Today is Madlib’s birthday. Here’s why I love his music and personality so much.
In the mid-to-late 00s, I discovered a compilation by Zero 7. It was part of Late Night Tales’ mix series (then called Another Late Night) and it featured a song called Real Eyes by Quasimoto. I found it intriguing for many reasons but it took a few years before I discovered the high pitched voice was actually Madlib. This was my first exposure to the quiet genius and I fell in love before I even knew who he really was. But I’ve never known who he really was and many don’t. That’s all part of the charm.
Otis Jackson Jr. was born on this day in 1973. In his own words, he is a DJ first, producer second, MC third. He’s also an understated musical autodidact. When started to find my feet in music production, I used Madlib as a stylistic inspiration for my first album, Addicted. The lo-fi sound, the style of beat, the choice of samples, all in an attempt to emulate what he did. Any producer reading will empathise with this kind of direction but eventually you move on and find your own sound. It took me a few years and a few creative ruts but Madlib and his music remain a signpost when I need them.
But why? What’s so special about him? Some people don’t get it. I wrote a review of his Medicine Show gig with DOOM in 2012 and I remember seeing someone criticise his DJing on Twitter. They were actually writing the tweet at the show. I was angry, as a fan would be, but also proud and intrigued by his performance because I understood it just wasn’t for them. That’s one of the things I love about Madlib. He doesn’t do anything for others or on anyone else’s time. He puts out music that represents him and what he loves when he wants to put it out. How many of us can say that about our work? It took me a long time to embrace that freedom and I still haven’t captured it fully.
There’s also the rawness of his craft. You could never call Madlib’s projects “polished”, at least not in the professional audio sense. Compression is heavy, skits are frequent and sometimes halfway through tracks, vinyl crackle is almost guaranteed. Madlib said in an RBMA interview how much his father’s records influenced his childhood and his work and I believe he carried those artefacts forward. I’d been a fan of his for about 10 years before I saw that interview and it gave me the biggest boost. That’s what your faves should do. He tells HIS story and nobody else’s through his music. The iconic photograph of him in the Bombshelter surrounded by piles of records sums the man up. And yet it probably doesn’t even come close.
Which brings me to another reason why I love Madlib so much. I can relate to his personality. It’s a cliché, but he lets his music do the talking when he isn’t. But when he does speak, he does so succinctly and to the point. Madlib is not one for hyperbole. In this day and age, even outside the hip hop circle, that’s a breath of fresh air. Some may find it strange in the cult of extroversion but saying less means you have to stop and listen more. And listening is a key skill when it comes to Madlib’s output. If you don’t, you’ll miss a sample (which is funny because Madlib has to Shazam his own songs to find his samples sometimes).
So that’s uniqueness, style, storytelling, and personality. I reckon I can fit another couple of reasons. The next one is versatility. Madlib has worked with the biggest names in rap – underground and mainstream. Many don’t get the opportunity or have the skills to flow between the two but he has that. His music is open enough to cater to artists of many styles without compromising his technique or ability and I love that about him.
Finally (not really “finally” but I’ve got to end this article at some point), there’s his breadth of work. It’s not close to, say Knxwledge, but between his work as Madlib, Quasimoto, Yesterdays New Quintet, DJ Rels, collab projects like Madvillain, Jaylib, MadGibbs, Lootpack, and Jackson Conti amongst others, he’s made a lot of music. It stands to reason given his ridiculous collection of records. His well can never run dry and he’s certainly sitting on tracks and beat tapes we’ve never heard. My favourite artists have expansive catalogues and it’s always a joy to hear “new” songs, even if they were recorded decades ago. They carry excitement regardless of age and that’s the sign of a true genius in my eyes.
Like I alluded to earlier, some people don’t understand what Madlib is putting out. But criticisms are in short supply when the plus column is so diverse. Madlib is an artist who moves to his own beat. He shares an artistic grace with someone like Basquiat (without the pursuit of fame). And yet that comparison seems stiff and tired because Madlib is simply Madlib. And I love him for that.