Puffs of smoke billowed through the crowd as Sacramento’s Blackalicious was set to hit the stage. The lights dimmed, and the audience was abuzz(ed). DJ/producer Chief Xcel (Xavier Mosley) and lyrical wizard Gift of Gab (Timothy Parker) were welcomed by a cheering group of underground hip-hoppers giddy with anticipation. The duo hasn’t released an album in eight years, but that didn’t diminish the infectious excitement present in the crowd. In fact, everyone seemed unable to contain themselves, starting to groove as soon as Xcel dropped the first beat. Joining them on stage was Vursatyl, a member of Blackalicious’ touring partner Lifesavas, who far exceeded expectations. The constant back-and-forth verse swapping displayed by Gab and Vursatyl added a new dynamic to the tracks, almost like an hour-long rap battle. Gab’s lyrics are famous for their complex structure, yet, they were handled effortlessly by Vursatyl. With a slew of classic beats provided by Chief Xcel, and flawless rapping by two experienced emcees, Blackalicious’ performance blew the roof off of Fortune Sound Club.
Although it ended on a high note, Sunday’s show crawled out of the gates. Opening acts, J Dennis and Northwest Division, failed to muster much interest from the crowd at all. Everyone was there to see Blackalicious, which was made obvious seeing the loosely packed audience head bob along to the songs with little enthusiasm.
Even Blackalicious’ set started off rough, with the wrong mix being played, and Gab’s voice fading into the background due to some technical difficulties. The night was also plagued by screeching feedback from the microphones. Yet, regardless of these issues, the trio hit their stride during the third song, the title track from 2003’s Blazing Arrow. From that point on, Blackalicious was unstoppable.
One of the highlights was when Gab coordinated a scat-like interaction between himself and the crowd, leading up to the catchy song “Deception”. Crowd interactions are an essential part of any great show, and both men on stage were well-practiced at shouting directions that involved the audience. At one point, drawing an imaginary line down the centre of the club, a shouting match pitted each side of the room against the other. Encouraging each side to yell, “Party over here, not you over there”, until we couldn’t scream any louder. Then, Gab quickly reminded us of the importance of unity and friendship, erasing the imaginary line to create an even bigger dance party than before.
Gift of Gab looked calm and cool on stage. During one of the few low moments in the set, he took the mic and encouraged everyone, “to honour their craft”, displaying how he values creativity and dedication. This philosophy has served him well, and shines bright through his intricate songwriting.
The set was capped off by a freestyle showdown between Vursatyl and Gab. Vursatyl held his own, but was a mismatch for the talented Gab, who made quick quips about hockey, and a man wearing a Maple Leafs jersey near the front. To end the night, the group chose fan-favourite “Chemical Calisthenics”, leaving us waving our arms until the very last song.
Although the night started out rough, everyone in attendance, eventually, saw what they came to see – old-school hip-hop at its finest. The complex ins and outs of Gab’s lyrics are unparalleled in today’s rap scene, making him one of a kind. This group has been around for twenty years, not releasing a new album in eight, but they have yet to lose a beat. Hopefully, with a new album coming out in the summer, Blackalicious will be back for round two, sooner rather than later.