Otis Jackson Jr., aka Madlib, is one of the most prolific, diverse, interesting and exciting musicians hip hop has ever seen. Self-described as a “DJ first, producer second, and MC last”, the Californian musician utilises a diverse array of genres, styles, and temperaments into his unique method of musical composition, a method which usually employs experimentation, improvisation, and sampling from niche artists and subgenres from across the globe. Madlib is hip hop personified; his awareness of the genre’s history and musical background is unparalleled, and his ability to flip rare and unknown records into unforgettable beats is incomparable. The crate-digging extraordinaire has his roots in the more traditional forms of hip hop, however his love for dub reggae, avant-garde jazz, traditional Brazilian and African music, psychedelia, and film soundtracks have been constantly demonstrated throughout his illustrious career.
Inspiring in his creativity, Madlib has one of the most difficult discographies to tackle in contemporary music. Not only has he released hundreds of albums, singles, EPs, DJ mixes, compilations, remixes, mixtapes and collaborative efforts, he’s done so under numerous pseudonyms and alter-ego’s which range from fictional jazz groups to curious cartoon characters. Dizzying in weight and stature, Madlib’s music requires some thought before tackling. This article aims to shed some light on Madlib’s rich career, providing a breakdown into respective outlets of Madlib’s musical mindsets, groups and characters; his jazzier side, the classics, the ideal entry points, and the underappreciated records.
There’s also a Spotify playlist at the end of this article.
Madvillain – Madvillainy (2004)
Madvillainy is a collaboration between two of alternative hip hop’s most cherished figures; Madlib and the cult masked MC MF DOOM. It’s the highest profile release of either artist, and is recognised as being one of hip hop’s crowning achievements. The partnership makes perfect sense as both musicians are in tune with conceptual weirdness, conscious of jazz’s central influence on hip hop, and they both possess an ability to crate-dig for obscure records to sample and skew beyond recognition. Madvillainy is the ideal starting point into the world of Madlib, yet repeated listens are crucial to acclimatise to his challenging and unique sound. An instrumental version is available and definitely worth a listen, as is 2008’s rework/remix Madvillainy 2: The Madlib Remix.
Quasimoto – The Unseen (2000)
Quasimoto is the animated alter-ego of Madlib; a giant yellow anteater looking entity who’s known for his deviant and anti-social behaviour. He also sports a shrill voice which originated from Madlib’s personal aversion to his Barry White resembling voice. The pitch shifted vocals sound as if Madlib has huffed a huge canister of helium, a technique in sound manipulation which offers a bizarre, almost psychedelic sensation when rapped over the experimental beats. Quasimoto’s The Unseen was Madlib’s first taste of major critical and commercial acclaim, and proved hip hop could be just as weird, original and quirky as any other genre out there.
The Unseen is essential, however Quas’ high-pitched vocals may be an acquired taste for some. If you liked this record, then check out Quasimoto’s other work such as the follow-up, The Further Adventures of Lord Quas, his most recent LP Yessir Whatever, and the Astronaut EP.
Jaylib – Champion Sound (2003)
It goes without saying that Madlib and J Dilla are two of the greatest beatmakers in the history of hip hop, and Champion Sound saw two musicians of virtuoso calibre and a matching musical mindset creating a full-length LP together. It became one of the most exciting friendships in music as they pushed each other to new feats of innovation and creativity, swapping ideas and techniques incessantly until Jay Dee’s untimely death in 2006. Half of the songs are produced by Madlib and feature Dilla on vocals, and the other half are produced by J Dilla and feature Madlib on vocals, providing a novel take on the producer and MC interaction. Sure, neither Dilla or Madlib will be ranked in anyone’s top-ten rappers list, but this is music made by themselves, for themselves. Champion Sound features some of the best beats created by these two, so for that reason, it makes the cut. Madlib would later pay tribute to Dilla on the fifth and sixth Beat Konducta releases.
‘The Red’ is under a different version/beat on the reissue (and Spotify) due to sample clearance lawsuits, so listen to this original version below instead as its beat is too good to be missed.
Madlib – Shades of Blue: Madlib Invades Blue Note (2003)
Madlib is infamous for his adoration of jazz, and Shades of Blue is a perfect example of his imaginative application of the genre to his work, and his ability to flip jazz samples with ease into cohesive scenes. The celebrated label Blue Note gave Madlib admission to their entire catalogue, and Madlib was like a kid in a sweet shop after being granted access to thousands of records which span the eras, history, and subgenres of jazz. The track ‘Mystic Bounce’ will be familiar to A Tribe Called Quest fans as the same sample (Ronnie Foster’s ‘Mystic Brew’) was exercised in ‘Electric Relaxation’ from Midnight Marauders. The album is largely instrumental, and dwells in chill vibes; revelling in the snug middle ground between jazz and hip hop. Shades of Blue is essential as it provides a great deal of insight into how jazz influences Madlib’s sound and his musical approach, and serves as an ideal precursor before exploring his work in Yesterday’s New Quintet.
Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Piñata (2014)
Piñata is another highly regarded collaboration, albeit a much more unlikely one; Gibbs is known for his trap and gangsta rap work, whereas Madlib is recognised as a purveyor of alternative and esoteric sounds. Piñata is a solid album, and it’s one of Madlib’s best in recent memory thanks to its sublime production, striking beats and exceptionally selected guest spots. Blurring the line between hardcore hip hop and experimental rap in a similar manner to celebrated 2010s acts such as Danny Brown, Earl Sweatshirt, Vince Staples and Run the Jewels, Freddie Gibbs and Madlib crafted a record which confirmed that Madlib can still smash it out the park in the 2010s.
Lootpack – Soundpieces: Da Antidote! (1999)
The Lootpack were a group consisting of Madlib, DJ Romes and Wildchild. They released their underground cult classic debut Soundpieces: Da Antidote! on Stones Throw records in 1999. The album kickstarted Madlib’s career and established his working relationship with Stones Throw label owner Peanut Butter Wolf (who The Lootpack and Quasimoto had previously worked with on ‘Styles, Crew, Flows, Beats’ on Wolf’s debut Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton). The group had initially lent a guest appearance to Tha Alkaholiks’ ‘21 and Over’ which featured the first beat Madlib ever put to record. Though Lootpack were from California, Soundpieces sounded more like classic East Coast boom bap and jazz rap than the West’s hard funk rhythms; evidently a statement of intent for Madlib’s following efforts and entire career.
Medicine Show Series (2010)
The thirteen-part Medicine Show series saw Madlib attempting to write, record, and release a new album each month (plus some leftover cuts). Remixes, beat tapes, mixtapes, original productions, and DJ mixes feature in a series which highlights Madlib’s broad music taste and influences. The collection can be found in its entirety in The Brick boxset, but here is a selection of the best and most interesting cuts:
Madlib Medicine Show: No. 4 – 420 Chalice All-Stars
An incredible cocktail of lively dancehall, heavy roots reggae, and deep dub, 420 Chalice All-Stars is a tribute to both Madlib’s favourite herb and celebrated dub musician Lee “Scratch” Perry. The mix is incredibly fun and has a huge amount of replay value, featuring an assortment of Jamaican classics and obscure singles from revered labels such as Trojan, thus it’s appropriate for both reggae newcomers and seasoned dub aficionadas alike. Chalice All-Stars is definitely the strongest release from the Medicine Show series, and it serves as a much better introduction to Madlib’s reggae side than the patchy Blunted in the Bomb Shelter compilation. So, stick the record on, turn up the bass, and take a hypnotic trip into the mountains and bustling streets of Jamaica with your tour guide Madlib.
Medicine Show: No. 2 – Flight to Brazil
Brazil has an incredibly rich musical history and has been one of the most successful exporters of music in the South American continent. Ever-innovative in creating genres and combining disparate musical styles, Brazil has given the world Samba, Música Popular Brasileira, and Bossa Nova to name just a few. During the 1960s psychedelia explosion, Brazil embraced the hippie movement, employing traditional rhythms and melody to the guitar-driven kaleidoscopic sounds of Western psychedelic rock and pop. The genre became known as Tropicalia; a movement which encompassed reactionary politics, artistic expression, and experimentation in music. On Flight to Brazil, Madlib has clearly done his homework, exploring these genres in depth and successfully incorporating familiar tracks with deep, niche cuts. The whole record materialises as a colourful journey into otherworldly pop and exotic psychedelia, with funky samba rhythms, swung bossa nova beats and cheery melodies being celebrated throughout. Flight to Brazil was a hugely enjoyable listening experience and left me craving the music of celebrated Brazilian artists such as Os Mutantes, Gal Costa and João Gilberto.
Madlib Medicine Show: No. 3 – Beat Konducta In Africa
Beat Konducta In Africa is a 37-track instrumental album inspired by Africa and the continents rich musical history. Mad uses a variety of rhythms, moods and textures throughout, concocting an impressive beat tape by integrating genres as far-ranging as Afrobeat, psych, soul and funk from the 1970s era of his record collection. Beat Konducta In Africa triumphs in covering Africa’s multifaceted and multi-ethnic musical history as expansively as he can in just 79-minutes, creating a loose, funky and upbeat release with an impressive emphasis on percussion. The whole recording conjures up thoughts of Madlib digging through the crates in ancient record shops across Africa, and ultimately evokes thoughts of the similar musical approach of percussion-centric rhythm between African music and hip hop.
Madlib Medicine Show: No. 6 – Brain Wreck Show
A paisley pastiche, the Brain Wreck Show is a collage of psychedelic, progressive, and garage rock. The content on show is suggestive of its title; Madlib plunges the depths of world psychedelia of the late 60s and early 70s to form an unusual DJ mix which sounds off-kilter, stoned, and cartoon-like. Approaching the compositions with multiple layers of sound, Brain Wreck is packed full of sound snippets, qualities of progressive and challenging avant-rock, and a notable comedic weirdness which recalls the work of Frank Zappa; one of Madlib’s key inspirations. Comparable to many of Otis’ mixes, the production and atmosphere of his sixth Medicine Show is alike the relaxed, resonating and intoxicated sounds of dub reggae. Though the Brain Wreck Show is challenging and polarising as it often sounds like a mish-mash of ideas and a collection of sound snippets, the mix is still definitely worth a listen as it features sounds rarely heard in hip hop.
Various Artists – Yesterday’s Universe (2007)
Yesterday’s Universe is the ideal introduction to Madlib’s Yesterday’s New Quintet project and his other lesser-known jazz ventures. Yesterday’s New Quintet is a jazz group consisting of five fictional members named Otis Jackson Jr., Ahmad Miller, Joe McDuphrey, Monk Hughes, and Malik Flavors. Madlib’s jazz projects once again showcase his dizzying heights of creativity and feats of imagination, verifying he’s one of the most enigmatic and respectable producers in music.
The compilation served to commemorate the end of the Yesterday’s New Quintet project and to introduce fans to the individual members, new projects and newfound musical directions which eventually became affiliated with the jazz Medicine Show comps. The record features guest spots from instrumental hip hop / jazz funk musician Karriem Riggins and Ivan Conti, the latter of which would later appear on the 2008 Sujinho release by Jackson Conti, a collaboration which explored jazz fusion and samba.
Mos Def – The Ecstatic (2009)
Madlib produced a quarter of The Ecstatic, employing samples he’d previously used in his collaboration with Guilty Simpson, Madvillainy 2, and the Indian inspired records from his Beat Konducta series. The Ecstatic sounds exotic and colourful throughout, with Mad’s cuts adding a cinematic elegance to the record, especially in the album’s highlight ‘Auditorium’. Madlib’s brother Oh No also features as a producer, a musician whose work is definitely worth checking out for fans of Mad and other similar beatmakers. Mos Def returned to form on his fourth LP, and the production and influence of Madlib and co. is the leading reason behind the improvement.
Vol. 5-6: A Tribute To… (2009)
Three years after J Dilla’s death, Madlib released a tribute compilation to his late associate and friend. The record includes Vol. 5: Dil Cosby Suite and its follow-up Vol. 6: Dil Withers Suite into one manageable and listenable collection. Composing in a similar manner to Jay Dee’s classic swansong Donuts, Mad creates brief songs composed of heavy drum machine beats and hazy-eyed soul samples, all glazed with cavernous, dubby resonances. Once again, the sound is immediate and unconfined, with the comp sounding like a cohesive collage of beats. A Tribute To… is a must have for Dilla fans and those desiring a more straightforward instrumental hip hop album from Otis’ catalogue; either way it’s exciting to hear Madlib channel Dilla and pay his respects to one of the greatest producers hip hop has ever witnessed.
Volumes 3-4: Beat Konducta in India (2007)
Madlib takes the listener on a tour into Bollywood here on Beat Konducta in India, a 34-track instrumental record which encompasses Indian pop, ragas, folk, and traditional Hindustani classical music. The overall sound of the collection is incredibly exotic, and therefore suitable to soundtrack scorching days and muggy summer nights. Beat Konducta in India is worth a listen alone to study Madlib’s ear for unorthodox samples, and is a must for anyone who’s enjoyed his more tropical releases.
Madlib has risen from his humble beginnings in underground hip hop collectives to producing for the biggest names in rap, remaining just as eclectic, fascinating and creative as when he first started recording music.
So what’s next for Madlib? Well, he’s currently working on the hotly anticipated follow-up to Piñata with Freddie Gibbs titled Bandana, which was actually set to be released last year, so let’s hope this isn’t one of them Detox-like waits. Otis also recently announced that he would be working with Talib Kweli and Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) on a new Black Star record, an extremely exciting prospect considering their debut is one of rap’s most cherished records.
Here’s the best of the rest of Madlib related cuts:
Kanye West – No More Parties in L.A. (2016)
Four Tet – Great Day (2005)
Boiler Room set (2017)
Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton: This Is Stones Throw Records (2013)