Book Club

The New Bad Character In Town: Quasimoto’s The Unseen At 20

The following is excerpted from Bring That Beat Back: How Sampling Built Hip-Hop by Nate Patrin. Copyright 2020 by Nate Patrin. Available from the University Of Minnesota Press.

Madlib had a problem: He didn’t like the sound of his own voice. This was more a personal idiosyncracy than the kind of weakness that stood out to others, and even during his early Lootpack years he sounded perfectly at home over his beats. His MCing was personable and heavy on simple but evocative imagery — conscious without preachiness, funny without buffoonery, and frequently quotable. (A highlight from Lootpack’s “Hityawitdat”: “I drop a pound of discussion and drop a rhyme to leave you with a concussion/ And have your whole crew commence to hushin’.”) There was something in his flow, in his voice, that didn’t overexert itself too much: If anything, he sounded positively conversational, hitting vocal emphases in ways that shifted from line to meter-altering line as a counter-effect to his own beats’ steadiness.

But the fact remained that Madlib had a certain self-consciousness about the timbre of his voice, often drawing his own tongue-in-cheek comparison to the rumbly baritone of soul icon Barry White. It didn’t always fit the loopy energy he was so easily able to express through his beats; in a 2013 interview with Wax Poetics he described it as “low” and “all tired-sounding.” A delivery like that could definitely evoke a certain stoned-but-lucid feeling, sativa-steeped illogic rearranged to make perfectly clear sense. Still, it left a relentlessly eclectic MC with one less tool in his arsenal, a monotone where the rest of his work was kaleidoscopic.

So what would it mean to change it? Hip-hop was a genre where you could make any amount of tweaks and alterations to a sample or a loop or a break that you wanted, but the MC’s voice itself was sacred. There were exceptions, but usually they were confined to a certain region or a particular niche, like the slowed-down, codeine-paced mixes that Houston’s city-defining DJ Screw pioneered in the early ’90s. And even then, those were remixes; the original voice could always be found elsewhere. It’s not like the personality of the MC was altered in any way.

Still, Madlib worked at it, even before the first Lootpack album came out. He’d get in a certain headspace, often with the assistance of psychedelic mushrooms, and then let his psilocybin-fueled inspiration run wild. He’d make a beat, slow it down, and rap in his normal voice, albeit at a reduced enough pace that he’d match the slow-motion rhythm. Then, when he switched the beat back to its original tempo, his voice would sound pitched-up but otherwise at a normally coherent speed, a la the old Alvin & The Chipmunks records. Madlib found a few advantages to this approach that went beyond just finding another spin on his voice — it freed him up to get a little more comedically explicit (and initially kept his mom from finding out it was actually him doing all those curse words) — and soon he’d come up with an entirely new character to represent that side of him: Quasimoto.

Quasimoto would eventually appear on a few Lootpack tracks, though it was a recording session circa 1997, a personal experiment never meant to be released, that [Stones Throw founder Peanut Butter Wolf] overheard and encouraged Madlib to pursue further. Not only was the album’s worth of material a bit more unorthodox and experimental in his choice of samples — leaning heavily on his jazz enthusiasms, melded into a more lo-fi and bass-heavy take on his early ’90s East Coast influencers — but Madlib’s sensibility was already starting to manifest itself in a more clearly idiosyncratic way than even his weirder Lootpack cuts were.

Soon, Madlib went from having Lootpack tracks that featured Quasimoto to Quasimoto tracks that featured Lootpack. “Discipline 99” was a nod to Madlib hero and avant-garde jazz piano great Sun Ra that had the helium-voiced alter ego deriding the limitations of other artists’ styles while “Lord Quas keep the crowd from booin’/ Always stay true ‘n.” A strange line — Quas wasn’t actually a voice that could be reproduced for a live crowd, and for him to stay true would mean to play the role of a caricaturized invention — but he said it like he believed it, and why not believe it then?

The single that track appeared on, 1999’s “Microphone Mathematics” 12″, also gave Quasimoto’s unreal voice a surreal body. Three alien-like bipedal aardvark-esque creatures drawn by visual artist/producer Keith “DJ Design” Griego appeared on the sleeve art, and despite its non-specific representation — it was originally just supposed to represent a general “bad character,” with Quas himself depicted as a featureless Cadillac-passenger silhouette on the cover of 2000 debut The Unseen — the creature’s adapted appearance as redrawn by Stones Throw in-house artist Jeff Jank soon became more immediately associated with the Quasimoto name. Madlib clicked with the new visual identity, as he recalls in the 2013 documentary Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton: This Is Stones Throw Records: “It sounded like what it looked like… a pig-faced Alf nigga.” There was something a bit midnight-movie about it that clicked, too. Madlib’s deep interest in René Laloux’s 1973 psychedelic animated sci-fi film La Planète sauvage, AKA Fantastic Planet, had lingered in his music; he’d even concocted his own alternate soundtrack to it, though the mournful orchestral acid funk of Alain Goraguer’s original score was an often-sampled component in his beats as well. Now, Madlib had a visual representation of a figure that embodied his own excursions into the outer reaches.

The Unseen was the end product of a month on mushrooms and a deeper-than-previous dive into the increasingly far-flung margins of Madlib’s rapidly expanding record collection. The formative inspirations were still audible; the kick-snare-bassline juxtapositions feinted at nods to early-mid ’90s NYC boom-bap, especially the jazz-laced strains of it that made albums like Nas’ Illmatic and Gang Starr’s Daily Operation sound tough and refined at the same time. But Madlib molded it from stranger stuff: Goraguer’s Planète sauvage score mingled with jazz of every stripe from soul crossovers to cosmic freeform explorations, a gamut run from early post-bop to the slickest of late ’70s fusion.

No concessions were made to purism, the generation-stretching gulf between classic drums/bass/piano/horn jazz combos and synthesized funk/rock futurism bridged with a logic that actually sounded like flipping through a loosely organized record collection. The lyrics bore that out, too, with total namedrop anthems “Return Of The Loop Digga” and “Jazz Cats Pt. 1.” The former was another record store travelogue, featuring an interlude dealing with a haplessly underinformed and outmatched clerk who doesn’t know his Grant Green from his Stanley Cowell from his Chick Corea. The meat of the lyrics reveal even deeper dives, from David Axelrod (“I’m tackling gods and dogs on Holy Thursday”) to a litany of names only experts were expected to know: “Keeping Clifford Jordan on down to Willie Mason/The Propositions, Cassietta George, good for lacin’.” The funny thing about Madlib listing those names is that as much as it seems like a deliberate breaking of the sample-spotter’s code of silence, it almost stands out as a dare to other producers to make it all cohere.

And “Jazz Cats Pt. 1” was even more audacious in its tracing of influences: MCs are often encouraged to rap about what they know, but what Madlib knows most is music itself. And so his hip-hop was music about music about music, lyrics rattling off signifiers even faster than the beat does. “Jazz Cats Pt. 1” only samples four acknowledged artists — one selection by John Coltrane (“Central Park West,” which appears as a snippet after the Quas voice mentions him), two from Cannonball Adderley’s 1971 session Black Messiah (“Eye Of The Cosmos” and “Circumfrence”), another two from Herbie Hancock’s 1964 Empyrean Isles (“The Egg,” which makes up the bulk of the beat, and “Oliloqui Valley”), and one from the enigmatic sax player Tyrone Washington (1974’s “Universal Spiritual Revolt,” one of the last things he recorded before disappearing from music completely).

But everyone he names in the lyrics is at least possible to connect to his sound, from the first-mentioned likes of Sun Ra to the borderline punchline/afterthought nod to pop-crossover star sax player David Sanborn. Between those two points, he rolls out a litany of names that would keep any record store’s jazz section well-stocked: avant-garde and free jazz heroes like Albert Ayler, Art Ensemble Of Chicago, and Paul Bley; bebop titans from Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie to Hampton Hawes and Lee Morgan; fusion greats Weather Report and George Duke — “Even Kool and the Gang got jazz for that ass,” Madlib proclaims.

Many of these artists were considered incompatible or even completely at odds with each other by a contemporary if aging contingent of jazz critics and historians, a mental block that would still manifest in a high-profile way mere months later. Ken Burns’ 10-episode Jazz miniseries, which debuted on PBS half a year after The Unseen came out, was pilloried for condensing everything that happened in the genre from 1961 onwards into a single 108-minute concluding episode that depicted both Ornette Coleman’s free jazz and Miles Davis’s funk/rock crossover as betrayals of jazz’s true spirit. Aesthetic-conservative talking heads like Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch, who were featured in Burns’ documentary as preservationists against this genre-fracturing mutation, would doubtlessly be mortified to hear Madlib mention ’70s fusion superstars Weather Report in the same breath as pioneering bebop drummer Max Roach. Good. Keep ’em guessing. “There’s plenty more that I could name,” Madlib concludes, “but ya’ll won’t put them to use.”

The Unseen held early signs of Madlib’s broader musical interests, too: occasional excursions into reverb-soaked, murky basslined dub and reggae seeped through the margins of The Unseen like potently warm vapor. One of the most enjoyable surprises is a portion of Augustus Pablo’s 1978 instrumental track “Unfinished Melody,” a fluttering melodica drifting cheerfully over chiming bells and tendon-straining bass, opening “Goodmorning Sunshine” before a computer melody from Prince Jammy’s digital-dub “Wafer Scale Integration” takes over, muffled beneath Madlib’s kick-heavy drum programming to the point of becoming almost subliminal.

Did these disparate pieces flow together seamlessly? Not always, but that just made the eclecticism more arresting, a sort of cratedigger wire-fu that somehow becomes more thrilling when you can see the strings. Just the idea of “Green Power” putting George Russell, the scholarly modal theorist and composer who revolutionized how bebop was structured in the early 1950s, next to frictionless ’70s/’80s smooth-fusion crossover notable Bobby Lyle, and connecting them with the vibes-and-kalimba percussive melody from a track by NYC Afro-jazz-funk crew Mandrill, felt like a lesson in musical deconstruction. What else could you do from there?

And the very presence of that manic, raconteurish Lord Quas voice — especially juxtaposed with Madlib’s own natural delivery, which sounded not so much tired as it did bemused — had the effect of bending space around him, a sort of hip-hop theater that nodded in Prince Paul’s skit-laden direction but dug even further back to the proto-rap performances of Melvin Van Peebles. Van Peebles is best known nowadays for his 1971 film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which kicked off a Blaxploitation craze that his movie’s deeper French New Wave influence, independent guerilla filmmaking, and Black Panther endorsement transcended. But Van Peebles, an accomplished poet, songwriter, director, and stage and screen actor, also wrote and performed in a number of stage plays and recorded a handful of albums — song/spoken-word/poetry/comedy/theater hybrids that cast a satirical if empathetic eye to the postwar Black working-class experience in America, with Van Peebles playing an entire cast of characters.

In a sense, Van Peebles’ work was the last piece of The Unseen‘s puzzle: Madlib sampled his recordings liberally, particularly 1971’s Ain’t Supposed To Die A Natural Death. And they were used to the point where the vocal interjections of all the characters Van Peebles played became call-and-responses or the backbone for Quasimoto’s own ruminations. Beyond the similar titles that riffed off the Van Peebles performances they were sampling — “Come On Feet,” “Put A Curse On You,” “Goodmorning Sunshine” — there was a shared sense of nodding to that tradition of musical poetry and character acting as a way to riff on a Black American experience that had changed, but not in unrecognizable ways, over a generation. The sources were old, and the interjections came from someone else’s voice. But it was the same world one way or another, even if you could hear the weathered vinyl crackle and the instruments hiss through another era’s fidelity. It wouldn’t be the last time Madlib drew on his influences to hide in plain sight, concealed under another time and another name.

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