20/20 Vision: Quasimoto – The Unseen

Continuing Son Raw’s look back at 12 of the most interesting and impactful albums of the year 2000. The April edition was slightly late because… pandemic.
By    May 5, 2020

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Son Raw will give a hater a curb stomp on a cinder block.

“There’s a war going on outside, no man is safe from” – Prodigy

“I’ll smack a n***a with a brick” – Quasimoto

To be a rap fan in the year 2000 was to pick a side. 

In the right hand corner, backed by major labels and the media, but also a populist groundswell of local black-run clubs, DJs, labels and communities, was the ascendant rap mainstream. Led by crews including Roc-a-Fella, Ruff Ryders, Cash Money, Aftermath, and Murder INC, this movement reshaped rap from a dusty, sub-cultural expression of the underground into a flashy, materialistic expression of popular culture that supplanted even R&B at the turn of the millennium. 

In the left hand corner, backed by a network of specialist record shops, college radio shows, alternative promoters and a loose alliance of left field street cats and college-educated poet-emcees, was the underground, the self-declared heirs to a strain of hip-hop culture with roots going back to Kool Herc, fighting a war against the degradation and commercialization of their beloved art form.

And they were thoroughly getting their asses kicked.

It’s not that underground rap was failing on a micro level. From the post-Native Tongues black bohemians orbiting the Soulquarians, to name brand veterans like Q-Tip and Pharaohe Monch, to oddballs like MF DOOM and Thirstin Howl III to far left abstractionists like Company Flow and 12’ phenoms like Last Emperor and Dilated Peoples, the scene was pushing out great material. But despite winning battles, they weren’t winning hearts and minds. True school MCs groaned and complained in every interview, bemoaning the uncultured masses’ preference for everything jiggy and flashy, and their sales rapidly began plummeting, cannibalized by illegal downloads. Meanwhile, acts like Juvenile and Jay-Z flaunted babes, benzes and dollar bills. Who do you think kids wanted to be like?

It was in this polarized rap environment that Stones Throw Records put out Quasimoto’s The Unseen, one of the strangest hip-hop albums to ever find success, and a true oddity that forged a new path for underground rap — apart from griping true-schoolers and mainstream materialists, both.

Chances are, you never saw it coming. Coming off its first half-decade of releases, Stones Throw Records was at best a safe haven for Bay Area rap weirdoes, at worst an afterthought in a West Coast scene that had already elevated Hieroglyphics, Solesides, The Dilated Peoples, Jurassic 5 and even The Black Eyed Peas. Making their reputation off founder Peanut Butter Wolf’s releases with his (tragically) deceased partner Charizma, and an assortment of DJ tools and instrumental records, the label was niche, even for the underground rap ecosystem.

Meanwhile Madlib, the man behind Quasimoto, had just produced his group The Lootpack’s debut Da Antidote, to polite reviews and unremarkable sales. Over an assortment of jazzy loops processed via the classic SP-1200 sampler, The Lootpack called their opponents wack, bragged about their skills, and kept it as real as possible. It’s the sort of record that fit in nicely next to something by People Under the Stairs, but not something you’d ever put on with someone of the opposite sex in the room. Just another underground rap album, albeit a very well produced one… except for one track.  

“Answers” featured Quasimoto, a bizarre, helium voiced rapper trading rhymes with Madlib over two verses. Sounding like the love child of Magoo and Q-Tip with a bad attitude, it’s safe to say no one expected much when Stones Throw announced The Unseen, his Madlib-produced debut a year later. Yet this is the album that would begin Stones Throw’s ascent to the peaks of underground hip-hop in earnest, the weed-scented foundation for classics by Jaylib, Madvillain and beyond.

Today, we know that Quasimoto is the result of Madlib rapping over slowed down beats that are later played at normal speed, born the same way as Prince’s alter-ego Camille. Though he was eventually drawn as a cartoon aardvark, Quasimoto was initially designed to be an enigma, a mysterious “unseen” entity unidentified by the label. When the truth about Madlib’s rapping leaked – it didn’t take long – the label put out a story about Madlib coming up with the concept while tripping on shrooms, and recording the album for his own private enjoyment before being cajoled into releasing it to the masses. It’s a keen bit of myth-making – after all, you can’t prove it – but it could also play as a bit of bet hedging.

The album, serious hip-hop fans could infer, was a side project. A bit of fun before The Lootpack returned with another record full of fire and brimstone for wack emcees and paeans to true school hip-hop culture. This wasn’t a record that would appeal to the types of listeners that judged rappers based on how many syllables they could rhyme, or how closely their drums and scratches could match up to DJ Premier’s. So it was to everyone’s surprise, that The Unseen took off, at least in underground terms. The album ranked #7 on Spin Magazine’s 20 best releases of the year, right next to U2 and Madonna, leapfrogging past the underground competition. Jedi Mind Tricks fans were probably furious (I assume they are always furious).

Which brings us back to why underground rap was losing the good fight against flashier, mainstream MCs.

Since De La Soul declared the stakes to be high and DJ Shadow claimed that hip-hop sucked in ‘96, the underground’s adversarial posture had done little to draw in fans. Yes, indie rap could attract alternative kids by being non-threatening and by flattering the egos of heads who viewed themselves as connoisseurs above the rabble, but that demographic was already locked down by alt-rock, which ensured the true school scene faced low ceilings. Meanwhile, purists who were jonesing for rap circa ’93-’96 decried any deviation from that sound, even attacking legends like Q-Tip for daring to be danceable. Quasimoto and The Unseen escaped this creative death cycle by simply not giving a fuck, and looking to not only hip-hop’s roots before the “keep it real” era, but all of black music and culture’s rich 20th century history.

The album’s first major sonic break with millennial underground orthodoxy was to draw from the sampledelic sprawl of classics like 3 Feet High and Rising, Paul’s Boutique and Breakin’ Atoms rather than the low-passed grit of The Infamous or the shiny synths dominating millennial radio. Though all highly regarded classics, these pre-Chronic albums embraced whimsy and mischief, rather than the scowling, self-serious attitude that was well established as the norm by the mid-90s. In this way, Quasimoto’s cartoonish vocals and Madlib’s stonerific production stood just as far apart from the rest of the records on Fatbeats’ racks as it did from Mannie Fresh and Swizz Beats’ thugged out electro. Though Madlib didn’t layer his samples like his predecessors — as legalities had made that impossible — he instead dug deeper and got weirder, finding the perfect loop in dusty jazz records, the score to cult film La Planète Sauvage, and dialogue by ’70s Blaxploitation icon, Melvin Van Peebles. 

This admiration for and sampling of ’60s and ’70s black counterculture is essential to understanding The Unseen. Madlib was already digging in those crates while making beats for The Lootpack, but within the confines of that group, he played it straight, making everyman rap beats for everyman MCs. As Quasimoto however, he was suddenly free to be whatever he wanted over whatever beats he could make, rather than be shoehorned into being an underground corrective to someone else’s mainstream success. And so the Quasimoto character came together: part Black Panther, part Sun Ra space alien, part jazz hep cat, part 80s B-Boy. He neither claimed to sell crack, not admonished those who did: he was too busy astro traveling to care, bar a few bars on “Microphone Mathematics.” He was more upset by poorly stocked record stores and “money hungry bitches” than other rappers.

So despite outside media attention, the album wasn’t an immediate success among underground rap fans. Hiphopsite, ground zero for all things rap and nerdy at the turn of the millennium, gave it a respectable 3.5/5. For his part, Madlib moved on, falling into a deep jazz rabbit hole that led to his Yesterday’s New Quintet albums, much to the dismay of Stones Throw, who would still be seeking another hit record until they managed to connect DOOM and Madlib a few years later. But that meeting of rap’s preeminent weirdoes couldn’t have happened if Madlib hadn’t first gotten weird himself. With its emphasis on weed, space, samples, soul, jazz, funk and freaks, The Unseen became the grandfather of not only Madvillainy, but also Flying Lotus’ Los Angeles and by extension, much of the LA Beat Scene’s brightest moments.

Beyond influencing the sound of a generation however, it cracked open a space for black artists (and rap fans of all creeds) to exist outside of millennial rap’s established poles of mainstream street capitalism and strident cultural purism. Pushing back against rap’s clichés, The Unseen’s embrace of obscure cartoons and surreal humor is the primordial soup from which Adult Swim’s alt-rap aesthetic would emerge.

On paper, underground rap lost its war against the mainstream. By 2004, Kanye West had co-opted the Soulquarian aesthetic and married it to Roc-A-Fella’s sheen, while illegal downloads wore out the indieground by attrition, or at least forced its practitioners to accept diminishing sales and a niche space in the culture. Yet Madib, with and later without Stones Throw, continued to quietly influence the culture, finding disciples in Odd Future’s Earl Sweatshirt, POW Recordings’ Chester Watson, and just about every alternative black rapper with an eye towards skateboards that began popping up in the 2010s, once the original backpack scene was considered dead and buried. Perhaps most surprisingly, his most recent act alongside Freddie Gibbs has seen him team up with an MC that would have been aligned with mainstream tastes in 2000. I doubt that Gibbs spent much time listening to Quasimoto, but I’m also sure that he wouldn’t be here without him.

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