In the inventive world of Madlib, the ghost is in the music, not the machine.
by Bill Murphy
“I must have done 30 or 40 albums up in here that ain’t never been heard,” reveals a soft-spoken Madlib in between drum takes at his Bomb Shelter studio in LA. Already a hot producer-of-the-moment after just a few years on the radar as an indie-for-hire, Madlib’s eclectic beats have laced remixes for Beastie Boys, Bilal, King Britt, Glenn Lewis, Dudley Perkins, Jazzanova and Zero 7, and his solo and group projects under the names Lootpack, Quasimoto and Yesterday’s New Quintet have floored jazz and hip-hop heads alike. “I get bored easy,” he says, “so I try to do a lot of different things at one time to keep my brain moving, you know?”
This year, Madlib picks up speed with a spate of new joints on fellow DJ and producer Peanut Butter Wolf’s Stones Throw imprint. The latest is a team-up with Detroit producer and MC Jay Dee, who is best known for his work with The Pharcyde; Busta Rhymes; and his own group, Slum Village. Recorded under the name Jaylib, “Champion Sound” (Stones Throw, 2003) is a chopped-up, fractal, freestyle swingfest with both artists building loops for the other to rhyme over. It’s the perfect vehicle for what Madlib jokingly refers to as his “caveman method,” in which the main ingredients are a Roland/Boss SP-303 Dr. Sample and a Roland VS-880 digital 8-track.
“For me, I just try to have it all sound kind of street, kind of raw-whether it’s hip-hop, soul music, jazz, reggae music or whatever,” Madlib says. “I basically do everything on the 303. I’m just trying to show people that it doesn’t matter what equipment you use … it’s what you put into it.” A self-taught multi-instrumentalist and avowed crate-digger, Madlib retains an expansive musical palette, from Bollywood soundtracks (“Champion Sound” title track) to classical strings (“Strapped”) to inner-city funk (“No Games”), all from the Jaylib album alone. He cites Thelonious Monk; Sun Ra; and his own father, Otis Jackson Sr.-a soul singer of some renown back in the ’70s-as influences and is so deep into jazz that Blue Note tapped him to produce the remix project Shades of Blue, which was released in June.
“I think Madlib pretty much just invents his own rules,” Peanut Butter Wolf muses. Studio engineer Dave Cooley claims that holds true even when a different setup is needed. For Jaylib’s “React,” Jay Dee’s beat and Madlib’s turntable cuts were flown into Digidesign Pro Tools from separate stereo and 4-track masters. Madlib then tracked his vocals on an Audio-Technica 4033A and a Shure 5M7, from there going into a Neve 1099 preamp, a GML 8200 EQ, a Universal Audio 1176LN limiting amplifier and finally a dbx 902 De-Esser. “We usually de-ess maybe 4 dB off of the vocals and then compress with a ratio of 8 to 1, which is pretty high,” Cooley explains. “But Madlib likes his shit loud, and it’s mixed loud to begin with. He has a really cool ‘angular’ mixing style: Something is always sticking out.”
In the end, what remains most important for Madlib is that the soul within the sound is pre-served. “Even though we elevate to do other types of music, we still have what we’ve done in the past: the raw stuff, the essence of how we started,” he says. “Some people might think you go to the next level and leave the other stuff behind, but it’s always right there.”