The self-proclaimed ‘DJ first, producer second’ Madlib drops what he bills as his first proper solo instrumental project, and what a record it turned out to be.
Widely known in the mainstream as a result of his collaborations with Freddie Gibs and the late MF Doom, Otis Jackson Jr. has been spinning out eclectic fusions of funk, afrobeat, and psychedelic electronica for the better part of the past three decades.
What’s slightly different this time around is his teaming up with English production giant Four Tet, aka Kieran Hebden, and from the collision of their two idiosyncratic sonic differences, tumbles out a finished album that blends the universal language of funk Madlib speaks so fluent with the cleanliness and precision of Four Tet’s mix.
Madlib’s full musical palette is on full display, right from the very start. ‘There Is No Time (Prelude)’ sits us down softly, with ethereal piano lines and teardrop synths before building to a chaotic tension that cheekily toes the line before scaling back into resolution. From there, Madlib unleashes his full deft understanding of musical dialect, with standout tracks like ‘Road of the Lonely Ones’ which seamlessly places a vocal sample from Philadelphia soul outfit The Ethics, but with a rework drenched in groove and a tight snare backing that help guide the meandering melodies.
The most enigmatic track on the project, ‘Loose Goose’, humorously cobbles together kazoo-like melodies with a Snoop Dogg vocal sample. Even when joking, you can almost hear his intentionality and the cogs turning in his mind as he places layer upon layer of texture or rhythm. Amongst the chaos of ‘Loose Goose’, Madlib still manages to thread in African influences with a snare and tribal drum call and response lines.
Madlib’s constant contrasting of opposites is what makes the project continuosly compelling, with complex harmonies often stacked up on exceedingly simple, if simultaneously precise, drum loops. Four Tet’s influence is clear in ‘Dirtknock’, with shifting clicks and clacks that keep the song bouncing along with a syrupy bass. ‘Hopprock’ opens with spiritual chimes before thrusting into atmospheric vocals phased in and out over a mischievous staccato guitar that goes toe to toe with a subtle but precise snare pattern.
Hitting the midpoint with title track ‘Sound Ancestors’, which acts as a disjointed interlude, Madlib continues his musical juggling act, starting with ‘Hang Out (Phone Off)’, which sounds like a beat Doom could practice his rhyming gymnastics over. ‘Two for 2 – For Dilla’ acts as a tribute to J Dilla, with a bassline that dominates before building to celebratory horns that lead into ‘Latino Negro’, where Madlib plays the part of a skilled Spanish band playing a live set at a bar late at night.
Where the rest of the album flows masterfully, this track disrupts the cohesion slightly, but not without Madlib showing off some hypnotic guitars. The album ends with a strong three-track run, with ‘The New Normal’ showcasing a much more front-facing pop appeal, and the final track ‘Duumbiyay’ throws it back to his earlier work featuring Indian and Middle Eastern samples.
Sound Ancestors is very much named appropriately, Madlib pays his respects to his sonic predecessors, twisting in his appreciation for historical Black music like folklore, and along with the production genius of Four Tet, he illustrates his separate influences clearly, fully able to let each instrumental soar.
Madlib himself has admitted that after hearing of MF Doom’s passing he hoped this project could have a positive effect during hard times. Given the quality of the 16 tracks, there’s no doubt Doom would have had his fun over them. Sound Ancestors is not be perfect, but if anything it can be listened to as a window into a legendary DJ and a tribute to the sort of rap that Madlib has so often presided over.
Image: Scott Dudelson via Getty