When you listen to Gift of Gab (née Timothy Parker) rap, it's difficult not to see him as the apotheosis of a certain vision of hip-hop. He's verbose and braggadocious, a serenely confident craftsman who takes hyperactive, multisyllabic rhyme schemes to their logical extreme. He seems like the kind of guy who could go into the booth and try out more flows before lunch than Kanye has clothes. And he's steeped in the socially conscious and racially uplifting tradition of KRS-One and Public Enemy, often featuring a heavily Afrocentric vision in his songs.
And really, although Blackalicious' first full-length didn't arrive until 2000, the group was around for most of the 1990s, and Gab started battle-rapping well before that. If you ask the artist what got him into the world of hip-hop, he'll pretty much laugh at you.
"When I first started? I've been rhyming for a loooong time," he says. "Run-DMC were definitely the dudes at that time. I idolized them, had Run-DMC posters on my walls. That was around '82, when I was 12 years old. That's when I really started rhyming and battling other emcees."
And truly, you can still hear the echoes of that start, if not in the flow and technical mastery of Gab then in his elocution and the timbre of his voice. It would be Rakim, possibly the most skilled rapper of all time, though, who opened up those technical possibilities in a way that Gab would carry forward with fury.
"Rakim was the dude in high school. Rap in general changed. Before Rakim, everyone was rhymin' straightforward," he recalls. "Rakim was the first emcee I heard — they say it was Kool Moe Dee, but you had to be in New York to hear that. But the first one I personally heard who was breaking up patterns and having three rhymes within one bar was Rakim."
By the time Gab was in high school, his family had moved from Los Angeles to Sacramento, and he became immersed in the city's thriving battle scene. It's there that he found himself as an artist, learning how to throw down new verses and flows as easily as most people drink water. He met Chief Xcel, his production partner in Blackalicious then, and they started making music together.
From the start, their music felt opposed to the mainstream, delving more musically into soul samples and boom-bap, and then later futuristic, Stevie Wonder-esque funk. Meanwhile, Gab always had a heady set of 10-cent words and cerebral flows that felt three steps removed from the gritty rise of gangsta rap.
"Hip-hop has always been from the ghetto, from the street. It was started by Afrika Bambaataa, who was in a gang. So it came from the projects," Gab points out. "But there was Public Enemy, KRS-One, Mellie Mel — rappers who were all about uplifting black people and people in poverty, people who are struggling in America."
And he's got nothing but love for gangsta rap, understanding its popularity and importance intuitively.
"Around the time that NWA came out, they had a message that more people related to. Even though people want to uplift and rise up, when NWA came out, people were like, 'Oh shit, this is what I see when I look outside. I get this. Unfortunately, this is my reality,'" Gab posits. "I never really went in the direction of gangsta rap, because I'm not that kind of dude. That's not something that I really live. Unfortunately, in the African-American community there's a lot more struggle. Not to say I haven't had my share. Every human being has had their share of struggle. This country was designed — and this is no attack on any race or to say that everyone of one race is bad — but it was designed for Caucasian males. Caucasian people, but I would say males. This country was designed for them. So just being black, and the way we got here through slavery, and when we were freed and still oppressed — it doesn't matter what race you are. At some point people are going to be pissed off, and it's going to affect the way they move through life."
"That's my take," Gab continues. "I'm not against no gangsta rapper. It's not about gangsta or conscious; it's about being dope or being whack. If you a gangsta, be the dopest gangsta rapper you can be. If it's dope music, I'm messin' with it. If you are conscious and whack, I'm not messin' with it."
After this long treatise, Gab pauses, then apologizes, admitting sheepishly that he "likes to talk sometimes." But he's keen to make sharp points like this. Later, he'll knock much of radio rap while recalling the days when the best rappers were in the mainstream, citing Outkast and Eminem, and before that the days of Biggie and Pac. He chastises many of today's rappers "without anything to say." He does, though, single out Kendrick Lamar as an exception that proves the rule. He also sees hope in the new generation of underground rappers, namechecking Chance the Rapper, Action Bronson, and Vic Mensa, among others.
"It goes in cycles, and now it's shifting again," he says.
As for Gab himself, he avoids talking about his Type-1 diabetes diagnosis and the struggle of putting out Blackalicious' comeback album, Imani Vol. 1, which arrived last year to favorable reviews. He's just happy to be on the road, doing what he loves.
"I'm doing extremely well," he says in closing. "I'm in the gym, I've lost a ton of weight. I'm pretty much living healthier than I've ever lived."