Cover Story: Madlib (ft.DOOM)

To mark a month since we launched our new site we’re throwing the ultimate #tbt publishing our Madlib Madvillainy interview, together with the audio available to stream or download via WeTransfer, for the first time ever online.

Interview: kidkanevil
Photo: Jimmy Mould
Illustration: HeyBigMan

Is there any artist in hip-hop that is more eulogised than Madlib? The consummate beat conductor, the man has been notoriously press-shy throughout his career, only perpetuating the myth that surrounds him. With classic beat tapes and albums running through a vast discography spanning hip-hop, jazz, house and rock, it’s difficult to know where to start when talking about him, let alone talking to him in person.

We were fortunate enough to be granted time with Madlib, and just to add to the occasion, we were graced by an impromptu visit from an extra special guest; the masked villain himself DOOM.

Let’s start at the beginning; what’s the deal with that Lootpack Toyota video?

My father hooked that up. That’s embarrassing (laughs). That’s when I was trying to be like Pete Rock on the beats. My pops hooked that up and it was shown locally, everybody was laughing and shit.

How do you feel about your work with Lootpack at this point in your career?

I can’t even listen to it. The raps and some of the beats. It’s totally different now.

It’s such a crazy progression and journey from there to where you are now, especially your transition from sample based production to live instrumentation.

In my Lootpack and Quasimoto days I was just trying to put out records that show the progression of each year on my own, to show that anyone could do that.

When did you first get a sampler and make that jump from collecting to making music?

I’ve always had records around me. My pops had a big collection and my grandparents. I be known to just sit down and listen to records for hours when I was three, then I got my first little sampler when I was eight or nine and played around speeding the record up. I still have tapes from them days. My sister was rapping and I was making the beats. We were trying to be like Run DMC.

When did the Yesterday’s New Quintet project start to come about?

I got more serious about it right after Lootpack, I wanted to try something different. I was tired and wanted to leave the group. I took off (from) hip-hop for about a year and started trying to play live music and then (Peanut Butter) Wolf ended up hearing some things and wanted to put it out. I didn’t really want to put it out back then. It’s the beginnings of me trying to play an instrument, you know what I mean?

Peanut Butter Wolf is a pretty important figure in your career.

Yeah he’s adventurous, he gets tired of things real quick and wants to try new things like I do. I used to live with him and Egon, every time I recorded something he’d be in there trying to put everything out. (It) Needs a little quality control (laughs). I just do my work and he chooses what he wants. I’m also trying to do my own thing (Madlib Invazion Records).

What was working with Freddie Gibbs like compared to DOOM? Feels kind of funny to ask that now DOOM just walked in (laughs).

DOOM: (laughs) I’m just a fly on the wall.

M: He (DOOM) was at the Stones Throw house and we just connected. I just handed him beats or he’d be in a different studio writing rhymes or whatever. With Gibbs I just sent beats to him and he did his thing over there and sent stuff back. But we (DOOM) actually worked together.

D: It was pretty much organic the way we did it. O (Otis) would be writing downstairs in the bomb shelter, doing the beats or whatever and just come up with a CD. And I’ll hear that and start writing on it and he’s on the next batch of beats right then, it was like a conveyor belt of creativity. We got (the) songs done pretty quick. The first Madvillain record was like as soon as I hear something I write to it. He had a fresh batch of beats that he was doing while I was writing the other one, so it was like ‘bang, bang’. I think that’s something that comes across in how it (Madvilliany) sounds and why it’s such a popular record.

DOOM – “It (Madvillain) was pretty much organic the way we did it. O would be writing down stairs in the bomb shelter doing the beats or whatever and just come up with a CD… it was like a conveyor belt of creativity.”

What’s up with Madvillainy 2?

M: We got some songs (laughs).

D: I mean we got a lot of it done already, part of that’s why we’re meeting up now to discuss some of that. It’s in effect but it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when.

M: Can’t rush with this kind of thing, especially after the first one.

D: It’s the follow up, without over thinking it though, it’s a continuation, ain’t gotta’ be better or worse. Where y’all last left off at, next episode. We got a lot of songs done. Two or three more songs and it’s wrapped up.

What work are you most proud of?

M: Probably Madvillain and Jaylib. And Quasimoto.

How was the experience of making Jaylib?

M: We’d started on the second one before he (Dilla) died. I was hanging out with him even when he was sick, just beat digging or whatever, take him around and go to clubs and stuff. He had all types of stuff, I don’t know if it’ll (the music will) come out but he had all different types of stuff, like we all do.

You had a pretty special connection.

M: We were musical cousins, like-minded. We weren’t telling each other what to do, (we were) probably drinking and hanging out (laughs).

D: Like ‘yo’ you got a blunt?’ (laughs) It’s almost like telepathy was going on when we’re doing a record, it’s natural.

Do you guys usually get high when you make music? Weededed?

M: I get high or I do stuff sober it don’t matter. I got so much weed in me from smoking throughout the years anyway. (laughs)

A lot of producers, even legendary ones like Premo and Pete Rock, have a certain method and way of working, whereas yourself and Dilla seem to constantly change your processes?

I don’t think about it, it’s just natural whatever happens. I don’t sit there and say ‘I better change up, I gotta’ do this and that’. It doesn’t matter. It just matters how it sounds in the end.

You’re a family man now, how do you find that balance?

I work at my house and I also have a studio. If I need to be alone to work I’ll go to the studio, but sometimes I’ll work at the crib, my kids know not to mess with me. I balance it out as well as I can, but doing music constantly (it can be difficult). But they’re picking up on it and they want to try to do it, taking musical classes and stuff.

I heard at one point you were only sleeping an hour a night…

Still, it’s still like that. Sometimes I’ll work for three days in a row, do a couple of albums, and then I may not work on music again for like a month, or I may just work for a month like 12 till 12. There’s no set thing. Or I may take a year off and just listen to music to absorb it, and then go back to it, there’s no set thing for me. I think I have insomnia though (laughs). When I’m on the road I get to sleep because I can’t do any music, but when I’m at home it’s like I work all the time.

Madlib: “I get high or I do stuff sober it don’t matter. I got so much weed in me from smoking throughout the years anyway.”

You’re so recognized as a producer, do you think you’re overlooked as an MC?

I’m not an MC. I don’t like rapping. I’ve never liked rapping. That’s the last thing I like to do. I’m a beat dude. Just Quasimoto (raps).

Is Lord Quas a character to you, a friend, or a part of who you are?

I don’t think about it like that, I don’t like my voice so that’s why I did that (Quasimoto’s The Unseen and The Further Adventures of Lord Quas) album(s). I just think of it as a story. I try to get as zoned out as I can, get as crazy with the music as I can, talk crazy. I had to rap like ‘Qua-si-mo-to’. It’s hard to do, to stay on the beat too. I like it, it’s challenging.

Sunrays is one of my favorite tracks of yours.

Wow thank you, thank you son, you’re probably spiritual nah mean. Me and Kankick used to bump the original to that all the time. We’d trade ideas and stuff, I have a lot of unreleased Kankick, and before Dilla died we’d be trading things too. He (Dilla) got influenced by some of the things I was doing when he did Donuts, and I took some of his ideas and did some other things, Beat Konducta stuff. Sharing crates, I gave him the Lightworks sample and he gave me couple joints. I heard the whole process, every time he’d do a few beats he’d hand them to me and I didn’t know it’d be an album. I thought it was just beat tape stuff. Every week I’d hear different ones that made Donuts, I was like ‘oh shit he’s doing something different.’

You, Dilla and Kankick really pioneered the idea of the beat tape as an album, how do you feel about being such a strong influence on a new generation really running with that format?

It’s cool man, that’s how it’s supposed to be. Sometimes you don’t want to hear a rapper; sometimes you just want to hear beats. Tell stories with beats.

Are there any new MCs and beatmakers that resonate with you guys?

D: I don’t listen to a lot of the stuff that’s popular right now. I listen to Madvillain, that’s the shit (laughs). I don’t listen to too many MCs, I mean Odd Future doing they thing, couple guys. I’m producing Bishop Nehru’s new EP matter of fact.

M: Gangsta (Freddie) Gibbs.

You’re known to be quite a reclusive person, how does that have a bearing on your performances and DJ sets?

I don’t really like to be out in front like that. I’m a background type of person, a studio guy, but I gotta’ come out on the road to meet some of the fans and things. I like meeting the fans though it’s cool. I just freestyle shows, I don’t have a set thing.

It’s almost like coming to your yard or whatever and just hearing you play some music, whatever you’re listening to at that time.

Right, right, sit and listen to some music. Some people don’t get that, but it’s not for everybody.

As we’re in London, I wanted to ask you about DJ Rels.

Yeah, I was influenced by the West London sound; I always used to hang with them dudes at Plastic People and stuff, Dego (Dennis “Dego” McFarlane, of 4hero) and all them dudes. Some people don’t even know that’s me, that’s funny, I like that.

Madlib – “Sometimes you don’t want to hear a rapper; sometimes you just want to hear beats. Tell stories with beats.”

A lot of your music is so raw, how deliberate is that?

M: I’m a first take type of guy, once I do something I don’t really clean it up, I leave it how it is. I don’t polish my shit, I leave it raw. I always want to do it my way, I’ll leave that to technical dudes, I don’t do that.

D: I got into that after dealing with this dude, what I was getting from him was like you said, raw and the way it was, was the way it was.

M: Operation Doomsday was raw though; I love it. That influenced me too!

D: Yeah I’m used to working like that so it wasn’t hard for me to work with him and the spontaneity. For instance, Fancy Clown, I love that song. Now the beat was already arranged like that so I had to write around what he had there, so he had the chorus and kind of everything in there and I had to make up a concept around it, like ‘what is this gonna’ mean?’ And I wrote Fancy Clown around that, based on the original record; I’m not sure where it was from?

M: Oh, you’re taking about the loop? The loop was ZZ Hill.

D: ZZ Hill? That shit is ill. So the chorus is already there, so I wrote the whole story around the arrangement. The beat was already in the middle, the verses space were there, you left the spaces there for me, it’s almost like the instrumental was made first and it was already as it is. So yeah, spontaneity I learned from this guy, to really hone in on that. I was doing it before but he reminded me.

M: Back this way too; we all get different things from each other. (A waitress delivers to the table) I did not know you eat oysters.

D: It tastes just like pussy that’s why.

M: No calories (laughs).

How do you feel about genre? For some people it’s a restrictive concept, but you seem to relish working in that sort of framework, like the hip-hop or jazz or psychedelic stuff.

M: I just like so many different types of music and I get bored easy just listening to one thing, I like to listen to a lot of things.

D: Sometimes I gotta’ leave everything alone and listen to how the old timers did their joints. Their methods of writing, you can appreciate that. Whether it’s soul or improv’ jazz, there’s still a story that’s told. When you can tap into that, it gives me new ideas and invigorates what I’m doing. But I gotta’ take that break to absorb. It’s similar to breathing. When you inhale, you gotta’ exhale at some point. How long can you exhale before you gotta’ inhale? So those breaks when we absorb music is really the inhale period. Sometimes it last a year, sometimes it last a week, but you gotta’ take that inhale. That’s exactly how it works.

M: It’s true. Spoken by the scholar.

Could you name a couple of albums or pieces of music that are significant to you?

M: Throbbing Gristle. That’s some of the best real tight hard beats, weird sounds, they were sampling back in the 80s and 70s, weird stuff. He’s a dude but he’s a girl now, (Genesis) P-Orridge. He transformed himself into a woman. But he made some crazy ass beats.

D: There’s so many. Coltrane, My Favourite Things. The different renditions that he did. He got booed the first time he performed A Love Supreme. They (the audience) were caught off guard by what he was doing because it went against what they expected. But as we know now, it’s one of the classic compositions. I would say that is one of my favorites just off the top (of my head) but there’s so many. If I had time to think about it I could probably name like 100.

Madlib: “I get high or I do stuff sober it don’t matter. I got so much weed in me from smoking throughout the years anyway.”

What about movies? Your lyrics (DOOM) are quite cinematic.

D: I watch old movies. My thing right now is zombie movies. There’s a lot of ill background music, the story lines are very interesting to me. I’m also a sci-fi buff.

What are you working on at the moment?

M: Freddie Gibbs, Madvillain, the Beat Konducta series, a bunch of live albums with all the jazz groups and stuff, you know the same stuff. Cluster type albums, electronic programming and stuff.

I don’t listen to records when I buy records. I just look at the instruments that are played, the year and sometimes the artists that are playing on it. Sometimes you just get records to listen to, not to sample. Sometimes I won’t touch a record it’s so good.

There are a lot of UK references in the JJ DOOM album. Has the change in environment affected your work?

D: Changes are welcome; it adds a different texture that wasn’t there before. Gradually through life you go through different changes and it adds up, I don’t ever want to get stuck in just New York rap with New York kind of phrases, that’s limiting to some degree. Being this side of the pond now, the culture of London and England, the terminology that’s here, it gives me a broader base. I welcome change you know what I mean?

M: I could be in Alaska and I’m still do what I do.

D: Yeah this dude, he’s a worldwide kind of character. Meaning his record collection, I don’t want to blow up the spot on the lab, but I’ve never seen so many records from different places. And it’s all categorized; he’s a well-travelled man. Japan, Rome, Turkey, its almost like being there when you tap into it. 

What do you listen out for when you’re looking for samples?

I don’t listen to records when I buy records. I just look at the instruments that are played, the year and sometimes the artists that are playing on it. Sometimes you just get records to listen to, not to sample. Sometimes I won’t touch a record it’s so good.

As in a record too good to sample?

Right, right.

Ok, times up? Thank you both; this was really a super honor for me.

M: Right, thank you. I’ll check your beats out too.

D: All good man, catch you at one of these gigs somewhere around.

M: Ill mask right there, how many masks you have?

D: Oh man it gets mean at this point. Like I got multiple, the black one, the matt black one, the chrome one, the black chrome one, and then there’s one that like the whole mask is translucent ruby, just meanness.

This interview originally appeared in issue 09 of Bonafide, we are down to the last 10 copies of the magazine in our online store, you know what to do.

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