For many, the appeal of Blackalicious comes not from Gift of Gab's mind-boggling delivery or the crisp, diverse energy of Chief Xcel's beats but from the spirit that drives their music. Over three albums—1999's exploratory Nia, 2002's thought-provoking Blazing Arrow and 2005's fully-realized The Craft—the duo from Sacramento, Calif. built a passionate following of hip-hop heads who looked at Blackalicious as a representation of something larger, as artists who were not afraid to be forward or vulnerable in turn, who asked questions knowing that there might not be an answer after all. They formed a lane alongside like-minded MCs like Lateef Tha Truthspeaker, Lyrics Born, Chali 2na from Jurassic 5 and The Coup's Boots Riley as artists who challenged convention with a very insightful brand of hip-hop.

But after The Craft, Gift of Gab and Chief Xcel parted ways, working on solo material and other collaborative projects while maintaining Blackalicious solely as a touring unit rather than an outlet for new material. But now, almost exactly a decade since their last album, the two have reunited for their four full-length LP, Imani Vol. 1, the first in a trilogy of projects on the way from X and Gab. And hip-hop heads the world over are celebrating the return of one of the most underrated duos in the genre.

"[T]his kind of feels like a new beginning," Gift of Gab says about the new music. "Not like we're starting over, but it feels kind of like a second wind. And I'm real excited about that."

Earlier this week, as Gift of Gab and Chief Xcel were getting ready to grace the stage at The Roxy in L.A., XXL caught up with the duo to talk about their 10-year hiatus from recording, the meaning behind Imani Vol. 1 and how the game has changed since they've come around. —Dan Rys

Ed. Note: Stream Imani Vol. 1 above.

Blackalicious Gift of Gab Chief Xcel Imani Interview stream album
Photo Credit: Nicole Mago

XXL: It's been 10 years since your last album The Craft. Why did you guys take so long between projects?
Chief Xcel: Well for us, man, we always find it healthier to kind of step away and do our own things creatively for a minute and then, based off that growth, come back together and keep building. For us, it's really about each time we make a record feeling like we have something fresh to say or that there's been growth from one to another. So we just usually find it healthy to take that space.

Why come back together to release this album now?
Gift Of Gab: Well it's not like we're really coming back together, because we never really broke up, you know? We just were in a place where we wanted to do different things for a second. I put out a couple solo records, Chief Xcel has been working with Ledisi and did a project with Hervé Salters out in Europe; we've been working consistently, we just both have been working outside of Blackalicious. Kind of exploring as artists and doing solo projects and working with other people, you know? And we just wanted to do that for a minute. We're both artists and the thing about both of us is we're both prolific and we're both constantly creating. So you know, 2012 it was kinda like, it's time to come back to the mothership. So we just came back to the mothership. We never stopped, though.

CX: And another thing to keep in mind is we never stopped touring. Even if we took a break from recording, we've still been touring non-stop, even during that recording hiatus.

Was there anything in particular that sparked the inspiration for you two to get back in the lab together?
CX: We had never planned to not get back in the lab together; with us, we've always been the kind of group where the motivation has always been internal instead of external. So it was literally the case where in 2012 we felt like we had done the things we needed to do individually and now it was time, like Gab said, to get back in and go to work.

Tell me about this album. What was it like making Imani Vol. 1 and what do you want to get across with it?
GG: Well it's been a three-year process, you know. We began working on this record I would say in late 2011 and 2012. To me, this is one of the most focused records that we've ever done in terms of just going in and working and creating without any hiatuses or any "waiting for the inspiration" or doing it in spurts. I think this was one of the most focused records we did.

And what do we want to get across? We just want to make good hip-hop. We want to make hip-hop that affects people's lives. We want to make an album that feels like an experience, something you can listen to from front to end and feel like you just watched a cinematic movie. We just want to do what we're about, which is making good hip-hop.

CX: In terms of what people get out of it, you have no control over what people get out of it. The only thing you have control over what you do. That's why for us it's just to continuously make timeless music.

blackalicious gift of gab chief xcel imani vol. 1 album cover art
Imani Vol. 1

Are there any particular themes you wanted to touch on with this album?
GG: Well the overriding topic is faith. Imani means faith in Swahili. Faith comes in and out of the album; it's never directly preached about or talked about too much, it's a theme that continues to surface throughout the album.

What are you most excited about with this project?
CX: All of the above. We're a touring group so when we hit the road that's the next dimension of our creative process. It's one thing to make the records, it's another thing to be able to translate the records live. So with each record, it's another volume, another installment, another chapter in our lives that's coming to fruition, you know what I mean? So what are we most excited about, we're most excited for the journey, man. Each record is its own journey within itself.

GG: And also I would say, this is a three-volume set—this is Imani Vol. 1 and we're gonna be putting out Imani Vol. 2 and Vol. 3—and this kind of feels like a new beginning. Not like we're starting over, but it feels kind of like a second wind. And I'm real excited about that. We love this career and we love what we do and we love the blessing of being able to travel around the world and share our gifts with the world. And to have the—it wasn't really time off—but the time with no record and now the new music that we have and to be in a place where we're about to put out a ton of new music, it's a real exciting time.

How do you guys feel you've changed as artists over your career?
CX: That's a big question. For me particularly, with time comes growth and development. I was just telling somebody earlier who was asking me do I still dig [for records] and what role do records have in my process: A. yes, I still dig and B. records have a more vital role than ever in my process. Because as you grow and as you get older your ear develops. You use your ear differently. So you can go back to that record that you may have got in '93 or '92 and you can look at it with a whole new perspective than you did back then. 'Cause now you're analyzing things. You're looking at, "How was this record made? How were the sounds recorded? How were the vocals tracked? How was the bass recorded on this?" All these are the results of you being a different person than you were then because you've grown and you've developed. If you looked at this on the same plane as being in school, our first record would have been like us in high school; Imani is like our post-grad dissertation. It's our PhD work. I think that's the best way I can sum it up to you?

GG: I think X said it the best: it's mainly time and it's mainly growth. We're older. It would be like if somebody asked you, "What's the difference between you now and you 20 years ago?" You grow as a person. You're obviously wiser, you obviously know more than you knew then, you obviously address things in a little more of a seasoned fashion because you're just older.

Imani Vol. 1 is available digitally, on CD and on vinyl.

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