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Gift of Gab talks up the power of rap, hip-hop

Stewart OksenhornAspen Times Staff Writer

When Tim Parker was introduced to music, there was a warm, family vibe to it. Growing up in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley, Parker would get together with his family during holidays and sing soul, r & b and Motown tunes. And when Parker was introduced to rapping, at the age of 12, there wasn’t a negative connotation to the music. Parker first heard someone rhyming when he was 12: There was an older neighbor who would come to his building and go around battling people with his raps.”My first rhyme was in self-defense against him,” said Parker. “I’d go to his door and get beat down, and I’d keep going back until I beat him.” Though there was a competitive edge to it, Parker never felt it as violent or dangerous: “It was a healthy, cultural thing.”Later on, at Sacramento’s John F. Kennedy High School, Parker made his key musical connection. And again, it was an example of music being built on pleasure. In an economics class, Parker met Xavier Mosley, who was already building a reputation as a DJ at local house parties and school functions. Parker was making his own name then as a rapper, under the name Gabby T, and when Mosley, known at the time as DJ IceSki, asked Parker, “Are you the cat that raps?” a partnership was struck. In between arguing over who was better – Ice T, from Parker’s native Southern California, or Too Short, from Mosley’s Bay Area – the two would perform together.”We were two cats that had a common love for hip-hop,” said Parker. “And when we heard “Top Billing,” by Audio 2, a group from New York, and were both blown away, we discovered that we really had a common love.”In Blackalicious, the group that Parker and Mosley formed in 1991, that common love is expressed as a visionary, joyful kind of sound. On the latest Blackalicious CD, last year’s “Blazing Arrow,” the messages are generally uplifting, and delivered in a musical way. The sound, on songs like “Purest Love” and “Green Light: Now Begin,” is built on the soul and r & b styles that Parker sang years ago at family gatherings. Guests on the album, Blackalicious’ first for the major label, MCA, includes ?uestlove of the Roots, Chalie 2NA and Cult Chemist of Jurassic 5, Ben Harper and Rage Against the Machine’s Zach de la Rocha – all known for their musical skills, and not for their outlaw images.So how did Parker – now known by his stage name, Gift of Gab – feel when hip-hop became identified with the gangsta rap world, where murder and music existed side by side, and rappers were measured by the gold and girls in their videos, and not the content of their words and sounds? In fact, he was mostly fine with it. Though it wasn’t Gab’s thing, gangsta rap was not just about image, but about a side of life that needed to be told.”I don’t like to tell anybody not to tell their story,” said Gab, who leads Blackalicious to a date at the Double Diamond on Thursday, Aug. 7, with Oregon hip-hop duo Lifesavas opening. “If people weren’t saying these things, then nobody would care, and what goes on in the ghetto wouldn’t be on the nightly news. I don’t diss that kind of music, because it’s all art and everybody’s story should be told.”Gab believes that gangsta rappers were waking the country up to what ghetto life was about. And if they went to extremes, well that was what was needed to get the nation’s attention.”America needs to listen to what everybody is saying,” said the 32-year-old Gab. “America had to pay attention to see she has made mistakes. So there’s a lot to be said for gangsta rap and the people telling that story. That’s real.” “It’s deeper than just why are these guys doing negative raps. These guys have a story to tell: Why is one side of the city clean and the other side dirty? Why do the police come to one side of town and not the other?”All that said, Gab also believes that the gangsta corner of rap came to overwhelm the other styles that are just as significant, if not as shocking. “There needs to be more balance,” he said. “All you see portrayed in the media is gangsta rap. People like Jurassic 5 and Common don’t get the support from the record companies. It’s hip to be a thug – that’s the message, and it’s coming from the record companies, and not necessarily from the ghetto.”With the receding of gangsta rap, Gab isn’t surprised to see hip-hop entering the mainstream. “Hip-hop is just the recycling of the blues – and jazz, rock ‘n’ roll,” he said. “It’s just another mutated form.”As for his own brand of the music, Gab could hardly be in a better place. “Blazing Arrow” is roughly on a par with another hip-hop CD from last year that has received great acclaim, the Roots’ “Phrenology.” “Blazing Arrow” experiments with rhythm, live instrumentation, sampling and guest artists. And the process of making it was a rare pleasure for Gab.”That was the first time we got to go to the studio, work on music all day, go to sleep, wake up and make more music,” he said. “It was a great experience. And we got to work with Gil Scott-Heron. That’s a trip.”While Gab is on the road – in a quintet that includes DJ E Da Boss, Lateeth the Truth Speaker, and backing singers Omega Ray and Myron – Chief Xcel is in “the lab” working on the group’s next CD, titled “The Craft” and due out in April. Gab has also finished recording a solo CD, “Fourth Dimensional Rocket Ship Going Up,” which he describes as “more like my vision, more stripped down than `Blazing Arrow,’ more of a hip-hop record.” And Chief Xcel also has an album, “Ambush,” with his side project the Maroons, due for release.For Gab, just making music is a dream come true, a blessing he calls it, and it’s no wonder that when he raps, it’s a positive vibe that is released.”In junior high, I remember wanting to have a record,” he said. “Then a little later, hearing Run-DMC and LL Cool J, I wanted to do this for a living. “I’m a dreamer. It seemed viable, but then it didn’t. People are telling you get a real job, others are telling you you’re talented. But I’ve always believed in it, even when me and X both thought it couldn’t happen. It’s a blessing to see your dreams come true.” Coincidentally enough, there is another notable hip-hop show coming to the Double Diamond this week. 2 Live Crew is at the Double D Saturday, Aug. 2.The 2 Live Crew show should be at the opposite end of the hip-hop spectrum from the Blackalicious gig, though. 2 Live Crew, a Florida outfit led by rapper/producer Luther Campbell, aka Luke Skyywalker, is best known for their 1989 album “As Nasty As They Wanna Be,” and the legal controversy it created. A Florida judge ruled the album obscene in 1990, and banned its sale in Broward County, giving the group a huge publicity push. The ruling was later overturned, making “As Nasty As They Wanna Be,” and its hit song “Me So Horny” not obscene in the eyes of the law.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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