Happy 15th Anniversary to Blackalicious debut LP Nia, originally released February 29, 2000.
Nearly 20 years ago, during my sophomore year at UCLA, I was fortunate enough to complement my studies with an extra-curricular activity that could not have been more perfectly designed for my interests. I volunteered for the student-managed Cultural Affairs Commission, an organization primarily renowned for its annual JazzReggae Festival that draws thousands of music heads to campus each year and celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2016. As its Director of Hip-Hop Concerts, I organized and promoted a series of free performances on campus, and the experience was my first formal foray into the business of music, a career that I would continue to develop during and after my time in Westwood.
More gratifying than the professional stepping stone it offered, my time cultivating the concert series was an opportunity for me to share great music from established acts and newcomers alike with the broader UCLA student community. And more selfishly, it proved to be a great reservoir of music discovery for me. Researching and ultimately booking artists to perform was a two-fold approach, depending on which party initiated the engagement. Roughly half of the shows I organized were the result of proactively contacting local LA-based artists management to inquire about their acts playing at UCLA. Or studying national artists tour itineraries to determine which ones were planning a tour stop in Southern California soon, and contacting them accordingly. The other shows came to fruition because artists management frequently those representing more fledgling acts reached out to me directly to explore having their artists perform on campus. And it was this latter scenario that enabled me to discover the greatness of the group that todays Long Play Love column pays homage to: Blackalicious.
One afternoon in the Fall of 1996, I received a call from a gentleman named Jeff Chang, whom I would soon learn was a co-founder of Solesides, a progressive Northern California-based artist collective and independent record label formed in 1991. Jeff who has since become a celebrated writer, an esteemed academic, and coincidentally has a masters degree in Asian-American Studies from UCLA explained that Solesides was eager to build support among college audiences and had a trio of acts that were interested in playing in Westwood: DJ Shadow, Latyrx (i.e., the duo of Lyrics Born and Lateef the Truthspeaker), and Blackalicious (i.e., producer Chief Xcel and lyricist Gift of Gab). I told Jeff that my interest was piqued, for sure, and he offered to overnight a package of their music to me so that I could make a more informed decision. The next day, I received the package comprised of samplers from DJ Shadows and Latyrxs forthcoming projects, as well as Blackalicious previously-released 1994 EP Melodica. All of the recordings were unique and impressive in their own right, but it was Melodica and more specifically, the tracks Swan Lake and 40oz for Breakfast that got me hooked and sealed the deal.
So I promptly called Jeff back, professed that I loved the music and would be honored to have all three acts perform on campus. I apologetically prefaced my invitation by admitting that since our concerts were not paid events that generated revenue, our budget was tighter than tight and Id only be able to pay the whole crew a few hundred dollars at most for their time (i.e., chump change when divided half a dozen ways). Remarkably, Jeff didnt seem at all fazed by this. Instead, he simply thanked me for the opportunity, explaining that money was secondary and the whole crew would just hop in a van and road trip down to Westwood from the Bay Area, in true DIY economical style. Which they did, and their energized, hour-long outdoor performance in Westwood Plaza rocked the house. DJ Shadow, Latyrx, and Blackalicious were charismatic, gracious, humble, and their invigorated performances exemplified their relentless devotion to their crafts. I officially became a Solesides convert upon witnessing the show, and I suspect that there were many others in the crowd that day who can claim the same.
The following 12 months proved a busy one for the Solesides collective. DJ Shadow released his landmark debut LP Endtroducing….. through Mo Wax in November of 1996 to universal acclaim. Latyrx unveiled its phenomenal debut The Album nearly a year later, and Solesides was rebranded as Quannum Projects along the way. Meanwhile, Chief Xcel and Gift of Gab were busy in the studio, recording the next Blackalicious song set. The fruit of their prolonged gestation period the A2G EP arrived in April 1999. Released five years after Melodica, the 7-song A2G showcased their musical progression and further whet the appetites of their growing legion of fans for a proper full-length album. Well worth the wait, Nia was released in Europe in the fall of that year and arrived stateside a few months later in late February 2000.
Nia translates as purpose in Swahili, and Blackalicious debut LP is indeed a grand statement of the duos purpose and commitment to creating provocative hip-hop music in its purest form. A proudly, yet never pretentiously cerebral affair, Nia seamlessly balances Gift of Gabs intelligent wordplay with Chief Xcels inventive, headnod-inducing production, which coalesce to form an undeniably captivating listening experience.
Just as Nia is an apropos title for the album, Gift of Gab is arguably one of the most accurate monikers ever embraced by an emcee. Gift of Gab does indeed possess a rare gift, characterized by an unrivaled penchant for evocative stortytelling and one of the deepest vocabularies youll ever hear. His words encourage you not just to listen to what hes rhyming, but to seriously contemplate the meaning and implications of what he has so eloquently conveyed.
While consistent thematic threads run throughout the album, Gift of Gab keeps the subject matter sufficiently varied, so as to avoid monotony from creeping in across the bountiful suite of 19 songs. Defending more substantive approaches to hip-hop and lamenting the superficial, gangsterized commercialism that pervades the genre is a recurring focus, best realized on standout tracks Deception and Shallow Days. And theres the obligatory braggadocio about his rhyme skills on The Fabulous Ones, Trouble (Eve of Destruction), and Smithzonian Institute of Rhyme. The more intriguing compositions are those that adopt a quasi-mystical tale-spinning quality, as evidenced on Cliff Hanger (produced by DJ Shadow) and Do This My Way (produced by Lyrics Born). Elsewhere, the songs explore wistful reminiscences (As the World Turns, Making Progress, Sleep), Afrocentrism (Ego Trip, featuring Nikki Giovanni), and the joys of alliteration (A2G). The latter track is truly a must-hear for any hip-hop or poetry aficionado, with eye-opening verses like I be the analog arsonist, aimin at your arteries / All-seeing abstract, analyze everything / Adding on, absolutely abolishing / Average amateur’s arsenal just astonishing. Ive listened to the astonishing A2G a few hundred times, and it never ceases to make me smile.
In a video interview filmed years after Nias release, Chief Xcel refers to their debut full-length as a complete body of work and Gift of Gab reflects that the album was the duos first big impression that cemented that we were on our way to wherever the hell we were about to go. The duo did go places following Nia, touring the world and releasing two solid LPs (2002s Blazing Arrow and 2005s The Craft). But for me, Nia remains Blackalicious career-defining opus and their most accomplished LP recorded to date. And unquestionably one of the most thoroughly enjoyable albums to emerge from my native Bay Area or any area, for that matter in the past 20 years. Inspiration on wax.
My Favorite Song: Shallow Days
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