Being a serious record seeker and sample collage artist has its rewards. For Blackalicious' Chief Xcel (born Xavier Mosley), who has a collection of vinyl growing well into the thousands, it's paid off nicely. When recording “Smithzonian Institute of Rhyme” for Blackalicious' full-length debut, NIA (Quannum, 2000), Xcel and bandmate Gift of Gab sampled a part of Fela Kuti's Kalakuta Show (Makossa, 1976). The nod of respect for Kuti did not go unrecognized.
Blackalicious cohort Lateef the Truth Speaker and Gift of Gab were asked to do a track on Red Hot + Riot (MCA, 2002), a tribute record to Kuti. “And then, based off of that, Paul [Heck from the Red Hot Organization] called me and told me he was interested in doing sort of a remix project of Fela's catalog,” Xcel says. “And, you know, Fela has over 77 records, so it's kind of like, ‘Well, where do you start?’ So at first, I didn't really know what I wanted to do with it. But whatever I did, I wanted it to be sort of an introductory piece for people who had never heard Fela's music before and just didn't know where to start. So I started with some of the older stuff from '69 and then brought it all the way up through the stuff that he did with [his band] Africa 70 and ending with the stuff that he did with Roy Ayers and [his renamed band] Egypt 80. So it wasn't really meant to be just like the comprehensive Fela mix, but it was more so like volume 1.”
That first volume is titled Fela Kuti: The Underground Spiritual Game (Quannum, 2004). And Xcel pieced, edited and mixed the songs together to show appreciation for the large body of work that the Nigerian pioneer of Afro-beat — who died in 1997 of complications from AIDS — had created. “I went through at least 60 albums,” Xcel says. “With Fela, his average song was 10 or 12 minutes, and most of them range around 20 minutes. I just kind of tried to find the best way to tell the story and really get to the point and keep one whole thing of musical cohesion together. So that's where I started.”
For Xcel and his old allies from the SoleSides crew (including DJ Shadow, Lateef the Truth Speaker and Lyrics Born), the purpose of record hunting has changed but not because of the latest court ruling that requires all samples — no matter how small — be licensed and paid for. “We've been ducking in and out of sampling laws for two decades now,” Xcel says. “So that stuff is always gonna evolve and change, and they'll make it harder. The thing is, when we do use samples, we process and filter them to where, by the time we're done, it's a completely different animal anyway. But what we've been doing lately, from Blazing Arrow up to about now, is really working with live musicians, and the records have been sort of the reference point but not the focal point.”
Therefore, Xcel's trip to Saturn Records in his hometown of Oakland, Calif., turns out to be more about research than sample searching. “I've been collecting records for most of 20 years now,” he says. “And now, it's not really so much to sample as to just learn from, just finding arrangers and composers I've never heard of with different techniques and ways to approach music. I bring that inspiration back into whatever project I'm working on.”
This particular crate-dig at Saturn turns out to be fruitful and worldly. Xcel buys several vintage, multilingual gems (a few of which could have an impact on Blackalicious' third album, tentatively titled The Craft, dropping in spring 2005 on Epitaph) before racing off to his studio to finish his remix of Fatboy Slim's “Wonderful Night,” with a deadline looming just hours away.
Con Il Passare Del Tempo (West)
This wouldn't be for a sample file, but I'd definitely burn it to CD and just listen to it while I'm driving. I'll burn what I call “drive CDs,” and they'll have, like, a thousand different kinds of music. I'll just be listening to them while I'm thinking, driving up to Sacramento or whenever it's going to be a long drive, 'cause that's when my mind starts really, really working in terms of what I want to do on a specific song that I'm working on. I may hear an idea in another song and then, based off that, go into the studio and work on it.
LEW DAVIES AND HIS ORCHESTRA
The Kissing Cousins Sing With Lew Davies and His Orchestra (Project 3)
Project 3 was a label that Enoch Light did a lot of records on, and he's the executive producer of this. This is really dope because there are a lot of really dope orchestra stabs and percussive things going on. This wouldn't work for the stuff I'm currently doing, but my ear changes every two to three months. So I hear something on a record now that I may not have heard three months ago, so you never know.
Vaya is one of my favorite Latin labels. There's another guy on this label called Azuquita, who is really, really dope. So whenever I see stuff on this label, I check it out. A lot of it is like more traditional Latin stuff. It's not really funky. So I end up having to kind of sift through a lot to get to the diamonds.
PETE “EL CONDE” RODRIGUEZ
Este Negro Si Es Sabroso (Fania)
This is a Latin record on Fania, which is another one of my favorite Latin labels. Again, I picked this one because the arrangements were really fat. The rhythm section is extremely tight. And when I finally do learn to salsa …. It's dope.
The Investigator (Discuriosities)
This is a radio-broadcast record from '54. And they're just talking about all kind of things that apply to now, like corruption in government, imperialism and all kinds of stuff like that. So this actually might make for some cool quotes to scratch somewhere down the line. As I come across these things, I just kind of compile them, 'cause you never know what song you're going to be working on and need that little extra thing to fit into place.
Fuera del Mundo/Out of this World (Coco)
This is like a Cuban fusion record. It was really ill. I didn't pick this one out 'cause there was anything I wanted to sample, but Típica Ideal did a lot of weird stuff in terms of phasing with the strings, percussion and stuff like that. It's really trippy. It's almost like a Cuban psych record.
Oggi Le Canto Cosi', Vol. 3 (Vanilla)
This is an Italian disco record, and it actually has a couple groove kind of things on there. This one may actually make its way onto a sample file because of the drums; the drums are really heavy. A lot of times for me, I end up having to spend so much time re-EQing drums and time-stretching 'em and everything just to get them to my standard. What I like about a lot of these disco records is that they're already in the ballpark. The biggest thing for me, especially in the early and mid-'90s, was getting breaks so they didn't sound really tinny — so that they had beef to them.
Womad Talking Book, Volume 2: An Introduction to Africa (Womad)
This is from '85. It's like African music from all over the continent, but it's also like different eras in time. And it's got a little magazine to go along with it. These kinds of records I always dig for my godchildren because they can look along and listen and really check out music from different parts of the world. This is a great thing for kids.