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"He's always reading music books and the liner notes of old records," says Karriem Riggins, a jazz drummer and hip-hop producer, and part of Madlib's fusion projects Yesterdays Universe and Supreme Team. "We took a trip through the Midwest to dig for records in people's attics, and the entire time we were passing around his stack of old Down Beat magazines."
This reverence for the past, coupled with his inscrutable originality, has led to work with Talib Kweli, De La Soul, Mos Def, Erykah Badu and Ghostface Killah. Thom Yorke and Four Tet have remixed him too. Not to discount his commercially and critically rewarded collaborations, Madvillain and Jaylib, done with "musical cousins" MF Doom and J Dilla.
Indeed, Dilla's spirit still looms large, with Madlib dedicating a Beat Konducta record to him, and a portrait of the deceased legend hanging in the studio. Arguably the two best producers of their generation, the pair spurred each other to ascension, before complications from lupus felled Dilla in 2006.
"When Dilla was alive," says Wolf, "he would always say that Madlib was the best. Neither was very talkative, so when they'd get together they'd sometimes just grunt to communicate. It was almost telepathic."
But Madlib disagrees: "Dilla was a John Coltrane–type dude. He was always on a higher level than me. He inspired my music to become looser and more soulful. If you look at our beat tapes, you can see when I went in his direction, and when he went in mine."
There's no such thing as a casual Madlib fan, with a rabid cult consuming anything he releases. It's not all great, but it's always interesting. And while he may not have as many fans as Kanye West, he has Kanye West for a fan, with the Chicago rapper/producer putting five Madlib beats on hold for his new album. Of course, he won't reveal this unless you accidentally lean into his backless chair and nearly tumble to the floor. Then he will laugh, tell you that "Kanye West did the same thing," and motion to zip his lips before you can ask for elaboration.
Which raises the specter that the compromise-averse leader of the Young Jazz Rebels may be a part of the biggest album of the year. Not like that would change anything. At a time when Eminem is writing 12-step odes to sobriety, Madlib is one of the few who truly does not give a fuck.
"I do it for myself and for like-minded people. Half the time I don't know why I make what I do." He flashes a Loki-like smirk. "I'd do this if no one was listening. I'm stuck. I've got the curse."
SHADOWS OF THE UNSEEN
Madlib emerges on Memorial Day. No excuse is given for the absence. It's 24 hours before his scheduled trip to Copenhagen, where he's supposed to discuss possible collaborations with German Krautrock legends Embryo. A final interview time is set for the following afternoon, one hour before he leaves for the airport. This becomes a promise of a phone interview on the way to LAX, which evolves into a call between security check-in and boarding. Soon, it's revealed that he's missed his flight, left the airport and gone dark again. Only he and the surveillance cameras know the answer.
But answers aren't the point. Like Banksy and Burial, the cloak of partial anonymity only feeds the fervor. There's no sense of contrivance nor any hint of put-on. In an environment where shameless self-promotion, technology and a surfeit of media sources have created a false air of omniscience, Madlib has retained a sense of mystique. He's a regular dude with irregular gifts, a skull hermetically sealed by sound, so much that the outside world has no bearing. Not only does he refuse to court commercial and critical tastes, but he ignores their very existence, exchanging modernity's jittery zeitgeist with an analog romanticism for the days of crates of wax and weed.
Madlib doesn't need any of the trappings of success. He's content to loom in the background and create alternate cosmologies — aware that it's always better to be heard than to be seen. After all, he may be the last person left whom we allow to disappear.
ENTER THE MADLIBRARY
A voracious reader with a book-a-week habit, Madlib selected a few of his favorite tomes.
Turn Off Your Mind: The Mystic Sixties and the Dark Side of the Age of Aquarius
By Gary Valentine Lachman
"Written by Blondie's original bassist, it's about witchcraft and magic from the '60s until now: everything from spiritualism to voodoo, people trying to help the universe and people who do evil."