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.
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.
Piñata, the full-length collaboration between 21st-century gangster rapper Freddie Gibbs and 31st-century producer Madlib, lulls breezily between pro forma thuggery and Swisha Sweet insights, mixing progressive beats (sampled, not synthesized) with grizzled street raps (real talk, not fake Bawse boasts). But though this is well-trod ground, from the blaxploitation allusions to the Odd Future and TDE cameos (sorry, no Kendrick), there is innovation and illumination here, too. There is “Thuggin’,” wherein Gibbs chops over frail guitar licks looped and sped up into an Americanized spaghetti-gangster soundtrack, thanks to Madlib’s excavation of an arcane British library record, Rubba’s “Way Star” (h/t WhoSampled.com). There is “Deeper,” wherein Gibbs unravels a deeply metaphorical flip on Common’s “I Used to Love H.E.R.” and bemoans the decline of gangsta rap culture, “All for a nigga that ain’t got nothing that I ain’t got / Only difference is, he’s tryin’ to be a fuckin’ astronaut.”
Late last year, Stones Throw Records announced that it would release a full-length album of tunes by its veritable resident producer Madlib in 2010 . . . every month. Dubbed Madlib Medicine Show, the 12-part series sounds like a rap nerd fantasy.
Ever since his critically lionized Quasimoto adventure, 2000’s The Unseen, when he adopted a helium voice and crafted adult cartoons straight out of Fritz the Cat and Le Planete Sauvage, the L.A. musician has defined an idiom of crackling sampled loops, slightly buggered raps, and thick clouds of weed smoke. Over 15 years deep into a career that kicked off with a cameo on the Alkaholiks’ 1993 debut, 21 & Over, his enigmatic vision perseveres, even as the idealistic underground scene he once occupied — remember back in the ’90s when his old group the Lootpack chastised wannabe gangsta rappers on “The Antidote”? — has turned cynical, becoming obsessed with the same guns-drugs-porn-money quadrant it once criticized the “mainstream” for.