Madlib revived the crate-digging tradition before flipping the script and embracing live playing

Astral Traveler

by

Madlib. Photo by Eric Coleman.

Photo by Eric Coleman.

 

In our very first issue twelve years ago, we profiled a then relatively unknown producer we felt signaled the next generation of beatmaking. Born the son of musicians Otis Jackson Sr. and Dora Sinesca Faddis-Jackson, Otis Jackson Jr. is known to most people as Madlib, Quasimoto, Beat Konducta, or any number of aliases he’s cloaked himself in over the course of the last two decades. Growing up in a musical household in Oxnard, California, his fascination with records began while only a toddler. Before hitting puberty, he was already hooking up keyboards to one-second samplers and making beats. Drawn to the unorthodox sounds and time signatures of jazz, the self-described “loner” set out with a no-rules philosophy that saw him reimagining the limits of hip-hop production. Under the watchful eye of his father, he formed the Lootpack in the 1990s with childhood friends DJ Romes and Wildchild, eventually inking a deal on Stones Throw Records. Turning the rules of the East Coast masters on their heads, while adding a little West Coast bump and just enough weird, Madlib ushered in a new creative era in beatmaking. Though never formally trained, after years of chopping up records, he eventually taught himself how to play enough instruments to release live projects at breakneck speed under a dizzying array of pseudonyms. While at the label for over a decade, a special bond was forged with fellow producer and musical soul mate J Dilla that has forever left its mark. With certified veteran status, Madlib oversees a new generation of producers like Flying Lotus and sibling Oh No taking his no-rules attitude to new heights. Now running his own label, Madlib Invazion, this year finds the enigmatic producer surfacing with a collection of Quasimoto rarities, an upcoming Freddie Gibbs project, and talks of a Yasiin Bey collaboration in the works. We caught up with the elusive mad scientist at the old Stones Throw compound in scenic Mount Washington, Los Angeles, to chop it up about beats, rhymes, life, and the continuation of the Madlib invasion.

Madlib. Photo by Eric Coleman.

Photo by Eric Coleman.

 

Your father is a musician, your brother as well. What was it like as a kid growing up in that house in Oxnard?

It was mostly me checking out my dad’s stuff, because he had us in the studio with him. My mom was always at the piano writing his music; we were just watching all that. I’d go to the studio and he’d let me mess with the knobs, and I just got infatuated with it—my brother also. He’d always play his records that he put out. We’d be like, “Oh shit, a record!” We couldn’t believe he was putting records out. Also, my uncle is [trumpeter] Jon Faddis, and he’d come through trying to teach us. We’d listen to jazz, we’d learn all that. Dizzy Gillespie would come by, eating gumbo. I didn’t even know back then what it was. It was crazy. My grandparents were friends with all of them. Dee Dee Bridgewater, all of them, they’d come through.

Did you play an instrument as a kid?

Not really. In school, I was in the band trying to learn drums. I’d fiddle at the piano. I think that I had lessons when I was young, but I didn’t like it, so I just stopped early.

So your father wasn’t pushing you into piano lessons.

No, I don’t think he wanted us in music. He was just trying to tell us it’s a little hard, shady managers, there’s lot of shady things going on here. He’d just make us get into our books. But we couldn’t help it, because that’s what he did, so we followed what he did. Same with my brother; he followed what I did. If I was a drug dealer, he’d probably be a drug dealer. [laughs]

Were you a hip-hop head back then?

No, I was a jazz head, just listening to records, soul records. My dad had a big collection. My grandparents had one. Every time I went to my grandparents’ house, I just sat at the records. I was supposed to be doing family stuff, and I’d just be at the records the whole time. Trying to listen to different things. My dad had every type of music, from soul to rock to opera—they liked everything. I was just a record dude, trying to listen to records and figure out how people arrange. I’d look at the instruments, and who produced what. I kind of figured I want to do that because that’s all I wanted, that’s all I did. I tried to emulate what I was hearing. We’d have the brooms, and somebody’d act like it was a microphone. That’s all I liked really, was music. I wasn’t into anything else.

But yet you didn’t want to take lessons?

No, I wanted to do it a different way. Because you can kind of learn—I mean, you can’t be a master, but you can learn how things are placed. I didn’t know I’d go as far as I did, as far as putting out records. I just thought I’d just do it for myself.

Madlib. Photo by Eric Coleman.

Photo by Eric Coleman.

 

What was your evolution into hip-hop? 

My older brother. The first record I heard was “Rapper’s Delight,” sorry to say. I mean, that’s the first record I got into. I was like, “What are they doing?” I knew the “Good Times” beat, and then I heard them rapping over it; I was like, “That’s crazy.” From there, he started showing me different things, old Too Short tapes and 75 Girls [Records] stuff. And then I heard certain producers like Marley Marl and early Roxanne Shanté stuff. It was mostly East Coast stuff I knew back in the early days. I was into the producers before the rappers. I was into the music, the beat.

What was it about the music in particular?

I don’t know, I just felt what was going on. I knew some of the stuff they were using, but the way they were using it tripped me out. Sampling the drums—I knew what they were putting into it. Them hard drums Marley Marl used—that’s when I first said, “I wanna do that.” And then I heard the early [California] dudes. DJ Pooh, the real early stuff. DJ Slip, Unknown did it from there. Then it went on to Muggs and the regular West Coast producers.

When did you start actively digging for records with the intention of making beats?

Somewhere around ’85, ’86. I was about eleven or twelve years old. I bought this [Mattel] Synsonics drum thing and this little sampling machine, sampled like one second. You’d have to speed the record up real fast. [laughs] I learned from that. I just bought a sampler and tried to figure it out. I still have some of that early stuff with my sister rapping—it’s crazy. [laughs]

Eleven, twelve years old is pretty young.  Nowadays, they are doing that. It’s crazy, little kids making dope beats. I got little cousins who do that. My nephew, Oh No’s kid; it’s crazy.

The technology has gotten to that now, but back in ’85, ’86, that wasn’t all that common.

Yeah. I didn’t know anybody doing that. I was a loner. I was wearing clocks before I knew Flavor Flav was wearing them. Just a weird dude. Bobcat hat on the West Coast—people looking at me funny. The only dude I met like that back then was DJ Romes. He was on the same thing.

Was that the beginning of Lootpack?

Yeah, Wildchild also. He was crazy, too, back in the day, pop-locking and stuff.

We had a pop-locking group in elementary. About ’89, ’90, when we were in high school, we got serious about doing music, putting together verses and things seriously.

With the intention of trying to release a record?

Yeah, my pops put out our first record. He watched us for years, and he’s like, “Y’all ain’t ready. I don’t know what y’all doing. But y’all ain’t ready.” And we came with something one day, he was like, “All right, I’m gonna put the record out.” Nobody was trying to mess with us. He shopped our records to a couple of people and it didn’t work out, so he did it himself. This is like the Psyche Move period. We had whole albums of stuff that were never released.

Was some of that material what became the Lootpack’s debut album on Stones Throw, 1999’s Soundpieces: Da Antidote?

Some of that material, about twenty percent. Then we started recording stuff over at [Peanut Butter] Wolf’s. My pops actually showed the record to Wolf, and then from there they both took over.

By the late ’90s, the art of sampling was disappearing, but you carried the torch forward.

45 King was the biggest influence probably. Marley Marl, Ced Gee. I just figured you had to stay traditional, and then add your own thing to it also. I just wanted to follow them, take some of that, and then put my thing in it.

Madlib. Photo by Eric Coleman.

Photo by Eric Coleman.

 

What was your thing?

Probably, more of the crazy, jazzy, weird stuff. My stuff was way weirder before the Lootpack album; it was some crazy stuff. Unorthodox samples, different time signatures, trying to rap in different voices. I was still into jazz at that point, more than rap. I just put a twist on it, we put a little West Coast in it, keep it crazy though.

Speaking of different voices, what was it that Quasimoto allowed you to do that you weren’t able to do as Madlib?

I liked the voice better. I didn’t like my voice back then. People called me the Barry White of rap. My voice was low; I was all tired-sounding. Once I got to that, I just liked the way the voice sounded better. Other people didn’t like it, but to me, I could say anything and nobody knew it was me, at first. I could just get as crazy as I want.

How did it come about?

Because my mom would know when I was cursing. [laughs] And then I was doing ’shrooms too, so I was on a completely different level. I didn’t think it was gonna take off though. I did that for myself. I was so high, I just slowed the music down. Then you gotta rap real slow. I was so high it sounded right.

So it was almost chopped and screwed? That’s how the beat sounded when I recorded the vocals. I would listen to it like that, too, on my own. But for other people, I sped it up. And then Wolf heard it—the first album that never came out. I might put that out next year, that first album was a lot more jazz, I guess. It’s crazy, crazier beats. That was before Lootpack, like ’97, ’98. I called it Quasimoto, and I had other dudes that were doing it too.

When did you decide that drum machines and samplers weren’t enough, and that you needed to learn how to play instruments?

I just wanted to try to emulate some of the records I was listening to; that’s how it happened. I didn’t think it was going to lead to anything; I was just doing it for myself. I started up when I was living in Santa Barbara after the first Lootpack came out. I got tired of rapping. I wanted to hear something different, try something different, and just wanted to try to emulate some records. At first the idea was just copying a record and trying to replay it. I didn’t want to really learn instruments. I just wanted to see if I could put something together. That’s kind of the best way to learn, buying microphones, drum set, old keyboards, everything.

What’d your father say?

I don’t think he understood it at first, but he was surprised I did all of that. My grandparents were very surprised, like, “Okay, you’re not just a rapper. Now, you’re trying to do something different.” It’s just an evolution, I guess, because I was just listening to all the records, just tried to emulate. I was trying to learn how to arrange, and I didn’t really think about it too much either. I guess it was just natural, just doing something different. You get tired of something, you move over here, and over here. I was trying to do everything that I listened to, because I listened to everything. It was mostly jazz, but I listened to everything—soul, funk—so I was just trying to mix it all into one. Now when I listen to it, I can’t really call it jazz, because it’s not really just jazz. It’s a mixture of different things I was hearing.

It’s been a decade since the release of  the Jaylib project, Champion Sound. What was your relationship with Dilla like?

We were like musical cousins. When we first met, it just seemed like we knew each other because of the music. Because some of the early things he was doing—I mean, it’s way better than what I was doing—but it sounds like some of the stuff I was doing. I didn’t hear him back then and he didn’t hear me back then, so we just kind of connected on that level. It’s hard to explain, it was just an automatic music relationship because we were on the same thing. And we just got along as homies, period.

How did you initially meet?

Peanut Butter Wolf hooked that up. I guess he sent him our first Lootpack stuff. Then he started showing Questlove and D’Angelo and all them. From there, I met all them dudes. So Wolf linked us before 9/11. We were supposed to go out there on 9/11, the day that happened. I was on my way to Detroit to meet with them to work on the album that he was working on for MCA. We didn’t meet until about a year or two later. And then we didn’t talk for a minute. I did some demos over some of the beats he sent Wolf. From there, we was good. I sent him, like, four hundred beats; he sent me, like, four hundred beats. We just connected; we were cool—I was in awe. I was familiar with all his early stuff, the stuff he did with Phat Kat, the Tribe [Called Quest] stuff. I knew who he was because I looked at the records, so I knew who was producing what. I knew him from there.

What was the working relationship like?

It was all good. We were in the studio sometimes together, but we didn’t really have to do that. I trust him to do what he’s going to do, and he trust me to do what I’m going to do. So he’s like, “Yo, this is some new shit we gonna work on. Go and handle that shit, man, and I’m gonna do the same thing.” Then we get together, bump the shit, record-shop. There was more record-shopping and hanging out than working together. Drinking, going to clubs, whatever. Listening to old records, I give him a crate; he give me a crate. He’d work on his thing; I’d work on my thing. That’s how we were working with other artists too. I mean, we didn’t have to be there, because we were like-minded artists.

Was there a friendly competition between the two of you?

Yeah, of course. I’d use a loop and then he’d show me the same loop the next week or vice versa, but it’d be totally different. We’d be like, “Oh, shit.” To me, his was always better, but it was just cool to see. His sound would be electronic one week and mine’d be raw. Then the next week I’d be electronic, and he’d be raw. And then it was just vice versa—until he died, it was weird. When he moved to L.A., we hung out all the time. We talked all the time. That’s the only dude I talked to; I don’t pick my phone up. Me, him, and J Rocc.

Have you found that kind of musical soul mate since?

Nah. Me and Oh No are like that; we do all that shit too. We’re brothers, so we’re automatically like that. But I probably won’t [find another like him], because that dude was one of a kind. That’s how it’s supposed to be. Dilla was the greatest. As far as production for the type of hip-hop I like, he was the greatest. He could do any type of music, but he just did what he did. He had too much soul and passion for the music. And he was quick with it, prolific, so you can’t compete with that. And everything is good? Ain’t no competition.

Your relationship with DOOM has been somewhat similar.

Yeah, he’s on that shit too, that same wavelength kind of thing. Constant music, that’s the main thing. You’ve got to keep to yourself sometimes, for long periods of time, but that’s just about how they work; and for me, it’s the same thing. The love of music, trees, that’s the way it is. I call DOOM “Bird.” Dilla’s “Coltrane.”

Who are you?

Probably Thelonius Monk or something. [laughs]

What’s the story with the Madvillainy follow-up?

He has a bunch of songs, but he’s taking his time. I don’t know what it could be, but that album needs to come out. We could have had four by now. But, hey, everybody works at their pace. Much respect, I ain’t trippin’. I can wait and so can everybody else. He’s being very picky with it, but I respect that, because it has to match. It’s going to be a continuation. It can’t be better. It can’t be worse. It’s going to be a continuation of the first.

How quickly did you put together the first album?

We did that here [in the “Bomb Shelter” studio at Stones Throw’s old HQ]. He was here recording. Wake up, record, day-to-day—real quick, probably a couple of weeks, I guess. But then he wanted to go back and fix his vocals, ’cause we was all tore up and shit.

Madlib. Photo by Eric Coleman.

Photo by Eric Coleman.

 

How about the Dilla record?

That was very quick. A couple of weeks, but takes time to get it out. That shit was old when it came out, half the tracks were real old.

I know you like to work fast on lots of different equipment. Talk to me about the importance of the idea in music making versus the equipment it’s being made on.

It’s what you put into it. The equipment is going to be the equipment, but you got to put what you want to put into it. That’s what makes the difference. See, I use different drum machines, and I can make the same thing out of any shit. That’s because the equipment’s the same; it’s about what you put into it. You can make a beat with a mixer and a CDJ if you want. I do it. Laptops, I do that too. So equipment don’t matter. I mean, you try different things, but it’s the same shit.

There used to be so many rules. You couldn’t even sample drums off a rapper’s record; you had to go find the original beat. 

Yeah, those days are over. It’s all about whatever material you choose. But the technology makes it easy. It’s good because you learn real quick now. It’s what you do; just be good. I’ve seen dudes doing incredible shit on anything. Like Fruity Loops, anything. It don’t matter. It’s you and what you choose to use. Whatever loops you use, whatever keyboard you use, whatever. Just do you, that’s it—from your soul.

So you’re not mad at a kid looping up something off a YouTube video?

I do that too. Take shit off cassette, VCR, iTunes, anything. Some water dripping, it don’t matter. It just makes it easier for kids to learn quicker today. That’s good, if they’re good.

And the whole flood of material from kids on Tumblr?

It makes it easier to make more money. You needed a label back then; now you make your own money. You keep it. It’s easy now. You can record it in your room. It’s good. R&B records, anything. Hits on the radio recorded in your room. I still do what I do, but it just makes it easier for me if I want to do that. It’s all good.

What are you using these days?

Anything. My iPad, turntables, the [Boss SP-] 303.

What do you use on the iPad?

The MPC. They got, like, a hundred keyboards—that shit is crazy. Been doing it. I just switch it up. I don’t use one thing. It’d be a 303 one day. SP-12. A little bit on the board where I’m just pressing a button and it loops. [laughs] The material you put into it is going to make it what it is.

Do you make music every day?

Oh yeah, but I also have a life; I got kids. I’m constantly doing music. I’m doing just as much music as I’ve ever done. Whether I take a day off or take a week off or a month, I’m still thinking music. So when I go back, I might do a CD a day or whatever, so I don’t go by that. I try to put things together in album form all the time, so I’m just doing it. I’ve always done that shit. It may just be all beats, maybe instrumentals, maybe live shit, maybe some electronic Cluster-type shit, whatever. Spoken-word records, whatever. Hopefully, all that shit comes out. I don’t want to be known for just one thing; I want to start putting out some different things too. Like Kraftwerk, but a new style. Reggae records, noise records, John Cage stuff, some crazy stuff.

Who are some other producers you admire?

Oh No, Flying Lotus, Pete Rock—Soul Brother. The usual greats.

Any new kids?

No disrespect—I don’t have time to do it. If it’s great, I’m going to hear about it eventually. I’m sure there’s some great stuff; I just don’t know it yet. I listen to old music.

How has old music affected your development as a musician?

It just teaches you more. Then you want to try other things. There’s so much music that wasn’t heard that’s new to me. So I’m like, “That stuff is crazy!” I’m still learning that stuff. I’ll get to the new stuff later; I’m still learning all the old stuff that they didn’t show us.

What’s the draw to the unheard?

Because that’s the best stuff. In every generation, that’s the best stuff, the unheard stuff. Because they brainwash you on the radio with certain formulas. That’s why we got all that good stuff, because not everybody wants to hear that. The majority of people want to hear some popular sounds—you get used to it or something. I’m looking for something different rather than the same shit.

I heard a little about a Yasiin Bey project. 

Yeah, he got a gang of beat tapes, so he was always writing stuff before we were putting stuff out. He used some of it on his album. We met each other and it was cool, so now we’re doing a whole album. It’s probably going to end up being all Zambian stuff, psychedelic rock from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. He heard it and it fit with him. We might even record out of Africa; we’ll see.

How do you manage the marketplace, your artistry, and real life?

I don’t think too hard about it. I just try to keep music coming, trying to keep the bills paid. Keep trying to create, the same as it ever was. When I’m at my house, I work on music with my kids right next to me, so it’s the same ol’ shit.

After twenty years in the game, what’s the next twenty look like for you?

Who knows? I’m going to find out in twenty though. Keep doing what I’m doing. It’s a continuation, even if it’s just for myself. Even if I don’t put out records, I’m still going to do what I’ve always done. Hope the next generations check out the music just like I checked it out. If they like it, I got some good stuff for ’em.

 
 
 

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9 Responses

  1. I love this dude. Good look, WP

    – Matt Oh
  2. madlib is the most prolific producer ever. I am glad he is getting a spotlight.

    – sizakhoza
  3. Everything Madlib does is interesting and you have to respect that. Great interview, great to hear some stuff about his thoughts and process.

    – jimmy
  4. […] to one of the best magazines out Wax Poetics for this interview with Madlib. In the interview, he talks about his upbringing in the house of two […]

    Madlib Talks About His Upcoming Project With Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) | Fashionably Early
  5. !

    – richard
  6. Extreme dopeness.

    – Sandy
  7. He knew he was working space-years ahead when he met J Dilla, glad that he is still keeping his spirit alive!

    – Anton
  8. guru

    – adrianobrasil
  9. My man, nothing but respect for u bruh, and everything you do…Peace & blessings to you and yours always…

    – Jaemo

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