The memories I attach to the year 2000 still manage to be some of the worst of my life. No matter what happened even the day before or after July 16, 2000—the day my cousin was killed 20 feet from me in my grandmother’s driveway—I lived in somewhat of a fog for the rest of the year.
A week later—and a day after his funeral—I was driving to College Park, Md., to begin a “summer program,” which was really a math immersion program for all incoming economics Ph.D. students; I was considering doing a Ph.D. in economics the following fall and because of a connection between the University of Maryland-College Park and Morehouse College, me and another student were allowed to latch onto a different summer program while taking our classes. While I wasn’t ready to leave Atlanta, I also needed to leave Atlanta, and College Park (and really Washington, D.C., in general) was a welcome change.
One of the best things about this summer program was that we were given a stupid amount of money to spend for food on our summer accounts. I don’t remember what the figure was, but I remember thinking that there was literally no way I could eat that much money’s worth of food in a month. And we could use our money at various restaurants and grocery stores around campus. But the kicker was, we could also use the money (because it was attached to our temporary student IDs) at the campus bookstore. And coming from Morehouse College where apparel and whatnot was sparse, the University of Maryland’s bookstore was like Target. They had apparel, food, books, music, housewares, etc. If you needed it, the bookstore had it. I loaded up on so many UMD T-shirts, bags, etc; thank God I ended up going their for graduate school—albeit for a master’s in public policy—so I wasn’t sitting on a ton of school apparel for a place I’d only spent a month of time. Anyway, because they sold CDs in the bookstore, I loaded up on music as well.
I do not remember where I first heard of the group Blackalicious. I think it was in some music magazine where their album, Nia, released in February 2000 stateside, was given high marks. It wasn’t The Source, but maybe Rolling Stone? I don’t remember. But I remember the group because the name Blackalicious had me at hello. Seriously, I have never in all of my years of music consumption been more jealous of a group name than Blackalicious. I was all in. On one of those bookstore trips I saw their album Nia, and remembering the review I’d read, I decided to buy it. And it was then and is still now one of the best musical decisions I ever made. And it helped me through that summer. And year. And life since.
Have you ever started listening to something and knew that you were different after? That’s how I was with Nia. I didn’t know anything about Chief Xcel (producer) or Gift of Gab (rapper, born Timothy Jerome Parker) but after getting to the end of the album, it immediately became of my favorite albums...period. Like, I started including it in my top 10 favorite hip-hop lists and wouldn’t shut up about them to all the homies.
And it’s not just because the music was dope, though I absolutely did (and do) dig the production, especially on their first two albums, the aforementioned Nia and 2002's Blazing Arrow. But it was Gift of Gab who, seriously, seemed as if he was literally born to rap. He tried things, clearly in the name of hip-hop. When I got to “A to G,” I was floored. Gift of Gab rapped bars where each word started with a letter of the alphabet from A to G. It was new to me, though it was originally released on their A2G EP released a year prior to Nia, which also includes the now famous “Alphabet Aerobics,” brought into mainstream consciousness by actor Daniel Radcliffe, who rapped the tongue-twisting record on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in 2014. Not for nothing, it was kind of funny for Jimmy Fallon and Daniel Radcliffe to both talk about Blackalicious like they were Run-DMC. And look, Gift of Gab isn’t the first person to rap using the alphabet as a prompt on some hip-hop shit, but it connected with me. The album was full of different flows and was topical and focused. Hell, on the song “Deception”—one of the more well-known songs from their first album—Gift of Gab raps in limerick form for the whole record. Limericks, bro.
And that’s what made him stand out to me and drew me to him and Blackalicious as artists. They tried things, and because Gift of Gab was such a talented and gifted (no pun intended) wordsmith, there was nothing he couldn’t pull off as far as I’m concerned. The whole Quannum crew, a collective of rappers and producers (and a label) out of northern California was like that; the whole squad was creative as a rule.
Blackalicious’ second album, Blazing Arrow, was definitely a move in a more “commercial” direction so to speak, but it didn’t feel like it sacrificed anything in the way of integrity. So imagine my surprise, but also pure delight when so many of their songs ended up on the soundtrack for one of my favorite movies ever, Brown Sugar. At least three of their songs are littered throughout the film at pivotal moments, and other songs were in other movies like Biker Boyz. I just knew Blackalicious was about to blow up because any group that talented musically and lyrically was just waiting their turn. That didn’t exactly happen, but any time Blackalicious released a project, I needed to listen because Gift of Gab earned my listens. That’s how impressed I was with his skill and dedication to the craft. He didn’t waste bars to me, and his voice lent itself perfectly to the subject matter he was focused on.
When I got the news last week that Gift of Gab passed away at age 50, reportedly of natural causes—he suffered kidney failure a few years ago—I was taken aback. There’s something about learning that artists who bring so much to your life passing on, especially when it seems well before their time. I just turned 42 years old this month; 50 isn’t that far away. There was a time in my life where 50 sounded old. At this point in my life, it’s not old at all, even if it’s not young. But it doesn’t feel like it should be the end of the line for anybody. I have no idea about his healthcare or anything, and there haven’t been (that I’ve seen) any calls for, as there tend to be, some sort of rapper relief fund to help these cats stay alive at least to life expectancy as is the case sometimes. I was sad, realizing what a loss to hip-hop it was for the world even if perhaps a significant number of folks didn’t even know what they’ve missed.
But Gift of Gab was a light for me when I needed one. Nia has stayed in my rotation for over 20 years now and I don’t see it ever truly leaving that spot. The song “Day One” from Blazing Arrow is still some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard in life. I listen to that all the time because it evokes emotion in me. And I mean that sincerely. Gift of Gab has been an inspiration to me as a hip-hop fan and head and somebody who writes and who cares about how these words come off. He will be missed, and I have been and will be on a Blackalicious binge until my subconscious makes me change the albums.
Rest in Honor, Gift of Gab. You are appreciated.