Known for his Madvillainy collaboration with MF DOOM, Champion Sound collaboration with J Dilla, multiple collaborations with Freddie Gibbs, and solo work under the alias Madlib — Otis Jackson Jr.’s career defines the hip hop genre of the decade following the mid nineties.
Departing from his foundational style from that bygone era, Madlib has evolved his artistic sound to better fit the contemporary soundscape. Madlib’s most recent effort, Sound Ancestors, has released at what may be a pivotal point in the artist’s career. Despite his reputation as a forward-thinking producer, it is clear on this record that Madlib is becoming more retrospective. Paying homage to his “Sound Ancestors,” Madlib returns to the most influential aspects of his sound while displaying influences from those who had been inspired by him. He emerges as a new architect building upon the foundations that he himself had erected. Unique to this project, rather than chopping and screwing various samples, Madlib leaves his samples mostly raw and unedited. These raw samples bestow upon the listener a rare glimpse into Madlib’s process of treasure diving for earworm sounds. It seems that Madlib is inviting us into his vault of vinyl and showing us what makes each loop tick.
Prior to this album, Madlib had not really tampered with elements of Electronic Music — enter this album’s collaborator, Four Tet, an Electronic Music producer. Before Sound Ancestors, the only published collaboration between Four Tet and Madlib (if one could even call it collaboration) was a Four Tet remix album of various tracks off of Madvillainy. On this new record, although not listed explicitly as a collaborator on each track, Four Tet now plays a very real role. Despite being under the Madlib alias with no listed collaborator, Sound Ancestors is much more of a collaborative album than fans are led to believe; many of the tracks seem to be welded together by Four Tet. Four Tet’s respect for Madlib’s vision, and the artists’ appreciation for one another, rise to the spotlight.
Sound Ancestors opens with ethereal sounding ambient synthesizers that traverse time and space, introducing sound inspired by the ancestors that shaped modern music. “The Call,” which samples Terry Britain’s song “Bargain Day,” samples a singular well-sung phrase to act as a hook for the song. Like on many of Madlib’s other tracks, the vocal samples in “The Call” are left in their original state, bringing with them an unavoidable grainy and fuzzy texture which meshes with the lo-fi production Madlib surrounds them with. The griminess of the buzzing, blown-out bass line on “The Call” makes for a strong start to the first leg of the record.
Other highlights like “Latino Negro” and “Road of the Lonely Ones” feature samples of Spanish acoustic guitar and jazz percussion, a genre mashup that sounds new and should be attempted more often. In the middle of the record, Madlib even dabbles with environmental ambient music on the track “Hopprock,” which includes gorgeous wind chime samples that make the production feel spacious, before a beat switch that returns the track to a hip hop backing. Another highlight, the track “Two for 2 - For Dilla,” has Madlib’s best J Dilla impersonation. Like much of J Dilla’s work, the track features catchy and chopped Motown vocal samples. While any homage to an artist's style runs the risk of coming off as a cheap imitation, Madlib’s clear admiration and analysis of what made J Dilla’s music so special comes through admirably on this track. MF DOOM’s influence on the record also shines in tracks like “One For the Quartabe / Right Now” and others across Sound Ancestors that sporadically feature samples from television, film, and cartoon dialogue.
The tracklist does have occasional faults, though, notably the songs “Loose Goose” and “Chino.” “Loose Goose” features some interesting woodwinds and clunky Snoop Dogg vocal samples where the D O double G can be heard saying “For Shizzle Dizzle.” Despite having interesting ideas, the track still seems awkward. “Chino,” on the other hand, fails to stick out. With mediocre sound, the song is simply a straightforward jazzy hip hop track with eclectic samples, something common in Madlib's production, but uninspired here.
Ultimately, Sound Ancestors comes at an interesting turning point in this legend's career. With the passing of MF DOOM and the relatively recent success of his collaborations with Freddie Gibbs, Madlib has hit a transition point. It is clear that Madlib is looking forward to the future of his sound while looking to honor the sonic lessons he has learned from figures like DOOM and Dilla. Overall, this effort is introspective and is a must-listen for any Madlib fan. While not his most consistent work, it stands out in his discography for its raw samples, spacious production, homages, dabbles into electronic and ambient sounds, and strong genre fusions.
Rating: I N D Y
Connor Lammas studies Government in the College with a Comp Sci minor, and is the Reviews Editor.