Mc Gift Of Gab was namens Blackalicious in Nederland om het aankomende album The Craft (release 26 september) te promoten. Reden genoeg voor ons om naar Amsterdam af te reizen voor een gesprek.
You guys have been around for a long time. What are the most important things you have learned from each other along the way and what are your individual strengths?
I think that both of our individual strengths are passion. To be more creative people, I think X (Chief Xcel, ed.) pushes me and I push him. I push him to be a better producer and he pushes me to be a better MC. I think that everyone of our crew pushes each other, we are also fortunate to have a crew of creative people that were around.
Communication, when you’re in a crew or when you’re in a group. You know, if he’s thinking one thing and I may be thinking something else and we don’t relate it to each other I mean, we’re running a business. We got meetings every week, to make sure that we are on the same page. To make sure that he’s not drifting too much this way and I’m not drifting too much that way, so that the unit can be stronger. I think that X his strongest point is that he’s an executioner. When he wants to get something done, he’ll get something done. I think that my strongest point is that I am a communicator. I think that I listen well and that I try to understand everything and everyone. I don’t cast judgment and I think that that makes me a better communicator.
When you guys were independent, you sold 200,000 albums without any major label support. How did you manage to do this and how did you eventually end up at a major label?
Brick by brick. We started our own label, we started to sell out our albums from the trunk just like every other independent artist in the Bay. We started doing shows, we got into college radio. And we really just built it brick by brick to a point when MCA came along and said “You’re selling too many records by yourself, we got to pick you up”. And that was a blessing because that expanded our fan base even more.
What are the most important changes you been through now that you have major label support?
The biggest change it was a good one. The expansion of our fan base, you know. Because when being on a major label you got automatic access to the BET world, into the MTV world. We had a song being played on BET and that took our fan base from here to here. So that was always the goal. A lot of people were saying “You guys are underground, why are you with a corporate label?”. You can’t ignore the politics of the game and you can’t ignore that we live in a money making matrix. Not to say that we create music based on that, but once we create our art, we have to get it out there. And you can’t ignore the fact that we live in a money making matrix, but if you wanna get your music out to as many people as possible, you know, there are a lot of outlets, as underground indie artists it’s like, there are doors that are just closed for you. But when you are with a corporate label, they automatically open. You still make the music that you like, it has nothing to do with the music. You have like two hats. You have to be an artist and create, and when you create, you create from a feeling. Once the creation is done, then that’s when you have to put on your other hat. And you can’t just ignore the fact that it’s a political game. You have to be like “Okay, this is my art”. It’s made from the heart. But you have to get it out. So what do I have to do to, without changing it, without making it something that I don’t wanna put out, how do I put it out?
Are you content with the response that your previous four albums got?
Yeah, definitely. I mean, with every album that we put out our fan base increased.
Your fifth album The Craft will be released September 26. In what way do you feel you have grown, compared to your previous material such as Blazin’ Arrow?
I think that we both stepped it up. I think that as a producer, the way that X approached this record, he had a bunch of band members coming, a bunch of live musicians. They played for like days at a time. And what he did, he took the best moments of those recordings and he made those into songs. There are a lot of songs on this record when you can’t tell whether it is a sample or it’s live. I think he really did his thing. As a songwriter I wanted to like a lot of my work in the past is just personal. Reflective, introspective lyrics. I think with this record I was more like an observer. I wanted to look at other people, I wanted to tell stories. I wanted to make a conceptional record. On the past records it’s more of a personal thing, this record is me being more of a watcher and observer. And I think it’s a lot more conceptional, song wise and story-telling wise than any other record. You know it would be easy for me to just bust. I can do that in my sleep. That’s not really hard. But to actually paint a picture with the songs, that’s what I was going for with this record.
What’s the story behind the title?
The Craft, Okay, Nia was about purpose, Blazin’ Arrow was about walking the path. Once you find that purpose and The Craft basically is that purpose. We been blessed that we been able to be to be vessels for creativity, for art. We are able to travel around the world and just do what we love to do. That’s a blessing and at the same time it’s a responsibility. And every day that we don’t use our talent, we’re wasting it. So The Craft is about stepping up as a responsible disciplined musician, or artist or rapper or whatever you call it and look at this thing as a discipline as well, as a blessing. Something to take seriously. The Craft can’t be taken lightly.
The album will be released on Anti/Epitaph Records. Why did you decide to sign with this label?
Because Epitaph is an indie, but Epitaph is like one of the hugest indies in the world. It’s like the best of both worlds. They sold platinum records and at the same time they have an indie mind. They just left us alone to do this record. They didn’t have any creative input, they just let us do the record that we wanted to do. They are really treating us like a priority. At a major you might not have that, cause you have like other big names and we might get lost in the shuffle. With Epitaph we’re a priority. So it’s kind of like a win-win situation.
Does it also have to do with the fans that you chose to release the album on an indie label?
Yes, it’s like the best of both worlds. On an indie label you have a lot of resources.
What can fans expect out of The Craft and what do you hope to achieve with it?
We just wanna show our growth as artists. We want to definitely show that we’ve grown and evolved, wanna try new things as artists. Not that it’s an experimental record, cause I don’t think it is. But just growth. We just wanna make sure that you see artistic growth. Take things to the next level.
I wanted to talk with you about your lyrics. What kind of resources do you rely on for your lyrical inspiration?
Just living, just life, watching, watching and living. Life is art. I could write a song about this conversation, sitting here with a bowl of fruit, being interviewed, with the right music. Everything and any situation can become a song. A song is life. You know, you gotta get out and live life. You gotta inhale and be able to exhale. Just living in general.
What influence do you think politics and the state of the world have on hiphop music?
I think we live in a money matrix. If you look at hiphop right now, and I’m not saying that it’s wack or that it’s not wack. No disrespect to anybody who’s out right now, but I do think that it is more about image than that it is about artistry right now. I think that there are some talented people out there, but the focus is more upon how many hoes do you have, how many times did you get shot. And it’s more about image than it is about artistry. And I don’t think it’s necessarily the artists’ fault, I think that the major corporations like a lot of people who are in these positions didn’t really grow up upon hiphop and don’t really understand the artistic side of hiphop. It’s like “This is what’s hot, so this is what we’re gonna put millions behind and we’re gonna present this like it is hiphop”. And it is hiphop. But it’s not the only thing, hiphop is a whole lot of different things. It would be cool if there could be more of a balance.
Do you feel that conscious rappers have a harder time coming than mainstream colleagues?
I don’t even look at it as conscious or gangsta. I feel like a lot of times people get caught up in conscious verses, gangsta, like they are supposed to be good and bad. Like we’re superheroes (laughs). Some of my favourite rap is gangsta rap. I mean, Compton’s Most Wanted’s first two records, NWA’s first two records, classic Ice Cube I’m not a gangsta rapper, cause I’m not a gangsta, so I can’t be what I’m not. But I don’t think that art has to be good or bad, it just has to be creative. If you’re gangsta, make a creative gangsta song. If you’re conscious, which to me is just another label, then make a very creative conscious song. If you’re mainstream or underground, you gotta look at it, just because you’re mainstream doesn’t mean you’re white. You look at groups like Outkast, you look at Lauryn Hill’s first album, some brilliant ass records being made. Some brilliant artists are mainstream. That doesn’t mean all underground artists are too. There’s a lot of underground artists that I don’t really care for. At the end of the day it comes down to making good music. There is politics involved, but the way that I look at it, at the end of the day, it’s all about making good music, making good records.
You have some surprising features on the album. I would like to point out some of the features, could you explain why you chose to work with each of one them?
The first one is George Clinton.
That’s a given. I mean, George Clinton is a legend you know. Working on the songs, well, a lot of the times we have a list; “Who would we like to work with?”. And sometimes it’s just a shot in the dark, like “I wonder if we can do a song with.”. But fortunately he was one who wanted to do it. So he was in town for a day and we brought him to the studio and he did his thing. He did it within an hour. He finished his whole layer upon layer upon layer. Just to watch him work, you could tell you was watching a master at work.
Okay, and then Pigeon John.
Pigeon John is one of my favorite new MC’s. I don’t know if you heard his EP, it’s called Pigeon John Sings The Blues, you gotta hear it. Pigeon John is dope to me because he’s not just a dope lyricist. He’s a songwriter. Like a lot of MC’s can bust, can just bust some lyrics. But when it comes to crafting a song, you know they can’t really craft a song, but they’re phenomenal spitters. But with Pigeon John, to me, it’s like he’s the full package. He’s a raw lyricist as well as, he has his own unique style. And he’s a songwriter as well, he can craft all songs. Definitely wanted to get down with him.
Oh man, Lifesavas. Lifesavas is one of the illest groups to me right now. Their album Spirit In Stone to me was one of the better albums of that year. Almost everybody heard about it that should have heard about it. Vursatyl will go toe to toe with any MC on the planet. I guarantee it. Vursatyl is raw. Same thing with Jumbo. Jumbo on the beats is ridiculous man.
Okay, and last, Lyrics Born.
What can I say Lyrics Born is a genius. That’s my brother, that’s one of my best friends as well. It’s always an honor to work with Lyrics Born. He amazed me with the level of quality of his work and just his work ethic is truly inspirational.
Remarkable is the fact that “The Fall & Rise of Elliot Brown” consists of three parts. What is the track about?
It’s about a young man who is going through his individual struggles. Gets caught up in some of the wrong things, the pressures of black get to him. Looks like he’s gonna lose, looks like he’s gonna fail looks like all of the odds are against him. And he pulls within himself and he comes out and he’s victorious. And the whole thing with Elliot Brown is saying that change is possible for anyone no matter what your situation is, no matter how poor you been, no matter what you been through.
I heard you wrote a track called “Black Diamonds and Pearls” about your niece. What can you tell us about that?
“Black Diamonds and Pearls” is about the youth in general. It’s about the youth and what they are up against. What they face three different stories. You know, just the way that life is. A story about a young man whose mother is on crack, he sells crack and he has to supply crack to his mother. But he gets himself cracked because his mother was a crack head. And there’s no food on the table. The middle verse was inspired by my niece. It’s about a young lady who gets pregnant at a young age and had to deal with the struggle. It’s not only talking to kids, it’s talking to adults too. A lot of times adults tell kids “don’t do this” or “don’t do that”. Well, we go to other countries and bomb countries, speaking of the US. And we go over to other countries and bomb countries and kill innocent women and children, it’s like, kids are not stupid. Kids can see hypocrites. If we gonna teach kids, if we gonna try to tell them something, then have to be examples. We can’t tell them one thing and then do another thing. That’s what “Black Diamonds and Pearls’” approach is about.
What qualities were important for putting together a band for The Craft?
Well, X assembled a group of talented musicians from Paris and from different parts of California as well. And just had them come in and play live for like a week at a time. These are all like incredible artists and they did some incredible things. Without them the record definitely could not be what it is. They came in there, they played and they took the best parts and made them into songs. Some of the record is sampled, some of the record is live, but the way that he did it, you can not really tell if it’s live or sampled.
Will the band join you on stage?
A few people will. We definitely gonna start to add more like a live element to the shows.
What kind of influence did Russ Elevado have on the album?
Russ, he’s amazing. He’s one of the most incredible engineers on the planets. Cause with Russ it’s like, he’s an artist. He’s not just an engineer. He hears things that other people don’t hear. So he might add some things and take you on a journey just in the mix itself. It’s definitely been a blessing to be able to work with him.
You signed some new artists to Quannum Projects last year, what can you tell us about that?
Oh man, we got Pigeon John, Lifesavas, Joyo Velarde doing an album, General Electric as well as other artists. We signed a lot of artists. The label is really growing. I think that one thing that all of these artists have in common is that they are all striving for a certain level of creativity. That’s really the legacy that we as Quannum want to leave behind, as a label that puts out some really good music.
So we can expect a lot from Quannum and Solesides in the future?
Oh definitely, a whole lot more. Even more than in the past.
The track “Make You Feel That Way” was used in a movie called Brown Sugar and “The Way Of The Light” from your solo album Fourth Dimensional Rocketships Going Up has been used in Diet Coke campaigns. Do you guys have any big screen ambitions and if so, in what kind of movies or TV shows would you like to play?
It would have to be the right role. I would really love to act. I don’t know if X wants to act. I don’t want to speak for him on that you know. But I definitely want to act. I used to act as a youngster, so I know I have that talent in me if I wanna use it. Most of my creative energy is going into doing records, but if the right role came along at the right time, I would definitely take it.
You guys are known for your outstanding live performances. When people go to a Blackalicious show for the first time, what can they expect?
They can expect a lot of energy. We give the crowd energy, the crowd gives us energy and everyone becomes one.
Can we expect you here soon?
Well we’ll be doing Pukkelpop (festival in Belgium) in August. So we’ll be back next month. After that, I’m sure we’ll be back a lot.
Any last words to the Dutch fans?
I wanna thank everybody for the support in Holland, in Amsterdam, The Craft; September 26!
More info: http://www.blackalicious.com