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Hip hop legend Madlib talks Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, and cassette tape bliss

At 42 years old, Otis “Madlib” Jackson Jr has been slicing sounds from different eras and congealing them over hard hitting drums for years, long before Windows 95 was the mark of modern technology. During an hour-long chat at New York’s swanky Grolier Club for the Red Bull Music Academy Festival last weekend, Madlib told tales about using little pins instead of record player needles to hear the music without speakers. He proclaimed he doesn’t have “Twitter fingers.” He’s a child of the analog age.

Hip hop journalist and event moderator Jeff “Chairman” Mao at one point asked the artist if he had embraced modern digital technology in favor of recording his beats on actual cassette. The Gazelle shades rustled as his eyebrows tightened. “Nah, I just do what I do,” he replied. “Let me do what I do and you do your thing, man. I’ll be the last dude doing what I do.”

From keeping it old school, making beats too crazy for Kanye West, and using his iPad as a babysitter for his three children, Madlib talked about the delicate balance of staying true to yourself as the world around you changes.

Utter Madlib’s name at a hip hop concert and you’ll inevitably be met with one question: “When is he putting out that album with MF Doom?” A highly celebrated and eccentric lyricist, MF Doom is lauded for his penchant for making the unorthodox groovy, just like Madlib. In 2004, the pair melted minds with the collaborative album Madvillainy and anticipation for the follow-up created a fervor that is matched by few hip hop releases in recent memory.

After revealing he has 20 unreleased songs with his Madvillainy partner — before clarifying “that don’t mean they’re coming out” — Madlib explained how protecting the group’s sound from modernity is a key reason for the album’s delay. “People are expecting too much and they’re complaining about … certain things the Doom records don’t have anyway. The mastering and mixing. We like our stuff dirty.”

After a few seconds of stumbling over his words as if thumbing through a crate of records, he picks an analysis that sounds right. “I think people are on a different level now. That was good for then, but now it’s something different,” he says, before adding, “I like listening to the album. I love the new album.”

In 2010, Kanye West went to the masonic temple Madlib converted into a recording studio in Highland Park to retrieve five beats for his My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy album. Six years later, Kanye relayed via tweet that he and Kendrick Lamar were gifted with six more CDs of Madlib beats during a studio session. However, none of Madlib’s raw production appeared on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, or the Watch The Throne collaboration album Kanye did with Jay Z the following year, after he tweeted the two were preparing to record on one of Madlib’s beats.

West and Lamar did end up recording No More Parties in L.A. for West’s The Life of Pablo album over one of the beats from the six CDs. But Madlib still believes his style of production doesn’t fit Yeezus. In fact, while he prefers to work in analog, he says the beat for No More Parties in L.A. was actually made on an iPad.

“He didn’t like them beats,” Madlib said in the midst of a chuckle. “I gave him a bunch of crazy shit.” He may have been a bit modest there, however, as he later let the crowd in on a little inside information from that studio session with Lamar and West. “I heard they were arguing over the CDs in the studio.” 

Genius is the start, but it’s the sleepless hours that produce the brilliance that dazzles people. During the conversation, Madlib stated he normally sleeps a mere two or three hours a day at random times, devoting most of his time to working on music. He told the crowd his passionate relationship with music began in the ’70s with his musician father Otis Jackson, Sr. “My pops had me at the studio since I was born,” Madlib began. “That’s why I got into music. He would let me go up on the controls and mess with stuff.”

Now with three kids of his own, Madlib is finding it hard to blend his roles as both dad and producer — like his father. “I’m always doing shit in headphones. They’re like ‘buy some speakers so we can hear what you doing.’” So, how does a man who blocks the world out for hours keep away familial distractions? Technology. “Put them headphones on and give them the iPad and do what I do. The iPad is the greatest thing as far as kids.” He makes sure to explain “they know I do music, so they don’t mess with me too much.”

The music industry as a whole understands what Madlib’s three children do: he makes music, so don’t mess with the genius at work. His latest conversation demonstrated how modern influences rarely penetrate his self-contained world. Still, like so many prolific musicians, much of the genius never escapes his private studio.

That being said, in a time when Kendrick Lamar can turn a collection of unmastered, unreleased songs into a Billboard #1 album, it appears there’s still a place for the raw sounds of a mad genius still in love with the world of analog.

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