A Guide to Madlib (Circa 2011)

I’ve written about and interviewed Madlib many times over the years. I may have written about him more than any other hip-hop artist, with the possible exception of Kanye West (who I almost had a chance to interview — but that’s a story for another time). This post dates back to 2011, when he was finishing his Madlib Medicine Show project, and gathers some of my thoughts and opinions about his work. It’s also a good starter kit for his ever-growing catalog.

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Last year, Otis “Madlib” Jackson, Jr. made plans for a Madlib Medicine Show: twelve releases consisting of six albums of original material and six mixtapes of songs by other artists. It proved a failure, with just nine installments reaching market, including a tenth chapter and no ninth. Add those discs to gigs producing Strong Arm Steady’s In Search of Stoney Jackson and Guilty Simpson’s OJ Simpson, and excursions such as Young Jazz Rebels’ Slave Riot and the Last Electro-Acoustic Space Jazz & Percussion Ensemble’s Miles Away, and that only made for … thirteen releases in 2010. Amusingly, Madlib couldn’t finish the Medicine Show, but he couldn’t curb his excessive productivity, either.

Madlib is an unapologetic throwback to the pop and jazz years of the 50s and 60s, when musicians would simply participate in recording sessions, and labels would compile albums from the best material. This could lead to several titles a year from best-selling bandleaders like Miles Davis and Frank Sinatra – a far cry from the new-every-two strategy employed by today’s pop stars. Madlib functions the same way as his heroes: he records constantly, and occasionally stops to compile the results into yet another release.

Thanks to classics such as Quasimoto’s The Unseen and Madvillain’s Madvillainy, Madlib is regarded as one of the greatest hip-hop artists of the past decade. Unlike Timbaland, the Neptunes, Just Blaze, Kanye West, or even J Dilla, he remains an underground phenomenon, issuing nearly all his material on indie imprint Stones Throw Records. Certainly, he has never had a mainstream hit. However, major artists with an appreciation for progressive beats have sought him out: he made tracks for Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah albums, Mos Def’s The Ecstatic, and Ghostface Killah’s More Fish. Rumors abound that he contributed uncredited tracks to Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and that he may land some credits on Kanye West and Jay-Z’s forthcoming Watch the Throne. It’s impossible to understand the genre’s recent developments without listening to his work.

With the reclusive producer set to restart the Medicine Show series this month with No. 11: Low Budget Hi-Fi Music, it’s a good time to take a deep dive into the Madlib Invazion.

Lootpack, Soundpieces: Da Antidote!

Madlib, MC Wildchild and DJ Romes were part of the Likwit Crew, a collective of MCs and producers led by the Alkaholiks, and made a few appearances on the latter’s three albums. (Check out Tha Liks’ “WLIX” for an example of vintage Lootpack in effect.) Spending years deep in the cut, the Lootpack generated a massive backlog of material that began to reach the public via Soundpieces: Da Antidote! Released in 1999, listeners found the long-gestating 24-track debut fascinating and overwhelming. In spite of the deluge, Soundpieces’ generally high quality made it clear that the Madlib Invazion had just begun.

Declaime, Illmindmuzik

This underrated EP marked one of Madlib’s first outside production gigs. (Others included “Flappin” for O.G.C. (Originoo Gunn Clappaz) and a remix of Zion-I’s “Critical.”) Declaime isn’t a great MC, but he has a warm and earthy tone and an assertive cadence, which contrasts nicely with Madlib’s crusty jazz loops, as evidenced on the smooth L.A. daze of “Roll ‘Em Right” and the handclap percussion of “Let It Be Known.” Later, Declaime (as the singer Dudley Perkins) and Madlib would reunite for a pair of visionary soul albums, 2003’s A Lil Light and 2006’s Expressions (2012 A.U.).

Quasimoto, The Unseen

Quasimoto was originally a Madlib in-joke, the violent id who boasted on Peanut Butter Wolf’s “Styles, Crews, Flows, Beats,” “I’ll smack your bitch up like a pimp!” DJ Design (and then Stones Throw art director Jeff Jank) visualized Lord Quas as an orange aardvark inspired by the comic book Cerebus and the mask-clad humans on the 70s animated science-fiction satire La Planéte Sauvage. Madlib used musical interludes from that film’s Alain Goraguer soundtrack for The Unseen (particularly on its lead single, “Come On Feet”), and dipped into works by Sun Ra (“Astro Black”), the Last Poets (“Put a Curse On You”) and Melvin Van Peebles (“Goodmorning Sunshine.”) The result was an abstract masterpiece that cemented Madlib’s reputation as one of the most imaginative hip-hop producers. In 2005, he attempted a follow-up, The Further Adventures of Lord Quas, but it couldn’t recapture The Unseen’s wide-eyed adventurousness.

Yesterday’s Quintet, Yesterdays Universe: Prepare for a New Yesterday

What to do for a follow-up to The Unseen? Madlib decided that he wanted to do more than just sample his favorite jazz cats, and so he launched a new project, Yesterday’s New Quintet, playing all the instruments himself. The problem is that he didn’t have any formal music training. The first EP, 2001’s Elle’s Theme, was a bust, and its accompanying full-length, Angles Without Edges, was only marginally better. But Madlib has learned to adapt his cryptic sensibility to the jazz idiom, making for albums with odd time signatures and hallucinatory melodic tones. For 2007’s Prepare for a New Yesterday, he mixed soul-jazz, fusion and modal forms, a host of fictitious aliases like the Jazzistics and Ahmad Miller, and real guest musicians like Brazilian percussionist Ivan “Mamão” Conti to standout effect.

Jaylib, Champion Sound

With Jaylib, Madlib finally abandoned the “conscious” bohemianism of late-90s indie-rap culture. On Lootpack singles like “The Anthem,” he castigated rap clichés like toting guns and partying in strip clubs; on Champion Sound, his foray with Detroit rapper/producer J Dilla, he fully indulged those fantasies with “Strip Club” and “Strapped.” Initially released to mixed reviews and disappointing sales, it took J Dilla’s untimely 2006 death and a 2007 reissue for this brittle experiment in street hop isms to be fully appreciated.

Madvillain, Madvillainy

Not much more can be written about Madvillainy, Madlib’s 2004 masterpiece with crankily enigmatic rapper/producer MF Doom. For Madlib, it marked a shift from the sleepy instrumental jazz ambiance of The Unseen to slivers of 70s soul laded with anxious vocals (“Fancy Clown”) and disembodied spoken voices. In later years, he would take this new style to challenging extremes, making Madvillainy seem restrained in comparison.

Mos Def, The Ecstatic

Like all great hip-hop producers, Madlib has more than a unique sound signature. He is an aesthetic in itself, attracting acolytes (including his talented younger brother Oh No, who made his bones with 2006’s Galt McDermott homage Exodus in Unheard Rhythms) and clients who want to tap into the Madlib Invazion. Mos Def’s The Ecstatic, which is thematically about a spiritual and political awakening in the Obama era, draws much of its force from Madlib’s earthy crate-digger steez. Another project worth mentioning is 2003’s Shades of Blue, where he remixed and reworked chestnuts from the Blue Note catalog.

Madlib, Beat Konducta Vol. 5-6: A Tribute To…

Madlib and J Dilla are hip-hop’s John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy. An enormously talented saxophonist and clarinetist who died young, Dolphy helped his friend Coltrane adapt the “new jazz” of the 60s to the latter’s “sheets of sound” horn-blowing technique. (God forbid that we prematurely lose Madlib in the same way Coltrane passed away three years after Dolphy.) Similarly, Dilla and Madlib pioneered the “donuts” style of minute-long beat loops, influencing a generation of musicians in the process. A quiet man of few words who has only granted two formal interviews since 2006, Madlib has shed little light on his incredible relationship with J Dilla, leaving us to wonder who influenced who more. All we have is totemic recordings like A Tribute To…, a moving homage to his late friend that consists of two chapters from his ongoing Beat Konducta beat tape series.

Madlib, Medicine Show No. 1: Before the Verdict

If you’ve ever smoked weed and then freaked out from paranoia, then you’ve felt how Before the Verdict sounds. Madlib builds chaos around vocals from thug rapper Guilty Simpson’s 2006 album Ode to the Ghetto, packing in Redd Foxx comedy routines, police scanner reports, and a calamitous array of funky soul loops. It’s extraordinary to hear how far he’s traveled since Soundpieces, and wearying, too. Yet creative exhaustion seems key to the frequent musical epiphanies he induces.

Madlib, Medicine Show No. 5: The History of the Loop Digga, 1990-2000

Madlib used the fifth installment of his Medicine Show series to revisit his Lootpack prototypes. But with him, nothing’s quite straightforward. On tracks like “Episode X,” where he staples a latter-day vocal from Guilty Simpson (“Official cyclone!”) onto a 90s butter beat, he effectively remixes and modernizes these old demos. The History of the Loop Digga starts out with a curatorial mission, but ends up being a view of the past through a post-millennial lens, sacrificing a look back in favor of looking forward.

(Rhapsody – January 17, 2011)

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