Groundbreaking and influential West Coast hip hop duo, Blackalicious, passed through the University of South Carolina's campus recently for a show in the student union, supporting its third full-length, The Craft, on Epitaph subsidiary, Anti- records. I had the pleasure of speaking to the musical half of the equation, virtuoso producer, Chief Xcel, in between stops on the current tour.
DB: Is your positivity and almost spiritual intellectualism a reaction to much of hip hop’s inherent negativism, or is that simply a natural calling for both you and Gift of Gab?
CHIEF XCEL: We don't set out to make anything spiritual or positive; the music just reflects who we are as people. We're just trying to make music as honest as we can possibly make it, you know? It's not a reaction to anything. It's much deeper and more complex than that. I mean, we're as much influenced by De La Soul as we are N.W.A. and Ice-T. We have good days and bad days just like anyone else, but there's no mantra or agenda or anything we're trying to promote.
DB: In the past, your attitude towards independent labels vs. major labels has been a matter of semantics- that the label is merely a vehicle for the music, so whether it’s big or small is of little consequence. Has your attitude changed having experienced both sides now?
CHIEF XCEL: No, I think it's still pretty much the same. There are aspects…advantages and disadvantages to both, you know? On the major side, you have more money and more resources to promote your records. On the independent side, there's less bureaucracy to deal with but more creative control, so it's just up to you to work with the tools you have before you. I think, at the end of the day, the industry is changing so much because of technology, and you have to build your fan base brick by brick, person by person. We sort of started out that way out of necessity. We just keep making the music we make and building upon our foundation of die-hard fans.
DB: On The Craft you integrated more live instrumentation into the mix, but the production is so tight it’s often hard to distinguish between the samples and the live sounds. The result seems to have pushed the songwriting in more adventurous directions. What was your goal in fleshing out the sound with more organic tones?
CHIEF XCEL: Fully realized ideas I start with a drum machine, you know what I mean…watching those ideas come to full fruition. Everything that I do revolves around never giving in to limits. In the studio I want the instruments to help tell the story. That's very important to me.
DB: With well-respected peers like Outkast crossing over into more commercial domains, while retaining critical acclaim but without watering down its cultural roots, did that widen the net for Blackalicious' potential reach in your mind? And was that something you and Gab were conscious of while creating The Craft?
CHIEF XCEL: Yeah, I mean, how could we not be conscious of it? But the minute you take that into the studio you're done. We can't put expectations on our creative process. We have to go in respective of making music at our peak. We don't even know which songs are gonna be the singles when we're writing them; that's just something we process after the fact.
DB: After the critical success of Blazing Arrow, you and Gab both set out on separate projects. How did that affect Blackalicious' perspective and forward progress once you regrouped for The Craft? I mean, you guys have been together over 14 years, which is almost twice as long as the average band, much less any current hip hop act…
CHIEF XCEL: Working with other people you find different ways of exploring the creative process, so when Gab and I get back together we have new ways to communicate. As long as you have motivation and inspiration, there's always something new to say.