Mad Skills: Madlib's eclectic talent has taken him to all parts of the globe. And it shows in his beats.
MADLIB'S HOUSE HAS no street number. There is no sign of the quiet Californian with the wildly eclectic musical résumé, and the overcast block in LA.'s Echo Park neighborhood has no plaques marking the home of the prolific producer whose iconoclast attitude and thoroughly tweaked headbangers have inspired international atten- tion. As I scan the haciendas uncertainly, a clap of thunder detonates in the close sky, unleashing a gathering splatter of raindrops. On cue, Otis Jackson Jr. rounds the corner-Madlib has arrived.
Since the release of The Unseen LP in 2000, an unapologetically odd collection of helium-voiced raps over thumping beats that proudly declared their dusty authenticity, Mr. Jackson has found himself besieged by the curious and the converted. Any who'd missed his early contributions to Tha Alkaholiks and Lootpack couldn't avoid the torrent of releases resulting from his partnership with LA. indie Stones Throw. In five years, a corpulent body of work emerged, channeled through projects like Yesterdays New Quintet, Madvillain, Jaylib, DJ Rels, and the squeaky alien known as Lord Quas.
Entering the studio, I make my way past a rabble of vintage keyboards, countless boxes of LPs, a compact drum kit, and an upright bass possessing a single lonely string. At the center of a throng of production equipment, my host brushes aside a patina of dust and blunt ash that seems to coat the entire room, settles into a chair, and begins dialing through recent beats on a Pioneer CDJ-1000. The air jumps with abrasive and earthy tones sitting angular to the rhythm, a jumble of dusty snippets that bump and jab like a pause tape made by your man with the illest crates. A deadly serious beat gives way to screaming shards of free jazz, with no tangent safe, and fresh grooves exploding from the bits of skits. The bad character brother from another planet is back, returned from astral traveling to entertain twisted tastes with another set of psychedelic hip-hop.
SCRATCH: Since making the first Quasimoto LP, you've had the chance to travel all over the world. How has that affected your work?
MADLIB: I listen to a lot more types of music now. That's why you'll probably see on this new one, I sample everything, from '90s stuff to whatever. It's on a next level, musically.
I used to only like hip-hop and jazz. Now I listen to everything. In my collection, you'll see rock and classical, even house. I'm grown up now, you just don't stay with the same shit. Back in the Lootpack days, I was just a hip-hopper. Now, I'm open to doing different things. Not just hip-hop. I want to try everything. I want to do like Quincy Jones. Try differ- ent things but always keep your shit pure.
I made that DJ Rels broken beat stuff after going to the Co-Op club in London and connecting with those cats over there. I didn't know too much about that scene, but the music is like some advanced Herbie Hancock shit. It's still got those jazzy keys, but it's updated. That's why I liked it. Beats all broken and shit! Paul Jackson [from the Headhunters] probably started that!
Have you seen that Japanese-only Paul Jackson record [Black Octopus]?
I bought that shit for $300, and it wasn't even that hot! I thought that was going to be some crazy Headhunters shit. There's a couple breaks on it, I ain't gonna lie, but that shit wasn't worth no $300. (laughs)
So you're still out there digging for records?
I was out there yesterday, Always digging, wasting my money. When I go and buy records, you're never, going to see me up there listening to them in the store). I try to challenge myself. If I buy a record, I gotta do something with it. I do that with every record I buy. Just make something out of whatever you have, the best you know how.
A lot of times people will be digging, pick up a record and immediately say, "Ah, there's nothing on that!"
I bet I'll find something on it! That happens all the time. I was digging with Cut Chemist and all them in Brazil. I was pulling out whatever, crazy-ass records, and niggas was like, "There ain't gonna be nothing on that record." I made a whole beat tape, they was tripping. That's the most records I ever bought in my life, right there. I spent like five Gs on shit you ain't never gonna see, and most of them didn't even get here. I had two boxes that got lost. Nobody knows where they are.
I did most of the Madvillain album in Brazil. Cuts like "Raid" I did in my hotel room in Brazil on a portable turntable, my (Boss SP) 303, and a little tape deck. I recorded it on tape, came back here, put it on CD, and DOOM made a song out of it. Niggas be sleeping, thinking they need all this gear.
Looking around this studio it seems like you're into equipment, though.
I'm into it, but not like everybody else. You can see my shit's all dusty and dirty. I use it. Equipment matters, but it's not like I'm all obsessed with it. I see all this (gear) as the same. If you don't bear, it don't matter. It's about what you put into it. Some shit may have better effects or a better sound, but basically it's all the same. If you want that old sound, do what they used to do. Or if you want to go with technology, go with that. Do it all, but don't forget the analog. You can move up, but don't forget the essence.
Are there certain pieces that you feel more comfortable around, that you tend to use a lot?
Just these little box machines, like the (Roland SP) 606 and the (Boss SP) 303. I like the 606, 'cause it has a gang of effects on it. I like an MPC too, but these are so easy to just turn on and use. The only thing I did on the MPC is the De La shit ("Shopping Bags").
I like to move quickly, and these little boxes are easy to use. I can be up in my hotel room in a different city, and just hook up beats right there. I don't like to spend more than 10 minutes at a time on a beat. I get bored and have to move on to the next thing. I'm not like Dre; I don't take a week on a snare. Maybe I should, though!
One thing that can be annoying about these boxes is saving sequences and samples.
I don't save anything on it, I just record to a disc, or to a multitrack, then I burn beat CDs straight to the burner.
Do you have all your tracks broken down into separate parts?
Not all of them. I don't want people fucking it up making their mix. I know how I want it to sound, and if you liked how it sounded (on the beat CD), well, take the beat or not. Once it's done, it's done. Busta Rhymes, Common, and them, they just took it right off the CD. Ain't nobody going to remix my shit!
Has anyone gotten multitracks of your music and fucked it up?
Hell yeah! The "Weededed" remix on (the German label) Groove Attack. They placed the vocals all fucked up, had me rapping ahead of the beat. I don't even rap on the beat, forget about ahead of the beat!
So when someone wants to work with you, you give them a set beat CD?
I don't really even work with anybody. I work with my crew. The way it is, I'm always working here by myself anyway, isolated. I'm never in the studio with a rapper. I could, but that's just taking my time. I make so many beats, I just give out CDs and they use whatever they want. You hear a beat, and just take it from there.
What about for your own projects, like the Quasimoto records?
Quas is just me just playing around, doing some crazy shit. Freestyling with beats. My shit's all just vibes. It's hard to explain. I don't think about it when I'm making the beats. See, I listen to music for my head all day, it's like therapy for me. Eventually, I'll hear something and just start messing with it.
And the infamous Quas vocals? When you're changing the pitches around…
I do it the old school way: record with the beat slowed down, then speed it back up. It's hard to rap like that! You gotta be like (in a weird voice), "Qua-si-mo-do…" I hate doing vocals! I have to make my voice all funny, sound kinda nerdy, then speed that shit up. I used to do a lower voice too, but y'all didn't hear that. I didn't put that out.
I've heard you sample a whole chunk of a song, like 15, 20 seconds sometimes.
Yeah! I learned that from the old DJ Quik Tree Top (Compton Bloods) tapes, where he'd just throw a record on and rap to the whole shit. Like how Ghostface did on "Holla." I like shit like that. The beat's right there, just freak it.
Do you ever feel reluctant to add too much to a sample?
That's at least half the time. Half the time, I'll just use a loop. Just add some 808 (kicks) or something. Sometimes people find dope-ass loops and fuck 'em up by trying to put too much shit into it. Sometimes you don't have to do anything-shit's complete as is. You add something to it and it fucks it up.
Some purists say they will only sample off an original pressing.
Man, give me a comp, give me a reissue, a tape, it don't matter, man. If I got to, I'll hook my shit up to the TV. DOOM does that all the time. He took some shit off a BET Jazz commercial! It's on his new album. I'm glad people are getting back to loops though. They weren't doing that before Kanye, sorry to say. I'm glad there's now a couple things on the radio that I can rock.
Back in the day I loved the Dust Brothers' shit. They did Young MG and the Paul's Boutique record. That's my favorite shit. When I heard all those loops and shit, that got me tripping-fucked my head up. To make that record now would cost so much money. I wish I was coming out back in those days, I would do even crazier shit!
Do you ever run into troubles with sample clearance?
Nah, I'm not on no big label. We ain't no Def Jam. Somebody might pay attention, but not yet. And I don't sample no Rick James or shit like that.
But if you sell a beat to, say, Common or Busta, you're going to have to clear that, right?
They're going to have to clear it. But half of the time I can't even remember the record I sampled! When I make beats, I just pick a record up and go. A lot of times I don't even look at what it is.
Some of the beats we're listening to sound like they were made completely with old Roland sounds like the [TR] 808 and the [TB] 303 [bass synth]. How many beats do you make without sampling records at all?
I'd say it's 50/50. But those beats may not make it onto a finished album. I got tons of keyboards, you can see. And they aren't your average keyboards either. I use them for bass lines all the time.
Do you have an engineer or somebody to help you hook up your gear?
(laughs) Nah, my shit is, like, bedroom style! My homeboy helps me out sometimes, but I like to move shit around. I've been to big studios and all that, but it just doesn't work for me.
Your relationship with Stones Throw seems to be ideal.
Yeah, they let me do what I want. Wolf's my man. That's why I'm here, I do what I want to do and still get my money. Stones Throw will always have first dibs on my stuff. Before I hooked up with them, I went to a lot of labels who tried to change my shit up. I went to one label, I don't want to name names, but it was a major label and they offered me $3,000 for the whole Lootpack album. I went. to Loud and shopped it there, and they were like, "Yeah, we'll sign you." The next day they told me, "Xzibit wants this beat and this beat. We'll buy those from you." I was like, "Shit, I made these for myself!"
Do you pay attention to how people respond to your music? There's a perception that you're a studio recluse, not caring if anyone likes what you make at all.
I care, but first of all I care if I like it. Yeah, I go to clubs, and see how people like it too, how they pick up on little things. But I've got to-like the shit. A lot of producers don't care if people like it or not. They just do it to make some money. A lot of my music don't even get out of here if I don't like it. And I don't like half my shit. Everything can't be great, you know? You experiment, unless you're doing the same thing over and over.
Have you ever changed anything based on what people have said?
No, because I do what I feel, I do what I want to hear. If people like it after that, that's cool, but I'm doing stuff that I want to hear. After that, I'm glad if people like it. I make shit for people that's like-minded like me.What's the reaction been to your jazz records? It's cool. My die-hard hip-hop fans don't like it, but I gotta do what I feel. I'll always bring some- thing for them, but I'ma still do what I gotta do. As long as you keep the essence of how you started, you'll be alright. A lot of people, they'll try to do something different and not do what they did before and fall off.