EVERYWHERE you look if researching this forthcoming album, the comparisons you see are thus: as Gil Evans was to Miles Davis; as Holger Czukay was to Can, as Jean Claude Vannier was to Serge Gainsbourg on Histoire De Melody Nelson.
For once it might be possible to let the guard down and believe the hype, because Kieran Hebden, better known to us all as Four Tet, and Otis Jackson Jr., otherwise Madlib, and Quasimoto, and producer behind many if not most of the seminal, standard-setting hip-hop records of the past twenty years. are in collaboration on this one; you could maybe consider both to be the producer’s producer in the fields of breaks and electronic music, which could make for a hugely confusing sentence about the one producing the other which I which won’t even attempt, here.
Suffice to say, they’ve both made some of the best records in genres running parallel through the 21st century, and meeting occasionally before – witness Four Tet’s remixes 12″ of the sadly departed MF Doom’s Madvillainy; they’ve been friends for twenty years, too.
Let’s hand over to Kieran to give us the lowdown.
“A few months ago I completed work on an album with my friend Madlib that we’d been making for the last few years,” he says.
“He is always making loads of music in all sorts of styles … I was listening to some of his new beats and studio sessions when I had the idea that it would be great to hear some of these ideas made into a Madlib solo album; not made into beats for vocalists to use, but instead arranged into tracks that could all flow together in an album designed to be listened to start to finish.
“I put this concept to him when we were hanging out eating some nice food one day and we decided to work on this together with him sending me tracks, loops, ideas and experiments that I would arrange, edit, manipulate and combine.
“I was sent hundreds of pieces of music over a couple of years’ stretch and during that time I put together this album with all the parts that fitted with my vision.”
So, a sonic master overseen by a sonic master’s vision of that master. Or something. You get the drift. It should be delish. How actually is it?
Two tracks were dropped before release, and we’ve embedded “Hopprock” below for you. It is an absolute fusion of them both, both trademark acoustic signatures intact; the way it begins in cello and those gently percussive bells which Kieran Hebden has used to such potent and beautiful ends as far back as Rounds and Pause; it seems to be heading nowhere, as you pass by an answering machine playing back, the human ghost in the machine; and then suddenly, swiftly, those beats drop, crisp, precise, rhythmically perfect, humming along on a muted guitar lick, interjecting exclamations catching the sway and the swing and urging us on.
Rewinding now, the album actually begins in the psychedelic intro of “There Is No Time (Prelude)”, just a little aural taster before the real work begins in “The Call”, fat as hell funk guitar chops, dirty bass, shading into a vocal groove and retracting again to those marrow-deep rhythmic bare bones, compelling, driving, space synths and turntablism adding to the palette.
“Theme De Crabtree” splices ragga toasting with a more Four Tet glimmer of bells, and a complex break that tumbles on – don’t attempt any shapes after a glass or two, it’s a tricksy one; but full of space and joy. “Road Of The Lonely Ones” pulls a vocal loop from The Ethics’ “Now Is The Time”, and sets it adrift on psychedelic soul memory bliss, splicing in a jazz shuffle that makes for an ethereal and timeless side, the kind you only find in your dreams. You’ll find an embed of that down at the end.
“Loose Goose” is spacey, breaks for a dub spliffiness, with a meaty bass at all the right moments, then steps deeper into Afrobeat; “Dirtknock” is a beautifully sleazy rattle of bass, sugared vocals, a filthy beat, that kicks into “Hopprock”.
Record the first, approaching from a wax lovers’ perspective, ends in the brief atmospheric sketch of “Riddim Chant”.
“Sound Ancestors” kicks off part the second in bright Afro timbre, wooden percussive complexity shakin’ it down at speed, fast-cutting to the loose, free flute and double bass lifted from Bobby Ramirez’s “God Jehovah’s Wisdom, Part 5”; and segues into “One For Quartabê/Right Now” a multifaceted cauldron of deep funk organ vamp, spoken word excerpts mined from deep down, drops and changes of pace, coming atcha, like life, fast. It’s a supreme collage.
“Hang Out (Phone Off)” shakes down into a more cohesive break, a stand-up Seventies’ jazz funk essay; “Two for 2 – For Dilla” follows, an elegy for another of Madlib’s friends and collaborating MCs, with whom the chemistry really flowed (witness 2003’s Champion Sound, released as Jaylib). It’s beautifully old-skool, has a core of woody double bass and a vocal sample pulled from The Persuaders’ 1972 gem “Love Gonna Pack Up (And Walk Out)”.
“Latino Negro” does what you might expect in unexpected fashion, as Kieran overlays some cool bebop breakdown with Spanish guitar, acknowledging, I think, great past tracks by them both; that guitar especially recalling Rounds-era Four Tet, when all the talk was of ‘folktronica’. “The New Normal” is future groove, with a lineage that calls on Mo’Wax, recalls as well last year’s album from The Twilite Tone on Stones Throw; crisply electro, downbeat, astral, atmospheric as you’d wish.
“Chino” is a short, swaying interlude, laying the beats over vocal exhortations and vamps, crowd noises, of all stripes; it’s a very human two minutes of breaks; “Duumbiyay” closes the show out in chanting and pinging polyrhythm, Afrojazz piano unfolding. If you’ve heard any of Four Tet’s all-encapsulating mixes, you’ll catch this deep groove as (one of many, actually) sweet spots where Madlib and he fully mesh from their own corners.
And there it is; and I’ll say that while a track-by-track synopsis is a way to wrap a brain around Sound Ancestors, a purchase on the soundworld, it can only partly tackle the sampledelic dynamism within. Sure, there, on this level, tracks; but look closer and many of those tracks shift lightning-quick through moods and movements and components, may be broken down within themselves – and each of those again, sourced and crate-dug and part of other wholes; its an iterative album, that is, the further you focus in, the further you pull back, you’ll always catch a similar image – like, if you will, one of those solarised Mandelbrot set posters from back in the days of acid house.
Furthermore, and as in the old adage about the wood for the trees, you really need to pull back, marvel and swim through the whole, as Kieran indicates; it’s a journey, and also a salute to a like mind and a fellow traveller. I’m gonna throw a score rating on it, as tradition demands; I’d caution that that score will elevate in weeks to come, as the true depth and weave of this album reveals it itself. It’s a breaks great that’s also gonna be a real grower, you can tell, revealing the whole of itself over many deep listens. I’m looking forward to that.
Madlib’s Sound Ancestors is released digitally today, January 29th, and is available as we speak from Madlib’s Bandcamp page; where you can also order the CD and vinyl, which follow in due course on March 5th – Rough Trade and Piccadilly are good bets, too.