I talk to myself. Sometimes it helps me stay awake on long drives, sometimes I need to hear myself say my week’s schedule aloud for memory’s sake and sometimes I need to curse my television set after I lose at Hex-A-Gone in Fall Guys (am I right fellas?). I like to think I keep my chatter within the normal bell curve of talking to oneself. For example, I have never created and voiced an imaginary friend, who materializes as a furry, yellow, cigarette-smoking, pig-snouted aardvark and proceeded to converse with it. That would be pretty weird. But when legendary producer Madlib creates and voices an imaginary friend who materializes as a furry, yellow, cigarette-smoking, pig-snouted aardvark and proceeds to converse with it for an hour on his 2000 record “The Unseen,” it’s pretty sick.
Born Otis Jackson Jr., Madlib calls himself a DJ first, producer second, and emcee last. The latter ranking is perhaps due to his disdain for his own voice on the mic, calling it too deep and tired-sounding for full-length projects. This led to his creation of Quasimoto, Madlib’s lyrically uninhibited, fuzzy, toker of an alter-ego, born from pitching his dreary vocals up to just below chipmunk level. Quasimoto basically sounds like Alvin the Chipmunk after a fatty bong rippachino.
While Madlib is known most for his shared opus with MF DOOM, “Madvillainy,” his squeaky-voiced sidekick, features on only two of the 22 tracks. Instead, he shines as a producer, where his mastery of sampling rearranges source material into diverse soundscapes. On “Shades of Blue,” he plunders the Blue Note Records catalog to curate a new classic sound from the works of jazz greats. On 2014’s “Piñata,” he teams up with the hard-nosed, Gary, IN rapper Freddie Gibbs to merge silky, sky-high soul sounds with Gibbs’s coarse coke rap flows, launching the emcee into newfound cult relevancy. He even acts as a one-man jazz group in his solo project Yesterdays New Quintet, chopping up his own instrumentation into a quirky hip-hop/jazz hybrid. It’s not just Madlib’s technical skill that makes him recognized as one of the best producers of all time—it’s also his ear. He has developed it by digging through crate after crate of records the store owner didn’t even know they owned, scrupulously selecting only the finest loops. Simply put, what makes Madlib so good is that he knows what will sound good.
The Quasimoto moniker is the place for Madlib’s most psychedelic, left-field and, well, blunted material. “The Unseen[’s]” production is the soundtrack to a dusty record store’s secret basement club, with vocal snippets from rap greats like Guru and Funkmaster Flex occasionally cutting through the stereo. I liken the project’s sound to a deluxe edition Adult Swim interlude—half creepy, half funny and referencing something you weren’t born early enough to understand. Quas’s demeanor is that of a loveable ruffian from the get-go. On his first appearance he details his unfair label as a “bad character,” and in the same breath recalls how he stabbed someone “in the chest with a pitchfork from behind.” Later, he chews out a store clerk for not having “some shit with some real soul” in his record collection, while samples of the music he is asking about play in the background. Through all the goofy vocal pitching and flippant lyrics, his raps remain lightning-tight: despite the discipline being Madlib’s tertiary strength, there aren’t any lines on here that make you immediately question his writing chops. The same can’t be said for Rick Ross on “Lord Knows” (that one bar about being in the sauna is traumatizing).
There’s more to “The Unseen” than the ramblings of a stoned, yellow aardvark. Madlib blurs the lines between character and authentic self, recounting tales of racial profiling while splicing in pointed blacksploitation extracts, particularly from songwriter Martin Van Peebles. His narration is often satirical: on “Low Class Conspiracy,” he complains about encounters with police, stating they have no evidence, despite including his paper trail in the song. Yet, Madlib’s commentary isn’t always covert, with extended samples of civil rights activists dropped into a track suddenly and arbitrarily. Madlib peppers the eerie “Come on Feet” with samples of scrambling footsteps and Van Peebles’ frantic yelping of the song’s title. The tiptoeing arpeggios are downtrodden, creating an image of an impoverished landscape that Madlib and Quas can’t bring themselves to escape from. The record would be less without this playful opaqueness like the producer is saving a few inside jokes for himself.
It shouldn’t be as surprising as it is that Madlib can hold down an entire rap project by himself. He’s among the most well-studied in the game, and his DJing genius lends itself well to being a talented emcee. Kind of like a renaissance apprenticeship, hanging out with generational rappers all day has clearly rubbed off on Madlib. “The Unseen[’s]” atmosphere is unmatched: a hazy hip-hop relic with a split personality conductor prone to dark wisecracks and offbeat references. The album goes down as one of the most underappreciated records in hip-hop, which is right where it should be. It’s there for those curious enough to see what one of the best producers to ever do it has to offer but discussed little enough to keep its status as a hidden gem. Some might even say the album is rather unsee—never mind actually.
Listen to Cam and his co-host Brett talk about music at 7 p.m. Fridays at WDCE.net.
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