It's not every day that an artist releases a single considered a classic. It's even more unusual when that single is the artist's debut effort. Blackalicious beat the odds when it released the DJ Shadow-produced "Swan Lake" on its own Solesides label in 1994. The single immediately created a massive buzz in the hip-hop underground, and Blackalicious included it on the Melodica EP, released on James Lavelle's U.K.-based Mo' Wax label. The record sold thousands of copies and earned Blackalicious a considerable worldwide following.
Such a well-received debut effort brings up the question "What are you going to do for a follow-up?" Instead of rushing out an album of half-baked ideas to cash in on their newfound acclaim, the members of Blackalicious holed themselves up in the studio starting in 1995. They spent the next four years working on their full-length debut, Nia (Quannum Projects), making sure it lived up to their high standards.
Four years may seem like an incredibly long time to spend completing an album, but what's even more surprising is that Blackalicious producer and DJ Chief Xcel and MC Gift of Gab have been working together since the late '80s. Part of what took Xcel and Gab more than a decade to release the first full-length Blackalicious effort was their participation in several side projects and collaborations with artists such as Latryx, Watts Prophets, Jurassic 5, and Erin Anova. The main reason for the long wait, though, was that the two concentrated on putting together the best album possible, in the process throwing out several tracks that would shame the finest work of lesser artists.
Xcel and Gab first encountered each other at Kennedy High School in Sacramento, California, in 1987. A mutual friend introduced them, but because they came from different backgrounds they clashed for a while. "I was from L.A.," says Gift of Gab, "and Xcel was from the Bay Area. He'd say, 'Too Short is better,' and I'd say, 'Ice-T is better.' So at first we had an ego thing going on. But then he told me about this song called 'Top Billin' from Audio Two, and I said, 'Okay, I gotta hear that.' That's when when we sparked our first ego-free converstion. We discovered that we both really just had a common love for the music."
SEARCHINGAround that time, Chief Xcel was trying to figure out where certain producers got their samples: "I was always fascinated," says Xcel. "I'd be going, 'Where did Mantronix get that from? Where did 45 King get that from?' That's where I started getting into record collecting, but back then it was just from a DJ perspective."
From record collecting and deejaying, Xcel evolved into making his own beats: "I didn't start getting involved with production until 1988. When we first met in '87, Gab's original DJ, Maestro K, was our producer. All I did was just scratch and spin some stuff live," he says. After Maestro K left to do R&B music, Xcel purchased some equipment from producer Brian Morgan (SWV) and set out to learn production on his own.
Starting out with a Korg DS1, an Alesis SR16 drum machine, and a Tascam 4-track, Chief Xcel made his foray into the production world. While honing his skills, he developed a basic production philosophy that has remained consistent over the years. "My only rule is that there are no rules," says Xcel. "I work hard to convey whatever sound I hear in my head."
After high school, Gab moved back to L.A. and Xcel went to the University of California, Davis. Their creative collaboration continued, but the distance hampered it. Xcel remembers, "I'd be playing Gab beats and stuff over the phone, and he would be writing to them. It was just taking way too long. We weren't getting anything done." By Xcel's sophomore year, Gab had moved to Davis. Xcel was spending time at the college radio station, KDVS, where he became friends with Lyrics Born (then Asia Born), DJ Shadow, and DJ Zen. They were all working individually on their own music, and they quickly bonded.
DJ Shadow eventually released a record on the Hollywood Basic label, but in 1991 the group established the Solesides imprint and began to release its own records, which garnered considerable recognition. Xcel gives a lot of credit to DJ Zen for getting everyone to focus on becoming a unit and forming a label: "Zen was really the person who said, 'Instead of doing a demo and trying to play this A&R game of getting signed, you have the resources. Start doing some 12-inches!'"
Because of its involvement in college radio, the crew knew exactly how to get its music out to DJs, and the label quickly picked up momentum. The Solesides label hit a new plateau of success when Blackalicious released the "Swan Lake" 12-inch single in 1994. The single helped the band land live gigs, opening for groups like the Roots. Blackalicious also worked with Watts Prophets and contributed a track to the Connected compilation on the now-defunct 3-2-1 Records.
THE FABULOUS ONESOver the next few years, the various members of the Solesides all achieved similar success. Lyrics Born formed Latryx with DJ Shadow's roommate Lateef, and London Records put out DJ Shadow's acclaimed album Endtroducing. By the end of 1997, the Solesides crew had come to a crossroads. Meeting at a house in the mountains, the members decided it was time for a change. "We basically did everything we wanted to do," says Xcel. "It was time for something new, time to expand. Around that same time, Jeff [Chang, aka DJ Zen] decided he was ready to do his own thing in the editing world. He's at 360.com now. We really felt like all of our artistic visions for ourselves, our music, and our careers had just expanded so much from what we originally set out to do in '91."
The change came in the form of Solesides evolving into Quannum, whose lineup includes all of the original Solesides members except for DJ Zen. They set out to work on new projects-the first one a collaborative effort called Quannum Spectrum, a taste of what Quannum has to offer as a collective. The album features a track from each of the core groups (Latryx, Blackalicious, DJ Shadow) as well as intracrew collaborations and work with outside artists like Divine Styler, Jurassic 5, and Souls of Mischief.
With the group project finished, Blackalicious could finally concentrate on Nia, its full-length debut. Gab says there was never really a time when they didn't work on the album, although Nia went through several incarnations: "There were various versions of this album and various stages of where it was at. We wanted to make our first full-length album something we considered great. That was our goal: to make a great record. So we were always in the lab."
Tucked away in the basement of an East Oakland house, "the lab" is actually Chief Xcel's studio, which he calls the Hut. Xcel is rather secretive about specific production methods, but he describes the recording process as three different scenarios: "In a given week, I may have four or five skeletons or rhythm tracks. I give them to Gab or give them to Lateef, and they'll pick what they like or what they're feeling and write to it. I'll see what they're doing. We'll lay down that rhythm track, they'll lay down their vocals, and then I'll start arranging the song, resequencing from there. I like to craft the music around the lyrics, not vice versa. I do the arrangement based on what they put down. Other times, Gab or Lateef may have written lyrics they want music for. We'll pick a tempo they want to rhyme to, put down the click track, and I'll start building from there. Or we may all just get together, like when we did 'Deception,' and make a song about this theme or this person or this experience orwhatever. Gab will just go in his corner and write some lyrics, I'll start working on a beat, and it comes together like that."
For the past couple of years, Blackalicious has done most of its recording using an ADAT digital multitrack tape system, but Chief Xcel recently started using a computer-based Pro Tools hard disk system. "Sometimes I just hate dealing with ADATs," he says. "You've got to wait for them to rewind and sync up. Often ADATs are more difficult than dealing with analog tape. Whenever you have all of those moving parts, there's always some margin of error. The absolute worst thing is having tape chewed up, which I have experienced several times-and I didn't have a backup either, so I lost everything."
MAKING PROGRESSWhile he's recording basic tracks, Xcel tries to get close to the sound he wants instead of fixing it in the mix. "I don't like to rely on outboard gear," he says. "It should go to tape exactly the way I want it to sound. When I go to the studio to mix, I'm just embellishing and not trying to fix."
Part of the recording and much of the mixing for Nia took place at Live Oak Studios with engineer James Ward, who has become an integral part of the recording process. Ward understands the ideas Blackalicious has for its music, according to Xcel: "I've been working with James for about three years now. Finding the right engineer can be difficult. You need somebody who understands your language. If I say, 'I want this kick drum to have more punch or more bottom,' or 'I want a rounder feel,' that could mean five different things to five different engineers."
The crew mixed some of the record at the Glue Factory, a studio owned by Dan the Automator (Dr. Octagon, Handsome Boy Modeling School). Chief Xcel has high praise for the Glue Factory's setup: "It's dope because it's designed specifically for what we do. Automator is a rap producer-a sample-oriented producer. He has really optimized his outfit for those types of productions. It's fat. He's also an equipment junkie. He's always on the Net going, 'I can get this Neve for such and such; this Focusrite for such and such.'"
After spending so much time in the studio, Blackalicious has figured out its favorite mic for recording vocals. "We use a modified Neumann U 87," says Xcel. "It has some sort of tube in it. The guy we get them from has them modified in Germany. For what we're doing and for our sound, we have the optimum vocal recording setup."
The first single from Nia, "Deception," features remixes by El-P from Company Flow and Kut Masta Kurt (Dilated Peoples, Rasco). For Blackalicious, these joint efforts were about giving people it trusted and respected a chance to expand their vision of the music. Xcel explains, "I knew if we gave it to El-P, he was just gonna come with something ill. And I knew Kurt was going to come with something up-tempo and bang and really work. It was an interesting combination."
Blackalicious compiled the different mixes into a three-part story. "It's about a guy who blows up and falls off," says Xcel. "With El-P's version, he goes on the brink of insanity and loses his mind. Kurt's part, 'Redemption,' is about the guy getting back on track, at the top of his game."
AS THE WORLD TURNSCurrently booking a tour in support of Nia, Blackalicious is also back in the studio working on a record called B Sides Live, as well as a Maroons record (Chief Xcel's group with Lateef of Latryx). Quannum has plans to rerelease some of the crew's classic work later this year on a compilation called Soleside's Greatest Bumps.
Gab and Xcel look forward to more collaborations in the future. Gab's wish list includes hip-hop artists Mos Def, Common, and Black Thought. Xcel has his sights set on working with production legends such as David Axelrod and Quincy Jones. "I would like to build with them to get an outlook on craft and discipline," says Xcel. "To a large degree, producing is in the same vein as directing a film. When you come into any project, you have to see it in your mind from beginning to end, to see whatever logical or illogical progressions you want to have. To work with people like Axelrod or Quincy Jones who have worked with so many different artists, with so many different creative processes-that would be amazing."
After spending way too much time hanging out with hip-hop artists, Karen Dere has just started her own music merchandising company, the Giant Peach.
Otari Concept 1 consoleNeve outboard EQ unitsFocusrite Red Series compressorAllen Smart compressorKlark Teknik DN500 stereo compressorJoemeek SC2 stereo compressorEventide H949 harmonizerTC Electronic M5000TC Electronic FinalizerDrawmer M500Lexicon PCM 80Lexicon PCM 90Alesis ADATsPro Tools/24 MixplusGefeld tube micNeumann U 87 mic
Eric B. & Rakim, "Paid in Full" (Seven Minutes of Madness remix by Cold Cut)Gang Starr, "Gotta Get Over" (Large Professor remix)Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, "Lots of Lovin'" (Pete Rock remix)Common, "Ressurection" (Pete Rock remix)DJ Krush, "Meiso" with Tariq and Malik B. from the Roots (DJ Shadow remix)
AlbumsQuannum Spectrum (Quannum Projects, 1999)Nia (Quannum Projects, 2000)
EPsMelodica (Mo' Wax, 1994 U.K., 1995 U.S.)A to G (Quannum Projects, 1999)
Singles"Swan Lake" (Solesides, 1994)"A to G" (Quannum Projects, 1999)"Deception" (Quannum Projects, 1999)
Compilations and CollaborationsWith Latryx, "Burning Hot in Cali on a Saturday Night" (Solesides, 1997)With Watts Prophets, "Doin' Every Day the Hard Way" (London, 1997)Connected compilation, "Touch the Stars" (3-2-1 Records, 1998)