The Unseen Medicine Man
by Vaughan Smith
Since the early months of 2010, Madlib has released over sixteen albums.That's not even including the many one-off produced beats for artists such as Mos Def, DOOM and Erykah Badu. The bulk of this prolific output was distributed through his home-label Stones Throw. Ten of those albums have been a part of his bold album-a-month project featuring his original productions, jazz ensembles and his hugely eclectic mixtapes. The name of this brazen audio caravan is the 'Madlib Medicine Show'. And just like the brightly painted merchant wagon-trains of yesteryear, Madlib is stocking goods for every possible musical ailment: hip-hop, soul, afro-funk, reggae, jazz, psychedelic, disco and more. Eschewing the connotations with snake-oil salesmen, with his Medicine Show series, Madlib is instead firmly cementing his reputation amongst fans, MCs and fellow producers as a veritable medicine man. In underground hip-hop, Madlib is like a voodou shaman, someone you go to humbly with pieces of silver, hoping in return for a performance that will conjure the incredible, magical, sacred and the profane. Traditionally, shaman are occluded from our communities and what they do in seclusion is what makes them unique: "I'm like a hermit. I'm on my own shit. Like the black sheep... I'm like always zonin' out. Meditating and shit."1 Whatever Madlib does out of sight, it appears to be working. Since the 1996 self-funded "Lootpack" 12-inch, he has produced or performed on over 100 albums and singles.
Born and raised Otis Jackson Jr. in Oxnard, California to a musical family, Madlib specifically credits his R&B singer father with charging his musical career: "When I was a young cat, he took me to shows with him, or the studio... I just watched the whole thing. And that's how I learned the process."2 It is this process that for Madlib is the key difference between himself and other producers and DJs: "My studio's basic: mad records, I don't have no computers... I just have my 303 sampler, or SP12 and just records. And a little eight digital board. That's all I need."3 In the age of FruityLoops, Ableton Live and ProTools, it is hard to imagine such a prolific artist working with such limited 'ghetto' equipment. Yet this is all an important part of Madlib's devotion to the past, his dedication to the traditions of his forefathers in hip-hop. In short, Madlib's music is a reverent expression of communion with his legendary 4 tons of vinyl. To listen to Madlib is to listen with his own ears to his stylus cruising through dust and dirt on the dopest tracks. His musical sample choices appear to be from a pure musical love, not any conscious thought or commercial intent. His lauded beat creations are the results from a strict freestyle mantra: "whatever you pick up; you gotta use."4 This hands on, instant beat construction approach is best heard in his various instrumental Beat Konducta volumes, where every track sounds like it's a slippery newborn. Beats so perfectly refined to their barest rhythmic scrap that it's possible to imagine that we are hearing him live at work. Deftly flicking pans, twisting knobs, punching loops until out comes the fully-formed quintessential Madlib beat: raw, straight-up samples littered with rough grabs of his favourite 1970's stand-up comics and blaxploitation films. The result is somehow pristine yet ancient. Hilarious or disturbing in its dissonance with normal broadcast reality. Drumbeats and bass-lines are razored within an inch of their lives. Other times, riffs or melodies are left to sing mercifully whole. Each of Madlib's beats act like a museum curator of his private history of music and black culture: "Everything I do is so you go buy the old stuff, learn your history."5
His use of mostly analog equipment is also reflective of his mistrust of other producers, engineers and, ironically, fellow remixers:"I don't want nobody messing with my shit. I seen how people tamper with other people's music. It's like how I do with other people's music. I don't want no one fucking my shit up, making, I don't know, a house version of 'Curls'… You know? I seen what happens. I want to have my stuff out there as it's supposed to be."6Madlib's remedy against this tampering is to master only two-channel mixes of every beat. No sequence tracks or ProTools exports, nothing but a stereo mixdown. He doesn't even log the samples used in tracks: "'cause I'm just fucking around and freestyling. Some of 'em might be so way out, 'cause I'm just using whatever I have. I don't remember the samples I use. Hell no."7 All of this free-form production must be infuriating for audio engineers and the label's sample clearance team but Madlib is truly autonomous in the studio. Nine times out of ten, he won't even turn up to a 'collaboration' excepting the rare occasion when working with friends like DOOM and J Dilla. Madlib is much more content to simply send an MC half a dozen CD-R's of beats and let them choose what they want on their album. Like a 16th century fresco where the pigments are wedded to the plaster, Madlib's collaborators can lay extra tracks down on top but they can't pick his beats apart.
Madlib has also created a unique jazz canon which again reflects his enduring demand for a strictly hermitical studio life. Yesterdays New Quintet first premiered in 2000 with the album Angles Without Edges. Peopled by a cast of musicians straight from Madlib's imagination, he himself performs all keyboards, percussion, vibes, bass and samples. These numerous fictional alumni would later go on to people more than a dozen jazz records over the next ten years. Although these releases are often optimistically shelved in the hip-hop record section, Madlib is adamant about his roots: "I knew jazz before hip-hop."8 His former house-mate and Stones Throw label owner Peanut Butter Wolf recalls the birth of YNQ: "He'd make do with what he had. There was an upright bass with just one string and he'd still use it effectively. He was insane on the drums too. I'd wake up to the sound of him playing to jazz records for hours."9 Madlib, however, looks back on the past decade of his jazz explorations with a more sober perspective: "YNQ is when I first started. How you gonna do a record when you first start? I had to do it to show, okay I'm fucked up now, but keep moving up, move up, move up. Or go down, whatever you choose."10
Regardless of success or failure, it was clear that from the outset that YNQ was not sheer indulgence but real passion backed with real knowledge of jazz. From the first Quasimoto album with it's jazzhead record store skits to Sun Ra's "Shadow of Tomorrow" poem making an appearance on the Madvillain LP, it is clear that jazz couldn't stay away from Madlib's musical ambitions. His truly wonderful Blue Note album Shades of Blue leaps light-years ahead of the typical "remix" album that one suspects was the original intention of the commissioning label executives. Given unheard of access to the Blue Note vaults, Madlib makes some surprising choices in material. Again, flying in the face of other labels cynically modernising their slow-moving jazz catalogue with the aid of a trendy DJ and choosing the mandatory hits, Madlib instead concentrated on his personal heroes and the mostly passed-over mid-‘60's to mid-‘70's period. Shades of Blue is not just an amazing record with excellent YNQ reinterpretations but is also a loving mixtape of Madlib's favourite unsung artists.
His continuing explorations in jazz with numerous YNQ offshoots including The Last Electro-Acoustic Space Jazz & Percussion Ensemble and Young Jazz Rebels also reflect Madlib's nostalgic taste for 1970's jazz fusion. The cover-art of these albums is styled pre-worn and often contains retro-dated liner notes with fictional reviews and biographies. The tracks themselves are either dedicated to greats such as John Coltrane and Phil Ranelin or are seasonal tone-poems. They explode into life with high energy and bright colour but seem to float across the aural landscape, unimpeded by any strong melody or distinct soloing. With Madlib generally playing all of the instruments, the entire composition is essentially a collection of solos from start to end but the music often lacks character. So, despite all of the effort in colourful biographies, no unique individual personality captures our attention and grabs centre stage. Madlib seems to intentionally hide behind the cyclical washes of cymbals and keyboards provided by his pseudonymous bandmates.
Madlib's intensely private studio habits, make-believe ensembles and fictional sleeve notes continue to disguise the personality behind the music, the shaman beneath the veil. What they do reveal however is his past, or at the very least, his past listening. Just like his helium-voiced alter-ego Quasimoto - the Unseen, Madlib is clearly happiest in anonymity and concealment: "I'm a background type of dude."11
1. Madlib Interview by Adrian Schraeder, UrbanSmarts.com, 14th October 2004
2. The Crate Mass Experiment by Lisa Blanning, The Wire, Issue 306, August 2009
3. Madlib Interview by Adrian Schraeder, UrbanSmarts.com, 14th October 2004
4. "The Crate Mass Experiment" by Lisa Blanning, The Wire, Issue 306, August 2009
6. Madvillain by Eothen Alapatt, Wax Poetics, Issue 8, Spring 2004
8. The Crate Mass Experiment by Lisa Blanning, The Wire, Issue 306, August 2009
9. The Madlib Mystique by Jeff Weiss, LA Weekly, June 24th 2010
10. The Crate Mass Experiment by Lisa Blanning, The Wire, Issue 306, August 2009
11. Madlib Interview by Adrian Schraeder, UrbanSmarts.com, 14th October 2004
|MAIN PAGE||ARTICLES||STAFF/FAVORITE MUSIC||LINKS|