If you think Northern California’s Blackalicious crew is riding high at the current moment, just wait a few months and continue to watch their trajectory into uncharted territories. Currently on tour with the SnoCore Icicle Ball Tour that features a rotating lineup of Saul Williams, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, Nikki Costa, Sound Tribe Sector 9, Spearhead and others, Blackalicious is beginning to showcase new songs from their highly anticipated upcoming album Blazing Arrow, which hits stores April 30. Gift of Gab, of Blackalicious, took some time after a blazing set at the Crystal Ballroom last Thursday to discuss the tour, albu, and music in general.
So you guys are on tour right now … how’s that going so far?
It’s going real good, the crowds have been great, the energy’s been good, we’re enjoying it.
How long are you going to be on tour?
About six weeks … right before the new album drops.
Did you know some of the people on the tour before? How’d you hook up with the SnoCore tour?
Well, Saul is on the new album, he laid down a track for us … but the rest we just met when we started the tour. It just happened to be at the right time for us to tour, and it’s a great group we’re with, so we’re fortunate to be on it.
The upcoming album is called Blazing Arrow. What’s the significance of the name?
It’s about faith, man … faith to walk the walk, you know what I mean? If you have confidence, things will manifest itself. The last album, Nia, meant “purpose” in Swahili, and so this is just sort of an extension of that.
What are some of the ideas behind the cover image?
We’re Africans, you know, and so we’re warriors … we’ve had to endure throughout history … and we’re just ready to give it to you.
I understand that Blazing Arrow will be released on MCA Records. Why the change from your own independent Quannum label?
It was just time to expand. We just want everybody to hear our music, and this gives more access for us. MCA also works with a lot of artists that we know, so we knew that they would understand our vision and reason for doing things. It was just the right time for us.
Do you have any concerns or apprehension about being on a major label? I know you guys have been independent for so long, and you’ve represented underground hip-hop … so do you have any anxiety about making the switch?
Again, we just want people to hear our music. We’re making music for everybody, and I think that’s in God’s will, so I think we’re going to continue to grow, and get better because of that.
What can we expect that’s different about the new album? What kind of sound did you go for?
I see it as an evolution. We’re taking the next step. On the album, we have a lot of musicians, new sounds, lots of cello.
There’s everybody from Zach de la Rocha to Ben Harper to Niho Matori and beyond … was it difficult to incorporate everyone into a cohesive project?
Somehow, we were able to form chemistry with everybody. It’s an evolution … of the next phase.
Tell me about working with Gil Scott-Heron … how did you hook up with him?
He’s one of my heroes, you know what I mean? We wrote a hook to one of the songs that was influenced by him, and Chief Xcel (the other member of Blackalicious) said, let’s try to get him. We were lucky that we knew somebody who knew him, so we just hooked it up, you know, and got him down from Harlem to Manhattan, and recorded the track.
Who else would you consider to be your influences? Who has helped define the Blackalicious sound?
For Chief Xcel, he’s probably influenced by a lot of (Afrobeat pioneer) Fela Kuti, but it’s limitless. We listen to every type of music, there’s no discrimination. For vocalists, I’m into a lot of Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Peter Tosh, Rakim. The list goes on.
You mentioned some important lyricists. What do you want Blackalicious’ message to be? What do you want people to get out of your music?
We’ve all been on a journey, and we just want to give charity in the musical sense. We hope that some souls are touched, just like Marvin Gaye and Bob Marley. They had this spiritual sense, that you are who you are … trust yourself.
Who do you listen to these days?
I’m listening to Outkast, Nas, Jill Scott, Jaguar, Ghostface.
What else are you working?
I got a solo record that I’m planning to release at the end of the year, and I’m also working on the Maroons project that Lateef and Chief Xcel are doing, and I’m doing some things for Lyrics Born’s project.
So you helped sign Portland’s local Lifesavas to Quannum. How did that happen?
We were just touring, and we met through some mutual friends, and right away, we just connected with a certain spirit, you know? It just clicked, like we were family.
Are you looking to sign any other artists to Quannum soon?
Yeah, we’re looking. We’ve got some people that we’ve been looking at, but I can’t say much more than that right now.
We’ll be sure to look out for them soon … good work on everything and thanks for the conversation.