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Blazing a path

Hip-hop duo Blackalicious hits the bull's-eye with its major label debut

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Jackson Pollock's drip paintings replaced many of art's conventions with a color and movement whose introspective flow reveals as much about the painter as it does the viewer.

But what, other than 'flow,' does that have to do with hip-hop? And the likely response from Blackalicious' Chief Xcel: "What doesn't it have to do with hip-hop?

"I'm intrigued by the creative process -- just the way people can tap into their soul and manifest it through their art," says the DJ/producer half of the acclaimed Bay Area duo. "I've been checking out a lot of the work of Jackson Pollock lately. His thought process is amazing to me, in the fact that he just went to the tune of his own drum and reinvented stuff."

Xcel fell in love with the reinventive foundation of true hip-hop way before he discovered Pollock. Hooking up with friends at the University of California at Davis, Xcel and MC Gift of Gab -- a verbal acrobat who twists heads like a cap -- were part of the intensely creative SoleSides (now Quannum) crew that also nurtured DJ Shadow, Lyrics Born and Lateef the Truth Speaker. With the release of their 1995 EP, Melodica, Blackalicious made a name for themselves with their deep-bangin' soul and triple-time rhyme. Personal turmoil would keep the duo from releasing a full-length CD until 2000. But when the vivid vibes collectively known as Nia finally dropped, independently via Quannum Recordings, few could deny it was worth the wait.

For the pair's follow-up and MCA debut, Blazing Arrow, Blackalicious wasted no time getting to work, beginning some of the tracks while touring behind Nia. Blazing Arrow is a less dense but no less direct album full of Gab's mercurial introspections and some highly musical collaborations. Some were born spontaneously on the road ("First In Flight") and out of touring relationships ("Brain Washers" features Ben Harper). Others are the result of Xcel's constant striving to weave his expansive canvas with samples and evocative guest voices, including proto-rap song-poet Gil Scott-Heron, rising new-soul voice Jaguar Wright, former Rager Zach de la Rocha and spoken-word celeb Saul Williams.

"With each thing that I do, it's really based on color and texture," says Xcel, "because that's kind of how I see sound. It's really bringing a sonic quality to the point of things almost feeling tangible. It would be the same to say that a certain vocalist's sound reminds you of silk, while another reminds you of rough cotton."

Yet for all Blazing Arrow's guest threads and patches, Gift of Gab's intuitive splattered syllables ultimately provide the most intricately patterned material. "Gab is an MC in the tradition of the greats, in that he sees himself as a musician first and foremost, and sees his voice as his instrument," Xcel says.

Xcel and Gab strove to focus every ounce of their strength on Blazing Arrow, which flies straight from start to finish with a centered sense of faith.

"Every time [I] do an album, I liken it to spiritual birth," says Xcel. "You have to be able to live life and collect a whole new reservoir of experiences. With Blazing Arrow, we really scraped our souls, and put our entire being in to it."

Blackalicious plays Thurs., April 25, at the Cotton Club, 152 Luckie St. Talib Kweli also performs. 9 p.m. $17.50. 404-688-1193. www.atlantaconcerts.com.

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