Madlib's fondness for aliases obscures the fact that he's one of hip-hop's pre-eminent creative forces. Can one guy be doing all that?
By Joshua Alston, Newsweek, published Sept. 6, 2007
Give Madlib a compliment, and you get back a question. I told the idiosyncratic underground hip-hop producer I liked his new record, and he asked "Which one?" It's a reasonable response. Since the year started, Madlib, 33, has released four albums, counting Liberation, a full-length collaboration with rapper Talib Kweli; a deluxe rerelease of Champion Sound, his project with dearly departed producer J Dilla; "Yesterday's Universe," a collection of amorphous jazz fusion; and, most recently, the latest installment of his instrumental hip-hop series "Beat Konducta." This is to say nothing of the numerous tracks and remixes he's done for other artists over the course of the year.
But if one were to make a shortlist of hip-hop's workhorses, a few names might come to mind—Kanye West, Jay-Z, P. Diddy—but Madlib's name probably wouldn't make the cut. That probably has a lot to do with the peculiar attribution of his impossibly constant flow of material. He likes to make up aliases. A lot of them. For example, "Yesterday's Universe" is credited to Yesterday's New Quintet, a jazz band consisting of Madlib (going by his birth name, Otis Jackson Jr.) and four imaginary band mates, despite the fact that he's playing all the instruments. "Universe" also introduces 10 new totally imaginary groups, among them The Last Electro-Acoustic Space Jazz & Percussion Ensemble and Kamala Walker & The Soul Tribe. The reason Madlib doesn't immediately come to mind when one thinks of hip-hop's pre-eminent creative forces is the same reason he is one of hip-hop's pre-eminent creative forces: he's just really, really eccentric.
The Madlib story begins in Oxnard, Calif., a city much better known for its strawberries than for its hip-hop. 'Lib was born to Otis and Senesca Jackson, both musicians, who surrounded him with sound from a young age and whom he still considers his biggest musical influences. "My dad would take me to the studio with him, and I would touch the buttons and play with the knobs. I showed that interest at a very young age." In his 20s he started to collaborate with a group called Lootpack, who caught the attention of L.A.'s Stone's Throw Records, a label that has established itself as a place of refuge for outré musical minds. It's a perfect spot for Madlib, who since graduating from Lootpack has created a huge, quirky catalog of woozy jazz and off-kilter hip-hop.
I try to compliment him on being so prolific and he asks another question, then answers it. "Do I release a lot of music? I don't know. I guess, but not as much as I'd like to. For every album I release there are 10 more I don't. I have 20 installments of 'Beat Konducta' finished. The groups on 'Yesterday's Universe'? Every one of those groups has five albums completed." His restless creativity and Calvinist work ethic are attributed in part to a love of marijuana and the fact that he "gets bored a lot." And just as the best writers are the most voracious readers, Madlib is listening to music as much as he's making it, mostly because his hip-hop work is largely composed of samples he pulls from other albums—lounge, psychedelia, soul, whatever obscurities he can find. His most recent release, "Beat Konducta in India," is made up of beats he constructed from old Bollywood soundtracks.
Madlib takes chunks of music and recontextualizes them to create a completely new form of art. If what he does were executed with tangible materials on a canvas board and hung in an art gallery, it would probably be called "mixed-media pop art." Because it's hip-hop, though, it's often just called creative theft. This is an idea that heats the unusually laid-back Madlib up a few degrees, the notion that sampling is less musical than playing live instruments. "I don't understand that mind-frame at all," he says. "You can take a sample and chop it up, and it's like you're a conductor. It's a different skill, but it's equally musical. I'd like to see a musician try to do what I do."
By that he means make music using samples, but naturally he could easily be talking about his ability to crank out album after album. He says he makes one every week, but doesn't put an emphasis on quantity over quality. So with such a large body of good music, why doesn't Madlib get more recognition? He'd probably love to wax poetic on that subject. Unfortunately, there are hundreds of records to make and thousands of noms de plume to think up.