Craft finds Blackalicious with room to breathe
In a hip-hop world dominated by long-distance collaborations-wherein rappers and producers rarely ever work together in the same studio-Blackalicious' Chief Xcel is an anomaly, a producer who has never made beats for an absentee MC. As a result, he has never worked outside his immediate camp, which includes Portland's Lifesavas, fellow Oakland native Lateef the Truth Speaker (with whom he collaborates under the name Maroons), and his long-time Blackalicious collaborator Gift of Gab. If that working style has meant his profile is lower than comparably prolific West Coast counterparts like the Alchemist, Xcel does not seem too concerned.
"One thing I want to make clear is that I've never been interested in being insular," says the native Californian, reached at his East Oakland home. "I'm always down to produce for people, but the thing that makes me different from most producers is that I don't make beat CDs and send them out to a hundred different MCs. I don't sell beats to the highest bidder. If I'm going to make music for someone, I'm only going to do it if I can tailor-make things specifically for them. That's the only way I know how to work."
The producer has been collaborating with live musicians for years now-notably on Blackalicious' kaleidoscopic sophomore album, Blazing Arrow (2002)-a practice that aligns him more closely with studio pioneers like Quincy Jones than with bedroom beatmakers like Marley Marl. In truth, his approach is a composite of both schools; an insatiable crate digger, Xcel always starts with samples, building up rhythm tracks and melodic themes on his industry-standard MPC-3000 sampler. That is precisely how he conceived all the songs on the new Blackalicious album, The Craft. Hitting the streets on September 27, the disc was given added life by the embellishments of Xcel's five-piece band.
"The really important thing is that all of the players had a very solid foundation in hip-hop," says the producer of his band, which included members of Femi Kuti's touring outfit. "I would present them with a demo track and after they got a feel for it, I'd strip away all the elements except the kicks, the snares, and high hats. Then they'd go in and play all the missing parts verbatim. Once they had that down, I'd let them go crazy with it. Afterwards, my task was to go in and re-analyze and re-sample all that material to build up the final track."
On Blazing Arrow, those methods yielded an incredibly dense recording, one crammed with so many ideas that it was hard to digest in a single sitting. The Craft, on the other hand, is positively airy, its musical themes more vivid for being given plenty of room to breathe. That's especially true of "Black Diamonds & Pearls", a tearjerking soul number propelled by little more than a melodic bass lick and wispy hints of percussion. On top of it all floats Gab, holding forth on such unfashionable topics as divinity and motherhood, the only subjects imaginable for such a gorgeous tune.