Hip hop’s underground is often cited as the metaphorical promised land of the genre. A place where creativity and artistic freedom remain unfettered, with emcees and producers not having to bend their rhymes and sonic identities to whim of major label executives. The early 2000’s was a period when this was most apparent. A variety of acts were dropping straight classics at the time but for me, one album defined the artistic ambition of this period more than any other. That album was the refreshingly unconventional, yet undeniably brilliant, Madvillainy. A collaboration between two of the underground’s most enigmatic stalwarts, MF DOOM and Madlib, the project summed the two artists’ already formidable individual talents, birthing a dusty abstract sample-laden masterpiece blurring the line between hip hop and the Avant-Garde.
The origin of the album’s two architects is a rather curious tale. Originally known as Zev Love X, Daniel Dumile’s tragedy-filled background wouldn’t feel out of place as the backstory of his future namesake. Dumile was initially a member of KMD with his younger brother DJ Subroc and Onyx the Birthstone Kid and their debut album, Mr. Hood, was released in 1991 to moderate success. However, things took a turn for the worse in 1993 when Subroc was killed in a road accident before completion of their sophomore album, Black Bastards. To make matters worse, Black Bastards was shelved and Elektra Records took the decision to release KMD from their contract. This proved too much for Zev Love X, who retreated from the New York hip hop scene into obscurity. It wasn’t until 1997 that he resurfaced, frequenting open mic nights under a new masked guise: MF DOOM. He modelled his persona on Marvel Comics’ super villain Dr Doom and after releasing several singles throughout 1998, his self produced debut LP Operation: Doomsday was released to much fanfare a year later. The off kilter production and DOOM’s odd monotone cadence were unlike anything heard before and would help to cement his place as an important figure in the East Coast’s underground.
Madlib’s story is significantly less traumatic. Born and raised in the Greater Los Angeles city of Oxnard, Otis Jackson Jr is the son of two musicians. Having an accomplished bandleader as a father and a songwriter/blues guitarist as a mother gave him the perfect environment to foster his creativity and access to vinyl collections, which would result in his evergrowing interest in music production and crate digging. He formed hip hop group Lootpack with his high school friends in the early 90’s and provided production and rhymes for their debut EP “Psyche Move” in 1996, released on Crate Diggas Palace label (a venture funded by Otis Jackson Snr.). After gaining the attention of DJ and label boss Peanut Butter Wolf, Lootpack signed to Stones Throw Records and dropped their full length debut, Soundpieces: Da Antidote in 1999. Madlib followed this up a year later with “The Unseen” (under his alter ego Quasimoto), a project that caused hip hop Heads to seriously stand up and take note of his skill behind the boards.
So how did these two intriguing individuals come together to create one of the finest hip hop releases of the 2000s? Well, the details of that story were revealed by Jeff Jank, Stones Throw’s art director and man behind Madvillainy’s album art, arguably as iconic as the songs themselves. According to Jank, he was living in the same house with Madlib and Peanut Butter Wolf in Los Angeles. The house had a peculiar bomb shelter in the basement that Madlib settled in, which would become his sanctuary of production. He would create music on a consistent schedule and only leave for the occasional break. After some time working in this fashion, Madlib made the request to work with MF DOOM. The Super Villain was known to be a rather difficult fellow to track down, however Stones Throw’s then-general manager Egon was an acquaintance of someone who knew DOOM. He agreed to the collaboration and flew out to LA to begin work on the album in 2002. With DOOM being a producer himself, the recording process was organic with the pair sharing an almost telepathic understanding.
Unfortunately, the finished album almost never saw the light of day, as an unscrupulous soul decided to make the inherently flawed decision of leaking the unfinished demo onto the internet. As you can expect, DOOM and Madlib were not exactly thrilled and decided enough was enough, putting an end to the project. It took most of 2003 to convince them to complete the project and thank the Gods of Olympus that they did. The finished fruit of their labours is an LP that sounds just as fresh and game changing now as it did on its day of release, a decade ago.
When listening to Madvillainy for the first time, you’re subconsciously aware that you are in for an auditory experience considerably different to anything you have previously come across. For one, the idea of conventional song structure is completely thrown out of the window. Choruses are rare and raps are delivered in dense stream-of-consciousness verses containing DOOM’s trademark delivery and internal rhyme schemes. Tracks are short, with only 3 of the 22 songs exceeding 3 minutes in length. This all makes for a sound that would be considered hostile to the commercial radio listener but has delighted hip hop fans the world over. Highlights of the album include “Meat Grinder”, where DOOM enchants us with his coded lyrics about an encounter with a vertically challenged woman, “Strange Ways”, another stellar track where Madlib inventively sampling “Funny Ways” by British prog-rockers Gentle Giant. The haunting violin of the sample complements the lyrical subject matter, as DOOM spits two verses concerning the heavy-handedness of law enforcement and the futility of war. The album’s final track “Rhinestone Cowboy” is arguably the best. Madlib produced the beat using just an SP-303 and a portable turntable and the song is a triumphant end to an incredible album. Here, DOOM is in his most lyrically deft mood, with lines such as “Phantom of the Grand Ole Opry ask the dumb hottie” and “To have the game locked in a cage getting shocked with a pole” showing off the innovation and skill, both hallmarks of his craft.
These three tracks are personal favourites of mine, however each and every song on the album oozes audible quality. After 10 years, Madvillainy sounds as compelling as it always has and will undoubtedly remain the underground’s greatest work.