“The Craft is about our passion toward our discipline of hip-hop,” Blackalicious MC Gift of Gab says about the duo's latest album. “We really view hip-hop as a discipline, something that we work at every single day. There is not a day that goes by that we are not doing music in some way, shape or form.”
If by “discipline” Gift of Gab means operating with an almost religious zeal with regard to the music that he creates with his Blackalicious collaborator, Chief Xcel, then The Craft (Anti, 2005) is all that and more. In addition to the duo's groundbreaking albums NIA (2000, Quannum) and Blazing Arrow (2002, MCA), Blackalicious' reputation in underground hip-hop is built on extracurricular work with DJ Vadim, Michael Franti & Spearhead and the Quannum Projects crew — including DJ Shadow, Lateef the Truth Speaker, Lyrics Born, Apsci and Lifesavas. Xcel also released The Underground Spiritual Game (Quannum, 2004), a Fela Kuti retrospective that he put together after listening to more than 60 of Kuti's albums. But while Gift of Gab (born Tim Parker) and Chief Xcel (Xavier Mosley) find inspiration in outside projects and solo records, with Blackalicious, their artistic muse really lifts off.
“For us, it has always been about classic hip-hop and forward progression and development,” Xcel explains while on vacation in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. “People ask us all the time, ‘What do you think about underground rap versus commercial rap?’ and this and that and the third, but we don't break music down like that. It is all just good music. I don't care how much a record sells. If I like it, I like it, whether it sells five [albums] or 50 million.”
Extending the funky hip-hop art of The Pharcyde, a Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul into the '00s, Blackalicious' spiritually conscious message and collagist production techniques rise to new levels on The Craft. Like Blazing Arrow, The Craft comes at you like a hurricane, busting in from all sides, all angles, all styles. From Frank Zappa — esque visual epics (“Ego Sonic War Drums”) and raging funk rock (“Powers”) to flowing R&B and rap (“Black Diamonds & Pearls”), The Craft finds Xcel and Gift of Gab soaring over tracks that are as stylistically diverse as they are technically mind-blowing.
“I am a style traveler,” Gab says from his home in Oakland, Calif., “as is Xcel with his productions. Feeling is what guides us. I don't like rhyming the same over every beat. It is about approaching it like a musician. Similarly, songs like ‘The Craft’ or ‘World of Vibrations’ have a different vibe, but you can listen to them back-to-back. We want to keep the listener guessing in terms of style, but we want the album to be cohesive.”
THE HAIR-RAISING EFFECT
Before getting down to business, the Blackalicious partners considered past productions that gave them, in Gift of Gab's words, “goose bumps.” Touchstones from yesteryear helped determine the diversity and sonic slam the duo was seeking today. “This goes back to something Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson once said about Thriller,” Gab recalls. “They asked themselves, ‘Is each one of these songs giving us goose bumps?’ We had to feel those goose bumps when we listened to The Craft. It had to feel like a motion picture from beginning to end.”
“I am a fan of the mixes on those early Def Jam records, like [Public Enemy's] Yo! Bum Rush the Show,” Xcel adds. “As well as Jive records in that early period, specifically the Whodini records, the way Rick Rubin and Larry Smith would mix the drums. Their drums would always feel somewhat cold but, at the same time, huge and violent. They would sound louder than any other record of that period. They crushed the competition. Bum Rush was the epitome of that, especially in songs like ‘Miuzi Weighs a Ton.’ That type of energy was a reference point for The Craft.”
As with Blazing Arrow, the performances on The Craft include a large cast of characters. Vocalists Floetry, George Clinton, Lyrics Born, Lateef the Truth Speaker, Lifesavas, Peace (Freestyle Fellowship), Ledisi and Larry Saunders were supported by a troupe of international musicians. Keyboardist Hervé Salters (Femi Kuti, General Elektriks), cellist and string arranger Vincent Segal, guitarist Sebastian Martel (Femi Kuti), percussionist Alfredo Ortiz (Beastie Boys) and bassists Teke Underdue (Dead Prez) and Carl Young (Spearhead) extended Xcel's basic Akai MPC demos, to which Gift of Gab added his consummate lyrical magic.
“Our production style has changed a lot since Blazing Arrow,” Xcel explains. “We went from TDM to HD Pro Tools, and I was definitely able to hear the difference on the vocals. All the tracking was done at 96 kHz, which really added an overall bigger sound to the recording. When we went in to mix with Russell Elevado [Alicia Keys, D'Angelo] at SF Soundworks, he commented that the source material was so much fatter than with Blazing Arrow. That was a conscious effort going in for us, 'cause we wanted this record to be a sonic leap. We invested a lot in terms of building our own tracking and production studio at our Accompong Compound in Oakland. We wondered, ‘How can we enhance the process every step of the way?’ Pro Tools|HD was part of that. We also used Neve 33113 and 1073 mic pre/EQs, an Empirical Labs EL8X Distressor and their EL7 Fatso Jr, and a lot of Moogerfooger stuff.”
RAISING THE CRAFT
Aside from the recent Digidesign Pro Tools|HD system upgrade, Xcel is old-school to the core. He began The Craft's writing and recording process with a trusty Akai MPC60. He then presented the basic tracks to the musicians who tracked to Pro Tools and mixed down on a Studer tape machine at SF Soundworks. “Everything that we do starts at the Akai MPC,” Xcel explains. “I will work on a blueprint of the song, sort of a rhythmic graph, just so the musicians can get an idea of the energy that I want. I will play them just the rhythm track off the MPC minus the music that I have programmed. They will replay the song verbatim, then play on the same groove for a half hour to an hour and just go on different excursions, and I will track that. Based off their reinterpretations of my original track, I will chop that stuff up in ReCycle and then the MPC and start reprogramming and restructuring the song from there.”
For vocals, Xcel used a “tiny bit of compression” from an Alan Smart C2 stereo compressor and ran everything through the D.W. Fearn VT-1 tube mic preamp. Much more went into effecting samples and live instrumentation. “With everything that I have tried to do in my career, it is about erasing the line between what is sampled and what is live,” Xcel says. “Ninety percent of the time, my drums are coming off the MPC, and they are sampled and chopped-up breaks. My production has always revolved around digging in the crates. The live drum sounds come from Fredo's timbales, congas, bongos and shakers. I used the Empirical Labs Fatso Jr a lot on the drums and bass to add overall warmth. The Fatso is definitely on my must-have gear list. Also, the Neve 33113s were just awesome for coloring the live stuff going into Pro Tools. One thing that Russell taught me is, whether you have a lot or a little bit of gear, you have to push it to the max and really get to know the colors of that particular piece.”
That mind-set also influenced Xcel's approach to fashioning and disguising The Craft's sample-licious stew. On The Craft's best songs, it is impossible to tell where the live playing (which often sounds like samples of old R&B) ends and the crate sampling begins. “I spent a lot of time processing samples and changing their colors,” Xcel says. “If I take a straight drum loop, I will use ReCycle to chop it up into 16ths and 32nds so that I can really make it my own. I time-stretch a lot of stuff in ReCycle, too. I had been using Serato Pitch 'n Time, but I found that it could make the samples sound harsh. I like the Waves bundles' plug-ins a lot and the Bomb Factory stuff. Even if it is the fake Fairchild [Tube Limiter 660] that Bomb Factory offers, I will use a little bit of it. If you use plug-ins tastefully, they can be really dope. If you can balance a creative marriage between plug-ins and outboard gear, it can help in the way that you color your sound.”
Nevertheless, sometimes Xcel just couldn't achieve the sounds he heard in his head, so he passed the tracks to Elevado, who worked on them in the mixing stage (contrary to Xcel's usual methods; see the section “Mixdown Ethos”). On “Ego Sonic War Drums,” the drums sound almost drugged: part tribal, part slowed-down Funkenstein rhythm clash.
“That was based off an African drum record that I found,” Xcel reveals. “We wanted to re-create the energy of that. I found a couple of different breaks that were in a similar time, feel and structure. It was a matter of chopping them up and fusing them together. The biggest challenge with that song is that it is very electronic-sounding. It was important that the drums be the driving force and not be overpowered by the synths or the vocals. In the premixes, I had the drums up, but I didn't feel like the synths were at the forefront enough, so Russ went in and achieved the balance.”
MANUAL PITCH TRANSMISSION
The Craft's centerpiece is “The Fall & Rise of Elliott Brown,” a semiautobiographical story about Gift of Gab's nephew, who is currently incarcerated. The song opens with a dialogue sample taken from Hood to Hood, a movie about what Gab calls “the worst ghettos in America.” A surreal piano and string combination follows.
“That is Hervé playing this Eavestaff Pianette Minipiano from 1890,” Xcel explains. “The thing was so old, we had to tune it several times. But I liked the way it sounded, so we used that along with Vincent on electric cello. On the whole crescendo that follows after the double-time part, we wanted you to sonically feel the action and the drama. We spent a lot of time pitching up tape there. At the end of part one, where Gab is telling the story, you can hear him slowly pitching up as the sounds become more hectic. We pitched the tape up to where it kept time with the drums. Pitching tape is not as easy as programming a pitch shifter in Pro Tools. It takes a lot of trial and error — slowing it down, speeding it up, all manually on the Studer. We had to pitch it in real time, then record it into Pro Tools so we could shift it around.”
Next, slap bass adorns a series of resounding piano chords, followed by lumbering brass and kick drums that recall a Quincy Jones blaxploitation soundtrack. Here, Xcel becomes secretive. “I can't reveal where I took those brass samples that are combined with the beats programmed in the MPC,” he says. “That is my digging territory. But from a programming perspective, that song was the most time-intensive because it goes from 4/4 into 7/8 and back to 4/4 in the breakdown at the end. We did each movement at different times.” The song closes with Gab's sister speaking almost wildly. “We wanted [my nephew] on the track,” Gab says. “But he was in lockdown with no phone privileges. His mother visited him, and he wrote a letter, which she recited on the record.”
Mixing The Craft on an SSL J9000 console at SF Soundworks, a San Francisco studio outfitted with a wealth of classic outboard gear, Xcel eschewed bedroom Pro Tools mixing for a full-on, exacting approach. Xcel relied on the Studer tape machine to achieve a balance of analog, but his premixes still ruled the album's basic character. “I do premixes on everything before I take them to Russell,” Xcel says. “I don't take the philosophy of, ‘We'll just fix that in the mix.’ I want it to sound good before the mix, so when I do take it to Russell, it is a furtherance of the production process. We mixed each song separately but in the order that they would appear on the album, so we were able to adjust the mix accordingly. Gab and I really sat with the music. Before we mixed, I did all the premixes, and we would create different song sequences to see which order best worked. That let Russell know what to do to create movement. It all really starts with planning and the premix.
“We recorded everything to Pro Tools|HD,” Xcel continues. “Then, Russell took over. With him, what we call the ‘vital parts’ — namely drums, vocals and instruments — all go to the Studer, and whatever we can't get with 48 tracks of tape, then we sync with Pro Tools. Everything is done in Pro Tools, then dumped to tape. And then we do final mixdown off of the tape, recorded down to half-inch, which we master from.”
In keeping with the duo's holistic and universal approach, Blackalicious sees The Craft as a way of living, of giving your best in all you do for both God and, most likely, for the created. Whether it's hoping for the rise of Elliott Brown or working for the best sound possible with an ancient analog tape machine, The Craft is about finding your zone, whatever and wherever that might be.
“The Craft is whatever you do,” Gift of Gab concludes. “Being a lyricist happens to be my craft; Xcel's craft is being a producer. But The Craft is whatever you do, whether you be a writer, an MC or a chef. The Craft is your personal relationship to the Creator. It is what you honor. I believe we are all here to be vessels and to express ourselves uniquely, and that is what The Craft is all about.”
BLACKALICIOUS' ACCOMPONG COMPOUND
Computers, DAWs, recording hardware
Apple Mac G5 computer
Digidesign Pro Tools|HD 3 system
Studer A827 24-track, 2-inch tape machine
SSL J9000 console (at SF Soundworks)
Samplers, drum machines
Akai MPC60, MPC3000, MPC4000 sampling workstations
Roland TR-808, TR-909 drum machines
Digidesign Bomb Factory AudioSuite plug-ins
Propellerhead ReCycle software
Serato Pitch 'n Time plug-in
Waves Platinum Bundle 4.0 plug-ins
Synths, modules, instruments
ARP Odyssey, Omni synths
Eavestaff Pianette Minipiano
Fender Jazz, Precision basses; Rhodes electric piano; Telecaster guitar
Hammond B-3 organ
Hohner Clavinet keyboard
Orla PK400 Chromatic Keyboard
Roland SH-101 synth
Various instruments: lap steel guitar, electric and acoustic cellos, viola, violin
Yamaha Motif ES synth
Mics, mic preamps, EQs, compressors, effects
Alan Smart C2 stereo compressor
D.W. Fearn VT-1 tube mic preamp
Empirical Labs EL7 Fatso Jr, EL8X Distressor compressors
Maestro Echoplex tape delay
Moog Moogerfooger MF-102 Ring Modulator, MF-103 12-Stage Phaser, MF-104 Analog Delay effects units
Neumann U 87 mic
Neve 1073, 33113 mic preamps/EQs
Roland RE-201 Space Echo effects unit
Genelec 1032A, 1037C