A rare encounter with Madlib

The Beat Konducta talks alien reptiles, records, cocaine pinatas and the art of mythmaking

Music Q+A
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An extended edit of the interview that first appeared in the December issue of Dazed & Confused:

Madlib, one of the most prolific producers of the last 20 years, has cooked up classics for Mos Def, DOOM, Erykah Badu, J Dilla, Lootpack and Ghostface Killah, as well as diverse solo records under aliases such as Quasimoto, the Beat Konducta and Yesterdays New Quintet. His oblique approach to sampling has influenced everyone from Flying Lotus to Thom Yorke, yet the 40-year-old reckons that the world has only heard 30 per cent of his life’s work, with the rest lying unreleased on tapes and CDs in his LA studio. Next year the Oxnard native plans to make a small but culturally significant dent in his sound archive with the February release of Pinata, a collaboration with Freddie Gibbs on his own Madlib Invazion imprint. This will be followed by Mos Def’s Zamrock-inspired new record and, if DOOM can get his act together, a sequel to 2004’s Madvillainy. The mythologised maverick rarely grants interviews, but made an exception for Dazed as he prepared for a secret London gig.

Dazed Digital: Do you see yourself as an archivist? The Alan Lomax of the crate digging generation?

Madlib: Kind of, yeah. I come from the same mind state. I want people to hear music that really wasn’t played much, that got lost in the shuffle. There was tons of music that was greater than the hits but you don’t know about it unless somebody like, like me or whoever brings it to people’s attention. You know, bringing it back to the people that didn’t hear it back then. I’m one of them, there’s hundreds of us [Laughs]. There’s a lot of young kids that I have inspired to go look for old stuff. We do it for the knowledge, for the kids. Even my kids pick up on things so I know it’s working. It’s not supposed to reach everybody but it’s supposed to reach people who want to keep music alive.

DD: Have your kids ever destroyed any really valuable records?

Madlib: They used to! A lot of records have gotten broke, like a $300 hand painted Sun Ra record! Some original copies of Axelrod...

DD: Ouch.

Madlib: By the time I get to them it’s too late, you know. They don’t understand anyway, they’ll understand when they get older when I tell them, but you just got to take it. I still keep them in my studio though, pieces of records that they’ve broken. That shit hurts, but that’s life (laughs).

DD: Can you stand back and objectively look at the impact of your music in a wider historical context?

Madlib: That’s for other people to do. I have no idea; we’ll find out later. I hope so, that’s what I meant to do. That’s how you live forever, but time will tell. Maybe I’ll get lost in the shuffle too, you never know.

DD: Have you ever been tempted to take a big cheque to produce a pop star, like Dilla did with Janet?

Madlib: Money’s cool but it’s not all about money. If it was all about money I’d be doing that other thing. But they don’t really come at me, the big cheques don’t really come, I just live comfortable.

DD: You’ve cultivated such a mythical persona – how do you think the public see you?

Madlib: Some people think I’m crazy, but I’m just a normal dude that loves music. I’m quiet, so people might think I’m a mute. I’m a hermit, people rarely see me. People can rarely get in contact with me. I barely answer my phone. I’m not tweeting much, I’m not hashtagging and all that. I don’t do selfies. J Dilla and Common called me an alien. We used to call each other aliens because we’re weird. (laughs)

DD: What kind of aliens would you classify yourselves as?

Madlib: African-American aliens.

Some people think I’m crazy, but I’m just a normal dude that loves music. I’m quiet, so people might think I’m a mute. I’m a hermit, people rarely see me. People can rarely get in contact with me. I barely answer my phone. I’m not tweeting much, I’m not hashtagging and all that. I don’t do selfies.

DD: You’re a fan of David Icke’s book The Biggest Secret. Do alien reptiles run the world?

Madlib: Probably. With all this new technology, there’s no way it can move that fast. I think we’re among them, we just don’t know it. There’s different aliens, you know?

DD: Is there a chance of getting you and David Icke together to do a record? I’ve got the band name sorted: Mad Icke.

Madlib: (laughs) That would be crazy. Let him do some poetry over my stuff, get him to read some pages. Different sounds, from electronic to dirty records. That would be dope.

DD: Madlib are you a conspiracy theorist?

Madlib: Kind of, half and half.

DD: So, what’s your favourite conspiracy theory of all time?

Madlib: That’s the biggest secret. I know certain things I can’t talk about. I know a lot of things that I’ll get in trouble talking about.

DD: Do I need to know a special ILLUMINATI handshake?

Madlib: (laughs) You crazy. Kind of, yeah. I’m in a little club like that.

DD: You just joined another club too. Were you scared about turning 40?

Madlib: Nah, I just don’t want to hear it all the time. I still feel 20. I guess a lot of people feel old when they turn 40. It depends on your mind state and how you keep yourself healthy and how you live. I’m glad to be able to turn 40 because a lot of people I knew weren’t able to do that. 

DD: Was Oxnard such a rough place?

Madlib: In Oxnard there’s places where you’ll get got. It was pretty rough. People had the mentality where they didn’t think they were going to live that long anyway, so they did a lot of things that eventually caught up with them. There were a lot of people living like criminals, selling drugs and clashing.

DD: Did you ever get dragged into that?

Madlib: Yeah, when I was younger. I had family members that were shooting at each other. Some were Crips and others were Bloods. It was just their mentality. People get brainwashed living in the hood. I stayed away from everyone, I got into my teens and stayed in the crib and made music. They were walking around with Dickies; I was walking around with a clock around my neck listening to Public Enemy and that type of shit. I was the weird dude but I didn’t care. Music saved me: my parents bought us equipment to keep us in the house. It worked.

I had family members that were shooting at each other. Some were Crips and others were Bloods. It was just their mentality. People get brainwashed living in the hood. I stayed away from everyone, I got into my teens and stayed in the crib and made music.

DD: You have worked with a lot of MCs who have a gangsta edge. Do you ever give credence to that old cliché that violent lyrics can have deadly repercussions in culture?

Madlib: I don’t think so; it depends on your mind. If you’re that stupid or it can control you like that then probably, but I don't think like that and people around me don’t think like that. Well, I hope not! I look at it as a movie. I don’t look at it like, 'yo, he’s really gonna go shoot somebody.’ I don’t think the people that rap like that are living like that. It’s just painting images you know. I don’t ever see any of that going down. You got to treat it like you’re watching the Godfather. If it was really true they probably wouldn’t be making records they would probably be out there doing that.

DD: It seems like you’re in a race against time to collect all these records that you know deep in your heart you will never have time to listen to. What drives that?

Madlib: The love of music. Basically my whole life is music, that’s all I do 24-7. I’m always doing music or listening to music. I’ll take two months off just to listen to records and not do any music so I can absorb all that and then when I go do my music it’s all in me. I’ll listen to a different genre every two days or something, study it, 24 hours straight. It’s just in me. I wanted to be like a librarian, that’s what the whole goal was. When I die they might look at my record collection like that, you never know.

DD: Have you ever got the same rush of finding a track online?

Madlib: Yeah, all the time I search for records that I’ve found on YouTube. If I can’t get the record it doesn’t matter to me, I’ll bump the YouTube rip. There’s a lot of stuff that I’m not going to find that I’ve found on YouTube.

DD: Do you think that beats can capture stories as evocatively as lyrics? 

Madlib: I think so. You could put Dilla’s stuff in a book. It might not be in a certain order but I’d get it. You have to really sit there and think about it. A lot of people are used to words, but it can be done. My next Quasimoto record is going to be like that – I’m going to do it like chapters.

I don’t have anything else to say as a rapper. I had things to say back then, but I’ve heard it all. I’d rather listen to a dude’s beat record than lyrics because there’s only so much you can say.

DD: You’ve been making records for 20 years. Do you ever get bored of people asking you to play things that you made when you were a kid?

Madlib: Yeah, you said it for me. I move on. I can’t even listen to stuff I did last year. I’m already somewhere else. Usually when you hear albums they come out like two or three years after I made them. I’m always doing something different. I’m musically schizophrenic; I get bored quick, so I’m always moving on to something else. A lot of the stuff I do is never going to come out but I do it for myself. It’s challenging for me.

DD: You once said that you’ve only released 30% of the music you’d made. How much of the remaining 70% of music is actually worth releasing?

Madlib: Oh, a lot of it. I think if I recorded it down and left it on tape then, yeah. It’s not for everybody to get. Ten people are going to like that one and not that one. That’s how it’s supposed to be.

DD: Do you rely on anyone else to be a quality controller?

Madlib: It’s up to me. Otherwise I won’t do it. It has to be my way.

DD: Would you call yourself a control freak?

Madlib: Yeah I know what I do. The person listening can’t tell me what I thought. I know what I was thinking when I did it so you can’t really tell me to take this out or do this or that. Nobody can tell me anything about my music. I do it for my health, to listen to something, you know. Even if it doesn’t come out, I don’t care if none of the records come out. I do it for myself. But luckily some people like it.

DD: You’ve been touring a lot. What do people request the most?

Madlib: People ask me to rap. That’s the last thing I like. I don’t have anything else to say as a rapper. I had things to say back then, but I’ve heard it all. I’d rather listen to a dude’s beat record than lyrics because there’s only so much you can say. 

DD: So you think there’s nothing else to be said in terms of lyricism?

Madlib: For me, as a lyricist. But, people like Danny Brown are doing something different.

DD: Danny certainly likes yelping. He once got a blowjob live on stage from someone in the audience.

Madlib: There’s nothing wrong with that.

DD: Has that ever happened to you?

Madlib: Nah, I wouldn’t do that. I’ve had crazy things go down but I don’t wanna get my dick out onstage. That’s dope he can do that and still keep rapping, all sweaty and shit. I take my hat off to him. Hopefully he didn’t have a sausage in there like some rock stars used to do.

DD: 2014 marks the tenth anniversary of Madvillainy. Are you and DOOM ready to release the sequel yet?

Madlib: I’m about to go see him right after this and figure that out. I’m not forcing him to do it. He doesn’t even have to do it; I just want to know where we are at with it because we recorded like, 10, 13 songs, but out of those we probably only used 4, so I want to see how the recordings are going. It’s not close to finished because it has to be a continuation of the last one. It doesn’t have to be better or worse but it has to be a continuation. 

DD: You made Madvillainy in the same period as Champion Sound with Dilla. How do you look back on that era?

Madlib: That was the favourite time of my life. We were just musical cousins – there wasn’t a whole lot of talking going on because we already thought the same. Just a whole lot of handshaking and eye contact. When Dilla was healthy it was crazy. When he moved to LA we hung out every week, went to clubs, acted crazy, got drunk. I think about him all the time. I always bump his music.

“I’m gonna burn down my studio before I die. Ain’t nobody exploiting my shit. Don’t think I’m gonna get exploited like they’re doing to Dilla”

DD: He’s got a lot of unreleased work that may never see the light of day.

Madlib: Well, it seems like they’re still putting things out. Sometimes the way he would want it and in some ways he wouldn’t want it. 

DD: Sorry to go a bit dark, but when you die what’s going to happen to all of your unreleased music? 

Madlib: I'm gonna burn it down before I die, a little Lee Perry action. Ain’t nobody exploiting my shit. If I was dying in hospital I’d tell my son to go and burn it. Don’t think I’m going to get exploited like they’re doing to Dilla. I’m learning from how he’s being treated from some people.

DD: Are you comfortable with the fact that you’re still seen as this cult, underground cat?

Madlib: Yep, I’m fine with that because some of my favourite musicians were like that. I don’t want too many people looking at me. I don’t want somebody to come up and John Lennon me.

DD: You and Freddie Gibbs are releasing the Pinata album in February...

Madlib: It was called Cocaine Pinata. I don’t know if it’s still called that. It might not sell with ‘Cocaine’ in front of it.

DD: Quite possibly. So what would be in your ultimate pinata?

Madlib: White Widow, $100 bills and a female.

DD: You’re sounding more and more like a pimp as this interview goes on.

Madlib: I’m from Cali.

DD: Are you actually a pimp, Madlib?

Madlib: (laughs) A musical pimp.

MAD FLAVA: MADLIB SELECTS SOME CONDIMENTS WITH WHICH TO CONSUME THREE OF HIS CLASSIC RECORDS 

Quasimoto: The Unseen (2000)

“Quasimoto came about through doing psychedelics, tripping out, and trying to make my voice sound different. So put the record on, throw some shrooms on top of your spaghetti and wash it down with a pint of beer.”

Jaylib: Champion Sound (2003)

“I’m sad to say Dilla’s favourite drink was Hawaiian Punch. That was his juice. So drink one of those, smoke a blunt and listen. And eat a pizza or some doughnuts.”

Madvillain: Madvillainy (2004)

“Let me see…” (*Takes a big sniff and winks) “plus a big ass pretzel and some wine.”

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