Nowhere Fast

Blackalicious takes its sweet time moving from underground to overground

U.K.-based label Mo' Wax, which had signed a deal with Shadow, agreed to distribute Blackalicious' first EP, Melodica, throughout Europe, but in the States, they continued to do it all themselves, region by region through indie distributors and one-stops. After X and crew graduated from Davis, they moved to the Bay Area, opened an office in Berkeley, put out an album by Latyrx and a host of 12-inches. Somewhere along the way, the artist-run collective changed its name to Quannum Projects and nabbed solid national distribution through Caroline and TRC. With a stable of songs already in the can, Blackalicious was poised to drop its debut LP upon hungry hip-hop heads nationwide.

Three years later, heads were still waiting, their appetites temporarily sated by another EP. The full-length's delay was because of what Blackalicious' official label bio describes as Gab's period of "personal turmoil," and what Gab himself calls "growing pains." He avoids discussion of his bout with alcoholism, saying only this: "The biggest struggles give birth to the greatest creativity."

In 2000, six years after fans first clamored about "Swan Lake," Blackalicious finally released Nia (which means "purpose" in Swahili). Specifically, it seemed, the duo's purpose was, as Gab stated in rhyme, to "clean out the digestive tract of hip-hop like cranberries" when so many others persisted in clogging it with hollow, violent and materialistic clichés.

Blackalicious: Finally in the big leagues after a decade of struggle.
Blackalicious: Finally in the big leagues after a decade of struggle.
Blackalicious explores the issue of faith on Blazing Arrow.
Blackalicious explores the issue of faith on Blazing Arrow.

Conscious, but free of fierce sociopolitical rants, Nia challenged gangsta rap not so much with contempt or bravado but with wistfulness and resolution. The disc also included plenty of tracks whose aim was simply to showcase Gab's gift: an uncanny, often Seuss-like verbal dexterity, served up in a range of rap styles, from gruff dance-hall cadence to precise rat-tat-tat. Nia sold 100,000 copies; critics heralded it as an indie hip-hop classic; ears at the major labels perked up; offers were made.

"In the end, it came down to, creatively, which situation is going to allow us to be us, and not interfere with our process," explains X.

They chose MCA, home to several hip-hop acts falling within Blackalicious' left-of-center milieu, including Shadow, the Roots, and Common. A listen to Blazing Arrow suggests that the guys made the right choice.

Other than the disc's array of cameos (Zach de la Rocha, Ben Harper, KeKe Wyatt, Saul Williams, Gil Scott-Heron, members of Dilated Peoples, Cibo Matto, the Roots, Sean Lennon, and Jurassic 5) -- something Blackalicious has shied away from in the past -- the disc makes no commercial concessions. Once again, Gab is "prone to leave your dome blown with the poem, homes" on sweaty verbal workouts like "Chemical Calisthenics" and "Paragraph President," his lyrics free of the gratuitous violence, misogyny, expletives and overall "thugged-out/pimpin'/flossin' my ice/packing a gat" mentality that litters the bulk of commercial hip-hop.

But Arrow also distinguishes Blackalicious from the more positive, underground contingent of hip-hop. Insert a few "conscious" (but ultimately trite or cliché) nuggets into a stream-of-consciousness rap that goes all over the map, and an MC is said to be "droppin' knowledge." One of Blazing Arrow's strengths is that Gab actually writes cohesive raps that stick to a particular theme, in contrast to so many hip-hop tunes that change course whenever the MC runs out of thematic punch lines. Gab crafts real songs that impart real insight, whether he's chronicling an imploding society on the brink of Armageddon in "The Sky Is Falling," or musing on life's never-ending journey and infinite possibilities on "First in Flight."

"A lot of times within rap," offers X, "we spend too much time talking what rap should be, instead of making it what it should be. With this record we didn't really focus on the state of rap as we did the state of the world."

Gab, who calls himself spiritual but not religious, takes it one step further: "The whole concept behind Blazing Arrow is faith. Nia was about finding a purpose, and Blazing Arrow is about, now you found it, now you have to have the faith to walk it, to live it. You found your purpose, but 10 minutes later something might come along and distract you. So it's about staying [true] to that purpose."

As on Nia, X's tracks are anchored in vintage soul and jazz, but with plenty of unexpected twists -- odd sound flourishes (gurgling noises, ticking clocks), breakdowns played in reverse, and crazy tempo change-ups that make you wonder if you're still on the same song. X pushes the envelope further than ever before on cuts like "Release," an epic, three-part hip-hop suite that clocks in at 9:25.

In addition to giving free creative reign, MCA is "backing the record full-force, pulling out all the stops" at retail and radio, according to Violet Brown, urban music buyer for the Wherehouse Music chain. This is due in part to the enthusiasm of MCA president Jay Boberg.

"They are brilliant musically as well as having such strong topical commentary in their lyrics," says Boberg, who has a longtime rep for nurturing and developing bands. At a recent press party for Blackalicious, he proudly boasted that he expects to sell 800,000 copies of Blazing Arrow.

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