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Interview: Madlib

Hip hop producer, DJ and MC Madlib talks record shopping, life without the internet and this weekend's upcoming Shanghai show.
2013-02-20 12:55:33

Few musicians can match hip hop producer and crate-digger Madlib’s prolific output, an eccentric mix of hip hop, rap, jazz, and weird vocal samples picked from old records and VHS tapes. Like many musical geniuses, he’s released music under many guises over the last two decade. Records by Lootpack, Madvillain, Quasimoto, Yesterday’s New Quintet, The Medicine Show, Dudley Purkins – they’re all produced by the reclusive Madlib, who’s making his first appearance in China this Saturday at The Shelter.

It’s the sound of dusty, vinyl-sampled drums, Saturday morning cartoons and cereal, conversations with drunken vagrants at bustops, vocoders, and just good underground hip hop. It’s not always quantized and that’s part of the charm. I’ve been a fan for ten years and have listened to the Madvillainy and The Further Adventures of Lord Quas LPs literally hundreds of times and never gotten bored.

For the uninitiated, here’s a brief intro to Madlib’s world.

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I spoke to Madlib via IP card on Martin Luther King Day, when he made a rare trip out of the studio for a BBQ.

SmSh: What’s good, man, you in the studio right now?

Madlib: No, I’m at a BBQ.

SmSh: A BBQ? Damn, what are you cooking?

Madlib: Martin Luther King Day BBQ. I ain’t cookin, I’m chillin.

SmSh: Cool, cool. So it’s 2013, you’ve been grinding for a long time, why are you just coming to China now? I know you’ve been to Brazil, Japan, all these places, why China now?

Madlib: I guess cause I don’t call promoters, I wait for people to call me. I’m more of a studio person so whoever wants to see me, just call. I’m not a fan of airplanes anyway so I just wait to see who calls.

SmSh: Why don’t you like to fly? Does the ear pressure mess you up?

Madlib: Yeah, I’m just not in control, I gotta get super faded. You never know… airplanes.

SmSh: So is Lord Quas gonna make an appearance in Shanghai?

Madlib: I think he’s already out there [laughs].

SmSh: Haha, have you seen The Man With The Iron Fist yet?

Madlib: No I haven’t [laughs], I got it at home. Is that movie ill?

SmSh: Yeah, it’s dope. The RZA was here a couple times while filming that. He showed up at the same spot you’ll be playing at, The Shelter. That’s one of the best venues anywhere, I think you’ll like that place a lot. It’s a basement, an old bomb shelter.

Madlib: That’s dope, I’m down with that.

SmSh: When you DJ, what’s your setup? Do you play all vinyl?

Madlib: I play CDs. I record vinyl onto CDs, and my studio music that’s not ever gonna come out. Unreleased beats, stuff you’ll never hear in the club. Even expect some Medicine show type joints. Crazy beats.

SmSh: I actually have to DJ somewhere else that night but I’m gonna sneak out of my own event to come down and see you play.

Madlib: [laughs] That’s crazy. Shit, I’ll come to your show too.

SmSh: [laughs] So what’s new, what are you working on lately?

Madlib: I’ve been working on Freddy Gibbs’ project, also a project with Mos Def, a whole album, an album with my brother called The Professionals, all the regular stuff for the Medicine Show, Quasimoto, Madvillain... We got like 20 songs done for that but who knows when that’ll be done.

SmSh: Whoa, what do you think of the JJ Doom album?

Madlib: Yeah I like it, it was cool.

SmSh: I’ve always wondered, how do you go about finding all these cartoon samples and supervillain samples, or the samples from “Bullys**t,” cause you were sampling all this way before YouTube and according to your other interviews you don’t even use the internet.

Madlib: Just different weird records that came out in the 1960s when you just put out whatever, you know it wasn’t really a business you just put out some crazy music. I just go to different record stores looking for vocal samples. I did that for like a year for Madvillian; poetry, spoken word records, cartoon records. I’ve sampled off VCR.

SmSh: So you just hook a VCR directly up to your sampler and hit play?

Madlib: Yeah, sample off anything.

SmSh: My producer friends want me to ask you – what’s your favorite piece of production equipment?

Madlib: Roland SP-303 or a CDJ. I make beats on a CDJ.

SmSh: Really? You make beats on a CDJ? How?

Madlib: I hook shit up with the little four or five pads.

SmSh: The newer CDJs with the beat pads?

Madlib: Yeah. I mean, it doesn’t matter. Keyboard or record, whatever I have to do. You can do anything on any little piece of equipment anyway. It’s the same basic things anyways. Programming, quantizing, all that stuff, on anything. I don’t care about the equipment. I try to switch it up. SP-303 was the one I was mostly using about five or six years ago. I might use an MPC for a beat or two, or something on my iPad.

SmSh: So you do use some software?

Madlib: Yeah. Same ol’ thing, [it’s] basically what you put into it. But I kinda stick with the traditional shit, 16 track and chop shit up. CDJ, anything.

SmSh: How much hardware do you have? How many machines in the crib?

Madlib: I have most of the machines, even though I don’t use them. I buy everything. Crazy keyboards, like 40 keyboards. I got vintage things.

SmSh: So you got 303s and all that?

Madlib: Yeah, all the numbers. MPC4000, SP1200, Ableton if I need it.

SmSh: What do you think of Ableton.

Madlib: I’ve never used it. Basically the same thing, chopping things up, but easier.

SmSh: You gonna dig for any records out in China?

Madlib: You know that. I’m about to dig through all types of weird shit.

SmSh: There’s a lot of records here. A lot of them come from Japan, records they don’t want anymore they just send over here.

Madlib: Wow, I’m gonna spend all my show money, come back broke [laughs].

SmSh: Let’s say you buy a couple hundred records while you’re out on tour – how do you send those back? Do you have to send by freight? I imagine the carry-on fee would be really expensive.

Madlib: Yeah, I just buy extra luggage. I take it, I don’t care. I pay 100USD for it or something, and I put out some things and make a little money back anyway – gotta put something into it. I don’t let my records go. I usually just bring them with me.

SmSh: How many in your collection total would you guess?

Madlib: I have no idea… Three or four rooms? Tons, I got tons. All styles. I’m like everybody else, like all the other cratediggers.

SmSh: So I read in one of your other interviews, you don’t use email, you don’t use the internet, this was in an interview from 2008, is that still the case?

Madlib: Naw, I use it now. I don’t use it as much as ya’ll, but I use it a little bit. I’m not on my email all day like ya’ll. I check that once a week.

SmSh: That’s smart, I waste a lot of time checking email.

Madlib: Oh yeah, all them apps… You get caught up with all them apps. It’s a studio now, on your phone, that’s crazy.

SmSh: So I listen to your mixtapes a lot. Blunted in the Bomb Shelter is one of my favorite mixes ever.

Madlib: Lot of people don’t like that one… You know, like some older cats, they’re like: “Why you do the music like that, chop it up like that, man?” My crazy heads like it; you must be crazy too.

SmSh: People were mad because you cut the songs and didn’t let them play all the way through?

Madlib: Yeah and ’cause I didn’t mix traditionally, you know, on beat. You know I can but I just choose to do it all crazy.

SmSh: I feel you, not everything needs to be beatmatched, especially reggae. Sometimes it’s better to just drop tracks. So how long does it take you to put together a mix like that? Do you have mixtapes that have been on the shelf for years and you’re waiting for more tracks?

Madlib: I make mixtapes for the homies. Special mixtapes for the homies, whatever. Take like, a couple hours. As long as it takes to make the mixtape.

SmSh: So Blunted in the Bomb Shelter, how long did that take?

Madlib: Oh, that took like a couple days, off and on. That was a four-track mixtape. Made it on a four-track so I could edit it old-school style.

SmSh: When you’re making beats, about how much of it is sampled and how much is you playing the music?

Madlib: That depends. I have some beats where it’s all playing and programming and vice-versa. And only certain things get out, you know. I do beat tapes for all kinds of things.

SmSh: I’m sure a lot of people throw you demo tapes.

Madlib: Every day…

SmSh: Do you listen to any of them?

Madlib: Oh sure. Oh yes, oh yes. And if it’s wack you get to throw it out the window. There’s some shit I can listen to but that’s rare. Half the time I’m disappointed.

SmSh: As far as other people’s music, what are you feeling right now?

Madlib: Hmmm, I can’t really tell you, I don’t really listen to too much music, but I like Flying Lotus, Onra, Dilla, most of the West Coast LA beat dudes. I like Trinidad.

SmSh: Trindad? Like Trindad James?

Madlib: Oh yeah.

SmSh: What do you think of the snap rap coming from the West coast, like Tyga?

Madlib: Yeah, I like all that.

SmSh: Do you think hip hop is in a better place right now than it was 10 years ago?

Madlib: I have no idea. The commercial is still the commercial and the underground is still the underground.

SmSh: What do you think about Lil B?

Madlib: I’m Gay? Lil B? That dude, haha. I don’t know his music. I should but I don’t know it. I’m in my own world.

SmSh: Cool, last question cause I don’t wanna take up too much of your time at the BBQ: If your house was on fire and you could only grab three records, what would you take?

Madlib: [Pauses] Hmmm… If there was a fire I wouldn’t grab any records. I’d get my ass out. I got my records on CD. I’d get my ass out the spot. I ain’t running too fast, I just got to go. I’d go out there and buy more [records].

SmSh: So your whole vinyl collection is backed up on CD?

Madlib: All the important ones I make beats with.

SmSh: Alright, anything else you wanna say to your fans in Shanghai who are coming out to see you.

Madlib: Naw, just respect. Come out to see the show, we gonna have some fun, I’m gonna drink and play some music. So yeah, whatever, let’s have some fun, come out there and tear it up.


Madlib plays The Shelter this Saturday night with former producer, label boss and best man Egon. Tickets are 120rmb in advance from KIN or The Shelter, or 160rmb on the door. Full info here. We say: Get there early if you want to buy tickets on the door.