Tuesday, June 15, 2010

MADLIB: Medicine Show No. 5 - The History of the Loop Digga, 1990-2000

Madlib - Madlib Medicine Show: No. 5 - History of the Loop Digga, 1990-2000
This may as well be called Beat Konducta in the 1990s. The fifth Medicine Show release, and the third to feature Madlib’s original work, is a mix of production Madlib farmed out on beat tapes as he was making his name in the 90s.

Hearing the work a favorite artist did in his formative years can, if nothing else, illuminate that artist’s development and the roots of his more recent work, but History of the Loop Digga is more than just a chronicle of Madlib’s dues-paying. While it is fun to spot the signs of things to come (Quasimoto cameos, that “grass increases creativity” sample from “America’s Most Blunted”), this record is a work that stands on its own.

Part of what makes this such a perfect listen is the massive volume of ideas. There are 34 tracks here, but the indexing is pretty meaningless, since most tracks feature two or more distinctly different beats, and there are a thousand little snippets in between to tease us with the thought that Madlib’s vaults are bottomless. The mixing and editing keep things moving at a fast clip: an incredible beat will pop up and then get yanked away in as little as thirty seconds. The only way to bounce back from cutting something like that short is to immediately hit us with something just as good or better, and that is what happens here. This structure is made possible by the fact that ten years of work (from a notoriously prolific artist) are being whittled down into what fits on one CD, and the fast pace is a smart move because the full-length versions of these tracks would, presumably, be pretty repetitive since they were designed to accompany rappers.

Despite how they were intended to be used, I like listening to these beats without rhymes. This way, I can imagine the infinite possibilities, the endless ways a thousand different MCs could rock this beat or that beat. And this must be how producers like Madlib listen to music; imagining the infinite possibilities, how that break or this bassline can be flipped a thousand different ways.

Among all the breaks and basslines here a few recognizable samples pop up, and while I don’t want to get anyone into trouble, I’ll just say it is particularly cool to hear samples from two of my favorite concept albums: a legendary soul singer’s underrated album about his divorce and a Detroit-based jazz harpist’s unjustly overlooked song cycle based on the poetry of Omar Khayyam (I get chills whenever anyone samples that album).

Madlib circa the 2000s samples things no one else would think to use (dig that prog-rock sample in Madvilain's “Strange Ways” for example) while Madlib circa the 90s uses a lot of material you would expect a hip-hop producer to use, but it’s the dish that matters, not the ingredients.

And this is a dish for connoisseurs, one focused more on skill than innovation. This is, naturally, closer to Lootpack in sound and approach than anything else in Madlib’s catalogue. And while the production isn’t as daring as, say, Beat Konducta in Africa, it’s amazing how Madlib’s distinct verve comes through even in this more conservative boom-bap milieu.

As samples of strings, vocals, horns and pianos, (frequently digitized by hardware, bit-crushed and compressed) weave around snippets of speech (locked into the beat or hovering over it) and rapping (acapella tracks scratched on turntable), the drums swing with a classic in-the-pocket bounce. Kick drums are heavy and snares are solid brick, not as sneaky as some of Madlib's more recent beats.

One of the things that makes Madlib’s production so diverse and addictive is the way he’s willing to allow a beat to be sneaky. If you want to know what I'm talking about, listen to Beat Konducta Vols. 5-6. Not everything is a hard four-on-the-floor that even accountants can dance to. This is why Madlib works so well with Guilty Simpson: Guilty’s rapping is all about punching you in the mouth with words, and over those sneaky beats (see “The Paper” on Medicine Show No. 1 for reference) he doesn’t have to compete with a louder-than-bombs BOOM on every downbeat and his voice can be the muscle.

Of course, the opposite can also work, like C.L. Smooth rapping in his incredibly, well, smooth cadence over a booming Pete Rock beat. In the final portion of History of the Loop Digga, we’re treated to some rapping along those lines, laid back vocals in tandem with hard-nodding drums. It’s all pretty solid rapping (courtesy Declaime, Wildchild, Madlib himself, and others), but nothing that will change the art form forever. What makes this portion of the record so enjoyable is how loose and fun it is, like we’re listening in on a few pals just messing around, putting down lyrics and making records for the sheer joy of it. Their enthusiasm is contagious.

It’s impossible to get bored with this thing, and you can’t shut it off halfway through, because everything is tied together in a well-sequenced and cohesive whole. There are several reoccurring sounds, like the “Surgeon General’s warning” and a certain James Brown grunt that show up over and over. Likewise, the sample in “Episode XIV” comes back, for exactly one downbeat, in the next track, used as a transition. Those little touches make this a more immersive listen, a journey from point A to point B instead of a bunch of unrelated ideas thrown at the wall in a see-what-sticks melee.

The album art veers away from the consistent aesthetic found on all the other Medicine Show releases so far, (a visual unity akin to the classic Blue Note covers from the 60s), replacing it with a hyper-violent Blaxploitation comic by Benjamin Marra. (Note to record companies: liner notes that are comic books are awesome.) The incongruity of the artwork, as well as the archival nature of this release, make it stick out in the Medicine Show a little, and I think it would have found more success as a stand-alone release, since the “Volume 5 of 12” tag might put off listeners who aren’t Madlib fanatics. If the Medicine Show eventually goes out of print like Madlib’s Mind Fusion series from a few years ago (impossible to find, trust me!), I hope this one sticks around or goes to a second pressing, because it’s easily in the top tier of Madlib’s releases.

I don’t want you to think that I am some kind of biased Madlib fanatic, but I do want you to know that this particular album is an incredible, joyous listening experience made for music lovers by a music lover. Stop surfing the internet and go get it.

Five down, seven to go. Up next is another mix, and then, as rumor has it, the Medicine Show is going full blown jazz for a couple of months.

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