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Madlib Heads Back To The Future On 'Sound Ancestors'

Madlib, performing during Pitchfork Fest at Union Park in Chicago on July 19, 2015.
Daniel Boczarski
Redferns via Getty Images
Madlib, performing during Pitchfork Fest at Union Park in Chicago on July 19, 2015.

Sometimes, rumors are all we have to go by. The one about a new Madlib record, Sound Ancestors, started in late October: The British producer Kieran Hebden, better known as Four Tet, who's spent the last few months of quarantine releasing new music and excavating old tapes as part of audio-visual mixes on his YouTube page, mentioned that he and Madlib, the Los Angeles beatmaker born Otis Jackson, Jr., had been working on an album together. Confirmations of Madlib recording projects are as storied as his actual and prodigious output, often without bearing the fruit of actual music. To wit: word of his collaboration with drummer Karriem Riggins had been floating through message boards for nearly a decade before the album, Pardon My French by Jahari Massamba Unit (another note, Madlib loves messing with names and identities, and creating new artists/bands), finally dropped in Nov. 2020.

On the surface, Madlib and Four Tet, Jackson and Hebden, seemed like an odd pairing. Four Tet's electronic music arose from the turn-of-the-century's close-knit IDM and post-rock scenes to carve out its own space, his deeply melodic, globally aware techno beatitudes made him an understated dance-music hero; whereas Madlib (a.k.a. Loop Digga, a.k.a. Beat Konducta) has been popularly defined by the sample-heavy backpacker hip-hop records he made long ago for LA's Stones Throw Records as the twisted rapper Quasimoto, but also by his legendary collaborations with the producer Jay Dilla (2003's Champion Sound) and rapper MF DOOM (2004's Madvillainy), though ensuing productions for the likes of Erykah Badu, Snoop Dogg and Kanye have probably been heard by far more people.

Jackson and Hebden have actually known each other for nearly 20 years, since Madlib's first trips to London. They bonded over a lifelong love of vinyl records, which both had inherited from their parents: Otis Jackson Sr. was a soul singer of some renown (sometimes performing songs written by Madlib's mother, Dora Sinesca Faddis-Jackson, sister of trumpeter Jon Faddis), while Paul Hebden was a university sociologist by day and a record collector and trader by night. A love for all those records Madlib and Four Tet grew up around has been central to their respective, strictly independent, and assuredly beatwise careers, mixing samples and live instruments with a disregard for genre.

Reached by phone on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday, Madlib said, "Me, [Four Tet] and Floating Points [British producer/DJ Sam Shepherd, another serious record hunter], we'd always go to wine bars and just talk music. [Kieran and I] connected musically — he knows me, like I know him. We talked about [doing a record together] for years before we did it."

By mid-December, the existence of Sound Ancestors, officially billed as "music by Madlib" and "edited, arranged and mastered by Kieran Hebden," had been confirmed, in the form of a pre-release single. The gorgeous "Road of the Lonely Ones" is a chopped and crisply EQ'd psychedelic soul tune, built on the enchanting four-part harmonies of a Philly group called The Ethics (specifically, their heartbreaking self-interrogation, "Lost in a Lonely World"), with martial drums evoke the hard tumble of the title's road. Sensorially, "Lonely Ones" at once addressed the familiar and hidden sound of crate-digging hip-hop producers, recontextualizing late-'60s/early-'70s textures of rare grooves and psyche-rock fantasias; yet also plugging into 2020's emotional weariness, debuting in a psychic public space urgently in need of care. It was a pitch-perfect preview of an album whose drawn-out birth — along with Eothen "Egon" Alapatt, of Now-Again Records, who helps run the Madlib Invazion label — masked the fact that the timing of its release now felt almost pre-ordained,

"To have a big bold record like this, in a time when everything is sort of fragile and rundown, feels like a very good thing to be doing," Hebden says, when reached via Zoom at his home in Upstate New York.

There are times when one hopes something will turn out to be a rumor, then is sadly confirmed. That was the case on the afternoon of Dec. 31, when news broke that 49-year-old Daniel Dumile, the man who wore the mask of rap paladin MF DOOM had passed away – had actually done so two months prior – with no cause of death given. In the countless succeeding tributes to an artist that Q-Tip of the legendary A Tribe Called Quest eulogized as "your favorite rapper's rapper," many of whom once again raised Madvillainy as Exhibit A of the kind of great indie hip-hop that rarely gets made nowadays. The delay in the announcement of DOOM's death was portrayed as one more mystery perpetrated by an artist whose disguise was commonly interpreted as obscurantism, ignoring its truth-telling purpose. It was an easy media narrative, requiring no proof to bridge the gulf between public and private lives, especially of subjects who have not opened themselves to social media's glare.

Besides the fabled Madvillainy, this was another thing that Madlib and DOOM shared. In the press, Jackson also gets tagged as "elusive" and "mysterious," but he's actually nothing of the sort. Outside the socials, Madlib is easy to find – using the same studio spaces for years – and, when you do locate him, is friendly and forthright. He just isn't a man of many words, either to the media or, as he told Jeff Mao in 2016, "in front of my friends even." When I was trying to set up our interview, both Egon Alapatt and Hebden laughed that one of Madlib's pre-release requirements for Sound Ancestors was that he not have to do press. I'm glad I insisted, because speaking about his relationship with DOOM, even in his own short manner, unearthed a layer of feeling about all of Jackson's work.

Piotr Orlov, NPR Music: Did you know that DOOM had passed away?

Madlib: "No. I found out when everybody else did, on social media. His family's very private, so they probably didn't know how to approach that one. I still can't believe that he died. That's weird."

Had the two of you been in touch?

"We talked like once or twice a year, but that's how it's always been. We talked last year and everything seemed fine."

Did you continue to trade beats, trade music, talk shop, or just...?

"It was mostly me sending him beats, he rarely sent me stuff. But yeah we checked in, whether it was music or not, talking about our kids or whatever."

I ask because I didn't know whether you had continued a close friendship or not. But also because of his passing, people are again talking about this album you made with him — and one you made with Dilla, records that came out within months of one another and...

"That's crazy. And now they're gone."

Yeah. Do you think about that? About mortality...?

"All the time. [pause] I'm not promised nothing. That's probably why I work so hard, and then try to spend time with my family. You know, I've always been like that though, at least since my mother passed four, five years ago. I have been seeing it since I was young, with cousins and stuff. So I've always thought about it. That's why I try to live to the fullest. I've been doing that."

For many, Dumille's passing was the sun setting on a halcyon age for a certain kind of hip-hop, an end to certain musical potentialities. Yet anyone familiar with the enormity of DOOM's output — and Madlib's and Dilla's — could recognize this as fallacy. There are dozens (if not hundreds or thousands) of hours of their recordings still out there, because of the flowing, tireless ways that each created, editors be damned; except that their quality is evaluated by subcultural grand juries rather than added to the popular canon. Sound Ancestors was almost implicitly created to counter both of these notions.

Here's Madlib, who never stopped working, still making heady, cut-up, narrative, ancient-to-the-future producer music that he and his colleagues turned into an artform; and here's Four Tet, working as his loyal editor ("I work with people that I trust, I like their musical taste and what they do," Jackson said when asked about the pairing), tweaking, organizing and even A&R'ing that enormous output into a focused "big album." This had been their idea all along. The circumstances have only elevated the occasion.

"When we heard about [DOOM's passing], it was all completely shocking," says Hebden. "Like maybe we just need to put everything on pause for a bit. But maybe [releasing Sound Ancestors] could be quite a positive thing to happen in the middle of it. You know, Dilla's gone, DOOM's gone, but Otis [Madlib] is hanging in there, going strong and not giving up. He's actually got this new album coming out and continuing to keep the spirit of all that music, that whole style where the three of them do feel like this sort of magical superpowered trinity."

Then there are the rumors one knows to be true and worthy of celebrating, and wishing that more people would acknowledge it as such The one about Madlib's uncertain place in the hip-hop canon was, essentially, the seed for Sound Ancestors.

After years of remaining in a workaholic lane of his own making, of keeping an incessant pace ("I usually wake up and start, sleep maybe three, four hours a night"); pulling himself in a multitude of directions ("jazz for four hours, then hip-hop or do electronic music for a few... I don't organize, I do everything at once"); releasing only a fraction of his prolific productions (most often in thematic small-batch beat tapes, or, recently, as tracks for the rapper Freddie Gibbs) on the Madlib Invazion label — after all of that, Four Tet proposed a different kind of project. Why not make a "big, bold" album that encompassed the breadth of Madlib's work, one that mixed the sample-based collages, the hip-hop beats, solo jazz miniatures, all without the distraction of guests or vocalists, updating his legacy and impact for a new era?

Madlib, left, and his colleague, J-Rocc, digging for records in 2009.
PYMCA / Universal Images Group via Getty
Universal Images Group via Getty
Madlib, left, and his colleague, J-Rocc, digging for records in 2009.

"I was silently putting pressure on him," says Hebden, "because there isn't an equivalent [of his classic records] at the moment, which clearly had such an impact on me and were sort of game-changers. He could do something unique, like a really amazing instrumental hip-hop album out that was more of a listening experience." Initially, Madlib, used to firing off flurries of short tracks, was dubious — "One of the first conversations we had," remembers Hebden,"he said something like 'who wants to listen to a four-minute version of one of these beats? This whole thing's crazy.' " — but soon enough he was game. Their discussion about sound first gravitated towards Madlib's love of fusion and conceptual, more experimental jazz textures. But, of course, when Hebden began receiving piles of tracks from Jackson — Madlib's collaborative modus operandi is, essentially, the data dump — he found quite a few with vocal samples, including "Road of the Lonely Ones." "That sort of changed the mood and the dynamic. So even though there was still going to be no featured vocalists, we could have these sort of poppy singles with vocal hooks."

It would not be misleading to say that the final result of Sound Ancestors has a catchy immediacy reminiscent of Dilla's Donuts ("Two For 2 - For Dilla," a soulful funky-drummer dubbed-out cut-up diptych, name-checks him specifically), or of DJ Shadow's less heralded Endtroducing follow-up, The Private Press. It is a belated song-oriented response to an illustrious era, when agglomerate loop-digging and beat-flipping became long-form worldviews from a record crate's perspective. Yet Ancestors is nothing like either, its pieces reflecting the eccentricities of its creators: Madlib's love for '60s rock textures as funk elements, of genre juxtapositions and oral traditions, his sense of humor, and love of mixing vibes and energies. The album is also directly influenced by Hebden's editor's nous, which seems to have conceptualized something at once grander and less linear than Madlib would have done himself. ("My Teo," Madlib called him, quickly adding, "I'm not saying I'm Miles.") New-age keyboards and synths are joined by Farfisas; gongs and bells, cymbal rides and brushes invoke a spiritual space; deep-in-the-mix record scratches and vocal snippets bring the texture. It's not chopped, but flowing.

Some of Sound Ancestors gets wonderfully odd: The title track connects gamelan to the amorphous freedoms of Madlib's one-man jazz "ensemble" Yesterdays New Quintet; a stormy vista of percussion and bass making the sketch while a flute weaves colors in-and-around. "Loose Goose" is a funky, uninhibited piece, constructed out of a panoply of language-bending voices (Snoop Dogg, a dub dee-jay and a Tiger Mountain-era Eno soundalike among them), plus clarinets and marching-band drums. Far more often on Ancestors, though, what's out front has an unlikely "pop" feel. "The Call" is built around the thumping electric bass and the organ of a mid-'60s Australian garage-rock band. The back-to-back "Dirtknock" and "Hopprock" are variations on a kind of driving post-punk guitar line, the former accompanying the voice of Young Marble Giants' Alison Statton, the latter littered with vocal spectres darting between the picked strings. And though the closing song, "Duumbiyay," is primarily a child's voice sing-song intoning the track's title, accompanied by layers of percussion and a single tonal instrument (is it... a piano?) arranged to mirror the voice's cadences, the result is a wonderful jazz-scat breakdown.

The nerdy technicalities and details of this project will likely remain shrouded, though. Not simply by design, but by the requirements of contemporary musical legality. Madlib told me that nowadays he regularly receives pre-cleared pieces of music from "sample-makers." ("I have to. I've been getting sued too much [because] everybody explains what you use on social media — that kind of ruined it.") While Hebden claims that beside listening to the bundles of music, cutting and pasting, his only sonic contribution to Sound Ancestors was, "I turned the treble up." Jackson disagrees: "He added his mojo to it — and new instruments." But how Madlib does what he does remains a rumor even to Four Tet. "I have no idea how he made the music on the record or what equipment he used. I don't know anything about his studio situation. I didn't even think about it." And Madlib's answer goes straight for the metaphysical. "Spirits come into play when you do a certain type of music; sometimes I'm not even doing the music, sometimes that's just sound ancestors. That is what I mean by that." Communing with the ghosts set to vinyl discs and re-dreamed into life, making a future out of pieces of history.

And more rumors.

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