Madlib in Straight No Chaser

Sunil Chauhan Straight No Chaser August 20, 2002


Madlib in Straight No Chaser Stones Throw recording artist, LA based Otis Jackson Jr.. is one of the most hard working, improvisational forces in contemporary hip-hop and under the guises of Quasimoto, Loopdigga, Madlib and Yesterdays New Quintet his quietly impressive freestyle productions have him a serious worldwide reputation.

"I wanna make people think. Mix them up a little bit so it's not just 'Madlib, Madlib...' everywhere 'cos I do so much stuff. I don't wanna overplay myself," declares hip-hop's most prolific producer, Madlib, also known as the elfin helium-voiced Quasimoto but christened as Otis Jackson Jr. More recently he has taken it upon himself to move out of one mere body and take shape as five entirely new beings known together as Yesterdays New Quintet. Seated at a table in a Japanese restaurant in Central London before an empty bowl of noodles, the man who is one and all five members at once laughs as he announces their plans to tour. The five man "band" may all be set to release solo projects, but the fabled group turns out to be just that, a fantastic feat of multi-ego-tism.

As his name might imply (madlibs being sentences where words are left to be filled in), Madlib, in interview at least, leaves out as many words as he has aliases. A mild mannered and laid back talker, the Oxnard, L.A. native admits his daily herbal intake may also contribute to the effect. "There's never a time when I don't smoke," he declares.

Madlib is in London playing with Stones Throw's Peanut Butter Wolf, spinning at Bar Rumba and guesting on Radio One's Worldwide programme. During the latter, he dropped some new productions that have clearly been inspired by his West London brethren.

"It's just something I did after hearing all that stuff that Gilles Peterson plays on the radio," says Madlib. "My man Kaidi Tatham and 4 Hero, IG...all them cats...I like the music a lot. It's something new. I tried to see if I could get into that."

Humility aside, it could never be said that Madlib lacks enterprise. Yesterdays New Quintet saw him acquire and play a host of instruments for the very first time in his life then release the results of the project not long after. Presented with more than 20 CD-R's worth of material in that mould, Peanut Butter Wolf compiled what he felt was the best material as Angles Without Edges. For an album made by a non-musician without outside assistance it is, at the least, a conceptual triumph. Without floundering in typical jazz-meets-hip-hop trappings, Angles Without Edges was a soul-jazz record positioned somewhere between the staunch rhythmic binding of hip-hop and the improvisational. methodology of jazz.

"About two years ago, I bought a Fender Rhodes," explains Madlib of his instrumental beginnings, melodic musings and preference for the keyboard du jour of so much modern soul.

"Listening to all the records I sampled, I just wanted to do what they did. It was my favorite sound that I sampled a lot on my beat tapes I have at home. I'd always look for some Rhodes loop. I like acoustic piano too but I prefer the worm sound of the Fender. I got it and made stuff happen. That was the first time I played. Some of the songs on the Yesterdays New Quintet album are like two weeks after I got the Fender Rhodes. I didn't have any knowledge of playing. I'm not really that great but I can piece stuff together. I'm not like a soloist or nothing. I just wanted to see if I could actually do it."

Still, he is content with his performances on tracks like his loungey smooth-jazzlike rendering of Stevie Wonder's "Too High" on the promo-only Stevie Volume 1, one of several all covers albums (others include Roy Ayers, George Duke and Azymuth) he has completed.

"I coulda went all crazy but I kept it raw, kinda hip-hop a little bit. I'm not worried about anything people say about my music, as long as I'm pleased with it."

In the future though, he wants to be able to "flip the song, keep it original but still have something different, my version." A fan of producers like the Mizell brothers, David Axelrod and Charles Stepney, Madlib has made hundreds of beats for rappers like Declaime, Planet Asia, Cali Agents and Tha Alkaholiks, who gave him his first production credit for "Mary Jane". The premise of YNQ however was to chart some uncharted water, pushing him to become a musician like the people whose records he sampled. Where before he could splice together intersections from a few seconds of a band, he now has to play one track at a time himself. It brings up the question of how viable this is going to be for producers who have grown accustomed to working more or less exclusively from secondary sources all their lives.

"Taking it from records is easier, 'cos you're just taking somebody else's stuff, but when you gotta sit there and do it yourself, it's a little different."

The ambition seems to have been noted by aspiring producers however.

"Yeah, a lot of people say that after hearing my stuff, they're trying to do that. A lotta cats are buying old records and stuff, old jazz records. Kids are learning."

Madlib was born the son of Otis Jackson Sr., an accomplished bandleader and session player for everyone from Tina Turner to Bobby "Blue" Bland and Johnnie Taylor. His mother is Sinesca Jackson, a songwriter and third in a line of accomplished female folk and blues guitarists. He is also the nephew of John Faddis, jazz director at Carnegie Hall and one time trumpeter for Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Ayers and Bob James. His uncle and father were both instrumental in nurturing his obsession with dusted vinyl, their jazz albums in particular became his favorites, so Yesterdays New Quintet ended up being a convenient way to please them.

"They tripped out when I showed them Yesterdays. I did that for them, 'cos they know me as hip-hop but I wanted to show them that I could do different types of music too. They were the last ones to hear it but they really liked it. They're where I got my first record collection from. I owe it to them."

Madlib records every day, usually for at least 12 hours. He works alone and is not used to collaborating. So although the idea has been considered, the producer implies that a "real" Yesterdays New Quintet is most likely further off than his next vacation. He is a massive fan of almost exclusively old jazz albums, nearly all of which were made by ensembles with the resultant interplay, but doesn't feet that he needs to reach for that process to get the best results.

"I didn't have time to think about that, I just wanted to make music and I'm usually by myself all the time so I gotta do what I gotta do. I like doing it all myself anyway, everything is what I want. It's spontaneous, I don't write any music down, it's just improvising. I look at it as jazz with a hip-hop feet 'cos I do hip-hop. Y'know, I'ma always have that hip-hop flavor in me so I try to bring jazz melodies and stuff, hard drums, hip-hop drums."

As well as work with Jay Dee, MF Doom, Stones Throw artists Medaphoar, Dudley Perkins, Wildchild and his younger brother Oh No, Madlib also has two major remix projects in the works. With unlimited access to their vaults, he is in the midst of completing one for Blue Note that has a premise similar to what US3 did or 1996's Blue Note Remix Project which gave hip-hop producers like Large Professor, Diamond D and Q-Tip a chance to remix old classics and another for reggae label Trojan – "fifty songs from '68 to '79."

"My man Peanut Butter Wolf was joking around and called Blue Note up. They liked the Yesterdays New Quintet album and he was like 'you should let him do a little music project or something" and they just said, 'yes'. It just happened like that, they sent me masters of old songs, tracks and stuff. They wanted me to add instruments, remix stuff. It's amazing man. Hearing stuff you don't hear, the instruments they didn't hear in certain songs, different takes, the between takes when they're talking and stuff. Like 30 seconds before the song, they'll be talking in the studio, telling somebody to do this or cussing at some dude or something. It's like how we do."

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PEANUT BUTTER WOLF ON MADLIB
The Stones Throw Record's founder, producer, deejay, artist and now, singer, Chris Manak a.k.a Peanut Butter Wolf takes time out from working on a covers album to field a few queries from Sunil Chauhan on his most valued charge, Madlib, and why he regards him the best producer out there today.

SC: What is it about his work that makes you believe in him so strongly?
He's real prolific, he works real hard at it. When I made my album, My Vinyl Weighs a Ton, I was making like a few beats a week.  Madlib does like 10 to 20 beats a day.  He just wakes up in the morning, turns on his equipment, smokes weed and he just starts creating.

Someone like him comes along once every 20 years or something. I could make beats and probably think my beats would be better than at least 80% of the people in hip-hop right now, but I think Madlib's still better than me. It's just personal opinion, and biased at that (laughs). 

What do you think Madlib has the potential to become?
He has the potential to become all the people that he listens to.  I see him as a Quincy Jones or someone of that calibre for our era.  That's why I really want him to start collaborating more.  He wants to do that too but it's just gotta be the right people.  It's important for him to work with different artists just for the sake of music if nothing else.  That's why he's doing the albums for Blue Note and for Trojan.  He's always gonna give 110% for Stones Throw but I don't want him to be an exclusively Stones Throw artist because that's too narrow for his scope. 

So would you like to see him working with a band?
To be honest with you it's deeper with him playing all the instruments.  It's more a matter of buying him more instruments or having him buy more because the fact that he hasn't been trained on them it kind of gives him more creativity.  He bought an upright bass, he's made a couple of albums worth of material with it and he's playing it in a way that…if we had a trained bassist…I don't know…I just hear stuff by some of the best musicians that doesn't impress me at all.  For me, it's not about who's got the strongest licks. 

Do you see him foremost as a producer or musician?
I see him as a producer number one and musician number two.  Lately he's been spending a lot of time just playing drums.  He's playing live drums on the new jazz stuff that he's been doing.  Angles Without Edges was primarily sampled drums but as far as the drumming goes he's in the studio practising three hours a day now.  He takes his musicianship seriously.  His emphasis is more on putting a song together than how good the solo's gonna be, so from that standpoint it's different from jazz.

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