Blackalicious: Hip-Hop Duo Turns Obstacles Into Musical Gold

Gift of Gab (L) and Chief Xcel of Blackalicious. (Photo: Nicole Mago)

A few weeks ago, the Bay Area hip-hop duo Blackalicious ended their decade-long hiatus with the release of a brand-new album. Yet despite its effortless flow, the album’s creation was far from easy.

Since 1992, Blackalicious has released four albums -- each one chock-full of MC Gift of Gab’s virtuosic wordplay and positive messages, and producer Chief Xcel’s soulful, lush arrangements. They cemented their reputation as masters of their craft with 2002’s breakout album, "Blazing Arrow," and even skeptics may find it hard to not break into a grin while listening to Gab’s ever-accelerating, lightning-fast flow on their beloved track, “Alphabet Aerobics.”

Much to the chagrin of their fans, in 2005 the duo took a break to work on solo albums and other collaborations. Yet Gab and X, who have known each other since high school in Sacramento, couldn’t be kept apart.

“2012 came and we said, ‘Hey it’s been a minute, time to get back to the mothership,’ ” Gab recalls.

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“A lot of our communications happens in the sheer nonverbal,” X chimes in. “If something hits, he’ll scrunch up his nose and bob his head and then I know he’s thinking ‘I’m gonna murder this track.’ That’s when I know I’ve struck fire."

But around the same time that Blackalicious started working on new material, Gab’s health took a sharp turn.

Gift of Gab (L) and Chief Xcel.
Gift of Gab (L) and Chief Xcel. (Photo: Nicole Mago)

“It was almost like I thought I had the flu,” Gab says. “I would be walking and get tired after 20 steps. I was bedridden and it wouldn't stop. And then I didn't eat for four days.”

High blood pressure and diabetes run in Gab’s family.

“I knew I hadn’t been living right,” he admits, and acknowledges that his lifestyle had caught up with him.

“I felt kinda helpless because I didn’t know what to do and I didn’t know how to deal with it,” he adds. Doctors told him that his kidneys were failing. He was put on dialysis, a machine that removes, cleans and replaces his blood. Each session takes five hours; he gets treatment three times a week.

Yet during the dialysis sessions, Gab began writing with newfound urgency.

“One day I took a pad and a pen there and I wrote two songs.” He realized, “This is exactly where I’m supposed to be.”

The duo composed 60 songs in total, which they whittled down to 16 for "IMANI Vol. 1," their fifth album. The title is the Swahili word for faith.

“Your experience makes your record,” Gab reflects. “There’s glimpses of it throughout the album.”

With the album finished, they began plotting a world tour. But with the fragile state of Gab’s health, they weren’t sure it could even happen.

“[The] first show we did after I started dialysis was SXSW in Texas, and that was a hard show,” Gab recalls. “I can still remember the first rehearsal. I don't think I was even able to get through a song.”

"IMANI Vol. 1" is Blackalicious' first album in 10 years.
"IMANI Vol. 1" is Blackalicious' first album in 10 years.

In order for the tour to succeed, Gab would need regular dialysis on the road. Gradually, his body adjusted to the treatment. They started doing one-off shows, and now they’re in the middle of a four-month tour that’s taking them from Switzerland to Singapore.

“And I feel great,” Gab practically shouts. He left for Europe, where Blackalicious is currently touring, days ahead of X, so he would have time to receive dialysis and rest.

Over two decades into their career, Blackalicious are at the top of their game, and they aren’t showing any sign of slowing down.

“We had amassed so much work doing Vol 1,” X explains, “that we thought there was no way we could tell the whole story in 16 songs.”

So now the duo is hard at work on "IMANI Vol. 2 and 3," which will be released over the next year and a half. It’s a daring move for any artist, but for Blackalicious, it’s a testament to one of the most lasting and exciting collaborations in hip-hop.

“This whole thing man, life is all about turning negatives into positives,” says Gab. “We’re all gonna be handed obstacles. It’s just what you do with them."