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.

Knuckles

This week’s post returns to the theme of music as “the sound of body movement”. I had a few different thoughts about this during the week, and then when I jammed with my band Mescalito, I noticed them influencing my playing.

Years ago I used to be guilty about not practising technique enough. But I’ve managed to change my perspective from hyper-competitiveness, into something more to do with creativity and awareness: i.e. creating improved body motions and becoming aware of details I used to miss.

So I was working on a Mescalito riff at home. I like this kind of practical work, inspired by a workshop from free jazz luminary Frank Gratkowski who said he only practised when he needed to prepare something specific for performance.

I was videoing myself and I noticed a problem in my left hand’s fretting position: the first knuckle of the index straining in towards the neck.

Knuckle
Left side bad, right side good

As you can see, this breaks the smooth curve from elbow to fingertips. After some work I was able to fix this at low tempos.

This is still well below the actual tempo but I’m happy that I’ve got this far – keeping that ideal shape is hard.

The properly curved hand has a much stronger grip. I got an insight from that fact that I hope I can explain to you now.

I wrote already about blues soloing being gestural and kinetic – its expressivity coming from the touch and movement style of the player. My new insight was that this aesthetic of body motion actually explains most characteristics of blues playing; and that these characteristics come from prioritising hand/grip movement over finger/digital movement. That’s why my curved grip is preferable for me – it restricts finger motion somewhat but gives strength to hand movements.

Now, guitarists in the audience are surely protesting that blues, like any other style, always uses both finger and hand movements. But let me give some examples.

pentageneral

  • Most blues lead uses the pentatonic scale, usually in these kind of “box pattern” fingerings (above) that have two notes per string. These melodies therefore only need two fingers, probably index and ring. That’s why Hendrix plays lead with his little finger tucked away under the fingerboard (see him switch to this technique in this video). The two fingers used are then just either ends of an overall hand shape and the overall movements tend to be a rocking of the hand as pressure is alternately applied to each end.
  • Blues vibrato and bends are performed by rocking the hand, either in the air (kind of bouncing the neck up and down) or around the point where the index finger touches the bottom of the neck.
  • Open string figures are a huge part of traditional styles like John Lee Hooker’s. Typically he trills between a fretted note (say E) and an open note (say D), as in this lovely track. The simple gesture of repeatedly tapping the E and releasing it creates the whole melody. This shaking gesture goes through multiple fingers because it’s using grip strength, even though only one finger touches the string. A similar lumping together of the fingers into a gripping unit also happens in bending and vibrato. (This doesn’t mean that there is pointless excess movement, by the way. See how economical JLH is in this live performance.)
  • And one of the deepest parts of the blues guitar tradition is of course slide guitar, in which almost all melodic movement is a perfect analogue of the hand‘s motion along the strings.

These are all common-place observations, but together they form a clear picture for me that explains a lot of what’s special about blues.

This insight inspired me to chase down interesting hand-movements when jamming with Mescalito.

I’m not claiming either of these ideas is great – but I definitely enjoyed the freedom to explore them, knowing that they’re not a cheap trick but have a valid aesthetic of their own.

A funny thing happened in the jam which I believe came partly out of my independence practice.

After twenty minutes of free improv, we started to talk over the music. (Not that we say anything very clever!) The voices sound to me like we’re in an emotionally open state, with more warmth than in a normal conversation. The way I let the bass play on without monitoring it, is from independence practice.

I’m not playing any strict rhythm, it’s true, but the point is I’m letting my hands deal with the bass while my verbal mind is elsewhere. To be precise, I remember keeping a background awareness of the “gentle ascending minor” vibe and letting my hands place it on the beat, as I thought about what I was saying.

As I finish talking (0:19)you can hear my voice get tense, probably because I’m realising that I can’t actually talk and play very well, and Murphy’s answer is tense too. Maybe we’re hearing that the music wants to go somewhere. Out of this tense moment a lovely 7/4 groove suddenly manifests, answering our worries. (Actually I play it over 9 beats first while still talking, then find the 7.)

Similarly, after we laugh about funny guitar noise at 0:28 you can first of all hear a slight deepening of emotional connection in the timbre of the instruments at 0:43, and then a 6/4 kick drum pattern manifests to interact with the 7/4 bassline. Similar to the bass, it actually starts in 8 and then goes to 6. That kind of adjustment by feel is interesting because normally the state of mind that corrects errors is too paranoid to coexist with creativity. Here we’re so relaxed we don’t get hung up on it. By the way, we would never sit down and consciously write a 6 against 7 pattern!

Well that’s a trivial example, but those transitions into creativity remind me of rapper Big L’s switch from talking to rapping, discussed in this article – and also of free jazz where group subconscious decisions transform the music without any planning, miraculously.

I hope I can get deeper into this stuff…. Allowing creativity to emerge from the subconscious while holding onto the groove.

Two related thoughts for another post:

  • those transitions often involve a threatened break in the flow – smoothly navigating breaks is a very deep tradition in jazz and hip hop
  • this kind of “spontaneous composition” is very similar to saying the right/witty/elevating thing in a group conversation where a joke won’t land unless it’s delivered in tune with the group vibe and with perfect timing

Anyway, that’s it for this week. Sorry for the late post. Hope it wasn’t too indulgent! See you soon.

And to finish, here’s Charlie Hunter demonstrating stunning levels of independence in a hard groove context.