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Positive hip-hop: Blackalicious in Aspen

Karl Herchenroeder
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Michael GoldbergCalifornia hip-hop duo Blackalicious - Chief Xcel, left, and Gift of Gab - play Saturday at Belly Up Aspen.
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ASPEN – Honesty and commitment – that’s what drives one of hip-hop’s most respected acts. While other artists celebrate materialism and violence, Blackalicious focuses on the spiritual, the philosophical and the positive. And it’s been doing it for more than a decade.

DJ/producer Chief Xcel, one half of the Sacramento duo, said it wasn’t something he and partner Gift of Gab set out to do. Their positive outlook was never intended to be some kind of crusade against the hip-hop world.

“We try to make music that’s honest and reflects who we are as people,” Xcel said. “We don’t set out to make any kind of one record … or beat people over the head with anything. We’re just giving glimpses into who we are, what affects us, what influences us.”

He described each record as “a time capsule of our life at that point in time.” One of those capsules, the duo’s first EP “Melodica,” is set for reissue July 31. Only 2,500 copies were made when it was released in 1994. Because of its scarcity, it has become somewhat of an urban legend, with copies selling for more than $100 at retailers. The 2013 release will contain bonus track “Changes,” a jazz-infused song engineered by Chief Xcel, DJ Shadow and UNKLE’s James Lavelle.

Xcel and Gab met while attending John F. Kennedy High School in Sacramento in 1987. Gab had a show, and he needed a DJ, so he called Xcel. They’ve been making music together ever since, but it wasn’t until 1992 that it became a serious collaboration. Enrolled as a student at the University of California at Davis, Xcel joined a group called SoulSides and began working with DJ Shadow, Lateef the Truth Speaker and Lyrics Born. Soon after, Gab moved to Davis. And it was in that environment of “like-minded individuals” that Blackalicious was formed, Xcel said.

Since then, Xcel says, hip-hop has become multigenerational. In the early ’90s, it had only existed for two, maybe three generations. Fast forward to 2013, and it’s now five or six generations deep. The average 13- or 14-year-old now, Xcel says, sees Tupac and Biggie the same way that he saw James Brown or Earth, Wind and Fire while growing up.

“When you think of it in that context, you see that the music – the art form – is a continuum,” Xcel said. “It keeps going, and it keeps going, and it keeps going over generations. Every generation is going to have their own take or perspective on the art form.”

Blackalicious has released three full-length albums since “Melodica,” and Xcel says it’s currently in the studio working on a fourth, which it plans to release this summer. The songs, he said, develop in a number of different ways: a sketch or an idea on the drum machine, a studio session with musicians or a written rhyme from Gab.

“There’s no one way that starts everything. Everything starts kind of organically. There’s no one sort of set formula,” Xcel said.

Blackalicious will play Belly Up Aspen on Saturday at 10 p.m.

kherchenroeder@aspentimes.com


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