OAKLAND — Yoshi’s hosted the connoisseur’s choice in hip-hop Thursday as celebrated duo Blackalicious returned to Oakland. Performing a career-spanning set in just over an hour, the energetic team thrived in the friendly atmosphere of the 310-seat jazz club.
DJ Chief Xcel emerged first, laying down a concussive beat under elaborately layered samples. Xcel had two metallic turntables and a MacBook atop a row of road cases and a mess of wires. The first MC to emerge was smooth-flowing Jumbo of Lifesavas, who featured on Blackalicious’ 2015 album, Imani Vol. I. Jumbo embraced the role of hype man, jumping from the stage to give high-fives to seated fans and entice some call-and-response from the audience.
Once the crowd was warmed up, Lateef the Truthspeaker accompanied main man Gift Of Gab from the wings to the stage. Lateef and Jumbo played off each other’s bounding energy, criss-crossing the stage to work both sides of the room. “Get your hands up in the air!” they shouted while the casual Gift of Gab hovered at center-stage.
Gab’s lyrical power grew slowly at first. His first few verses were fast and rhythmic but understated before the spotlight shifted back to the guest MCs. When Gab broke away for an extended verse, he used seemingly bottomless lungs to develop a crescendo of intensity that peaked with some hard-hitting truths. This brought the energy of the room to an early plateau the group never relinquished.
On the dub-indebted “Blazing Arrow,” the group stayed nimble and focused over relatively relaxed funk loops. Xcel’s fleshed-out production on “Rock The Spot” kept the rappers stayed lively, never letting the audience become complacent. Xcel even contributed some backing vocals as the group announced their intent to “reach everyone.” The unassuming Gab, in a puffy camouflage jacket, dashed off a manic rant. He crept around the stage, articulating with twisting hand motions.
Gift of Gab stood alone for the ethno-historical treatise “Blacka,” performed as a mostly unaccompanied spoken-word piece. He used this weighty setup to transition to a message of honor. “It’s not about black versus white, it’s not about America versus Iraq,” he said, addressing the audience between songs. “It’s about the good people of the earth against the bloodsuckers.”
From there the band launched into a freestyle battle, which brought a unique halting toast from Lateef and a slick scalding boast from Jumbo. Chunky beatbox hits from Xcel laid the foundation for Gab’s multi-syllabic wizardry.
More fan favorites followed, including a breakneck “Make You Feel That Way” and the well-loved “Deception,” from 1999 debut Nia. Gab dedicated the latter song to “day one Blackalicious fans.”
“Forget about your work week, forget about your enemies. … Be here now!” Gab insisted, and the group teased the refrain from “Ashes To Ashes” before cooking up another freestyle. Xcel got a lean and bruising boogie-down beat going and Jumbo led off with his deft rhythmic timing and verbal alacrity. This time Lateef went off the deep end with an inspired battle rap, before Gab brought it home with a slithering eruption of raw lyrial talent.
The only thing left to do was dance. Jumbo and Lateef cajoled seated fans and a solid portion of them left their tables to gyrate in front of the stage. The band closed with the fast and fun “Chemical Calisthenics” before retiring, praising the Bay Area and its fans. Blackalicious’ layered tracks and virtuosic lyrics left an air of thoughtfulness in the cheerful room.