Madlib/Donald Byrd: “Stepping into Tomorrow”/“Distant Land” (Shades of Blue: Madlib Invades Blue Note, 2003) plus more

For x-number of months I did a “Madlib” (on Madlib’s discography). With numerous interruptions, living my life, doing my work, listening to other music, I focussed my attention on trying to hear as much as I could of his music, across the various releases, genres, decades, inspirations. This partly reflects my OCD-aspect, the desire to hold onto an essence of something as a system, to see how it works together. When gaining knowledge, I like to be able to get a sense of how things fit, as if there’s always a broader logic waiting to be uncovered.

It also reflects the fact that this discovery came about via YouTube - a bossy task-mistress insisting on certain tracks, repeating them over and over as recommendations until I heard them. Many of these picks, coming from some algorithm consciousness were Madlib tracks, or Madlib associated projects. The process took on a life of its own and lasted for a while.

The process was also a way of assessing the constancy of my own preferences and tastes; as a barometer, litmus test. Allowing for diversity, among genres, but being constant within them. This sounds egotistical perhaps, but I think it’s useful for writers to be simple and upfront in terms of all this. It’s much more interesting (for me) to think about what this/that preference says about the person, rather than to hear aspects of autobiography in the critical appraisals, in that this music helped a writer psychologically, when they were down or something. (Let alone some writer presenting themselves as the arbiter of universal taste).

I really don’t trust this self-disclosure either. If, when you’re affected by something painful the last thing you’d want to do is listen to someone else go deep into their suffering. What you want is to forget. But this might again reflect something about the way I listen to music. There are plenty of songs that I might have listened to in bad times, but it wasn’t because I could relate to the lyrics, usually it was something about the quality of the sounds, or the voice of the singer.    

I sincerely believe that we are all predisposed to liking certain sounds, and this says something about ourselves and our histories. It’s as if these sounds click with something internal in us, as if making manifest something in our DNA. It’s not the music itself that we like, but how it activates something in us. This reaction does not have to be anything particularly deep, or representative of anything bigger (I’m with Cage here, a sound is a sound it does not have to mean anything).    

Throughout this “Madlib immersion”, I was surprised by something: I had thought that with my background listening to a lot of jazz over the decades, it would be the jazz-inspired Madlib work that would impress me most. What I found there – often, not always, was that this music seemed a little contained, as if he was self-conscious about his own debt, or admiration. This limited the achievement and squashed what makes Madlib’s music most interesting for me, the experimentation and freedom you can find there. Of course, there were exceptions, such as this:

This is an extraordinary piece of music, listen to the thwack of that bassline/drum interplay, something that has come back more recently in Madlib’s beats – see many of the Bad Neighbor instrumentals, for instance or the forthcoming Bandana album with Freddie Gibbs. Here, containment is a positive quality in itself: the way it simplifies the original melody from the 1975 album.

What’s striking is the way Madlib doesn’t use the trumpet line at all, or if he does it’s there as a detail, rather than the central focus. This is interesting and perverse (considering that it’s by Donald Byrd – why use the piece to ignore its central motif and the essence of its origins?) Madlib’s reworking simplifies it, makes it dense and uncomplicated.

The original piece was similarly simple – in its intention, but not its execution. Listening to it now, perhaps this is enhanced by my bad sound system, it’s all fluttery and high-end, wavery, which is attractive, but far removed from the way Madlib turned it into an almost late 70s disco-funk song.

The first piece from Shades of Blue: Madlib Invades Blue Note that I was kind of obsessed with was “Distant Land” – now it feels like a photograph almost, it’s not so important to me. This is the one with the drums that break the music, sounding over-present, but also add to the overall feeling of naivety. Just over two minutes in, I liked the way the sounds separated from each other – becoming individualised, solitary elements on display – but what I really loved and still appreciate is the way you expect the trumpet to come back, again it’s Donald Byrd after all, but it doesn’t.

This is wonderful and strange; the entire piece seems to be so accessible (that boom bap type drum pattern etc) and then denies our expectations at the crucial moment. This appeals to me, I like this. Then, when the trumpet does return about a minute later, it’s so quiet, you can hardly hear it.

The original (unreleased) Donald Byrd piece from 1972 has a very distinctive quality, it sounds half-asleep, but the trumpet line as you’d expect is clear and prominent (unlike the way it was re-imagined by Madlib, three or so decades later):

Listening to the original Donald Byrd track now, after a few months from my previous time listening to it – I didn’t like it much before, it struck me as overly smooth, easy listening, lacking spirit - my instincts are proven right, as in expecting the trumpet to return or be more prominent in the Madlib version. The track follows a traditional jazz set up, two or perhaps more solos (what sounds like a vibraphone, then piano solo, there might be a solo before this) to return to the leader of the group on trumpet, in what is deeply satisfying, as expected. Byrd returns with a majestic half-solo around 5’30” (you can almost imagine the audience applause).    

There are other songs, which I might even like more than the two I’ve written about here, “Mystic Bounce” say or “Montara” but this writing is a good example of what I was mentioning at the outset. What you end up writing on often is different to what the original impulse was, for questions of ease or simplicity, or getting carried away with something. Rather than discussing the album in full, I’ll leave it there: two songs inspired by Donald Byrd. That makes sense.

This was meant to be an introduction to writing on some Madlib instrumentals, no problem, I’ll come back to them another time.     

Coda x 2:

Madlib: an essay on his dub mixes, Blunted in the Bomb Shelter, Chalice All-Stars, dub and hip-hop

(First published at Passion of the Weiss, 26th June, 2018)

When asked what he had learnt from J Dilla in a 2013 interview with France Inter, Madlib replied, “Stay loose. Keep it raw.” Then he said something indecipherable about drums. At a later Red Bull Music Academy event, Madlib described the value of keeping “some human mistakes in (his music),” before adding, “If it’s too perfect, I don’t want anything to do with it. If it’s too clean (…) or too polished, I don’t like it. That’s just me.”

Throughout Madlib’s three-decade career as composer, crate digger, DJ, producer, and MC, there’s always been a tense duality between messy and clean. The way the “Shame” beat on Piñata—his collaborative LP with Freddie Gibbs— is a pristine, perfectly balanced soul-based instrumental (albeit with an unexpected water effect), while “Real” is splintered with dissonant sounds is a perfect example.

Madlib projects also oscillate between polarities: his jazz-inflected work is orderly, respectful to their sources, while the Beat Konducta releases celebrate the unhinged, enacting an unruly musical eclecticism. It’s not surprising then that his dub/reggae mixes, Blunted in the Bomb Shelter (2002) and Chalice All-Stars (2010), operate within a similar space. The second of the pair, Chalice All-Stars, is now being reissued by Rappcats on vinyl.

Musicians draw on their training during live performance while aiming to be fully in the moment. Producers likewise follow their intellect, not just their instincts when creating music (even if they prefer to emphasize the “feeling” when talking about their craft). Any intellectual aspect might be shaped by preferences and be unique to them, but beat-making requires a cool head to focus on the music’s minutiae. The more analytical side of production stems from hip-hop’s foundations in DJ culture; in particular, understanding how songs work together, which is necessary to create a coherent mix.

It’s not unusual for hip-hop producers to emphasize their DJ skills, possibly to align themselves with the genre’s reggae roots and DJs who birthed the art-form in 1970s New York. Madlib sees himself as a “DJ first, producer second, and MC last.” This seems weird at first, considering his status and reputation as a producer. Yet the issue here lies in the narrow idea of what it means to be a DJ. As these dub/reggae mixes show, DJ-ing is not just about bringing the party to the people, it’s also about how music is heard.



Jazzy Wayz* - writing on jazz and hip-hop

Jazzy Wayz* (Notes towards an essay)

For a long while I’ve been pestered by a desire to write about jazz/hip-hop connections, moving it towards a discussion that doesn’t just cite samples as evidence of the link between the genres, but rather locates the influence of jazz on hip-hop in terms of the aesthetic.

The writing below - on London producer/musician Alfa Mist's 2017 record, Antiphon is a beginning of this work and reflects some of these thoughts. 

What you’ll find in this ‘series’ – even if that sounds a bit lofty and organised, my ideas are free-form and scattered for now - are occasional notes; writing that I will shape into a more considered piece, or series of pieces, at some point in the future. My focus will be on contemporary acts, to try and move the analysis on from inevitable nods to the recent hip-hop past (Madlib, GURU ...) though they – or at least the sensibility and work of the L.A. producer - will be at its heart, to a degree.

Too often in hip-hop music criticism there is an off-hand reference to an ‘old-school/jazzy/90s’ feel or whatever it might be in reviews, with no real discussion of what this means. It’s become a marker, a point of reference, a kind of shorthand. My goal here is to go a bit deeper, even if this writing will also reflect my process and progress, let’s say.

Disclaimer: the use of the ‘jazz sample’ by hip-hop producers, past and present, has often seemed problematic to me as to understand jazz, to really get it means appreciating the movement of music over time. To notice how elements shift/coalesce/break down/splinter/merge. This development is hard, or even impossible, to achieve within the framework of classic hip-hop production where the sample is just one element repeated and the drums (usually) come first.

The value of the sample works on the basis of its sound, its capacity to echo and work with other sounds, so it can’t really embody movement (even if producers, of course, play with this sonic element, stretching and manipulating it, giving it form. It’s electronic – there is no pure, unadulterated sound; it’s not the sound of wind on leaves outside on a tree). 

Of course there is movement in hip-hop instrumentals. Indeed, the skill and finesse of the producer lies in the way they are able to capture the spirit of live performance, or if not that to manipulate the sonic elements in such a way that there is development and change. Perhaps if I were to sum up the nature of this inquiry it would be this: to understand better the essential nature of movement and development in jazz and hip-hop, in a musical sense. 

I would not like to give the impression that hip-hop is a kind of blocky construction - sample 1, sample 2 and repeat - even if some of the least imaginative examples of the genre can be just that, boring and predictable.   

And yet there is a tension here, in that the idea of taking a snippet from a jazz composition and then repeating it just because it sounds good arguably goes against the very essence of jazz; moreover, it could be said that it also shows a lack of understanding, or disrespect to past musicians and their intentions.

Whereas the great jazz musicians of the past wanted to recreate the essence of freedom and collaboration, in the hands of average hip-hop producers a ‘jazz sample’ has the potential to be used in a way that enacts containment, entrapment. Caging a bird in wire, and then clipping its wings.   

This may be why it is, in fact, relatively rare to see pure, unadulterated jazz samples being used by key producers in the past or present.

Other less 'weighty' genres, prog-rock/Funk … and music from other eras, the 70s of course but also the 80s, or sampling other hip-hop tracks seem to be preferred. (Some of the 90s greats did rely on jazz compositions as their main source, it seems, and became known for this. This is why, I’d suggest, it’s become such a short-hand reference for critics as they are still in that mindset of seeing the world through a golden-tinge).   

Perhaps taking a jazz sample was seen to be too easy, too obvious by those seeking out musical challenges; see Kool Keith’s comment in this video interview posted in 2014 about how he tried in his solo work to move the production sound forward by using ‘new’ records, back in the 90s so as to not ‘just’ rap over a Ron Carter sample (at 5 mins), for example … Or maybe it reflected mixed feelings among producers who loved jazz in a really profound way, on a spirit level.

One last thing: I’m interested in writing this as well because of the way people have been responding to my work, here on this site and elsewhere (see my article on Weldon Irvine published in Ambrosia for Heads earlier this week).

It makes me so happy, for example, to see how one piece on Pharaoh Sanders’ Harvest Time, which is little more than a few paragraphs is being shared alongside the hip-hop writing. There seems to be a kind of renewed interest in the jazz/hip-hop nexus these days. It is also arguably a period of renewal for both genres, with new blood being recognised and new voices coming through. This, of course, appeals to me and I want to contribute to this moment. 

So here, then, is my first missive on the truly transcendent record Antiphon by London based producer, Alfa Mist that is certainly conscious of this landscape, while allowing the imprint of the artist to shine through; just like any classic jazz release from the past, of course.

Keeping it nice and pure and forever personal.