The son of two professional jazz musicians—bandleader Otis Jackson, Sr. and songwriter Dora Sinesca Jackson—and the nephew of trumpet great John Faddis, musicality is certainly in the blood of underground hip-hop impresario Madlib.
As a producer, he has crafted some of the illest beats of the last decade for such great names as DOOM, Talib Kweli, Ghostface Killah, Mos Def, Erykah Badu, and the late J. Dilla, not to mention beats created for his own microphone skils as a member of the celebrated ‘90s California underground crew Lootpack, and his own helium-voiced alter ego, Quasimoto. As a DJ, his mixtapes are Master’s classes on everything from Motown soul to Trojan Records dub to obscure film soundtracks to funky Bollywood grooves. As a musician, his variety of projects under the Yesterday’s Universe banner have showcased his impressive skills with just about every type of instrument under the sun. And in 2010, Madlib aims to showcase his dominance in all three arenas with a Nor’easter of new titles from all avenues and ends of the Otis Jackson spectrum.
First up this year was Before the Verdict, the inaugural installment of ‘Lib’s lofty 1-CD-a-month-for-12-months series, the Madlib Medicine Show, which serves as a precursor to the producer’s second collaborative full-length with Detroit hood rapper Guilty Simpson, entitled OJ Simpson. While Guilty isn’t exactly the greatest MC to emerge from the Motor City, flexing a flow that is quite tedious to endure for the educated ear, the beats on Before the Verdict are so good that it’s worth the suffering, as he manages to slice, dice, and weave in sounds of breaking glass, snippets of old Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor comedy records, “Classy” Freddie Blassie rants, and impossibly rare funk, jazz, and psyche records, and transform it all into a puree of absolute hip-hop gold. If he put Percee P on these beats instead of Guilty, you would have had the banger of the year, hands down. It’s a shame to see Madlib waste his amazing talents as a beatmaker on a MC of average skills like Simpson, especially when he has worked with such great names in the past. His production does harbor the ability to enhance the artistry of otherwise unremarkable rappers, as this year’s impressive collaboration with Death Row vets Strong Arm Steady signifies, but this staunch allegiance to Guilty Simpson has got to go. At least we have the forthcoming sequel to the Madvillain album to fall back on, which, much like the duo’s 2004 debut Madvillainy, will hopefully showcase exactly how electrifying Jackson’s beats are when a bonafide microphone master rhymes on top of them.
The second and third volumes of the Madlib Medicine Show, on the other hand, are tailor made for the discriminating Madlib fan, as they showcase the Oxnard native’s impeccable knowledge and dexterity as a sound selector and beatmaker par excellence. Appreciators of Jackson’s 2004 Blue Note Records mix Shades of Blue: Madlib Invades Blue Note or his outstanding Mind Fusion mixtapes know exactly what to expect here, and ‘Lib delivers it to us in spades. Though not officially billed as a Beat Konducta event, the Medicine Show’s second volume, Flight to Brazil, has BK written all over it. Fans of such Madlib productions as his excellent collaboration with drummer Ivan Conti of the celebrated Brazilian fusion group Azymuth and Speto Da Rua, his previous mixtape of Brazil-based music for the always-amazing Mochilla label, are already well aware of Jackson’s undying love for the largest country in South America. But unlike his other Beat Konducta productions, he allows these songs to breathe more by keeping his knack for laying down heavy beats overtop to a minimum and utilizing more found sound elements and phased-out sonics. This allows for a seamless, trippy blend of local funk, jazz, psychedelia, tropicalia, carnival, forro, bossa nova, and samba culled from impossibly rare records and 45s by such groundbreaking Brazilian acts as bossa nova masters O Quarteto, film composer Moacir Santos, samba great Emilio Santiago, and Rio prog rockers Som Imaginario.
Meanwhile, Volume 3 of the Madlib Medicine Show, Beat Konducta in Africa, is closer to the classic beat tape cloth Madlib has so masterfully woven in previous volumes of the series like Movie Scenes and the Dil Cosby and Dil Withers suites. This massive 43-track set blends together a variety of obscure wax sourced from various afro-beat, funk, jazz, psych, and soul records from such nations as Zambia, Ethiopia, Nigera, Ghana, Botswana, and South Africa, interpolated with sound bites from old educational films, interviews with the likes of Fela Kuti, and clips from legendary Afro-centric concert films like Soul to Soul and James Brown’s Soul Power. Beat Konducta in Africa is by far the freshest and funkiest BK set to date, and easily the most original tribute to the Dark Continent that has emerged from the indie music industry’s seemingly crazed perseveration for all things Africa.
However, if you are fixing to catch the true sonic essence of this mysterious, elusive production guru, one need look no further than his instrumental joints—namely those attributed to his Yesterday’s New Quintet project, a fictitious four-man band rooted in electronically enhanced, jazz-flavored jams that not only includes releases available from the “group” itself, but also “solo” albums from each of its “members”, not to mention an extended family previously chronicled on YNQ’s 2007 “Various Artists” compilation, Yesterday’s Universe. Two of the “acts” featured on that release, the Last Electro-Acoustic Space Jazz & Percussion Ensemble and Young Jazz Rebels, serve as Madlib’s latest outlets for getting his wordless groove on. Easily the most jazz-oriented work in his canon of original material, both the Jazz Rebels and the LASJ&PE definitely showcase the producer’s growth as a formidable musician in his own right.
Following a great pair of mini-albums in Summer Suite (originally given away as a limited release CD-R with the purchase of the Yesterday’s Universe album) and Fall Suite, the Last Electro-Acoustic Space Jazz & Percussion Ensemble’s Miles Away is a percussion-heavy fantasy ride through Madlib’s profoundly large jazz collection via ten compositions dedicated to ten of his greatest heroes in the genre. If ever there was a blueprint to the genetic makeup of Yesterday’s Universe, it is in this 65-minute long set, which showcases Jackson’s talents as a musician, arranger, and composer perhaps more than any other recording he has crafted in the ten years he’s been recording as Yesterday’s New Quintet and its variety of offshoots. Each track here is tailor made to mimick the style and flow of the artist it represents, be it the groovy woodwinds of Pharoahs flautist Derf Reklaw, the harmonic bop of Woody Shaw, the avant-garde black consciousness of Phil Ranelin, the space voyage modality of Larry Young, the urban soul-jazz of Roy Ayers, or the innovative spirituality of John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders’s work together in ‘Trane’s last quintet.
Miles Away is a textured, dynamic, and masterfully performed flow of loose percussion, flutes, chimes, wah-wah-drenched electric piano licks, plaintive acoustic piano rolls, sitar accents, and nylon-stringed acoustic guitar picking that serves as a fine complement to its companion title, Slave Riot by the Young Jazz Rebels. Slave Riot is being sold to us as Madlib’s “free jazz” album, but those expecting to hear the Madlib version of Albert Ayler’s Love Cry will likely be disappointed. Rather, the 18 tracks that encapsulate Slave Riot express a form of freedom that is no looser or less improvisational than Miles Away or any other LP in the Yesterday’s Universe canon. It definitely feels like the most jazz-flavored collection Jackson has brought forth yet, moving like a more experienced, chop-heavy version of such previous Yesterday’s productions as Monk Hughes & the Outer Realm’s A Tribute to Brother Weldon and Malik Flavors’s Ugly Beauty EP in its shambolic fusion of electric and acoustic instrumentation. Slave Riot plays as if Madlib views his massive jazz collection as a giant tub of Lego blocks spilled out onto the floor, and he’s sitting there experimenting with different combinations of the variant styles and sounds strewn before him. Like, “How would Herbie Hancock’s Sextant sound if it was recorded all acoustically on ECM Records?” or “What would the Art Ensemble of Chicago be like had they been produced by David Axelrod?”
And, as most of the folks who enjoy a toke of the good old “Mother Nature” every now and again are well aware, “420” is the universal code for getting blazed on the greenest greens to arise from the dirt. Hence, April 20th has been adopted as a sort of unofficial national holiday for celebrating the mellow joys of Mary Jane. So it should come as no surprise that the fourth volume of Madlib’s Medicine Show would be released on that date, especially given his unadulterated love for the ganja. And a 79-minute mix of some of the deepest, dankest reggae vibes in the Mad one’s virtually bottomless cavern of vinyl seems wholly appropriate for this installment of his year-long series of releases. Fans of Mr. Jackson’s woefully out-of-print 2002 Trojan Records mix Blunted in the Bomb Shelter will certainly find reason to praise Jah for the mindblowing selection of rare plates he spins across this set, nicknamed “Son of Super Ape”, after the acclaimed pair of early ‘70s classics from the Upsetters. Educated reggae fans will hear crucial cuts from such choice Jamaican soundsystem greats as Fat Boy Riddim Section, Burning Spear, Dennis Brown, Big Youth, Roots Radics, Blackbeard, Sly and the Revolutionaries, Prince Jammy, Scientist, Augustus Pablo, and King Tubby, to name a few, bubbling up from under the textural scratches and vinyl crackle holding everything together. And to further enhance the whole “420” flavor emanating from this mix is a supplementary guide to the constantly growing list of medical marijuana dispensaries doing business in the East Los Angeles and Hollywood area, as well as a highly informative FAQ section answering many valid questions about the validity of these establishments.
All six of these releases prove, there isn’t a harder working talent in underground hip-hop than Otis Jackson, Jr. And as the recent announcement of the fifth volume of the Madlib Medicine Show—a single-disc beat tape anthology chronicling his first ten years as a producer entitled The History of the Loop Digga, 1990-2000—so explicitly indicates, the Madlib Invazion of 2010 is far from over.
Madlib Medicine Show Vol. 1: Before the Verdict
Madlib Medicine Show Vol. 2: Flight to Brazil
Madlib Medicine Show Vol. 3: Beat Konducta in Africa
Madlib Medicine Show Vol. 4: 420 Chalice All-Stars