Once upon a rhyme, musicians and producers — then known as artists — were encouraged to create, to grow, to experiment. They could adopt different personas, come up with heady concept albums, even alter their signature sounds. Marvin Gaye grew increasingly complex, David Bowie assumed alter egos faster than most musicians cut their hair, and Miles Davis, well, he reinvented himself so many times his trumpet blew minds while opening ears. The record industry allowed all of this — as long as they continued to sell records, of course.
These days, it’s rare for artists to release three albums for one label, let alone have the room to alter their sound between each. The industry demands a cookie-cutter, hit-driven approach, with this headspace trickling down to loads of indie labels as well.
Somehow, L.A.’s Otis Jackson Jr., better known as Madlib, has managed to sidestep all of this. Recording consistently for Peanut Butter Wolf’s eclectically funky Stones Throw label, Madlib always has a lengthy list of recording projects and alter egos on the go. He is the main beat merchant in influential hip-hop trio Lootpack; is well-known as the high-pitched, quick-thinking hip-hop MC and producer Quasimoto; and lets his love of jazz shine through with the solo pseudo-group Yesterdays New Quintet. And that’s just scratching the surface.
It’s no surprise that Madlib comes from a musical family, with a vocalist mother, musician father and infamous jazz trumpeter Jon Faddis (who played with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus and Bob James) for an uncle. Jackson Jr. has been heavily into old jazz since the age of 11, also getting into hip-hop through breakdancing with his future fellow Lootpackers. He’s been serious about his music ever since, collecting records like mad; teaching himself to play the bass, guitar, drums, keyboards and vibraphone; learning to DJ; and schooling himself in how to integrate samples flawlessly into the music he lives and loves.
“I studied arrangers and producers when I was young and tripped off how everything was put together,” he says. “Now, I make albums every three days. I don’t think about it, I just do it. I just freestyle and what happens, happens. I keep the first take of everything — I leave it alone. I’m tired of hearing it after 10 minutes.”
If this sounds blasé or lazy to you, trust me, it ain’t. Listen to Quasimoto’s brilliant The Unseen or Yesterdays New Quintet’s Angles Without Edges and you too will be amazed. Granted, exec-producer Peanut Butter Wolf selected the tracks for the Quintet release from some 30 CD-Rs of material, but the point is that Madlib turns it out quick, good and fresh. I just wonder how he keeps his head and many projects straight at that rate.
“Basically, I just do it,” he says. “I just finished a jazz song right now and I’m about to do some hip-hop beats, probably later some cats are going to come over and rap, or whatever. It changes every hour, I don’t know. I usually like mostly everything — that’s probably just ’cause I do it,” he chuckles. “I don’t do anything but music. I’ve got more than 20 albums worth of completed Yesterdays New Quintet; those albums are dropping every three months. Really, I make the music for myself, to stay healthy-minded.”
For many, sanity stems from being true to oneself. Madlib happens to be both mad talented and amazingly fortunate, with Stone’s Throw supporting his sounds and development full force.
“The industry messes shit up. I feel blessed,” the man says simply.
Madlib is busier than ever. With fans including the likes of D’Angelo, ?uestlove, Jay Dee and Jazzanova, he’s turning out the remixes, collaborating with peeps like King Britt and West London’s Kaidi Tatham, and dreaming up project after project. Albums soon to be released included a remix and covers concept for Blue Note, a mix album of vintage reggae for Trojan Records, a new Quasimoto disc, a Madlib “solo album” and a joint project with MF Doom under the group name of Mad Villain. Can you dig it? Yes, I can.
“I want people to think whatever they wanna think,” Madlib says of listeners responding to his many musical personas. “I change the name up so it’s not just Madlib — make people think a little bit. I make too much shit and try to do different things, so I want people to hear them differently. Each project I’m doing is going to be distinct, hopefully.”