Madlib Muses on Methods Behind His Madness
The quiet, brilliant beat-builder discusses jazz, DOOM, Kanye, 'Piñata,' and future moves.
Sometime around 1985, an 11-year-old Otis Jackson Jr. sampled his first song. Plucking an album from his dad’s collection, he tinkered with “Sucker” from Doing It To Death, a 1973 record by James Brown’s old funk outfit the J.B.’s. Inspired by pioneering hip-hop producers like the 45 King, Marley Marl, and Ultramagnetic MCs’ Ced Gee, the kid was trying to figure out how they managed to make beats without a band. Jackson doesn’t share any thoughts regarding the actual quality of his “Sucker”-based beat, but knowing that said tween grew up to be Madlib — one of the deftest and most versatile DJs/producers in hip-hop history — it’s plausible that even his crudest rip had a glimmer of genius.
Since getting off the ground in the early ’90s, Madlib’s career has racked up highlight after highlight: the high-pitched, shrooms-induced raps of his MC alter ego Quasimoto; the brainy, blunt-smoke-scented hijinks of MF DOOM 2004 collab Madvillainy; Super Friends-style team-ups with a bunch of other artists (J Dilla, Talib Kweli, Percee P, Guilty Simpson); assists on albums by Erykah Badu, Ghostface Killah, and De La Soul; his creation of a fictional jazz band called Yesterdays New Quintet; and multiple solo series, like his Beat Konducta and Madlib Medicine Show volumes. He samples anything he can get his paws on — jazz, soul, prog rock, samba, R&B, Indian music, African music, other hip-hop albums, whatever — and generates beats at a staggering clip. In 2012, he estimated that he makes upward of a dozen records a year.
But for as generous as he is with his music, the beatsmith is remarkably thrifty — occasionally miserly — with his words. He rarely grants interviews and is tough to pin down. Once you finally get a hold of the guy, he’s polite and pensive but also very quiet and to-the-point. That said, he did give SPIN a half-hour in advance of March 18’s Piñata (formerly Cocaine Piñata) — his first full-length with Freddie Gibbs — that left behind 10 topics to chew on.
1. Madlib’s record collection > half an African elephant
Stones Throw Records, the anything-goes label that’s housed much of Madlib’s discography, is the focus of a new documentary called Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton. Taking that title literally, Madlib’s vinyl collection, which is housed in his L.A. studio near Stones Throw’s HQ, has that figure beat — four times over. “I’ve got about three or four rooms of records, and two rooms of instruments. I’ve probably got more than four tons [of records] by now. I’m constantly buying records,” he says. If that’s the gospel truth, his 8,000-lb. treasury of plastic is equivalent to over half the weight of an African elephant (six tons) or more than 666 12-lb. domestic cats. (We need an audit here ASAP.)
2. He won’t listen to his own stuff
Madlib famously took psilocybin mushrooms while making Quasimoto’s 2000 LP The Unseen. While ingesting the drug certainly shaped the record’s vibe, the producer remembers those trips for how they helped his workflow. “They just kept me up so I can record a lot of stuff in a short period of time and not care about it, you know what I mean?” he says. And when he’s done churning out his work, he’s done with it. Speaking of Lootpack’s 1999 effort, Soundpieces: Da Antidote, his first record produced in a real studio, he says, “I can’t even listen to that album actually. People like it, but I can’t listen to the stuff I did last year. I’m too critical.”
3. He was brainwashed as a kid
Hip-hop will always be Madlib’s calling card, but his other true love is jazz. Madlib’s father’s massive vinyl collection included substantial amounts of jazz, and his uncle, Jon Faddis, is an acclaimed trumpeter who worked with Dizzy Gillespie. (Dizzy would even stop by the Jackson household for gumbo.) Madlib emphasizes his dislike of picking favorites from his own material, but then calls Shades of Blue — his 2003 record remixing the work of artists like Donald Byrd, Ronnie Foster and Reuben Wilson, all borrowed from the archives of iconic jazz label Blue Note — “the album I’m most proud of actually out of everything.” He’s also likened his hip-hop collaborators to jazz musicians, equating J Dilla to John Coltrane (“‘Cause everybody had to follow what he did. If you’re a producer, you’re going to have to get something out of what he’s doing, and that’s the same thing Coltrane did to all the saxophone players.”) and DOOM to Charlie Parker (“Read a book about Bird and then you’ll know what I’m talking about”).
So where does this affection for jazz come from? “My family brainwashed me, like I’m brainwashing my children. They brainwashed me with good taste,” Madlib says, chuckling.
4. De La Soul changed everything
The Long Island trio’s 1989 debut 3 Feet High and Rising was crucial to Madlib’s own development, convincing him to sample from a broader pool of music and try out interludes. “I grew up on them dudes. That album actually changed my production. That’s kind of where my whole style for Quasimoto came from,” he says, counting “The Magic Number” as his favorite De La Soul track. Two Madlib-produced tracks appeared on De La’s 2004 outing, The Grind Date.
5. He finds creative kinship in the similarly ambitious
When Madlib and J Dilla assembled 2003’s Champion Sound, there was a lot of back and forth. The pair would trade beats and crates of vinyl. Sometimes, they’d spend hours in a room just listening to music without talking. A similar synergy happened when Madlib and DOOM were constructing Madvillainy. When Madlib went to sleep, DOOM would lay down verses for Madlib to hear when he woke up. When DOOM went to sleep, Madlib would make beats for DOOM to wake up to. For contrast, take the producer’s involvement with Talib Kweli on 2006’s Liberation. Madlib handed Kweli a bunch of beats, and the MC then put the album together on his own.
Nevertheless, Madlib sketches some ground rules for collaborating. “Dudes I work with have to be like-minded to where I just hand them a beat that has a chorus and they can do with them what they gotta do. If they can’t do that, I usually don’t work with ‘em,” Madlib says. Ambition is also a major plus: “Most guys I work with, I make things [where] I don’t think he’s going to like this, but they’ll pick something totally different than what I thought. That happened with DOOM, Dilla, Talib, Mos [Def]. That’s why I know we’re like-minded: [you] challenge yourself.”
6. DOOM remains an enigma
The only current name in rap whose elusive persona is as intriguing as Madlib’s is MF DOOM’s, and Madlib isn’t about to shatter his colleague’s mystique. Madlib reaffirms that he sent the MC beats for Madvillainy’s sequel years ago and DOOM still hasn’t finished his verses. “I thought the new one would have been done by now, but you know, he’s like me,” Madlib says. “You have to work how you work. I ain’t forcing him and he ain’t forcing me.”
7. He doesn’t know why Kanye never used his beats
Several folks take beats from Madlib and don’t use them, the producer says. Busta Rhymes is one example. Kanye West is another. In a January 2010 Madlib profile, LA Weekly reported that West had put “five Madlib beats on hold for his new album.” The album that materialized later that year would be My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and those Madlib tracks were nowhere to be found. “I guess he didn’t want to pay my fee or he just had so much music that he went with what was going to sell. I have no idea [what happened there],” Madlib says. The two haven’t spoken since West visited Madlib’s studio to take the beats and they ended up hanging out and drinking together. “We were just playing each other music for hours: me, him, and DOOM. Talib was actually over there, too. We were just playing each other’s music, zoning out. He played me a lot of stuff that ain’t came out, some of the stuff that has,” Madlib adds. “You can’t judge him on one thing. He’s versatile.”
8. He isn’t actually planning on torching his unreleased archives
Dazed & Confused spoke to Madlib earlier this year and asked him what will happen to all of his unreleased material when he dies. “I’m gonna burn it down before I die, a little Lee Perry action. … If I was dying in hospital, I’d tell my son to go and burn it,” he responded, so as to prevent anyone from exploiting his material the way he found that J Dilla’s posthumous work has been exploited. The incendiary quotes swiftly did the rounds through the hip-hop press. Discussing the topic again, Madlib insists there was a misunderstanding as people focused on the wrong aspect of his comments. “People don’t have a sense of humor. I was referring to Lee Perry. They don’t look in-between, you know what I mean?” he says, presumably nodding to the story of the reggae icon apparently burning down his Black Ark studio in 1979. “Let [people] believe what they want to believe. That’s cool.”
9. He discusses new projects the way other people discuss grocery shopping
Madlib provides a great window into his productivity when he casually reveals new projects, sounding profoundly ho-hum the whole time. He just wrapped up a sequel to his 2007 effort Beat Konducta in India, and it should feature Mos Def. Also, he has no updates about the Madlib/Mos Def record based on Zambia’s 1970s Zamrock scene that he has mentioned in the past, but it sounds like it’s still in the works. “We’re recording other types of shit, too,” Madlib adds. Finally, he has a sequel to his Talib Kweli collab Liberation en route: “It’s almost done. It’s on Talib. He’s still recording stuff.” Zero release dates are provided.
10. Freddie Gibbs = Tupac 2.0 (and a good guy)
In the videos for “Thuggin'” and “Shame” — two older Madlib/Gibbs tracks that reappear on Piñata — the MC sells coke a couple of times and casually inspects a pile of guns on someone’s couch. Gangsta Gibbs’ M.O. is to, well, remind you that he’s gangsta, but Madlib offers a bit of fresh perspective. “He’s a cool cat,” he says of Gibbs. “He’s a thug, but he’s a nice dude. Maybe I shouldn’t say that. That may ruin his image.” In a 2013 Rolling Stone interview, he said that he views Gibbs as “a new version of Tupac,” a comparison on which he elaborated. “[Gibbs] is a better version [of Tupac.] Cause he’ll take chances on different types of music. I guess Tupac did, too, but I just look at [Gibbs] as a continuation of that style.”