BLACKALICIOUS at the Mod Club (722 College West), Tuesday (September 13), 9 pm. $22.50. 416-870-8000.
Every new Blackalicious release has been a giant creative step forward, but even by the Oakland hiphop duo's high standards, their forthcoming Anti/Epitaph debut, The Craft, is a stunning achievement. While the rapid-fire rhyme flow of charismatic frontman Gift of Gab has remained a Blackalicious constant, the studio contributions of Chief Xcel have developed rapidly from sympathetic beatmaker to masterful producer/arranger.
But as impressive as Xcel's work on last year's Blazing Arrow certainly was, The Craft represents a quantum leap in their evolutionary path, employing elements drawn from film soundtrack structure, remix culture and mixtape design for a groundbreaking work that can also rock a party.
"The Craft deals with the approach that Gab and and I take to our chosen discipline," explains Chief Xcel, taking a rare break from chopping beats. "We wanted to represent everything we can do, from straight-up battle bustin' and club-oriented jams to soulful grooves with deeper narratives.
"For me, it was important that the songs had real progressions and the music moved without being limited to the conventions of verse-hook-bridge. You know how the Bomb Squad would throw everything into their productions and create this organized kind of confusion? I wanted to work with that same ethic, but simplify things to make the music more direct."
The phrase that kept coming up while they were working on The Craft was "complex simplicity."
"It's a way to describe something sonically big and multi-layered yet still very concise and to-the-point. That's what we set out to do."
The process of making The Craft began, as does every Blackalicious project, with Chief Xcel building beat patterns that serve as the launch pad for Gab's freestyle flights. But instead of five or six, this time Chief Xcel came up with 150 different beats for Gab to check out before a single note was recorded.
Once Gab made his choices, they hit the studio and began hammering The Craft into shape. Chief Xcel gathered the musicians and played them a beat, and they'd play off that and take it in different directions, adding their own ideas along the way. From there, Xcel analyzed the recordings and reinterpreted the musical ideas by cutting and chopping and then synthesizing the parts into song form.
"Because Gab seemed to be moving in a storytelling direction, I wanted to give his narratives a strong musical backdrop, something with a cinematic feel. I definitely wanted to make a more visual record, and I think we accomplished that."
The film reference is an important point. One of the most intriguing aspects of The Craft is the way Chief Xcel and Gift of Gab build on themes within songs, offering three and four different versions of a basic idea, not simply appending a remix but elaborating on a concept much the way a soundtrack impresario like Lalo Schifrin might expand on a motif over the course of a movie score.
Evidently, an upgrade in sampler technology played a key role in making The Craft possible.
"The MPC is basically my pencil and paper - a sketch pad I use to doodle my ideas until I hit on what I'm looking for musically. For Melodica, A2G and Nia I was using an MPC 60. Then I went to an MPC 3000 for Blazing Arrow, but on The Craft it was an MPC 4000. And I would say making the jump from the 3000 to 4000 model increased my productivity a hundredfold.
"It's funny to think back to working on Melodica in 95," he chuckles. "DJ Shadow and I spent three days, eight hours straight, chopping up samples just for Swan Lake - one track. It's something I could do now in 20 minutes or less!
"That's how I look at advances in technology: it's a way of doing faster what I'm already doing. If you're trying to get down the sound you're hearing in your head at a given session, it's usually a race against time, and every minute counts."