- Story: Peter Agoston, Photos: Barry Underhill, Illustration: Jeff Jank
- May 11, 2005
Nothing like a sunny, mid-morning in Los Angeles, California. When the smog recedes enough to let the crisp Santa Ana breeze swing through its buzzing streets, you can taste the American pop culture history waft through the air.
Alone I sit at Mom's Donuts and Chinese Food to Go, a place that at night seems like a safe-haven for hipsters is a bit more of construction site pit-stop during the day's lighter hours. Quasimoto's The Further Adventures of Lord Quas album sits between a bad cup of coffee and a rather drab donut, a mint melding of cultural and musical layers much like the Echo Park foothills that surround me. Two miles west from the city's downtown lay its architecturally avant-garde houses of the '30s, aside ramshackle businesses of today sewn together by wily palms that nestle its well-worn streets like the odd innuendos that bind together this album. In a way, the slim-cased CD is its own miniature beating heart of the neighborhood, making not only for a good analogy of L.A. life but of the further winding Mulholland Road-of-rap today. 27 songs (if you will) deep and eight minutes over an hour, The Further Adventures... is bold, vivid and if it's possible, even exotic. Madlib's Venetian blinds flutter to reveal the illusion of Quasimoto's character, (they) not only work together, but tussle and struggle with one another, voicing the other's passions and joys only when not grappling with their conjoined double-sided bleeding heart.
Focus is a necessity here. The surprisingly clean air keeps my brain focalized on the man behind the monotone and the voice that is the man, Otis Jackson Jr., known to the world as Madlib (and the conduit to several duly-noted aliases). And this Madlib mystique is one of much debate. A soft-spoken eccentric interwoven within the infrastructure of indie hip-hop's most successful imprint, Stones Throw Records, 1998 was the first acknowledged hint of Quasimoto's existence (Peanut Butter Wolf's My Vinyl Weights A Ton), but the man Madlib had already been on his way since adolescence. He's a former breaker-turned-DJ from the suburb of Oxnard, California, big brother to likeminded producer/MC Oh No, and child to Otis Jackson Sr., the consummate collaborator forthe likes of Tina Turner to Bobby "Blue" Bland. Sinesca Jackson, their mother, wrote several of his father's pieces. And his uncle, the trumpeter John Faddis, was at Dizzy Gillespie's side when he left the physical (he even played horn on the opening theme to "The Cosby Show"). Yet, his Oxnard upbringing remains only a memory, two hours south from the 805 area code to which so many of his associates (Wildchild, MED., et al) refer. Madlib has enveloped the L.A. life for over five years, relocating right around the same point Stones Throw owner Peanut Butter Wolf brought his enterprise down from San Francisco. Once roommates in a well-to-do compound of sorts on the other side of the freeway, Otis now takes residency on his own, just some moments away from Mom's Donuts and Chinese Food to Go.
Taking in a rare press day at his home, Madlib is open and inviting, quiet and calm but accommodating. Modest by mansion standards, his two-story crib is actually quite nice. Unassuming, unimposing, and kind of dapper - yet, as with Madlib, one can only assume what's going on behind closed doors. We confine our time in the place he obviously does on the daily: the studio.
His new lab is a cool, dark getaway from what otherwise has become a beautiful day outside. The converted garage/mini-build- ing rests amid a two-tier backyard Echo Park portico with lemon trees and meandering vines and plants growing about the area. It almost seems as though the plant life is growing to the pace of Madlib's measured ways. There is an air of old Hollywood about it all, and a definite harkening to why the filmmakers and artisans built this section of town some 70 years ago. Who knew what bugged-out shit would come from it so many decades later?
Stepping inside, the comforting presence of blunt smoke snakes throughout the square space. Wall-to-wall equipment eat up the corners, record walls take up their opposing sides and boxes of vinyl line most of the floor. There is actually just a narrow L-shaped path from the door to the man, not too different from his initial set up at the original Stones Throw manor (his then basement studio often referred to as the Bomb Shelter). It seems he's now able to breathe quite a bit more.
"How you doing?" he asks. No, how are you doing Madlib?
Accommodating, he smiles and nods his head attentively with the epitome of relaxation. It could also be from the over-flowing trash can that sits next to the front door, brimming with cashed baggies and Optimo guts. A long look around the room yields numerous well-worn Fender Rhodes racks, hovered by a beautifully framed vintage black and white Herbie Hancock poster, various photographs of his daughter, some old Lootpack flyers, a drum kit, stand-up bass with one string, a couple of dinged electric guitars, and a mass of samplers a bit more excessive than most typical hip-hop producers have laid out.
Madlib himself is encased in music (think of a slightly refined Gil Scot Heron 1980 album cover). He's surrounded by samplers, the SP-1200 (which was utilized on Quasimoto's debut The Unseen), what looks to be an ASR-10, a nice new MPC 4000 garnished with effects processors, a Pioneer CDJ, a dirty Technics 1200 turntable, some mini-mixing boards, enough records to make movement limited - and right smack dab in the middle of all this action lays the small rectangular Boss Dr. Sample SP-303 Drum Machine, pink button-blinks abound. This is the unassuming tiny tool to his huge success which he used and abused for this album, as well as Madvillainy, the Jaylib project, and the grossly under-acknowledged broken-beat escapade Theme for a Broken Soul.
This is the portrait of artistic freedom in hip-hop, the promised land if you will. A daring formula, but one that has benefited both Mad and his label exponentially. Directly facing him is a wall of records that seemingly divides the room in half, on its eye-level shelf rests a framed vinyl copy of The Unseen, the glass of its case cracked as if Lord Quas himself chucked his beloved brick at it. "When was the last time you listened to that?" I ask. "The day before I turned it in," he answers. That album dropped in 2000. A lot has changed for Madlib in those five years, except for his unadulterated passion for music - all music.
An autographed Melvin Van Peebles picture peeks from an opposing shelf, key ingredient of the identity of Lord Quas. "He's in Quasimoto," Mad declares. Peebles is appreciative of the inclusion, ("he said he liked it a lot"), and rightfully so, as The Unseen and now Further Adventures.., breathe a new, inventive life into Sweetback and his raucous, if not comparably Quasi, lifestyle. This is evident even more so for this spin around. As Quas and Madlib walk together, one in the same, musically dodging and ducking violence ("Raw Deal"), substance abuse ("Greenery") and misguiding people ("J.A.N.", "Mr. Two Faced," "Privacy"), they play out a dirty, 16mm approach to concept-music, the latter ideal being one visited more than others. Privacy, passion, desire. An unswerving theme throughout, and hopefully not a surprise, because Madlib is a Scorpio. Vested interest in the Zodiac or not, the Scorpio is probably the most notorious of its signs. If for anything, they're ferociously determined. "I'm a Scorpio," he mentions in proud passing.
While his guru Sun-Ra was born sometime in May, it's a wonder why he didn't share the same sign as Mad, because both focus intensely on their craft. Ra released hundreds of albums in his career, some pressing less than 100 copies. From the '50s up until his death in May of 1993, he and his Arkestra would tour, record and create wild amounts of wholly unique artwork. Not much different from Mad, who during the course of this interview not only made mention to fully-slated projects like Sound Directions (a new Yesterdays New Quintet album, this time with actual session players recorded alongside the producer), a Beat Conductor instrumental full-length, the much-anticipated Percee P album tentatively titled Perseverance, most of MED's new album Push Comes to Shove, and murmured mentions of a Disco album, his own actual Madlib solo album (a true follow-up to the run-away success of his Blue Note debut Shades of Blue) and possible collaborations with Hopeton "Overton" Brown (better known as Scientist, the renowned Dub mixer), The Mizell Brothers (legendary jazz producers) and even Mr. Earth Rot, David Axelrod.
"I'm trying to get [David Axelrod] to help me," reports Madlib. "He may not, but he says he likes the music - taking the time to call me up. He'll tell me to call him up, but I be all scared to call him."
Pontificating on the fact he's got it like very few in current hip-hop do, Madlib observes that it's not "like the old days, in the '60s when you didn't have those crazy A&R's worried about making money."
"If Madlib was a different person, I guess I would say that it's nervous to have all of our eggs in one basket," admits Eothen "Egon" Alapatt, Stones Throw label manager, while on the phone from the Winter Music Conference in Miami. "I do honestly believe this, as does everybody that works for Stones Throw, he's the singular force that's working within the boundaries of hip-hop and creating music that's not only transcending hip-hop but is transcending the time. Everything he does right now is so goddamn important, that saying 'Oh man, we gotta diversify, we gotta run out and we gotta find other people that can do what Madlib does,' would be almost counter-intuitive."
While in London promoting and performing for the debut of Madvilliany, Madlib hand-delivered Egon Further Adventures... in May of 2004. Late at night, after the show, he sauntered to Abbey Road certifiably bugging out. "I was walking around for hours, till the sun came up, listening to the record," Egon recalls. "We just released Madvillany, and he turned this in?!"
Surprised, and with good reason as what could have been a low-key collaboration with DOOM turned over record-breaking sales across the globe, with Soundscans of close to 60,000 in the U.S. alone and six-figure shipping numbers for the world at large. In an industry where 10,000 copies sold could be definitely considered a success, these were some serious units for indie hip-hop Jump back to 1999, right before Da Lootpack record dropped. Egon ran the Vanderbilt University radio station (where he hosted the fabled "911 Emergency' show with Count Bass D) and promoted events in the Nashville scene. Wolf, in the process of moving his Stones Throw operation from San Fran to L.A., was handling the majority of his label's business by himself from the South Bay Area distributor Nu Gruv/TRC. It was around this time that their pivotal connection would be made.
Brought out to Nashville the year previous for E's renowned "Ultimate Breaks & Beats" showcase, Wolf's appearance was so successful that there was a succeeding year's request for his presence. Instead of taking it, he sent E a test-pressing from his label's new group Da Lootpack. Familiar with their work with Tha Alkaholiks (Madlib's low-end rich beat for "Mary Jane" and the crew effort for "WLIX") he eagerly checked the record and decided to bring them out for the show as well, along with the likes of Mr. Dibbs, 7L & Esoteric, Mass Influence and others. It was seminal indie hip-hop history in the making. Wildchild, DJ Romes and Madlib would come to not just rock the spot, but share a stage with the late great Weldon Irvine (the legendary composer/playwright who would take his own life just a few years later, and whom 'Lib would graciously pay tribute to in last year's winding A Tribute to Brother Weldon album). It was, all in all, a critical experience for everyone and a precedent-setting benchmark towards musical history.
After graduating Vanderbilt, Wolf offered Egon a full-time position at Stones Throw in May of 2000. Having never been to L.A. before, E grabbed his wax and fortitude and relocated from the Cash to the City of Angels that July. Quasimoto's commercial birth The Unseen would be the first record he'd work upon arrival. Looking forward at their present situation, Egon says, "It's not solely Madlib, but Madlib is certainly the guiding light we're all following." He also recalls telling Madlib, "You do what you do best and watch us do what we do best and watch us both come up together."
And come up they have, evolving as a business right alongside the artistic escalation of Mad. "He's always been productive," says Chris Manak, a.k.a. Peanut Butter Wolf. "Before I met him he had tapes upon tapes. Everybody in Oxnard, he had albums for all of them - Medaphoar, Declaime, Oh No, Jack (Wildchild), God's Gift, Kan Kick. He's always been nonstop with the stuff." Wolf has had an affinity for Mad since he first hear Da Lootpack debut "Ill Psyche Move" (with the duly-noted b-side "Female Request Line") 12-inch being spun on SF DJ Lady T's nighttime mix show. He called into the station and obtained the group's contact info, and phoned them soon after. It was only then that he would realize he'd heard their work before with Tha Liks. Since then, Madlib defines Stones Throw. Lord Quas: their mascot for the ages. It's creator: Jeff Jank.
The album cover for Further Adventures... is a bizarro tenement building. Longtime Stones Throw designer/artist (and musical author of Captain Funkaho), Jeff Jank talks about his inspiration for the cover art. "One thing I thought about this record is that with so many fragment songs sounding like wild movie scenes, I found it so entertaining. It reminded me of an apartment building with 27 different stories going on in the rooms; half dream, half real." Somewhere along the Further Adventures... ride, a fantasy shanty-town called the Lost Gates Apartments are implied. Divulging much from the Lost Gates' windows, you see the piecemeal recipe of what made this album. Atop the roof, Zappa's homeboy, Lawrence Wayne "Wild Man" Fisher, holds a knife to the throat of his mother as the Ghost of Sun-Ra illuminates from down the hall. MED. and Dilla gaze with red eyes at the streets below as Madlib smokes out one of the guys from the 1973 film "Fantastic Planet" (seen on previous Quasimoto covers). And, as Jank calls it, our man Quasimoto is just "thinking of new ways to cook Top Ramen.
"I can picture Melvin Van Peebles in another room yelling at his neighbors," Jank continues, "like on the track 'Don't Blink' - 'Damnit man! This don't belong to just you ... by the time that knockin's through I'll show you what knockin' can do!" With a sly nod to Monty Python director/animator Terry Gilliam's style, Jank's visual interpretation of Quasimoto is nothing short of central to the music, as there have been multiple adaptations of the character up to this point, all somewhat different from the volatile anteater to mildly-frightening puppet, each containing the absurdity of Madlib's imagination version.
It should be noted that the discovery of Lord Quas was by no means intentional. "They let me borrow a tape because we were working on some new Lootpack stuff, and I heard these songs on the same tape and I asked him about it," Wolf remembers. "It was kind of a fluke those songs were on there, I guess. What always sticks out in my mind, is when I asked about them he was a little embarrassed that I even heard it. Like, 'oh you weren't supposed to hear that.' I think he may of thought I wasn't that open-minded. That was when I started hanging out with him and he didn't know what I was like, because I was kind of a crazy dude, too. Not really all there." Rightfully so, because without the Wolf's idiosyncratic interest of the left, there might not be the kookiness of a Gary Wilson or Madlib, and for that reason, Quasimoto itself. One person overtly familiar with all the above is Dave Cooley.
As the label's go-to engineer, Cooley has mixed and mastered some 20 titles and counting for Stones Throw. Starting up as a keyboardist for Milwaukee-based band Citizen King he fiddled with a Joe Tex break (on the SP-1200, nonetheless) for their 1999 Top 40 hit "Better Days" which caught Egon's ear instantaneously. Digging for breaks in the basement of a Nashville record store while on tour is where Cooley met E, and soon, like Egon, he would migrate to Los Angeles and eventually assist with the shades of the Madlib sound. Engineering albums for the likes of stadium-rock acts Good Charlotte and Queens of the Stone Age, Cooley is versed behind the boards, and more than understanding of the signature grit of Stones Throw. "I'm kind of used to working with Madlib. He mixed Further Adventures. .. as well," says Cooley. "He works on his own terms. When I mix and master, I mix and master on his terms as well."
Comparing the worlds of rock and hip-hop, Cooley says, "I feel kind of blessed that I've been able to meet all of these artists ... approaching record-making in the same way but with two totally different styles. It's fun for me because I feel a little like a conduit between the two."
Ask Mad about all of these players (his teammates) and he throws out a smile, a nod, a few words, and then turns his focus back on the terminal of blinking lights before him. Yet the air he exudes isn't one of arrogance or indifference. He's on a mission, there is a job to do and while he's fully aware of his role and obligations, it's as though this insatiable urge blindly draws him back again and again to the process of progress and productivity in hip-hop and beyond. "He's never been overly concerned with money," Wolf says. "I don't dwell on that either. I kind of live a day at a time."
Nothing like a sun-kissed late afternoon in Los Angeles. When the clouds setting along the horizon and the sun blazes car windows racing home to the grid-lock along Hollywood Blvd., you can taste the American pop culture history sitting heavy in the air. As we leave Mad's house for the bustling rush-hour ride, a photo crew spills in to shoot him for the day's last press session. Tired, Visine stirring in his eyes, he obliges, irking as if to get back to the loop that runs the course of his mind throughout our interview. It could be something he started a long time ago that may never, ever come to completion. Smoke one for us, Quas. You'll get there.
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