Flyin’ to Rio

Madlib's quest to blow out the borders of hip-hop


For all the talk about marijuana expanding one’s mind, it’s amazing the quantity of stale repetition in hip-hop that is passed off as the new style by blunt-wielding beatheads. Enter a much-needed revolutionary, a sativa savant currently at the forefront of hip-hop production who calls himself Madlib. Or Quasimoto. Or DJ Rels or Malik Flavors or Monk Hughes, or one of any 31 other aliases.

Born Otis Jackson Jr., the 34-year-old Los Angeles&–based producer has single-handedly broadened the horizon of what’s possible in hip-hop production at large. When I saw him in 2004 at a sold-out record release show for Madvillainy, the sprawling masterpiece he created with the mush-mouthed Atlanta rapper MF Doom, he spent 15 minutes giving his fans a lesson in jazz. “Y’all into McCoy Tyner?” he asked to a mostly unresponsive crowd. He played a minute or so of Tyner’s “Atlantis” from the DJ stand, quickly flipping through his stack of LPs. “How ’bout Sun Ra?” Same reaction, same determined result: Madlib was out to drill jazz into hip-hop’s collective head, one minute at a time.

Madlib is always flipping the stack to find the next record, always looking toward what’s next. In his music, the result of his ADD is that he constantly ends his own tracks when he gets bored, usually after only a minute or so. This soured me to his style at first, but lately I’ve been able to hear reticence as an instrument in his productions, a variation of the Count Basie effect, where rests are just as important as notes.

But the real instrument in Madlib’s musical language is irresolution. Whereas most hip-hop emphasizes the downbeat with a kick drum and solid bass, Madlib’s production is instead syncopated and snaky, squirming around on the minor third or the fifth, and rarely does he lock into the pocket of the track’s root chord. Working in such ungrounded fashion opens his productions to a wide palette of possibility, a rarely desired goal of abstraction in hip-hop.

Madlib latest album, Sujinho, which comes out next week under the alias Jackson Conti, is the producer’s excursion into a musical genre viewed by the average hip-hop fan as anathema: Brazilian music. Originating as most Madlib productions do (by going record shopping and obsessing over the day’s finds), the album is a product of luck, tenacity and love. It’s also among his most focused and inspired projects, with the majority of songs timing in at over four minutes—downright epic by Madlib’s clock.

Madlib loves drummers, and goaded by friends while on tour in Rio de Janeiro in 2006, he resolved to track down one of his favorites, Ivan “Mamão” Conti, the trap-kit wizard from the 1970s Brazilian trio Azymuth. (Once, on an obsessed streak, Madlib recorded a series of Azymuth cover songs in his home studio, much to the confusion of his associates.) Once he got Conti on the phone, the two had an instant rapport. The Los Angeles hip-hop maven and the Brazilian jazz specialist hit the studio shortly thereafter, two worlds coming together for one rainy, humid night of inspired magic.

The resultant Sujinho is pure dope. A sonic version of Brazil’s climate, it explores the sweltering sounds of South America to conjure the most tropical translation of Madlib’s singular musical language yet. Some of this is due to famous Brazilian composers like Airto Moreira, Deodato and João Donato, but there’s something else at play as well, a relaxed atmosphere that allows Madlib to open up and exhale. Rio de Janeiro’s pleasant lassitude extends tracks like the 10-minute “Papaya” into a long, languorous groove with sun-streaked guitars and meandering, improvised bass lines, while seven-minute closer “Segura Esta Onda” is a musical morning, day and night all on its own, switching gears and pushing the mercury.

Throughout the album, Conti’s unique rhythms punctuate Madlib’s dreamy sense of chord structure, and once the record was completed, his previously stumped friends signed on as converts. “Music has a beautiful way of making you reevaluate what you may have discarded,” admits hip-hop photographer Brian Cross (B+), now a diehard Azymuth fan. “Madlib is an artist who gives one new ears every couple of years if you choose to pay close enough attention.”

Will hip-hop fans rock Sujinho? It depends on how willing they are to tag along on Madlib’s journey; they’ve already separated themselves when it comes to Madlib’s more jazzy excursions. But with summertime on the rise, Sujinho should be headed straight for the heavy rotation box of those lucky enough to discover its tropical specialties.

With a side of blunts, please.

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