Blackalicious' Gift of Gab is keeping the faith
The Sacramento-born rapper talks hip-hop, health and spirituality
After a decadelong hiatus, Blackalicious is dropping a new album this fall.
The team of emcee Gift of Gab (Timothy Parker) and producer Chief Xcel (Xavier Mosley) decided they needed some time apart after releasing The Craft in 2005. Gab made three solo records; Xcel worked with soul singer Ledisi and on other collaborations.
“Those experiences only made the mothership stronger,” Gab said. “Now we have all these other ideas from doing other stuff—we can bring that maturity and that experience back to Blackalicious.”
The result will be not one, but three new records, starting with Imani Vol. 1 on September 18. Imani means “faith” in Swahili—a no-surprise theme for Blackalicious, who Macklemore once credited for bringing him “closer to God.” The album art depicts the same warrior from Blazing Arrows. Here, he’s flying—or falling, depending on how you look at it—because Imani is all about “belief, faith, not having limits, going beyond what you think you can do,” Gab said.
And Imani Vol. 1 delivers what Blackalicious does best: blazing quick raps, funky beats, uplifting messages and fun guest appearances. Among those names are hip-hop artists Lifesavas, Lateef and Lyrics Born; funk band Monophonics; polyphonic Afro-pop singer Zap Mama; and soulful singer-songwriter Fantastic Negrito.
Blackalicious got its start in Sacramento. Gab and Xcel met in 1987 at a John F. Kennedy High School home economics class; Meadowview was their stomping ground. After graduation, they moved to Davis, officially formed Blackalicious and met their now-Quannum Projects crewmates Lyrics Born and DJ Shadow. After moving to the Bay Area, Blackalicious rose to legendary status in the underground hip-hop scene—Gab for his quick, tongue-twisting rhymes and Xcel for his deft turntablism.
Sacramento fans have already gotten tastes of the Blackalicious return with a record-setting Concerts in the Park in May and TBD Fest appearance last fall. On Friday, July 3, they can catch Gift of Gab perform a mix of solo and Blackalicious material at the Blue Lamp. They can also expect a full-on Blackalicious tour to swing through town after the record release.
Gift of Gab took some time from a tour stop in Maui to chat with SN&R about his music, health problems and future creative projects. Here are some highlights:
On hip-hop: Gift of Gab’s most recent solo album The Next Logical Progression dug into what he described as a sorry state of hip-hop. On Imani, he doesn’t dwell on the topic. “All the hip-hop I was hearing at the time was radio hip-hop. I hadn’t heard anything from the underground that was really moving. Today, I can’t say that,” he said, citing Chance the Rapper, Action Bronson, Danny Brown and Homeboy Sandman as evidence of a thriving underground scene. “And I didn’t want to keep going on about that, I didn’t want to sound like that dude who’s always mad. … It’s kinda like what I was saying on the title track. My first point was if you don’t like the way hip-hop is, create some hip-hop that you like.”
Talking criticism: Read any review of one of Gift of Gab’s solo records, and you’ll probably see the word “old school.” He’s not a fan of that description. “I don’t think I’m old school at all. I think I’m light-years beyond,” he said. “I think people just look at anything that’s thought-provoking and complex, stylistically and cadence-wise, as ’90s-style hip-hop.” He added that a lot of music writers are pretty young—Gab is in his 40s—and they don’t necessarily have the same hip-hop reference points. “That’s the beautiful thing about music. It’s almost like religion. Everyone is entitled to their opinions. No one’s really right and no one’s really wrong.”
Faith, some more: A few years ago, Gab suffered kidney failure due to Type 1 diabetes. He’s still waiting for a kidney transplant, but he thinks he’ll have it within the next year or so. Despite his health issues, Gift of Gab has had no trouble keeping the faith alive. “I’m definitely living proof that you can live your dreams,” he said. “I mean, I’m in Maui for Chrissakes!” But he doesn’t know—nor particularly care—if his fans agree with his religious views. “That’s personal—I’m not here to make anyone believe the things that I believe.”
Health matters: Now, Gab is a dialysis patient—one that travels around the world. “I’m not allowing the fact that I’m on dialysis to prevent me from being an artist,” he said. “I still have my creativity.” That lifestyle will be the subject of a documentary, which Gab hopes to release around the same time as Imani Vol. 1. He wouldn’t elaborate more on the director or other related details, but he did emphasize his focus on his health: exercising as much as he can and eating lots of fish, chicken, kale, asparagus and oatmeal. “Obviously there’s some issues, but I say my health is good. The more I say it, the more I believe it, the more I feel it. I feel great.”
Getting creative: Gift of Gab feels so great that he’s also working on a semi-autobiographical book. “It’s breaking down my interpretation of what it means to be a lyricist—the spiritual aspect and the technical aspect, whether you’re dealing with styles, lyrical cadences or just the discipline of being a writer,” he said. It’s been in the works a long time, and he’ll continue to work on it for years. “In my opinion, when you’re making albums, you’re making a book, and each album is a chapter.”