May 23

nia_smallblackalicious_smallphoto by Viviane Oh


Well, if we had been eating it would have been. This is the first in a series of interviews with super dope people (whose merchandise is incidentally featured on the site). Blackalicious’ Chief Xcel & Gift of Gab get into all the nitty gritty details of how they first met, how Solesides morphed into Quannum, and what happened to Gab’s first DJ.

Peach: How did you guys meet? It’s not the KDVS story.

Gift of Gab: We met in high school. I’m originally from Southern California, and X is originally from out here in the Bay. We met in Sacramento, and when we first met…

P: Did you go to high school together?

Xcel & G: Yeah, Kennedy.

G: It was kinda like an ego thing at first. Because I was from L.A. and he was from the Bay. He’d be saying, “Too Short is better”, and I’d be saying, “Ice-T is better”. So at first, we kinda had an ego thing going on. But then he told me about this song called, “Top Billin” from Audio Two, and I was like, “Okay, I gotta hear that”. That’s when we sparked our first really ego-free conversation. You know we discovered that instead of being at odds with each other, we both really just had a common love for the music.

X: We actually met through this other dude-we went to Kennedy High in Sac-I don’t know if you know this guy Homicide…he was on Priority… [I am blank]

G: You don’t know Homicide???

X: Yeah, he was on Priority, but he wasn’t on Priority at the time…I was originally Homicide’s DJ. And he introduced me to Gab, The Gift of Gab who was then called Tiny T. We were supposed to form this like three-man Run-DMC-type thing, but Justin (Homicide), he dropped out of school, and we didn’t hear from him for like two years. During that time, Gab and I had a home economics class and Gab sat in the row right behind me, so we would just talk about hip hop every day; every single day.

P: Instead of cooking?

X: Yeah, one day he just called me up and he was like “X, I need a DJ”. I was just thinking it was for like a talent show or something. I was like “For when?” He was like, “Forever”, and I was like, “Aight, cool”. And ever since then… With Solesides, though, when I went off to college, when I went off to Davis, Gab was living in L.A. We would be like hooking up. I’d be playing him beats and stuff over the phone and he would be writing to them…it was just taking way too long. We weren’t getting anything done like that. Sophomore year in college, he moved up to Davis. The year prior to that, I had met Tom (Lyrics Born) through a mutual friend. Then me both met Josh (DJ Shadow) and Zen, who at that time was doing his show down at KDVS. You know, the original intent-everybody was just doing their own thing. Tom was working on his demo, me and Gab were working on ours, Josh was doing daytime mega-mixes for KMEL. Right around that time he had done his first record for Hollywood Basic. Zen was really the person who said, “Instead of you doing a demo, you doing a demo trying to play this A&R game of getting signed, this that and the other, you have the resources and being that we’re so entrenched in college radio-we know the DJs and stuff we can get records to-start doing some 12″s. It just kind of started like that.

P: Was it ever your intention to get signed as far as being on a big label? Someone pointed out to me that none of the crew has ever really been on a big label (besides Josh now). It wasn’t like you were on a big label, but you still have that kind of base.

X: Our things was really just “get the music out”. It’s always been if a major comes along and it was the right situation, we would do it, but in our history…deals would come along, but it would be things that we just weren’t comfortable with-like 70% ownership in your company and just wack shit. It was just kinda like just keep doin’ it. You know, bein’ in the Bay…it’s not like being in L.A. where you have the Warner office, the Universal office, all of that shit. It’s like kind of like let’s just do it.

P: Plus, everyone here is like, “Forget that, I want to own my masters.”

X: Believe me, that’s true.

P: What happened to Solesides?

X: At the end of ’97, we all kinda got together at Lateef’s aunt’s house up in the mountains for a little retreat, and we were just kinda like, “We basically did everything we wanted to do…it’s time for something new, it’s time for a change, time to expand.” Around that same time, Jeff (Chang-DJ Zen) was ready to do his thing in the editing world. He’s at now. It was kind of like a crossroads-a time to expand and build. We really felt like all of our artistic visions for ourselves, our music, and our careers had just expanded so much from what we originally had set out to do in ’91. It was just time for a change.

P: How did you make the transition from being a DJ to doing your own production? Was it that you always knew you wanted to do?

X: I always had a fascination with records. My dad was like a record collector. I was always fascinated where did Mantronix get that from? Where did 45 King get that from? So just from a DJ perspective, that’s really where the record collecting started for me. Really, for me, production didn’t really start until 1988. ‘Cause when we first met in ’87, Gab’s original DJ, Maestro K, was our producer. All I did was just scratch and the live stuff.

P: What happened to Maestro K?

G: Maestro K is chillin’. He owns a chain of restaurants in Jamaica specializing in jerk turkey and jerk chicken. He likes to fish a lot. Naw, he’s chilling. Last time I talked to him, he’s still doing music, living out in Sacramento. He’s doing like…I haven’t heard a lot of it.

X: He does a lot of stuff…you know that label Black Market? He does a lot of stuff for them, like Brother Lynch and all of that type stuff.

G: He does? I didn’t know that.

X: When Gab and I had hooked up, he had called Gab and was like, “I’m not really doing hip hop anymore.” His mom is a really devout Jehovah’s Witness. She didn’t really want her son doing secular music.

G: That wasn’t the reason why, though.

X: That’s what he told me.

G: Really? He told me something different.

X: He wasn’t down to have music with cussin’ in it. That’s why he just wanted to do like R n B.

G: He told me he just wanted to do RnB; he didn’t want to do rap anymore. We gotta get that straight. Maestro K, if you’re out there we need to get the real story…

X: When he kinda stopped doing music, that’s when I started.

P: What was your first equipment? What did you start out with?

X: Korg DS1 sampler that I still have to this day.

P: Do you use it?

X: Yeah. I may have used it a couple of times on Nia. A lot of times I may sample things through that and trigger that to another sampler and actually sample the Korg.

P: That’s how Domino is…he still has his old Casio sampler that he loves still. He uses that to sample and triggers with an Akai.

X: The only other person I know that has that sampler and still uses it is Kut Masta Kurt (ED Note: SUPREMEeX uses a Casio FZ-1). I actually bought…this is my first set of equipment: Alesis SR16 drum machine, a Tascam 4 track and the Korg DS1. I had bought all that for like $1,000 from Brian Morgan-you know the guy that does the SWV stuff? He’s from Sac. Actually Maestro K hooked me up with him. I don’t want you to think that we dissed Maestro K just cause he didn’t want to do rap. We’re still cool.

G: (jokingly) I kind of still have a grudge, actually.

P: A lot of people want to know what you did in the four years you were out of the public eye…

G: Fish.

X: We fished, we swam, went skydiving…I learned how to bungee jump.

G: We really were just in the lab, really. We were just working on Nia. It took us like four years to do this album. There were various versions of this album and various stages of where it was at…you know. Being that this is our first full-length album, we wanted to make something that WE considered to be…something that would be great. That was our goal: to make a great record. So we were just in the lab. We were still doing shows. And it really wasn’t a hiatus because we were still creating. It was just a minute of time between Melodica and between A to G, but we were just in the lab.

P: I should play this on the radio so people will know, “Gab has beef”. As far as the production for Nia, or actually all your production…what is your method, if you can reveal it?

X: I don’t want to go too much into it. I’ll just say there’s different ways that our creative process works. Really three main ways: In a given week, I may have four or five just what we call skeletons or rhythm tracks. I give them to Gab or give them to Lateef, and they’ll pick what they like or what they’re feelin’ and they’ll write to it. I’ll see what they’re doing. We’ll lay down that rhythm track, they’ll lay down their vocals, and then I’ll just start arranging the song; resequencing from there. I like to really craft the music around the lyrics, not vice versa. I just do the arrangement based on what they put down. Other times, Gab or Lateef may have just writtens that they’ve been writing that they just want music for. We’ll just pick a tempo that they want to rhyme to, put down the click track, and I’ll just start building from there. Other times, we may just get together and say, just like with “Deception”, we were like, “We want to make a song about this theme or this person or this experience or whatever”. Gab may just go in his corner and write some lyrics, I may just start working on a beat and it just comes together like that.

P: Do you guys usually work together or separate as far as when you’re in the studio? Is it that you go in your corner and you’re not exchanging ideas?

G: We definitely exchange ideas. It’s just a whole building process. X will play a track, I’ll write to it and then we’ll just say “This sounds good here; this doesn’t sound good here. I think you could do this better”. We communicate with each other through the whole process.

P: As far as the composition of the tracks-I know you don’t want to be too forthcoming-but do you sample stuff or do you play stuff in?

X: My only rules are that there are no rules. I work hard to convey whatever sound I hear in my head. If it’s something from a record that inspires me, and I need someone to come in and play it, I do that. If I need to just chop a particular sample into 16 or 32 different pieces to make it work and manipulate it the way I need to, I do that. I don’t really say, “This is going to be strictly records” or “This is going to be a strictly live thing”. Whatever the overall objective is depending on whatever piece we’re working on.

P: Erica (a mutual friend of ours) was totally concentrating on remixes when I asked her if she had any questions for you. She said, “The El-P remix is SO different” compared to what you guys did. She likened it to giving your baby away to someone else to raise. How do you deal with that. Is it weird for you?

G: It’s all about branching out and working with other people too. To me, it’s kinda like that’s their interpretation of the song “Deception”. We wanted to get together with other people we respected and wanted to do some stuff with. To us, it’s just their interpretation of “Deception”. And it’s good; it’s good for growth to see how other producers interpret your work or what they would do with it; where they would take it. So that’s good. That’s growth.

X: I think that it has to-especially for people to remix our stuff-it has to be somebody that we respect first and foremost and that we trust creatively. Both El-P and Kurt, those are both two people who I have tremendous respect for their work. I knew if we gave it to El-P he was just gonna come with something ILL. And I knew Kurt was gonna come with something that was uptempo and bang and really work. It was just an interesting combination. And what we wanted to do, especially with “Deception” was make it so it was a three-part story. It’s about a guy who blows up and falls off. Well, with El-P’s version he just kind of goes on the brink of insanity and loses his mind. I knew El-P would come with something ill that would fit that. Kurt’s part was called, “Redemption” which is about getting back on track and being at the top of his game.

P: If you could remix or collaborate with other people, who would it be?

G: Collaboration? Right now: Mos Def, I’d like to do some stuff with Common, Black Thought, Pharoahe Monch, we’re gonna do some stuff with a lot of people. Aceyalone and Ab Rude

X: Dilated

G: Planet Asia

X: I think in terms of remixes and production, I’d like to work with just a lot of the greats who are still around, still doing the craft. Like Aretha Franklin. I’d like to sit in and work; do a session with like a David Axelrod, Quincy Jones. Somebody whose experiences are so vast. Case in point: Quincy Jones has worked with everyone from Ray Charles to Ice T. Really just kind of picking their brain and would just like to build with them to get outlook on the craft, discipline. I think to a large degree producing is a lot along the same vein as directing-directing film. When you come into any project, you have to be able to-in your mind-see it from beginning to end. To see whatever logical progressions or illogical progressions you want to have. To work with people like an Axelrod or a Quincy Jones who have worked with so many different artists, with so many different creative processes-that would be amazing to me.

P: What is the future for Blackalicious in terms of recording with all of your different configurations (X has a group with Lateef called the Maroons) and touring. How are you going to take the stuff that you have recorded on the road? Do you just play to a DAT? Because you always incorporate singers and all sorts of other people into your process.

X: We try to bring exactly that. Our band is turntable #1, turntable #2 and a mixer. For the most part, that’s our format sonically. But we bring Erin Annova, Joyo, Lateef and Versatile on the road. With our live show we were always inspired by the Digital Undergrounds, the Cypress Hills at their peak, The Quest, The De Las-groups that really…when you came to see their shows, you were entertained. We never really wanted to be the kind of group where we just went up there and did our single.

Blackalicious will be on a US tour with Del the Funky Homosapien this spring…

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