In this weekly feature, we’re profiling the unsung heroes of hip hop music: the producers. These musicians, responsible for creating beats, sampling and collaborating with MCs, slave away behind the scene while rappers get most (if not all) of the credit. With Behind The Boards, we’re looking to shine the spotlight on the best producers in the game.
Yesterday, Freddie Gibbs released Piñata, the weirdest album of his career. In comparison to his more straightforward, by-the-books releases (which, in their own right, are great), Piñata is a warped, stoned-out buddy comedy of an album where violins and pianos play a bigger role than trap hi-hats and brain-rattling bass. It also maintains this unique sound throughout 17 tracks, and that's thanks to Madlib, the guy who produced the entire thing. Since creeping onto the scene in the '90s with his fried and scrambled, sample-heavy production style, Madlib's been a mainstay in underground hip hop, never standing still and always embarking on some new endeavor. He describes himself as a "DJ first, producer second, and MC last," and on this edition of "Behind The Boards," we'll be focusing on that second role. Read on to follow Madlib from his days in Lootpack all the way up to the release of Piñata.
From the Crate Diggas Palace to the Lootpack
Madlib, born Otis Jackson, Jr., grew up in Oxnard, California, a city of just over 200,000. Though it's over an hour from L.A. and doesn't seem like the ideal place to begin a hip hop career, Jackson founded a studio with his friends called the Crate Diggas Palace and started collecting vinyl and making beats. His crew, calling themselves CDP after the studio, quickly attracted the attention of Tha Alkoholics, a young group who hailed from L.A. They enlisted Jackson and his friend DJ Romes (performing under the collective name Lootpack) to produce two songs on their debut album, 21 & Over. Listen to one of them, "Mary Jane," below.
A sign of many more marijuana-influenced songs to come, "Mary Jane" is propelled by a simple beat and a pastiche of samples, including Rick James' own "Mary Jane" and, towards the end, a few bars of Isaac Hayes' "Ike's Mood I." Other than the slightly jarring horn stabs that pop up once every four measures, there's nothing especially strange about the song's instrumental, but it's recognizably a product of Madlib's disdain for overly-quantized samples and love for relatively minimal compositions.
Soon thereafter, Romes and Madlib teamed up with rapper Wildchild to form the full-fledged version of Lootpack. The trio recorded a demo EP called Ill Psych Move in 1995, and Madlib's dad founded a record label, again called Crate Diggas Palace, to release the EP. It was a rough-edged collection of four tracks that saw Madlibs crafting beats sparse enough for him and Wildchild to rap like their lives depended on cramming as many syllables as possible into each bar. This EP attracted the attention of Chris Manak (AKA Peanut Butter Wolf), who was just about ready to go public with his new record label, Stone's Throw. Lootpack were some of the first artists signed to the now-legendary label, and they released their commercial debut, Soundpieces: Da Antidote on the label in 1999. An album with a panoply of off-the-wall beats and intelligent lyrics, it was basically the West Coast version of Company Flow's Funcrusher Plus (covered in last week's "Behind The Boards"). Below, hear the song "Crate Diggin'" from Soundpieces, which doubles as Madlib's manifesto on sampling.
Beginning with a beat that sounds standard enough, "Crate Diggin'" soon takes a left turn down minimal street, with a bleeping, two note loop making up the lead melody, and sitar strums and a distant howl used sparingly in the background. Madlib, the only MC on this track, spells out for us his strategy for finding dope samples, not minding dusty vinyl as long as it's capable of producing "unordinary soundin' loops." Soundpieces certainly didn't lack in that department, and it paved the way for Madlib to become Stone's Throw's go-to producer in its early days.
Hunchbacks and Mad Villains: The Stone's Throw Years
After Lootpack broke up in 2000, Madlib's next big endeavor was a solo project, though not one released under his own name. On a few of Soundpieces' tracks, he pitched his vocals up and credited his verses to Quasimoto, a misspelling of the hunchback's name in Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame. After some encouragement from P.B. Wolf and a weeklong binge on psychedelic mushrooms, Madlib emerged with The Unseen, Quasimoto's debut album. Receiving almost universal praise from critics, the album was Madlib's most successful release to date, mostly thanks to amazing, jazz-influenced production. Aside from "Jazz Cats Pt. 1," which name-checks around 50 jazz greats, "Green Power" is probably that album's jazziest cut. Stream it below.
Sampling from six separate songs, the track reflects the album's schizophrenic sound, with wildly different sonic elements cutting in and out of the mix with no warning. This is clearly Madlib at his trippiest (thanks, psilocybin), with a groovy vibraphone loop being abruptly interrupted by snippets of dialog and vocal samples. The general consensus around sampling in hip hop has always been that you try to find isolated elements of songs to piece together a clean-sounding whole, but here, Madlib seemed to throw that notion out of the window, not minding if a little background noise or vinyl crackle leaked into his recordings. Rather than sounding sloppy, it made Unseen unpredictable and nearly impossible to replicate -- the latter being a difficult task for even the most masterful producers to accomplish. The first Quasimoto release made Madlib a visible icon in the budding scene of underground L.A. hip-hop, and led to him producing for local artists like Dudley Perkins, Declaime and Cali Agents.
After remixing a couple of tracks by J Dilla's group Slum Village in 2000, Madlib linked up with Dilla for the 2003 album Jaylib, a meeting-of-the-minds-style project between the two most respected producers of jazz-influenced, off-center hip hop. Though neither artists are insanely talented lyricists, the resulting album, Champion Sound is worth having for the beats alone, most of which are mind-blowing. On it, Dilla and Madlib alternate producing and rapping, with each acting as the producer for the other's rap tracks. This approach was fun, and led to tracks like the Guilty Simpson-assisted "Strapped," produced by Madlib. Listen below.
Led by a cinematic orchestra loop, a reversed kick drum and chipmunk soul sample, "Strapped" was one of the first examples of Madlib's "car chase" sound -- that is, dramatic, driving tracks with samples that sound like they're taken from '50s TV themes. This was an approach that would be perfected on Madlib's next big collaboration: an album with mysterious Long Island rapper MF DOOM.
After contributing one track to DOOM's album Mm... Food, Madlib linked up with the masked MC for an album-length collaboration that would come to be an underground classic. Taking cues from the villains in comic books (one of whom is DOOM's namesake), the duo called themselves Madvillain and wove the concept of super villains into their one album to date, the unimpeachable Madvillainy. Already a staple of DOOM's recordings, dialog samples from old films and TV shows dominated the album's production, as did Madlib's go-to jazz samples and a whole host of other indelible sounds. Like most of the album, standout track "Figaro" is short, minimal and contains no hook. Stream it below.
Beginning with a jazz vamp (courtesy of Lonnie Smith), the track soon slips into an off-kilter, tambourine-led beat, with a distant keyboard barely audible in the background. The main focus of Madvillainy was on DOOM's reference-heavy, non-sequitur lyrics, and knowing that, Madlib acted as the Pippin to his Jordan, setting up great plays while remaining in the background for most of the album. There are exceptions, including a Quasimoto verse and two instrumental tracks, but for the most part, Madlib played a supporting role on Madvillainy. You initially came for DOOM, but stuck around because Madlib's beats kept drawing you back. Finding a home on nearly every hip hop critic's year-end list in 2004, the album became Madlib's calling card in a sea of rappers hungry for similarly unorthodox success stories.
High Profile Collaborations
After Madvillainy, things began picking up for Madlib, who started to work outside of his Stone's Throw circle. In 2006, he landed a beat on Ghostface Killah's More Fish -- a characteristically grimy-sounding banger that received the fitting title "Block Rock." Listen to the high-octane jam below.
Like many of Madlib's songs, "Block Rock" begins with a false start, a faux-disco stomp that only last a few bars. Then we're tossed into wild clangor courtesy of open hi-hats, buzzing low-end synths and a swirling organ line, all of which perfectly compliment Ghostface's strained, hyped-up rapping style. It's more chaotic and upbeat than most of Madlib's prior work, and just another indication of his impeccable ability to sculpt beats to match rappers' various styles.
During this mid-to-late 2000s period, Madlib didn't let his big-name collaborations get in the way of his roots, as he began producing for his younger brother, Oh No, as well as Stone's Throw cronies Dudley Perkins and Strong Arm Steady. In 2007, he continued his trend of album-length collaborations, producing LPs for Percee P and Talib Kweli, but his most thrilling work of that era would come from working with neo-soul queen Erykah Badu. Producing two songs on each of Badu's two New Amerykah albums, Madlib brought a cleaner-than-usual sound to the table for the albums, both released on Motown. Below, listen to "The Healer," a standout from 2008's New Amerykah, Pt. 1 (4th World War).
A partial homage to J Dilla, who passed away in 2006, "The Healer" is about as funky as it gets, with deep bass, bright bells and a distant Japanese choir making you wonder how Madlib can achieve such huge sounds from sparse instrumentals. Both of Badu's albums that he contributed to were very well-received, and Madlib employed similar production techniques (cleaner, world music-influenced beats) to Mos Def's album The Ecstatic, released the following year. By 2010, Madlib was coasting, able to collaborate with big artists without drastically altering his signature sound -- in other words, living the producer's dream.
MadGibbs and Other Recent Projects
In 2010, longtime Madlib collaborators Strong Arm Steady released their biggest album to date, In Search of Stoney Jackson, and Madlib produced all of it. This saw Madlib returning to his Stone's Throw comfort zone, churning out powerful tracks like "Best Of Times" (below).
Here, Madlib took the hi-fi, less grimy production tricks he learned in the big leagues and applied it to smaller artists' music, giving them an instant credibility boost. Apart from it's ever-so-slightly off-kilter beat, "Best Of Times" could pass for '90s track by a bigger-name rapper, with Madlib's production style beginning to seem old-school when compared with the radio-friendly hip hop of 2010. Not once has Madlib made an attempt to update his sound with outside, commercially prevailing influences, and in a hip hop landscape full of copycats and hype-seekers, that's a very uncommon trait.
This refusal to cave into modern trappings was most apparent on the just-released Piñata, as Freddie Gibbs has worked with artists like Jeezy, Juicy J and 2 Chainz who are no strangers to Billboard charts and Top 40 stations. As Gibbs himself put it, "Madlib hasn’t really worked with my type of artist before." If this felt like an obstacle when the pair began working together in 2011, Piñata bears no signs of artistic struggle, coming off as a seamless, fraternal collaboration. Below, listen to "Deeper," a string-led street parable and highlight of the album.
Piñata, more so than any previous release, proves Madlib's versatility as a producer. He can work with camera shy weirdos like DOOM, soulful songstresses like Erykah Badu, and stone cold gangsters like Gibbs without batting an eyelash or even brushing "sell out" territory. Madlib's an old soul in today's rap world -- still sampling from vinyl when everyone else is using FL Studio, insisting on producing entire albums for MCs, and being content with his place in the industry -- but he still feels as vital as ever.