MCA Records, 2002
Daniel and Gus dedicate this Album of the Week to the Barnes & Noble guy who worked at the East Lansing downtown store.
Back in high school when I was 15, I was with some of my friends in East Lansing on a random winter night. At some point during the night we wandered into the Barnes & Noble music section. We were spinning some tunes when this guy came up to us and asked what we were listening to. We replied “Del tha Funkee Homosapien.” He then went into this “well, if you dig this, you’ll dig this” spiel and presented hip-hop upon hip-hop knowledge. It was odd, because this Barnes & Noble guy was an older white man with long hair and a slight beard. He most reminds me of Mr. Rosso from Freaks and Geeks, and his demeanor was always calm. At some point during our conversation, he brings up The Craft by Blackalicious, and we lose it.
From The Craft, I explored Nia, and then Blazing Arrow.
Blazing Arrow is wonderful because it reminds me of two things.
First, Blazing Arrow as a record reminds me of community action. The album itself is so cohesive, I almost feel that if you take one small characteristic away, the record as a whole falls apart. Whereas Nia was an album almost entirely produced by Chief Xcel, Blazing Arrow sees Chief bringing in Ben Harper, Cut Chemist, DJ Shadow, Hi-Tek and Questlove. Every cut on Blazing Arrow reflects the different styles of the producers, and because of this, the album feels worldly and whole from a production standpoint. The other guest contributors are even more incredible. From the legend Gil Scott-Heron to Chali 2na and Dilated Peoples, each individual input feels right while at the same time spacing the diverse range of cultural art. “First in Flight” has a low and bombarding vocal break by Scott-Heron, “4000 Miles” jangles like a dark Premo cut and Chali 2na slings a hypnotic head-bobber (“And lifes a breeze when you don’t have to kick it to find/ Contemplate the creation with Blackalicious and I”) and “Aural Pleasure” features Jaguar Wright spinning silky choruses over Gift of Gab’s relentless flow.
Next to this also stands the content that keeps everything together. The album’s individual songs all share some sort knowledge to the listener, and whether it be about science (“Chemical Calisthenics”), social commentary on the lower class and governmental corruption (“Sky Is Falling”) or control (“Brain Washers”), Blazing Arrow never reaches a dull moment to talk about nonsense.
The second thing this album reminds me of is that Barnes & Noble guy. If he hadn’t suggested Blackalicious, it would have taken me a lot longer to find them, but it also could have impacted how I perceive these wonderful albums. More importantly however, the Barnes & Noble guy represents hip-hop. Here’s a guy so immersed, and yet at first glance you wouldn’t have guessed. Barnes & Noble guy is a reminder of stereotyping, and he is also a reminder that hip-hop has grown so much that seeing a guy like him studying hip-hop shouldn’t even be a surprise anymore. I guess what I’m trying to say is that he had a big hand in helping me learn more about hip-hop, even if it was simply him suggesting albums to try.
In the early days of my high school career I was introduced to a group called The Roots and their music changed my life. After hearing their albums Game Theory and Phrenology I was hooked and needed to learn more about hip-hop music. There was a Barnes & Noble near my house and I would go and browse the music section looking for hip-hop albums that caught my eye. I would scan the bar code on the CD case and listen to the 30-40 second-long preview with those huge, uncomfortable headphones that were attached to the computers that let you search for music. On one of these occasions I was approached by a white employee with an unkempt ponytail, baggy cargo pants and goatee. He said to me, “If you like hip-hop, check this out” and pointed to Blazing Arrow, the 2002 album from Blackalicious. Admittedly, this was early on in the development of my music tastes and in my head I was thinking, what does this random white guy know about hip-hop music? Sheepishly, I grabbed the CD with its striking cover art, took it over to the computer, scanned the bar code and let the sounds of the intro, “Introduction: Bow and Fire,” wash over me. Needless to say, Blazing Arrow had me with its initial organ riffs.
Hailing from Sacramento, California, Blackalicious consists of producer Chief Xcel and MC Gift of Gab. They released three albums spanning the late 90’s to mid 2000’s, with Blazing Arrow being their second record. With Chief Xcel in the driver’s seat, there is no rock unturned as he uses live instrumentation, samples and brings in other producers such as Queslove, Cut Chemist, DJ Shadow, Hi-Tek, DJ Babu and Ben Harper to create musical masterpieces that are funky, lively, reflective and not something you hear everyday. For me, the reaction isn’t, “Check this beat.” It’s more like, “Yo, check this composition!” On “Nowhere Fast” we are serenaded by James Poyser on keys and Questlove’s signature drum beats and fills that are so in the pocket it’s silly. Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals provide their skills on “Brain Washers,” which ends with hand drums playing a classic rhythm you would hear while watching Capoeira in Brasil. At the same time, tracks such as “Blazing Arrow,” “It’s Going Down” and “Passion” take the classic boom-bap hip-hop sound and turns it on its head. The music behind this record is truly something to behold and really listen to. The best part about the music is that it easily could stand on its own, but works perfectly with Gift of Gab’s unorthodox rhyming patterns and sharp lyricism.
It takes no more than an initial listen to notice that Gift of Gab is an underrated MC that has been slept on. On Blazing Arrow he clearly demonstrates the depth of his political and social consciousness while still showing us how much fun rhyming can be. “Blazing Arrow” is one of those classic solo cuts where an MC steps to the mic, proclaiming his greatness. With Gift of Gab, it’s like he’s lurking in the shadows, waiting. When you least expect it, he’s in your face with a fusillade of metaphor, wit and braggadocio:
“Figure out your purpose? That’s impossible!/ But logic will disturb the thought or focus what its not is all about/ The grow about the kind of onus only God can know/ I rock it for the chocolate, for the awkward, for the thoughtless/ In your home or at your office/ I’m your early morning coffee sip, who got the ball?/ We roll with Navajos with double barrels/ Amazing phase your days your hazy ways my Blazing Arrow”
On “Chemistry Calisthenics,” Gift of Gab is quite literally on a completely different level as he compares himself to the periodic table, dropping mad knowledge. You know those annoying “science songs” you can find on Youtube about the periodic table that teachers use in Freshmen biology? This track should be used instead. Over a Cut Chemist beat that is as artistic as it is inventive, Gift of Gab continually picks up the pace of his cadence, getting faster and faster until he reaches the point of no return and you are left in awe. Not many could do what he does:
“This is chemistry plus calisthenics/ I’m calcium plus potassium, magnesium, newspaper of sodium, sulfate/ Your solvent, chloroform, remedy from the norm”
“Glycerin, purest form Titanium/ There is no way out, when this newfy is out/ Of all arms vibration, forming in a nigga/ Some bleachin’ to teach ya religious is equal to pieces of meteor/ Eager to be here or is it, can see here I know all of all/ I’mma pickin’ up pretty little Cindy/ I’m more, I’m thinkin of more/ I’m cookin a potion!”
While Gift of Gab demonstrates his raw talent with words, his profound perspective on society is also revealed. “Sky Is Falling” speaks to and for the people as he addresses issues of poverty, structural racism, prejudice and government corruption:
“Niggers is banging and coppers is banging punks thuggin/ Highly intelligent Africans lowered to punks muggin/ And the coppers is the klan, and the planets run by the government/ And genocide’s overwhelming, devil is loving it/ And children in high school go’n smokin their classes up/ And people thats rich don’t be checking for what is happening”
As with the production side of Blazing Arrow, Chief Xcel and Gift of Gab bring in guest MC’s such as Gil Scott-Heron, Chali 2na, Lateef the Truthspeaker, Lyrics Born and Zack de la Rocha making this record even more diverse and complete.
Blazing Arrow by Blackalicious was an album that played a huge role in the development of my love for hip-hop music. More importantly, this record brings in multiple MCs, producers, poets, singers and musicians whose individual skills contribute to the record as a whole. With Blazing Arrow, Chief Xcel and Gift of Gab were able to take a classic hip-hop sound that emerged in the late 80’s and grew during the 90’s and add to that with Gab’s flow, Xcel’s production and numerous guest appearances to create a record that is complete from beginning to end and was a part of ushering in a second golden-age of hip-hop music.
Listen to the album!