Modernism might have a white visage but Madlib’s brand of
afro-modernism shouldn’t be overlooked.
Film director James Cameron once said, “People call me a perfectionist, but I’m not. I’m a rightist. I do something until it’s right, and then I move on to the next thing.” Fans of Madlib – and Dilla – will be familiar with this ideal. Perfection fuels many creatives in how they work and produce their art. But it doesn’t work for everyone. The alternative path involves relinquishing control of perfectionism, and doing what’s right until you’re ready to move on. Madlib is a paragon of this virtue.
“People call me a perfectionist, but I’m not. I’m a rightist. I do something until it’s right, and then I move on to the next thing.”James Cameron
I’m writing all of this due to obsession and inspiration. It takes you to all kinds of places; familiar and unknown. My journey landed on Madlib’s Rock Konducta, a musical menagerie of krautrock and other rock subgenres. It’s a manic ride through rock ‘n roll, offbeat instrumentation, and the occasional National Lampoon skit. But my favourite track from the whole project is Giant Okra. It starts with a mini introduction of a comedian addressing the crowd before the beat hits. The drums knock hard and complement the sample but what struck me is how every bar is different. After a while, I noticed similarities in the song to a favourite architectural piece of mine. A tenuous link to most but stay with me.
The Barcelona Pavilion was created by German architect Mies van der Rohe. It’s a famed piece built for the 1929 International Exposition held in Barcelona. Its design went onto inspire many buildings of its era and today. The pavilion’s structure was revolutionary for how its walls were placed and rooms merged into each other. No two sections were the same. Design conventions were discarded, yet nobody could deny its existence as a building. That is where I saw the similarity between the song and the building. On Giant Okra, each bar is incongruent; separated by a difference in beat, background vocals, or a change to the bass sample. But it fits together like any other hip hop beat. On the surface, the track comprises of drums over a sample. But inside, Giant Okra is so much more.
Madlib prioritises function over form, like Mies and his modernist counterparts. This is evident in his albums and his DJ sets, the latter polarising to those uninitiated in the ways of the Bad Kid. Go onto YouTube right now and look up a Madlib DJ set. When you watch it through, you’ll realise this isn’t like your standard Boiler Room set. He doesn’t play consecutive jams or mix in the professional sense. Sometimes, he doesn’t even play what constitutes as “music”. His performances are DJ sets by name only. Some people don’t know if they should move or how. When I saw him perform in 2012, I remember tweets lamenting his buzzkill DJing. Madlib has made his intentions clear before – he can do the perfect archetypal set if he wanted to, but he chooses not to. He’s a maverick with creative freedom. He plays what he wants to play and how he wants to play it. His function is to unearth music nobody hears; to educate the masses. The form is secondary. Some love it, others don’t. Modernism was also polarising in its perceived coldness and lack of ornament. Its basic premise was a rejection of its preceding social movements; the Enlightenment and indulgence of Baroque and Romanticism. Perhaps modernist order differs from Madlib’s sonic “mess” but the foundation is still the same: What do I want to achieve? Then the form will follow this principle, and not the other way around.