I shouldn’t have been that surprised when a Stones Throw Records exec informed me that producer/rapper/musician/postmillennial renaissance man Madlib, the label’s most prized possession, wouldn’t be doing any press interviews for his latest project Yesterdays Universe. After all, the West Coast hip-hop wizard revels in living an existence shrouded in secrecy.
The fact that he’s released music under a number of aliases, alter egos and stage names should let people know that Madlib has, to paraphrase Macy Gray, trouble with being himself. In fact, Universe is released under not his name, but the name of his jazz band Yesterdays New Quintet.
When Madlib’s in YNQ mode, he assumes the role of not one performer, but five. And they all have names too: Ahmad Miller on vibes, Monk Hughes on bass, Otis Jackson Jr. (Madlib’s real name) on drums, etc. (Not since Hunter S. Thompson wrote Fear and Loathing as the sports-writing gun nut Raoul Duke has a man put so much time and effort into creating an alternate persona for himself.)
Universe, pegged as the Quintet’s breakup album, is a more splintered affair than anything in Madlib’s past. All of his YNQ selves either front their own bands, perform in others or go at it alone. In total, 10 new groups appear on Universe. Keep in mind, they’re still all Madlib, although hip-hop producer Karriem Riggins and Azymuth drummer Mamao do help out on percussion a couple times.
As expected, Universe is a delight. Something cool and savory for these summer months. It’s fascinating to hear Madlib create a distinctive sound for each group: One group can drop jazz that’s as smooth as silk, while another can come up with insane, anarchic noise that would make the ghost of Sun-Ra beam with pride. I’d love to know what inspired Madlib to dismantle his alt-jazz outfit and invent even more faux musicians. But of course he ain’t saying a damn word.
Madlib probably believes the less time he spends discussing his methods, the more time he has to work on music, which from what I’ve been told, could program a radio station for several months.
Yes, Timbaland may get all the press for being an in-demand producer, working with everybody from Justin Timberlake to Björk, but Madlib is also a producer whose cup runneth over. His enigmatic, workaholic reputation even prompted one Pitchfork writer to write, “My theory about Madlib is that he is actually a bubble-man of sorts, rolling around all day in a human-sized, music studio version of a hamster ball.”
From what I’ve gathered, he’s just a quiet, reserved dude. Those who’ve come into contact with him have been shocked to find he’s not the beat-digging man of mystery legend has made him out to be. “Everyone I talk to pretty much says the same thing about how down-to-earth he is and how he doesn’t have that star attitude,” Stones Throw head Peanut Butter Wolf says on the DVD side of the recently released Time Out Presents the Other Side of Los Angeles, a CD/DVD combo assembled by Madlib and Wolf.
Madlib seems to be content just letting his music speak for him—and there seems to be plenty of material out there that’s more than ready to do all the talking.