Written by 6:48 pm Hip Hop

Madlib, The Afro-Modernist​

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philosophy, social organization, activities of daily life, and sciences, were becoming ill-fitted to their tasks and outdated in the new economic, social, and political environment of an emerging fully industrialized world.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 myriad of 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.

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