Warning: the surgeon general has determined that the sounds you’re about to hear could be devastating to your ear. Take a deep breath — inhale — and fill your lungs with Madlib. In nearly three decades, few have released as much music, of such quality, under so many different guises and styles as the DJ, rapper, and beatmaker extraordinaire born Otis Jackson Jr. His discography comprises more than (an estimated) 60 albums, and can be intimidating to the uninitiated. As his record tally rises again with the release of Bandana, Madlib’s second album-length collaboration with Freddie Gibbs, here’s a rundown of why any new Madlib music has the hip-hop world on tenterhooks.
To understand Madlib, you must first understand what came before Madlib. Specifically, that means Madlib’s dad Otis Jackson Sr — the soul singer behind such ’70s hits as “Beggin’ For a Broken Heart” — and his mom Dora Sinesca Faddis-Jackson, who is credited with writing many of Otis Sr’s tunes. That musical heritage runs deep in Madlib’s music, with soul and funk providing samples for such records as Piñata (his first album with Gibbs) and Madvillainy, his almost untouchable collaboration with metal-faced rap enigma MF DOOM. Take Madvillainy’s gorgeous “Operation Lifesaver AKA Mint Test,” which incorporates the psychedelic funk guitar of George Duke’s 1975 track “Prepare Yourself.” Shimmering beneath those grumbly raps, this unerring sample use is testament that Madlib — as DOOM puts it elsewhere on the album — has “got more soul than a sock with a hole.”
Though he often leaves the bars to MCs like DOOM and Gibbs, Madlib — like fellow producers J Dilla and Kanye West — has tried his hand at rapping too. And — unlike Dilla and Kanye — he’s actually quite good, most notably when operating as his squeaky voiced alter ego Quasimoto. With his voice pitched up (supposedly due to insecurity), Lord Quas raps about anything from police discrimination to forgetting the limes for his Coronas. Albums like 2000’s The Unseen and 2013’s Yessir Whatever are the most comprehensive exhibitions of Madlib’s lyrical side, but check his verses on Soundpieces: Da Antidote from 1999, the first and only album by Madlib’s OG rap group Lootpack. “Questions” and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4 soundtrack cut “Whenimondamic” are two of many highlights.
In case it’s not already clear, Madlib has always been more than a hip-hop producer. Among his many pseudonyms (seriously check out his Discogs alternative aliases list) are Monk Hughes, Ahmad Miller, Joe McDurfey, and Malik Flowers, all of whom are members of Madlib’s jazz band Yesterday’s New Quintet and all of whom are widely believed to be fictitious creations, with Madlib playing every instrument in the group. YNQ album Angles Without Edges is probably the second-most surprising left-turn in Madlib’s oeuvre (stay tuned for number one), but his defining jazz work is the 2003 remix album Shades of Blue. Tasked with reworking the back catalog of seminal jazz label Blue Note, Madlib turned his turntablist attention to tunes by Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Ronnie Foster, whose “Mystic Brew” — as previously used in A Tribe Called Quest’s “Electric Relaxation” — provides the bassline for Madlib’s slinking “Mystic Bounce.”
Shades of Blue was a milestone for Madlib and for hip-hop, the mark of a producer using the studio as a musical instrument in ways first pioneered by dub reggae legends like Lee Scratch Perry. It’s not the only demonstration of Madlib’s dub credentials: there’s a bass-heavy undercurrent to many of his productions, like “Killin’ It,” his contribution to Tha Alkaholiks’ 1997 album Likwidation, and “Episode XXVII” from Medicine Show No. 5: History of the Loop Digga: 1990-2000. The connection is solidified on Blunted in the Bomb Shelter, a fantastically underrated Madlib mix from 2002, chosen from the archives of vital British reggae label Trojan Records. Expect tunes from dub legends The Upsetters, King Tubby, and Prince Far I among trademark Madlib production flourishes like vinyl crackle and plenty of public-service-announcement-style vocals.
Yet perhaps the most obvious alien in the Madlib universe is his foray into broken beat (aka BRUK), the short-lived syncopated house style that grew out of London in the late ’90s. 2004’s Theme for a Broken Soul is Madlib’s clubbiest record, comparable in sound to the early, post-garage folktronica of Four Tet or a few of rave pioneers 4hero’s more obscure side-projects. Despite that — and despite being credited to DJ Rels, another fictional creation whose “real name” is down in the liner notes as “J. Relmond” — it still sounds like Madlib, with every hop-scotching beat underscored by a squidgy, squirming bassline, the sort that could only ever be his work.
That singular style — tapping into the sweetest few seconds of an obscure record, slicing it in among other samples and watching them sashay together — has earned Madlib a spot at hip-hop’s top table. Among his many collaborations to date are records with MED, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Erykah Badu, Georgia Ann Muldrow, and Kanye West, with whom Madlib produced 2016’s “No More Parties In LA.” The most telling collab of all is Champion Sound, a 2003 album produced in tandem with the late great J Dilla, and a meeting of minds between two of hip-hop’s greatest ever producers.
When Dilla died of the rare blood disease thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura in 2006, Madlib responded with two tribute albums, Beat Konducta Vol. 5-6 (or the Dil Withers and Dil Cosby suites). These blissful, psyched-out jams were not just Madlib mourning his friend; they were educated imaginings of the music Dilla might have made had he still been alive. They were also a striking reminder of two of the only producers capable of captivating, front-to-back instrumental hip-hop albums.
Because for all Madlib may be, be it fictional jazz band leader, crate-digging reggae fan, high-pitched rapper or ravenous remixer, he is, first and foremost, a stone-cold producer of irresistible hip-hop beats. His magic touch has been cultivated through an appetite for all corners of music — and little else. According to popular belief, Madlib doesn’t have a mobile phone and doesn’t use the internet, spending his time instead by making music and scouring through record stores (and presumably putting in a few hours with his family). His deployment of samples is unrivaled, splicing together trailers from 1940s films, live jazz recordings, and ’60s psych-rock all in the same record. The quote that started this article — the “surgeon general” warning — was used in History of the Loop Digga, sampled from the 1969 Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act, a warning against the dangers of tobacco.
And he keeps getting better. Madlib’s last album with Freddie Gibbs, 2014’s Piñata, is his best record to date (don’t @ me). Well, at least until the dust settles on Bandana.
- Words: Sam Davies