“F—k, this never happens,” exclaims a slightly agitated Gift of Gab into his microphone. The rapper, one-half of Sacramento duo Blackalicious, quits mid-song. He shakes his head, visibly puzzled as to why he’s tongue-tied over the lyrics of the soon-to-be-released song “Blacka.” He turns to his partner, DJ and producer Chief Xcel, who quickly removes his headphones and spins the track a second time. Gab (real name Timothy Parker) grips the mic with his right hand and restarts: “Blacka than a panther. Blacka than Atlanta. Open like the starry dark background of Saturn. Mighty like the buildings of the pyramids in Africa,” but messes up the verse and stops short again.
“What is going on?” he asks, as he adjusts his spectacles and chuckles inside Swing House studio in Los Angeles. “Okay, let’s try this one more time a cappella,” he says, laughing. He glances across the room to the videographer filming the 20-minute set to post online afterward. Gab asks him: “You aren’t going to keep the part I messed up for the video, right?”
Although it’s been a decade since Blackalicious’ last release The Craft, the duo has been working feverishly the past three years creating their new album Imani Vol 1. It was funded by a PledgeMusic campaign and was self-released on Sept. 18. The record will be the first of a trilogy of albums, spaced eight months apart.
After Blackalicious returned from hiatus in 2012, Gab suffered kidney failure due to type 1 diabetes. Although he is on dialysis now, the condition hasn’t hindered the group from creating music or touring this year. “As a unit, we are more creative and focused than we have been in the past,” he says. “Even with my kidney disease, nothing is going to stop me.”
Gab, I know you were diagnosed with kidney disease three years ago. Was it difficult when you found out?
Yeah, diabetes and high blood pressure run in my family. I’ll be at the top of the kidney list at the end of next year. I’ve come close a couple of times. Until then, we are going to keep making music and putting out records. But, as an artist, I’ve been able to thrive musically going through this. I haven’t let my disease take over. If anything, it made me a better person.
Is it draining being on dialysis three times a week?
It is somewhat, right after I get off the machine. I write during dialysis. I’m in there for four hours and have to make sure I get my blood clean. Music is how I get free. It’s a way to shut the rest of the world down and create your own world within it. I’m not thinking about what’s going on around me. It’s definitely an energy thing, and I’m in a zone. As long as I get the proper sleep and eat the right food, I’m good.
Did you have any fears you weren’t going to make it after you were diagnosed?
In the beginning, there was a lot of fear. You don’t know what’s getting ready to happen. “What it’s going to be like, how it’s going to feel and what I am going to have to go through?” It’s the unknown. Other than seeing my relatives go through it, I’ve never been through it myself. Once I got adjusted to it and I saw that I can pretty much do everything that I did before, it’s been business as usual.
You are going on a four-month world tour. How does that work with your condition?
It was nerve-racking because I didn’t know if we would be able to tour. I have been touring on and off the last three years. And thank God, we are able to start this month. I’ve figured out a system: I drink a lot of kale smoothies, I eat oatmeal on the road every morning and take my meds. There are a lot of things they don’t tell you in the hospital. I had to research things like probiotics and vitamins, and I take turmeric every day. Those things have boosted my energy. I stay away from fast food. I do go to dialysis clinics on the road, and they have them in every city all over the world. I don’t dwell on the fact that it’s a problem. If it’s dialysis, diabetes, even cancer, I think your state of mind and the way you approach it is how you come out of it. Anything can be conquered.
Why did it take so long to make this new album? Gab, did your health have anything to do with it?
No, not really. By the end of 2007, we wanted to explore different things. We never broke up. We have just been busy and creative. I have done three solo records, and Xcel has worked with RV Salters as Burning House and did production work for Ledisi. Around 2012, we were like, “Okay, that’s enough. It’s time to come back to the mothership.”
Chief Xcel: For me, when we come back together to make these records, it’s such a rich experience. Gab is always growing and expanding, and I’m able to bring things I’ve learned back to the table. Our process is concise. As a result, the sound keeps evolving. We never wanted to be one of those groups where you heard one record, you have heard them all. I always wanted each Blackalicious record to be a volume and chapter of our lives.
How has your sound progressed over the past ten years?
Gab: When we were younger, there was this whole thing about how hip-hop is a young man’s sport, but I think we’ve aged very well. I think our sound is more mature as a result. The way we have worked as artists has definitely matured. You can hear it musically and lyrically.
Xcel: There are certain people you come across creatively within the span of your career or life when you are meant to work together. That’s us. Musically, I express what I want and then Gab takes it into his realm and interprets it. We want people to hear our story and get it.
You wrote about 60 songs for Imani. How did you narrow it down to 16?
Gab: We did a lot of songs, but we always test them out — whether it’s with the people around us or just getting in a car and listening to the songs. We had a lot of stuff to choose from, and then we could pick the best and most impacting songs out of the 60. There could be some B-sides or some singles out of the rest. It’s always good to have a lot of material on deck.
Xcel: There is quality and quantity, and they are equal in the output. That’s why we really had to do this as a three-volume thing. We amassed so much music in the years we have been recording.
What do you guys want your fans to get out of your new music when you perform live?
Xcel: We never want our fans to walk away from our shows and think it was cooler just staying at home, listening to the record. If we are playing for 1,500 or 15,000 fans, we try to take all those energies and make it a great experience for 70 minutes.
Gab: Yeah, I had the flu once back in the late ‘90s and I thought, “Damn, how am I going to go on?” Once the music starts going, somehow, I can’t explain how, it disappears. Doing a show is very similar to what meditation is supposed to be: being there and being present in that space and time.
Your album title Imani means “faith” in Swahili. It’s also the title track of your first song. What is it about faith that keeps you two going?
Gab: It’s a necessity for me. With my disease, it’s one of those things in life where you have to have it. There are a lot of things on the album that will bring you back to imani, or faith, or the need for faith. Sometimes in life you realize you are not in control. You can’t make the sun go up or go down. I have to rely on the power that makes the sun rise and sun set and that power is beyond you. You have to bow to that power and try to live according to that.
Xcel: It’s that fire and that fuel. It’s moving into the unknown and just knowing that it lands wherever it lands. First of all, we have always believed we are just vessels of this music. We just really step out of the way. But faith is what allows us to step away and not worry about the destination or the end result. It just allows us to focus on the journey.
What inspires both of you creatively and personally?
Xcel: On a personal level, it’s my children. Seeing them grow and develop and see their creativity and perspective on the world through untainted lenses. I’m also inspired by people who are consumed with the fire of creativity. I just finished watching Nina Simone’s incredible documentary, and I was amazed she had been playing since she was a little girl studying classical [music]. I believe every artist has a certain arc in their career when they hit the red zone of creativity. So for her, in my opinion, it was right around the period when she started making songs like “Mississippi Goddam.” Studying artists and seeing when it is they hit that point of their creativity is inspiring to me. I want to be able to ride that wave as long as I can.
Gab: Family, friends and good people. People who are making strides and moving forward in their lives. Musically, artists who are older and doing music inspire me right now. I love seeing artists in their 70s and 80s who have been touring for years who are still out there traveling the world and doing what they love to do, like Maceo Parker. It’s also great to see prolific artists who are constantly challenging themselves and have big bodies of work. That’s kind of what I plan for us. I want young kids who aren’t even born yet to discover our music.
Xcel, you have two kids. Gab, have you ever wanted children?
Gab: I’m not actively trying right now [laughs]. But that’s one of those things that you let go and if it’s in the plan of the bigger picture than obviously I will embrace it.
Xcel: Having children is the biggest mirror to your life you can ever have. It makes you analyze your perspective of things. You have to translate and make sure that the way you translate is clear and not confusing to your kids. You have to be very precise. My oldest son, the minute we get in the car, it’s literally a series of 60 questions. Like, “Dad, how does the sun stay in the universe?” and at least six times out of ten, I’ll say, “You know what, son? Dad doesn’t know. Let’s look that up together.” They challenge you to think.
You two have known each other since sixth grade. Is it still exciting to work together? Do you fight at all?
Gab: Of course, but we literally could not be closer if we were brothers. If you got family members, you fight with them, but that’s your family. And Xcel has been so supportive of everything I am going through, too.
Xcel: To me, Gab is one of the greatest of all time. Nothing has changed. It’s interesting because this is probably the most prolific period of our careers. We have just been in hyperdrive. We just go in and create. He’s the most focused I’ve ever seen him.
If things got progressively worse for you, Gab, would you continue to play and make music?
Gab: That’s an interesting question. Yes, it goes back to the faith thing. I don’t want this to sound too serious, but I have no choice but to cope within my faith, at this point in my life. Until the day I don’t breathe, I will create music.
Listen to Blackalicious and other artists featured in this week’s issue of Billboard.
An edited version of this article originally appeared in the Oct. 3 issue of Billboard.