Feature: Madlib

Published in the Jan. 19-26 issue of NOW Magazine.

Madlib revels in being a loner; it’s why he rarely does press and his shows are highly anticipated. “A lot of people can’t even be around themselves. I cut people out to see what I’m about,” the quiet, plainspoken musician explains over the phone from his home in California. “Isolation teaches you how to like yourself.”

But when Otis Jackson Jr. holes up to make music – “I work 12-hour days every day, sleep maybe three or four hours a night” – with heaps of records and cheap analog equipment, you never know who might emerge. And so, though he’s Madlib to most, his 20-plus-year discography (released almost entirely by avant hip-hop L.A.label Stones Throw) resists categorization and encompasses production, rapping and instrumental music under aliases like Quasimoto and Beat Konducta.

“I work too much,” he says, though it’s not self-criticism, just fact. “[After friend J Dilla died], I was like, ‘I can’t stop now,’ and started working harder, triple-time,” which has resulted in thousands and thousands of unreleased recordings, he estimates.

An affinity for the studio, cultivated as a child watching his musician father at work, makes Madlib’s compositions highly experimental, with rawness as their unifying characteristic. He’s consistently trying new things, then casting them aside in favour of the next musical adventure.

Sometimes his work makes conscious statements about self-directed learning, like the jazzy trials of the Yesterdays New Quintet series. Or they become meditative canvases for artists like Talib Kweli, Freddie Gibbs and Erykah Badu. Singer Georgia Anne Muldrow’s upcoming Seeds is entirely produced by Madlib.

“I’ll work with anybody – anybody that can match,” he self-corrects. “But it’s not like I’m sitting in the studio with them. They’ve heard my music and know what to take.” That’s how it is with most everyone, he divulges, except Dilla, and 2004’s acclaimed Madvillainy with masked bard MF Doom. Soon, though he won’t say when, we’ll see Lying Otis, a project with interstellar beat composer Flying Lotus. “That’s my man,” he says. “I like his whole crew – they’re doing something new.”

The Madlib Medicine Show has just two tour stops: Brooklyn, New York, and Toronto, both hotbeds of Stones Throw supporters. First on Madlib’s itinerary is Cosmos Records for some digging, he says. Or catch him by the bar at the Great Hall before his set: “Rather than performing, I like having a drink with some folks and hearing what they think.”