Most Known Unknown

Most Known Unknown
Photo: Marc Lecureuil

  • Chairman Mao
  • XXL
  • January 29, 2006

He's got more personalities than Cassidy and UTFO. True underground heads know that your boy Madlib is an odd bird. He's also one of hip-hop'ssss most talented rappin' producers. Take our word.

When is a straight answer not a straight answer? Usually, when you're conversing with Madlib - a hip-hop eccentric best described as not merely the proverbial "question wrapped in an enigma," but one asked in the form of a run-on sentence, in a dialect you can't quite place. Press this maniacally prolific producer/MC/multi-instrumentalist about his current projects, and he deadpans, "Nilla n' Ham."

Huh?

"You know, Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer. It's coming out soon." Such arid high jinks probably shouldn't come as any surprise. Like the children's game with which he shares his moniker, Madlib requires that you fill in the blanks around what he tells you to come up with anything approaching a full story. The man born Otis Jackson Jr., however, has such a history with left-field musical moves, that collabos with yesteryear's pop-rap icons might not be as far-fetched as they sound. ("I'd say it's a joke," says friend and Stones Throw Records founder Peanut Butter Wolf, for whom Madlib has recorded since 1998. "But he does do stuff that I don't know about.")

Hailing from Oxnard, Calif., the son of '60s R&B singer Otis Jackson Sr., Madlib possesses skills and a repertoire that defy easy categorization. As the primary musical bedrock for a slew of well-regarded indie hip-hop acts ('Lib's own trio, Lootpack, and affiliated soloists like his little brother Oh No, Wildchild, Declaime, MED/Medaphoar, and Kazi), his dusted grooves have emerged as the dominant sound of the revered Stones Throw stable. He's recorded two superb and celebrated partnership projects (under the banners Jaylib and Madvillain) with fellow rhyming/producing stalwarts J Dilla and MF Doom. He's remixed the catalog of famed jazz label Blue Note Records (Shades of Blue), dropped a homage to West London's "broken beat" scene (Theme for a Broken Soul, under the name DJ Rels) and produced and arranged a full live band of accomplished session players (Sound Directions' The Funky Side of Life). And don't forget the self-taught musician's series of one-man-band instrumental albums, released under an even more confusing array of aliases: Yesterdays New Quintet, Monk Hughes & the Outer Realm, Malik Flavors, the Beat Conductor, etc. "I just don't wanna flood things with Madlib, Madlib, Madlib," says the freewheeling maestro, in his baritone So Cal drawl. "I wanna fool people, switch it up, and do different things."

True to this mind-set, the signature projects of Madlib's sprawling catalog are those he's performed as his bugged alter ego, Quasimoto, the moody, helium-voiced hip-hop gremlin with a predilection for trees, dimes and strife. If Quas' 2000 debut, The Unseen, developed a cult following based on the pure novelty of its oddball protagonist's freaky tales, last spring's sequel, The Further Adventures of Lord Quas, took the premise to its delirious outer limits. A chaotic, at times even jarring exercise in experimentalism, the album stands as one of '05's best.

Madlib can't pinpoint the precise moment 11 years ago when, as an amateur producer with a potent imagination-and even more potent hallucinogens-he birthed the Quasimoto concept. "I think it was a Monday," he recalls hazily. "I was on mushrooms. Shit... for like a week straight. My pops had a little studio spot, and I was just in there working on music.

"It wasn't a big deal - just banging some shit out for my Walkman, rapping as crazy as possible. I was trying to switch my voice up because niggas was calling me Barry White and shit for my voice. I was like, 'Let me do something weird and see if people could catch on."

A few years later, upon hearing the Quas demos, Peanut Butter Wolf encouraged Madlib to share the "bad character" of his studio tinkering with the public. Heard today, one can easily interpret Quasimoto as a cunning satire of the tough-talk convention rappers still rely on some 20 years since Schoolly D and Just-Ice initially cast the mold. Says Madlib: "It's good to have a sense of humor, 'cause everybody seem like they mad. Like, I'm in a big Benz, I'm mad! It seems like all the rich folks is mad. You supposed to be happy."

The more cerebral take is that Quas represents the universal soul of mischief that resides in us all - a cartoonish embodiment of every inappropriate thought, selfish impulse, and streak of irresponsibility we're forced to keep in check on the daily. "He's probably with my girl right now!" Madlib jokes of Quas. "It's the yin and yang of everything,"

The yin, the yang, and the everything guiding Madlib's universe, however, is clearly music. The Jackson family genes (mom, Senesca, composed several songs of Otis Sr.'s; uncle John Faddis, a former protégé of Dizzy Gillespie, is a world-class jazz trumpeter) sealed young Otis' fate from the gate. "[While the other kids were] off playing hoop and football and stuff," Madlib says, of his childhood, "I was the weird dude in my room making music."

You could say that things haven't changed much since. It's just that the fruits of this studio hermit's marathon sessions-some of which have spanned 24 continuous hours-may now actually be heard round the world. The off-the-wall impressionism (not to mention sheer volume) of his productions, however, betrays the spontaneity in his work habits.

"All my beats are freestyles, " he confesses. "I just make the song in 20 minutes, and try to create something different every time." Skeptics may question the wisdom of such hit-and-run production techniques-the most flagrantly "out" of any significant producer's since RZA's Wu-Tang heyday. But Madlib's closest colleagues readily attest to the craftsmanship involved. "That's a hardworking dude," says MF Doom. "Working with him on the Madvillain album, I really learned that if it ain't broke, don't fix it. He don't waste a lot of time bullshitting every little fuckin' snare for eight hours. Less is more. It's the way it sounds."

If it's a matter of sacrificing polish for feel, Madlib will undoubtedly go with the latter every time. "I meditate when I do music," he says. "That's why I don't remember everything [that happens in the studio]. I don't think too hard about what I'm doing, I'm just channeling."

So where the hell is Quasimoto when Madlib's in the zone like that? Undoubtedly off sparking Ls, chasing skirts, and generally raising hell somewhere-perhaps even nearby Sin City itself, Las Vegas.

"That's probably Quas' favorite place," Madlib says offhandedly. "We might do our first show together there. I think it's gonna be with Lionel Richie at one of them hotels..."