September 11, 2003

Test Spin: Madlib

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Is the remix an act of reverence or subversion? On one hand, the remix represents an artist’s take on an original work deemed worthy of further exploration and elaboration, while on the other hand, such a remake often subverts the very foundation upon which the original work rests. In actuality, the remix must fall in between these two extremes.

On Shades of Blue, the underground producer, DJ, and MC, Madlib gets his hands on the original Blue Note catalog as fodder for an album of forward-looking hip-hop interpretations of jazz standards. Properly subtitling the album “Madlib Invades Blue Note,” the West Coast production wizard realizes the dual nature of the remix, and deftly walks the line between paying homage to past greats and dismantling a musical fabric sown by demigods. The music of those immeasurably talented men, whose faces Francis Wolf portrayed in his iconographic photography, and whose sound producer Alfred Lyon immortalized, remains nearly as influential today as it did decades ago.

By splicing pure Blue Note strands of Donald Bryd hard bop melodies and Herbie Hancock fusion with breakbeat fills and DJ scratches, Madlib presents jazz as both a historical artifact and living music form, responsible for engendering hip-hop with many of its modern intricacies.

From the seven minute exploration of ’70s urban funk colored by a throaty, soaring female vocal line on “Stepping into Tomorrow” to the hand-clapping, drum-bass-vibe jam of “Mystic Bounce,” the album displays an impressive array of distinct tracks. With each successive song, Madlib draws parallels between hip-hop and jazz as he demonstrates both the derivative nature of the modern genre and its advancement of certain musical techniques originally implemented by Blue Note artists. The syncopation, beats, and riffs of jazz classics make even more sense when viewed through the prism of hip-hop revisionism.

So what might be the lesson learned from Madlib’s extraordinary hip-hop-jazz incursion? Sometimes it is necessary to dismantle the past in order to glimpse the future.

Archived article by Andrew Gilman