into college up where he was in Davis. He had hooked up with Lyrics Born, DJ Shadow, Jazzbo, and DJ Zen up in Davis and they were talking about putting together a small label called SoleSides. He sent me a bus ticket and I was on my way.”
The vision of an independent SoleSides label became a reality. In January of 1993 the label’s first highly acclaimed underground record was released. It was a double “A” side that included DJ Shadow’s “Entropy,” featuring Chief Xcel on “Back to Back Breaks” and Gift of Gab on “Count and Estimate.” SoleSides was an artist-owned collective, one successful enough to launch its second record and Blackalicious’ first release, Melodica, in 1995. The EP was a deep sevensong wonder that included the soulful single “Swan Lake.” The single and the EP sold a combined 25,000 units in the United States, receiving a great deal of support and airtime from college radio stations across the country.
Through a connection that fellow SoleSides member DJ Shadow had with MoWax—a label based in the United Kingdom—the Blackalicious EP was picked up by the MoWax owner, James Lavelle. He licensed Melodica in Japan and Europe, and it was released there before it came out in the United States. The relationship with MoWax offered Blackalicious the opportunity to tour Europe in the spring of 1995. They played in 27 cities and received great press throughout the continent. Gift of Gab told Australian Hip Hop Online, “The biggest high was having hundreds of people who didn’t speak English recite the lyrics to ‘Swan Lake’ word for word.”
By November of 1996 all the members of the Sole Sides crew had moved from other parts of California to the San Francisco Bay Area. They had seven releases and soon changed their name to Quannum. Blackalicious was expanding as an entity as well, and they began work on a new album—one that would prove to be a difficult three-year journey full of discovery and transformation. That journey culminated in the 17-song full-length LP that would come to be known as NIA, meaning “purpose” in Swahili.
During the creation of NIA, Gab found himself battling alcoholism, and he lost his apartment because of it. Meanwhile, Xcel was experiencing a burst of creative energy that was challenged by his rapper’s life struggles. Looking back on that time, Gab recalled at Australian Hip Hop Online the frustration and triumph of personal growth that led to inner peace. The process was reflected in 45 songs recorded over three years. Xcel and Gab’s experiences inspired the duo’s music, and Quannum crew members contributed to the project. Lateef the Truth Speaker, Lyrics Born, Erinn Anova, DJ Shadow, and Joyo Velarde added their fire to the album. The record is filled with story-telling in songs like “Deception,” lyrical force in tracks such as Beyonder,” and fierce fun-loving MC rhyming in “A to G.” As a whole, NIA has a message of spiritual and personal struggle and redemption. In an article on the official Blackalicious website, Xcel told Jeff Chang, U NIA showed me that the music can move minds. We were doing a show in Massachusetts and this girl had been waiting outside our bus to see me and Gab all day…. She gave us the most beautiful five-page letter on how each of the songs had touched her life, and she made us a little music box … and that stays up in the studio to this day.”
Before NIA’s release in 2000, Blackalicious came out with a seven-song EP, A2G, that included the stunning song “Alphabet Aerobics” by Jurassic 5’s Cut Chemist. It was released by MoWax as a precursor to the fulllength LP. Both releases sold over 100,000 copies before Blackalicious signed with major label MCA Records in 2000.
Blazing Arrow, released in 2002, was the group’s first MCA release. Xcel told Chang, “NIA was really about purpose and finding the path.Blazing Arrow is about faith, having the strength to endure that path. It’s an arrow in flight.” A talented host of stars appears on the album, including Ben Harper; ?uestlove of The Roots; Quannum crewmates; Cut Chemist of Jurassic 5; one of the most significant fathers of rap, Gil Scott-Heron; and spoken-word poet/actor/musician Saul Williams, to name a few. Chang wrote of the album, “Ranging from verbal funk-burners and battle-rhyme rippers to expertly crafted future-soul and convention-crushing experimentation, Blazing Arrow moves from strength to strength on Chief Xcel’s studio wizardry and the Gift of Gab’s quicksilver tongue, igniting fires in the soul and body.” The record includes “Release,” an ambitious three-part composition with Zack De La Rocha and Saul Williams, and “Chemical Calesthenics” with Cut Chemist, which is a continuation of “Alphabet Aerobics” from A2G. Tracks like “Make You Feel that Way” high-light the jazzy, mellow side of Blackalicious.
The duo planned a number of Blazing Arrow tour dates in European and American cities, as well as in Japan and Australia. They are forging ahead in their music with integrity, and fans seem to be responding worldwide. Blackalicious continues to provide hip-hop lovers with a soulful message that many commercial rap groups lack. As Gab told Chang, “When blessings come, sometimes you can celebrate, but most of the time it means that you have to work harder. You may have a vision and you may get close to that vision, but then it broadens. Every time you move forward on it, it always gets bigger.”
Melodica (EP), MoWax/SoleSides, 1995.
A2G (EP), Quannum/MoWax, 1999.
NIA, Quannum/MoWax, 2000.
Deception (EP), Quannum, 2000.
Blazing Arrow, MCA, 2002.
Entertainment Weekly, February 18, 2000, p. 86.
Fortune, July 22, 2002, p. 220.
XLR8R, Issue 59, June 2002.
“Blackalicious Bio,” Australian Hip Hop Online, http://hiphop.net.au/urban-xpressions/blackalicious-bio.html (July 5, 2002).
Blackalicious Official Website, http://www.blackalicious.com (July 1, 2002).
“Tasty on Purpose,” Choler Magazine, http://www.choler.com/articles/blackalicious.shtml (June 28, 2002).
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