Phantom Menace: Remix Mag Interview with Madlib and engineer Dave Cooley

  • Bill Murphy
  • Remix Magazine
  • May 05, 2005

Here's the story: On a lonely windswept night about seven years ago in Lost Gates (near Oxnard, Calif.), Madlib first encountered the elusive trickster who calls himself Quasimoto. Details are still sketchy, but alleged eyewitnesses swear that 'Lib was taking a session break in a back alley outside a now-forgotten recording studio when a lone figure appeared, seemingly from out of thin air. The intruder began dropping spontaneous rhymes in a torrential freestyle diatribe — all of it inspired, no doubt, by the hip-hop and jazz grooves that had been leaking from the basement control room. Madlib, inwardly somewhat aghast but outwardly still calm and cool, knew from the get-go that he'd just met a straight-up street visionary.

“Back then, Quasimoto was doing devious deeds and whatever people do to get by,” Madlib recalls with a conspiratorial laugh from his hotel suite in Miami, where he and Stones Throw label founder Peanut Butter Wolf are preparing to hit the sights, sounds and surrounding record stores at this year's Winter Music Conference. “So we just connected to do some music — simple as that. Basically, Quas is just the opposite of me. Or maybe he's like the loudmouth party side of everybody, I guess. He's a hustler, a pimp. He's all about the ass and all that shit, and I'm about the music. You know what I'm sayin'?”

As soon as Wolf laid his ears on Madlib and Quasimoto's first full-length collaboration, he knew it would be an instant classic. “It was actually re-corded a couple of years before I even heard it,” Wolf explains. “But once I did hear it, I knew I wanted to put it out. I don't think Madlib had even expected it to come out, because the record was so free and experimental. But that's what I liked about it.”

The Unseen (Stones Throw, 2000) and its leadoff single, “Microphone Mathematics,” gave the eclectic denizens of hip-hop's indie underground a double dose of Quasimoto's accelerated slanguistics and Madlib's loop-based, kitchen-sink approach to production. Since then, Madlib's star has burned steadily brighter, his zig-zaggedy studio chops cutting through albums such as Yesterdays New Quintet's Angles Without Edges (Stones Throw, 2001); the remix opus Shades of Blue (Blue Note/Capitol, 2003); rap-stylist-turned-singer Dudley Perkins' A Lil' Light (Stones Throw, 2003); Jaylib's Champion Sound (with Jay Dilla; Stones Throw, 2003); Madvillain's exquisite Madvillainy (with MF Doom; Stones Throw, 2004); and Medaphoar's upcoming debut, Push Comes to Shove (Stones Throw, 2005). Recently, 'Lib has produced tracks for De La Soul's The Grind Date (Sanctuary, 2004), and he is rumored to be working with the likes of Busta Rhymes, Talib Kweli, Pete Rock, Just Blaze, Diamond D and a raft of hip-hop innovators both old-school and new. (Of course, all of this is just a taste of his extensive oeuvre; check out Madlib's discography for a complete history.)

Meanwhile, after a number of stealth spits on a few of the previously mentioned Madlib productions, Quasimoto has resurfaced with a vengeance, and his latest album is a stone-cold stunner. The Further Adventures of Lord Quas (Stones Throw, 2005) — the long-awaited follow-up to The Unseen and a multiangular and magnificent train wreck of sounds, loops, skit snippets and stutter-step beats — once again pulls back the curtain on Quas and his helium-voiced tales of big hips, full clips and the impending apocalypse. Best of all, with Madlib at the helm (and, on several tracks, at the mic, along with MF Doom and Medaphoar), this is a sequel that, as its title suggests, goes further — so much further, in fact, that it makes so-called “experimental” hip-hop seem almost tame by comparison. Opening cut “Bullyshit” says it all: What we have here is a “new-breed Quasimoto takeover” in full effect.

DAZED, BLAZED AND QUAZED

“On the first album, I was just on some other shit,” Madlib explains. “I didn't really know too much, and when I recorded that, it was basically just for myself. But on this one, I started getting fun with it. It's Quasimoto, so I tried to make it as fun and as crazy as possible — you know, shaking it like a saltshaker and all that. I was just trying to tell some funny shit, hopefully.”

An offbeat sense of humor is what signifies any Quasimoto project, in which no subject is taboo. “Hydrant Game” is an undistilled dis of conniving girlfriends, and “Bus Ride” re-enacts a heated but hilarious verbal exchange with an irate street drunk in downtown Los Angeles. From a sonic standpoint, Madlib's severely chopped jazz and funk loops — as well as his discerning tastes for old comedy records, vintage blaxploits (represented by Melvin Van Peebles' sporadic monologues throughout), avant-garde dissonance (“Strange Piano”), coffeehouse conga rhythms (“1994”) and even Bollywood soundtracks (“Maingirl”) — help propel the overall absurdist mood to radical and sometimes unnerving lengths. Fittingly, as revealed in the pleasantly stoned narrative of “Greenery,” a steady diet of skunk buds has a lot to do with it.

“The music is just uninhibited,” Madlib confides. “It's not even dialed up too much. All of my stuff is, like, one take, like a free-jazz dude. And as far as Quas goes, that's all freestyle shit. When it comes to my own lyrics, I have to think about it more than Quas does, because I have to adjust to whatever he's coming with. He brings ideas, and then I come with it. It's a fast process, but it wouldn't be the same without the greenery; that's for sure.”

There is, of course, a method to the madness. It all starts with the Boss SP-303 Dr. Sample, which Madlib uses to capture and chop all his distinctive loops before layering them for mixing on a 16-track Roland VS-1680 digital workstation. “They got all them effects on the 303,” he says, referring to a reverse effect he uses at the top of “Maingirl.” “It's just real simple — that's one of the main reasons I like that little thing. You sample the beat with the effect on it and then go to the next one. I can do a beat real quick, but I also try to do different things, you know, kind of Paul Revere-style.”

I KEEP HEARING VOICES

Unseen but definitely heard, Quasimoto's identity as a vocalist hinges on his artificially pitched-up wheeze, which Madlib creates in the studio in much the same way that George Clinton designed the creepy — some might say cocaine-addled (after all, it was the disco era) — voice of Sir Nose D'Void of Funk from Parliament's essential Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome (Casablanca, 1977). Whereas today's easy access to computers allows pitch shifting and time stretching at the stroke of a key, 'Lib still prefers the analog method for bringing Quasimoto's personality into being.

“I don't pitch the voice,” he says. “I just do the old-school technique that everybody used to do before they had all that digital shit: Just slow the tape down, and you have to rap real slow. Quas had to rap all his stuff, like, slow as hell, and then we would speed it up. That's Lord Quas right there. I can do that in the digital board, but a couple of his takes are off cassette, too.”

Madlib himself brings an array of voices — both processed and synth-generated — to the party. One of his favorite units is a Korg VC-10 vocoder, which he uses, for instance, on “Greenery” to robotize the opening phrase, “Dynamite music.” But that's just the burning tip of the spliff, so to speak. “I've also been using that a lot for certain bass lines and sounds,” he explains. “I'm way into that and the Nord Lead or even the old-school stuff. I usually use the Moogs and the Fender Rhodes. I've got Fenders, ARPs, Moogs, Crumars, all those — at least 30 keyboards. All the old-school stuff you hear on the record, that's all sitting [in my studio] at the Loopdigga's Hideaway.”

A deep reverence for old-school MCs also holds sway over Madlib's rhyming style, to the point that he can even capture the vocal timbre of one of his idols. The fat, humid conga break that rolls through “1994” might by itself recall the best vibes of the Jungle Brothers if it weren't for the fact that 'Lib also manages to sound like the voice of Af (who, along with the JBs' Mike G, comprises one of the dopest tag teams in rap history). “Respect to them,” Madlib says. “They're teachers, for sure. And you caught that — I was trying to take it back to the good old days, to the simple shit.”

Rounding out the vox patrol on Further Adventures are Medaphoar (known here as M.E.D.) and MF Doom, each of whom steps out on a track — M.E.D. on the deeply soulful tribute “The Exclusive” and Doom on the spacey lounge cut “Closer.” And the latter, as Madlib tells it, is a harbinger of things to come.

“Basically, we've been working on the next shit for Madvillain, and that's one of the tracks Doom recorded and sent to me,” he reveals. “But I knew right then I wanted to use it for Quas. That's what me and Doom like to do; if one of us has a beat and the other has an idea to go with it, we just let it happen. We connect through our music.”

KNOWLEDGE IS POWER

More than any studio method or signal path, Madlib places the highest value on “connecting through music.” He grew up in a household where jazz and soul were not just musical styles but ways of life: His father, Otis Jackson Sr., rocked the '70s for a hot minute as the lead vocalist on the West Coast hit “Messenger to the Ghetto,” and his uncle Jon Faddis is a world-class trumpeter who has played with Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie and scores of jazz heavies. So at Madlib's studio, the arcane meaning hidden in a wall of dusty vinyl is there to be discovered, harnessed, reshaped (or, in 'Lib's case, remixed) and released.

“I'm a record lover,” he says proudly. “Actually, I'm about to go buy records right now. [Laughs.] Basically, records are my teacher; that's how I get my influences. Everything I know, my records taught me. I mean, you take a Sun Ra record like Lanquidity; that changed my views on him. I always knew he was funky, but I didn't know he would come straight with funk and disco like that. That surprised me. That got me into listening to old disco. Right now, I'm listening mostly to psychedelic rock and shit or even just crazy hard rock, like Nektar, Soft Machine, Gentle Giant, down to — man, I could name a gang of motherfuckers.”

These are the kinds of forces that drive a Madlib production and, he says, that should guide the intentions of anyone who seeks to hone his or her game as a producer. “I know a few people that don't know their shit,” he says. “They can make money, though. I won't mention who they are, but they know. There's some garbage out there, but you should know your craft. Hopefully, I know mine. [Laughs.] Being hungry for more knowledge definitely helps. I used to not be so open-minded, but I'm older now. I mean, I'm into disco now — I used to be about just straight hip-hop and jazz. That's it. Now, I listen to everything. My favorite shit is, like, John Cage records. You know what I'm sayin'?”

“Hip-hop is still the same,” Madlib insists. “It's just that they show one side, that's all. It used to be a little more diverse, but now it's all about money. It's not about the music anymore, even though I do like some of that shit. I do get my crunk on and things, but they just need to be more open-minded and show something different. It ain't never gonna be like that, but the music is still here. What me and Dilla are doing and Pete Rock, cats like that, we're doing our thing. It's a little different now, and you kind of gotta do something different to stay in it. I'm with the times, but I want to have the past in my shit, too. Past, present and future is where I'm at.”

MADLIBBING SOME STEREO MOJO

Although Madlib tracked and mixed almost all of The Further Adventures of Lord Quas using only a Boss SP-303 Dr. Sample and a Roland VS-1680 digital workstation, the setup didn't always satisfy the sound he had in his head. For that, he turned to engineer Dave Cooley. “Madlib likes to shoot from the hip,” Cooley says, “so sometimes it's a deliberate and intentional choice on his part to go with the most rough-hewn version of a mix he can get. But if he and Wolf want to take a stab at making the track boom a little bit more in certain places, that's where I come in.”

After patiently loading Madlib's original tracks from the VS-1680 into a Digidesign Pro Tools|HD system, Cooley employs a number of crafty but straightforward tricks to create a wider stereo feel for virtually any monosynth line, sample or vocal that Madlib can come up with. Once the tracks have been tweaked, a Crane Song STC-8 compressor/limiter — which Cooley describes as “a pretty deep box that's not as snappy as an SSL but can be aggressive without ‘coloring’ the mix too much” — acts as the main piece of outboard gear in the mixdown and mastering phases.

Remix: How do you create a stereo effect for one of Madlib's synth parts?

Dave Cooley: We did that in the song “Greenery.” One way is to use a really short delay — say, between 9 and 25 ms — with only one repeat, and then you pan it to the opposite side of the original. Your ears naturally hear the soonest sound louder than the one that comes after it, so you have to boost up the delay just a hair louder than the original; then, they'll sound like stereo. You have to be careful, though, because they can cancel each other out in mono.

Remix: What if you want to boost up a snare sound that's embedded in a sample?

Dave Cooley: Madlib works a lot from mono loops, so this is a challenge. There are a couple of steps to getting a stereo reverb on the snare. First, make two copies of the track. On one of them, boost the midrange where the snare is, but don't assign an output for that track. Just send it out as a bus or assign it to an aux send — it's not a track you're actually going to listen to; you're going to use it to key a gate. Then, you put a gate on the second copy of the track and EQ it the same as the original loop and set the key input on the gate to the same bus as your nonlistening key track.

So, basically, you've got one copy of the track that's cruising along through the loop, and you've got another that's just gating only when the snare opens it. Sometimes, I'll slide the key track forward so it opens the gate a little bit early; that way, you don't get a pop when the gate opens. Put a stereo reverb on that snare gate, set it to 100 percent wet and then bring it up to where you can barely hear it. You time the reverb so that it's in tempo with the track — and there's your stereo snare.

Remix: Can you isolate a kick drum like that?

Dave Cooley: It doesn't always work with a bass line in the loop, because sometimes the kick and the bass are hitting at the same time, but it's a similar approach. In fact, they were doing this kind of thing as early as the disco days to make tracks bump — only with analog gear, of course. So, again, you make a nonlistening key track and boost the lows and then send it out on a bus. Then, make another track, an aux track with the Pro Tools Signal Generator. It's just a continuous tone that you place as a plug-in on that aux track, and then you lower the tone all the way down to 60 Hz. So, now, it's just a subsonic frequency, and once you put a gate on it, you can key the gate off of the bused track with all the boosted lows so that only the kick drum in the loop is opening the gate with that 60Hz tone. Then, you can play with the release time to shape it — whether you want a 909 shape or a long, decaying 808 shape.

Madlib: www.stonesthrow.com/madlib
Dave Cooley: www.elysianmasters.com