Madvillain
Madvillainy
Stones Throw

Straight up, this album is the shit.  Released in 2004, Madvillainy has become a foundational classic of underground hip hop, featuring two of the great stars of the underground: MF DOOM and the producer Madlib.  It has reached an almost legendary status, in part because DOOM just hasn’t got around to finishing off the second album, which was supposed to be finished in 2012, eight years after this came out, and, incidentally, eight years ago now.

DOOM is a legend, of course.  His origin story goes back to the 90s, as one half of the duo, KMD, with his brother, DJ Subroc.  But Subroc died in an accident in 1993 on the Long Island Expressway, and KMD’s second album, Black Bastards was rejected by the label, Elektra.  DOOM, then known as Zev Love X, withdrew from the scene, apparently down to Atlanta, and eventually re-emerged in 1997, his face obscured by a mask, as MF DOOM.  His first solo album, Operation: Doomsday came out in 1999 and he quickly emerged as one of the darlings of the underground.  Not long after the album came out, Madlib, an up and coming producer from California, told the LA Times that it would be his dream to collaborate with DOOM and J-Dilla.

But then DOOM withdrew again when his label went kaputski and was splitting his time between Long Island and Kennesaw, GA (just outside of Atlanta).  The head of Madlib’s label, Stones Throw, had a friend who lived in Kennesaw who had reported on seeing DOOM around, and so sent his friend some beats that Madlib had created to pass onto DOOM who, it turns out, loved them.  And he reported that DOOM wanted to do an album with Madlib.  So, Stones Throw cut a deal with him, for $1500 and a plane ticket to LA, and once he got to LA, after the label found the $1500, a contract was agreed on a paper plate.  And this is the basis of genius.

What makes Madvillain so brilliant is the interplay between Madlib’s distinctive production style and DOOM’s abstract, off-beat rhymes.  The beats were mostly made with rudimentary equipment, a Boss SP-303 sampler, a turntable, and a tape deck.  They began working together in 2002, and within about two weeks, Madlib had over 100 beats, and the duo worked in Madlib’s studio, an old bomb shelter in LA.  When not making beats and rhymes, they smoked copious amounts of weed, eating Thai food, and doing mushrooms.  In November that year, Madlib went to a Red Bull music conference in Brazil, where he debuted the music for the first time, playing the unfinished ‘America’s Most Blunted.’

And then he went crate-digging with Cut Chemist, J. Rocc, and DJ Babu.  He bought a bunch of crates of records, some of which he almost immediately lost.  And he used what he found and liked for Madvillainy.  And then he produced the bulk of the album in his hotel room in Sào Paulo, using the same basic equipment.  But then the demo was stolen in Brazil, and the unfinished album was leaked onto the internet, a whole 14 months before it was supposed to be released by Stones Throw.  This was back in the day when leaks like this were thought to kill sales, but then people kept coming up to them at shows telling them how dope the album was.  So they figured they were done.

Then they went off and worked on other projects.  Madlib got to work with Dilla, on Champion Sound (where he used some beats not used on Madvillainy), and DOOM dropped two solo albums, one under his alias, Viktor Vaughn.  And then they got back to work on Madvillainy.  And this was the birth of what has since become DOOM’s signature style, relaxed and mellow.  The label also asked for a few changes, and for a proper final track, which became ‘Rhinestone Cowboy,’ which was based on one of the Sào Paulo beats.

Madlib produced the entire album, except for the first track, ‘The Illest Villains,’ which was a joint production from the two.  Madlib now has a very distinct style, not just in his insistence on obscure beats and samples, which makes him like nearly every other producer, but by his use of non-American and non-Western music.  On Madvillainy, this meant Indian and Brazilian music.  The tracks are all short, other than ‘America’s Most Blunted,’ which clocks in at 3.54, all the tracks are under two-and-a-half minutes, and there are no hooks, no choruses.  The tracks are segued with samples from 1940s film noir and the weed-based skits.  The beats on this album are ridiculous, funky, and brilliant.

DOOM, meanwhile, drops some of his most insane lyrics, largely through free association, which results in these near-impossible to understand vignettes.  The original version of the songs, the ones bootlegged from the stolen demo, showed him using a more hyper style on the mic, but the leak caused him to shift gears, to slow down, which was his stroke of genius.  I remember the leaked version, and as great as it was, the final version is what makes it a classic.  A review of the album in The Observer noted that DOOM’s lyrics rewarded a close listen, and that his rhymes ‘miss beats, drop into the middle of the next line, work their way through whole verses’ thus creating the smooth flow.  This has become his calling card since.

‘The Illest Villains’ starts the album, drawing on the trope of DOOM as the supervillain, now joining up with a new supervillain, and now Madvillain emerges as one of the worst of all time, lacking ethics, and because they were two, they were able to double their output.  But, of course, they’re really ‘just really nice boys who just happen to be on the wrong side of the law, 360 degrees.’ And as the introduction is played out over a disjointed beat, we flow into the steady beat, accordion, and thumping bass of ‘Accordion,’ and DOOM steps up to the mic:

Livin’ off borrowed time, the clock tick faster
That’d be the hour they knock the slick blaster
Dick Dastardly and Muttley with sick laughter
A gun fight and they come to cut the mixmaster
I-C-E cold, nice to be old
Y2G steed twice to threefold
He sold scrolls, lo and behold
Know who’s the illest ever like the greatest story told
Keep your glory, gold and glitter
For have half of his niggaz’ll take him out the picture
The other half is rich and don’t mean shit-ta
Villain a mixture between both with a twist of liquor
Chase it with more beer, taste it like truth or dare
When he have the mic it’s like the place get like: ‘Ah yeah!’
It’s like they know what’s ’bout to happen
Just keep ya eye out, like aye, aye cap’n
Is he still a fly guy clappin’ if nobody ain’t hear it
And can they testify from inner spirit (no)
In living, the true gods
Givin’ y’all nothing but the lick like two broads
Got more lyrics than the church got ‘Ooh Lords’
And he hold the mic and your attention like two swords
Or even one with two blades on it
Hey you, don’t touch the mic like it’s AIDS on it
It’s like the end to the means
F*cked type of message that sends to the fiends
That’s why he brings his own needles
And get more cheese than Doritos, Cheetos or Fritos

Slip like Freudian
Your first and last step to playin’ yourself like accordion
When he at the mic you don’t go next
Even pussy cats like why hoes need Kotex
Exercise index won’t need Bowflex
And won’t take the one with no skinny legs like Joe Tex.
Delivered in his stoner drawl, the interplay between the fat bassline, the cheap drums, and the accordion with the lyrics is just brilliant.

 

And then that feeds directly into ‘Meat Grinder,’ which has a looped sample before the music breaks down and the bassline steps up, rattling my speakers, someone takes a puff, and then DOOM:
Tripping off the beat kinda, dripping off the meat grinder
Heat niner, pimping, stripping, soft sweet minor
China was a neat signer, trouble with the script
Digits double dipped, bubble lipped, subtle lisp midget
Borderline schizo, sort of fine tits though
Pour the wine, whore to grind, quarter to nine, let’s go
Ever since ten eleven, glad she made a brethren
Then it’s last down, seven alligator seven, at the gates of heaven
Knocking, no answer, slow dancer, hopeless romancer, dopest flow stanzas
Yes, no? Villain, Metal face to Destro
Guess so, still incredible in escrow
Just say Ho! I’ll test the yayo
Wild West style fest, y’all best to lay low
Hey bro, Day Glo, set the bet, pay dough
Before the cheddar get away, best to get Maaco
The worst hated God who perpetrated odd favors
Demonstrated in the perforated Rod Lavers
In all quad flavors, Lord save us
Still back in the game like Jack LaLane
Think you know the name, don’t rack your brain
On a fast track to half sane
Either in a slow beat or that the speed of “Wrath of Kane”
Laughter, pain
“Hackthoo’ing” songs lit, in the booth, with the best host
Doing bong hits, on the roof, in the west coast
He’s at it again
Mad at the pen
Glad that we win, a tad fat, in a bad hat for men
Grind the cinnamon, Manhattan warmongers
You can find the villain in satin, congas
The van screeches
The old man preaches
About the gold sand beaches
The cold hand reaches
For the old tan Ellesse’s
Jesus

And so, from the lyrics to these two tracks, you can see DOOM’s plan here, his free association, random obscure pop culture references, like it all just kind of came together as he stood there with the mic in hand, like he is just free-styling.  He isn’t, of course, but the effect is the same.  But within those free association lyrics, there is a density to his stylings, between the way he rhymes things like cinnamon and warmongers, and the way he moves across subjects, the way he circles back to things and all.  This became his plan for the whole album, and it has also been the way he has dropped his rhymes ever since.
‘America’s Most Blunted’ is not only the longest track on the album, it is one of the best.  It features Quasimoto on the mic with DOOM.  Quasimoto, however, is Madlib’s alter ego.  The track is built up around this relentless stuttering beat and a progressive bassline.  And here, DOOM shows off his chops as a more sped-up, hyper MC, as the leaked demo version of the album showed.  And whilst, I agree with critics who say his laidback flow works better with these beats, this is an example of the other style, and, well, it fits here.  That bassline is addictive.  And when Quasimoto steps up to the mic, he’s putting on a voice, like B-Real does, higher pitched, but he carries out the larger parameters of DOOM’s abstract lyrics:
Doom! The Madvillain killin mad boom
Consume weed and drink brew ’til we perfume the room
The beat conductor smoke twenty-four/seven
Shady you can even ask my reverend
Willie knows, how the Phillies roll, really though
I spend my last dough, to pick up the sticky gold
I spark the lah, but don’t {fuck} with speed or trees with seeds
Quasimoto crew, we get keyed
The most blunted on the map
The one astro black, in the alley, with a hoodrat
Hoodrat when you try to react
Even your pops got smack
Even your moms got crack
Meanwhile!! While my bowl got packed
(Do you?) Drop X so you can have good sex (What, no)
I smoke dank so I can grow me a shank
I got the fat sack {shh} all day I’m on it
Who are we? (“America’s most blunted!”)

The next track is ‘Sickfit’ and it’s an instrumental, so we just have Madlib’s beat here, a guitar chord, a pounding beat, a bassline, and a sound I have never actually figured out.  And listening to his now, sixteen years later, you can really see how Madlib’s style both became popular in the underground, but also how he became so massively influential in the mainstream too.

 

‘Curls’ is one of my favourite tracks, as a forward looking beat, a violin, and various other sounds, pound out and DOOM, well, he does his thing.  Quasimoto appears again on ‘Shadows of Tomorrow,’ this brilliant little track built up around a thudding beat and a tremulous bassline.  Quastimoto takes the mic first:
Today is the shadow of tomorrow
Today is the present future of yesterday
Yesterday is the shadow of today
The darkness of the past is yesterday
And the light of the past is yesterday
The days of yesterday are all numbered in sum
In the world once
Because once upon a time there was a yesterday
Yesterday belongs to the dead
Because the dead belongs to the past
The past is yesterday
Today is the preview of tomorrow but for me
Only for my better and happier point of view
My point of view is the thought of a better or try
Reality is today of eternity
The eternity of yesterday is dead
Yesterday is as one
The eternity of one is the eternity of the past
The past is once upon a time
Once upon a time is past
The past is yesterday today
The past is yesterday today
While we’re searchin for tomorrow.
And then we get a sample from Sun Ra in the Afrofuturist film, Space is the Place, stating that
The music is different here.  The vibrations are different.  Not like Planet Earth.  Planet Earth sound of guns, anger, frustration.  There was no one on to talk to on Planet Earth who would understand.  We set up a colony for black people here.
I think this is my favourite track on the album.  And it has been this way since 2004.

 

The album closes with that aforementioned ‘Rhinestone Cowboy,’ which begins in a sample from a game show? A film?  Who knows? And then it explodes into this progressive bassline, subdued, stoned beat, and a sample of a synth, and DOOM doing what he does.

 

Madvillain was released to critical acclaim, though it didn’t really sell a lot, though it remains amongst Stones Throw’s best sellers.  But, as I noted, it attained not just classic status, but legendary status as the years past.  Madlib and DOOM got down to work on the second album, but nothing has happened since 2012.  In 2014, it was re-released for its 10th anniversary and charted up to 114 on Billboard, much higher than its original 179.
Madlib has gone on to become hop hop underground royalty, working with, in addition to DOOM and Dilla, Talib Kweli, Freddie Gibbs, BLU, and others.  His work with Freddie Gibbs is especially kickin.  DOOM, meanwhile, has gone on to be himself, a unique voice in underground hip hop, though he seems to have fallen rather quiet of late.