High Fidelity

  • Martin Turenne
  • Urb
  • March 01, 2004

When Madlib and Jay Dee, the celebrated hip-hop producers who collaborate under the Jaylib moniker, come together, you'd expect sparks to fly. But the Detroit-based neo-soul architect and the astro-travelin' Angeleno ' are soft-spoken cats who move in near-silence and let the music speak for itself.

1. Back to Back

Jay Dee and Madlib are standing on a rickety table on a rooftop in LA's downtown artist district, their backs to each other, sharing a blunt. Madlib takes a generous toke and swings the joint around to Dilla who accepts with a gracious nod. Back and forth, back-to-back, the men breathe in the bud, their eyes grazing over the squat warehouses that surround them, not saying a word.

Perched at their feet, a photographer aims a Lens at his subjects, urging them to stop slouching. With no joint Left to occupy them, the producers are uncomfortable, unsure what to do with their hands. Brought together at the end of a year-long cross-country collaboration, you might expect Madlib and Dilla to be trading tall tales and cracking jokes like a couple of schoolboys. Instead, they have few words for each other, acting like a pair of friends who've said all they needed to say.

According to Stones Throw Records' head honcho Peanut Butter Wolf, the men who make up Jaylib are among the least verbal people he knows but that doesn't mean they can't communicate. "Both of them are pretty mysterious people who carry this special aura about them," explains Wolf, who, like practically all of his Stones Throw associates, speaks in whispered tones. "They're the sort of guys who draw people to them without having to say much. They just Like to let the music speak for itself."

Music, of course, is its own language, and while that might be a cliché uttered one too many times by globe-trotting trance DJs, it holds true in the case of Jay Dee and Madlib, the men behind last year's Champion Sound. After a year spent trading hundreds of beats back and forth across the country, what use are words?

2. The Eyes Have It

Everywhere Madlib goes, Visine goes with him. An infamous weed fiend, the man born Otis Jackson Jr. carries an eye dropper with him at all times, and while he walks with a loping stride, he wields that tiny bottle like a gunslinger, wetting his eyes and holstering the solution in one fluid motion. Madlib guards his eyes in more ways than one, often swinging his head low and averting his gaze from those around him. When he's talking to me, the Oxnard, CA native is polite but guarded, averse to look directly at me - except when the topic turns to Dilla.

"We're like lost cousins," claims Madlib ensnaring me in his doe-like gaze. When we first met, it was crazy how similar we were. We're both low-key but still kind of crazy, too."

The first time Madlib heard a Jay Dee beat, it was like he was looking in a funhouse mirror, recognizing himself in Dilla's music, but only barely. "At that time, I ain't heard no producers like that, doing the same shit as me," he says of Dilla's work on Slum Village's 1997 street tape, Fantastic Volume 1. "It was completely different from my stuff but still the same, you know? Like it's always raw and soulful and it never sounds too computerized."

Five years after discovering his Detroit-based doppelganger, Madlib got handed a CD's worth of Dilla instrumentals by the Beat Junkies' J-Rocc. While Madlib had been keeping up his typically prolific rate of beat manufacturing, he'd fallen into a rut on the rhyme-writing front, finding little inspiration in his own instrumentals. For a man struggling to find his poetic voice, Dilla's pat- ented soul-clap minimalism proved a bracing stimulus.

"I can't rap to too many other people's beats," admits Madlib. "And I can barely rap to my own. But when I hear his shit, there's just something to it that I connect with. 1 could just write to it all day."

And that's exactly what he did, penning an album's worth of verses and spit- ting them over Dilla's beats. Once finished, Madlib burned himself a copy of the results, scrawling the word Jaylib on the disc. Soon after, Peanut Butter Wolf pressed up 300 copies of white-label wax featuring "The Message," Madlib's Dilla-fied rewrite of the Grandmaster Flash classic. Cue the underground buzz. Back in the D, Jay Dee caught wind of "The Message" and reached out to Stones Throw for a copy of the Jaylib CD-R. Duly impressed with his counterpart's vocal tactics, Dilla expressed interest in working on a full-length collaboration. Thus was Jaylib's Champion Sound born.

Dilla's respect for the SoCal beatmaker extends back to 1999, when Lootpack dropped their debut, Da Antidote.

"Just to know that Madlib did that stuff on the SP1200 freaked me out because the only cat I knew that could really freak that machine was Pete Rock," explains Dilla. "That album was crazy. Me and my partners rode that shit for the longest time. As soon as I popped my deal with MCA, I went looking for him."

That was in 2001, when Dilla (aka James Yancey) was being hailed for his bass-heavy work with Slum Village and artists like Q-Tip (check the echo-chamber bounce of "Vivrant Thing"), Common (the crisp cymbal 'n' bass hit "The Light") and De La Soul (the psych-tinged boom-bap of "Peer Pressure"). After leaving Slum - from whose MC T3 he'd grown disconnected - Dilla hooked up with MCA and started work on his first solo album. But like so many others in the game, the producer got squeezed out of his deal after 9/11, leaving him nowhere to go but underground.

"This is a game that can literally break you down into tears," says Dilla with a weary shake of the head. 'Everyone knows about all the politics with labels, but I've literally had cats laugh at me on the phone like I was a joke."

It's hard to believe that anybody could find Dilla's work laughable, especially given his track record with The Pharcyde and A Tribe Called Quest, never mind his renown as the architect of neo-soul. As the brains behind D'Angelo's canonical Voodoo and the genre-defining remix of Janet Jackson's "Got Till It's Gone," Dilla could have chosen to focus on his smooth soul sound, but just as Madlib dabbles across genres - from house to jazz to broken beat - so too does Dilla dally in fields afar, an approach most gloriously audible on his 2002 BBE debut, Welcome 2 Detroit. Here, listeners found Dilla at his most eclectic, whether retouching Donald Byrd's soul-jazz gem "Think Twice," indulging his inner techno freak on "B.B.E. (Big Booty Express)" or channeling an ancestral drum circle on "African Rhythms."

Under the acknowledgments in the liner notes for that album, Dilla wrote, "They wanted a thank you list, but if it were up to me I'd give 'em a fuck you list." Given those defiant words and his reputation as a media-shy recluse, I approach the Detroit native with uncertainty, gingerly sidling up to him for our interview. But far from the surly antagonist I feared, Jay Dee proves impossibly gentle, and if I glean one insight from my time with him, it's that the music business is toughest on the pure of heart. In the weeks leading up to his West Coast visit, rumors were swirling that the producer was in ill health. When I meet him, Dilla does not look his best, especially his eyes, which are the very embodiment of hangdog dejection. Where Madlib guards himself by averting his gaze, Dilla's eyes bare all, telling the tale of a man who's just had the hardest year of his life.

The year 2003 started off with the completion of his Ruff Draft EP, a collection of rude street bangers featuring Dilla's gotta-get-paid spitting. Upon his return from a stint of DJ gigs in Europe, the producer fell ill. Figuring he might have fallen prey to pneumonia, he checked himself into a hospital in Detroit.

"I had never been so sick in all my life," he recalls. "I had never been in the hospital for nothing. What happened was that the doctor told me that I'd ruptured my kidney from being too busy and being stressed out and not eating right. He told me that if I'd waited another day, I might not have made it."

While the ostensible cause of the beatmaker's illness was malnutrition, Dilla figures the true culprit was music itself, which has been his foremost obsession since his late teenage years. Like just about every crate digger in the business, Jay Dee's an all-music-all-the-time kind of guy, the sort of person who often lets his art override all other concerns in his life - whether it's family, friends or his own health.

"Sometimes that fixation can be a good thing and sometimes it can be bad," he admits. There'd be days when I wouldn't eat at all because I'd be in the basement working all day. Even after being in the hospital so long, I had to fight with the doctors [to go home] because being away from music was starting to get to me."

Dilla isn't the first musician to let his craft overwhelm his health, and he won't be the last. But ever since emerging from the hospital, he's learned that while music might be his passion, he can't let it consume his every thought. This is definitely my second chance, my wakeup call," he says with a knowing nod. "ALL my priorities have shifted. As soon as I got out, I was right over to my mom's house, getting a home-cooked meal and spending time around my family. I still love the music, but I wouldn't put it first in my life. It's family first - and then everything else."

3. Fed/Ex Rap

Like almost every other event in hip-hop history, today's photo shoot has gotten off to a late start, almost three hours after the scheduled 10 a.m. appointment. When I ask Peanut Butter Wolf what took the producers so long to arrive, he tells me that Madlib only just strolled into the Stones Throw house at nine o'clock in the morning, yet to sleep after a night on the town with parties unknown.

According to Wolf, Madlib is prone to such mysterious escapades on a regular basis, whether it's an overnight jaunt to the Bay Area or a spur-of-the-moment flight to Brazil. When I ask him if he's still living at the Stones Throw house in LA's Mt. Washington neighborhood, Madlib responds only with, have many places," suggesting that he'd rather be known as a cat with no fixed address.

As the conversation turns to Dilla's recent bout of ill health, the Southern California native expresses concern for his colleague's troubles, but claims that for him, music-making is like daily meditation - compulsive and calming all at once. adi do music for my health," he says. When I'm doing it, there's no pain, no nothing - just connections, feeling. If I'm sick, I do music; then I don't feel sick." Famous for his 20-hour stints inside the windowless Bomb Shelter studio, the Loop Digga bristles at the suggestion that music may soon become too dangerous an obsession. "It's already an obsession," he exclaims, clearly frustrated by the question. This is all I do. While y'all are thinking about interviews and photo shoots, all I'm thinking about is a track I'm going to write when I get home. It never stops. Music's not a burden to me. It's like air or water."

Indeed, there has always been something distinctly elemental about Madlib's music, as though his beats are steeped in the very matter which surrounds us. As Dilla gleefully notes, Madlib's beats are consistently soot-soaked, encrusted with the dust and hiss of source recordings, as if he literally excavates old records before sampling them.

And while it's tempting to imagine Madlib as a producer who works with a pick and a shovel, the man's oeuvre also suggests that he's an inter-dimensional traveler, flitting back and forth between eras and planets to cull the most cosmically charged beats since Sun Ra made space his place. The beatmaker confirmed as much on the title track of 2001's The Unseen, as his helium-voiced alter ego Quasimoto declared, "We've been out here in orbit, walked further than the moon, ain't we?"

When he's asked where he gets his inspiration, Madlib peels back a corner of his armor, making a link between his art and his own unique brand of spirituality. "It's Jah-Jah who does it," he says flatly. "I'm just channeling it. People thought Sun Ra was playin', but he wasn't playin'. That's some fourth-dimension stuff, right there."

Madlib goes on to credit his parents as a sig- nificant influence - not just on his music, but on his burgeoning spirituality. Growing up in New Orleans, Otis Jackson Sr. (a former jazz bandleader) was exposed to all manner of bayou-dwelling occultists while Sinesca Jackson (a former blues guitarist) shares her eldest son's fascination with extraterrestrial life. On the sly, Madlib also regularly seeks the counsel of a fortune-teller, a woman whom he claims has been uncanny in her ability to predict the future. While Peanut Butter Wolf likes to tout Madlib as this generation's version of Sun Ra, the producer's cheeba mysticism and grime-ridden sound aesthetic make him seem more like the latter-day equivalent of Lee 'Scratch" Perry, dub reggae's definitive beatmaker. Viewed in this light, Jaylib's Champion Sound plays like an album-length tribute to reggae music, the form from which sprang so many contemporary genres. Whether it's the reggae toaster's vocal sample on the title track, the echo-laden steel drums on "Strip Club" or the snippets of crowd noise sprinkled throughout the album, the producers turned to their Caribbean forefathers for inspiration and answered back with their own peculiar flair.

But while they are widely acclaimed as two of the best producers in independent hip-hop, the Jaylibbers are sometimes maligned for their mic skills, a state of affairs which Dilla defies on 'The Mission" when he asks, "Who said producers ain't supposed to rap?"

When asked about their reputation as less-than-stellar MCs, both men get their back up. That's the most fucked-up thing," says Dilla in a rare moment of wrath. "We're trying to be like Pete Rock and Diamond D, cats who've got a passion equally for the rhymes and beats. But the critics can't really grasp that."

For his part, Madlib has no time for heads that can't wrap themselves around his flows. "How's somebody else going to speak upon my music if I can't?" he asks. "If they understand it, that's cool, but if they don't understand it, I don't really care." Beyond the dub-influenced beats and world-beating rhymes, what's most fascinating about Champion Sound is the strange way in which it was produced. Because they're such avowed hermits, Madlib and Jay Dee collaborated via courier, trading instrumental CDs back and forth across the country and choosing from among them their favorite tracks to spit on. Madlib selected the Detroit native's most thuggish G-funk beats (see "The Red") while Dilla picked his counterpart's trippiest experiments ("Strapped"), making for a broad hi/lo tour of the fidelity landscape.

While their tape-trading approach yielded a fine exercise in Fed/Ex rap, Madlib hints that next time out, he and Dilla will work in the same studio, incorporating live instrumentation into the mix. Whether working side by side or 2500 miles apart, with samples or with acous- tic instruments, Madlib and Jay Dee's next collaboration may well take place in near-total silence, as they communicate in a language known only to them.

4. Next Stop: Pop

The sign outside says we're in Gotham City, but inside the seediest strip club in Southern California, New York seems about a million miles away. Dilla, Madlib and a few of their closest friends have gathered at a peeler's lounge in Canoga Park, a dreary suburb 45 minutes north of Los Angeles. The producers are here to film the video for "McNasty Filth," a Madlib-produced horn'n'organ banger featuring rhymes by Dilla and his D-Town associates Frank and Dank.

The concept for the video is tragically cliché, simply a series of shots depicting the rappers getting their drink on while a half-dozen strippers jiggle in the background. Between takes, members of the extended Stones Throw posse wring their hands over the mediocrity of the strippers on hand. No matter the grumbles of some, LA's shortest Elvis impersonator is delighted to be along for the ride, strutting around the set with all the hip-swaying confidence of his namesake.

In the midst of all this absurdity, I can only imagine what Dilla and Madlib are thinking. For Dilla, the Jaylib project reconnects him with the backpack set, serving as a springboard to collaborative opportunities with a host of new indie MCs. After the tribulations of 2003, the producer is happy to be turning a new page, looking forward to lacing joints for his old pal Common and a reunion album with Slum Village. For Madlib, working with Jay Dee has cemented his link with Midwest cats like Talib Kweli, as well as opening him up to a whole slew of East Coast heads who have yet to hear his work. With the release of Madvillain (his collaboration with MF Doom), Yesterdays New Quintet's revamped Stevie Wonder tribute album, and a broken-beat album (co-produced with DJ Rels), 2004 might just be the biggest year yet for Madlib, but nothing will sound as sweet as his contribution to Busta Rhymes' forthcoming LP. (The Busta record will also feature a beat by Jay Dee, making for a roundabout Jaylib reunion under the mainstream spotlight.)

All around the producers, a controlled chaos has engulfed the video shoot: As a makeup artist applies blush to one of the strippers' breasts, a gaffer hammers a tarp into place next to a smoke machine which spews its exhaust through the stale air. As everybody around them chatters incessantly away, Dilla and Madlib are the only two people here keeping the peace. After all, when your music speaks so clearly, what use are words?

Read the rest in issue 114 of Urb Magazine www.urb.com