Anybody who grew up within a few hours of New York or Philadelphia in the ’70s or ’80s remembers the independent TV channels: The boroughs had WOR, WPIX, and a few others; Philly’s dial included WPHL and the long-defunct WKBS. The stations made most of their money from cartoons, local sports, and Star Trek or I Love Lucy reruns, and they all had Saturday- and Sunday-afternoon movies.
The flicks were usually B-level junk: Westerns, disaster stories, and sci-fi fantasies, broken up by can’t-find-it-in-stores commercials and somber station-identification spots. I used to imagine that nobody was actually manning the transmitters on those long, boring weekend afternoons. It was ghost culture: The movies seemed to have appeared when nobody else was paying attention.
I have a feeling that MF Doom and Madlib know exactly what I’m talking about. Madvillainy, their debut as the duo Madvillain, seems tuned into a vast forgotten universe of audio. It’s hiphop, sure, because that’s what Doom (aka Long Island–raised Atlantan Daniel Dumile) and Madlib (aka Oxnard, Calif., native Otis Jackson Jr.) do. But sonically, Madvillainy is broader and weirder than anything that’s ever bubbled out of the underground before, mostly because the duo actively sought out sounds that nobody else was listening to: crackle-heavy old-timey jazz, spoken-word novelties, long-forgotten film dialogue.
Our two heroes have been drifting toward such a masterpiece for years: Doom’s brain has become a font of noirish alter egos such as Viktor Vaughn and King Geedorah, and Madlib loves obscure jazz and soul the way a nun loves her rosary. But both are ultimately devoted to hiphop. The beat brings them back to earth, no matter where their heads are. Doom proved it as early as 1999’s Operation: Doomsday, on which the worlds of cartoons, science fiction, and ’80s R&B collided with surprisingly head-nodding results. His partner, meanwhile, has been making trippy waves in the sea of jazz/hiphop fusion, most notably with his crate-digging Yesterdays New Quintet and Shades of Blue projects.
In other words, good luck figuring out where most of Madvillainy’s samples came from. The throbbing, time-obsessed “Shadows of Tomorrow” offers the disc’s most obvious audio appropriation—and it’s from Space Is the Place, the Sun Ra movie about an intergalactic Marcus Garvey who crash-lands his ship in mid-’70s Oakland. Only the downcast “Accordion” actually gets a credit in the CD booklet: It contains a sample from “Experience” by Daedalus, “used courtesy of Plug Research.” Wanna know the funk/soul/blues/jazz/lounge/whatever DNA of any other beat? You’re on your own.
Unlike many of the world’s sample-crazy indie acts—say, RJD2 or the Avalanches—Madvillain isn’t out to create any sort of cognitive dissonance. You may have heard some of this stuff, but very little of it will trigger even a fleeting aha! moment. Instead, it’s all about that ghost-culture vibe. “Slip like Freudian/Your first and last step to playin’ yourself like an accordion,” Doom rhymes on “Accordion.” On the surface, it’s a warning to battle-rap wannabes, but it also serves notice to the casual listener: The following album will constantly flicker at the edge of your consciousness.
That doesn’t mean Madvillainy is all heavy, heavy shit, though. On “Money Folder,” Doom exercises his right to wax ridiculous about his sex life: “Don’t mind me/I wrote this rhyme lightly offa two or three heinies/And boy was they fine, G!/One black, one Spanish, one Chinese/I keeps the woody shiny year-round like a pine tree.” And on “America’s Most Blunted,” he attests to another hiphop necessity: “Off spikes for your surprise/Turn a Newport Light into a joint right before your eyes/Tear a page out the Good Book/Hear it how you want it/America’s most blunted.” Madlib, assuming his long-standing Quasimoto persona, pleads for moderation, though, urging the faithful not to “fuck with speed or trees with seeds.”
Although the high-pitched Quas raps a few times on Madvillainy, Madlib’s primary mission here is to be the maestro, and his inspiration is strongest when he’s playing with nameless post–World War II film and TV soundtracks. The single “All Caps” is the prime example: The cut’s lost-orchestra sound is intricate and cinematic, with pianos roiling and brass blaring against a consistently in-the-pocket beat. Elsewhere, the afternoon-TV aesthetic appears in fragments. The Batman-ish horn blasts on the woozy “Rainbow,” for instance, conjure memories of a time when I didn’t quite understand the tension between the Caped Crusader and Catwoman. The lyrics, meanwhile, feature a repeated line about drinking Drano. Mr. Yuk would not approve.
Other tracks bear traces of production assistance by Doom himself or the influence of executive producer Peanut Butter Wolf, who knows exactly what to do with a raw snare beat: The mellow jazz of “Raid,” say, would have fit nicely onto last year’s King Geedorah disc, and “Money Folder” could have easily slid onto Wolf’s own Jukebox 45s collection. Although everybody is obviously on the same page, it’s easy to imagine that none of them actually spelled out exactly what they wanted Madvillainy to sound like. In that respect, the disc is a distant cousin of the Beasties’ Paul’s Boutique—or any other classic that sounds as if it just kinda happened.
There are moments when the dudes do get purposeful, however. “Never really mattered too much to me/That I was just too damn old to MC,” Doom declares during the intro to “Great Day.” On “Raid,” he boasts, “The metal fellow been rippin flows/Since New York plates were ghetto yellow with broke blue writing.” He’s rarely that literal about his status as an elder statesman of hiphop (except, of course, for the metal mask he wears onstage, which is supposed to hide the scars the industry inflicted on him once his early-’90s group, KMD, got sorta famous). As Viktor Vaughn or King Geedorah, Doom is all showtime, sharpness, and flash. With Madlib, he’s more of a human being, with needs, flaws, and deteriorating memories.
Maybe that’s what makes Madvillainy remarkable to a trash-culture-damaged guy like me. Every aspect of the disc seems temporarily rescued from the entropy of passing time, yet it doesn’t fret over the loss of inferior things. Madvillain isn’t about nostalgia; rather, the group finds bits of life in long-gone creations without worrying about having to capture the exact tone or message of any one. Who can recall sitting through any specific movie on those UHF channels anyway? As everyone knows, all of those lost TV signals are still beaming into space, heading toward nobody in particular. The emptiness out there is astounding, but it’s nothing to be afraid of. CP