For its fifth release, Blackalicious has created a record of such sonic depth and breadth and lyrical ambition that it can proudly stand alongside the work of Bay Area funk fathers Sly Stone and Shuggie Otis, or hip-hop classics like Outkast's Aquemini, The Roots' Things Fall Apart and Gang Starr's Daily Operation. But The Craft is not nostalgia for some "golden era" that never existed, it represents state-of-the-art hip-hop with an expansive worldview.
From its opening, the sublimely orchestrated Stereolab-esque suite of "World of Vibrations", The Craft moves from peak to peak-including the Prince-ly rush of "Powers", a sinuous funk summit with George Clinton on "Lotus Flower", and the seductive meta-futurist soul of "Automatique," which features special guest vocals from Floetry. The Craft reveals one of global hip-hop's best-loved crews achieving another artistic breakthrough. "It's my favorite of all of our albums," says the Gift of Gab. "I think that it's our best album."
That's saying a lot. Begun humbly in high school in 1987, Blackalicious now claims four critically acclaimed albums and EPs to its credit-1995's Melodica, 1999's A2G, 1999's Nia, and 2002's Blazing Arrow. Emerging from the influential Bay Area indie scene of the mid-90s, they burst onto the world stage and provided a roadmap for hundreds of underground artists to follow. They went on to tour the globe, headlining hundreds of shows and joining the likes of Jay-Z, 50 Cent, Mary J. Blige, The Roots, Public Enemy, and their Quannum homies.
What's more, both producer Chief Xcel and rapper Gift of Gab have remained incredibly prolific. Last year, Gab released Fourth Dimensional Rocketships Going Up, which topped college radio charts and graced a popular Diet Coke commercial. Chief Xcel executive-produced the Lifesavas' 2003 smash Spirit In Stone, signed Brazilian drummer Curumin and Brooklyn/Australian duo Apsci to Quannum Projects, released a special mix CD of Fela Anikupalo-Kuti's music entitled The Underground Spiritual Game, and teamed with Lateef The Truth Speaker on the Maroons' 2004 brilliant debut, Ambush.
Through it all, they kept focused on the next Blackalicious project, calling it The Craft to reflect their maturing approach to the music. "Nia was about purpose. Blazing Arrow was about faith-to walk the path once you have found your purpose," says Gab. "The Craft is about understanding that we have received a blessing but also that we need to be about discipline. We do it for fun, but we take it very seriously, almost religiously."
Work on The Craft began two years ago, when Chief Xcel gathered musicians to lay tracks for the album. The band was organized around accomplished French cellist Vincent Segal (who did string arrangements for Blazing Arrow and works with French pop singer -M-), and included bassists Teak Underdue (Dead Prez) and Carl Young (Spearhead), percussionist Alfredo Ortiz (Beastie Boys), guitarist Sebastian Martel (Femi Kuti), and keyboardist Herve Salters (Femi Kuti, and part of two upcoming Quannum acts, Honeycut and General Electrics). Bay Area soul singer Ledisi, her father, the Southern funk pioneer and "prophet of soul" Larry Saunders, and singer Kween made central contributions as well. Working in Xcel's Oakland studio, the band cut 120 songs. Chief Xcel says, "They're responsible for the core and the foundation of the record."
Inspired by the live-meets-tech hybridism of Dr. Dre, the Bomb Squad, and A Tribe Called Quest, working from hours of tapes like a hip-hop Teo Macero, Xcel then recut these songs down into the core of the album. One of the boldest producers in the game, Xcel had a distinct goal for The Craft-to make a record with the detail of The Low End Theory, the coherence of Yo! Bumrush the Show! and the power of Straight Outta Compton. "I wanted to make productions that had a lot of depth but, at the same time, had a common simplicity to them. I wanted to establish depth but keep it eye level at the same time," Xcel says. "As Malcolm X said, 'Make it plain.'"
Once finished, he handed them to Gab to conceptualize lyrics and ideas. Nia and Blazing Arrow had established Gab as a top-tier lyricist: able to drop introspective, self-searching lyrics on the one hand, mind-blowing, MC-crushing battle skills on the other. But he wanted to take his work to the next level.
On The Craft, Gab shifts his focus outward, chronicling the lives of tragic and triumphant characters-whether a teen selling crack to his addicted mother to keep her off the street or a pregnant teen conquering her fears and naysayers on "Black Diamonds and Pearls". On the epic "The Fall and Rise of Elliott Brown", a lost, incarcerated boy transforms into a leader of his community. Through it all, Gab always casts a sympathetic, nonjudgmental eye. What Xcel accomplished musically-going deep but staying eye-level-Gab did lyrically.
For the final stage, Xcel and Gab went to Grammy Award-winning engineer Russ Elevado (D'Angelo's Voodoo, Alicia Key's Songs In A Minor, Erykah Badu's Mama's Gun) whom Xcel describes as Blackalicious' third member. Together they mixed a record that balances deep thought and visceral impact, looks to the past for inspiration but pushes hip-hop into the future.
"The Craft," Xcel says, "is our passion to bring discipline to this music, the passion to keep growing, keep stretching, keep doing things we haven't before. The craft is what we live for."