Space Invader

Space Invader

  • James Tai
  • Urb
  • November 01, 2003

Invasions: hip-hop has seen its fair share of em. [Cut to DJ Premier scratching up Nas: In-na-in-na-in-na-invasion.] Unstoppable prophet Jeru the Damaja's "Invasion" was a special shout out to all those punk muthafuckas with a badge and a gun, while fellow one-time hater Ice-T took it to the house, Asian Boyz gangsta style, with Home Invasion. Baldhead pistol-packers-turned-actors Onyx screamed about "Da Madd Face Invasion, while mutant turntablist x-factors Invisibl Skratch Piklz warned of an Invasion of the Octopus People." Can't forget playboy Too $hort's "Invasion of the Flat Booty Bitches" - now that was frightening. Even blue-eyed soul assassin Eminem recently launched his own Shady Invasion on a DJ Green Lantern mixtape. Hip-hop, though, has never seen anything quite like the Madlib Invazion.

Madlib joints are as ubiquitous as trucker hats in 2003, and in underground circles his CDs and vinyl get more spins than those rims that don't stop when the car does. And it won't stop. Consequently, Madlib's dilznick has accommodated more riders this year than Shinjuku Station. All aboard.

But while hip-hop is ground zero of this Invazion, Madlib's musical conquest has leapfrogged genre borders. Jazz. Soul. Funk. Reggae. Broken beat, Afro beat. Whatever, yo. "He's got a Brazilian album that no one's heard," tips off someone who would know - Peanut Butter Wolf, the nuts and c.r.e.a.m. behind Stones Throw Records, the indie powerhouse through which Madlib launches his attacks. "He's also got a disco album that no one's heard."

This extra-prolific funky homosapien almost has every great Black music form covered - but where's that rock album that no one's ever heard? "I'm sure I could do one," he answers with a grin. "That's a good test for me, too. It'd be like some Buddy Miles or something though." Planet Earth, you are now rocking with Madlib, living proof that habitual weed smokers can be extremely productive.5 They call it June Gloom, It's the first week in the sixth month and Southern Cali should be hot as bum breath. But it's not. The summer jump-off's on hold. Right about now the City of Angels is looking like A Tribe Called Quest's "Electric Relaxation" video: There ain't no sunshine, man, only shades of gray. But the unseasonably cold and dreary climate has little, if any, effect on Otis Jackson, Jr., the man pushing the buttons behind the Madlib Invazion. The only weather report he's checking for is Weather Report, the jazz-rock group that's been sampled by everybody from Madlib himself, Brand Nubian and Organized Konfusion to Freestyle Fellowship and Anticon.

We're at Stones Throw's command center, the lovely, MTV "Cribs"-ready home of Chris "Peanut Butter Wolf" Manak in the tucked-away hills of Mt. Washington, just northwest of downtown LA. Downstairs, in a bedroom studio dubbed the Bomb Shelter, is where Madlib dwells. (Wait, aren't bomb shelters supposed to protect people from invasions?)

Madlib hits the studio like most people go to their jobs - except he works full-time and overtime, on weekends and most national holidays, without a single complaint. When he emerges up the stairs, he's rocking the same gear he had on the night before at Hollywood nightspot Star Shoes. He just loves being in the studio," explains Wolf. "He just spends hours and hours there. I think that's his escape. It's entertainment but it also feeds the soul and stuff." Ask Madlib what drives him, and he answers simply, "Jah. Hopefully."

Notoriously, Madlib does not share the same enthusiasm for handling his press duties. They say he's a tough guy to interview. Maybe the bugged outing as alter-ego Quasimoto helped tag him a mysterious recluse - a puzzle wrapped in an enigma rolled in a tobacco leaf, But it's all pretty simple: Sure, he's no chatterbox, tends to mumble and gives brief, one-sentence answers to most questions. Yeah, stares at the floor as if the answers were written on the carpet. But that's not to say he isn't friendly, polite and down to discuss whatever you want. It's just that any time he has to take to talk about his music is time that he's not in the studio making it.

It's "bedroom music" (his term) at its finest. "I'm just showing people that even if you don't have a lot of money, you can still do whatever if you put your mind to it," says Madlib. He loves the challenge of taking on new genres, recording tribute albums covering heroes like Stevie Wonder, George Duke, Roy Ayers and Weldon Irvine, or putting down his sampler for a minute and picking up some instruments. "I don't understand how he can pick up any kind of instrument and just learn it right away," Peanut Butter Wolf says. "He learned upright bass in a few weeks. We rented vibes for three weeks. He learned them the first two and recorded the third for Yesterdays New Quintet's Angles Without Edges."

He's been doing a lot of his recent work on a relatively cheap $300 sampler, the Boss SP-303 Dr. Sample. Madlib wants people to know that he has the ability to rock more hip-hop styles than you've already heard from him with his 805 crew of the Lootpack. "I can do all that like Southern style, Timbaland, Mannie Fresh - all that stuff. That's easier than sampling to me," he says. And then there's some "experimental" things he's done that he thinks people just aren't really ready for.

"He has the green light to release whatever he wants," Wolf claims. "Everything on Stones Throw - everything that everybody hears - I hear about five times as much as that. And then for everything I hear, he has five times as much that only he hears ... But there's only so much he can release at once, I guess."

The thing is, in 2003, "only so much" is a whole lot.

About 20 days and 20 degrees later, its the last week of June and things have heated up considerably. Summer has officially arrived, bringing with it Madlib's blazing Blue Note remix album Shades of Blue. Invading their vaults, the Beat Conductor reworks the angles with a B-boy edge; classics from Donald Byrd, Horace Silver, Herbie Hancock and Bobbi Humphrey are given a fresh perspective, peppered with chunky drums and KRS-One and Common vocal bites. A couple of weeks later, Dudley Perkins (aka rapper Declaime) sheds A Lit Light, a bizarre neo-soulish album entirely produced by Madlib. "That's some bugged-out shit," says Madlib. "That's Like D'Angelo on crack. Crazy shit." With fast-talking Lootpack MC Wildchild's album Secondary Protocol (half produced by Madlib, half produced by his little brother Oh No) stilt in heavy underground rotation, the year clearly belongs to Madlib. Still to come are his highly anticipated projects with like-minded producer/MCs J Dilla and MF Doom, respectively titled Jaylib and Madvillain.

On the Jaylib project, anytime you hear Madlib rapping, it's a Dilla beat, and vice versa. We're like cousins, musically. We're kind of the same." As for Madvillain, MF Doom came out to Cali and knocked it out in about a week with Madlib in the Bomb Shelter. Doom, who also records under the aliases Viktor Vaughn and King Geedorah, joked with Madlib about their secret identities, with Madlib charting more alter egos than Kool Keith with schizophrenia in a witness protection program. "I made a joke that I'm trying to race him," laughs MF Doom. "Like he's got the Quintet, that's five dudes, and Quasimoto, so he's got like six dudes. I gotta catch up. I need like two more characters!" Actually, Doom will need a few more than that. But there's time.

Time and the underlying spiritual connection between the past, present and future is a recurring theme in Madlib's work. You can see it in the seemingly contradictory name of his jazz outfit Yesterdays New Quintet. On Track 10 of a burned CD-R given to me by an anonymous friend that turns out to be an early Madvillain demos, Madlib/Quasimoto raps, "Today is the shadow of tomorrow/today is the present future of yesterday/yesterday is the shadow of today! the darkness of the past is yesterday/and the light of the past is yesterday." Madlib is the future, but he's the past, too. (Case in point: His family elders were musical folks, as is his 7-year-old daughter, who has already started making beats and writing raps.)

After Madlib came out of nowhere (or you can call it Oxnard, CA) and made his production debut with Tha Alkaholiks' "Mary Jane" in 1993, he could've become just another hungry, hungry hip-hop beatmaker lost in the overstuffed backpack of underground rap. But somewhere along the way, after he and his high school homeys Wildchild and DJ Romes dropped Lootpack's Soundpieces: Da Antidote in 1999, Madlib veered far left, taking a 'shroom-fueled pink Cadillac ride with Quasimoto on 2000's The Unseen.

As his next breakthrough project Yesterdays New Quintet made glaringly obvious, Madlib is really a jazz cat in a hip-hop world, just like Q-Tip, Guru and Pete Rock before him. And it's not just because the Loop Digga dug jazz records searching for sampler fodder; it's also in his lifestyle, it's in his vibes and stuff. He seems to possess an old soul balanced with a child's genuine fascination with a world gone mad around him. Jazz is the same thing [as hip-hop], man, just a different time," Madlib says, finally making eye contact with those oversized, almost cartoonish soul-windows. Them cats lived the same way us hip-hop cats are living. It's a different time, a different beat, but it's the same. It's all the same. I have videos [of jazz documentaries] where it looks like hip-hop cats, but it's jazz cats. Just different times." MF Doom, who as Zev Love X of KMD came up in the hip-hop game during the early '90s, feels that

Madlib is also a missing link to that glorious era of beats, rhymes and life. "That's part of the reason I could really feel his shit," he says. He'll hit me with a beat CD that's got like 100 beats on there and all of 'em sound like they were from that time but were just never heard, you know what I mean? But it's got a little updated twist to it." The next twist - lacing Big Apple big timers Busta Rhymes and Talib Kweli with beats - could take the Madlib Invazion out of the underground and into hip-hop's mainstream world. Kweli, who has been a fan since Tha Alkaholiks' Coast 2 Coast, says, I just like his work ethic along with Jay Dee and other people who stay prolific and keep putting stuff out ... He's just ready to work. Whatever happens with it happens." In-na-in-na-in-na-invasion!

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