Madlib Speaks With His Hands

Scott Dudelson/Getty Images

Madlib Speaks With His Hands

Scott Dudelson/Getty Images

Imagine being granted the ability, just for a day, to hear music the way Madlib does. Imagine listening to practically any record — ’60s psych-rock, ’70s Latin funk, a Brazilian jazz joint that’s only a couple of years old — and feeling entire new pieces of music being born within your own head. Over the past few decades, Madlib has released hours and hours of music, much of it under an array of different names. But we’ll probably never hear most of the music that Madlib makes. The man reportedly puts together hundreds of beats every week, combing through his vast record collection and then making new tracks out of those records. He’s a prism. Music goes in through him, and it comes out as something else. I would love to know what that’s like.

When news of Sound Ancestors, the new Madlib album, came out in December, it seemed like it would be a collaborative album from Madlib and Four Tet. From a certain perspective, that’s what Sound Ancestors is, but it’s billed as a Madlib album. This makes sense. Madlib made Sound Ancestors. The tracks on the album are his beats. But Madlib didn’t particularly care for the idea of making an album. Four Tet had to talk him into it. For a few years, Madlib sent Four Tet hundreds of beats that he’d made. Four Tet edited and arranged those beats, tweaking a few things and shaping Madlib’s tracks into a legible, cohesive album. Sound Ancestors is not a Four Tet album for the same reason that editors’ names don’t usually appear on book jackets. The album couldn’t exist without Four Tet, but it’s not Four Tet’s album.

Four Tet has said that the track “Road Of The Lonely Ones” was crucial to the creation of Sound Ancestors. For that one, Madlib used a couple of tracks from the Ethics, a Philadelphia soul group from the ’60s. Madlib left their soft, longing falsetto vocals mostly intact, shaping the track around them. Talking to NPR, Four Tet says, “Even though there was still going to be no featured vocalists, we could have these sort of poppy singles with vocal hooks,” and “Road Of The Lonely Ones” unlocked that idea. The records that Madlib makes without rappers can sometimes be scattered or diffuse; often, that’s part of their charm. But in helping Madlib build those tracks into songs, Four Tet helped shape Sound Ancestors into a full-album statement. Sound Ancestors holds together. It has its own compelling internal logic. It never gets boring.

Madlib started making music in the late ’90s, which means he missed the time when collagist rap producers — the Bomb Squads and Prince Pauls of the world — could really go in, building ADD fantasias out of chopped-up records. Madlib has restrictions that those auteurs didn’t have. Madlib has to clear the samples, or else make the music himself. Some of the music on Sound Ancestors comes from Madlib playing around with instruments, then chopping up his own work. The drums on “Road Of The Lonely Ones” are from J-Zone, the mostly-retired underground rapper who now puts together ’70s-style breakbeats in his own home studio. But Madlib also plays around with memory, using loops or fragments of songs that seem glancingly familiar — a quick Snoop Dogg soundbite, a beat that Madlib’s late collaborator J Dilla once produced for Phife Dawg, a distant vocal from early-’80s UK post-punk group Young Marble Giants.

Some of the tracks that Madlib uses are tracks that have been sampled countless times. On “Chino,” for instance, Madlib samples James Brown protege Lyn Collins’ 1972 funk classic “Think (About It).” That track has been sampled literally thousands of times, and the vast majority of those samples, from “It Takes Two” on down, use the mid-song breakbeat. (The entire genre of Baltimore club music is built on the “Think” break.) Madlib uses that break, too, but he slows it way down, burying it in murk. He takes the vocal ad-libs from the beginning of “Think,” too, and weaves them all through the track. He takes the familiar and makes it something else.

Madlib does something similar on “The Call.” Almost everything on “The Call” comes from “Bargain Day,” a 1969 single from the Australian musician Terry Britten. Britten, best-known today for co-writing Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got To Do With It,” released “Bargain Day” back when he was still a member of the Twilights, an Aussie psych-rock group. The vocals, the lurching bassline, the funky guitar-stabs, the squelchy synth thing — all that comes from the “Bargain Day” intro. Madlib hears the funk in that intro, and he seizes on it, using it as a source for zoned-out repetition.

The tracks on Sound Ancestors don’t necessarily have to work in the way they do on the album. Madlib is a rap producer, and people could easily rap on these beats. (Madlib collaborator Freddie Gibbs proved it over the weekend, tweeting audio of himself freestyling in an Uber over a couple of tracks from Sound Ancestors.) But Sound Ancestors works better as a full sonic experience, not as source material. Madlib has been doing this for decades; just a couple of months ago, he teamed up with jazz drummer and rap producer Karriem Riggins on Pardon My French, an album credited to Jahari Massamba Unit. But Four Tet has done Madlib the favor of shaping his tracks into something that makes sense as a whole, that pulls from many of Madlib’s different aesthetic proclivities but still hangs together as a statement.

A couple of weeks after the announcement of Sound Ancestors, the world learned that MF DOOM, Madlib’s greatest collaborator, had died months earlier. (Madlib learned of DOOM’s death at the same time that the rest of us did.) Madlib and DOOM made the 2004 masterpiece Madvillainy together, and DOOM was someone who heard music like Madlib — as source material for more music. J Dilla, another of Madlib’s greatest collaborators, heard music like that, too; he gets a Sound Ancestors track dedicated in his honor. That way of hearing things — of taking pieces of records and building whole new sounds out of them — was foundational to the birth of rap itself. Thanks to sampling laws and changing fashions, it’s less central to the music now. With Sound Ancestors, though, Madlib has shown, once again, that you can make great art out of other people’s art. It’s nice to be reminded.


1. HoneyKomb Brazy – “Dead People” (Feat. J Prince)
Alabama newcomer HoneyKomb Brazy is the latest ignorant punchline king to start racking up big YouTube numbers. He’s got verve and personality and the rare gift of sounding both hard and silly at the same time. Here, he announces his alliance with legendary rap label boss and boogieman J Prince by rolling around in a procession of immaculate white luxury cars and by naming “Bart” with “fart.” I like this guy.

2. Babyface Ray – “If You Know You Know” (Feat. Moneybagg Yo)
Detroit is a city full of outsized rap personalities, but Babyface Ray has a quieter, more subtle form or charisma. He doesn’t jump out at you, but his stuff works. That makes him a perfect match with Memphis’ Moneybagg Yo, who’s spent years making rock-solid bangers without drawing a ton of attention to himself. This song goes.

3. DaBoii – “Ride”
I wish SOB x RBE were not chaotically disintegrating, but since they are, I’ll take some jumpy and fired-up DaBoii solo records. DaBoii just released his Ywn 2 album, and it’s worthy of your attention. A great rap lyric: “I just had a son, and I can’t wait to hear him cussin’.”

4. Louie Ray, Rio Da Yung OG, RMC Mike, & Allstar JR – “Heat Talk”
Even on a track full of masterful Flint, Michigan shit-talkers, Rio Da Yung OG stands out. In a few months, Rio will start five-year prison sentence for gun possession. I’ll miss having him around.

5. EST Gee & Yo Gotti – “Get Money”
I don’t know why, but EST Gee’s pencil-thin mustache is the sleaziest thing I have ever seen. It’s great.


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