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Madlib Men

Beat Konducta, Yesterdays New Quintet, Quasimoto--Which Otis Jackson Jr. Do You Like?

Madlib Makes Compelling Musical Messes.

By Michaelangelo Matos | Posted 10/1/2008

Some people can't stop tinkering with anything. Otis Jackson Jr., the Southern California hip-hop producer/DJ/MC/musician, is one of those people. Scratch that: He's several of those people. Jackson has renamed himself as much as anyone in the Wu-Tang Clan, though Madlib is the moniker that subsumes all others--his umbrella pseudonym, if you will. The rest range from the Beat Konducta (the name under which he issues brief, engrossing groove snippets) to the unapostrophied Yesterdays New Quintet (Jackson overdubbing himself into a jazz-funk five-piece, each "member" of which has released "solo albums") to Quasimoto, aka Lord Quas, which is Jackson rapping with a sped-up voice about old records, weed, and inertia to hypnotic, disorienting effect.

Jackson maintains a staggering rate of productivity. He regularly produces for and collaborates with others (he's on Erykah Badu's New Amerykah Vol. One and oversaw last year's Talib Kweli mini-album). Jackson Conti's Sujinho, a negligibly breezy collaboration between Jackson and Brazilian percussionist Ivan (Mamao) Conti, was issued by Mochilla in July, while Madlib's 4-year-old album with MF Doom, Madvillainy, is available online in a newly remixed edition, as Madvillainy 2: The Madlib Remix (StonesThrow.com). And BBE has just issued WLIB AM: King of the Wigflip, a collection that serves, if anything does, as an overview of the world according to Madlib.

Good luck capturing all of that. What makes Jackson hard to track isn't how prolific he is, daunting though that is. It's his commitment to messiness. Even if you stick to the great stuff--to be stringent about it, 2000's The Unseen, the first Quasimoto album, and Madvillainy--his work is never what you'd call neat. The Unseen and Madvillainy flaunt their loose ends. The samples are unkempt, if not muddy, chosen more for timbres verging on psychedelic than forward propulsion. Odd bits of noise or applause or instruments jump into the mix and then exit posthaste, never to return. Noise annoys when it doesn't fit right in, which is usually. What goateed dorks mistaking their DJ Shadow ripoffs for jazzlike abstract freedom think they are doing Jackson does constantly and consistently. What holds these particular albums together is strength of concept: Quasimoto's Day-Glo dystopia, Madvillain's friendly game of volleyball between two inspired weirdos.

Madvillainy 2 is less like that than the original, in large part because the original Madvillainy is so obviously the work of two artists in complete sync. The new version came about because Jackson grew tired of waiting for MF Doom to do something with the demos he'd been steadily sending over the past few years. The new tracks' bottom-heaviness (as opposed to the snap-crackling jazz Jackson layered throughout the debut) sometimes buries Doom's vocals--on purpose, it's easy to think. But its ancillary nature makes its availability only online--unless, of course, you want to cough up a ridiculous $125 for a box set that's even less necessary than most--seem like the right idea.

WLIB AM is a different animal. The final installment in the BBE label's Beat Generation series, this is the single CD with which to sample as many of Jackson's wares as you'll likely find at once. Despite his pedigree as a DJ (see his 2002 Trojan Records mix, Blunted in the Bomb Shelter, and last year's jazz-heavy Time Out Presents the Other Side: Los Angeles), WLIB AM isn't a mix CD. Instead it evokes, intentionally, flipping through radio stations playing Jackson's own music and stopping whenever something catches the ear. Tracks such as "Heat," "Parklight," and "I Want It Back" begin with one groove only to switch abruptly to another one entirely--the intros serving as mini-trailers to the songs' very short features.

It's just as likely that this is a collection of recent outtakes: There are tracks here from a number of recent Madlib collaborations, including tracks with Talib Kweli, Guilty Simpson, Georgia Anne Muldrow, and Oh No. And, as with most outtakes collections, WLIB AM is wildly variable, especially the vocalists. Guilty Simpson is pretty dead on his feet on two cuts here, while Muldrow's lyrics ("Fragments on an earth will still be a living thing/ The evidence of love resides in everything") are horoscope-reading malarkey.

But the album picks up with the fifth track, "Gamble on Ya Boy," featuring Defari, a no-nonsense MC who doesn't leave much space between words and whose steely monotone is perfectly offset by Jackson's squinchy synth bass and swaying horns. And Karriem Riggins makes the most of one verse, repeated with slight alterations, in "Life," about keeping your head up: "We made it through single mothers, locked fathers/ Torn families, East-West rivalries/ Hip-hop, jazz music/ Thanksgiving, the best time for family/ Crack pipes, dirty needles/ The government lying to the people/ Loud mics, sturdy needles/ The main ingredient for rocking for my people."

Yet even if WLIB AM is a partial disappointment, it doesn't hurt Jackson's record too much. Besides, it's misleading to assess Madlib's output in terms of perfect albums or even great singles. His work is too much of a jumble to break down that neatly, and the degree to which you can wallow in it is its greatest asset. No one needs it all. But chances are you need some.

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