THANKS IN PART to its distance from the entertainment industry hubs of New York and LA, the Bay Area became a center for independent music. "We're really fortunate to be in such a creatively rich and diverse place," notes 26-year-old Oakland DJ/producer Chief Xcel. "If you say 'a Miami sound,' you instantly have one thing in mind. If you say 'a Chicago sound,' you think of one thing. If you say 'a New York sound,' you think of one thing. With the Bay Area, the spectrum is so vast. If you say 'Bay Area hip-hop,' it's like, 'Hmmm . . . Is that the Invisbl Skratch Piklz or is that the Automator?'"
ARO.space, Monday, August 16
"We're looking at what I'd call the third renaissance—the third movement—of Bay Area hip-hop," he continues. "The first being with Too Short, then Digital Underground; the second being with Hieroglyphics; and now the third being with cats like Stones Throw [Records]."
The current resurgence also owes a little something to Xcel and his mates in Quannum: the Gift of Gab (Xcel's partner in Blackalicious), DJ Shadow, and Lateef the Truth Speaker and Lyrics Born (together known as Latyrx). The crew coalesced at the University of California, Davis, and its radio station, KDVS. Xcel, who'd started DJing at 12 years old, had been working with Gab since high school. In 1990, Xcel met fellow UC Davis freshman Lyrics Born, and when the conversation turned to New York hip-hop trio Main Source, Xcel knew that he'd found a fellow traveler.
At the same time, Shadow was doing mega-mixes for the Oakland radio station KMEL, and he would visit Davis to appear on the KDVS show hosted by journalist Jeff Chang, a.k.a. DJ Zen. "We met at Jeff's show, and he was the catalyst for getting everyone together," Xcel recalls. "We were excited because there was finally a group of people who shared our views and our passion for the art form. So it was like, let's throw our two cents into the pot."
After several years of putting out records on their own label, SoleSides, the five musicians wanted to broaden their scope. "At the end of 1997," Xcel says, "we all got together and assessed what the original goals of SoleSides were—to put out our own music and have it be heard. We felt that we'd achieved that. So it was kind of—for lack of a better description—let's destroy the old model and build up something newer and stronger, more equipped to handle where our artistic visions are now."
With that expansion came a name change; the label is now known as Quannum Projects. "SoleSides was very insular in that all the records were basically just the five of us," he explains. "With Quannum, it's more of us reaching out and exploring our other interests in music."
Though Shadow is the best known, and Xcel and Lyrics Born came up with the name (a relaxed version of "quantum," as in large or significant), all five Quannum members are equally important—"Various energies coming together to form something very powerful," as Xcel says on a mic break in the new compilation Quannum Spectrum. A wide-ranging collection that touches on '70s soul and funk as well as hip-hop, Spectrum updates the group's 1995 limited-edition cassette Radio Sole Vol. 1.
This time, Quannum worked with artists outside its core, including musicians from their scene: Jurassic 5 guests on the steady opener, "Concentration"; Souls of Mischief add to the lyrically dense "The Extravaganza"; and the Automator provides the record's instrumental outro. Yet the compilation also connects Quannum with indie stalwarts in other locales, including SoCal rapper Divine Styler on "Divine Intervention" and El-P of Company Flow on the strong and spare "Looking Over a City."
In pop music, quantity over quality is the misbegotten rule, but Quannum refuses to play the numbers game. Better seven songs of pure breakbeat bliss than one hit single sandwiched between 19 tracks of filler. Blackalicious is the most obvious case in point. The duo has yet to release a full-length, instead tantalizing listeners with two EPs, 1995's Melodica (now available only as an import) and the just-released A2G.
The backbone of these efforts is the chemistry between Xcel and Gab. Though both have worked with others (Xcel has even formed another duo, Maroons, with Lateef), as Blackalicious they have a symbiosis that can only develop with years of collaboration.
"We've worked together so long that when we're in the studio, we can know what the other is thinking without even having to express anything," Xcel notes. "It's kind of like—this is gonna sound corny—but when the Bulls were at their peak, you could see the chemistry between Jordan and Pippen, only because they've worked together for so long."
Xcel goes on to describe his and Gab's amorphous songwriting process. "I might do like 10 beats in a week and just give him a tape of it, and he'll write to five or six of them he's feeling the most. Or he may be like, 'I've done 10 writtens. Just pick the one you like, and let's start constructing the song around it.' It can happen any kind of way. We can just sit down, focus in, and do it—or we can spend six months working on a song."
Proving that you can't force inspiration, Blackalicious will release its full-length in October—maybe. The recent break-up of Quannum's distributor, 3-2-1, certainly hasn't sped things up. But Xcel and Gab are prepared to wait. The upcoming album's title, Nia, means "purpose" in Swahili, Xcel explains, and it represents a progression from the searching nature of their previous EPs. Peace of mind intact, Xcel isn't fazed by the delays—he sees them as an opportunity for perfection. "We never want to be stagnant. Nia's been under constant work," he says. "We want to take the time to give every record its best shot."