Madlib is not himself today. Quietly intense and as laid-back as he is lanky, this DJ/producer/MC chameleon is hard to picture as frantic, but in his own laconic way, he’s a bit out of sorts. Rummaging through a tiny, cluttered basement studio, Madlib has to step gingerly to avoid bumping into a vintage analog synthesizer, a loose pile of vinyl LPs and a compact drum set. He finally reaches out to pick up a pile of floppy discs and riffles through them. Madlib isn’t finding the disc he needs, though he occasionally feeds one into his SP-1200 sampler, momentarily filling up the cluttered space with the sound of crashing drums and wafting keyboard melodies.
In the last two years, Madlib has become one of hip-hop’s busiest producers, and right now he’s paying the price for that prolific output, unable to locate the album he needs to finish. Not only is he the unofficial in-house producer for Stones Throw Records (Lootpack, Breakestra, Peanut Butter Wolf), but he has to juggle that with his freelance jobs, not to mention his own solo efforts. Considering that he does enough work for half a dozen men, it’s no wonder Madlib’s invented several alter egos to handle the load. He’s an artist of few words, but hip-hop’s Man of 1,000 Aliases.
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Madlib is not himself today. He’s on the phone with his folks, and he’s reverted back to his mild-mannered identity of Otis Jackson Jr., scion of one of Oxnard, California’s most impressive musical families. There’s no scientific proof that artistic talent is genetically inherited, but in Madlib’s case you have to wonder. His father, Otis Jackson Sr., is an accomplished bandleader and studio player who’s worked with everyone from Tina Turner to Bobby “Blue” Bland to Johnnie Taylor. His mother, Sinesca Jackson, is a songwriter and the third generation in a line of accomplished female folk and blues guitarists. His uncle, renowned trumpeter Jon Faddis, is jazz director at Carnegie Hall and a former Dizzy Gillespie protégé. Even his younger brother, Michael, is a budding talent, as a producer/rapper named Oh No.
Sinesca jokes about how Otis Jr. was a music junkie practically at birth: “In the middle of the night, when he would wake up for his midnight feeding, if I turned the radio on he’d quiet down. This was when he was 2, 3 weeks old.” Otis Sr. adds that his own busy recording schedule helped expose his junior namesake to the music industry: “I stayed in the studio so much, recording and stuff, me and my wife had a chance to take the boys with us. I just brought them with me, and Otis came, hung out behind the engineer.”
In sleepy Oxnard, Otis Jr. was an hour removed from the bustling scene in Los Angeles, but he started assembling a community of like-minded peers around him all the way back in junior high. Along with two of his closest colleagues, DJ Rhomes and rapper Wildchild, Madlib helped form the Lootpack in the early ’90s, and the trio released their debut album, Soundpieces: Da Antidote, in 1999. Says Wildchild, who’s known Madlib for 13 years, “He’s always stayed level-minded. A lot of cats get impatient in trying to get where they want to be, but Madlib’s still patient with finding his own way, instead of just trying to jump out into the mainstream.”
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Madlib is not himself today. Out in Las Vegas, a rapper named Declaime wants Otis Jr. to do a cameo, not as Madlib but as the hyperactive, weeded-out Quasimoto. Madlib invented Quasimoto years ago, rapping over way-slow beats and then speeding up the entire track, making Quas sound like he’s high on helium. For Madlib, the Quas alter ego was always a private joke, but when Stones Throw’s founder Peanut Butter Wolf heard some demo tapes, he encouraged Madlib to give Quas life, resulting in the critically acclaimed 2000 album The Unseen.
A scattering of everything from spoken-word snippets to funky soul-jazz loops to schizoid arguments between Madlib and Quasimoto, The Unseen was a creative masterpiece, but it left the uninitiated confused as to who’s who. Madlib didn’t help matters much by insisting in early interviews that Quasimoto was actually a real, separate artist, but he’s finally copped to his alias, explaining, “If I’m feeling crazy one day, that’s Quas. I’m [as Madlib] the cool, mellow cat, just chilling. Quas is bugged out and shit.” Quasimoto gives Madlib an outlet to express himself any way he wants, and he confesses, “I like Quas’ stuff better — he can say whatever, even though it’s all me.”
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Madlib is not himself today. He’s not even someone else, but five different people: vibraphonist/psychiatrist Amhad Miller, guitarist Malik Flavors, bassist/physicist Monk Hughes, pianist Joe McDuffrey and drummer Otis Jackson Jr., together known as Yesterday’s New Quintet (YNQ).
This latest bizarre brainchild was inspired by one of Madlib’s great loves, jazz, as the Quintet updates the funky fusion sound of the 1970s with a touch of hip-hop aesthetics. Unlike rap artists who merely sample jazz songs, the YNQ project has pushed Madlib to become a musician himself by learning how to play keyboards such as his original Rhodes electric piano and then using synths to add instrumentation as varied as kalimba (thumb piano), electric bass and guitar. Adding to the challenge was the fact that Madlib had to compose each track one element at a time. “Sometimes I’d start with the drums, sometimes the bass lines, and just try to improvise,” he says, and then he’d return to the beginning and layer the next instrument, rewind and repeat until “it sounded complete to me, and I was satisfied with it.”
YNQ’s recent Angles Without Edges is an impressive accomplishment, with Madlib bringing new sensibilities to old classics like Roy Ayers’ sublime “Daylight” and Ramsey Lewis’ soulful smash “Sun Goddess,” and offering original compositions like the uptempo, Latin-inflected “Life’s Angles” and the contemplative “Broken Dreams.” Angles Without Edges envisions an intersection between hip-hop and jazz that thankfully avoids most of the hackneyed conventions of the acid-jazz era and creates mood pieces that beg listeners to unpack the layers of sound that Madlib embeds through his Miller/Flavors/Hughes/.McDuffrey/Jackson personas.
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Madlib is finally getting himself together. He’s found the right floppy at last and pops it into his sampler. “I made 12 albums [of YNQ material],” he says. “I just picked the ones that I thought people would catch on to.” Now he’s fiddling with some of the unfinished tracks. Over the next few hours, he patiently listens to his partial songs, sometimes moving to an antiquated synthesizer to add more melodic texture, other times staying at the 1200 to program in a flurry of drum breaks. Here’s one of hip-hop’s hardest-working minds, hunkered down at what he does — and loves — best. By the end of the day, he’s got YNQ’s album No. 13 knocked out. He flashes a wide smile. Madlib’s back.
Madlib spins at Firecracker, 943 N. Broadway, Chinatown; Friday, December 7.