Photo by Rachel Crick

“You never get to a point where you know everything, and if you ever do that is the point where it all ends.”
– Chief Xcel

It was a straight up honor to talk to someone as innovative as Chief Xcel of hip hop’s mighty Blackalicious crew, back in a time that needs them more than ever to deliver the ambitious Imani Vol. 1, the first part of a stupendous trilogy and their first LP in a decade. Gift of Gab and Chief Xcel remain fluid, astute, sharp, culture rooted and funky on this banger, which features a range of guests from Amde of The Watts Prophets to Lateef, Zap Mama, Imani Coppola, Lyrics Born and more. The Swahili word for “faith”, Imani will spark your faith that hip hop and real soul can never die as long as it is alive in the hearts of people of good will.

Gift of Gab has the fluid and fast skills you can hear in someone like Shad, Weerd Science or Vulkan The Crusader these days, but with that O.G. veteran’s delivery and knowledge that carries extra gravitas or playfulness in lighter tone moments, while Chief just kills with production that looks all directions at once, through a prism of what hip hop was, is and can yet be.

It is colorful, as real art and life experiences ache to be.

You guys got Prince crazy on this record! You have three records in the process. This one already has so any textures and sounds. Really inspiring, right out the gate. It sets a great tone set against what’s going on right now.

Chief Xcel: Indeed, indeed. Thanks, man. I really appreciate that.

I am an Upstate, Ny white dude who grew up in Woodstock. I’ll never say I understand the plight of the African American. I can try and have empathy but I wont say that “I understand”. I appreciate hip hop culture and this is the kind of record that can create unity. What was it like having this outpouring of creativity?

Thanks, I appreciate that. For us, every time we come together to make these records they’re all learning processes, y’know what I mean? Gab and I early on in our careers decided we want to take the attitude of the student. Music is infinite in the directions you can go or the directions it can take you. Infinite. You never get to a point where you know everything, and if you ever do that is the point where it all ends. For us we always wanted the passion and tenacity for learning new things, trying new things…just being vessels for the creativity. You get to a point where you realize there’s a force beyng you and much bigger than you. Common had a line in one of his songs that said
“Affected lives is where the wealth and merit is” and it’s really true. When you step into it with that humility, that’s when the most power comes out of it. So that is our coach, creatively. That spirit, y’know?

I relate to what your saying. If Miles Davis was content he never would’ve made Bitches Brew, which totally changed his sound, y’know?

Yeah, totally. Totally. You work to establish a body of work way beyond one record. When you realize you are trying to establish a body of work, you keep evolving. You never want to stay in the same place. Miles is the quintessental example of that.

One thing I’ve loved about you guys, Tribe or even early Jungle Brothers, it was about quality. You guys still have an old school flavor, old school funk and modern twists. I loved “Ashes To Ashes”. Really cool. You bring the soul in and feeling, the real street funk I feel like people responded to so well in the new Kendrick record To Pimp A Butterfly, not just studio pop.

Yeah, you know…I mean, we just try to make soul music, man. Know what I mean? We have no intentions or desire to be retro on any kind of level. Our method from day one has been something rooted in the foundations but always trying to expand. That’s just how we get down. We strive to sound fresh and hold up, stand the test of time. I want you to hear Blazing Arrow today and still love it the same way as when you first heard it (author’s note: I still love that Harry Nilson sample from The Point). Nia or The Craft, take the same thing away from it.

I think you succeeded on this one. The collaborations you pulled in amazing people like the song “Imani” with Zap Mama on the end. It rounds things out in such a beautiful way at the end of this installment.

It was just such a blessing to work with her. She is a creative genius and beauty on every level. When people say Marie or Zap Mama, the only words that can come to mind are amazing and incredible.

It seems your creative wheels were really spinning. I know you had challenges but how many things happened you never could’ve planned, like synchronicity?

We are always working. We’re in the zone. I’m so deep into the development of the tracks. We’re working on Volume 2 now. Gab is writing. The second movement of the story, since Imani is three movements. We really haven’t had the opportunity yet to sit back and be like “wow”. We’re still moving forward.

The cover art has this eye candy, pop art but classic album and funk feel. You want to stop and look at it. It makes you feel something. Bright colors. You wanna put on headphones and lose yourself in it.

That’s Bret Rollins, the visual art member of Blackalicious. All the U.S. releases since the start, at least, have been designed by Brent. An unsaid member. What I love about working with him is I’ll give him any record and say create and that’s what he does every single time. From, y’know, the very first one Melodica to The Nia cover to Blazing Arrow and The Craft. It’s funny you mentioned it because I was just talking to him the other day and I want to put his pieces on big canvases. They’re art, not just a record cover.

How fun was it making “On Fire Tonight”? I like the rapid fire flow and the “ba-ba-bum” horns. It feels live. Like you are watching it happen even while just listening to a stream of the song.

Yeah, that song is really…if there’s any sort of like Big Daddy Kane infused songs in our catalogue, that is a nod to his greatness on “Wrath of Kane” or “Raw”, where the beat is hard. I just kind of set the stage for Gab and let him go. It’s what people love to hear him do. We just try and start with a concept and allow a story to tell itself as we’re creating. That’s always been our thing. I’ve always felt like the song will tell you what it needs. We just try and listen.

That’s cool. Some people try and force it. I think maybe that’s why your songs feel complete, even when telling part of an album’s story. You don’t want to skip a track. How did “Blacka” come together? It’s an anthem track.

“Blacka” was one of the first songs we recorded. We’d recorded like sixty songs for Volume 1, we just narrowed it down to like 16. “Blacka” was like the actual first thing we recorded. It set it off.

My friend Micah works with O Positive Festival which is about trying to get health care for musicians. He is one of the bigger hip hop heads I know and had a question for you. He said ,” hip hop, unlike most forms of music, is a culture. A way of behaving. A way people define themselves, for better or worse. It’s become synonymous for African American culture and even for youth culture, regardless of skin.” You have a diverse sound that maybe is outside of the mainstream sound that gets sold to African American youth. How does it feel to have the legacy but maybe not fit in sometimes? Where do you feel you fit in?

I feel we are icons within a genre. I feel like we have our own way and have worked hard to build our own lane. That’s what happens when you make things on your own terms. It’s kind of funny because the biggest song in our catalogue rose to prominence just in the past 6-8 months. It’s a song we did fifteen years ago and people from 13 to 83 know at this point. What is mainstream in this day amd age? It had a meaning when there was one outlet, which was basically the radio, but with the true coming of the information age, mainstream is so many different things to so many people. We’re really blessed to have a lot of fans on every continent. No matter where we are, Chicago, Oakland, Capetown, Sydney, Paris…I always feel blessed when people come up and say they put our record on and it made their day a little bit easier. I always say ,”Damn, this is what it’s all about.”

Purchase Imani Vol. 1 here.

Special thanks to Micah Blumenthal


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