The Madlib Mystique
PHOTO BY STAR FOREMANWhile Madlib may not have as many fans as Kanye West, he has Kanye West for a fan.
Madlib is nowhere to be found. Peanut Butter Wolf, the head of his label, Stones Throw, doesn't know where he is. Despite repeated phone calls, Eothen (Egon) Alapatt, the imprint's general manager, hasn't heard back in 48 hours. J. Rocc, one of his best friends, is baffled too. They were supposed to have gone record shopping yesterday, but "shit came up." Currently, Madlib is missing the rare interview appointment, but the unexpected is expected. So long as he turns up around Memorial Day, a few hours before his flight to Copenhagen for a potential collaboration four days from now, no one's about to put out an Amber Alert.
After all, it might not be clear who to look for. There's Otis Jackson Jr., the government name of the Oxnard-born "Beat Konducta," a man so enigmatic and elusive his own brother gave him the alias "Hollow Man." You could check for one of the members of his fictional jazz ensemble, Yesterdays New Quintet: Ahmad Miller, Monk Hughes, Malik Flavors or Joe McDuphrey. Or maybe you'd inquire about Quasimoto, his helium-voiced, psilocybin-propelled alter ego. Of course, Lord Quas couldn't keep clandestine long — he's loud, prone to branding himself "America's Most Blunted," and the only person Madlib claims he doesn't get along with. But they do share one thing — like Quasimoto's debut-album title, they are "the unseen."
Speculating on Madlib's whereabouts is futile. Forget Twitter — he doesn't even use e-mail. The interstellar infinity of his music indicates liberation from the limitations of gravity and time. Granted, he exists as blood and marrow: two children, lives in a real home in Eagle Rock, and the Gregorian Calendar claims that he's 36. However, he is best understood as myth. In a society with a vampiric lust for information, our primitive neuroprocessors still compute in archetypes. Madlib is the man who wears masks, the witch doctor, the star of the medicine show.
It's possible that the absence is due to personal business, or to something wholly pedestrian. But it's unwise to rule out the possibility that he's been abducted and is currently circling the constellations like his jazz analogue Sun Ra, or washing dishes in the same speakeasy where Malcolm X waited tables (if you're to believe his official Stones Throw bio). Most likely, he'll emerge from this fugue with several finished albums, several more finished blunts and without an explanation for his adventures. But no explanation is needed. We're dealing with Madlib and when you're dealing with Madlib, you quickly realize that you're going to have to fill in the blanks.
BLUNTED IN THE (NEW) BOMB SHELTER (THREE MONTHS PRIOR)
The Loop Digga's Hideaway is located on the top floor of what used to be the Highland Park Masonic temple — a neo-Renaissance revival façade with weathered red-brick walls and a faded gray frieze studded with pentagrams and the Masonic square and compass. A Mexican bakery occupies the ground floor and the sweet smell of pan de leche and pastel del queso colors the air as you ascend the dimly lit stairwell leading to the top floor. Midway through, the scent abruptly shifts, blossoming into a danker, pungent aroma, offering a different indulgence.
At the top floor, you discover Madlib, the Loop Digga himself, wearing a black skully hat, baggy blue jeans and a pinball-sized silver ring — surrounded by samplers, CDs, cassette decks, 4- and 8-track recorders, keyboards and drum kits. No computers. Instead there are records stacked so high they seem like obelisks. A collection described by J. Rocc as filled with the most "dirty and dusty LPs imaginable." Not just hip-hop, jazz and soul. Everything from witchcraft records and Detroit techno to obscure German Krautrock. Calling Madlib a crate-digger is like describing Albert Ayler as a saxophone player — barely accurate. Madlib doesn't just collect records, he revolutionizes them. And the thousands of albums crammed into the three-room space aren't some completist fetish, they're functional tools.
Everyone can listen to music, but Madlib's ears detect alternate frequencies. He's a ghost-whisperer summoning analog ancestors — a ferocious Bootsy Collins bass line, a Mario Van Peebles film clip, a half-bar Hugh Masekela horn blast, an extemporaneous Redman ad-lib, a funky-but-forgotten Mantronix drum break. A mad scientist breaking beats down to their molecular level, seamlessly stitching loops and reshaping them into something with preternatural groove.
"He has records from almost every nation," says his frequent collaborator, hard-boiled Detroit rapper Guilty Simpson. "He doesn't just buy them to sample. He wants to understand each song. He doesn't need to know the language to realize musicality."
The only constant is that he's constantly working. Some days, he'll make a single beat, others he'll fill up an entire CD-R. In 2010, there are plans to release 16 albums, but that's a conservative estimate. There are 12 volumes of Madlib's Medicine Show: half original music, half mixtapes (Brazilian Tropicalia, African-psych reggae, prog-rock, jazz, soul). Additionally, he has produced entire albums for Guilty Simpson and Strong Arm Steady, plus two jazz records — one under the guise Young Jazz Rebels, the other as the Last Electro-Acoustic Space Jazz and Percussion Ensemble.
So it's understandable that Earl Grey and scones aren't rolled out to any iPad hack with a blog. "Interviews are my least favorite thing to do," he says politely, constantly rifling through records, while resisting reductive analysis. This is his first American interview since 2006, because he has better things to do — engulfed in a ceaseless surge of creativity, sleeping only two or three hours a night and fueled by coffee and Lucas Valley OG, the strain of medical marijuana he's currently incinerating. Should the fumes become too tantalizing, he will offer both weed and Swisher Sweets for you to roll your own.
"How are you going to be around me and not smoke? That's like being around George Clinton and not smoking the rock," he jokes, producing the sequoia-colored pot, the kind of cosmic chronic that will have you visualizing Ewoks and light sabers, and composing blunted beat orchestras in your head. Or not. Since technology made it possible to acquire production software FruityLoops and an omnivore's musical library in 24 hours, everyone's been chopping samples. But Madlib has proven that it isn't about collection or studio tools.
"The equipment doesn't matter, it's the vibe you put into it. If music sounds good, music sounds good," he says, so secure in his gifts that there is only objectivity. It's a brilliance that defies intellectualization: There is no formula, and attempting to divine causal relationships is futile. You can connect the dots to his immediate lineage, hip-hop producers Pete Rock, DJ Premier and Marley Marl. Or you can plumb deeper to the protean prolificacy of Frank Zappa, David Axelrod, Miles Davis or any of the canonized jazzmen. But they were all intensely collaborative, while Madlib prefers studio solitude. You can even note the inspiration and influences inherited from his close friend and collaborator, J Dilla. But like the ODB, there is no father to his style.
THE EARLIER ADVENTURES OF LORD QUAS
There was once the young Otis Jackson Jr., who grew up in Oxnard in an absurdly musical household. Otis Sr. is a bandleader and session musician who worked with Tina Turner and Bobby "Blue" Bland, and his mother, Sinesca, is a songwriter and guitarist. His uncle Jon Faddis is a world-renowned trumpet player and academic, mentored by Dizzy Gillespie.
"Everyone in our family makes music, so he's always been doing it," says his younger brother Michael Jackson, better known as the rapper/producer Oh No. "We'd always stay with our uncle in Oakland. We were supposed to share a room, but he'd constantly be in the room with the records, listening to Count Basie."
While he played drums in a band, Jackson Jr. gravitated to hip-hop, teaching himself to DJ and to use a sampler, gleaning production technique from watching his father in the studio. An instinctive autodidact, he was aware that it's easier to defy the rules when you haven't been officially instructed. After he scored a few production and rapping credits with tha Alkaholiks, a 1996 12-inch from his crew Lootpack (with Wildchild and DJ Romes) attracted the attention of Peanut Butter Wolf, then running Stones Throw from San Francisco.
Wolf moved the label to Los Angeles circa 2000, in part to be closer to a perennially hard-to-reach Madlib, and Lootpack's debut LP helped Stones Throw gain stature in a then-flooded underground market. Shortly thereafter, the gnomish Quasimoto emerged from a monthlong mushroom binge, heralding Jackson's mutant creativity and iconoclasm. Bored with hip-hop ("I grow tired of it every three or four years"), he rapidly taught himself the Fender Rhodes, the upright bass and the vibraphone, and formed Yesterdays New Quintet, which has released tribute albums to Stevie Wonder and Weldon Irvine, and splintered into an incalculable amount of side projects — almost all of them exclusively Madlib.
"I'd start to throw a coffee cup away and he'd tell me to stop. When I looked closer, I'd realize that he had put pennies in them for percussion," Peanut Butter Wolf says, reminiscing about the days when Madlib turned their collective home's family room into a makeshift rehearsal space. "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. He seemed to be doing it because he loved it, not because he necessarily wanted to improve."
Out of this chameleonic chaos came sanctioned remix records of the Blue Note and Trojan Records catalogs, a broken beat homage under the moniker DJ Rels, a Brazilian jazz record with Ivan Conti, and Beat Konducta records plundering blaxploitation sound tracks and Bollywood. But behind the cartoonish alter egos and weed-worship lurked a serious scholasticism.
"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."
Million Dollar Mistakes: Steering Your Music Career Clear of Lies, Cons, Catastrophes, and Landmines
By Moses Avalon
"This book talks about the mistakes to avoid making in the music industry. I'll always work with Stones Throw, but I'm trying to start my own label to release my old material and sign new artists. I want to do everything from rock, to jazz, to electronic, to noise records and movie sound tracks. Both sampled and original music. People only know me for what they've heard, but that only represents about 10 percent of what I've done."
Motown: Music, Money, Sex, and Power
By Gerald Posner
"It's about the dirty stuff: Marvin Gaye causing problems, the Supremes fighting, all the behind-the-scenes conflicts."
And Party Every Day: The Inside Story of Casablanca Records, By Larry Harris
"The crazy, coked-up stories of one of the biggest labels of the disco era — the home of Donna Summer and KISS. I don't like drama in my life, but I like reading about it. I'm fascinated by those times and wish I could've been making music back then."
The Biggest Secret: The Book That Will Change the World
By David Icke
"It talks about the things that people don't know about the government, what's going to happen in 2012, conspiracies, the stuff that people worry about."
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