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)”

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