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Gift of Grab 

by Courtney Harding & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & P & lt;/span & retty soon, there will only be two genres that matter: music that music writers and bloggers like, and music that everyone else likes. It is very easy, when you get all your music news from Web sites maintained by record store clerks and publications like this one -- and probably don't spend too much time listening to commercial radio -- to get a bit of a skewed perspective on what is "popular." In the blog world, "hyphy" is a commonly used term and everyone and their mother is losing their mind over the new Ghostface Killah. In the real world, the radio and the charts are composed of nothing but that damn Sean Paul song and its even worse imitators. (The expression "beyond insipid" doesn't do justice to how awful it is.) This split-at-the-root world -- MIA is huge/MIA who? -- is here to stay. It's a tough place for a band like Blackalicious.


Critics, this one included, like Blackalicious. Their lyrics are smart, socially conscious and overtly political. Their beats are tight, and on their new record, The Craft, they incorporate influences ranging from Stereolab to Sly Stone. They get called things like "complicated" and "thoughtful" in reviews. Pitchfork, the Web site notorious for shredding bands, gave one Blackalicious record a 9.3 out of 10. In short, the members of Blackalicious are talented and intelligent masters of rap.


Producer Chief Xcel and rapper Gift of Gab founded Blackalicious in 1987, when both were Bay Area high school students. They released their first album, Melodica, in 1995 to critical acclaim and tepid sales. In the following years, they toured with everyone from Mary J. Blige to 50 Cent, as well as releasing three other albums. Chief Xcel also twirled the knobs and pushed the buttons for Lifesavas, while Gift of Gab took a hint from his fellow San Franciscan Lyrics Born and composed a song for a Diet Coke commercial. With their new record, they've done everything from bring in European cellists to write songs about pregnant teens and crack dealers who sell to their mothers. On "The Rise and Fall of Elliott Brown," they tell the story of a jailed youth who repents and becomes a community leader. It's about as far from the bling-bling, bang-bang culture of popular hip-hop as you can get.


It's a shame that all the socially responsible lyrics and French string players in the world don't add up to commercial success. Blackalicious certainly isn't the only band to be beloved by critics and shunned by listeners -- that trend probably dates back to the day some hip young monk snarked about the lack of cred in a Gregorian chant. But what sets Blackalicious and their peers apart from other indie staples is that the people who aren't hearing them are the ones who need them most. The nerd behind the iBook writing this article doesn't need to be told that the streets can be escaped and that women have value; it's the teenage girl in the poor community who benefits from hearing those messages. Sadly, when she turns on the radio, all she hears is the static of the same old hos-and-money rhymes.


Getting Blackalicious played on college radio is a benefit. Getting them played on the corporate airwaves would be a revolution.





Blackalicious at the Big Easy with Lifesavas, Fatlip and Possum John on Wednesday, April 19, at 6:30 pm. Tickets: $20. Visit ticketswest.com or call 325-SEAT.
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