Something From Nothing: Blackalicious

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The fact that I have the ability to create something from nothing with my words will never cease to amaze me. One of my writing goals for 2013 is to land at least one interview per month with a person (or people) whose creative work I enjoy or appreciate or am otherwise inspired by. February's first interview is with Gift of Gab and Chief Xcel, who make up BlackaliciousOne of my favorite things about these guys is their ability to craft music that is equally intelligent and uplifting and also makes me want to dance. Their last album, 'The Craft', came out in 2005 and they are currently working on a new album they’re planning to release this summer. They confirmed it. To my face. Every time I hear their song 'Make You Feel That Way', I am inspired. Hopefully you’ll be inspired too.

Q: When did you know that this is what you wanted to do with your life?

Gift of Gab: For me, I would say when I was in high school. I was always in battles and I used to win. Give or take a couple here or there, I couldn’t lose. I started gaining a supreme confidence in myself as a rapper. And it was more other people saying, “you should take this seriously.” I continued and I met X when we were in high school. Neither one of us knew where it was gonna lead but, in my mind I’m like “this is what I’m supposed to do” - that’s when it hit me. I never looked back. Even through the hard times, I’ve always believed this is what I’m supposed to do.

Chief Xcel: I first wanted to become a DJ when I was probably about eight or nine years old. I went to my first rap show. It was a show called The Fresh Festival - it was an arena tour - at that time, the biggest rap tour ever: Run DMC, Kurtis Blow, Whodini, Newcleus, Rock Steady Crew, it was an amazing experience. You gotta figure as a child how overwhelming this is. This is kinda right when MTV really started to jump off so you know I would get these records and a lot of the people I would listen to didn’t even have videos so I would hear these records and these guys were just giants in my mind you know what I mean, just massive. And it wasn’t seeing them in a little club, it was seeing them in the Oakland Coliseum with like 30-40 thousand people, you know? And then I saw Grandmaster Dee from Whodini and then when I saw Jam Master Jay from Run DMC I was like “that’s what I wanna do - I wanna be THAT GUY.” In college, that’s when I met DJ Shadow and Lyrics Born and their lives revolved around music like mine did. When you’re in those college years you’re really trying to figure the world out and I just found myself submerged in this community of people who were just doing it. It was like “well, I can do this, I got a brother that I been working with since I was 14, I feel like our stuff is good, we could put it out there, it’s dope" and it just kinda happened. It just kinda started manifesting through our actions.

Q: I wonder about going to a show before MTV and the Internet - do you think that’s changed the appeal of a live show? The fact that you hear the music, you can see videos, get all that information without being at a live show...I just wonder for kids who have grown up in this culture where they don’t have that experience of hearing a record and imagining someone as larger than life - do you think that’s changed the appeal of live shows?

Gab: In my opinion, you can’t have that experience unless you’re there. You know, the music industry crashed but we still out here doing shows because you can’t download a live show. In my opinion, people will always come to live shows.

X: I think they’ll always come, but I do think that technology has changed the dynamic of people’s relationship with music. You know, back during the times when everything wasn’t at your disposal, the sound drove everything. You know, you heard it first before you saw it. Now you see it first before you hear it and, as a result, the mysticism is taken away - the mystery of those artists. There’s no mystery. Everything is very much here and now, Twitter, Instagram, instantly, all the time, overloaded. As a result we have a generation now who - music is more of an accessory than a necessity, you know, and it’s because everything is instantly at your disposal. I think it’s a good thing and it’s a great thing for artists because the barriers to entry are pretty much non-existent now. Back in the 80s/90s/early 2000s, it was fairly expensive to make a record. Especially if you talk about the 90s - you needed a few Gs to really be able to go in and record and mix and then don’t even talk about trying to get your record out. You had to press CDs and press vinyl and then once you done that what do you do with it? You know, now that that’s gone I think that’s a great thing.

Gab: I think that if you have good music - if what you’re doing is good and appeals to people - the playing board is a lot more even because you have the ears of the world. I think that there are pros and cons to the whole Internet thing.

Q: How would you describe your process of creating music?

Gab: I usually prefer to have the beat. X will give me the music and I’ll write to the music and then after I write to it he’ll add adjustments and he’ll tailor the rest of the track based to what I wrote and how I wrote it. As far as writing, I could do it without a beat if I need to, but I like to have a canvas. To me, the music is the canvas and I like to paint a picture on the canvas. Then after that he paints a picture over the canvas - it’s a constant process of making a canvas, painting a picture, making another canvas, painting another picture

X: I’ll just start with a blank canvas - just start sketching out ideas. Gab’s ear is probably the most diverse of anybody I’ve ever worked with, so there’s a lot of creative freedom. If it connects or if it taps into his frequency and his spirit, it’s golden. So I’ll just come up with a wide array of things and be like “this is what we’re working on, tell me which ones you like and write to those” and we start developing - we don’t have any set rules.

Q: What songs and/or albums would you say have been most instrumental in shaping you musically?

X: De La Soul, 3 Feet High And Rising, Public Enemy It Takes A Nation (of Millions to Hold Us Back), A Tribe Called Quest, Midnight Mauraders and The Low End Theory. My all time favorite record that I still listen to every single day is John Coltrane's Love Supreme.

Gab: Any mc that ever made me say “Wow. How is he doing that?” Everything from The Native Tongues - we’re both influenced hugely by The Native Tongues. I think Bob Marley is my favorite musician of all time just because I like artists that can speak to your spirit. I like artists that can make you look at your life and go “Wow, I felt like this or I’m going through this.” Artists that speak to your soul, you know?

Q: I was just reading (this article) about Snoop touring in India and this Indian rapper who was being criticized for his misogynistic lyrics in the wake of the death of the Delhi gang rape victim. (One of the concert goers - who had participated in protests after the rape occurred - said, in reference to Snoop using words like “hoes” and “bitches” in his songs, “It’s not just Snoop. All American hip-hop artists use those words.”)   I’m curious what that idea makes you think - that “all American hip hop” is that way?

X: You know, people don’t know what they don’t know. If you’re in those situations where you’re faced with that kind of statement, and you have the information, it’s good to enlighten when you can enlighten. There used to be a time when I used to get frustrated and be like “Fuck that! Such and such and such and such...” Now it’s just kinda like “Okay, here’s an opportunity to introduce somebody to somethin’,” and maybe that’ll make a lightbulb go on and open that person’s world up to something they didn’t know.

Gab: People have to be able to listen to the spectrum of everything they’re being presented with because I think about a lot of songs and videos and things that I’m seeing from the mainstream media and, as much as I hate that, I can see how a person that wasn’t informed and was just given hip-hop like “This is hip-hop”, if that’s their whole perspective of a culture, it’s like “Wow, this is what a lot of people are saying in this culture”. People look at what’s given to them by the mainstream media and they base their perception off that.

X: I think too, people tend not to deal with the genre of music for what it is and that’s a really vast, diverse art form. It would be like looking at one movie - seeing Black Hawk Down - and thinking all movies are violent and carnage. On that same note, going back to one of your earlier questions about how technology has affected us as human beings. Now, there’s so much information at your disposal, there’s no excuse not to know. While it is your responsibility to try to educate somebody, that person can’t be lazy. They gotta get off their ass and educate themselves.

Gab: But everybody’s not gonna do that.

Q: If you were talking to a middle school kid who wanted to know how to get where you are, what advice would you give him/her?

X: I would say first and foremost, whatever you want to do, whether it’s music, whether you want to be a biophysicist, whether you wanna be a code writer for There’s so much information at your disposal that you can just delve into it and study on your own. It’s all there. If you want to be a musician, study the basic fundamentals. You want to play the drums, or play piano or DJ or write lyrics, you can go on YouTube and watch some of the greats. There are so many how-to things on there. Even to this day, as a producer, I stay up on a lot of stuff by going on and studying how is this software program working and what are the shortcuts around this this and this so I can apply that to what I’m doing. Information is all out there, so access it, study it, and more than anything, make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. Make sure you’re doing it because you love it. Everything else will come - money, accolades, will come. The problem with a lot of people now is that they get too consumed with what’s at the end of the road and they miss what you gain through the process. The process is where the reward is. Study.

Gab: I would say belief and faith is huge. See yourself doing what you want to be doing. Act as if you’re already there. Do things that you would do if you were in that position. Become what you want to be. I think that faith is extremely powerful.