Hip Hop

Madlib, The Afro-Modernist​


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 - Rock Konducta Part 2
Madlib – Rock Konducta Part 2

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.

Barcelona Pavilion
The Barcelona Pavilion

But Madlib isn’t a modernist in the purest sense. A description of the philosophy states:

Modernism, in general, includes the activities and creations of those who felt the traditional forms of art, architecture, literature, religious faith, philosophy, social organization, activities of daily life, and sciences, were becoming ill-fitted to their tasks and outdated in the new economic, social, and political environment of an emerging fully industrialized world.

Taken from Modernism on Wikipedia.

Primitivism was also a hallmark of modernist thinking. While it was a controversial and often racist trope underlining many works of art, Madlib’s style isn’t. The primitive functions of his music come from his tools: vinyl, synthesizers, and drum machines. The older and dirtier the better. Music is raw and completed “as is”, put straight to CD or cassette. There is no “polish” to his music, at least not in the commercial sense.

And that’s why he stands out from the crowd. It also shows in his inspirations: Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, and Sun Ra some of the musicians he has sourced over the years noted for their acclaimed experimentation. But of those three, Sun Ra has had the most influence.

Sun Ra
Sun Ra

Born Herman Poole Blount in 1914, Sun Ra created a cosmic persona shrouded in mystery. His music drew from every aspect of jazz and avant garde music until his death in 1993. The term “afrofuturism” may have been created in 1994, but Sun Ra was one of the first pioneers. Madlib has cemented his place in that history with similar traits: his numerous nom de plumes, his unique takes on jazz music, and a firm root in blackness.

It’s no coincidence that he chose Sun Ra as a resonant brother. He was born into a jazz family, playing with iconic musicians of their time. In telling his own stories, Madlib has created a museum’s worth of music. I don’t mean that in the literal sense, although a Museum of Modern Madlib would be magnificent.

Picture yourself in a modern art museum, walking through corridors on many floors. You might start with the late 19th century as it turns into the early 20th. Each decade provides a new movement until you come full circle with neo-this and late-that. It’s as if Madlib has picked cues from each room and sprinkled them over his work over the past three decades. Moments of surrealism, dadaismexpressionism, and minimalism.

His interviews are minimal. There are no grandiose statements, no hyperbole, no lies. Everything is concise and true. Mumbles and monosyllabic ripostes are how he and Dilla communicated and from that, we got Champion Sound. He is the embodiment of  “less is more”.

But I won’t be ending this on a cliché. Otis Jackson Jr. is not a saviour of a past philosophy. His creativity isn’t so rigid or structured in that way. Modern figures like Virgil Abloh have expressed admiration for van der Rohe and while his work conveys that inspiration, its commercial integration is so strong, it feels like a postmodernist illusion. The “less” seems too manufactured. Madlib’s doesn’t. It’s as raw and organic as you’ll ever find in a dusty bomb shelter in California. Madlib has been likened to an archivist or custodian of the music he makes.

Philosopher Marshall Berman wrote that modernism gave people “the power to change the world that is changing them, to make their way through the maelstrom and make it their own”. If that isn’t a perfect description of Madlib, I don’t know what is.

Hi, it's Luke, the editor of Sampleface! Why not subscribe to my Patreon and support the blog?

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