Understanding Madlib's Production Style Through 5 Source Records

Madlib (2014). Photo by: Carl Pocket. Used under Creative Commons 2.0

It's been over three years since legendary DJ and producer Madlib announced the release of Bandana, the highly anticipated followup to his 2014 collaboration with Freddie Gibbs, Piñata. But for an artist so dedicated to the craft of sampling, waiting for clearances is prone to cause delays. On June 28, the long wait comes to an end, and Bandana will become the latest work in a career full of diverse and impressive production performances to grace our ears.

20 years ago, Madlib joined Wildchild and DJ Romes as Lootpack, a collective devoted to crate-digging and lo-fi beats, whose debut Soundpieces: Da Antidote laid the early groundwork for Madlib's approach to music.

It wouldn't take long before Madlib branched out, creating an alter-ego MC Lord Quas for the "duo" Quasimoto, whose 2000 debut, The Unseen, became a breakout moment for the producer and remains an underground favorite.

Becoming a rising hip-hop producer wasn't enough for Madlib, however, who in 2001 ventured into jazz as a fictional quintet named Yesterdays New Quintet. To date, he has recorded 10 albums under the moniker, including 2004's Stevie, a tribute to the music of Stevie Wonder.

Since then, Madlib has worked with some of hip-hop's best, including Gibbs and J Dilla, to create some of the 21st century's greatest collaborative works. Most notable among these is his collaboration with MF Doom, Madvillain, whose 2004 record Madvillainy features some of Madlib's grooviest beats and is often regarded as one of hip-hop's essential albums.

Essential Madlib

Across all these albums and unique projects, Madlib's art of sampling classic source materials remains the defining glue that holds the music together and keeps the tradition of music's past relevant and alive in the 21st century. In 2014, Madlib told Spin, "I've got about three or four rooms of records, and two rooms of instruments. I've probably got more than four tons [of records] by now."

It may be impossible to truly know how many of those records the beatmaster has sampled, since he so impeccably chops and layers his source materials to suit his innovative purposes. As of now, WhoSampled has estimated 2,100 sample uses across his career, though it wouldn't be surprising to find more hiding in the music.

Madlib's productions aren't impressive only because of the sheer amount of music he's sampled, but also because of the wide range of influences he's repurposed—from jazz legends to electronic producers to spoken word albums and Indian film soundtracks. Though it'd be a lifelong task to break down Madlib's entire record collection, let's take the opportunity in light of his newest release to highlight five albums representative of the timeless producer's keen ear for quality music, no matter the genre or place of origin.

Cannonball Adderley

The Black Messiah

At the beginning of Madlib's adventure into music's grand diversity was jazz. "I was a jazz head," he told Wax Poetics. "My dad had a big collection. My grandparents had one. Every time I went to my grandparents' house, I just sat at the records … trying to listen to different things." Jazz records are the foundation off of which everything else Madlib has created is built. Among the great tradition of jazz musicians Madlib sampled is saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, whose 1971 live album The Black Messiah he chopped for the 2000 Quasimoto track "Jazz Cats Pt. 1."

The track highlights pianist George Duke's frantic electric piano from "Circumference" as well as Adderley's melancholy sax performance on "Eye of the Cosmos," as Quasimoto honors his jazz heroes from Sun Ra to Dizzy Gillespie. Adderley and company's performances on The Black Messiah came during an experimental explosion of jazz-rock fusion. The album's warm and raucous textures heard throughout also caught the ears of producers Q-Tip (who sampled the album on The Low End Theory) and J Dilla (who used it on a remix of Busta Rhymes' "Woo-Hah!! Got You All In Check").

David Axelrod

Song of Innocence

The avant-garde approach of composer and producer David Axelrod during the late '60s and early '70s produced some of the most influential work for many beatmakers, Madlib chief among them. Axelrod's 1968 debut, Song of Innocence, defied genre and sought to push the limits of popular music in the wake of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Forty years later, Madlib borrowed from the classic album three times while working with his '90s group Lootpack.

The twinkling piano on "The Smile" provides the basis the lo-fi beat on "Undisciplined"; the shuffling breakbeat on the title track is bass boosted on the punchy "B-Boy Theme"; and the whirling organ of "Merlin's Prophecy" creates the dramatic intro to "New Year's Resolution." Axelrod's production on this record continues to be a force in hip-hop, and many leading artists, from Questlove to Flying Lotus, paid him homage at his death in 2017.

Melvin Van Peebles

Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song

Director, storywriter, film producer, and actor Melvin Van Peebles seems an odd influence for a hip-hop producer. But for Madlib, a producer who loves to throw some dialogue into his tracks, Van Peebles' low-budget, Afrocentric films were perfect sources of sampling material. "I sampled off VHS back in the day," Madlib said in an interview, also sharing that the 1971 film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song was his introduction to Van Peebles' work.

The dialogue and soundtrack would serve as an essential piece in Madlib tracks like Quasimoto's "Come On Feet," while also showing up in his collaborators' work like MF Doom's "The Finest." In 2005, Stones Throw Records reported that Madlib and Van Peebles would actually release a joint project titled Brer Soul Meets Quasimoto. However, 14 years later, the project hasn't surfaced.


Trans Europe Express

Kraftwerk's impact on the entire scope of popular music is immense and well-documented. But not many in 1977 would have anticipated that a group of German musicians playing with synthesizers and drum machines would influence a genre like hip-hop, which didn't yet exist in recorded form. Yet, their work was essential to hip-hop's founders like Afrika Bambaataa and continues to be sampled by artists like Madlib. Trans Europe Express' title track can be heard in the extraterrestrial 2005 beat "Open (Space)."

Kraftwerk's spacey synth-work on "The Hall of Mirrors" also forms the basis for the Madlib-produced track "The Last Stand" by Stones Throw artist Dudley Perkins. While Kraftwerk may seem an obvious choice for electronic samples, Madlib has always dug a little further in the crates, pulling out samples from artists like Daedelus and Synergy.

Gang Starr

Hard To Earn

Of course, Madlib found inspiration within his own genre as well. While Madlib hails from the West Coast, he never bought into the coast wars of the '90s and instead found inspiration in the boom-bap production of DJ Premier and Gang Starr. Though Premier brought a heavier, in-your-face sound than Madlib's laid-back grooves, the influence in technique and sound quality is apparent.

Besides Gang Starr's clear stylistic influence, you can hear Madlib tributing his predecessors and sampling tracks from their 1994 album Hard To Earn throughout his career, from Lootpack's "New Year's Resolution" and "Episodes" to his Shades of Blue track "Montara."