When Madlib, one of the most respected beat-makers in hip-hop, announced his new solo album last month, he didn’t imagine he’d be grieving his most famous collaborator soon after. On New Year’s Eve, he was at home in lockdown, like music fans all over the world, staring at the internet in disbelief at the news of the death of MF Doom, one of rap’s most prodigal forces. Doom’s wife revealed on Instagram that the masked rapper had passed away two months earlier.
“I still don’t believe it,” says the producer, real name Otis Jackson Jr, from his home in Los Angeles. He described Doom as “a brother, a guy that took time to hang out, call me all the time” but also “king of the beats”, the “Muhammad Ali” of hip-hop whose rhyming skills are hugely influential. “Everybody’s still learning off of him,” he adds. He is glad his late contemporary is posthumously getting the recognition he deserves. “Last week I saw five of Doom’s albums on the top charts, and it’s sad to say but that wouldn’t happen if he was here.”
You might assume Jackson had a psychic hotline to Doom: as legend has it, they made their one album, 2004’s Madvillainy, in the same house without speaking, on magic mushrooms. That album is widely considered one of the greatest collaborations in hip-hop, two enigmatic minds whose disregard for form and embrace of experimentation inspired a generation of MCs. The last time they talked was “about a year ago” to discuss working on new music. “But we said that every year, and it never happened,” he says. “He was working hard on whatever he was doing. I was moving along over here.”
It is not the first time Jackson has lost a friend and collaborator: his kindred spirit J Dilla, with whom he’d also made an album as “Jaylib”, died in 2006 aged 32 from rare blood disease TTP and lupus. Jackson had previously likened Dilla to John Coltrane and Doom to Charlie Parker, two rebellious jazz greats, jokingly calling himself a Thelonious Monk; now he’s the only one left of this holy trinity, the no-rules beat constructors who revitalised 00s hip-hop. Speaking to this somewhat, his new album starts with a prelude called There Is No Time. “That’s why I keep moving,” he says. “Life’s too short.”
He isn’t one to pause much for reflection. The 47-year-old is known for being immensely prolific: his discography is dizzying, with dozens of albums (as himself, alias Beat Konducta, Madlib Medicine Show, for other people, or collaborations). They feverishly flip through genres and grab loops from rarities (he is said to have over four rooms’ worth of them) like he’s making the ultimate musical scrapbook, meandering from Brazilian jazz to African funk to Throbbing Gristle. The Wire magazine likened him to a “music librarian … the guardian of yesterday for the music lovers of tomorrow”.
That is why he’s still the go-to guy for a unique instrumental, the currency of hip-hop production: just ask Kanye West, Erykah Badu, Mos Def or, recently, poet, artist and activist Noname. But every time it looks as if he might nudge the mainstream, he’ll release something unexpected. His last record was 2019’s Bandana, with Indiana rapper Freddie Gibbs, the second of their widescreen gangsta rap outings, which stood tall in quality and energy above anything else that year. He’s following that with new album Sound Ancestors, an instrumental listening experience arranged by electronic musician Kieran Hebden, AKA Four Tet, that is more in line with Boards of Canada.
Partly it was the deaths of Dilla and his mother, a pianist who wrote his father’s songs, that motivated Jackson to work harder, he says, but really he’s had that mentality ever since his childhood in a rough part of the coastal town west of LA.
“I’m from Oxnard, there’s death all around. A lot of gang-banging, cousins fighting and killing each other. One’s a Blood, one’s a Crip.” He retreated into music from a young age, a self-described “black hermit” who studied his family’s record collections and spliced them into new shapes using a drum machine and a sampler.
With the help of his father, a former soul singer, Jackson signed his first rap trio Lootpack to the Stones Throw label, then launched his alter ego Quasimoto, where he would rap in a pitched-up voice, practically unrecognisable. He stopped writing rhymes after Dilla’s death, as he had done on their Champion Sound album in 2003, going on to explore other ideas such as his one-man jazz band Yesterday’s New Quintet. But he says that, to some extent, he feels a duty to keep his friend’s musical legacy alive – Sound Ancestors, for example, has a track called Two for 2 – For Dilla. “I always tag my homies when I feel something,” he adds.
The producer is as careful with words as he is with samples. He rarely gives interviews, presumably because they take up precious time: he’s laidback, but you can practically hear his toe tapping as he waits to hang up the receiver and get back to making music. Sometimes, he says, he can be in his studio for three days straight with no sleep. This has helped him achieve a mythical status; an artist who is difficult to pin down both musically and, after ditching his mobile phone years ago, physically. So it’s heartening to hear that he’s been home-schooling his kids and is on a quarantine diet. “Can’t walk out looking like Fatlib,” he quips.
All that time indoors, however, meant that he and Hebden were able to finish Sound Ancestors. The idea came about while Jackson, his right-hand man Eothen “Egon” Alapatt, Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich and Hebden were having dinner together in London around 2018, where they told Jackson he should do a solo album as Madlib, not one of his many aliases. Hebden, who had remixed Madvillainy in 2005, had an idea of how it should sound and took on the role of arranger, sorting through and ordering the vast number of snippets and ideas Jackson had sent him over several years, some of which had originally been intended for Doom.
“I said to him: ‘We should make something that’s similar to a jazz or prog-rock record,’” says Hebden over FaceTime from upstate New York. “It’s not about hip-hop or clubs,” he says of the two worlds they each come from, “it’s just about making a great album.” If you were new to Madlib and you didn’t know where to start in his vast back catalogue, Sound Ancestors gives you an immediate introduction, an exhaustive Supermarket Sweep across his crates, spanning dub, industrial, funk, krautrock, psych rock, post-punk, jazz and myriad styles that have originated from Africa and Brazil. Never jarring, it has the gleeful energy of jostling over the record player with your friends.
Hebden says he was keen to reflect his friend’s true range. “I wanted to show off all the different facets of what he does and can do. And I didn’t feel that anyone was really making a record like this. Think about DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing – no one has made a record like that in quite a while. It’s fundamentally a hip-hop record, but it sits in its own space completely.” For Jackson, he hopes it fulfils a desire he’s been harbouring for some time. “I wish people paid attention to more than just three things: Quasimoto, Madvillain and Freddie Gibbs,” he says.
The album title, meanwhile, evokes the lineage of Jackson’s inspirations from hip-hop back to ancestral rhythms, and beyond. Pitchfork’s review of Bandana said that it sounded like “Black freedom” but that’s always what Jackson’s music has been about, mapping a matrix of innovation through the eras. He sees his production style as “collecting spirits”, collaging the past into something new for the future – and when he goes into the studio, a presence does take over. “Sometimes I’m not actually doing the music, the spirit can lock into you; it’s like a meditation,” he explains. This astral travelling runs in his family, too. “My mum was deep into spiritual stuff,” he continues. “Stuff people don’t understand, beyond ghosts. I feel Dilla come around me sometimes.”
He has been interested in higher states of consciousness for some time. Shrooms with Doom, how was that? “Deep. Like, really deep,” he says. “We’d be talking about the world ending and some type of shit. We didn’t need it to connect to the music – the music came first – but it just added to it.” Jackson took psychedelics when he made his first two Quasimoto records and says he started experimenting with them “’cause of Hendrix”. He doesn’t take those drugs any more but it opened his musical third eye, adding: “If I didn’t do them, I’d probably just be doing hip-hop.”
Jackson’s propensity for shutting himself off has meant he’s forgone some big moments. He was the guy that, when Kendrick Lamar wanted his keen ear for the groundbreaking To Pimp a Butterfly, didn’t answer his phone. “Back then I was more elusive than I am now,” he says, a chuckle cracking his baritone drawl. “I was busy on my own thing. Missed opportunities, man.”
Collaborating with Lamar “probably wouldn’t have worked out anyway”, he says, “cos I’m like a sore thumb.” He’s never been in a studio properly with anyone, not even Gibbs (“we just exchanged ideas”); the only time he entertained a room full of musicians was German krautrock veterans Embryo.
He recognises Lamar’s revolutionary potential, though, and hopes that, with the year America has had, more artists like him will up the ante.
“Rap music right now should be like Public Enemy stuff, but it’s just not there,” he says. “I wish it was more like how it was in the earlier days when I was coming up. My influences. Real music. Music can teach you … things not to do. Most of the music today is telling you bad things to do. My type of hip-hop can help you grow up.”
When he looks at mainstream rap music today, he mostly doesn’t see the same. You can see why fans have long clamoured to hear Madvillainy’s rumoured follow-up. Peanut Butter Wolf, who runs Madlib’s former record label Stones Throw, said in a recent interview that Doom had told him the album was “85 per cent done”, yet Jackson isn’t so sure. Doom stalled on finishing it, he says, “probably because of the first deal on the record. That kind of ruined it. You know, record label business. What all artists go through.”
“It’s not even in a complete form,” he continues. “He didn’t add his touch to it. So it just seems like a bunch of demos to me. He finished vocals but we didn’t add other elements that made Madvillain what it was.” Whatever happens to those, he says, is “up to Stone’s Throw,” with whom he parted ways to set up his own label in 2010. “Even if I wanted to put it somewhere, I can’t put it out.” Stones Throw confirmed that the label “has the rights to any potential unreleased Madvillain project if one ever sees the light of day.”
The album has become part of hip-hop myth, and perhaps it’s better it remains that way. Jackson has long moved on to the next thing. He says that, encouraged by Dilla’s dabblings with Janet Jackson and ‘NSync – the latter never saw the light of day, but it exists, he says – he’d like to work with Alicia Keys. Or, “how you say, Adele?” But then again, maybe not. Madlib, after all, still enjoys the freedom of enigma. “That’s what I live for,” he says. “You won’t catch me on Twitter arguing with nobody. Better to be a mystery.”
Sound Ancestors is out now via Madlib Invazion.
• This article was corrected on 31 January 2021, to make clear that Oxnard is not part of metropolitan Los Angeles, and to better reflect the extent of Madlib’s prolific discography.