Monday, July 5, 2010

A Review of the First Half of the Madlib Medicine Show

As if two new jazz albums with two different groups (Young Jazz Rebels and Yesterday's New Quintet, live jazz bands that are really just multiple personalities of one person playing different instruments) and full production on two different albums (OJ Simpson and In Search of Stoney Jackson) in 2010 were not enough, Madlib has also been dropping one album for every month this year in a series called the Madlib Medicine Show. The series consists of 12 albums, six of them containing original unreleased material (during the odd-numbered months) and six specially-themed DJ mixes created from Madlib's 4-ton mountain of vinyl records (released during the even-numbered months).

Like most of Madlib's material, it's being released through Stones Throw Records, a hip progressive indie label that's basically built around the staggering musical output from the myriad-minded Madlib (aka Quasimoto, Yesterday's New Quintet, etc). Stones Throw is known for creating cool album covers (and often abstract artsy ones as you'll see in a sec) and for being vigilant about keeping their music from being leaked out and downloaded. The latter has been especially true with the Medicine Show releases, most of them are hard to find a download link for on the web (which seems unusual nowadays) and so I've purchased all but two of them so far. It's actually pretty cool because, awaiting the arrival of the cd in my mailbox each day (Stones Throw sends them a few days before the official release) and then receiving it and soaking in the artwork while listening to the brand new music is a minor thrill, a flashback to an experience of listening to music that seems to be fading away at light speed.

For the most part I've loved the Medicine Show so far. Let's take a look at each one up until now and their highlights, shall we?

Medicine Show No. 1: Before the Verdict (featuring Guilty Simpson)

Starting off the series is a 17-track hip hop album containing mostly Madlib remixes as well as some new unreleased material, a prelude to emcee Guilty Simpson's later official album produced by Madlib, OJ Simpson (took some time before I realized how cool the title is---OJ is not just the guy in the Ford Jeep, it's also Otis Jackson aka Madlib). This was basically my introduction to Simpson's rap ability (I'd heard him on a few features previously) and, while I love his name, I wasn't too impressed with his abilities initially but they grew on me. His flow is almost always the same, a bit monotonous and simple and the rhymes often witty but unspectacular.

Bright spots: Besides the many little throw-ins and weird, obscure skits, interludes and sounds from Madlib (very similar to Madvillainy 2), I love the beats on "Looking for Trouble", "Lucky Guy" (although it doesn't kick in until halfway through the track after a smattering of comedic old blabberings), "Get Bitches", "American Dream & Future", "Robbery" and also "I Must Love You" is a nice little song. Otherwise this isn't so great, it's actually my least favorite of the six Medicine Show records so far. (The album cover is cool as is the different cover for the 12-inch vinyl collector's edition, you can see a video of them crafting the latter here.)

Medicine Show No. 2: Flight to Brazil

A rich collection of Brazilian jazz, folk, rock, and funk, this 80-minute mix (divided up into 9 lengthy tracks) is one of my favorites of the MMS so far. It is absolutely loaded with excellent instruments and catchy jazz songs, displaying Madlib's fine taste in music no matter where it's from (I later found out this is actually his second mix of old jams from Brazil and, listening to the region's sweet sounds on this tape, his infatuation is understandable). As someone who's unfortunately maintained a pretty narrow selection in musical genres most of my life, it's refreshing to have a taste of something totally different and delivered by a trusted source. Here, Madlib basically stays out of the way (aside from spurts of a woman's voice smoothly echoing that serve as a mixer's motif and the sounds of an airline pilot pointing places out over a grainy PA system) and lets the carefully selected songs play themselves out. This is a perfect album for a long drive, just let it play.

Highlights*: The strings in the song that's around the 2-minute mark, the beautiful folksy Brazilian sounds of the song at 9:30 (looped over and over again by somebody here), the different dimension that the track at 13:00 transports me to, the unbelievable drum/piano ensemble at 17:15 (one of the greatest musical experiences of the year for me), the sweet soothing sounds of Portuguese singing at 25:00ish and also ten minutes later, how the song at 44:11 transports one to a Brazilian nightclub, then the nodding song at the 1 hour 3 minute mark perfectly captures the fatigue from all the listening we've done already gives one last kick to the ear, the closing track encourages you to listen through from the beginning again. A great musical experience, a dreamy flight through the clouds of the cultured South American country and its beautiful audible art.

*The cd version is broken into 9 tracks but I downloaded a version where it's all one continuous track. This is one of the Medicine Shows that I didn't purchase. There's actually a bit of an ethical issue with it as none of the music that's featured is listed or credited at all and yet it's being sold for profit. Read about it here.

Medicine Show No. 3: Beat Konducta in Africa
When this was released I listened to it repeatedly for about 3 weeks straight. It's my second favorite of the entire series so far (behind MMS No. 5: Loop Digga). An immense and diverse (accurately portraying the region it focuses on) 43-track instrumental hip hop album, this is really a musical experience in the fullest sense as Madlib immerses us in the sounds of obscure 1970s African jazz/rock/funk/soul records. It's also something of a musical documentary with numerous interludes detailing facts about the great continent (4 times the size of the United States, 1/5th of the entire land mass on earth), its history (oldest civilizations on earth), culture and music. The Beat Konducta weaves a recurring motif of bongos, bells, and chanting in and out of the lengthy album, sometimes it's abrupt and annoying but aside from that I love this opus.

This was the first Medicine Show I purchased (directly from Stones Throw who sent it almost a week ahead of the release date), it has a beautiful album cover that seems to be in the same vein as the previous Beat Konducta album and, like all the Medicine Show cds, it has no back cover and instead displays the backward disc's art through the back; in this case, the disc is colored with the golden face of a lion and has the words "Madlib Medicine Show No. 3." The liner notes look like a photo album for a group of 70s disco pals in Africa. All the MMS cds come with a removable cardboard tab (unfortunately I threw out the first two I received) describing the contents of the cd you're opening. You can catch a glimpse of it here. Although it's certainly a very different approach, I'm impressed with the way Stones Throw crafts these cds. They are actually worth purchasing instead of downloading the mp3s.

Best tracks: Heritage Sip; Red, Black and Green Showcase; Endless Cold (Lovelost); Tradition; Tear Gas and Bullets for Freedom (listen it on good headphones, the depth of sounds is incredible); Obataive (seems simple but when listened closely to it's an orchestra of about 10 different little sounds contributing); Warrior's Theme (there's a great variety of beats on the album but this is a perfect example the ol' familiar sample-choppin'); Jungle Soundz (Part One); African Map Watch.

Medicine Show No. 4: 420 Chalice All-Stars
 When this was announced I was excited for it but once I received it and started listening I realized "Wait a sec, I'm not really a big reggae or dub fan." It's an 80-minute mixtape of all Jamaican dub, reggae, and roots records. If that's your sort of thing, you'll love this. But I tried getting into by listening to it in full a few times and it just drags on for me.

The album art is very cool, though. The cover shows the Son of Super Ape stealing a truck filled the medical marijuana. The liner notes contain an FAQ on medical marijuana and a thorough listing of all the dispensaries that offer it in Hollywood and East Los Angeles (there's about 100 or so). There are also images of the covers of all the records that have been included in the mixtape.

Parts I like: The very first song, the last song on Track 2, the song around the 1:00 mark of Track 4, the 4-minute mark of Track 4 (a wonderful song that seems to have burrowed itself into a little hole inside my brain), and that's pretty much it.

Medicine Show No. 5: The History of the Loop Digga, 1990-2000
This is undoubtedly my favorite album of the Medicine Show so far. It is just pure hip hop, a collection of over 60 minutes worth of instrumentals from Madlib's early producing history. There are well over 30 beats on here as most of the listed tracks contain at least 2 or 3 different beats molding into each other, sometimes being offered and then quickly taken away (a teaser indeed). The album cover and the comic book inside are ridiculous in a good way.

Favorite beats: I could put the whole record here but I especially love the second beat on Static Invazion; the span of Episode X, Episode XI (just pure hip hop beauty, as pleasing as a refreshing glass of water), Episode XII, Episode XIII is probably the best part of the album; Episode XVIII is lovely; Episode XXIII; and last but not least, Episode VIII.

There was also 30 minutes of bonus material for this album, although it was only included in the vinyl version (and downloadable as an mp3). I have it and it's excellent, I'd like to share it but every time I upload it the Stones Throw hounds find the file and delete it. Here's one of the (best) tracks for free. Right-click and Save As.

Medicine Show No. 6: The Brain Wreck Show
The latest offering in the Medicine Show is the weirdest. Upon consideration, it seems to me like this is a sort of interlude to the entire month-by-month show, a little brain purging before the Medicine Show heads into something totally different (the jazz albums that are coming for the summer months). The official description: "No. 6-The Brain Wreck Show is a 61-minute DJ mixtape of global psychedelic, progressive and hard rock & funk circa 1968-1976, culled from the isolated reaches of Madlib's 4-ton mountain of vinyl." It's a bit hard to get into because of the numerous weird sounds (glass breaking, sirens, Pee Wee Herman), skits and interludes that sound like delusional psychosis. The album cover, with two anthropomorphic rabbits doing it in the woods, is extremely weird as is the material in the liner notes---10 pages of New World Order conspiracy writing by someone named Lungston Hughes. The joke's on us, I guess.

Although there's plenty of audible weirdness, this is Madlib's most heavily DJ'd and mixed of all the albums thus far. It's a true DJ experience as he brings together a whole universe of different material and presents it in a special way. It's a completely different project than the previous two Medicine Show mixtapes (Brazil and Jamaican dub/reggae) in that he doesn't just choose his favorite tracks and let them play. He first drills holes into your ears and then pours in the music.

The Good Stuff: After many listens, I've realized there's a certain way to listen to this album to get the best music out of it. All the good music is on the odd-numbered tracks (there's 9 altogether). The even-numbered ones are mostly drawn out skits and craziness and the music they contain is usually too dark. I especially love the recurring jazz flute leitmotif (first introduced in Track 1) that swings in and out throughout the whole tape even though it's sometimes covered over by strange 60s psychedelic robotic talking. The song opening Track 3 is beautiful. Track 5 has the best material: a great funk/rock/soul type song followed by what seems like Jabba the Hut talking leading into an unbelievably tender and smooth track, then a lengthy 60s-sounding piano organ instrumental to lead into another nice song. All topped off by that lovely flute leitmotif.

And that's the first half of the year and the 12-part series. Next up is an original jazz album. Stay tuned.


  1. Hi, I’m Michael, the author of Dig That Sweet Sound. Thanks for linking to my blog in your post about Madlib's Medicine Show. I liked reading your take on the series so far. I’ve been reviewing each volume as they come out, feel free to drop by and comment!

  2. Hi Michael, thanks for commenting. I came across your blog last week when Stones Throw tweeted it and I read all of your reviews in one sitting, they're friggin great, man. I had been wanting to review the Medicine Show but kept putting it off and then I came across your awesome posts that inspired me. Keep it up!

    (I'm surprised there aren't more blogs/people out there writing about this series. It's a dream come true and Madlib is certainly a worldwide--albeit underground--name.)

  3. its hard for me to listen to part 6 man i just cant get into it yet good reviews anyhow check out and download these