Music

Madlib the Beat Konducta: Vol. 1-2: Movie Scenes

Michael Frauenhofer

These are not movies, and this is not a movie soundtrack. These are scenes, and Madlib is a master cinematographer.


Madlib the Beat Konducta

Vol. 1-2: Movie Scenes

Label: Stones Throw
US Release Date: 2006-03-21
UK Release Date: 2006-03-20
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Section 1: In Which I Tell You Things About the Album (On Movie Scenes)

Madlib, the genius young producer (yes, I believe he's earned the title of "genius" by now) behind so many diverse projects over the years, from Madvillainy to the Quasimoto albums to Yesterdays New Quintet to Jaylib to DJ Rels, has finally dropped his instrumental album. It's on Stones Throw, which makes sense -- through his prolific production work he's practically come to define the Stones Throw sound by now -- and the comparisons to J Dilla's Donuts are inevitable. Both albums are longer works composed of 30-something shorter tracks, most averaging about one to two minutes in length, and both are largely instrumental, using any vocals -- usually sampled and chopped -- mainly as instruments. Both are on Stones Throw, and the two were frequent collaborators, notably on Champion Sound. There's even some timeline confusion. Both editions of Movie Scenes came out first, on vinyl-only late last year, but Donuts beat them to CD. In fact, attentive listeners can even recognize some identical samples -- the brilliant soul vocals from Donuts's "Welcome to the Show" are severely chopped and used in brief vocal punches on a track here -- but, overall, the albums have very different feels. Donuts was a more soulful, colorful departure from Dilla's subtler production work, a choppy master-work of soul, funk, and hip-hop beats, while Movie Scenes is more of a distinctive Madlib production, his trademark crate-digging fingerprints all over these well-crafted cuts.

The beats are, to the track, great. "Third Ear (More)" unhinges and rehinges itself with a slurry-throbbing, lugubrious bassline; "Chopstyle (Suey Blast)" is a roar of lonely synth that shudders in and out of tempo to the tune of thick hand-claps. "Toe Fat (Ghettozone)" roars into life as a fistful of throat-howled, dirty-blossoming soul, but Madlib expertly chops it back into line, cutting it into a tightly bouncing loop embellished with dark-snarly sax, on which the sample cuts in and out within the beat's bounds.

Where much of Donuts was a laid-back and smooth exercise in soul, Movie Scenes's eye to the past is an angry one. "Gold Jungle (Tribe)" juxtaposes tribal drumming with rough laughter and sampled shouts of "fuck y'all!" and "jive-ass nigger!", while on "Pyramids (Change)", Madlib pulls off an impressive word transformation through chopping and re-chopping a sample. Initially a voice cuts in repeatedly with "funny how things can change, nigger", but Madlib eventually flips the words to "funny how niggers can change things". Then comes "funny how change can nigger things," and, next, "funny how things can nigger change". Finally, the music cuts out and Madlib begins the word "nigger" repeating rapidly, shaving slightly from the end each time until the chant becomes "nigga! nigga! nigga!", and finally, disturbingly, re-cutting the sample into "a gun! a gun! a gun!". It's a brilliant moment, and a testament to Otis Jackson Jr.'s genius with the vinyl.

Overall, Movie Scenes is a great record, making up for any lack of cohesiveness with a consistently brilliant parade of wonderful hip-hop beats. It's ever-changing, ever-morphing, ever-different. It at points feels like it lacks that spark of feeling that made Donuts such a vital record, but only rarely, and barely at that. A lot of people have been calling this the soundtrack to a movie that was never made; this is not that. This is not the movie itself, either. This is a collage of movie scenes, senseless, beautiful, visual.

Section 2: In Which the Album Tells Things About Me-You (Some Movie Scenes)

"Tape Hiss (Dirty)" is an afternoon walk through sun-flooded city streets. Insistently clunky piano chords plod beautifully like wishes, and the metal sizzles of horn are smooth brown-shoe soles on pavement. Chunks of life, with tiny flourishes, buying apples at the open-air market.

"Third Ear (More)" begins from a horror movie. The solidly manic initial burst of toy-electric-guitar is sublimated by hoarse whisper into a nightmare cloud, staggery heartbeats floating in minor-key twinkles and stitched together by murder squeals of screechy strings. Then it shapeshifts entirely into a slow ride down grim iron-gray hills, half funeral and half funereal. The ground is a collage of futuristic synths and barely-noticed, dramatic-high piano chords that fit together like fingers, forming the substance for the main sound to walk on. And the central string loop is gorgeously devoid of passion, a clean, amber sustained-exhalation that describes its sonorously-shifting nasal circles like reluctant knowledge.

"Left on Silverlake (Ride)" begins heavily enough, but little chattery-shake rings slip through and the color of the film changes. When the vocals come in the sun rises, gold like butter and tennis-ball dreams. Red velvet curtains part to reveal the beautiful country town, and the villagers are parading in their quaint apparel, lifting their hardy farmer faces to every woozy swoon of the trombones. Then the audacious little whiny sax comes in, we can see the boy is standing in a field without any friends. Listening to the hum of the thunder that's rum-bummeling up, and the muffled words of the ancient monsters.

"Box Top (Cardboard Dues)" is a tensely-shivering, sinister car chase: a slow-motion pursuit, stripped of its blinding speed but rendered in perfect black-and-white film noir, the curved lines of the cars nosing ominously around inner-city corners and poking into the unknown. These men have secreted guns.

"Stax (Strings)" is a girl in a spotlight, sitting on a piano, a pleading drama queen completely superceded by the whirling flourish of orchestra that replaces her. She pulls her way back in, and the ruthless strings categorically excise her again, choosing instead the ghostly-disembodied soul singers. "Mmmnn-mmmnn-mmmnn-mmmnn..."

"Black Mozart (Opus II)" is a run through the stark angles of a city at night. Shapes loom, bright shadows explode from the overwhelming, tangible dark, clean bursts of piano.

"Spanish Bells (High Dreams)" is an old-world cluttery ambience of tremuloso strings, clambering piano-lines and little buzzy dream synths, punctuated by intermittent blasts of electric guitar riffage. The movie scene is a timeless European cathedral in a vielle ville, right as you realize that this particular place of worship is the site of the climactic action-movie vampire battle.

And "Old Age (Youngblood)" is the wise old man. He is sitting in a chair, and his eyes are deep-set in his hair. Badass funky guitar. Fucking crazy. His gaze dispenses you its wisdom even as his sideburns gasp, like a dying rasp of life through a slit throat. The invisible finger-snaps.

These are not movies, and this is not a movie soundtrack. These are scenes, and Madlib is a master cinematographer.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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