Madlib Beatmaking Wisdom

HEAT – put it on while you read

I listened to this sweet mix of Madlib beats recently, and was reminded of my firm conviction that he is the greatest beatmaker. Maybe not the greatest living DJ in the sense of all-round hip hop artist, I’d hand that to DJ Premier for his epochal work with Gang Starr (deepest and best hip hop act of all time, for my money) and for making my no. 1 track of all time. Madlib doesn’t aim that high artistically, I think. But his stuff is the funkiest of all.

I had to turn up the mix to neighbour-bothering levels numerous times. It’s that good. So here are some notes I took for myself to try improve my own hip hop beats – a form I’ve been dabbling in for many years. Hope you find something you like.

Madlib excels with pickups. If you don’t know that term, it generically means a melody that enters a few beats before the perceived top of the musical form. However, I use it specifically to describe the funky structure wherein a line – melody, drum fill, vocal sound, whatever – leads the ear through a break to the downbeat. Think reggae drum rolls and jazz horn breaks. This kind of pickup provocatively holds onto or toys with the time/groove in the gap before a beat drop. I noticed that Madlib can use almost any kind of material in this role. Strings/vocal top layer mush, guitar or horn stabs, vocal snippets, anything.

(Something cool I noticed is that this use of chordal stabs/slices in particular as fills or pickups, can be ambiguously interpreted as both harmonic, a meaningful chord change, and as a passing dissonant sound.)

From this follows a more general principle: any sample, any instrument sound can and should be broken or undercut. (See my article on funky structures for more on undercutting.)

This makes me want to revise my comfortable habit of making a 4- or 8-bar loop, quite detailed and full, and then arranging it by basically muting and unmuting, maybe filtering or echoing, parts. Madlib eschews this techno type approach. His tracks are live-feeling and changeable, also quite unlike traditional hip hop like mid-90s DJ Premier or Lord Finesse productions. In those tracks, there’s some muting and breaks and cuts, but everything is based off a main verse groove (and perhaps a chorus change). By contrast, Madlib’s stuff turns and crawls like a beast.

Often this organic development lets an already existing sound flower and manifest its potential, e.g. from happening once every two beats to twice or letting in previously-filtered-out highs. Or switching octaves of a synth bass part here and there – very effective. This is about finding the right degree of saliency (a term I learned from an otherwise fairly boring composing book by Alan Belkin) – not smooth enough to be subconscious or background, but not jarring either. I’d like to learn how to hit that sweet spot.

Madlib’s beats are often pretty sophisticated harmonically – the root movements and chord changes from his source material emerge in the final product. I’m inspired to simply take more care with the chordal content of my samples and productions.

“Taking care” really sums up this music. Madlib never seems content to phone anything in. Every sample is present for a reason, never “just because” – even fundamentals like hats and snares are left out or drastically varied. Also, every sample, without exception, is so, so fat. Like, dripping from the speaker. It’s absolutely incredible.

That’s not achieved by narrowly honing in on perfect synth or EQ or compression settings like a techno producer. The fatness comes in wildly varying flavours e.g. from very subby, electro kicks/bass to earthy, turfy, crackling ones or quite distorted and processed, depending on what each beat needs.

This one’s a bit intangible, but Madlib’s tracks often seem to have a pregnant space. He can make you wait. These grooves are head-nodding yet sound like they haven’t fully kicked in, over long periods. This comes from space and the confidence to use it… and also making every element add to the funk.

Here are some specific things I want to try in my productions…

When using the classic hip hop technique of splitting sampled material into a bass layer and a top layer using filtering, don’t expect the bass layer to sound anything like a solo bassline. It’ll sound like a muffled version of the original sample with all its instruments, and that’s fine, it’s idiomatic. I used to think you had to try literally remove everything but the fundamentals of the bass notes, but this just results in a vague thrumming. That’s not the way!

Madlib has a distinct approach to the other side of the coin, the high frequencies: frequently his strings and vocals and chordal mush gleam hazily over the gritty, present beat. Perhaps some reverb on the top layer, and smart compression somewhere, contribute to this?

Actually, there’s a lot of woozy modulation in Madlib’s music (though it’s not formulaic like in your modern day chill hop/study beats electric piano sound) and I’m gonna grab a tape emulator to try get some wow and flutter and noise into my sounds.

Also there’s liberal use of loud and woofy synth bass, often with tasty (non-diatonic) note choices or chords. I think because I’m still in psychological recovery from quitting bass playing a year ago, I haven’t been focusing on basslines in my productions.

Well, that’s all I got. I would’ve liked to discuss the idea of “beatmaking” a bit – this cultural manifestation of the 2010s, pretty much, that markets aspects of hip hop culture as a hobby which now seems like it could take over much of music. (Especially in these awful, socially-distanced times.) And of course, there’s plenty of black culture stuff we could dig into, metaphors around music as sonic substance (“fatness”), the aesthetic of “taking care” and its gender coding (maternal energies in highly masculinist music), sexual metaphors around cutting, the groove, also the slave sublime (distorted voices, screams), manifesting/smuggling, and so on. But you can find those in any deeply funky music. I hope today’s narrow focus on techniques was worthwhile.

Thanks for reading.

Here’s another, possibly even better mix.

Funky Structures

The two bands I’m working with right now are both making albums this year. So I’ve been listening out for ways to structure albums. I found a lot to like in Charlie Hunter’s 2010 release, entitled Gentlemen, I Regret To Inform You You Will Not Be Getting Paid.

Because this album is modern I feel pretty bad linking to it on Youtube. If you dig it, buy it. My copy arrived last week and I instantly realised I wanted to blog about it.

The hook for today’s article is a term I made up, “funky structures”. By that I mean, ways of organising groove music on the medium or large scale (bigger than phrase or riff). Jazz/blues/hip hop/funk/techno etc. are built on cycles. Ideas of development, drama and narrative arc that suit European art music are not always the best explanations for those African-American-derived styles.

Layering is a technique familiar from techno and funk, where new elements are added predictably to a cycle. A canonical example would be Herbie Hancock’s 1973 version of Watermelon Man. The rather paradoxical thing about layering is that every new part adds to the groove, yet the groove is fully present in the initial, smallest texture. I’ll get back to that later.

How does Charlie Hunter use it? Here is the order of added elements on the album’s first track:

(Charlie Hunter plays the basslines on this album on the bottom two strings of a custom 7-string guitar, but for convenience I’ll talk about the bass parts as a separate instrument.)

  • 0:00 Bass, 1-note stutter in staccato 8ths, and kick drum and high-hats.
  • 0:10 Drum fill introduces melody, snare and 8ths on hats
  • 0:31 Horns playing stabs
  • 0:41 Horns playing whole-note pads
  • 1:32 Ride cymbal
  • 1:54 Hocket-type texture as build into guitar solo

Or “Drop A Dime”:

  • 0:00 Bass and slow rock beat (a la Led Zeppelin’s When The Levee Breaks[LINK])
  • 0:17 Guitar melody
  • 0:55 Add answering horns melody
  • 1:19 Interlocking guitar-and-horns payoff section
  • 1:41 Long-note hits w/ drum fills, then solo

But, what exactly distinguishes this layering from increases of density in non-groove-based music? Well, first let’s investigate some other funky structures. If layering is gradually filling up space, what about emptying space?

Hunter places large gaps at the end of phrases in most of the tunes.

  • Track 1 0:18 has a one-bar space after three bars of melody – at 0:59 the same space is now filled by horns and guitar
  • Track 2 0:43 has a two-bar space for a long bass fill. The entire melody uses long notes which, particularly on a plucked (weak sustain) instrument like guitar, function a lot like space.
  • Track 3 0:18 has long note over two bars of groove after every two-bar phrase.
  • Track 4 again has half-and-half phrase-and-rest structure for the first part of its melody. Hunter fills one of the gaps with laconic chord stabs.
  • Track 6 has the same structure.

These intentional gaps in the melodies remind me of Thelonious Monk’s penchant for spaces in his themes in which the drummer can respond. On this Charlie Hunter album however, drummer Eric Kalb often maintains an unchanging beat through the spaces rather than improvising comments. Horns, guitar or bass sometimes comment instead. In all these cases, the point is to expose, and celebrate, the rhythm section.

There’s a tendency in blues for phrases to taper away, starting off high and active and ending up with smaller and smaller movements around the floor note, e.g. “I’d Rather Be The Devil”. Hunter’s melody in “Tout Ce Qui Brille Ne Pas Or”, with its wheeling descent to a rest, uses this feeling. Whether tapering, ending on a long note, or ending on a rest, the idea is to return to the ground layer – the underlying groove/harmony.

A related gesture is the breakdown. Here, instead of leaving space in the weak parts (2nd halves) of phrases, sounds are stripped out on a strong bar (start of a section). Just to be clear on terminology, we could note that this is different to a jazz “break” which is typically before the top of a form (i.e. “A Night In Tunisia”). The breakdown/stripping out of sounds is more characteristic of electronic dance music and funk.

This structure is used in tracks 1, 4, 5, 6 at the start of solos. And tracks 3 & 8 work as breakdowns within the whole album due to their trio instrumentation.

Exposure is the key to these gestures. There is a feeling of contrast, and emotional vulnerability on the part of the remaining musicians. “Tout Ce Qui Brille” at 2:32 demonstrates how this can work really well. The second note of the guitar melody rings out with a bit of buzzing, creating a unique timbral moment that is very beautiful in context – the more so for probably being accidental.

This sense of exposure mustn’t distract players from the groove. I believe this requires a mental independence – part of you must keep track of the underlying ground, whether or not anyone else is playing it.

In a breakdown, those abilities are proved by spotlighting some part previously absorbed in the group texture. Despite the changed perspective (which might radically change how the part sounds/feels subjectively, simply by focusing attention on it) musicians must smoothly maintain their simultaneous awareness of the underlying pulse versus the musical surface.

The reason that I’m going so deeply into this topic is because I used to have difficulty navigating breaks because I didn’t know what I was trying to do. I’ve been thinking this over in order to improve my own playing.

The last specific gesture I want to mention is what could be called limited improvisation or use of routines. Quite often on this album, there is improvisation so restricted that it could be pre-written. The trumpet riff at 2:01 in “High Pockets And A Fanny Pack” probably is written because it’s repeated verbatim, but it sounds improvised when you first hear it. (I love the descent to a different harmonic level there as well.)

On “Antoine” from 1:53-2:20 there is improvisation strictly around a harmonised riff. And of course the challenge inherent in Hunter’s combined bass & guitar approach means that much of his solo vocab must have been figured out beforehand: for instance the complex key-changing double-stops line at a peak moment in the form, 4:13 in “Tout Ce Qui Brille”. This reinforces thoughts I’ve been having on the importance of familiar gestures and internalised vocab in so-called “improvisation”.

So, what’s the meaning of these structures? I shortlisted some aesthetics that I believe Charlie Hunter uses.

Process: this album celebrates process: “how it’s said” over “what is said”, just like in that hip hop track I analysed last year. Eric Kalb’s drumming is a clear illustration. There’s huge craft and a deep moment-to-moment concentration on laid-back grooving in Kalb’s playing – but little remarkable content. It’s all about “doing it”, not expressing new ideas. The high points of the drumming are either cliched fills or attractive timbres (like the opening of “Antoine”). Along with this, the album is entirely in 4/4 and almost all tracks start with a straightforward vamp intro.

Restraint: one of the key themes of the album is holding back. This can be traced back to the instrumentation (7-string guitar, drums, trumpet, trombone, trombone). All of the instruments are technically demanding and impose physical limits. This naturally leads to slow melodies, space, sparse textures and simple comping patterns.

That restraint creates tension – used to propel songs from intro to melody in tracks 4 and 5, or to create epic payoffs whether improvised or written. A great example is from 2:50 in “Drop A Dime”. Massive horns and massive drums and fierce bluesy guitar playing (whose “hold a note over changing bass” hook epitomises Hunter’s self-developed style) – but only after a build-up of intensity over more than half the album.

Subverting sweet chords: Charlie Hunter has an interesting way of using sweet harmony within a mostly ruggedly-grooving context. He writes gorgeous, sophisticatedly harmonised sections for the horns, that are emotional peaks in the album. However, these moments are then wryly undercut by breakdowns to sparse grooving and improv. 0:38-0:45 in “Ode To My Honda Odyssey” is a neat example. The same effect happens on a large scale from 1:17-1:44. The contrast can be a little shocking, but the overall effect is to have the best of both worlds (sweetness and funkiness), while also allowing each to comment on the other. Plus, the album’s sparseness of texture – no standard “comping instrument” like piano – is a statement in itself.

To return to layering…. It seems to me to work off the same principles as the breakdowns and spaces. That is, celebrating the unity of the continuous, all-encompassing groove that is felt equally in every instrumental combination, large and small. In African-American music (and probably a lot of other musics around the world), a blurring occurs between musicians and the audience, whose vocal exclamations, finger snaps, claps, etc. – and dancing – are a valuable element in a performance. I think the joy of layering up and breaking down relates to the social feeling of a group of people entrained in the groove. Each addition or subtraction can provoke new perspectives on all the other material in a play of multiple simultaneous interpretations that are both individual and collective.

I’d better wrap up. I didn’t get around to talking about the note choices and harmony on this album which add so much to its melancholy mood – in particular, the masterful use of major-minor colour shifts. Also I would’ve liked to talk about the transparency which I think this album shares with, e.g., Thelonious Monk’s work. Well, another time.

I’ve been thinking about the purpose of this blog, as I’ve been doing it for over half a year. It has succeeded wildly in helping me figure out concepts. But I’m wondering what should my next step be, i.e., what to do with this knowledge. I’d love to write for an improvising band again, but it will take some discipline to realise these ideas.

Anyway, I’ll try do a nice technical post next week after the last few conceptual ones. See you then.

Buy the album!