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Strange World Of...

The Strange World Of... Madlib
Eden Tizard , June 19th, 2019 10:13

Eden Tizard takes a look behind the bewildering array of aliases and the huge back catalogue in order to ask, who is Madlib?

Watch an interview with Otis Jackson Jr. - or Madlib as he’s most commonly known - and you’ll be struck by the low-key demeanour, a man of perpetual shrugs and chronic head shakes, wary of anything approaching clarity. Yet for all the vagueness, or even at times evasiveness, of his press persona, his beats speak to a restless mind.

In truth, it seems his surrounding reality never held much attraction. When looking back on his own experience growing up in Oxnard, California, he recalls how he would consciously push the violence that of his own neighbourhood to the periphery of inner thoughts.

“People get brainwashed living in the hood,” he told Dazed back in 2014, “I stayed away from everyone, I got into my teens and stayed in the crib and made music. They were walking around with Dickies; I was walking around with a clock around my neck listening to Public Enemy and that type of shit. I was the weird dude but I didn’t care.”

He thanks his parents for the intervention, both father Otis Jackson Sr. and mother Dora Sinesca Jackson being musicians themselves, not to mention that his jazz trumpeter uncle Joe Faddis had played with everyone from Dizzy Gillespie to Anthony Braxton. “Music saved me,” he insists, “my parents bought us equipment to keep us in the house. It worked.”

Since coming to prominence in the late 90s, Madlib has become an unlikely though highly sought-after legend in the field of production. He may come from a lineage that includes Pete Rock, Large Professor or Q-Tip, but in the contemporary field, what he’s managed to achieve with sample-based music is comparable only to his friend and ally, the now deceased icon J Dilla.

His approach to hip hop is nothing short of visionary, thanks in no small part due to his own fascination with the “outer space ways” of cosmic free-thinker and Arkestra mastermind Sun Ra - or Sun RZA as Madlib often calls him. A pivotal position as the label Stone Throw’s flagship artist undoubtedly helped shape his jagged musical psyche, living and working in his hermetic bomb shelter during the label’s formative years - a basement room he rented below a living space he shared with likeminded music obsessives Eothen ‘Egon’ Alaphatt, Jeff Jank, and Peanut Butter Wolf.

Content with the side lines, Madlib sees himself as that ‘background dude’, unfussed with his relative obscurity, though happy to produce beats for everyone from Ghostface Killah to Kanye West - his Life Of Pablo hit ‘No More Parties In LA’ is likely Madlib’s biggest exposure yet. But this modesty diverts attention from a formidable work ethic and voracious thirst for the unfamiliar. Unlike many in the field, Madlib is an artist who will stray far from the strict confines of traditional hip hop, constructing the one-man avant jazz ensemble Yesterday’s New Quintet and jamming with heady rock groups like the German eclectics Embryo.

His approach is one of both avid reverence and playful misuse, keen to bust up or amplify the muck of any recording with his stubborn lo-fi aesthetic. The grooves are jilted but bump, what sounds like rudimentary equipment pushed to breaking point. This destructive tendency is balanced by the way he encourages you seek out the careers of those he pillages, often artists who up to that point had been lost through the passing of time.

He’s now on the promotional run-up to yet another release, Bandana his first collaboration with Freddie Gibbs since 2014’s Piñata. If Madlib is slightly reticent to hype up his output, Gibbs is more than happy to do the leg work for him. “We the best doing it (today),” he told Billboard recently, “you got Run the Jewels, and I love what they do, but what me and Madlib do? It stands alone.”

In light of this staggering new record, we look back upon ten key releases in a vast and varied career.

Madlib - Medicine Show #5, History Of The Loop Digga, 1990-2000 (2010)

Jumping forward to look back, this retrospective edition of the Madlib Medicine Show covers a decade long period from 1990-2000, a foggier chapter in the Madlib story. The beats here are often like premonitions of future work but in a more embryonic state. There’s a hefty influence from both dub and jazz, a sample source and musical framework, as well as a handful of rappers placed here and there across the proceedings - though this is largely an opportunity for the Loop Digga to run wild, unanchored to any one MC. No mere curio for obsessives, History Of The Loop Digga is a handy manual for those wishing to become better acquainted with Madlib’s inimitable style.

Lootpack - Soundpieces: Da Antidote! (1999)

“How many MCs do you know like this?” Asks the first track proper from Lootpack’s debut -and solidarity- record Soundpieces: Da Antidote! The repeated phrase an undie rap mantra if there ever was one. Despite a preoccupation with tearing down ‘wack MCs’ that can at times border on tiring, Madlib, Wildchild, and DJ Rome’s 1999 collaborative record is a quality debut of much promise, and you’d be hard pressed to find a better manifesto for Madlib than on ‘Crate Diggin’, where we find him “digging for them unordinary sounding loops, even if it’s not clean to thee”. All the prototypical Madlib-isms are at play here, or at least beginning to take shape, with the lo-fi bedlam, clunked out beat work, and above all the boundless sampling. One of the records key attractions, however, is the public introduction of a key player in the Madlib universe, the one and only, brick chucking squeaker himself, Lord Quas.

Quasimoto - The Unseen (2000)

The Unseen is Madlib’s first true classic, a world unto its own. Here we find Quasimoto, or Lord Quas, take centre stage, a helium voiced menace and all round ‘bad character’, both chiming with and sparring against Madlib’s own muttered bars. Madlib the MC lurks in the shadows here, lethargic and wary of attention. Madlib the loop digga, the beat maker and konducta, is comparatively omnipresent, melding the history of recorded music into a landscape straight out of the 1973 animated French classic La Planete Sauvage. A psychically scattered Lord Quas drives alongside, spouting bizarre observations, aimless tangents, and outlandish braggadocio. There’s such potential for novelty factor in Quas, in reality Madlib rapping over slowed down beats while high on shrooms, the recording then sped up resulting in a stark pitch shift. Yet remarkably, The Unseen proves Quas to be one of hip hop’s greatest characters and most instantly recognisable MCs.

Madlib - Blunted in The Bomb shelter (2002)

Dub is a music fixated on spaciousness, time lapsing into oblivion. Hip hop often serves a different function, its chopped samples propulsive and on beat – though the genre has clear roots that can be drawn back to Jamaican sound system culture. Madlib’s own hip hop often feels like it comes from a dub head, with notes drawn out and perspectives blunted. His own mix, appropriately titled Blunted In The Bomb Shelter, is a dub compilation made at the behest of seminal label Trojan Records. It’s put together almost like a hip hop mixtape, where classic cuts from the likes of Prince Far I and Horace Andy are played out for minute or two then dishevel into the next, subjected to all manner of bizarre and jarring splices. Blunted is a much a reggae comp as it is a window into the singular Madlib headspace.

Madlib - Shades Of Blue (2003)

Right off the bat, the listener is assured by the cover, that they are clearly in safe hands. Shades Of Blue is Madlib’s chopped-and-smooth take on the jazz label Blue Note’s peerless archive. It was a project the label themselves reached out for, obviously viewing Madlib as something of a kindred spirit despite the different musical world in which he largely operates. But then again, is that world all too different? The source material of this of this record, and the time in which its artists operated, has long been a gold mine in the world of hip hop, so why not ask one of the genres great scholars and historians to have his own focused stab the label’s roster. Across Shades Of Blue you’ll find some of Madlib’s lushest work, neither heavily distorted nor abstracted, the vintage sounds subtly remoulded in his image.

Jaylib - Champion Sound (2003)

“Who says producers ain’t supposed to rap?” A valid question from the and one and only J Dilla. Well, if anything, this collaboration between Madlib and Dilla acts as a one album rebuttal to that daft claim. Champion Sound may be somewhat overlooked in the broad discographies of Madlib and Dilla, often in favour of behemoths like Madvillainy or Donuts, yet with such a level of mutual respect displayed here, such palpable excitement - not least on ‘McNasty Filth’s’ triumphant chant of “We are in this mother fucker” - Champion Sound is self-evidently a classic. The setup is simple, Madlib raps over Dilla’s beats, then Dilla raps over Madlib’s. Throughout is a sound which shares spiritual ties with Dilla’s own Ruff Draft EP, an equally underrated release home to rough-and-ready bangers like ‘Wild’ and the aptly titled ‘Nothing Like This’. Champion’s own highlight is ‘The Heist’, a track that manages to salvage an actual groove out of the mucky canal corpse that is Throbbing Gristle’s ‘Persuasion’, a feat alone that sets the pair in a league of their own.

Madvillain - Madvillainy (2004)

Right from the offset. That whirring, a series of jolts then a grim lurching jazz groove, talk of villains “turned loose to strike terror into the hearts of men”. More concrète collage than typical hip hop beat, it’s analogue crackle now corrosive - yet underneath still a boom, grind, and manic glee. Madvillainy was always destined to be a landmark, a pairing of lethal potency. After all, in many ways MF DOOM is to rapping what Madlib is to beat making, an old head on quest for the new. Some of Madlib’s most accomplished and cluttered work collides against DOOM, whose equally cluttered bars rival perhaps only Kool Keith when it comes to their dense rhyme schemes and scattershot allusions. Just listen to the vaulting swagger of ‘America’s Most Blunted’, or the stunted sing-song of ‘Rainbows’, or perhaps the most widely known track, ‘Accordion’, where DOOM nonchalantly sputters lines like: “Living off bored time the clock ticks faster”, over Madlib’s seasick sway. This is that rare album whose mounds of praise are not the least bit undeserved.

Yesterday’s New Quintet - Yesterday’s Universe (2007)

Yesterday’s New Quintet is Madlib’s one-man jazz band. Given the prominence of jazz in his hip hop work, you might wonder if this venture is merely an indulgent vanity product, Madlib playing the part of his 60 and 70s idols. The breadth and growth of the project by the time of Yesterday’s Universe proves such cynicism to be foolish. It’s colossal, spanning everything from savvy 70s fusion to fucked future-skronk. Madlib the musician is increasingly muscular and sure footed, whether that be on bass, drums or xylophone, the line between sample and instrument more demolished than faded. You catch yourself dumbfounded by the musical chemistry, what genuinely sounds like an in the moment conversation between multiple - all in spite of the fact that this has all come from one mind, though clearly one with a hard-earned sense of intuition.

Madlib - Beat Konducta Vol 3-4: Beat Konducta In India (2007)

The Beat Konducta is as much archivist and intrepid explorer as he is arranger. You get the sense Madlib gets as much from the creation of this series’ instalments as we do from listening to them, like an extended research project into the specifics and capabilities of one style or sound. The volumes I hold most dearly are 3-4, his exploration into the music of India, his approach seamlessly melded into traditions he obviously holds in great regard. Again, what’s most instantly striking is the combination of non-fetishist reverence and inexhaustible invention. “Everything I do is so you go buy the old stuff,” he told The Wire back in 2009, “learn your history”.

Freddie Gibbs & Madlib - Bandana (2019)

For Freddie Gibbs and Madlib, Bandana feels like both an expansion and consolidation of their 2014 modern classic Piñata. Gibbs takes yet more risks than ever with both flows and lyricism, scattered references to the five percent nation found amongst his hyper-realist bars. “Supreme mathematics I’m on the right course,” he spits on ‘Flat Tummy Tea’, “took the sword and knocked white Jesus off of that white horse”. It’s the intoxicating assurance, already there on Piñata, but amplified greater still. ‘Crime Pays’ is gangster anthem as sublime ascension, launched space-wards by a time diluting, cosmic soul chorus. Then there’s pro-veterans Killer Mike and Pusha T trading bars on ‘Palmolive’, the taut trap of ‘Half Manne Half Cocaine’, and a succession of electrifying beat switches that push at the remits of both rapper and producer. This far in the game, Madlib might just have produced one of his very best records.