MadHerring: Madlib Meets The Frontman of Future Islands

In the wake of his indie rock success, Sam Herring heads out in search of the Beat Konducta.
By    September 9, 2015


Blake Gillespie plays kazoo semi-professionally

Before he earned fame as the passionate frontman with a receding hairline and crouching tiger hidden dragon dance moves on the David Letterman Show. . Before Future Islands became an international sensation signed to 4AD and traversed festival stages worldwide. Samuel T. Herring wanted to be a rapper.

In a column for NME, Herring wrote about how Gravediggaz’ 6 Feet Deep EP changed his life in eighth grade. It was the first album he transcribed and memorized entirely and it fueled his rap ambitions. He spoke further of those ambitions on the Secret Skin podcast with Open Mike Eagle, which included earning his stripes in ciphers with his older brother’s friends (note: his brother released a rap album in 2010 under the alias Plucky Walker). His duty to a rising synth-pop band put the enterprise on hold, but it’s no secret that Herring periodically appeared under the moniker Hemlock Ernst on obscure, mostly-Baltimore based indie rap records throughout his tenure in Future Islands.

Even though his appearance as Hemlock Ernst on the Scallops Hotel record Plain Speaking drew many doubters of authenticity, his rap alter ego was indisputably confirmed with the announcement of the Trouble Knows Me EP with Madlib. Fame can buy a great deal, but the collision of Herring and Madlib’s worlds doesn’t arouse suspicion. His success in Future Islands applies here strictly in the strings pulled and numbers exchanged behind the scenes.

There are few scenarios in which fame is not a factor. Organic arrival is tough. That said, this isn’t a crossover EP. It’s not Fred Durst tossing money bags at DJ Premier and Method Man to legitimize his rap ambition. Yes, it’s still a vanity project but not one deserving of attrition. Its intentions are pure. To reference another bleeding heart artist, the aim is true.

Years ago, Herring sat on a rooftop being filmed by NYCTV for the Time Spent series. He wore tattered jeans and flannel as though recreating The ‘Mats’ Let It Be artwork, while rapping his autobiography and education in rap without irony. He delivered the acapella verse mostly fluently, with a few shaky bars. The Trouble Knows Me EP produced by Madlib arrives years later as a glimpse into his acumen as a rapper. Oddly enough, Hemlock Ernst’s gravelly delivery bares vocal similarities to past Madlib collaborator Krondon of Strong Arm Steady. He’s at home in the Beat Konducta’s world — sourcing recollections of substance abuse.

In three songs, Herring reflects on himself, his past transgressions, and the enduring search for a better tomorrow. At his best, the self awareness on “Streetsweeper” yields a line like, “people think I’m 52 because the lines on my face are stone-walled” — in regards to his seemingly elderly appearance. Considering the skillset of past Madlib collaborators like Wild Child or Roc C, Herring holds steady ground. It’s too early to put him in the upper tier of collaborators, but the EP is merely testing the waters.

Behind the boards, the always mercurial Madlib lets loose a small sample of soul loops, locking the EP into 70s funk. The EP is short-lived, lacking attention span, and easily re-upped without wearing thin. These subtle production cues inform Herring’s reflections on a drug-addled past, most notably on “Trouble”  (“jaw twisting like a rain-soaked shoebox asking who’s lost.”) Herring revisits the dank crash pads, hungry hunts for fixes, transience, and degeneracy of addiction and disillusionment. The magnetism of Future Islands is largely do to his genuine memoir and emotive delivery — and as a rapper he maintains those qualities. But rather than exploring the depths of love and loss, he’s shifted towards ephemeral infatuations.

On “Celebrity Vision,” Beastie Boys samples interrupt the flow. It’s hyper pacing intensifies from screwed up effects, and it ultimately exists as a counter-intuitive wrench that challenges Herring’s skill set. Over 15 years after Lootpack, Madlib still keeps challenging loops on deck. Herring hasn’t yet mastered the brevity that Doom brought to Madvillainy tracks like “Meatgrinder” or “Figaro”, but he can’t be mistaken for a rookie either. And if the Trouble Knows Me EP is merely a precursor, only good can come from a deeper collaboration between the two artists.

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