Legend has it that somewhere in Southern Cali, buried beneath stacks of vinyl and jars of kind bud, hip-hop maestro Otis Jackson Jr. (aka Madlib) hunches over an old and battered SP 1200, relentlessly coping samples and building tracks so rich and smooth that they can only be called musical butter. He rarely sleeps, and some days he never even leaves his lab, preferring to spend in excess of 15 hours honing his craft. There are over a dozen completed albums in the can (including two additional Quas albums and 12 from his jazz group Yesterday’s New Quintet), as well as numerous beat albums and mix tapes that are recorded on a daily basis. But, like an imprisoned Genet scribbling Our Lady of the Flowers on toilet tissue, Madlib doesn’t hold any illusions that a large majority of his material will ever be released– due to both their sheer quantity and sample-clearance issues (fuck intellectual property!). But when the muse calls– and apparently she’s got the man on speed-dial– Madlib never hesitates to light a splif and start diggin’.
Madlib’s latest, the vinyl-only EP Astronaut, was recorded in the same time period as The Unseen, the ’00 classic that introduced us to Madlib’s bugged out alter-ego Quasimoto. While the album is technically a Quasimoto release, there’s only one song on the three-song EP where Madlib affects the classic, helium-tinted Quas voice. But don’t despair, the Quas vibe permeates the album, and the songs on this one are as good as anything on The Unseen.
After a short jazz interlude, the album kicks off proper with the gleefully blunted title track. “You ain’t no astronaut,” a sample voice declares, quickly followed by Quasimoto’s retort: “but we’ve been out here in orbit, walked further than the moon, ain’t we.” A string and horn based sample, which is both psychedelic and sad, anchors the song and perfectly compliments Quasimoto’s nearly nonsensical lyrics. In addition to the music, Madlib liberally sprinkles a spoken word sample that functions as yet another narrative voice. This is a device Madlib often employs, and it further decenters the track as it adds a 70s blaxploitation vibe central to the Quas persona.
Although the song “Astronaut” is a nice addition to Quas’ catalog, the real gem here is the second track, “Am I Confused?” The title’s rhetorical question, which is repeated in the chorus, reflects the artist’s inner-turmoil as he deals with issues of self-destruction, loss, and community. Thematically speaking, this is one of his most self-reflective, complex and rewarding songs to date. Recalling Marvin Gaye’s classic “What’s Going On,” the song addresses Madlib’s feelings of confusion and helplessness as he witnesses the deterioration of his friends and family members. But whereas “What’s Going On” took a more reductionary, macrocosmic view, “Am I Confused?” suggests the ills that infect its inhabitants are a result of their own deeply embedded self-destructive urges. The song is populated with adulterous fathers and cancerous break-dancers, an AIDS-stricken sister and inner-city derelicts “drinkin’ nightrain and pumpin’ needles in their vein.” Throughout the song, Madlib constantly modulates his voice so that it appears there are numerous emcees on the track. This is a nice touch in that it lifts the veil of anonymity and breaches the gap between the two personas of Madlib and Quasimoto, suggesting that the tragedies described are something both sides of Otis Jackson can agree upon. The song’s production is anchored by a xylophone sample that’s a melancholy, downbeat slice of classic 70s soul– in other words, vintage Madlib.
Astronaut’s import- and vinyl-only status may make it difficult for the average American consumer to access, but the songs on this record are just too precious to be trusted to anything other than vinyl. The only complaint I had– and the only reason that I didn’t give this a higher rating– is that the label left one whole side of the record blank, not bothering to press the instrumentals, a rarity for the DJ-friendly Madlib. But that somewhat petty and selfish complaint aside, this is one record every Quasimoto fan is gonna need to cop.