The Anniversary

Blazing Arrow Turns 20

MCA
2002
MCA
2002

The Gift Of Gab didn’t need to prove that he could rap. He’d already done that. If you were paying attention to underground rap in the late ’90s and early ’00s, you already knew that the rapping half of the Bay Area duo Blackalicious could do things on the microphone that could boggle your mind. The Gift Of Gab was so good at rapping, in fact, that he had to make up little challenges to keep himself interested. That’s what Gab did on “Alphabet Aerobics,” the opening track from Blackalicious’ 1999 EP A2G. On that song, Chief Xcel, Gab’s producer partner, came up with a barebones track that gradually sped up faster and faster. Gab used that perpetual-motion-machine beat to run through the entire alphabet. The wordplay was dizzying even as the song began: “Artificial amateurs aren’t at all amazing/ Analytically, I assault, animate things.” By the time Gab got to Z, he was rapping so quickly that you could barely process every word, but Gab didn’t sound like he’d broken a sweat.

“Alphabet Aerobics” never appeared on a Blackalicious album. Blackalicious had bigger things in mind for their full-length statements. “Alphabet Aerobics” was a lark, a gimmick. The execution was impeccable, but the idea was a little silly. In those early-internet days, a song like “Alphabet Aerobics” had to go word-of-mouth viral. When Blackalicious would bust it out at live shows, it would kill. Years later, “Alphabet Aerobics” went a different kind of viral. The song remains probably Blackalicious’ best-known track, thanks in part to the 2014 stunt when Daniel Radcliffe rapped the whole thing word-for-word on The Tonight Show — maybe the only time a celebrity doing a stupid-human-trick rap on a late-night show has been anything other than unbearable. Even if they’d seen that future coming, though, I don’t think Blackalicious would’ve put “Alphabet Aerobics” on an album. Blackalicious albums were meant for other things.

By the time they came out with an LP, Blackalicious had already been together for years. The Gift Of Gab and Chief Xcel first met in a Sacramento high school in the late ’80s, and they reconnected at UC Davis a few years later. The two of them of them became part of a group of obsessive, creative rap nerds centered around the community radio station in Davis. That small group of friends formed SoleSides, the rap crew and label, and all of them went on to do great things. One SoleSides member, Jeff Chang, wrote the definitive 2005 hip-hop history Can’t Stop Won’t Stop. Another, Joseph “Jazzbo” Patel, just won an Oscar as one of the producers of Questlove’s great documentary Summer Of Soul. Others made music. Josh Davis became DJ Shadow. Two more, Lyrics Born and Lateef The Truth Speaker, became the perpetually underrated underground duo Latyrx. The Gift Of Gab and Chief Xcel, the former high school friends and rivals, formed Blackalicious. They released their debut 12″ single “Swan Lake” on the SoleSides label in 1994, and they followed it with their Melodica EP later that year.

DJ Shadow was the first of the SoleSides crew to blow. Critics lost it over Shadow’s beautiful, audacious 1996 turntable odyssey Endtroducing… Because of the instrumental nature of that album, Shadow’s SoleSides comrades could only get so much shine from Endtroducing…, though the various rappers did appear on remixes of the album tracks. The Gift Of Gab, for instance, got to show out on “Midnight In A Perfect World (Gab Mix).” But Gab and Chief Xcel still had to spend the early Blackalicious years working day jobs. Gab was a telemarketer; I’m not sure what Xcel was doing. This was all happening in the days before the divide between rap’s mainstream and its underground had fully solidified, but nobody expected the SoleSides rappers to become stars, necessarily. They seemed like they were making music for each other and for whatever other weirdo rap obsessives happened to discover them.

SoleSides evolved into a label called Quannum Projects. In 1999, Quannum released the ridiculously packed compilation Quannum Spectrum. That comp was a statement of community. The Quannum rappers shared the microphone with other MCs from across the underground: Jurassic 5, Souls Of Mischief, Divine Styler, El-P. That compilation was my introduction to Blackalicious, and I remember being struck by how catchy and funky their contributions were — how much music they packed into a track like “One Of A Kind.”

Around the time of the Quannum Spectrum comp, Blackalicious went into creative overdrive. 1999 was also when Blackalicious released the A2G EP. That same year, the duo released Nia, the debut album that they’d been slowly recording over years, between day-job shifts. At first, you could only get Nia in Europe; I remember staring longingly at an import copy that I couldn’t afford in Other Music. A year later, Quannum released Nia in the US. That summer, I saw 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 about the apostasy of the mainstream. Blackalicious did a little bit of that on record, but they were much more into dispensing big-brother wisdom and freaking over ingeniously flipped obscure funk breaks. Onstage at SOB’s, Gab and Xcel were joined by Lyrics Born and a few backup singers, and everyone radiated joy all over the room. It’s no slight to Del to say that Blackalicious blew the headliner off the stage that night.

After Nia, the major labels came calling. At the time, MCA was building a roster that was heavy on thoughtful, crunchy boho-rap: the Roots, Common, Yasiin Bey. DJ Shadow signed to MCA, and so did Blackalicious. MCA had noticed that Blackalicious had moved a few hundred thousand copies of Nia without much assistance, and they wanted in. Blackalicous were always an unlikely prospect for major-label success. The Gift Of Gab was a monster technical rapper with a warm, generous presence and a sneaky sense of melody, but he never presented as a star. He was too humble, too sincere. Even when Gab was rapping hard, he sounded almost gentle. He talked about hard-won lessons and admitted all the things that he didn’t know. And Blackalicious were a true down-the-middle collaboration. On Nia and everything that followed, Xcel’s rich, burbling beats were just as central as Gab’s voice.

Blacklicious weren’t chasing the Fat Beats crowd, and they definitely weren’t trying to get on 106 & Park. Instead, their utopian form of rap music was made with aesthetes in mind. Blackalicious made sense next to weeded-out downtempo producers or jazz wanderers or the very funkiest of the jam-band crowd, and they presented no threat to the Lox or the Hot Boys. In a way, it’s a miracle that MCA gave the duo money and left them alone. With that major-label imprimatur, Blackalicous were able to make the album of their dreams. They brought in their crew and to worked with simpatico figures from across the entire musical landscape — Gil Scott-Heron, Ben Harper, Saul Williams, Zack De La Rocha. The album that came out of that whole long process was called Blazing Arrow, and it will turn 20 years old tomorrow.

As a title, Blazing Arrow sounds like some martial revolutionary shit, but that’s not how the album works. In interviews, Blackalicious said that they picked that title because it reflected their sense of purpose. They’d quit their day jobs, and all they did was eat, sleep, and breathe music. They had a decent chunk of the album done before they even signed their MCA deal. Blazing Arrow is a grand, ambitious sprawl of a record. It lasts 74 minutes, making use of the entire capacity of a single compact disc. It features “Release,” a nine-minute triptych full of guests’ voices and conceptual twists. A few individual tracks have co-producers drawn from the ranks of the duo’s allies — DJ Shadow, Questlove, Hi-Tek, Ben Harper, Cut Chemist — but Chief Xcel put together most of the squelchy, organic, layered sonic bed on his own. The grooves are lush and life-affirming, and Gab uses them to take us on one journey after another.

Blazing Arrow still has a few jaw-dropping rap workouts, but the album is bigger than that. It’s about leading by example. Blackalicious didn’t like the violence or the avarice in mainstream rap, but rather than declaring war on it, they wanted to emit positivity. The Dilated Peoples collab “Passion” finds Gab in motivational-speaker mode. On “Purest Love,” he offers up kind words to the other people in his family: “The strongest Black women raising kids alone? My sisters/ The best part of my future is my present love interest.” (I love the phrasing of “my present love interest.”) The album’s first single “Make You Feel That Way” is literally just Gab listing off things that might spark joy, an early-’00s rap take on “My Favorite Things: “Cooling out with ol’ girl on a phat-ass date/ Find a hundred-dollar bill — wow, man, that’s great/ Get promoted at your job up to management/ Plot a long time, finally a plan has made it.”

But Blazing Arrow isn’t all humility. It takes a certain confidence to make a song as ambitious as “Release” or to attempt a stunt as wild as “Chemical Calisthenics,” where Gab literally raps in chemical equations. I always liked Gab best in pure-rapper mode. “Paragraph Precedent,” for example is a straight-up microphone marathon, with Gab switching from fart joke to political commentary so quickly that it could spin your skull around: “Hit you with the funk, it’s like ‘who cut the Provolone?’/ Government officials putting taps on my mobile phones.” (Pretty prescient there.) Certain lines were like beacons for indoor-kid nerds: “Leave your city burning like Gamera.” (With that one lyric, Pharoahe Monch rapping over the Godzilla score on “Simon Says,” and DJ Premier sampling King Ghidorah’s chirp in his beat for Jay-Z’s “So Ghetto,” the early ’00s were a good time for fans of backpack rap and kaiju movies.)

An album as warm and generous and overwhelming as Blazing Arrow might’ve been a hard sell. Blazing Arrow debuted at #49, a decent showing, but I never heard any of its tracks on the radio or saw the “Made You Feel That Way” on MTV or BET. I don’t know whether the LP met MCA’s commercial expectations or what happened with Blackalicious’ label deal. In the years after Blazing Arrow, though, both the Gift Of Gab and Chief Xcel went to work outside of the group. Gab released a solo album with the extremely indie-rap title 4th Dimensional Rocketships Going Up on Quannum. Xcel stayed in the Quannum realm, too, working with Portland group the Lifesavas and forming a duo called Maroons with Lateef The Truth Speaker. When Blackalicious got back together for the 2005 album The Craft, it came out on Anti-.

Maybe Blazing Arrow sounds the way that it does because Blackalicious knew that this was going to be their one major-label moment and that they needed to get all their biggest ideas out when they had the chance. They took their shot, and they made it count. After that, they kept making music, but it didn’t have the same scope or impact. Blackalicious kept touring smaller venues for years. They had an audience, but critics and labels barely paid attention. I completely took them for granted. That Daniel Radcliffe Tonight Show moment was one of the only times that I even thought about the group in the past decade or so.

Last year, the Gift Of Gab died of kidney failure at the age of 50. In the wake of his passing, Blazing Arrow plays very differently. There’s a line on “Make You Feel That Way” where the Gift Of Gab anticipates that exact reaction: “Winter days, more likely that you notice heat/ When I’m gone, more likely that you notice me.” He’s not wrong. The Gift Of Gab was a rare thing: an absolute beast of a rapper who was also, by all accounts, a humble, decent, welcoming human being. If some of us didn’t appreciate him properly when he was alive, we can at least appreciate Blazing Arrow today.

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