Friday, 22 October 2010

Madlib: An appreciation

Annie Mac famously argued that Flying Lotus was the Jimi Hendrix of the electronic generation. If that’s the case then Madlib is surely the Miles Davis. Always moving forwards, using mellow threads of ideas and invention to create tracks that leave others way behind. He is a DJ, mixer, remixer, rapper, producer and musician and is notoriously prolific – often releasing several albums a year.

Otis Jackson Jr (for that is he) was born in 1973 in Oxnard, California and has recorded as Quasimoto, Yesterday’s New Quintet and countless other aliases and has collaborated with Mos Def, De La Soul, Ghostface Killah, The Alkaholiks, Talib Kweli, MF DOOM and the late J Dilla to name but a few.

He began making music in his hometown with the group Lootpack in the early 1990s, an act who worked with another well known troupe the Alkoholics. His father, a respected jazz musician, started an independent label (Crate Diggas Palace Records) in 1996 to promote the crew and Lootpack soon caught the attention of Peanut Butter Wolf at Stone’s Throw who signed them up. Their debut LP introduced the signature Madlib style to the world as well as the character Quasimoto. A dark but amusing character that Madlib has turned to again and again throughout his career.

His first release under the guise of Quasimoto The Unseen was in 1999. The album, recorded while Madlib was on mushrooms, was met with critical acclaim and was regarded in hip hop circles as the album that showed a way out of the Golden Era of Hip Hop and onwards into unchartered waters. It was undoubtedly one of the albums of the decade and Quasimoto was named as Hip Hop Connection's Newcomer of the Year. The distinctive high-pitched voice of Lord Quas attained by playing the original beat at a slow speed, recording the vocals over that slow speed, then speeding the vocals along with the original beat back up to its original tempo really set him apart from his peers and most other modern music. The album contained a sense of humour which was both refreshing and lacking in much current hip hop and while not a huge seller, it raised Madlib’s credibility and there has been a buzz around him ever since.

It soon became apparent that Madlib was not only a notorious weed smoker but an obsessive beat digger with immensely varied tastes that covered genres as wide as latin, bollywood, psych, reggae, soul and jazz. In 2001, he took a turn away from hip hop per se, releasing his first Yesterdays New Quintet LP, Angles Without Edges. This moniker had a much more jazz influenced sound and was followed by a tribute to Stevie Wonder in 2002. This was a far sloppier and dirtier take on the interface of jazz and hip hop than say Guru’s Jazzmatazz series. His first album under the name Madlib, released in 2002, was a collection of old dub tracks. The second, Shades of Blue followed in 2003. The album features original Blue Note recordings, some remixed and resampled, and some replayed. The highlight is perhaps Ronnie Foster’s Mystic Brew which is time-stretched into double time.

2003 heralded the first of two collaboration projects. Working with the late hip hop producer J Dilla, Jaylib released Champion Sound. He then hooked up with MF DOOM for a record that features some of his best rhyming. The 2004 Madvillany album was well-received, topping many critics' year-end lists. For years, rumours of Madvillainy 2 and Jaylib 2 have circulated and there is talk that Madvillany 2 is imminent. His third two-volume Beat Konducta album, released in early 2009 Beat Konducta Vol 5-6: A tribute to is a 42-track piece dedicated to Dilla.

The 2005 Quasimoto album, The Further Adventures of Lord Quas was fairly well regarded but not really a patch on the first Quasimoto album by common consensus. It did however feature his hero Melvin Van Peebles (who he had extensively sampled on The Unseen. This was followed by a YNQ album called Sound Directions: The Funky Side of Life, marking his first collaboration with session musicians.

New Years Eve 2006 saw a a digital release Liberation with Talib Kweli while in August 2007 an instrumental hip hop album containing songs sampling the music of India(Beat Konducta Vol 3-4: Beat Konducta in India) was released. Another notable recording in the same year was Perseverance by Percee P which he produced in its entirety.

Yesterdays Universe completed the cycle of releases by Yesterdays New Quintet and introduced a new collection of artist names created by Madlib: The Jazzistics, The Young Jazz Rebels, Suntouch, The Jahari Massamba Unit, Kamala Walker & The Soul Tribe, The Last Electro-Acoustic Space Jazz & Percussion Ensemble, The Yesterdays Universe All-Stars, The Otis Jackson Jr. Trio, and The Eddie Prince Fusion Band. A number of these names have now got releases under their own names. The Last Electro-Accoustic Space Jazz record Miles Away is particularly good – playing homage to some of the greats of jazz.

He continues to move forwards – creating not only his own music but bringing out the best in others. He produced stand out tracks on both Erykah Badu’s and Mos Def’s recent albums (The Healer and Auditorium respectively). He is currently rumoured to be working with Kanye West on his new album.

In 2009, Jackson started Madlib Medicine Show, half based on unreleased original material, half based on mixes. This project consists of one record being released every month in 2010 - 6 original albums and 6 mixes – odd numbers consisting of original tracks and even numbers DJ mixes, prolific output by anyone’s standards. This has included his first foray into disco with Medicine Show 10.

In addition, he has undertaken a collaboration with Detroit rapper Guilty Simpson, called OJ Simpson and it is believed that he is currently working on the 3rd Quasimoto album, the 2nd Madvillain album with MF Doom, a project with Karriem Riggins in a Jaylib type of collaboration called Supreme Team, as well as other jazz records from the Yesterdays Universe imprit. There is no lack of material to emerge for sure.

One could argue that Madlib has yet to release a masterpiece album (although The Unseen is undoubtedly one of the most innovative hip hop albums of all time in many people’s opinions) but to expect him to do so almost misses the point. For Madlib the quest is for constant innovation, taking threads of ideas to create something new and then to move on to something else. His ability to unearth the rarest of samples and use them to create a memorable melody is unmatched (see his use of an old Bollywood sample on Mos Def’s Auditorium for example) and his albums and mixes often take the listener on a bizarre and fascinating journey of snatched samples across musical genres. His quality control is undoubtedly questionable and his studio techniques could even be deemed sloppy at times (often using simple technology) but in a strange sort of way this adds to his charm as a human dimension is clearly at play in his work. Perhaps Stone’s Throw could improve his oerall catalogue by limiting his releases but to do so would restrict the man’s prodigious talent and so we see his work warts and all. Madlib is never boring or predictable and for that reason alone he is unique and to be cherished.

For an excellent mix of Quasimoto material by DJ Troubl go here

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