In a YouTube video posted just a few weeks ago, Blackalicious rapper Gift of Gab stands at the front of the stage in Athens, Georgia's, Terminal West club, hyping the crowd up with news about Blackalicious' upcoming album, Emoni, which is the Swahili word for faith.
"We gotta have faith," he tells the crowd, as Blackalicious' other half, DJ/producer Chief Xcel, keeps a simple beat playing in the background. "It's one of the most powerful forces. It's the power to believe. You create your life through what you believe."
He launches into a new song from the album, "Blacka," spitting intelligent, rapid-fire verses a capella: "Blacka than a panther, blacka than Atlanta, blacka than the buildings of the pyramids in Africa..." as Xcel drops just a taste of the beat, and a room full of converts bob their heads in mesmerized unison.
The California hip-hop duo has the confidence of preachers in a mega-church, and a fanbase to go with it. But the rappers haven't played by the rules of most popular acts. In two decades, Blackalicious has only released three full-length albums and a few EPs. The one before Emoni came out a decade ago. Their touring has been just as sparse. In an era when audiences have ringtone-length attention spans, when music bombards the Internet daily, Blackalicious has managed to maintain a buzz despite its slow-burning, low profile.
Part of the reason is the distinctiveness of its music. Blackalicious built its reputation on dense rhyming patterns, positive messages and live-instrument-based beats that seem simultaneously classic and progressive. Xcel assembles crashing piano chords, subtle horn inflection and stabbing guitar licks for a diverse funk/soul smorgasbord that Gab chews up with astonishing finesse. Club-friendly grooves and mellow storytelling blend effortlessly with tracks like the tempo-juggling, scientific brain twister "Chemical Calisthenics" and the nine-plus minute "Release part 1,2 & 3." The latter two disregard conventional hip-hop song formats with a nearly prog-rock display of structure.
Serious musical peers can be counted among the converts, and that goes a long way to the group's credibility. The liner notes of its last two albums, Blazing Arrow and The Craft, read like a laundry list of top musicians that spans way past hip-hop, from George Clinton and Gil Scott Heron to Questlove and Rage Against The Machine's Zack de la Rocha. Gab's control of syntax and phrasing has made him a coveted guest emcee on songs by artists like Galactic, Zion-I and G. Love. But the other part of Blackalicious' success is that it has never bent to mainstream hip-hop's idea of coolhard-knocks backstory and thuggish caricature. Gab and Xcel are highly talented and intelligent, but they also come off as pretty regular guys in their lyrics.
"These are things I have conversations about every day with my friends, my family, my loved ones," Gab tells the Indy about the topics he chooses. "I'm not trying to create some sort of persona; these are my views and my observations."
After the release of The Craft in 2005, Gift of Gab and Chief Xcel put Blackalicious on the backburner and spent the bulk of their time in the studio with different solo projects and collaborations. In the meantime, the landscape of hip-hop changed dramatically. Commercialization and Top-40 formulas have pushed the art form further up the Billboard charts but the sophistication has suffered. Whether that's due to an industry that doesn't take risks or the non-discerning tastes of the general public—or both—is open for debate.
In order for an artist to progress, they must also have faith in their audience to want something smarter. And Gab says the pendulum is swinging back in the duo's favor.
"Remember back in the '90s, people were like, 'Music sucks, we need that old soul from the '70s?'" Gab asks. "Now, people are feeling that about hip-hop, and the '90s and early 2000s are like the new '70s. People are wondering, 'What happened to the hip-hop with substance?'"
If the "Blacka" video is any indicator, Emoni will fit that bill. It might not top the charts, but that measure of success hasn't kept the public from knowing who Blackalicious is. With its first EP, Melodica, dating back to 1994, Blackalicious is among a short list of elder statesmen still active and referenced in the industry.
"Used to think 30 years old then the end comes/now I feel like I'm just gaining momentum," Gift of Gab rapped on the The Craft's "World of Vibrations" almost a decade ago. Now in his early 40s, that perspective has remained unchanged. He has a lot of faith in what Blackalicious does, but he also has hard evidence in the fans.
"Belief and faith can work for you or it can work against you," Gab says in the "Blacka" video. "So be positive. Think positive, be positive, do positive things, do positive acts. And create that power."
Blackalicious plays the Palace Thu., Aug. 14, at 10 PM. $18/$15 in advance at Rockin Rudy's or seafarerentertainment.com.