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Freddie Gibbs and Madlib
Freddie Gibbs and MadlibPhotography Nick Walker

Madlib and Freddie Gibbs on making one of 2019’s best rap albums

The gangster rapper and legendary hip hop producer sit down to discuss their unmissable new album Bandana

The idea of Otis “Madlib” Jackson Jr joining forces with Freddie Gibbs used to raise eyebrows. Madlib is a legend of hip hop, the Stanley Kubrick of rap producers, with an innate ability to flip other people’s work into something avant-garde and otherworldly (for Kubrick, it was adapting underappreciated novels, for Madlib, it’s niche jazz and soul samples). He’s the kind of artist who appeals to people who put ‘rap nerd’ in their Twitter bio. Gibbs, on the other hand, is a gangster rapper with gruff vocals and alpha male energy, tapping into an audience that idolises notorious drug trafficking gang the Black Mafia Family and dreams of a return to the Tupac/Death Row days. “People said we were too different, and it wouldn’t work out,” remembers 45-year-old Madlib, letting out a soft laugh.

Yet when these two very different artists came together for 2014’s Piñata, something just clicked, with Madlib’s intricate funk and Gibbs’ raw drug raps unexpectedly meshing to create the best record about cocaine dealing since the Clipse days. It resulted in a close friendship outside the studio, too, with Madlib introducing Gibbs to psychedelics and red wine, and Gibbs attempting, unsuccessfully, to explain how social media works to the smartphone-shy Madlib (he’s using his manager Egon’s cellphone to speak today – he doesn’t own one himself, and enjoys the freedom of being shut off from the digital world, living in a house that’s filled with roughly four tonnes of vinyl). “Our differences is what makes the partnership so special,” adds Madlib firmly. “I love working with Freddie. We just create without thinking. It’s so natural.”

The fact the pair’s long awaited follow-up album, Bandana, is even better and more cohesive than Piñata is testament to the duo’s unwavering belief that their unique chemistry was worth persevering with. “My career has been a tough grind. I’ve been passed around labels and blackballed by the industry,” 37-year-old Gibbs agrees, speaking in a separate phone interview. “If I didn’t have that belief something like Bandana would eventually happen then I would have given up years ago.”

Things haven’t gone smoothly for Gibbs in the five years since Piñata dropped. In June 2016, he was arrested on sexual assault charges while touring in Europe and thrown into an Austrian jail cell. He was acquitted of all charges by September 2016 (and has since stressed that his individual case should not be taken as representative of all rape accusations), but the experience lit a fuse under the rapper. “I was potentially about to do ten years in prison for a crime I didn’t commit,” he reflects. “I knew if they had me locked in a cell they could do absolutely anything to me, so I memorised all the beats Madlib made for Bandana and started writing to them down in my cell. I wanted to rap with the kind of energy like this might be my last album.”

This backdrop lends the music on Bandana a raw urgency. Over Bandana’s filler-free 46 minutes, Gibbs tackles racism, fake friends, drug abuse, the prison industrial complex, slavery, and going from food stamps to making millions, energetically schooling the next generation of drug-dealer-turned-rappers what pitfalls they must avoid in order to succeed and not end up as another statistic. He continues to make an artform out of murdering his enemies, lyrically speaking – on the brilliant “Flat Tummy Tea”, he provocatively spits, “I took the sword and knocked white Jesus off his horse!” – but he also shows growth as a lyricist, too, daring to face up to his demons, like on the soulful “Cataracts”, where he reveals he was addicted to lean around the time Piñata dropped. In places, it seems as if he’s taking on the role of a rap elder statesman.

Madlib’s production also shines. Channeling the unpredictability of 1970s soul and how it often transitions from serene to threatening in just a flash, the producer’s Bandana beats have a timeless, cinematic sheen, whether it’s the funky Sly & the Family Stone-inspired drums that come in around the 1:40 mark of “Half Manne, Half Cocaine”, or the sun drenched synths that pop into focus towards the end of “Crime Pays” (the latter reminding the listener this record is as much an ode to the breezy, sweltering aesthetics of Los Angeles, the city where the duo like to record, as much as anything else). It sounds like Madlib hasn’t had this much fun since the Madvillainy days, with Gibbs becoming as much a creative muse as MF Doom and J Dilla have been for him before. Bandana is a record created by an odd couple acutely aware that their differences are also their biggest strength.

We caught up with Freddie Gibbs and Madlib to talk about the five-year journey creating Bandana, their unconventional chemistry, slavery, Trump’s America, and what comes next.

Freddie, I sense Madlib’s music is so funky and cinematic that it allows you to embody this whole other character. What is it about your chemistry that makes this partnership so special? Do you enjoy the challenge of working with such an experimentalist?

Freddie Gibbs: Definitely. I feel I am the most versatile rapper, period, and I can bring something to these beats that no other rapper can. That’s why I took back all the beat CDs that Madlib gave to Kanye! Madlib lets me tell my life story in such a cinematic way. Whenever I work with him, I don’t hear the songs, I see them. Every time I get into the studio with him, we try to make all our music sound like a Blaxploitation movie. If you close your eyes, you’re right there. It has that dusty sound, and I’m like the anti-hero. When I get in front of a Madlib beat, something completely different happens to me as an artist.

Madlib: Gibbs raps like a damn saxophone: his smooth cadence, his flow, he’s crazy like Charlie “Bird” Parker and all them cats. He really does have that Tupac charisma. He likes to laugh and we can joke together. I don’t really work with many gangster rappers, but he doesn’t work with many producers who have the loops that I use, either. Not anyone can rap to my beats. Sometimes I will slow down the beat for one bar on purpose, just to see if the rapper can adapt his flow and stay on beat. I mess with a rapper’s bars too, just to make sure they switch it up. I guess I only work with versatile rappers, chameleons like Guilty Simpson, J Dilla, and Doom. Gibbs is a natural extension of that.

“For me, it’s all about the music... I hope I take my last breath while making a beat” – Madlib

Last year, I interviewed Norman Whiteside, a soul legend who went to prison for 31 years for a crime no one believes he committed. You sample his song, “Teach Me How”, which is this smooth love song that also references the pimp game, on “Cataracts” – I told him about this, and he’s over the moon about it. I feel like you guys gravitate towards that same 1970s R&B sound and how it mixes the rough with the smooth... 

Madlib: That’s crazy! That You Can Fly On My Aeroplane album Norman put out with Wee is one of my favourite albums of all time. I would bump it while I cleaned my house. We paid him, too, as we cleared all these samples. 31 years, damn... Make sure you tell Norman that I’m down to do something. (We’re currently trying to facilitate something – ed.) These samples took over a year to clear, so we had to be patient. I naturally gravitate towards that slick 70s sound as that was when music was at its best, as it could be gentle and hard at the same time. When it comes to gangster rap, I used to love Compton’s Most Wanted, because they would rap hard shit over these slick soul samples and there was this amazing juxtaposition. We are following in that same tradition.

Freddie Gibbs: It has that 1970s feel because we want to make timeless music. I was having this conversation the other day with somebody on what music we’re still going to be listening to in 20 years from this era – I want people to go back to this album and it has completely stood the test of time. I don’t want to chase trends, I want to make music that will last a lifetime.

Gibbs, you go to a more philosophical place on this album. There’s a lot more introspection and a lot of these tracks deal with dark themes, like institutionalised racism. And on “Education”, Mos Def raps about the education system being set up to fail black people. On the cover, you guys are looking out on an LA in flames. Is that how America feels right now under Trump?

Freddie Gibbs: To me, that artwork represents us standing above all the fake Hollywood shit you see in this industry. All that stuff is burning and falling down, but we’re still maintaining, doing our thing. A lot of the themes I touch on with Bandana deal with the fact America wants black people to fail. It’s a systemic issue. Slavery ain’t over yet and there’s a lot of work to do in order to make things equal. I don’t care if we had a black president or about these punk ass holidays like Black History Month, they don’t mean shit! Black people built this country for free. We did it for free labour! I don’t think we should have to pay taxes in this motherfucker, that will be our reparations. We really were set back from the get-go!

Madlib: These are especially difficult times for the black and brown man. Under Trump, it seems like everything is unwinding. I think rap should try to be the antithesis to Trump, but (the protest movement) isn’t really happening like it should be. It just isn’t the days of Public Enemy or Boogie Down Productions anymore, and I wish it was more like that. We need to teach these kids better things, and that’s what Freddie is trying to do! Rappers used to teach me right from wrong, but now they teach me how to wear a purse or how to shoot a gun or do some molly in the club. I grew up on Public Enemy, which had a message with great music behind it.

What does the future hold for you guys? You’re working on a third album, right? Madlib, are there any other rappers you think would sound good over your beats?

Madlib: Send the Migos my way! Tell them, Madlib will make them sound funky! I’d like to work with Gibbs until he’s 60 – so long as he’s really with it and doesn’t pull a MF Doom, I can’t find that dude anywhere! I would also like to make an album with Pusha T (who appears on “Palmolive” along with Killer Mike) and this new rapper called Chris Crack from Chicago, he is insanely talented and we’re both like-minded.

I also got to record some songs with Mac Miller. We were going to make an album, but weren’t able to finish it because of his passing. That was my brother! I’m not sure if I can just put out the songs of someone deceased, as we would need permission from the estate. We will see on that, hopefully.

I’ve got thousands of hours of music people haven’t heard yet, so we’re going to launch a subscription service with Rappcats so people can hear it all. I got a bunch of jazz stuff coming too, featuring a lot of the new artists, which will be more like “Shades of Blue”.

Freddie Gibbs: We have another album in the hole. Once that drops, I want this trilogy to sit there in history. Honestly, the next Madlib project might be my last album, period, as I want to go out on top so people remember me as one of the greats. I see a lot of rappers living out of this game and I don’t want that to be me. I want to go out when my pen game is at its sharpest: look at André 3000, he’s not made anything new in years, but he is so lethal, he doesn’t need to. Maybe I will stop making albums and become an executive or a president of a label, and just do the odd feature.

Madlib, is it weird not having a mobile phone? Do you ever feel disconnected from the modern world, a place where rappers are constantly tweeting?

Madlib: Social media doesn’t appeal to me, at all. I ain’t into posting beats or showing off, none of that bullshit. I’m all about keeping it a mystery, basically. For me, it’s all about the music. I haven’t slept in two days, I’ve just been working. Making music is like therapy. I hope I take my last breath while making a beat. Yes sir, I’ll probably make a hit and then die! I cut off all my friends, threw my phone away, and that’s because I live strictly for the music.

“This album is like a gold trophy after a really long hard journey... I feel like the king of the world right now” – Freddie Gibbs

For me, Bandana is this year’s Daytona, in that it’s an unapologetically hardcore rap album that touches multiple eras and makes you bounce. How does it make you both feel?

Madlib: “Half Manne Half Cocaine” is my favourite. “Crime Pays” too. I like that smooth gangster shit with a message behind it. It is heartfelt stuff. It is crazy. Freddie is really spitting on this one. He’s more philosophical because of all the stuff that he went through in Europe. I was trying to make this album more versatile musically than the first one. On the first one, we didn’t know each other that well, so we kind of rushed it. This one we sat back and took our time, and the chemistry was so much better. Album three might be even better!

Freddie Gibbs: Man, this album is like a gold trophy after a really long hard journey. It’s like I finally won the NBA championship or something like this. When Bandana drops, I think I will finally get the respect I deserve in this game. I’m like Johnny Sachs in The Sopranos, when he finally became the boss of New York and took out Little Carmine. I feel like the king of the world right now.

Freddie Gibbs and Madlib’s new album Bandana is out now