Mixing Up the Medicine: Madlib’s Masterful ‘420 Chalice All Stars’

Madeleine Byrne takes a look at Madlib's 420 Chalice All Stars, ahead of its reissue via Rappcats.
By    June 26, 2018

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Madeleine Byrne is blunted in the bomb shelter.

When asked what he had learnt from J Dilla in a 2013 interview with France Inter, Madlib replied, “Stay loose. Keep it raw.” Then he said something indecipherable about drums. At a later Red Bull Music Academy event, Madlib described the value of keeping “some human mistakes in (his music),” before adding, “If it’s too perfect, I don’t want anything to do with it. If it’s too clean (…) or too polished, I don’t like it. That’s just me.”

Throughout Madlib’s three-decade career as composer, crate digger, DJ, producer, and MC, there’s always been a tense duality between messy and clean. The way the “Shame” beat on Piñata—his collaborative LP with Freddie Gibbs— is a pristine, perfectly balanced soul-based instrumental (albeit with an unexpected water effect), while “Real” is splintered with dissonant sounds is a perfect example.

Madlib projects also oscillate between polarities: his jazz-inflected work is orderly, respectful to their sources, while the Beat Konducta releases celebrate the unhinged, enacting an unruly musical eclecticism. It’s not surprising then that his dub/reggae mixesBlunted in the Bomb Shelter (2002) and Chalice All-Stars (2010), operate within a similar space. The second of the pair, Chalice All-Stars, is now being reissued by Rappcats on vinyl.

Musicians draw on their training during live performance while aiming to be fully in the moment. Producers likewise follow their intellect, not just their instincts when creating music (even if they prefer to emphasize the “feeling” when talking about their craft). Any intellectual aspect might be shaped by preferences and be unique to them, but beat-making requires a cool head to focus on the music’s minutiae. The more analytical side of production stems from hip-hop’s foundations in DJ culture; in particular, understanding how songs work together, which is necessary to create a coherent mix.

It’s not unusual for hip-hop producers to emphasize their DJ skills, possibly to align themselves with the genre’s reggae roots and DJs who birthed the art-form in 1970s New York. Madlib sees himself as a “DJ first, producer second, and MC last.” This seems weird at first, considering his status and reputation as a producer. Yet the issue here lies in the narrow idea of what it means to be a DJ. As these dub/reggae mixes show, DJ-ing is not just about bringing the party to the people, it’s also about how music is heard.

In 2010, Madlib set himself a challenge that ended up becoming the Medicine Show series. Thirteen albums, originally planned to come out each month via his archetypal reggae moniker Madlib Invazion over a period of just over a year. Odd months were to showcase original production, the evens mixes of other artists.

Chalice All-Stars (AKA Son of Super Ape) came out in April. Its promo material had a dope-smoking theme, while the title references Lee “Scratch” Perry. The tracklist didn’t name artists, but had names like “What Are The Medical Benefits of Smoking Marijuana?” Some were more loopy, for example: “Are a Lot of Pesticides on Pot?” The accompanying text read: “All Jamaican sounds. You’re tuning to your boss D.J. Madlib. Musical disc from the flick of his wrist to make you jump and twist. Madlib control the fullest. Roots. Rock. Reggae. Good stuff, as I would say.”

This reference to Madlib as DJ is key, not only because the first few seconds of Chalice All-Stars includes the word “DJ” as part of the intro, but also because of the way it encourages us to look again at the work’s conception and form.

Before listening to Chalice All-Stars, I had been spending a lot of time with Madlib’s stranger stuff, the hard to categorize projects like The Brain Wreck Show, Rock Konducta, and the adventurous—if more conventionally melodic—Black Soul mixtape and Beat Konducta Vol. 1-2: Movie Scenes. Something about this “undefined” music clicked with me, especially since it upended any notion of Madlib’s production as straight-edge hip-hop style. I felt energized by the wild freedom the music contained.

My first take on the Chalice All-Stars mix was that it seemed a bit bland in comparison. There is not much variety in the mix. Songs come in, with the vocals providing the unifying element. Many of the singers (to my ears) sounded alike: lively in the style of Dillinger. Most, if not all of the artists were less known, with some exceptions: the aforementioned Dillinger, Jah Lion, Ranking Dread, and U-Roy. This was not a mix for a Saturday night to keep the crowd dancing, or a greatest hits. In fact, it was not very danceable at all (the songs changed too quickly). Not much was added in terms of effects, the mood was unchanging. Then I realized something…What Madlib was doing on the Chalice All-Stars mix was being a DJ, in a very pure sense; not a producer. The two roles are crucially different. Whereas a hip-hop producer’s talent can be gauged via their creation of music from divergent musical sources and making it appear seamless, a DJ’s role is to locate pieces of music that resemble each other in their original form, then place them side by side with the minimum of distraction, ergo Chalice All-Stars.

Rather than being a weakness, this now impressed me as a strength; imagine listening to music and hearing points of connection and commonality, despite their more obvious differences. Later, returning to some of Madlib’s other projects, particularly The Brain Wreck Show, I noticed the same thing. Disparate sounds and samples resembled each other in their original form.

The 2002 Blunted in Bomb Shelter release followed Trojan Records, giving Madlib the opportunity to delve into its artist roster then create a mix from its contents. According to the blurb from Rappcats:

“In 2002 some good folks who have the Trojan & Greensleeves catalog asked Madlib to make a mixtape of these classic reggae records. They sent him a huge box with every record they had. For about two months Madlib played these records, smoked trees, made hip-hop beats, and recorded with YNQ in his studio The Bomb Shelter. One night they called and said hey where’s the music, it’s overdue. Next morning this mixtape emerged from the cave.”

This mix was what I had expected Chalice All-Stars to sound like. (Here’s an artists’ tracklist). It’s radically shape-shifting and colored by the core dub aesthetic of stripping everything back to the essential elements of drum, bass, and effects. Drawing repeatedly on King Tubby, it included many of dub’s greatest artists and sounded like a classic recording from the late 1970s/early 1980s. Edges were kept messy. There was no through-line, the hand of the producer could be felt in the use of effects and external vocal samples. It was the very definition of flux and experimentation. It maintained the transcendental aspect of the dub version, while allowing for the human element to come through.

All this made it much easier for me to like it, as it corresponded with my preferences, but at the same time it bugged me a little. Until hearing it, I was so sure of my theory about Madlib as DJ and what this meant in terms of his work, and now that argument was in pieces. No complaint, as this refusal to be contained is, in the end, the only thing you can rely on when it comes to Madlib’s music. It is the only constant, his work’s core truth.

Dub traces can be heard in hip-hop, in the use of sound effects and elemental emphasis on the drums and bass. The exposure of sonic elements—the way drums are often heard in isolation or stop completely—similarly has a dub feel, but this might also reflect a debt to other black musical traditions, such as jazz or even disco.

The strongest connection between the genres are hip-hop instrumentals and the role of producers. Commonly-held perceptions of reggae, possibly shaped by the mass popularity of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ non-political songs, rely on an image of the music as cheerful and bouncy, driven by a skanking rhythm: reggae as happy, feel-good party music. Some of it is, but of equal importance (and for me, greater importance) is the abstract side of dub found in the “versions.” Dub versions are the B-sides of a single where producers offer a pared-back take on the track with vocals. These tracks were often used as a surface for the DJ/MC to “toast,” or rap over. Such music is defined by the producer’s manipulation and placement of sounds, especially the way they position the vocals, treating them with effects such as reverb and delay to create an echo.

Here, the true art lies in the way the clinical production contrasts with other elements, say vocals that express warmth and vulnerability (or instruments, such as the melodica, an instrument that adds a difficult describe emotional charge: part longing, whimsy, and desire). Silence, too, is central as the elements appear and disappear. Hip-hop instrumentals frequently operate in a similar space, balancing hot and cold; the heat of a sentimental soul sample against the chill of programmed drums.

Yet despite these similarities, the influence of dub/reggae on hip-hop has never equalled that of funk, soul, or jazz. Throughout the 1990s/2000s, hip-hop artists referred to Rastafari in their lyrics, but deep engagement with dub/reggae in a profound musical sense is next to non-existent. (Of course, there are some famous nods to reggae to counter this: see Smif-n-Wessun’s “Sound Bwoy Bureill” from 1995, the Ras Michael image borrowed by InI for their Center of Attention album sleeve).

Madlib’s “Return of the Loop Digga” from the 2000 album, The Unseen includes a skit with the producer checking out the stock of a record store. Opening it up, Madlib asks,“Would you happen to have any uhhh … Stanley Cowell? Like 1970s stuff?”

Never heard of him.” the record store guy replies..“Has he made any hits?”

“He ain’t got none of that.”

It’s yes to Grant Green, 1958 Blue Note Records, but no to Chick Corea Atlantic 1968.

Madlib asks,“Y’all got any reggae up in this piece or something?” The manager replies, “We have no reggae in here.”

Madlib asks, “Nothing?”

“No, nothing.”

“Shit, I’m out.”

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