Thursday, February 25, 2010

MADLIB: Medicine Show No. 2 – Flight to Brazil

Madlib - Madlib Medicine Show: No. 2 - Flight to Brazil
The words of Jace Clayton, better known as DJ /rupture: “As a process, DJing is inevitable and necessary for our times, an elegant way to deal with data overload. As a performance, it's what the kids are grooving to the world over. As a product, it's largely illegal.”

Well, I’m certainly grooving to Flight to Brazil, and I’m sure it’s illegal. For the second Medicine Show release, (and the first of the mixes that will comprise the even-numbered volumes,) Madlib has compiled a wildly diverse mix of music from Brazil and there’s no indication (and very little chance) that the creators of this music gave permission or received compensation, though at the same time there is little indication here of any plunderphonic-politics. If any such comment exists, it is to be found in Flight to Brazil’s cover art (partially pictured above): It’s a painting of Christian missionaries arriving, presumably, in South America. Anachronistic details are added to the paining; firearms, a Coca-Cola can, pharmaceutical vials. Is someone making a comment about imperialism? Is someone being ironic?

Discussions about music piracy frequently cast narratives in which innocent college kids downloading Grateful Dead bootlegs are pursued by rapacious corporate slime, but there’s another side. Regarding the morally dubious business model of the Sublime Frequencies label, the aforementioned Jace Clayton wrote “It’s a sadly familiar economic model: sell the cultural riches of non-Westerners without their knowledge or permission.” Isn't Madlib essentially doing this with Flight to Brazil? No information about the composers or performers behind this music is included in the liner notes, either because of that white-label attitude that makes DJs feel like part of an exclusive “in-the-know” record club, or (more likely) because by releasing this, Madlib is committing illegal copyright infringement. (This may also explain why the words “Stones Throw Records” are nowhere to be found on the Medicine Show releases, though it is clear that Madlib’s home label is behind them.)

It’s a shame, too, because every song on this mix makes me want to know more. And isn’t that part of the value in such an endeavor? And wouldn’t that information likely lead to increased dividends for these musicians (thus compensating for their lack of, erm, compensation) as listeners who are exposed to their work via this mix begin to seek out more?

Even if they aren’t being paid, these musicians could at least be celebrated as unique artists, but instead, the curator is the star of this show. Apparently, the talent on display is Madlib's talent for finding and buying records. The musicians are just some anonymous Brazilian people who made some tunes that would have languished in total obscurity if not for their hip American savior. Without any information, however, this music is still obscure, still anonymous.

Is this anything more than one music geek showing off his finds to other music geeks, ethics and ownership be dammed? Like most of Madlib’s mixes, it’s hard to see any intention here beyond sharing a bunch of awesome records he found while he was digging for material to sample, but it’s hard to deny the middle finger extended (perhaps unintentionally) by a mix of Brazilian music this diverse. You know those cheesy compilations they sell at Starbucks and in the “World Music” section at Borders, the ones with titles like The Sounds of Brazil? This is not like that. This is the antithesis of the coffee-shop tourism that pretends to squeeze an entire nation’s musical output into one digestible smorgasbord of background sound for Yuppies who want to feel “multi-cultural.” Madlib’s fondness for Brazillian music is well-documented, and the depth of his knowledge (or, at least, the depth of his record collection) is impressive.

Likewise, the role of a curator is a natural compliment to his work as a producer of sample-based hip-hop, and while mash-up artists like Girl Talk have blurred the line between creating something new from other people’s music and simply (or complexly) recontextualizing that music, these roles remain sharply distinct in Madlib’s curatorial work, which also lacks the manifesto politics of, say, DJ Spooky, and is rarely any more conceptual than Flight to Brazil’s geographic theme. He’s also not a very technical DJ. This isn’t Gold Teeth Thief. These songs aren’t mixed in any complex way; they’re simply truncated and cross-faded, linked by a man’s voice announcing flights to and from places in Brazil, as well as a repeating sample of a woman going “Whooooo!” (It’s not as dumb as it sounds.)

Listening to this mix illuminates much of Madlib’s original music, particularly his excursions into fusion as Yesterdays (sic) New Quintet; a familiar piano line pops up at one point, for example, one I am sure is sampled by Madlib on another release (or maybe the song is covered by YNQ), and the feel of these rhythms is certainly captured by many of the compositions on Madlib’s fusion projects. That probably isn’t the point, though. With this mix, it seems Madlib is just sharing (read: selling) some cultural riches he found (read: stole). Here’s an awesome song. Now, here’s another. Of course, I am exactly the sort of person to whom this appeals. Yes, thank you, Madlib, I would love to hear some awesome records you found. And it's impossible to deny that the actual music here is terrific. I just wish I could enjoy this mix without fretting over silly ethical questions.

Two down, ten to go. Next up: The Beat Konducta goes to Africa.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

MADLIB: Medicine Show No. 1 - Before the Verdict

Madlib - Madlib Medicine Show: No. 1 - Before the Verdict
Madlib’s Medicine Show is a twelve-volume series that will be released once a month through 2010. The even-numbered volumes will feature Madlib in the role of obscurantist curator, compiling mixes of other people’s music, while the odd-numbered volumes will feature original Madlib productions (errr... “Invasions.”) We here at Dig That Sweet Sound have resolved to listen to all twelve volumes (budget permitting – now accepting donations!) and write about them as they are released.

This first volume is a rap record featuring Detroit-native Guilty Simpson. Some tracks are remixes with vocals from Guilty’s Ode to the Ghetto while others feature verses from OJ Simpson’s forthcoming debut. No, sports fans, the Juice has not made the move from sports and stabbing to gangsta rap (although that would be a logical career move). Madlib (known on his birth certificate as Otis Jackson Jr.) and Guilty Simpson use the moniker OJ Simpson for the work they do together. Supposedly, the duo’s debut album will be available sometime last year or this year or next year or something like that. Release schedules are pretty fluid in the underground hip-hop world (another reason why it’s a treat to be guaranteed a new Madlib record every thirty days or so).

As an MC, Guilty Simpson is all grit and testosterone, pushing every syllable through a tough-guy grumble. His lyrics are exactly what people who don’t listen to rap think all rap is about; sexism, gun-toting paranoia and criminal behavior. Even when his lyrics wear thin, however, his halting/forceful cadence is perfectly suited to the jagged found-sound setting created to accompany his rapping. The production here combines Madlib’s trademark pandemonium of hazy sound-collage and spontaneous, skillful sampling, continuing the “pirate radio” milieu of King of the Wigflip but with more of a mixtape feel; the vocals and samples are often recycled and mashed up rather than produced in tandem (the packaging also lacks label and copyright information). The beat from Madvillian’s “All Caps” re-appears on “Life Goes By” and the remix of “Ode to the Ghetto” has a beat eerily reminiscent of Deltron 3030’s “Virus,” presumably because the same sample is used. An obsessive record-collector like Madlib is no doubt aware of that similarity; he just doesn’t care. If the beat knocks (and that beat most certainly does,) it goes in the stew, no questions. Hip-hop, by its very nature, has broken down concepts of music ownership so thoroughly that it would be absurd to fault an artist for one more form of cultural high-jacking. The recycling here is a symptom of this format’s “everything goes” ethos; and that approach is well-suited to an insanely prolific artist with a tendency to throw everything at the wall and then put it all out on wax whether it sticks or not.

The Medicine Show series is exactly the format and release schedule Madlib has always needed. Following an artist this prolific can be frustrating, though if I’m keeping up with his work, it is obviously rewarding more often than not. I think artists who are open to anything - any process, any idea – tend to lack quality control. Madlib’s records are always at least interesting, usually good, and often great, but I can’t help thinking he could do better with a little more focus. Trim the fat! Maybe he worries that too much tinkering will spoil the spontaneous nature of his releases, or maybe he loses interest in one thing before he can tighten it up, moving on to the next alias, the next collaboration, the next beat-tape. Before the Verdict is a step in the right direction, though. Although a relatively small portion of the running time features vocals, the in-between stuff, the mashed up samples from songs and bits of stand-up comedy that have become par for the course on Madlib’s hip-hop projects, are used more effectively here than they’ve ever been used before. I don’t know how they will hold up during repeat listens, but as of now I think these moments are arranged in engaging and oddly “musical” ways, and they provide an important part of the overall picture. There’s an ebb and flow to this album that makes it more cohesive than, say, The Further Adventures of Lord Quas. If Madlib lacks quality control, he’s learning to make up for it with meticulous sequencing.

There are not a lot of artists who could get me to shell out for an album once a month for an entire year, but Madlib has built up that goodwill. I hope he can maintain it, and so far he’s on the right track. I had a good day with this CD today. I had pre-ordered it before the onset of my most recent period of financial ruin, and during another fruitless day of job-hunting the UPS guy brought it right to my door. I went jogging, shoveled snow and made lunch in the space of two complete listens. This was a sonic space I could retreat to, and it lifted my spirits, as imaginative, adventurous music always does.

One down and eleven to go.

"Life Goes By"
I Must Love You (OJ Simpson Remix)”
“My Moment (OJ Simpson Remix)”