- Blackalicious: The baddest hip-hop group to work with a French cellist.
Xavier Mosley was flipping through a scrapbook belonging to a friend's father when he noticed the yellowed clipping. It was an old interview with Duke Ellington, and the legendary jazzman's advice on dealing with commercial pressures and critics struck Mosley as both contemporary and profound.
"He was asked what he thought about the response to his last record," Moseley recalls. "And he said, 'I don't think about it at all. All that matters is the craft. '"
For Mosley, aka Chief Xcel of the Bay Area hip-hop duo Blackalicious, the words were confirmation of the adventurous sound he and fellow rapper Tim Parker (Gift of Gab) have tried to establish since their high school days. So they titled their latest release The Craft.
It arrives after the pair's commitment to their music has been tested by the usual industry dramas. Blackalicious fought its way up from the West Coast underground to score a major-label deal with MCA, which resulted in 2002's Blazing Arrow, an ambitious release filled with near-psychedelic soundscapes and contributions from artists as diverse as Zach de la Rocha and Gil Scott-Heron. But when MCA was folded into Geffen last year, Mosley and Parker foresaw compromises coming that they weren't willing to make.
"When the new regime came in, it was like a foreign place to us," Mosley says. "So we thought we'd be more comfortable taking our next record somewhere else."
"Somewhere else" turned out to be indie label Anti, an imprint of punk powerhouse Epitaph Records. Yet stepping back to the underground hardly fazed Mosley and Parker; as teenagers, they'd watched Bay Area hustlers like Too $hort put the DIY business model into action profitably.
"We grew up in an environment where it was natural to do things for yourself, because you really had no other choice," says Mosley. "The Bay is really its own music industry."
The same can be said for Mosley. He rounded up a group of musicians who had toured with the likes of the Beastie Boys, Spearhead, and Femi Kuti. Gathering in Mosley's Oakland studio, they proceeded to cut more than 100 basic tracks for The Craft. Those jams were later whittled down by Gift of Gab. "If Gab's not into it, I can't force him," Mosley explains. "For us, things have to come automatic."
One of the things that came from the studio jams, ironically enough, is a song that sounds like the hit Geffen would have demanded had Blackalicious stayed with the label. With its infectious, garage-rock feel and dizzy keyboard riff, "Powers" was a happy accident that occurred when Femi Kuti's guitarist Sebastian Martel and keyboardist Herve Salters were noodling over one of Xcel's chopped-up samples. "It was one of those magical moments," Mosley recalls. "I was really surprised Gab picked that one, because it was so different from the quote-unquote Blackalicious sound."
It's impossible, however, not to note the song's extreme similarity to "Hey Ya," the huge OutKast hit. Mosley isn't sold on the likeness -- "As an artist, I always cringe when people compare my work to anything" -- but grudgingly admits, "If you're gonna compare us to someone, those guys are two of our heroes, so that's a good place to start."
Mosley took a more active role in plotting the album's centerpiece, "The Fall and Rise of Elliot Brown," which was inspired by the life story of a friend's incarcerated nephew. If the tale of a young thug redeemed as a community activist sounds like something out of a movie, that's no accident; the pair began the song by penning a script, and Mosley approached the tune as if he were writing a score.
That cut, like several others, benefits from Mosley's collaboration with the French cellist Vincent Segal. An arranger who can instantly translate Mosley's ideas, he's become an invaluable collaborator. "I want to spend as much time with [him] as I can," Mosley says. "If that means I have to go to Paris for a week and sleep on his floor, then that's what I'll do."
Another key component of the Blackalicious sound is engineer Russ Elevado, whom Mosley has dubbed the group's third member. "I call it the 'Russ factor,'" he says. "I always have an idea of what I wanna do in the studio, but I always leave myself open, because he's gonna provide me with at least three or four other options I hadn't even thought of" -- like, for example, the tape-delayed echoes on "Elliot Brown." "Russ is the one," Mosley adds, "who got me to see sound in terms of texture."
George Clinton, of course, brings a texture all his own to any recording he's a part of. After meeting the funk legend in Japan during their 2002 tour, Mosley and Parker reconnected with him last year when he made an Oakland concert stop. Clinton added some of his characteristic loopiness to "Lotus Flower," a P-Funkesque thumper filled with childlike chants. "It's amazing watching him work, because the things that he hears truly do come from outer space," Mosley says with a chuckle.
What the live grooves and humane sentiments of The Craft mean in hip-hop's current, bigger picture is hard to say, but Mosley has an idea. "I used to get mad, back in the day, at people who I thought didn't understand what real hip-hop was, what real old-school was," he says. "But I came to realize that for today's artists, old school is the Pharcyde and Souls of Mischief."
And someday soon, Blackalicious will join that list.