By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
When Madlib began making music in the late '90s, he did so from Oxnard, California. Oxnard seems like a suitably out-of-the-way place for an artist as left-field as Madlib—born Otis Jackson Jr. in 1973 and equally singular as a rapper and producer—but it seems just as noteworthy that the city is near Los Angeles but not in or of it. Oxnard's position away from the public eye enabled Madlib to woodshed, make mistakes, learn, and come up with something wholly original seemingly by accident, so that by the time the world at large noticed, he seemed to have arrived fully formed.
Madlib did come up with something original, and most of the time his spacey beats, gritty timbres, and offhanded MC-ing sounded (and continue to sound) like an accident. Logically enough, his music often sneaks up on you. Take the two albums he's made as Quasimoto, his most famous alias (of about a dozen). I took home 2000's The Unseen because I liked the cover art—a cartoon rendering of Quas (who looks like the chain-smoking cousin of Cerebus the Aardvark) carrying a brick through a Day-Glo dystopia. "Well," I thought, "this probably won't sound like anything else I've heard today."
Or for the next four months, which is about the amount of time I played The Unseen on a daily basis. Quasimoto is the sound of Madlib speeding his voice up into an androgynous twitter that recalls nothing so much as "Camille," the alter ego Prince used for a handful of tracks on 1987's Sign 'O' the Times. Quasimoto's found samples are messy, his drums crisp, and nothing stays put. "Jazz Cats, Pt. 1" is built upon a couple of stuttering bass notes and decaying cymbal washes, punctuated by occasional horn stabs and vibraphone clinks. Noise is supposed to interrupt music; here, it's the other way around. "Microphone Mathematics" is hooked by a fleeting, seemingly overheard horn part that, near the end, is doubled before it moves to the fore—but only for a few seconds, before the track fades out to applause. The Unseen sounds both tossed-off and visionary, as if this sleepy-eyed kid was serving notice on the "jazzy" "downtempo" of the just-finished decade by jumping the tempo and refusing to stick to any one loop for more than a minute.
The Unseen, along with Lootpack's 1999 debut, Soundpieces: Da Antidote, established the Madlib template: lotsa short tracks packed with gnarled jazz trinkets, sticky snares, and surface noises evoking close-ups of the moon and/or late-night TV as seen through bong smoke. But even if you figure out his basic principles, he can still baffle you. Months after I dismissed Quasimoto's 2005 follow-up, The Return of Lord Quas, as a tired retread, I heard it over the P.A. while record shopping. It sounded fantastic. Madlib may be godhead for headphone lovers, but he also may be even better overheard.
You'll pardon me for leaving out the dozens of other recordings he's been involved with, from the drowsy jazz-funk of Yesterdays New Quintet (whose five members are all Madlib alter egos), to his collaborations with MF Doom (as Madvillain) and Jay Dee (as Jaylib), his production work for Medaphoar and Dudley Perkins, and the DJ mixes he created from the Blue Note and Trojan catalogues—I've got a word count here. Instead, let us turn our attention to The Beat Konducta Vol. 1-2: Movie Scenes, the Madlib album released in March by Stones Throw Records. In some ways, the record is the most audacious distillation of his style to date: With 35 shape-shifting tracks crammed inside an hour, it's apparently meant to be the score of a movie inside Madlib's head. Actually, it's a little more like a hip-hop version of an extremely productive night rooting around on YouTube: You probably already know some of the music involved, but you've never heard it quite this way before.
Take "The Payback (Gotta)," which dislocates James Brown's 1974 masterpiece by ignoring the chicken-scratch guitar that marks the original and instead concentrating on the tense opening, setting it adrift in a bucolic haze. A prissy piano dodges through a huffing, puffing horn section on the 78-second gem "Tape Hiss (Dirty)." On "Pyramids (Change)," he carves a little slice of disco heaven from lip-glossy keyboards and a skittering beat before upending it with cut-up spoken-word samples of creative pronunciations of the N word.
If all of this sounds solipsistic, well, it is. Madlib's songs are less about situations, people, or events than other records; several tracks on the Quasimoto albums essentially consist of him reciting other musicians' names for two or three minutes. But the idea of creating your own scene when there isn't one to be found in the immediate vicinity has fueled music a lot less engrossing than Madlib's. And if all else fails, he can always go back to the woodshed. It's worked pretty well so far.