Sunday, May 8, 2011
MADLIB: Medicine Show No. 11 - Low Budget High Fi Music
Here's the paradox: Madlib's music is, on the one hand, deeply intertextual and, on the other hand, perplexingly insular. To the theory that music can only be about itself, The Bad Kid offers a revision: His music can only be about other people's music. And, repurposed and scrambled as it is, much of it (in one way or another) literally is other people's music. Hijacking is Madlib's art, and he's brilliant at it. When he's not curating or sampling the work of others he's interpreting it with Yesterday's Universe, naming tracks after his heroes, or aping their styles and rhythms.
In theory, this project should be deeply intertextual, connecting to and reflecting the work of others, but it is strangely self-contained, and the resulting music functions best as an obsessive binge. I don't listen to Madlib's music in a rotation with other music. Instead, I listen to Madlib almost exclusively for a chunk of time, and then forget him until the next big Madlib Kick. This is not because he's made about 700 albums, or the fact that his work is diverse enough to be a complete musical diet. It is because his music only makes sense according to the laws of nature in Madlibland.
You can think of this place as underground hip-hop's version of The Zone in Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker. Direct routes are forbidden, and the ground is littered with long forgotten artifacts and debris. When I'm not there, I'm not interested in it and I can't see the appeal of this erratic, scattered mindspace. I'd rather go somewhere safe and warm like Abbey Road. When I feel that specific pull to Madlibland, however, I have to answer and like the Stalkers who lead passengers through The Zone, I have an obsessive compulsion to evangelize the experience.
Among this terrain's most distinct features are the jagged, abrupt changes. Beats and verses and grooves tumble out of the toybox with no obvious structure, sequence, or any transitions a Q-switch couldn't provide. At any moment, any idea can halt or start right in the "middle" of things. Quick cross fades and chaotic sound collage make it impossible to get your bearings. This infuriates outsiders, delights the die-hards, and has never been more prominent than it is on the Medicine Show. If that's not by design, it's a very happy accident. There's something transitory about these volumes, and the release schedule, flexible as it has turned out to be, makes the series something no one will even try to follow unless they are perfectly tuned to Madlib's ADHDJ wavelength.
Low Budget High Fi Music is a microcosm of Madlibland. Inconsistent, messy and scattershot, this volume is vault material (most from around 2005, some more recent) put together like those 1970s Miles Davis records that were pieced together from various late-60s sessions (think Water Babies and Big Fun). The archival nature doesn't bother me - Madlib's release schedule rarely corresponds to when the music is actually made, particularly in the Medicine Show, which has reached as far back as the 1990s. The execution is a little lacking, though. When Teo Macreo spliced and overdubbed those Miles Davis jam sessions, he sculpted them into something more cohesive. Cohesion has no place in Madlibland, and on Low Budget things are even more scattered than usual. Verses fade in and out in medias res, a Beastie Boys cover is split into two (a little here, and some more of it there.)
I wish Madlib employed a more judicious editor (I humbly volunteer!) and I wish he would expand the stable of MCs who rap on his beats, but this is how you listen to prolific eccentrics – you take the good with the bad. Thankfully, the good (the short Loop Digga instrumentals, for example, and the Strong Arm Steady remix) outweighs the bad, and the listening experience is an adventure. I’m going to be sad to see the Medicine Show end.