How Four Tet Helped Madlib Make Something Totally New: A Solo Album
Madlib has been an elusive yet prolific figure in hip-hop for nearly three decades. His reputation has been shaped by collaborations, alter ego and the relentless creation of new music. So much new music.
There is music in honor of the composer Weldon Irvine. Music remixing the Blue Note Records catalog. Music inspired by India. Music inspired by film scores. Music for mainstream stars like Kanye West and Erykah Badu. Music for underground stars like MF Doom and Freddie Gibbs. An immeasurable amount of music in his personal archives that few other people have ever heard.
But until this week, Southern California-born artist Otis Jackson Jr. had never released a traditional solo album. “Sound Ancestors,” due Friday, tries to sum up its enormous influences and production approaches into a unique listening experience. And while Madlib had little interest in such a project (“I didn’t really think about it,” he said) someone else did and helped bring it to life: Kieran Hebden, the British musician who records as Four Tet.
“I didn’t see it as if I wanted to imprint my sound on his in any way,” said Hebden, 43, who arranged, edited and mastered Sound Ancestors with hundreds of files that Madlib gave him for the past few years had sent years. “It was more, I want to do the things I like best as best as possible.”
Madlib, 47, doesn’t do many interviews, and when he does, they rarely shed light on his philosophy of making music. He’s not dismissive or dismissive, it is just clear that conversations are not where he wants to use his energy. When we spoke from his Los Angeles home, it was on his wife’s cell phone. He got rid of his device years ago when too many people tried to reach him.
Growing up in Oxnard, California, a town surrounded by strawberry farms between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, Madlib got his first production credits on tracks for the rap party animals Tha Alkaholiks in the mid-1990s. It wasn’t until 2000 when he released the album “The Unseen” as Quasimoto that he attracted wider attention. Quasimoto had his own personality: he was a furry monster with a protruding snout, known for his unbound ID and open voice.
“That was a bit of an explosion in my peer group,” said Nigel Godrich, the producer known for decades of working with Radiohead. “It was clearly someone on the outside doing something really, really different and flashy and really exciting.” Years later, after they were all friends, Godrich said he and Thom Yorke turned to Madlib to rap on one of the Radiohead singer’s solo albums. He politely declined.
Madlib’s next breakthrough came when he released back-to-back collaborations with two other cult rap heroes. He co-founded “Champion Sound” with Detroit-born producer J Dilla Jaylib in 2003 and switched phrases as they pounded each other over the beat. And in 2004 he teamed up with hip-hop mischievous super villain MF Doom for “Madvillainy”, which has long been considered the enduring testimony of two rap geniuses.
After Dilla’s death in 2006, Madlib decided to quit rapping. “I just had nothing more to say,” he said. “I didn’t like rapping at all. I did it because sometimes I had to. “
In the 2010s he found a reliable partner in Freddie Gibbs and in 2015 produced “No More Parties in LA” with Kanye West to create a nimble piece of dingy funk that inspired a multitude of t-shirts and hashtags. Amid all of these projects, Madlib regularly released instrumental collections, usually as part of his “Beat Konducta” series of more than 30 tracks, each of which rarely lasted longer than two minutes.
With “Sound Ancestors” Hebden hoped to create a Madlib album that would bring all the years of work together but be more accessible. He wanted to deliver an immersive journey, similar to what the capricious Scottish duo Boards of Canada could do or what the adventurous German label ECM Records would have brought out in the 1970s.
Although Madlib is hip-hop oriented and Hebden focuses his sound on electronic dance music, they cite many of the same types of older records as influences. They are both deep lovers of English psychedelic rock, free jazz, and other far more esoteric micro-genres. “We all collect the same things,” said Madlib. “He’s a little more out there than me. He collects nature and bug sound records. I will get there. “
When they first met, Hebden was already a fan of Madlib’s creations. “He’s able to turn elements that other people can’t into something so cool, beautiful and undeniable,” he said. “It kind of flows out of him.”
The connection between Madlib and Hebden dates back to 2001, when artists from indie rap label Stones Throw came to DJ in London and Hebden introduced himself outside the venue to Eothen Alapatt, the label manager known as Egon. The two stayed in contact and developed a deep friendship over the years, to which Madlib quickly became a part.
“He’s more like a brother,” Madlib said of Hebden now.
Hebden always wanted to hear an instrumental Madlib album and realized that he had to look after it himself. Alapatt, who had worked with Madlib on a new label, Madlib Invazion, began sending material that Hebden used to create a 15-minute proof of concept. In 2019, he received final approval from Madlib for a Mediterranean-style dinner in London.
Madlib has always been reluctant to let other people touch his mark; Hebden was one of the few exceptions. In 2005, Stones Throw released an EP with Four Tet remixes of songs from “Madvillainy”, which contained completely new beats by Hebden, which were constructed as an opportunity to experiment with Doom’s a cappellas. For Sound Ancestors, Hebden decided that although he could change and manipulate the material Madlib had sent him, he wouldn’t create new sounds.
Madlib and Alapatt provided hundreds of files: unreleased or unfinished beats, as well as live instruments that Madlib had recorded during studio sessions with musicians. “I wanted him to be free to do what he wanted,” said Madlib. “I trust that he will do what he feels.”
When the pandemic came and all touring opportunities ended, Hebden settled in his home in the Catskill Mountains of New York to focus on completing the album. He sent skeleton versions to Madlib, who told him if there were certain parts that he didn’t like or included parts that he saved for another project.
Aside from its ability to find obscure loops, Madlib’s music is unpredictable due to its harrowing beat shifts and weird sample drift. He never lets the listener get too deeply into a groove, and Hebden was careful to preserve some of that mess. “I’ve tried to get the best of both worlds by having these moments that are very universal for everyone to get their heads around and also shocking moments,” Hebden said. “I didn’t mean to water things down or make anything too polite.”
The first single, “Road of the Lonely Ones,” is a melancholy exploration consisting mostly of segments from a break-up song by the Philadelphia R&B group The Ethics from the 1960s. It aches with heartbreak and turns the group’s question into an ex-lover: “Where did I go wrong?” into something much more existential. “Two for 2 – for Dilla” is no less sentimental, even if the song structure is less traditional. Soulful Fragments warp, ricochet and bleed through, reminiscent of the masterpieces of Madlib’s deceased friend and colleague.
“It’s very much what you’re hoping for,” said Godrich of the album. “It’s a relief to hear.”
After “Sound Ancestors” Madlib hopes to release a new album through Madlib Invazion every month. He casually mentioned collections he put together based on both calypso and industrial music, material he recorded with Brazilian artists, and an indie rock album made with jazz-funk maniac Thundercat.
On the other hand, he has had numerous rumored projects over the years that never materialized, including a collaboration with Mac Miller, a Black Star reunion album and a sequel to “Madvillainy”. But why be trapped in the past when there is always something new?