When Rhyme is the Reason: Blackalicious’ Gift of Gab says music got him through kidney failure

By Melanie Leung

Nineties hip-hop heroes Blackalicious tell Melanie Leung about their new album and last year's Clockenflap show

By Melanie Leung |

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Blackalicious performs for the first time in HK at Clockenflap 2015.

Most young people would probably have heard of Blackalicious when Daniel Radcliffe flawlessly rapped their song, Alphabet Aerobics, on the US talk show The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in 2014.

The hip-hop duo – rapper Gift of Gab and producer Chief Xcel – hadn’t released new material for a decade before coming out with new album Imani Vol. 1 last year. Their new release, the first of three planned albums, earned them a slot at Hong Kong’s Clockenflap music festival last November.

Last month they released a music video of On Fire Tonight, featuring footage of US police brutality. Young Post caught up with the pair:

Imani, Vol.1 put Blackalicious back on the scene.

If you had to rate your Hong Kong show from 1 to 10, what would you give it?

GoG: 11. It’s one of the most special nights of our career. We were in Hong Kong for the first time, it was the last night of our tour, it was [Lifesavas member, Blackalicious backup vocalist] Jumbo’s birthday and he got engaged on stage.

You’ve been in the music scene for over two decades now. What would you say is one thing you’re still working on?

X: Everytime I listen to my work, I’m constantly tweaking things. Each time we watch back on our shows we study it and we dissect every moment. We’re like, okay, this would have been more effective. We’ll go into this transition at this point. We’re constantly working on our craft. In the abstract sense, it’s just like, where do we want the music to grow? What haven’t we said yet? And for that, you just have to live life. Each of the records we make is basically a time capsule of a period of our life. So you don’t know what is going to happen on your next record because you haven’t lived that chapter of your life yet.

Why did you design Imani to be in three volumes?

X: It’s three albums because when we first sat down to do it, we had already amassed so much work, we had done 45, close to 50 songs so it’s no way to tell that entire story within a 16 song format. So it was like, OK, this one has to be a concept that evolves over 3 different movements.

The word “Imani” means faith in Swahili. What’s the concept of the recent releases?

GoG: At the beginning of 2012 my kidneys failed, and so I’ve been on dialysis for four years now. You know, comes times when you just need faith. Especially when things are unsure, because at the beginning of this process, it was kinda like, am I even gonna be able to tour anymore? What is life gonna be like? When things were really unsure was when we started really going in on this record. And this record kind of brought me out of that question mark phase. I began to write in my dialysis sessions. I had five hours to sit there three days a week. And I begin to start writing two songs every session. I was getting like four songs a week done. So it was kinda like, everything comes out of something else. So that’s what Imani is about for me.

The songs in Imani Vol. 1 are very positive. How do you manage to keep this attitude?

GoG: Well, it’s not like an attempt. It’s not like, let’s make positive music. I think that when you’re an artist you observe, and you describe the world as you see it. Maybe if I grew up and I was in and out of jail, maybe if I was living another lifestyle, I’d be rambling about that lifestyle. And there’s nothing wrong with doing that. I think that an artist is all about being honest, painting your picture as you see it.

Can you do a freestyle rap for us now, with the words “Hong Kong”, “Young Post”, and “chilli”?

GoG: OK. Hong Kong, we came to do a show, we here right now but we were on the stage flowin’. We backstage now gettin’ the interview, we came here now so the experience is new. We’ve seen the trees, the skies and the land, and say Yo, Hong Kong is great! God damn! And now we’re back with the girl who is from Young Post, and she’s the host with the most making MC’s boast. When I’m on the mic I’m talking into the phone, get up on the microphone then my mind is gone. What’s the last word again?


GoG: Chilli, really, up on the microphone I go silly. So feel me!

Wow. How did you do that?

GoG: It’s feeling. I can’t explain it. You just feel it. See, the thing with rap, particularly with free styling, it’s a form of meditation. You can’t think about it before it goes, you just have to let go. It’s like the ultimate form of faith and meditation because you basically you can’t be thinking about the bills you’re gonna pay, you can’t be thinking about what just happened seconds ago. You really have to be in the moment. So it’s just a matter of feeling the moment and expressing it through song and rhyme.

And X, how do you come up with new beats?

X: I can’t really put a definition on how I’m inspired. Back in Davis, California, when we were in college Gab was reading this book called The Artist’s Way. And in it the author talks about just showing up to do your craft every single day, and don’t worry about the outcome of it. Just do it. In that, you basically become a vessel. You kind of just step out of the way, and let it flow through you. That’s a lot what Imani is about, and it’s also an approach I take to my craft. Some days I may do one beat, all day. Another day I might do 20. I never know when it’s gonna be in me.

Are you worried that one day that creative flow won’t come anymore?

X: Never. Because I love music. As long as you love your craft and what you do, it’s always gonna be there.

What advice do you have to aspiring musicians?

GoG: I would say write, write, write, write. Practise, practise, practise. Make songs, compile music, don’t say you’re gonna be an artist, be an artist. Cause a lot of people just talk. Once you do it, you’re gonna be able to back up what you say. That’s all.