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The Gift of Gab: 5 Songs to Know by the Blackalicious Legend

The Gift of Gab, who died June 18 at the age of 50, was a bona fide Bay Area legend. Underappreciated nationally, he occupied a special place in Bay Area hip-hop: immensely skilled, imaginative, earnest, and filled with stamina.

Gab was a powerhouse on the stage; a thrill to watch. And while we won’t get that chance again, he leaves behind a large body of recorded work. Here are some of his more memorable tracks.

“Alphabet Aerobics” (A2G, 1999)

Gab’s signature track is a dextrous workout, a mini-marathon of lyricism, and an accelerando run through the alphabet that should be taught in every kindergarten class. It’s the Blackalicious song most people know (memorably, Daniel Radcliffe performed it on The Tonight Show), and proved a guaranteed show-stopper in live sets.

“Deception” (Nia, 1999)

Between Puffy’s Bad Boy dominance in 1997 and the bling era’s onset in 2000, so-called backpack rap reigned as a rebuke to commercial hip-hop. Money and gold chains were out; songs like “Deception” were in, with Gab in full storytelling mode, narrating the rise and fall of a rapper who loses his way among fame and wealth. Gab’s advice at the end? “If you’re blessed with the talent, utilize it to the fullest, be true to yourself, and stay humble.”

“Swan Lake” (Melodica, 1993)

The Solesides crew (Gab, Chief Xcel, Lateef, Lyrics Born and DJ Shadow) was rich with talent, and three years before Endtroducing mystified the world, DJ Shadow deftly turned an O’Donel Levy sample into Blackalicious’ first great single. A statement of purpose, a modest flex (“not sayin I’m the baddest but I know I got potential”), “Swan Lake” also introduced Gab’s spiritual side: “Prepare for the essence when your inner soul’s free / Before the departure, plantin’ of the right seed.”

“Cliff Hanger” (Nia, 1999)

Gab’s imagination operated at fantasy-author levels, and there’s no better example than this six-minute reverie of dragon queens, swords, helicopters, barracudas, horned creatures, spider webs, karate and ancient scrolls. You’ll be pulled into a fully-formed world—and you’ll forever be leery of being seduced in the club afterward.

“Nowhere Fast” (Blazing Arrow, 2002)

Blazing Arrow marked a new direction for Blackalicious, but Gab’s centered nature stayed constant. Case in point: “Nowhere Fast,” which sees Gab losing a girl, wrestling with her absence, trying to appreciate what they shared, and then looking within to improve himself with stark honesty. As Chief Xcel, his other half in Blackalicious, wrote on Friday: “He knew both his triumphs and challenges were universal and that his listeners might be able to find them applicable to their own lives. He was a compassionate man that cared deeply about people. He was my brother.”

Copyright 2021 KQED