Listening to hip hop in the early 2000s meant (for most) that you loved 50 Cent. Get Rich or Die Tryin’ came out in 2003 and dominated the scene. It was on the radio, in the streets, on MTV, and got attention from every big time music magazine. The album was, and still very much is, the shit. It wasn’t the most enlightening project, but it banged. As Steve Berman would say, it was about, “Big screen TV’s, blunts, 40′s, and bitches,” and that’s what’s going to prevent having a record shoved up your ass. But for those who didn’t like 50, and don’t mind fresh vinyl up their rear end, Blackalicious was likely the alternative of choice.
My first encounter with Blackalicious was Christmas of ’03. It’s tradition to go to a family friend’s house after we open our presents and spend some holiday time there. They usually got me the illest gifts, so going to their crib wasn’t a bad thing. One of their daughters got me the Blackalicious album Nia that year. She explained how much I would love them and how different they were compared to what was out at the time. I was intrigued, because here was this older white lady recommending a hip hop group to me. I had to check it out.
Throughout the next year or so I listened to Nia a lot. It didn’t have the jams that other rappers of that era were producing, but it gave me an understanding of what lyricism meant. Tracks like “Deception” and “Shallow Days” were on repeat in my room for weeks at a time, and Blackalicious led me to other artists like Black Star, Rakim, and Public Enemy. It opened me up to ‘conscious’ hip hop. In retrospect, they were essential to my musical growth and therefore my passion for music writing.
The conscious hip hop that Blacklicious makes largely centers around black empowerment. Groups like Public Enemy used their music, and their videos, to broadcast racial injustices that us African Americans are faced with. The “Fight the Power” video begins with images from the Million Man March in Washington D.C. Blackalicious also used their music to share the Afro-American plight, they even celebrated blackness in their name. On the track “Making Progress,” the Gift of Gab shouts out all of his people who are persevering through the struggle:
Every black-owned business, keep doin for self
Helpin out the community and spreadin’ the wealth
Understand that help ain’t gonna come from nowhere else
Revolutionaries makin’ the unjust get dealth wit
Head on black people got to meet the task
Educate, keep learnin’, gotta question, ask!
And let your light keep shinin’ and remember the past
By any means necessary, we’ll be free at last
The usage of Malcolm X’s famous phrase, “By any means necessary,” and the acknowledgement of black-owned businesses distinguishes Blackalicious from the 50 Cent’s. Their music wasn’t just about stuntin’, it had a meaning behind it – black empowerment. Although they didn’t have me trying to kill whitey (remember, a white woman bought me the album) they were instrumental in helping me craft an identity as a young black male in a largely white community. Blackalicious really had an impact on my life.
Because of how important Blackalicious was to me, I went to go see them at Brooklyn Bowl earlier this month. Surprisingly enough, I was one of three black people in 300-person crowd. It’s no shock that mostly white people buy rap albums and attend concerts. If you’re at a Chief Keef show or a Kendrick Lamar show there is guaranteed to be a large amount of caucasians and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. I’m not one to keep hip hop in racial constraints. But isn’t it weird that a group with the name Blackalicious has no black fans at their show? Do young black people not enjoy supporting and empowering groups like Blackalicious?
Unfortunately, there really isn’t any data to turn to in this matter. Album sales clearly don’t tell the whole story and shows can be viewed as a representation of a city rather than an artist. Patrick Neate, author of the book “Where You’re At,” (also a white dude) touches on the topic briefly. When discussing hot rappers with a friend of his, Kenyatta (who is introduced in the book as a black emcee from Brooklyn,) Keate is shocked to hear that Kenyatta considers Jay Z the king of New York. When Kenyatta asks who’s better Keate replies with, “I don’t know. I like stuff like Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and Common Sense.” Kenyatta ridicules him because of course he likes that. That’s hip hop for white people.
The conclusion that Keate comes too (albeit quite a subjective one) is that while artists like Public Enemy discussed racial disenfranchisement for the racially disenfranchised, Mos Def, through not fault of his own, sells alienation to the culturally literate. In the case of Blackalicious, as with many other artists in hip hop, they are selling an urban philosophy to liberal arts students in Williamsburg – again through no fault of their own.
So as Gift of Gab rhymed about all of the things he’s blacker than (including the pyramids of Egypt among other very black things) to a predominately white crowd I couldn’t help but laugh. What a weird schism in hip hop culture. The more pro-black the music the whiter the audience. What will be considered white hip hop in 2025? I pray that it’s Lil Durk.