Madlib’s little brother had his work cut out for him when he entered the hip-hop realm. The older of these Oxnard, California natives was already a well established producer and rapper both on his own and as a member of Lootpack. And while he promoted his younger brother via guest features and production through the late 1990s and early 2000s, Madlib’s sibling, Oh No, didn’t make his proper debut until 2004 with The Disrupt. Of course, comparisons between the two were thrown around. Both aren’t exactly the greatest MCs, though in terms of producer-rappers they are up there. They also exhibited similar production styles, which isn’t necessarily bad because who could complain about being compared to Madlib? Not to say he complained, but if he did, Oh No had every right because no one wants to live in someone else’s shadow, no matter how talented that person may be.
Don’t get me wrong, Oh No always had his own personality and style. Both of those, however, were never on fully display like they were on his European epic Dr. No’s Oxperiment. It was a completely instrumental album, chock full of one- to two-minute, expertly chopped beats of the sounds of Turkey, Lebanon, Greece, and Italy. It showed that Oh No could do his own thing, perhaps even better than his brother, who was prepping a similar project in Beat Konducta in India. Following his trip to Europe, Oh No had plans for another journey. This one would land him in another continent — Africa, to be exact — and with a slew of Ethiopian funk, soul, jazz, and rock records, this producer got to sampling and chopping rare tracks that most of us would likely had never heard otherwise.
The end result is Dr. No’s Ethiopium, a record cut from the same cloth as Oxperiment and littered with boom-bap goodness. However, fans of Oxperiment will inherently be slightly disappointed when first spinning its spiritual sequel. Ethiopium does not hit nearly as hard nor as quickly. There are no tracks that instantly grab you like the addictive guitar-riffage heard on Oxperiment’s killer opening cut “Heavy”. Where this, Oh No’s fourth album, stands out is in its cohesion and fluid-like flow. The tracks transition seamlessly from one to the next, making for a smooth audio trip through this African country. Also, Oh No shows off a great knack for panning his samples, which might sound like something most producers should do. The truth, however, is that a lot of them do not or they use it sparingly. Oh No, though, shows off this production technique throughout this album. Most notable are the panning horn stabs heard on “Xcalibur”, a track that bounces and is easily a highlight. Similarly, you can feel and hear the warmth of the samples because Oh No left the crackling vinyl sound on here. Perhaps it was unintended, but it’s a welcomed extra element. All these qualities are what move Ethiopium beyond your standard beat-tape.
Obviously, though, the greatness of this record goes beyond its transitions and production “tricks.” Aside from the aforementioned standout “Xcalibur”, Ethiopium is brimming with repeat-worthy cuts. One of those arrives early with “The Funk”, an aptly titled banger filled with wah-wah guitars, a deep low-end, and scattered, soaring vocals. The drums, particularly the cymbals, are what give that track the edge over its cohorts. Another highlight is the crassly titled, but groovy-as-hell “Pussy” that also makes for a good laugh. Considering there are 36 good-to-great tracks on this album, continuing with a list of adjectives to describe how enjoyable they are could get tedious. As such, I leave you with the same hope I had for the beats heard on Oxperiment. Rappers, please, do yourself a favor and utilize some of the tracks on this album. Mos Def grabbed two of Oxperiment’s treats and they made for some of the finest cuts on The Ecstatic. It’s up to you, MCs, to challenge yourself and give these beats the vocals they deserve. Give Ethiopium a spin and try not to hear Oh No basically taunting you. “Just try to rap on this beat,” his drums, loops, and bass say. Or just enjoy this album for what it is, a stellar entry into Oh No’s already impressive catalog.