When Blackalicious, a rapper/producer hip-hop duo hailing from Sacramento, released Imani, Vol. 1, their first album as a group in just over a decade, in September 2015 many in the media hailed it as their return from a ten-year hiatus. But the group never stopped touring or playing shows.
In fact, Gift of Gab, the rapper, and Chief Xcel, the producer, seldom took breaks from touring as Blackalicious in the time between albums. To Chief Xcel, touring is a regular part of the group’s craft, which is somewhat rare for rap acts of the 90s. Whereas many rap acts only tour in support of an album, Blackalicious’ tour schedule looks like that of a folk rock act.
“We came up watching a lot of the greats from the golden era perform live,” Xcel said. “So that always was a very important part of our foundation. We’re a touring band and that’s what we do….And as a result the swords stay sharp.”
Blackalicious will be at Howard Theatre on Friday, Feb. 26 to show off their well-honed craft, with a show that Xcel said is a even mix of all of their musical output over the more than 20 years they’ve been together. He said that one staple of their live act is “Alphabet Aerobics,” a 1999 track produced by Cut Chemist in which Gift of Gab weaves together an avalanche of alliteration while rapping through A to Z over the course of two and a half minutes.
“It’s kind of hard not to perform Alphabet Aerobics,” Xcel said. “Those kind of songs are staples in the show. People want to hear them.” He said that the first time that he and Gab performed that song in 1999 they were at the Lyricist Lounge in New York City’s Lower East Side. And the performance earned them props from a hip-hop legend: MC Shan.
“There weren’t a whole lot of people there that night,” Xcel said. “But the one person that was there – and it will forever leave a stamp in me and Gab’s hip-hop scrapbook – was MC Shan. He was in the crowd and he came up and was like ‘Man, my mind was blown.’ I couldn’t believe it. It was really dope.”
Fifteen years after MC Shan saluted Blackalicious’ “Alphabet Aerobics,” “Harry Potter” star Daniel Radcliffe bigged them up by performing the song on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.” But another of the group’s releases from 1999, Nia, plays into what they’re doing now with Imani, Vol. 1, which is the first in a three-part series of albums.
“If Nia is the opening scene to the movie, Imani is halfway through the movie. It’s the halfway point,” Xcel said. “It’s kind of an extension of a train of thought basically. We always work to try to make our catalog comprehensive and make it in a way that you can connect the dots so that it makes sense.
“We were always big fans of groups that had bodies of work that you could look at, even the artwork, and can put them all together and they became a piece within themselves.”
Xcel referenced acts like Parliament Funkadelic, George Clinton as a solo artist and Earth, Wind and Fire, saying that they always “marveled” at musicians like that. Even Imani itself has a gestalt quality about it, with the songs blending from one to the next like they’re more like movements in a composition than tracks on an album.
“It’s really about trying to create a sonic tapestry,” Xcel said. “Where it kind of each and every song is its own animal and when I start a song I never really know where it’s going to end up because I never really know what Gab is going to do. I can instinctively tell what he’ll gravitate towards, but I never really know topic-wise what he’s going to do and how that creative process is going unfold.
“With that said, each song becomes its own continually-building process and, out of that, the end result is the album. The album becomes one song comprised of a series of songs.”
• For more information about Blackalicious, visit blackalicious.com.