Of all the musical idols who have directly influenced my music, Madlib is one of the main artists. His breadth of work and Bohemian approach to creativity have stood out from the crowd. When I first started producing music, I wanted to be like Madlib and emulated his style. It’s the kind of thing most producers do – imitate their idols until they find their way. My furtive days disappeared a few years ago but they’re slowly coming back and I’ve been looking to the Loop Digga for inspiration once again. But this time, I’m not interested in copying. Madlib is known for being a reserved character who lets his music do the talking. With his expansive record collection, he’s a musical chatterbox, evident in his use of left field samples from around the world. But why does he do what he does? And could that inspire me? That’s what I aimed to find out when I watched his RMBA lecture in New York from 2016.
Listen to all kinds of music and “find something good in every genre”
As humans, we tend to stay with what we like. I know I do. I’m not going to start preaching about going out of your comfort zone, pushing the boundaries, doing stuff that scares you and all that. But listening to Madlib’s sample selections and his Medicine Show mixes have put me onto music I would never have experienced out of choice. From a production perspective, listening through whole records rather than the first few seconds of each track is another approach to this if you’re looking to sample or even grab some melodic or rhythmic inspiration.
Using your past to shape your present
When talking about what appeals to him in sampling, Madlib says how the sound of the 60s, 70s, and 80s resonate with him and that’s what he deals with. So many times you see and hear musicians looking to create for the future wanting to make something nothing has ever heard before. It drove artists like Michael Jackson (coincidentally the name of Madlib’s brother aka Oh No) and it’s an ambitious strategy. Other artists prefer to bring older styles to the present and add their own twists and I think that’s what Madlib aims to do, to great effect. Rather than perhaps copying or emulating in the same way I tried when I started out, his canvasses are made of these old records and he interpolates them to convey his own messages. He said he wasn’t much of a talker and often communicates with friends in “sign language” and his songs are similar interpretations of his own rhetoric.
Nothing wrong with loops
I’ve heard all kinds of sampling naysayers since starting this blog back in 2012 – “sampling is cheating”, “looping is lazy”, “sampling is just theft”. The “looping is lazy” argument is probably the most perplexing. Even if you chopped up a sample to create a bar of music… you’re going to end up looping it. That’s just how popular music works. Looping is most certainly not lazy if done correctly and while Madlib’s penchant for the technique has caused grumbles amongst listeners, he stands by it and as a fan, so do I. For No More Parties in LA, he said he wanted to loop up the original and make it “dirtier”. But Madlib doesn’t just take 4 bars from a song and loop it up. There’ll be cuts and drops here and there, added vocal samples, and sound effects, all adding patches to his musical tapestry. You’ll still find wonderment in the original if/when you find it and notice just how much more he added in his own way. That’s the kind of inspiration you want.
“It has to be natural. If you have to think about it too much, your shit’s probably wack.”
This has been a major stumbling block for me in recent years. Between 2010 and 2013, the music I made felt natural to me and then I hit a wall and everything I made just felt forced and shit-sounding. Only recently have I loosened up and let things just flow rather than orchestrating every detail. To paraphrase my favourite architect Mies van der Rohe, it’s function over form. Music should have some kind of purpose to it and no matter what that is, it should come first. The form can come later. A 60-second song can convey the same fundamental message as a 4-minute song if done correctly and that, to me anyway, is the idea of music making being a natural process.
Making beats out of more than just a few seconds of one track.
This carries on from listening all the way through a record rather than the first 30 seconds or so. Madlib said he often makes beats from the whole record which means he finds value in everything the artist or group have made, which is a compliment to them but also a unique approach for most of us as producers. A beat tape’s worth of tracks from ONE album? Being open to this proposition could be just what you need and certainly something I’ll be considering in future.
Que sera, sera.
When’s Madvillainy 2 coming out? Who knows. Madlib doesn’t know and he’s cool with that. I joke that I’m impatiently waiting but I’ve given up on expectations with my favourite artists. I didn’t expect MJ to die in 2009 or Prince in 2016 but they happened. When things are ready to come out, they will. I’ve set a lot of expectations in the past and not met them only to beat myself up about it. That solves nothing and by not meeting them, nothing bad has happened. That’s why I don’t do New Year’s Resolutions anymore. And that’s why new Madlib tracks coming out of the blue fill me with such joy and excitement.
I strongly recommend you watch this video whether you need inspiration or not. Madlib is a musical treasure and a prime example of following your love of something without compromising your ideas.