by David Ma
“I get high from collecting and creating,” so says Xavier Mosley, better known as Chief Xcel. By collecting, he’s referring to his 20,000 records; by creating, he’s referring to his production on Blackalicious‘s revered albums.
In addition to his album credits, Xcel also heads Quannum Projects, an independent label he jointly created in the early ’90s alongside Jeff Chang, DJ Shadow, Lateef the Truth Speaker, Lyrics Born, and Gift of Gab. But long before establishing himself as a label executive and premier producer, Xavier Mosley was — and still is — an avid record collector.
Xcel talks about inheriting his father’s records, his very first record purchase, how digging has affected his production, and some of his favorite digging spots across America. The second component of the interview finds Mosley listing his most important records, many of which have directly influenced his own body of work.
Part 1: On Record Collecting
So you really have 20,000 records?
No, I probably have a lot more than that. [laughs] When I got to about 20,000 is when I stopped counting.
What made you want to start collecting?
Nothing really made me do it. It more or less just happened. Some of my favorite and important records I was lucky enough to inherit from my father’s collection. He had a ton of records and that was, like, my starting point. Some of his records I never listened to at first, but years later I rediscovered them and realized what a great inheritance his collection was.
Do you remember the first record you bought?
Yeah, I remember, surprisingly. [laughs] The first record I bought was Parliament-Funkadelic’s Uncle Jam Wants You.
You still go digging often?
Yeah, I dig constantly. It’s a trip, though, because I dig a lot more away from home than I do at home. When we’re on the road ten months out of the year, there’s more time to do so.
Any memorable spots you’ve dug at while on the road?
North Hampton, Massachusetts, is pretty dope. Also, whenever I’m in Pittsburgh, I go wild, because it’s one of the few places left that’s like the Holy Grail for me. When I was working on Blazing Arrow, the majority of stuff I used was lifted from Pittsburgh. Those two spots have to be my favorites — I’ve had so many important finds there.
How has searching and listening to records effected your own production?
I’m always technically minded, so I’m always listening to the aesthetic of how things are put together. I guess, that’s a direct result of me doing what I do. When I’m listening to music, I’m listening for the love of it. But I’m also listening to learn from, or, to be inspired by it as well.
Whether listening to a record in your collection or to a beat you’ve made, what’s the most important aspect you listen for?
The feel is everything. I’ve seen people with dope record collections but can’t make a beat to save their life. You have to have a feel and an ear, because if it don’t feel right, it isn’t right. You can find the best break in the world, but if you can’t hear and visualize how it can be used, then it’s all for nothing.
Who has produced some of your favorite records?
Wow, there are so many. David Axelrod, Leon Ware, the Bomb Squad, Ant Banks, Dre, Pete Rock, Larry Smith, Lincoln Olivetti. In particular, Olivetti is a real important producer, because I think he’s amazing. He did a lot of Brazilian funk and samba in the ’70s. His whole approach to the rhythm was just really dope and just inspires me.
What has record collecting done for you as a producer?
It’s the core of what I do. All these years, I’ve made beats that reflected all these sounds and musical genres that have impacted me, and these records are like my musical vocabulary. They’re like the paint that I use to paint with — everything revolves around these records.
Part 2: On Important Records
This is a record I came up on in ’90, ’91. It was another one that was inherited from my father. The soul in that record is so heavy. It would later be reissued, much to my dismay, but it is a classic. We actually used it for our Blackalicious track, “Deep in the Jungle.” I simply love this record.
I was in the tenth grade when this record came out. This record really showed me what the world of sampling could be. Prince Paul showed me that there are no limits to producing. I mean, I was lucky to have inherited quite a few records from my dad’s collection, but I never really used them. This album made me realize that even my dad’s records were fair game. So from that, I was introduced to the Turtles, Steely Dan, and other records that I might have never looked at as prospective samples.
Arif Mardin is my all-time favorite arranger, and the song “Young, Gifted and Black” itself is amazing. I mean, Nina Simone did the original, but his interpretation, and what he did with it, was just crazy. It starts off as a gospel piece really, and the piano progression on it is awesome. It’s always been another one of those records that have been a blueprint for my production. Certain records to me I consider “Producer 101″ records, and this is definitely one of them.
Wow. My initial reaction to this record was just that — “wow.” The Shocklee Brothers, Eric Sadler, and Chuck D just threw everything in the pot and made this wall of confusion that was organized at the same time. It was so intense. 3 Feet High and Rising showed me the possibility of sampling and Public Enemy was a realization of that possibility. They really just stretched my head out.
This is one of my all-time favorite records. I’ve always been a fan of records that tell a story. And, to me, this record is a journey from beginning to end. It’s almost like CliffsNotes of somebody’s life and the lessons that they’ve learned. This is one of the greatest records ever made, in my humble opinion. It’s the kind of record that sticks with you.
The first time I heard this record, it moved me to my core. By that time, I had reached a point where digging wasn’t something I took for granted — it had become a sport. And that was right around the time I met Lyrics Born and Shadow, and the three of us were going through the same phase at the same time. When I heard how Large Pro hooked up certain sounds for that record, or how he used “Baby Don’t Cry” for “Looking at the Front Door,” it made me look more intensely into the world of sampling. I love this record.
When I first got introduced to Fela, my mind was just blown! Here was this dude who would make records with one single groove that would last for eighteen minutes! His ability to just captivate you in that groove was just amazing to me. When I did the tribute album, I had to listen to a lot of his records. And the thing is, most of his songs are at least ten minutes long — at least. There is so much I can say about Fela’s records. They’re brilliant. I mean, I love almost all his records, but Kalakuta Show impacted me the most. It’s simply an amazing record! Fela is an astonishing musician. This record continues to blow me away.