If there is a lesson to be gleaned from Garth Brooks’ blink-length stint as the angst-riddled, soul-patched rocker Chris Gaines, it is that alter egos generally signal corny reinvention. Few artists realize until it’s too late that all the riches in the world cannot restore the simplicity of the anonymous life, or the expectations-free stage name. Oxnard, California, hip-hop artist Otis Jackson, Jr., aka Madlib, understands this perhaps too well. Far from a household name, Jackson’s profile stands in inverse relation to his reputation as a producer: the more praise heaped upon his work, the more elusive he seems to become, splintering off into a million little alter egos, with his only connection to the world being those bizarre sounds that waft from his soundlab with frightening regularity.
Jackson was born in 1973 in Oakland, California, the son of two musicians. His father was a session singer notable for his work with David Axelrod and H.B. Barnum, while his uncle is Jon Faddis, a trumpeter who has gigged with Dizzy Armstrong, Charles Mingus and Bob James. As a youngster growing up in Oxnard — a sleepy town on the outskirts of Los Angeles where members of the Beat Junkies also grew up — there was little to do but make (and obsess over) music. (Jackson’s younger brother, Oh No, is also a respected beat-maker.) In 1990, Jackson founded the group the Lootpack with friends DJ Romes and Wildchild, and he did some beats for the Alkaholiks.
Anyone who has ever tried interviewing Jackson understands that his reticence isn’t an act; each minute away from his records and studio seems to be a truly taxing experience. He gives the impression that he knows little of what goes on in the world, other than that it exists somewhere outside the doors of his studio. The ever-regressing fashions of modern hip-hop interest him even less. Someone from Jackson’s label, Stones Throw Records, once suggested that the best way to go about extracting information from him was just to strike up a conversation about jazz, and nod along to his ever-insightful meanderings.
In the late ’90s, though, little distinguished Madlib’s geeky style from the dozens of other crate-digging producers toiling in the independent scene. That changed in 1999, when the Lootpack released their first album, Soundpieces: Da Antidote. Greeted with great acclaim, the album’s loose, spaced-out feel and quirky beats signaled a refinement of Madlib’s technique. Buried deep amongst the dusty odes to weed (the incredible “Weededed”) and outbursts of crew love (“Episodes,” “Likwit Fusion”) was a befuddling, “fresh, like douche” gem called “Answers,” featuring a helium-pitched hypeman-slash-sidekick named Quasimoto. Many thought it a gimmick, but when Jackson released a full Quasimoto album the following year—titled The Unseen —it was clear that he had sort of given up caring what anyone thought about him.
If beauty is in the eye of its beholder, then I’d be very interested in whatever it is that Jackson smokes when he makes his records. The Unseen stands as one of the more intriguing hip-hop records of the past decade. Along with its follow-up, 2005’s Further Adventures of Lord Quas, the Quasimoto records seem to find Jackson allowing a glimpse into his exceedingly cluttered mind, all squiggly, near-unfinished short-attention-span beats and child-like, cuss-filled rhymes. Songs whirr to life mid-beat or feature spirited arguments with Melvin Van Peebles’ sampled barbs (“Hydrant Game,” “Bartender Say”), while others consist of little more than laundry-lists of Jackson’s favorite musicians (“Jazz Cats, Pt. 1,” “Rappcats, Pt. 3”). Much of it doesn’t sound like music at all, instead conveying thoughts in motion, ideas being sketched on a drawing board, scratched out, scrapped and then approached again.
The following year, Jackson formed Yesterdays New Quintet, a fuzzy electronic jazz combo consisting of a few grizzled, battle-worn — and wholly invented — session players. It was as though side-project alter egos couldn’t suffice; even Jackson’s fake band needed fake names, each with fake back-stories. Aspiring for the tastier and funkier moments of mid-’70s jazz-fusion, YNQ evolved into a space for Jackson to practice his hand at composing music. Keeping with the ruse, “band members” Malik Flowers, Joe McDuphrey and Monk Hughes (the excellent homage to oft-sampled jazz-funk keyboardist Weldon Irvine, A Tribute to Brother Weldon) have each cut solo material. All this, predictably, spawned an entirely new side project, last year’s Sound Directions record The Funky Side of Life. Sound Directions represented a rare moment: an actual collaboration between Madlib and other human beings, including actual people who play in real-life bands like the Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Antibalas and Breakestra. Having dabbled in the sounds of old, Jackson turned his attention toward an ambitious, futuristic and distinctly British take on jazz virtuosity. One of the odder records in the Jackson catalogue is 2004’s Theme for a Broken Soul, his — or rather, DJ Rels’ — attempt at making a record in the relentlessly percussive, twitchy style of broken-beat. Probably Jackson’s most dance-floor-friendly record, it’s nonetheless an acquired taste.
Despite being, in the context of hip-hop, a bit of a recluse, Jackson’s latest and best records have been collaborations. In 2003, he and the late Detroit producer J Dilla fused as Jaylib, mailing vocals and beats back and forth and emerging with one of the year’s better records, Champion Sound. The following year, Jackson and rapper/producer MF Doom attempted to out-weird each other on the Madvillain record, Madvillainy. And this year, Madlib and friend Dudley Perkins put out Expressions (2012 a.u.), a classic bit of stoned, post-D’Angelo soul.
Stones Throw has issued the instrumental versions of the last two. Like the best instrumental records from the RZA or DJ Premier, Madvillainy Instrumentals and Dudley Perkins “Expressions” Instrumentals sound and feel like completely new releases — the textures and accidentally-happened-upon loops are more vivid when scrubbed of vocals, and the odd, barely-there inertia of his rhythms takes on new life without the anchor of a rapper.
There is another Jackson record on the shelves right now: The Art of Love, featuring beats from Madlib. But this is Otis Jackson, Sr. — the father of Madlib and Oh No and the financier for Lootpack’s first record (some of which is collected on The Lost Tapes). Most of the eldest Jackson’s comeback record is straight-ahead R&B for the grown folks, but the kids supply a few remixes. It’s a father-son game that puts loyalty and love over what sounds fashionable. It can be a bit unnerving hearing Jackson’s velvety, occasionally over-the-top croon atop Madlib and Oh No’s smoked-out, bottom-heavy wobblers, but you can tell none of them care — and it’s a beautiful thing.