I'd often asked myself what I have in common with Hip Hop music? Growing up in Yorkshire I often listened to artists from the 'Golden Era' of Hip Hop. Grandmaster Flash, Slick Rick, Jurassic 5. But did I really relate to anything these artists had to say? The closest Yorkshire gets to 'Gangtsa Rap' is the year 9 school disco where one of the Chavvies brings along an uninvited friend from another school and they lurk around the entrance taunting all of the kids who achieved highly in their recent SAT's examinations.
Enter Blackaliscious. Sacramento, CA.
We were lucky enough to be granted back stage access to the Queens Social Club in Sheffield to interview Blackaliscious about what Hip Hop means to the California duo. The Queens Social Club, usual home to The Keith Peter's Big Band and Wednesday night Bingo, is a relic of the past. Picture Phoenix Nights with a broken smoke machine, stacks of unused chairs and an abandoned snooker table in the back room. But that doesn't matter to Chief Xcel and Gift of Gab, veterans of the Hip Hop circuit.
"We're feeling good. You know we've been doing this for years. It's always just what we love to do, you know. I love doing shows, I love entertaining people, I love making music. I especially love being able to travel to other parts of the world to be able to do it".
For Gift of Gab the Queens Social Club certainly is another part of the world. Refusing to close the 'social club' part of the building, the California Hip Hoppers are presented with a crowd of 300 Hip Hop fans and across the bar, an empty room with an old man and his dog appreciating a real hand pulled ale, confused about tonight's entertainment. Chief Xcel, Producer and DJ extraordinaire of the group, sounds less convinced but tells us of his special relationship with the UK.
"This is my third time in Sheffield. The first time was like 1999 and we were back in 2004 or 2005. Yorkshire is dope in fact all of the UK. The UK was the first territory which broke Blackaliscious. First place we toured. It's a special place for us. We just finished the next album so to be doing the pre-launch here is cool".
For years I had been listening to Hip Hop trying to imagine how Hip Hop groups began and what the scene was like in California during the early 90's. Drugs, money and women seemed to be the main conversation point, however a positive message also seemed to be playing in my ears dubbed as 'positive tip'.
"We met in economics class. At first there was a little friction because he's [Chief Xcel] from northern California and I'm [Gift of Gab] from southern California and we used to argue whether Ice T or Too Short was better. Well he told me about this song that he'd heard called 'Top Billin' by a group called Audio Two and he was telling me how dope it was. That song is how we kinda bonded. I don't think we sit down and say 'hey we want to be positive'; we just want to make good music".
Chief Xcel appeared preoccupied during the interview, perhaps getting ready to hit the stage, so Gift of Gab continued to tell us about his views on 'life of crime' Hip Hop philosophy.
"It's about seeing the world as we see it. The things that we talk about are the things that we have conversations about. I never looked at it like positive and negative because I loved N.W.A and the Geto Boys. I think that art is just about being honest. Say if you live a life of crime but you rap about being positive; then that's fake. Say if you live the life of striving to be the best person you can be and you rhyme about being a criminal; then that would be fake. As we get older I kind of embrace the fact that we are looked at as positive. Why would you not want to be positive".
As Gab executes his line as vindicator of gangster rap a tour manager bursts through the door brandishing a packet of prescription medication. After a moment's hesitance Gab laughs "that was aspirin by the way, don't turn it into something".
Blackaliscious will go down in Hip Hop hall of fame for their hit record 'Alphabet Aerobics', recently made famous again with Daniel Radcliffe's impressive performance of the a-z rhyme on the Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon. Yet even with 60 new tracks, 20 of which for their new album 'Imani' (not like 'Imani Coppola' but Imani Swahili for 'faith'), you have to fear that if it wasn't for Harry Potter and the wonderful free marketing, then Blackaliscious wouldn't have toured the UK this winter.
From what we could hear from backstage where the interview had taken place, it sounded as though the show was well and truly under way. Sheffield's Clubs & Spades, a new Hip Hop collaboration including Andy Nicholson, formerly of Arctic monkeys and Mongrel, had gotten the crowd ready for an evening of Hip Hop mastery.
By this point we were standing in front of the stage with the rest of the crowd, but I found myself still asking what I had in common with these 2 Hip Hop artists, if anything at all. DJ Chief Xcel, looking confused, and hype man number 1, came on to applause and the show began. Vursatyl of Lifesavas was standing in front of the crowd with his red jumper, long chain and wayfarer shades and he set the tone for the evening with a long repetition of call and response in honour of the DJ Chief Xcel who was already by now looking disinterested.
It has got to be said that Vursatyl was fat fabulous fantastic. His first track, 'High Horse', with it's intricate rhyme schemes and energy blew the crowd away, who justly responded with a generous dosage of "Go Vursatyl, Go Vursatyl, Go". He continued to greet the crowd with this tremendous energy which spiralled the long haired man on my right hand side to produce the most out of control craziest of dance moves.
This tremendous example of how to MC continued for a further 2 tracks but by then I felt I wasn't at a Blackaliscious concert, I was at a Lifesavas concert; despite the continuous and repetitive "Blacka Black Blacka" being shouted out by the other hype man before, during and after each track. Perhaps I needed to re-embrace my inner Hip Hop or perhaps I needed DJ Chief Xcel to look like he wanted to be there. Thankfully Gift of Gab had soon made his way to the side of the stage for his big entrance.
There he was, the man himself, walking onto the stage with a ghetto walk of cool which even the greatest of Hip Hop stars would have been proud to call their own. The familiar sound of "now it's time for our wrap up, let's give it everything we've got, ready, begin" came on and the 'Alphabet Aerobics' were about to start.
"Artificial amateurs aren't at all amazing"...the crowd had gone wild but they could barely hear what they had come for; Gift of Gab's microphone wasn't turned up. Somehow it didn't matter, however. It was the moment which people had waited for and after some quick technical alterations by the sound man, by the time Gab had reached letter G he was turned up full volume and truly bringing the house down. It ended with the the crowd jumping up and down in appreciation of a truly fantastic effort from the Hip Hop veteran.
Then. Somehow. It seemed that the gig was over. Chief Xcel returned to a more than less exuberant state behind his turntables, Gift of Gab stayed on stage for one more song before giving the concert back to Vursatyl of the Lifesavas, and by the end of the gig all 4 of these great Hip Hop artists stood in line on stage at the Queens Social Club looking more like the traditional acts associated with such a venue; a Full Monty tribute act.
The audience had come to hear Blackaliscious, their hit song and their new album; but were instead treated to a Lifesavas concert, call and responses to phrases like 'Nod ya Finger' and samples of Busta Rhymes. Then I suddenly realised what I had in common with these once inspiring Hip Hop artists.
Gift of Gab was wearing a flat cap; so was I. Chief Xcel was in a working man's club in Yorkshire; so was I. That's what I had in common with these Hip Hop artists and that's why I still enjoyed their music; no matter how strange it may seem, somehow even a Yorkshireman can relate to a Hip Hop artist from Sacramento, CA. In a Hip Hop world these guys are a million miles away from Yorkshire and normal life, but outside of Hip Hop we share the same world, the same ideas, and what's more; the same working man's clubs. That's what the people of Sheffield understood on this cold night at the Queens Social Club in Sheffield, it's just a shame that Blackaliscious didn't quite live up to the bill.
Blackaliscious, Queens Social Club, Sheffield. 5/10 (Vursatyl, 8/10).