Madlib was wine drunk at MoMA PS1 in New York City this past weekend. He made a rare public appearance with Freddie Gibbs to celebrate the release of their long-awaited album Bandana, and he was having a ball. He rocked back and forth and spun records both old and new, including songs by Westside Gunn and the late Mac Miller. Madlib's ear for loops—brief sequences of songs repeated over and over again—kept 500 rain-kissed patrons enchanted without his uttering a word.
When you consider that Madlib owns at least four tons of vinyl records—you read that right: literal tons of records—the veteran producer's enchanting aura and penchant for otherworldly loops should make sense.
During a 2013 interview with Radio France, the Oxnard, California native revealed that he has four separate rooms in his house dedicated to the mountains of wax he's collected over the years for his listening and sampling pleasure. He flits his fingers with poise while letting his selections spin on the table, focusing on the grooves of the record as much as the notes coming from the speakers.
If there's any producer, who understands why a sampled loop can be worth a thousand words, it's the Almighty Loop Digga. For Madlib, every scrap of sound—from jazz and R&B to Melvin Van Peebles and Ethiopian vocalist Mayalew Lesfin—is a fixed moment from the past waiting to give you the stank face in the future.
That kind of ear doesn't just emerge fully formed from the ether.
Born Otis Jackson Jr., Madlib spent his childhood in Oxnard, an area littered with gang activity that kept him indoors. Inspired by Sun Ra and Dr. Dre in equal measure, Madlib spent hours sifting through the record collection of his session musician father, Otis Jackson Sr. He would even use the tips of pens as makeshift record needles, scratching away for just a peek at the music hiding within the grooves. The ingenuity jumped out early.
“My pop’s crate was my first record crate” —Madlib, "Madlib Talks Sampling, J Dilla, Freddie Gibbs, & More"
Madlib's tinkerer's spirit eventually led him to rap production. Early work with California groups like the Lootpack and The Alkaholiks helped him build a platform on which he would put his refined musical ear to good use. Madlib's sampling style grabs at the thesis of a song, letting the essence of the loop dictate the song's path. It's a simple but effective strategy that hits the ears and the heart with all the BPMs they can handle.
In other words, Madlib knows how to pick out the perfect musical loop. There are the sped-up guitar strums from Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery's “Mellow Mood” that linger over Quasimoto's tale of foolproof robbery on “Low Class Conspiracy”; the echoing synths from Lata Mangeshkar's “Do Joot Jiye Ek Sach Ke Liye,” which are used to chandelier what sounds like a menacing dance off on Beat Konducta 3 + 4: In India staple “Movie Finale”; and the distorted vocals and drum break from Busta Rhymes' “Still Shining,” which provides the thump for the Lootpack classic “Hityawitdat.” The Digga himself expertly selects all of these.
All told, there's a warmth to the fragments of time that Madlib plucks from musical history that become even warmer when exposed to his analog kicks and drums. These flourishes genuinely come alive on his two most critically lauded projects to date: Madvillainy with fellow rap oddball MF DOOM and Bandana with native son to Gary, Indiana, Freddie Gibbs.
As Madvillain, Madlib and DOOM act as a larger than life duo on a trip through surreal flights of fancy. A hazy instrumental and old film audio about gangster folk heroes set the stage for something sinister. The first loop Madlib chooses to make his statement? An accordion solo ripped from Daedalus' song “Experience.” It shouldn't work, but the Loop Digga's ambitions know no bounds, and his cohort bravely follows him down the rabbit hole:
“Living off borrowed time, the clock tick faster / That'd be the hour they knock the slick blaster / Dick Dastardly and Muttley with sick laughter / A gunfight and they come to cut the mixmaster” —MF DOOM, “Accordion”
“Raid” bounces by on a bed of piano key stabs fit for an MC who's “been rippin' flows since New York plates was ghetto yellow,” while guitar strings slink across the tops of drum breaks on both “America’s Most Blunted” and “Figaro.” Madlib's beats on Madvillainy are smoky enough to leave a thick haze in any nightclub, which inspires DOOM to eschew directions and zig where Madlib zags. It's an album entrenched in itself, a neo-noir mystery turned inside out and rooted with loops drenched in Sarsaparilla water.
While Madlib matches DOOM's zany energy, his work with Freddie Gibbs brings vibes of a different vintage. Their 2014 debut Piñata dealt in the bold anti-heroics and late-night regrets of blaxploitation film while its follow-up, Bandana, is thematically unshackled. Madlib's ear for perfect loops is as sharp as ever, but the singularity birthed by his team up with a vivid storyteller like Gibbs radiates more sinister energy.
On Bandana, the duo pulls one another into their respective worlds, resulting in a project that is unlike anything we've heard from the pairing prior. Madlib plucks the strobing synths from Frank Dukes' “Gregorian” and decorates them with stuttering 808s that blip in the night sky on the first half of “Half Manne Half Cocaine” before a beat switch descends into a pit of gravelly guitar twang. A gossamer vocal loop from The Sylvers' “Cry of a Dreamer” takes a soak in the blacklight funk of “Palmolive.” Both “Cataracts” and the second half of “Fake Names”—which samples a different portion of “Cry of a River”—present sunny soul arrangements as is, all the more for Gibbs to detail stories of rolled Backwoods and “Livin' la vida broke-a.”
Four beat switches shift the mood dramatically across the length of Bandana; Gibbs' charisma and a newfound sense of purpose following four months locked in an Austrian prison in 2016 tinge the madcap enthusiasm embedded within the production. In fact, Gibbs claims that Madlib's beats left such an impression, he could “see” them while writing away in prison. Madlib and Freddie Gibbs together is nothing if not an example of Black steel sharpening Black steel.
Madlib is a brand of musical wanderlust that has borne fruit eaten by at least two generations of producers. It's what drew Mac Miller close enough to craft a clandestine EP. It's what beatmakers from Flying Lotus and Kanye West to Ohbliv and Knxwledge see in between the grooves of his records. It's the reason why pockets of the internet stop whenever his beats surface. It doesn't matter if Madlib makes his beats on an iPad or an MPC—his voice cuts through the clatter of any machine. His ear for loops transports us to worlds unknown, like his beloved Sun Ra before him.
For that, I'm eternally grateful. In the Loop Digga, I trust.