Blackalicious, one of underground hip-hop's most acclaimed duos, returns after a decade 

Back to the Mothership

click to enlarge The Blackalicious track "Alphabet Aerobics" became popular after Daniel Radcliffe and The Roots performed it on The Tonight Show


The Blackalicious track "Alphabet Aerobics" became popular after Daniel Radcliffe and The Roots performed it on The Tonight Show

For many people, the first time they encountered the tongue-twisting virtuosity and verbosity of Blackalicious was on the viral video of Daniel Radcliffe performing the group's 1999 tune "Alphabet Aerobics" with the Roots on Jimmy Fallon's The Tonight Show.

While that may seem like a shame given the group's critically acclaimed status in the underground hip-hop world and their career longevity, there's also something beautiful about the moment — after all, Blackalicious led the early charge for a "backpack-rap" that reveled in high concepts, explosive verbiage, and a skills-minded approach to making rap music, all of which "Alphabet Aerobics," with its freakishly good fount of alliteration, aptly demonstrates. What better act to introduce to the millions of viewers tuned into Radcliffe's appearance on Fallon?

That flash-in-the-pan moment does, though, belie the duo's long history. Blackalicious is MC Gift of Gab, born Timothy Parker, and DJ/producer Chief Xcel, born Xavier Mosely. The group came out of the prodigious indie hip-hop scene in Sacramento in the early '90s alongside similarly critically acclaimed acts like DJ Shadow and Lyrics Born. From the start, there was something electrifying about their collaborations — Xcel loved to craft warm, lush productions with "classic" beats that mixed horn-inflected riffs and boom-baps with a healthy dose of turntablism flourishes, while Gab could easily use those tracks as a springboard for his feats of rap mastery. As a technician, he's arguably unrivaled, capable of a dizzying array of flows, complex rhyme schemes, and graduate-level vocabulary. Paired with the group's natural positivity and socially conscious themes, their music became, above all, a celebration of the pure musicality of hip-hop.

"I'm a fan of hip-hop, and I'm a fan of music, period," explains Parker from his home in the Bay area. "I started out as a battle rapper, and I really came from the school where it was just about who had the better rhymes."

He likens what he does to jazz musicians steeped in musical theory but who are fiercely competitive with one another.

"It's all about raising the bar, same as with jazz musicians who try to outplay each other," Parker says. "It's an infinite bar that can always be raised."

This comparison makes sense when you think about where Blackalicious has existed in relationship to the mainstream. The group launched in the 1990s right in the heyday of gangsta rap and never made much of a push in the mainstream, despite their critical bonafides. Still, they've soldiered on, continuously releasing music either as a duo or in various other ventures. And Imani Vol. 1, which drops next month, comes nearly a decade after their last full-length, The Craft, appeared in 2005.

"I love what Drake is doing, I love what Kendrick [Lamar] is doing," Parker easily admits, although he insists that he's more than satisfied with the arc of his career.

"We want to make great albums, and we want to be able to tour," he says succinctly. "We've always had that mindset. Some of those groups that make hit songs aren't around in 10 years. But we've got a great fanbase that continues to support us."

And according to Parker, the next year will prove their devotion. Despite health problems in recent years — the MC has Type-I diabetes and suffered a kidney failure in 2012, which means he now has to take a dialysis machine on tour and is still in search of an organ donor — the duo plans to spend much of the rest of the year and 2016 on the road, with two follow-ups to the Imani trilogy already in the works.

The album itself, which features some surprising collaborators like Afro-pop singer Zap Mama and the roots group Fantastic Negrito, among others, mostly eschews big-name features for the sake of focusing on the reunion.

"From the beginning, we've always just made our music very personal to our own lives," Parker points out. This is true of everything from the artist's braggadocio, where every boast of hip-hop prowess is undergirded by the virtuosity of his flow, to more serious explorations of faith, self-doubt, and addiction that have marked each release.

With such focus, Parker also seems to worry little about how Blackalicious will be received upon embarking on their third decade as a touring and recording entity, citing an endless sense of possibility for what lies ahead.

Similarly, coming up with new material or subject matter for his rhymes hasn't been a challenge for him. "It's as easy as observing people, places, and things in a particular moment," he asserts. But he also doesn't feel that middle-aged slackening that so many great wunderkinds like Blackalicious often face.

"We are older, you know? We put out our first record 20 years ago. But [Imani] still has all of the musicality you've come to expect from Blackalicious, all of the lyricism you've come to expect," Parker says. "You always need to delve into your art and challenge yourself. I think we've aged like wine. Our time apart [making music with others] has just made us even better now that we're back on the mothership."



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