May 23, 2022

The Reward Of Gab didn’t have to show that he may rap. He’d already accomplished that. Should you have been taking note of underground rap within the late ’90s and early ’00s, you already knew that the rapping half of the Bay Space duo Blackalicious may do issues on the microphone that would boggle your thoughts. The Reward Of Gab was so good at rapping, actually, that he needed to make up little challenges to maintain himself . That’s what Gab did on “Alphabet Aerobics,” the opening observe from Blackalicious’ 1999 EP A2G. On that music, Chief Xcel, Gab’s producer associate, got here up with a barebones observe that steadily sped up quicker and quicker. Gab used that perpetual-motion-machine beat to run by way of all the alphabet. The wordplay was dizzying even because the music started: “Synthetic amateurs aren’t in any respect superb/ Analytically, I assault, animate issues.” By the point Gab received to Z, he was rapping so rapidly that you may barely course of each phrase, however Gab didn’t sound like he’d damaged a sweat.

“Alphabet Aerobics” by no means appeared on a Blackalicious album. Blackalicious had larger issues in thoughts for his or her full-length statements. “Alphabet Aerobics” was a lark, a gimmick. The execution was impeccable, however the thought was slightly foolish. In these early-internet days, a music like “Alphabet Aerobics” needed to go word-of-mouth viral. When Blackalicious would bust it out at reside exhibits, it might kill. Years later, “Alphabet Aerobics” went a distinct form of viral. The music stays most likely Blackalicious’ best-known observe, thanks partially to the 2014 stunt when Daniel Radcliffe rapped the entire thing word-for-word on The Tonight Present — possibly the one time a celeb doing a stupid-human-trick rap on a late-night present has been something apart from insufferable. Even when they’d seen that future coming, although, I don’t suppose Blackalicious would’ve put “Alphabet Aerobics” on an album. Blackalicious albums have been meant for different issues.

By the point they got here out with an LP, Blackalicious had already been collectively for years. The Reward Of Gab and Chief Xcel first met in a Sacramento highschool within the late ’80s, they usually reconnected at UC Davis just a few years later. The 2 of them of them grew to become a part of a gaggle of obsessive, artistic rap nerds centered across the group radio station in Davis. That small group of pals fashioned SoleSides, the rap crew and label, and all of them went on to do nice issues. One SoleSides member, Jeff Chang, wrote the definitive 2005 hip-hop historical past Can’t Cease Received’t Cease. One other, Joseph “Jazzbo” Patel, simply received an Oscar as one of many producers of Questlove’s nice documentary Summer season Of Soul. Others made music. Josh Davis grew to become DJ Shadow. Two extra, Lyrics Born and Lateef The Reality Speaker, grew to become the perpetually underrated underground duo Latyrx. The Reward Of Gab and Chief Xcel, the previous highschool pals and rivals, fashioned Blackalicious. They launched their debut 12″ single “Swan Lake” on the SoleSides label in 1994, they usually adopted it with their Melodica EP later that 12 months.

DJ Shadow was the primary of the SoleSides crew to blow. Critics misplaced it over Shadow’s lovely, audacious 1996 turntable odyssey Endtroducing… Due to the instrumental nature of that album, Shadow’s SoleSides comrades may solely get a lot shine from Endtroducing…, although the assorted rappers did seem on remixes of the album tracks. The Reward Of Gab, for example, received to point out out on “Midnight In A Excellent World (Gab Combine).” However Gab and Chief Xcel nonetheless needed to spend the early Blackalicious years working day jobs. Gab was a telemarketer; I’m unsure what Xcel was doing. This was all occurring within the days earlier than the divide between rap’s mainstream and its underground had totally solidified, however no one anticipated the SoleSides rappers to change into stars, essentially. They appeared like they have been making music for one another and for no matter different weirdo rap obsessives occurred to find them.

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SoleSides developed right into a label known as Quannum Tasks. In 1999, Quannum launched the ridiculously packed compilation Quannum Spectrum. That comp was an announcement of group. The Quannum rappers shared the microphone with different MCs from throughout the underground: Jurassic 5, Souls Of Mischief, Divine Styler, El-P. That compilation was my introduction to Blackalicious, and I keep in mind being struck by how catchy and funky their contributions have been — how a lot music they packed right into a observe like “One Of A Sort.”

Across the time of the Quannum Spectrum comp, Blackalicious went into artistic overdrive. 1999 was additionally when Blackalicious launched the A2G EP. That very same 12 months, the duo launched Nia, the debut album that they’d been slowly recording over years, between day-job shifts. At first, you may solely get Nia in Europe; I keep in mind staring longingly at an import copy that I couldn’t afford in Different Music. A 12 months later, Quannum launched Nia within the US. That summer season, I noticed Blackalicious open for a resurgent Del The Funky Homosapien at SOB’s in Manhattan. That Blackalicious set was so celebratory. I’d gotten so used to New York backpack rappers snarling concerning the apostasy of the mainstream. Blackalicious did slightly little bit of that on report, however they have been rather more into shelling out big-brother knowledge and freaking over ingeniously flipped obscure funk breaks. Onstage at SOB’s, Gab and Xcel have been joined by Lyrics Born and some backup singers, and everybody radiated pleasure everywhere in the room. It’s no slight to Del to say that Blackalicious blew the headliner off the stage that evening.

After Nia, the key labels got here calling. On the time, MCA was constructing a roster that was heavy on considerate, crunchy boho-rap: the Roots, Frequent, Yasiin Bey. DJ Shadow signed to MCA, and so did Blackalicious. MCA had observed that Blackalicious had moved just a few hundred thousand copies of Nia with out a lot help, they usually wished in. Blackalicous have been at all times an unlikely prospect for major-label success. The Reward Of Gab was a monster technical rapper with a heat, beneficiant presence and a sneaky sense of melody, however he by no means offered as a star. He was too humble, too honest. Even when Gab was rapping arduous, he sounded nearly light. He talked about hard-won classes and admitted all of the issues that he didn’t know. And Blackalicious have been a real down-the-middle collaboration. On Nia and every thing that adopted, Xcel’s wealthy, burbling beats have been simply as central as Gab’s voice.

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Blacklicious weren’t chasing the Fats Beats crowd, they usually undoubtedly weren’t attempting to get on 106 & Park. As a substitute, their utopian type of rap music was made with aesthetes in thoughts. Blackalicious made sense subsequent to weeded-out downtempo producers or jazz wanderers or the very funkiest of the jam-band crowd, they usually offered no risk to the Lox or the Scorching Boys. In a approach, it’s a miracle that MCA gave the duo cash and left them alone. With that major-label imprimatur, Blackalicous have been capable of make the album of their desires. They introduced of their crew and to labored with simpatico figures from throughout all the musical panorama — Gil Scott-Heron, Ben Harper, Saul Williams, Zack De La Rocha. The album that got here out of that complete lengthy course of was known as Blazing Arrow, and it’ll flip 20 years previous tomorrow.

As a title, Blazing Arrow feels like some martial revolutionary shit, however that’s not how the album works. In interviews, Blackalicious stated that they picked that title as a result of it mirrored their sense of objective. They’d give up their day jobs, and all they did was eat, sleep, and breathe music. That they had a good chunk of the album accomplished earlier than they even signed their MCA deal. Blazing Arrow is a grand, bold sprawl of a report. It lasts 74 minutes, making use of all the capability of a single compact disc. It options “Launch,” a nine-minute triptych stuffed with company’ voices and conceptual twists. A number of particular person tracks have co-producers drawn from the ranks of the duo’s allies — DJ Shadow, Questlove, Hello-Tek, Ben Harper, Minimize Chemist — however Chief Xcel put collectively a lot of the squelchy, natural, layered sonic mattress on his personal. The grooves are lush and life-affirming, and Gab makes use of them to take us on one journey after one other.

Blazing Arrow nonetheless has just a few jaw-dropping rap exercises, however the album is larger than that. It’s about main by instance. Blackalicious didn’t just like the violence or the avarice in mainstream rap, however relatively than declaring warfare on it, they wished to emit positivity. The Dilated Peoples collab “Ardour” finds Gab in motivational-speaker mode. On “Purest Love,” he presents up variety phrases to the opposite individuals in his household: “The strongest Black girls elevating children alone? My sisters/ One of the best a part of my future is my current love curiosity.” (I really like the phrasing of “my current love curiosity.”) The album’s first single “Make You Really feel That Means” is actually simply Gab itemizing off issues that may spark pleasure, an early-’00s rap tackle “My Favourite Issues: “Cooling out with ol’ lady on a phat-ass date/ Discover a hundred-dollar invoice — wow, man, that’s nice/ Get promoted at your job as much as administration/ Plot a very long time, lastly a plan has made it.”

However Blazing Arrow isn’t all humility. It takes a sure confidence to make a music as bold as “Launch” or to aim a stunt as wild as “Chemical Calisthenics,” the place Gab actually raps in chemical equations. I at all times appreciated Gab greatest in pure-rapper mode. “Paragraph Precedent,” for instance is a straight-up microphone marathon, with Gab switching from fart joke to political commentary so rapidly that it may spin your cranium round: “Hit you with the funk, it’s like ‘who reduce the Provolone?’/ Authorities officers placing faucets on my cell phones.” (Fairly prescient there.) Sure strains have been like beacons for indoor-kid nerds: “Depart your metropolis burning like Gamera.” (With that one lyric, Pharoahe Monch rapping over the Godzilla rating on “Simon Says,” and DJ Premier sampling King Ghidorah’s chirp in his beat for Jay-Z’s “So Ghetto,” the early ’00s have been an excellent time for followers of backpack rap and kaiju films.)

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An album as heat and beneficiant and overwhelming as Blazing Arrow would possibly’ve been a tough promote. Blazing Arrow debuted at #49, a good exhibiting, however I by no means heard any of its tracks on the radio or noticed the “Made You Really feel That Means” on MTV or BET. I don’t know whether or not the LP met MCA’s industrial expectations or what occurred with Blackalicious’ label deal. Within the years after Blazing Arrow, although, each the Reward Of Gab and Chief Xcel went to work exterior of the group. Gab launched a solo album with the extraordinarily indie-rap title 4th Dimensional Rocketships Going Up on Quannum. Xcel stayed within the Quannum realm, too, working with Portland group the Lifesavas and forming a duo known as Maroons with Lateef The Reality Speaker. When Blackalicious received again collectively for the 2005 album The Craft, it got here out on Anti-.

Perhaps Blazing Arrow sounds the way in which that it does as a result of Blackalicious knew that this was going to be their one major-label second and that they wanted to get all their greatest concepts out after they had the prospect. They took their shot, they usually made it depend. After that, they stored making music, however it didn’t have the identical scope or influence. Blackalicious stored touring smaller venues for years. That they had an viewers, however critics and labels barely paid consideration. I fully took them with no consideration. That Daniel Radcliffe Tonight Present second was one of many solely occasions that I even thought concerning the group previously decade or so.

Final 12 months, the Reward Of Gab died of kidney failure on the age of fifty. Within the wake of his passing, Blazing Arrow performs very otherwise. There’s a line on “Make You Really feel That Means” the place the Reward Of Gab anticipates that actual response: “Winter days, extra probably that you simply discover warmth/ After I’m gone, extra probably that you simply discover me.” He’s not unsuitable. The Reward Of Gab was a uncommon factor: an absolute beast of a rapper who was additionally, by all accounts, a humble, respectable, welcoming human being. If a few of us didn’t respect him correctly when he was alive, we will not less than respect Blazing Arrow right this moment.