Underground Rapper of the Week: Gift of Gab

Underground Rapper of the Week is a new feature designed to raise awareness of rappers from all over the world who, if that world were a perfect place, would be more famous than they are. It will be updated every Tuesday before the sun goes down. Feel free to email suggestions of slept-on rappers from your city or wherever to: ezra.stead@gmail.com

Few underground rappers are more innovative and influential than California’s Gift of Gab, best known as the emcee half of the great Hip-Hop duo Blackalicious, complemented by DJ Chief Xcel. Gab is well-known by heads everywhere for his amazing verbal dexterity and immediately recognizable style, as well as his uncommon intelligence and careful enunciation on the mic. “Alphabet Aerobics,” from Blackalicious’ 1999 A2G EP, is a perfect example of his showy, technical side, as he flips a continuous stream of lyrics that only speeds up and gets more complex as he cycles through the entire alphabet, devoting approximately two bars to each letter.

However, Gab is not just a gimmicky, smarter-than-thou rapper’s rapper. What really sets him apart is his insightful, positive and elevating lyrical content, as heard on songs like “Shallow Days,” from Blackalicious’ 1999 debut full-length, Nia, where he laments the superficiality of consciousness in Hip-Hop culture: “The word ‘peace’ is just an expression / Used to say ‘bye’ when it’s time to jet and / Them red, black and green medallions / Was all just part of a trend, I guess / Hardly ever see them around brothers’ necks no more.” Tracks like this and the storytelling anthem, “Deception,” on which he chants the mantra, “Don’t let money change you,” show Gab to be relentlessly positive and forward-thinking, though he is quick to remind listeners he is not judging anyone for how they might be forced to live. As he says on “My Pen and Pad,” from Blackalicious’ 2005 album, The Craft, he is “never an anti-gangster – the ghetto is still in the mind.”

As great as A2G, Nia and The Craft are, Blackalicious’ indisputable masterpiece is 2002′s Blazing Arrow, a truly epic collection that feels like a culmination of everything the Xcel and Gab had done up to that point. It also features stellar work from a variety of other artists affiliated with Blackalicious and the Quannum Projects, including Nikki Giovanni, Gil Scott-Heron, DJ Shadow, Lyrics Born, Saul Williams, Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine, and Chali 2na of Jurassic 5, among others. My introduction to the wonders of Blackalicious began with the apocalyptic “Sky Is Falling,” on which Gab paints a dark picture of a world in which “juveniles is losing trials, catching a bid of murder one / And mothers is drinking and drugging, hoeing, searching for their sons.” Blazing Arrow is full of gems like that song, as is Blackalicious’ entire catalogue.

Since The Craft, Gift of Gab has been pursuing a solo career, releasing three albums in the past eight years, beginning with 4th Dimensional Rocketships Going Up in 2004. His 2009 follow-up, Escape 2 Mars, features the excellent song, “Dreamin,” featuring Del the Funky Homosapien and Brother Ali, and his latest, The Next Logical Progression, was released earlier this year. Whether blowing your mind with his technical prowess, making you think about the troubles of the world, or just bringing a smile to your face, Gift of Gab is all about making listeners feel something.

Underground Rapper of the Week: Desdamona

Underground Rapper of the Week is a new feature designed to raise awareness of rappers from all over the world who, if that world were a perfect place, would be more famous than they are. It will be updated every Tuesday before the sun goes down. Feel free to email suggestions of slept-on rappers from your city or wherever to: ezra.stead@gmail.com

With the exception of my full-group profile of Solillaquists of Sound a few weeks ago, women have been noticeably absent from this column, which points to a larger problem in Hip-Hop culture and society at large. No female emcee is more important to the community than the Minneapolis-based poet and emcee Desdamona, who has worked tirelessly to make Hip-Hop a better place for women. Her 365 Days of Female MCs blog helps to shed light on many unheralded contributors to the art form of rap, and her annual multimedia festival, B-Girl Be, brings together women from around the world who practice all four original elements of Hip-Hop: graffiti, breakdancing, deejaying and emceeing. She also hosts the long-running Poet’s Groove open mic, one of the very most respected and enduring shows in the Twin Cities of Minnesota.

In addition to such community work and activism, Desdamona is herself a powerful emcee and spoken word artist, having won five Minnesota Music Awards for Best Spoken Word Artist in 2000, and then consecutively in 2003-2006, inclusive. She has also toured extensively, bringing her sound to audiences all over the U.S., as well as Germany and France, where she has built a very respectable following with beatboxing partner Carnage in their group Ill Chemistry. Desdamona has opened for legendary artists such as KRS-One; the late, great Guru; Saul Williams; and Wyclef Jean, among others, and is a frequent collaborator with the equally legendary Sly & Robbie, who produced her 2005 debut album, The Ledge. In addition to her strong, poetic abilities as a rapper, Desdamona is also a skilled singer, and has joined Ursus Minor in both capacities on their third album, I Will Not Take “But” for an Answer, and joining them on their subsequent tour along with The Coup‘s Boots Riley.

Desdamona’s lyrics are thoughtful, personal and resonant with themes of identity, equality and body image, and for this reason it is often best to hear her words over sparse beats or no beat at all. For an example of her emotionally moving poetry, look no further than “Too Big for My Skin,” a poem that has since expanded into a campaign aimed at rethinking societal beauty standards and giving a voice to repressed women all over the world. However, this is not to say she can’t murder beats with the best of them, and her live performances – whether solo or with Carnage as Ill Chemistry – are electrifying, and she wisely used live instrumentation to create her 2007 album, The Source, which features Carnage, as well as remixed tracks by Sly & Robbie. Male or female, Desdamona is one of the Midwest’s most vital talents, and her continued work with Ursus Minor and Ill Chemistry, who just released their first full-length album in France, definitely deserves your attention.

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