Madlib’s ‘Sound Ancestors’ Is a Triumph of Hip-Hop Beatmaking, With a Little Help from Four Tet

What the samples chosen for Madlib’s ‘Sound Ancestors’ teach us about his genre-bending, boom-bap brilliance

Madlib and Four Tet (Art: Ron Hart)

A hip-hop producer and an IDM producer walk into a bar… 

It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke at a hipster open mic night in Brooklyn, but the way Madlib tells it, his creative collaboration with Kieran Hebden (the IDM producer better known as Four Tet) came into form as the two talked about their shared love of record collecting at wine bars over the past two decades.

“[Kieran and I] connected musically — he knows me, like I know him,” Madlib recently told NPR. We talked about [doing a record together] for years before we did it.”

And did it they have, delivering Sound Ancestors — an album that diehard heads and those who use instrumental hip-hop as study aids alike are all deeming an instant classic. 

Madlib has long been prolific as he is elusive — the reportedly finished sequel to his classic Madvillainy LP with the late, great MF Doom still hasn’t seen the light of day, as is the story with countless other anticipated projects that he’s supposedly worked on but never released. In 2005, Hebden actually released an EP of Madvillainy remixes, laying new beats over Doom’s acapellas. The remixes were a rare concession for Madlib, who seldom lets other producers mess with his beats. He and Hebden met periodically to chat music in the years since, and their creative bond deepened over a mutual love for obscure and oft-forgotten tunes that were previously lost to our age of digital ubiquity.

Madlib Sound Ancestors, Madlib Invazion 2021

“We all collect the same things,” Madlib recently told The New York Times. “He’s a little more out there than me. He collects nature and bug sound records. I’m going to get there.”

Hence, the seeds for the glorious Sound Ancestors were planted. Madlib sent Hebden hundreds of files including samples, unfinished or unreleased beats, and live instrument tracks recorded in-studio. After the pandemic put a stop to touring, Hebden retreated to his place in the Catskills to cull them into a cogent release, periodically sending Madlib stem tracks he was interested in including as Madlib let Hebden know what was cool to use and what he might be saving for other projects down the line. Hebden eventually edited those files into the glorious, 41-minute long Sound Ancestors, which he considers the first true Madlib solo album. 

There was one crucial ground rule — Hebden didn’t create any new sounds. Instead, he assumed the role of editor and arranger, sequencing the tracks for flow while retaining the essence of what makes a Madlib track so distinctive. That meant retaining some randomized, mixtape variety, wherein a groove can sometimes take over before disappearing a minute later.

“I was trying to get the best of both worlds in terms of it having these moments that are very universal that everyone can get their head around,” he told NYT, “and also having shocking moments. I didn’t want to water anything down or make it too polite.”

There’s true triumph to be heard when two people who share an obsessive, deeply-explored love for crate-digging obscure gems that fall outside of marketable genre buckets are able to repurpose and revitalize those sounds, which would have otherwise been lost, and distil them into something fresh. 

Lord Quas digs Sound Ancestors (Photo: Madlib Invazion)

Though Madlib’s CV hops across genres, he most often touches boom-bap hip-hop, soul, and jazz (his Shades of Blue remix album of Blue Note Records classics, along with Pardon My French, his jazz record released last year as Jahari Massamba Unit, are both crucial). Hebden, on the other hand, got his start making sample-heavy electronic music once-classified as “folktronica” before moving into more clubby territory, and more recently, ambient composition. 

Hence, Sound Ancestors is an inspired pairing that pays homage to the vast eclecticism of Madlib’s past, present and future while simultaneously working in some of Hebden’s sonic hallmarks — his knack for locking complex, live instrumentation into a club-ready beat, the push and pull of his arrangements between breathy, lucid sections of a track and locking into a groove. 

But Sound Ancestors is ultimately Madlib’s show, and Hebden knows it. At times, it’s as if the samples culled form Madlib’s instrumental biography, conjuring moments where Madlib challenges himself by taking standard hip-hop samples into uncharted territory, moments where he nods to his own past, and moments that find him presenting brilliantly alive, hence-unheard genre hybrids to pair with the groove.

The first proper track on Sound Ancestors, “The Call,” samples “Bargain Day,” an obscure 1969 single by Terry Britten, an English/Australian pop singer/songwriter likely better known for co-writing Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” which won him a Grammy in ‘85. 

“Bargain Day” is the sort of left field cut that we might expect from Madlib, but still couldn’t see coming. Madlib and Hebden do very little to the bones of the track, riding out the opening line of the first verse and occasionally cutting some haunting, atmospheric background harmonies and spoken word snippets into the mix.

 

AUDIO: Terry Britten “Bargain Day” 

On “Two for 2 – for DillaMadlib pays tribute to his fallen friend and collaborator J-Dilla (treat yourself to the duo’s 2002 release as Jaylib, Champion Sound to hear them swap rhymes) by riding with a sample of “Love Gonna Pack Up (And Walk Out)” by R&B group Sly, Slick and Wicked. Dilla never got his due outside the indie hip-hop scene until after he passed in 2006, and Madlib said that this was the moment when he stopped making music. “Two for 2” conjures a vibe similar to Dilla’s posthumous opus, Donuts, with the immediate glitchiness of its hook looping in true Dilla fashion.

Madlib told NYT that he decided to stop rapping after Dilla died. “I just didn’t have anything to say anymore,” he said. “I didn’t really like rapping in the first place. I did it because I had to at times.”

There’s not much to say about the gorgeous, elegiac “Road of the Lonely Ones” that hasn’t already been written. Sampling “Lost in a Lonely World” by ‘60s Philly soul group The Ethics, Madlib turns the breakup song into an existential lament.  “Fans online wondered if the song’s forlorn feel was meant as a tribute to J Dilla and to MF DOOM, who had died a few months prior,” wrote Hua Hsu in the New Yorker, noting how Madlib’s decision to draw out the falsetto cry of the singer even longer adds a profound flourish. “The singer haunts his own track, and the song takes on a new and mysterious ache.”

 

AUDIO: Young Marble Giants “Searching For Mr. Right”

Next, “Dirtknock” finds Madlib taking a sample of cult Welsh post-punk band Young Marble Giants’ tune “Searching for Mr. Right” off their only album, Colossal Youth, and syncopating it to a slinky, locked in groove in the spirit of the backpacker hip-hop sound that Madlib has long championed. 

“Riddim Chant” samples The Mighty Tom Cats’ 1973 funk/soul number “Love Potion-Cheeba-Cheeba” into a hypnotic seduction, liberating the original from its novelty energy as an oversexed tune about getting stoned by isolating its drum track, slowing it down and chopping it up to hallucinatory effect. 

This tune has long been a sampling staple of golden-era hip-hop, as it was also sampled on  GZA and RZA’s “Pass the Bone” in ‘94,Company Flow’s “ 8 Steps to Perfection” in ‘97, and DMX’s “Niggaz Done Started Something” in ‘98. Dilla himself sampled it on 2002’s “Rat on a Bill.”

 

AUDIO: Mighty Tom Cats “Love Potion-Cheeba-Cheeba”

As its name suggests, “One for Quartabê / Right Now” samples “Lembre-Se” by Quartabê, contemporary Brazilian band making sounds that, in their own words, run the gamut “from the São Paulo vanguard to free improvisation, through pop and electronic music.” Madlib lifts from the intro of “Lembre-Se” that sounds like Thundercat playing fusion bass amid an ayahuasca trip, giving the Brazilian band a loving shout-out and a reminding us that his knowledge of world music runs just as deep as his knowledge of hip-hop, soul, funk, and jazz.

On “Chino,” Madlib lifts Lyn Collins’ vocal from the 1972 seminal and oft-sampled funk-soul single “Think (About It),” another reminder that, even when he’s playing with a track that has been sampled ad-nauseam, Madlib knows how to chop it up enough to make it fresh. Madlib avoids the popular hook altogether (“It takes two to make a thing go right/It takes two to make it ‘outta sight”), works in the Dilla-produced drum track from the late A Tribe Called Quest prophet Phife Dawg’s 1999 tune “Ben Dova,” and lets it ride, paying homage to several fallen legends at once.

 

AUDIO: Lyn Collins “Think (About It)”

Sound Ancestors’ closing number, “Duumbiyay,” pays homage to the vastness of lived experiences in the history Black American music by sampling “Zum, Zum” from a 1959 Smithsonian Folkways release called Street and Gangland Rhythms, Beats and Improvisations. Credited to “Six Boys in Trouble,” the record collects field recordings of jams on homemade percussion by six 11- and 12-year old Black kids living in NY public housing around 1955.

 “These young, untrained musicians improvise the tunes and tales of their upbringing on this rhythmic release and draw inspiration from family folk traditions and popular radio and juke box hits of the era,” wrote Folkways in the press release.  “The group’s enjoyment is apparent in their school yard musical expressions, as is their self-identification with the community in which they live.”

 

AUDIO: “Zum, Zum” from Street and Gangland Rhythms, Beats and Improvisations

Reclaiming “Zum, Zum” from the near-academic, anthropological context in which it was released, Madlib mixes in elements of jazz through its many eras — piano chords characteristic of hard bop and modal jazz blur together with syncopated sounds of fusion, including shakers and ecstatic chimes. It’s as if, 65 years after these sounds were first captured, Madlib has conjured the full backing band that these kids never got.

By the end of Sound Ancestors, the intention behind these sample choices cuts to the true magic of the set — it’s all about Madlib telling his own story,  honoring those he’s worked with, and those who have made an impression on him, by doing what he’s always done best. With a little help from Hebden, Madlib’s thoughtful curation reminds us that production truly is an artform. 

But he’s also highlighting the seemingly disparate beats that tether us all together, tracks you can’t wait to play for your friends when they come over. By sharing so much, Madlib and Hebden anoint our ears to make both the sounds that they conjure, and those of us grooving to them, feel new again. 

 

 

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Justin Joffe

Justin Joffe writes about music, art, technology, and other cultural treasures. Reach him on Twitter @joffaloff.

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