With album titles like 4th Dimensional Rocketships Going Up and Escape 2 Mars, one might assume that Gift of Gab—one half of Bay Area hip-hop group Blackalicious—is obsessed with space. But really, he’s more concerned about Earth.
“I don’t want people to think, ‘Gift of Gab’s completely on some going green stuff,’ but that whole concept was in my head,” Gab says. “I’d been watching the Al Gore movie, An Inconvenient Truth, and I was feeling with people about 2012 and the medical industry and global warming—the state of the world that people don’t really talk about but that affects everybody.”
So Gab enlisted producer DNAEBEATS to create a compelling soundtrack to support his political philosophies on his latest album, Escape 2 Mars [Quannum/Cornerstone]. “He had given me so many beats from the  Supreme Lyricism mixtape that we worked on,” Gab says. “I was like, ‘This is dope . . . this is dope. . . .’ So I picked two beats and used them—“Escape From Mars” and “Light Years”—as the focus for the record.”
DNAE sometimes started with samples but often chose to replay them; about 70 percent of the record was played, 30 percent sampled. After sequencing beats and chopping up samples—such as the Indian Bali funk bass found on “El Gifto Magnifico”—on his Akai MPC2500, he dumped them into Ableton Live or Pro Tools (using a Command 8 console). He then played around on his Korg MS2000, Korg Triton, Moog Voyager, Roland Juno-106, Studio Electronics Omega 8, Clavia Nord Lead, and Rhodes keyboards.
That’s when he’d get into a trancelike zone. “If you see the tabla player Zakir Hussain play live, he goes into this trance where he’s not really there—it’s a different level of consciousness,” DNAE says. “It’s very much the same process for me. If there’s something that isn’t working, I can’t spend more than five or ten minutes on it. I gotta keep that flow continually going.”
To maintain focus, DNAE generally sticks with one synth, maybe two, per song. “‘Electric Waterfalls’ was all the MS2000,” he says. “‘Spotlight’ was all a Moog Voyager. ‘Rhyme Traveler’ was a Moog Voyager and a Nord piano.”
Gab writes rhymes (as well as chorus hooks, which he often delegates to other singers) in a similar way. “There are certain songs where, as soon as I hear the music, I have to grab a pen and a pad because the whole song is probably going to spill out at that moment,” Gab says. “You’re never gonna get another moment exactly like that moment.”
But he doesn’t wait for those moments. “Julia Cameron, who wrote The Artist’s Way, said there are two ways to look at [creativity],” Gab reveals. “There’s the storm aspect of it—when the inspiration hits, grab it. Or there’s writing in a disciplinary way, where you write a page every day. Letting go of the outcome is the key. It’s not in my hands. My business is being the vessel and dedicating myself to it every day. The first couple times stuff might come out that you won’t share with anybody, but four or five days into it the creative energy takes over, and it’s like, ‘Where in the hell is this coming from?’”
Meanwhile, DNAE got creative with . . . vitamins. “I’ll shake a bottle of vitamins ’cause that makes one of the best claps,” he says. “If you pitch it down a little and shorten it so that it’s just like a snare and then layer snares on top of it, it adds a lot of depth. On ‘Light Years,’ there are two or three snares, and I layered two handclaps—mixed with the vitamin sound—over that to give it more of that crunchy vibe.”
After recording vocals (on a Neumann TLM 127 through an Avalon Vt-737sp channel strip), the guys brought tracks to engineer Mike Cresswell to take the mix to the next level. An example is the wide stereo image in “Escape 2 Mars,” for which Cresswell processed a Paul Reed Smith acoustic guitar through a DigiTech Whammy pedal—set to one octave up/one octave down—then adding spring reverb and panning it hard left and right.
Other gear used to push things sonically included SSL FX G383, Speck ASC-T, and Massenburg DesignWorks EQs; dbx 160X and Smart Research C1 compressors; a Delta Labs Effectron (for the spaceship-taking-off sound between “Escape 2 Mars” and “Electric Waterfalls”); Line 6 DM4 and Yamaha GEP50 effects (for distortion on Gab’s voice); and Bomb Factory 1176 and TL Space plug-ins.
Technical elevations aside, Gab’s main desire was to create an album filled with fresh ideas. “I want to explore the different possibilities of being an MC and lyricist,” he says, “and in my opinion, that journey is the same thing as space: There’s no way you can come up with all of the styles or concepts that there are to come up with because everything is moving forward and expanding.”