Interview: Madlib

The elusive producer on The Medicine Show and his China debut

After a three-year wait, Shelter co-owner Gary Wang casts his favourite hip hop protagonist Madlib in a leading role at one of the biggest nights in his club’s history. Time Out speaks to the revered – and elusive – producer ahead of the show

It’s a cold, wet Tuesday in Shanghai and, on the phone from Los Angeles, Madlib is in a playful mood. No, let’s be honest, Madlib is stoned. ‘What am I working on?’ he says, in his slow West Coast drawl. ‘Lots of things. Let me see. A video game,’ he assures us brightly. A video game? ‘Yeah, you know, music for a video game.’ Sure, but which one? ‘Uhhh – shit, what is that shit called, man,’ he says. ‘Forget what it’s called. A big one, though,’ he offers keenly, as if finally nailing the answer. ‘The biggest one, I guess.’

And, so, within minutes, the unofficial formula of any Madlib interview – of which there are very few – is close to realised. It generally says two things: first, the interviewer will immediately form a strong suspicion that their subject is baked; and, second, all answers, when they come (and it takes time) will be head-slappingly elusive, shorn of detail and mercilessly clipped. Example: How’s the score going for Stones Throw documentary My Vinyl Weighs a Tonne? ‘I don’t know,’ he says, after a long pause. ‘But I am doing the music for it. Same old stuff, I guess. Same old Madlib stuff.’ Can we expect any new material from Quasimoto any time soon? ‘It’s possible.’

It’s a frustrating interview, but Madlib, born Otis Jackson Jr, is never impolite. There’s never a feeling that he’s affecting some kind of hip hop, give-a-fuck posture. He has a well-known dislike of the spotlight. ‘Interviews are my least favourite thing to do,’ he told LA Weekly in 2010.

One of most revered figures in hip hop, Madlib hardly needs the press. A multi-alias producer, sample-smith, loop-digger, rapper and keeper-of-secrets to the most hallowed hip hop producer of all time, J Dilla, he inspires a cult that extends back to the mid-1990s. One of his most significant credits came in 2004, as one half of Madvillain, a side-project with MF Doom that spawned crossover hit Madvillainy, one of the most critically successful indie-hip hop albums of this century. Talk of its follow-up is now an annual event which mostly comes to nothing. Last September, though, Doom claimed the album would be ‘done this year’.

‘They said that four years ago,’ says Jackson, at his most fluent. ‘Nah, I don’t believe none of that. I’d say, maybe, yeah, 2024,’ he adds. Why the hold-up? ‘It’s ’cause we’re in different places now, we both got different issues. But, nah, it’s about ten songs done,’ he says. ‘We got to be picky with this album, so we gotta have, like, 20 or 30 tracks to choose from.’ 

We ask whether what he calls a need to be ‘picky’ is due to any pressure he feels following up Madvillainy. ‘I don’t feel pressure,’ he says. ‘I’m just waiting for him to finish when he finishes. It’s not like I’m getting a million dollars for it, you know. I mean, I wouldn’t want that anyway. But I’m just saying, it’s up to him,’ he says with resignation. ‘He got the beats, so he just gotta do what he gotta do.’ 

How will it differ from the first album? ‘You’ll have to tell me,’ he says. ‘I definitely see it as a continuation. But there’ll be surprises, too.’

Arguably Madlib’s most significant alter-ego is Jaylib, a collaboration with his other ‘musical cousin’, the late producer J Dilla. We ask if he gets tired of the comparison. ‘I’m not even close to Dilla,’ he says. ‘But, yeah, people think we’re the same [standard]. But... That’s the king. He’s the best,’ he adds, with a starry glaze. ‘Better to get compared to him than some other shit, I guess. But I do different things, too,’ he insists more forcefully. ‘So you can’t pin me down that hard. I’m trying to do something else anyway.’

In a recent interview, Stones Throw label founder Peanut Butter Wolf claimed there was still a lot of Dilla material yet to be released, including his shelved MCA album, reportedly titled Pay Jay. ‘Oh yeah, there’s going to be a bunch of albums coming out by Dilla,’ says Jackson. ‘The dude had tonnes of music.’ The MCA album? ‘Yeah, I’m on that. That album’s dope. Showcases his rhymes,’ he adds. ‘Don’t act like he couldn’t rap.’ Will it be released any time soon? ‘Possibly.’

Madlib’s current project, though, and the reason for his visit, is Medicine Show, a massively ambitious 13-album series that completed this year with Black Tape. The Shanghai show will feature music from the album, he says. ‘I’ll play all kinds of music from [Medicine Show], Freddie Gibbs, Madvillain, [as well as] breaking music from my crate, unreleased tracks and things.’ Widely thought of as a now-completed series, he hints there’s more to come. ‘I don’t know what it’s going to be yet,’ he says. ‘But, you know, I’m not trying to change or evolve every year. I’m just trying to make music for the people who want to hear it,’ he adds. ‘I’m not trying to be Jay-Z.’

Madlib plays at The Shelter on Saturday 23 February. See event details