The Obsessive Beat-Making of Madlibwww.newyorker.com - Hua Hsu
Madlib has always seemed more concerned with making music than with the question of what to do with it. The forty-seven-year-old producer and multi-instrumentalist has estimated that he makes hundreds of beats a week, many of which he never shares with anyone. His beats are a form of homage. He listens carefully to an old record, trying to squeeze every musical possibility out of it, to follow every path not taken. Sometimes it’s therapeutic. The week that Prince died, Madlib mourned by making tracks built on Prince samples. Following the death of his collaborator J Dilla, and then that of MF DOOM, he stayed awake for days, making hundreds of hours of music. Since the nineties, Madlib has essentially been building a private, ever-expanding library of beats, which spans everything from hip-hop, jazz, and soul to German rock, industrial music, Brazilian funk, and Bollywood. He has released dozens of albums under just as many aliases. Sometimes the aliases splinter off to form side projects. For Madlib, making music is as elemental as eating or sleeping, though he claims to do very little of the latter.
Madlib, born Otis Jackson, Jr., was brought up in Oxnard, California. His father was a soul singer, and his mother was a pianist. As a teen-ager, he and his brother, Michael, who raps and produces as Oh No, formed a hip-hop collective called the Crate Diggas Palace. Madlib’s first major release came in 1999, when the Lootpack, a trio made up of Madlib and his high-school friends Wildchild and DJ Romes, put out “Soundpieces: Da Antidote!” In the next few years, he began to channel his work ethic into a universe of alter egos. One of his most famous albums, “The Unseen,” from 2000, which is credited to an alter ego named Quasimoto, was the result of an experiment. He didn’t like the sound of his own voice, so he pitch-shifted his vocals and rapped from the perspective of a slick-talking, squeaky-voiced alien prankster with a fondness for marijuana.
In the early two-thousands, Madlib began applying the logic of hip-hop, where anything can be taken apart and put back together, to jazz music. He started by playing the melodies of his favorite tunes on the keyboard. Then he taught himself other instruments, which he played alongside samples, becoming a one-man ensemble. He invented a roster of jazz musicians with names like Monk Hughes, Ahmad Miller, and Joe McDuphrey. He wasn’t a virtuosic soloist; rather, his work skillfully pursued hazy textures and stoned vibes. His jazz noodling culminated in the excellent album “Pardon My French,” which came out last year—one of three credited to him in 2020. It was released by a group called the Jahari Massamba Unit, a collaboration between Madlib and the Detroit drummer and producer Karriem Riggins (who is real).
The combination of Madlib’s prolific output and his hesitancy to talk about it has turned him into a cult favorite. He often claimed to be clueless about when the backlog of albums he has recorded would actually see the light of the day, and it was a challenge to keep up with what he did get around to releasing. In recent decades, he has become one of the most respected producers of his generation, collaborating with Kanye West, Pusha T, Freddie Gibbs, and Erykah Badu, among others.
Madlib’s latest album, “Sound Ancestors,” will be released on January 29th, on his own Madlib Invazion imprint. It distills his eclectic, globe-trotting approach to beat-making, full of unlikely samples, slack drum loops, and a throbbing, pulsating bass that is more a feeling than a sound. The album was assembled by the d.j. and producer Kieran Hebden, who makes adventurous, forward-thinking dance music under the alias Four Tet. The two share a love of crate digging and of intentionally confusing monikers. Last year, Hebden released three albums, two as Four Tet and one as 00110100 01010100, in addition to an E.P. as ⣎⡇ꉺლ༽இ•̛)ྀ◞ ༎ຶ ༽ৣৢ؞ৢ؞ؖ ꉺლ.
Madlib and Hebden’s approach on “Sound Ancestors” calls to mind the engineer Teo Macero’s work, in the sixties and early seventies, collaging Miles Davis’s albums. In 2018, Madlib began the process of sending Hebden three hundred and fifty pieces of music, which Hebden eventually edited down to about forty minutes. The track “Hopprock” opens serenely, with a gentle, sawing cello, rain stick, chimes, and kalimba; a thick beat takes over, the chorus stitched together from sampled moans, sneers, wails, and coos. Madlib finds rhythm in the twirl of a flamenco guitar and in songs from the twitchy, twee U.K. post-punk band the Young Marble Giants. A vocal sample hints at his devotion to his craft: “Rising to the call / I give my life and all,” a singer cries, from beneath a crunchy, lurching sample of bass and keyboards.
If you’ve been on YouTube recently, you may have noticed the proliferation of videos like “lofi hip hop radio—beats to relax/study to,” which features an anime-style illustration of a young woman at her desk, wearing headphones. At a time when the Internet hectors and hails us at every turn, some of the most popular channels on YouTube live-stream hours of mellow, unassuming instrumental hip-hop that won’t distract you from your homework. ChilledCow, one of the best-known background-music accounts, with more than seven million subscribers, is curated by a man in his early twenties named Dimitri, who lives on the outskirts of Paris. His account once hosted a live stream that lasted for thirteen thousand hours.
The so-called lo-fi-beats subculture and its quest for the perfect vibe owes a lot to Madlib and to his fellow nineties and two-thousands producers like Fat Jon, J Dilla, and the late Nujabes. Last year, Madlib made tracks for a mindfulness app, full of off-kilter, stuttering drums and swirls of keyboard. Yet most lo-fi YouTube channels traffic in beats that are smooth and polished, delivered in an unyielding, unobtrusive ooze. Madlib and his peers made a style out of imperfection—the way drums sometimes lag a nanosecond behind, or a sampled loop where a background hiss becomes part of the beat. “I don’t like shit too perfect,” Madlib explained in an interview, in 2016. “I like some human mistake.”
You can sense his presence in those tiny blemishes. Madlib rarely raps anymore, but his personality comes through in the frayed, unfinished quality of his tracks. This feels like a sign of life, not of sloppiness. Amid the layers of guitar, drums, and chimes that make up the track “Riddim Chant” is a wisp of a vocal sample. It’s the sound of someone about to speak; her unfinished thought becomes part of the beat. One of the album’s best songs is “Two for 2—For Dilla,” which is built on hopped-up, almost fitful soul loops that mimic J Dilla’s style.
In mid-December, Madlib released “Road of the Lonely Ones,” the first single from “Sound Ancestors.” The track is constructed around a late-sixties soul gem by the Philadelphia group the Ethics. Fans online wondered if the song’s forlorn feel was meant as a tribute to J Dilla and to MF DOOM, who had died a few months prior. The original Ethics song is a delicate mea culpa, a wounded singer sweetly longing for a lover scorned. Madlib adds a drum loop and stretches out a sample of the chorus so that there’s an insistent falsetto cry in the background. It’s easy to miss and, once you notice it, impossible to ignore. The singer haunts his own track, and the song takes on a new and mysterious ache. Madlib doesn’t take the past as a given—it’s merely a possibility that has not yet been exhausted. ♦