When Sacramento hip-hop duo Blackalicious makes its Grey Eagle debut on Wednesday, March 22, it will mark 30 years since lyricist Gift of Gab and DJ/producer Chief Xcel first met while attending John F. Kennedy High School in the California capital. Officially a group starting with the pair’s debut single “Swan Lake” in 1994, there’s no great secret to how they’ve maintained a successful partnership over the subsequent decades, but their longevity is nonetheless remarkable.
“[We] just [have] a common affinity for the music, you know what I mean?” Chief Xcel says. “Just a common intensity for how we see music and how we choose to explore music. We’ve always seen eye to eye on that, so when we get into the studio, that chemistry just unfolds.”
Though little time was logged in the studio between the release of The Craft in 2005 and when the duo began to work on Imani Vol. 1 in 2012, Blackalicious toured regularly and kept busy with side projects. Gift of Gab released three solo albums while Chief Xcel worked with soul singer Ledisi and put out a record in 2013 with French keyboardist/singer Hervé Salters of General Elektriks under the moniker Burning House. On these tangential pursuits, Chief Xcel says he and Gift of Gab “pretty much separate into [our] own little worlds” but can easily see their impact on each Blackalicious effort.
“We always come back into it with different influences,” he says. “Those other projects are when we explore our other interests. It just kind of helps expand our creative reservoir.”
Chief Xcel estimates that 90 percent of the music on Imani Vol. 1 is live tracks and that the album, which was released in 2015, probably features the fewest samples he’s ever used on a record. He says the focus on instrumentation — incorporating bass, drums, keys, horns and strings — is the result of an evolution he’s been on since 2002’s Blazing Arrow. “You just keep diving deeper and deeper into the world of music,” he says. “It’s not a novelty. It’s not like, ‘Oh, look, I’ve got a live musician. Now I’m going to play a bass line.’ It’s not like that. We just go in and we create. It’s what we do.”
The latest imaginative explosion resulted in roughly 60 songs, which were whittled down to 16 tracks for Vol. 1. (Whether through licensing to television and film or serving as the seeds for songs on Imani Vol. 2, Chief Xcel says the tracks that didn’t make the initial cut will have some sort of final destination.) Also feeding that prolific output is the heightened sense of urgency stemming from Gift of Gab’s health. The MC’s kidneys failed in 2012, right when Vol. 1 was getting rolling, necessitating dialysis treatments that continue to prohibit him from touring as frequently as he’d like. In addition to sparking the planned Imani trilogy, Gift of Gab has the Rejoice! Rappers Are Rapping Again EP primed for an April release. He’ll also share a new monthly track exclusively on the crowdfunding subscription platform Patreon and will be aided by his Blackalicious partner whenever possible.
“I want to be able to just record, produce and document Gab’s greatness while he’s on the planet. So yeah, every day is vital,” says Chief Xcel. Despite the struggles, he adds that his friend is “doing great.”
At the release of Vol. 1, which includes contributions from Zap Mama and Fantastic Negrito, among others, Gift of Gab hinted at Vol. 2 being more guest-heavy. Currently in the thick of making the trilogy’s middle chapter, Chief Xcel says he wants to let it come together in its purest form first before determining whom to invite aboard. Might former Asheville resident and current Sacramento-area neighbor Secret Agent 23 Skidoo be in the running to contribute a verse? Having recruited Gift of Gab to rhyme on “Speak the Truth” from his 2010 album Underground Playground, the recent Grammy winner seems a more likely candidate than most, but Chief Xcel insists the music is not quite to the point where those kinds of definitive decisions are being made.
Along those lines, the beat master strives to not limit his creativity in any way but anticipates employing a similar live track emphasis with Vol. 2. As for what other qualities and themes will tie the three Imani albums together, he’s a bit more coy. “Well, you’ve got to wait until the trilogy’s done, and then I’ll let you listen to it, and then you call me, and then we’ll talk about it. You tell me how you interpret it,” he says.
WHO: Blackalicious with FTO x King Garbage
WHERE: The Grey Eagle, 185 Clingman Ave., thegreyeagle.com
WHEN: Wednesday, March 22, 9 p.m. $18 advance/$22 day of show