A roundup of the best beats the Oxnard, California producer has made throughout his career.
Madlib has spent the last 25 years either feverishly rifling through record store bins looking for new music to sample or cooped up at his house or freemason castle where he now rents space churning out beat after beat after beat. He is the bedroom producer’s bedroom producer. An enigma who has always seemed more interested in communing with his E-mu SP-1200 or Roland TB-303 synthesizer than collaborating or mixing at a studio.
Using literally dozens of aliases, Madlib has built a career as a genuine pioneer who, through sampling, has covered a mind-boggling amount of musical terrain, and who views the musical frontier to be limitless. Despite his prolific output he remains elusive, and he hasn’t released much music in the past five years.
Here are the 25 best Madlib beats of all time.
25. Madlib – “Episode VIII”
History of the Loop Digga: 1990-2000, the fifth installment of the 13-part album series Madlib Medicine Show, is a personal history that delves into Madlib’s archives from his formative beatmaking days in Oxnard, CA. Loop Digga was one of his first aliases; on 2000’s The Unseen LP, Quasimoto cries out, “Yo, it’s the Loop Digga,” as if he’s just spotted Jonah Hill shopping for flaxseed meal at Whole Foods.
Horn stabs punctuate a chilled out Donny Hathaway electric piano loop on “Episode VIII,” making for a blissful, uncomplicated beat. A minute-long oasis on a 34-track album that showcases Madlib’s early penchant for eclecticism.
24. Lootpack – “Whenimondamic”
Madlib’s career in the ’90s was largely tethered to his work with Lootpack, his Oxnard-based rap group with Wildchild and DJ Romes. Their 1999 debut album Soundpieces: Da Antidote — Madlib’s first ever release through Stone’s Throw —included features from other Oxnard artists who would become longtime collaborators like MED, Dudley Perkins, and his own brother Oh No. “Whenimondamic” pairs Wildchild’s casual threats to lyrically murder other crews with a whimsical beat of Madlib’s invention.
The beat rides along atop a cheeky bassline (the main reason this song wound up on the soundtrack of Tony Hawk Pro Skater 4) but is deceptively rich in detail. There’s the pitched-up mona; then there are the half-second guitar plucks and jazzy piano cadences, as well as the sample-sourced character actors that make occasional noise from the back of the mix.
23. MF DOOM – “One Beer”
“There’s only one beer left.”
It’s a perfect opening line, every bit as inviting as “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” But it’s really just an entrance into another one of DOOM’s stream-of-consciousness excursions that has little to do with a party running critically low on alcohol. DOOM is not the only chaotic element on “One Beer;” the other would be Madlib, with his brash drum kit flourishes and piercing vocal sample from the cult fave ’70s French jazz outfit Cortex. “One Beer” is significant not only because it is one of the few tracks on Mm.. Food not produced by DOOM, but it also marks the beginning of one one of the most groundbreaking rap-producer partnerships of our time
22. Madvillain – “Curls”
This list could have easily devolved into a breathless ode to the profoundly zooted production at the core of Madvillainy. But I decided to limit things to a few favorites from that album and incorporate other highlights from across Madlib’s far-flung oeuvre. “Curls” is a portrait of MF Doom as teenage delinquent — “a rhyming klepto…showing up to class with Moet in a flask…known to smoke a whole mountain of hash to the ash.” The beat is a perfectly tonal match to Doom’s tongue-in-cheek epic, but it also tells a story by itself. Madlib operates on a fluid spectrum from beachside bossa nova guitar to melodramatic organ, and packs in enough twists in 95 seconds to sustain a feature film.
21. DJ Rels – “Don’t U Know”
Five months after the release of Madvillainy, Madlib put out one of the most unexpected and experimental albums of his career under the pseudonym DJ Rels — Theme for a Broken Soul. It’s an escape from the tight quarters of Madvillainy and a tribute to UK house inspired by a trip to London. Its opener, “Don’t U Know,” covers a tremendous amount of ground: a hectic, shuffling drum break gallops forward, picking up trippy laser synths and the eponymous vocal sample along the way. It’s not hard to draw a line from Madlib’s psychedelic blend of electronic and hip-hop to the LA beat scene.
20. Madlib – “Pyramids (Change)”
Madlib’s deft touch is strengthened by his famously expansive record collection. On “Pyramids (Change),” he first melds samples from songs by Keni Burke and the Doobie Brothers, before adding vocal snips by D’Angelo and the ’60s spoken word outfit the Watts Prophets. The man is basically a walking episode of Rhythm Roulette. “I usually look at the instrumentation and the year on the cover,” he said of his crate-digging technique in a recent interview with Pitchfork. “It’s all types of music. Most of the time I buy stuff I don’t know just so I can hear something new. Mostly black or European, Chinese. Anything, man. I’ve been around a lot of the world, so that’s where I cop the most records. When I’m on tour, that’s the main thing to do. Hang with chefs, and buy records.”
19. Madlib – “Solitude”
“Solitude” appeared on Dudley Perkins 2003 album A Lil’ Light, but is better experienced as a pure instrumental. Perkins’ self-pitying, lo-fi vocals, which sound like he recorded them directly onto one of those old PalmPilots, interfere with the beat’s majesty. Madlib unearthed an old Billy Eckstein record called “Just a Little Loving (Early in the Morning)” — produced by Isaac Hayes — which explains why the beat works better as a stand-alone, larger-than-life Blaxploitation theme rather than a loneliness anthem.
18. Madlib – “The Mystery (Dilla’s Still Here)”
Each of Madlib’s late-aughts Beat Konducta beat tapes came with a theme. Vol. 1-2 was “Movie Scenes,” Vol. 3-4 was “In India,” and Vol. 5-6 was “Dil Cosby & Dil Withers Suite” — a tribute to his collaborator and “musical cousin,” J Dilla. “The Mystery” captures the kind of stillness and moments of reflection that can only come at night. It offers overt Jay Dee references — “J Dilla” chants and a brief interpolation of “Fall in Love” — but like the rest of this beat tape, it is a remarkable tribute to Dilla’s thoughtfulness and production style that testifies to Madlib’s own skill.
17. Lootpack – “Answers”
“Back in the Lootpack days, I was just a hip-hopper,” Madlib told Scratch Magazine in 2005. He didn’t necessarily mean that in a good way — he has spoken of his unwillingness to revisit that album as a listener. But there’s an outside chance he still vibes with “Answers.” There’s the cat burglar flute, and then there’s Quasimoto dropping ad-libs on Madlib’s verses, which he aims at inferior rappers: “I’m your replacement / Madlib up in the basement.”
16. Madvillain – “Monkey Suite”
Madvillain’s identity since 2004 has been centered around not releasing any music, despite promises that they’ve been making music — entire albums, even. There have been a few exceptions, like “Monkey Suite,” a one-off they gave to Adult Swim in 2006. The production is rife with intentional blemishes and brief, randomly placed points where the beat drops out for a microsecond, never long enough for you to wonder if it’ll drop out all together but long enough for you to notice. Altogether it’s a macabre procession, and Madlib’s addition of a soft, cheerful piano sample only makes the vibe eerier.
15. Dudley Perkins – “Flowers”
On “Flowers,” Madlib evokes the atmosphere of an intimate Dave Brubeck set at a Manhattan jazz club by way of an understated piano loop and soft, barely discernable cymbal hits that ring out softly and linger indeterminably. Naturally, he couldn’t resist putting in Morse code blips at odd intervals that sound like they’re coming from a German U-boat. So often, Madlib revels in textures that shouldn’t work together but somehow find a way to co-exist. He’s a master at exploiting this paradox. For him, the dissonance is the point.
14. MED X Blu X Madlib “Drive-In”
Madlib has been pretty quiet in the five years since Pinata. One major exception was Bad Neighbor, his 2015 collaborative album with underground deity Blu and MED, the Oxnard comrade with whom he’s been collaborating for two decades. “Drive-In” begins in media res, seemingly at an awkward point in the middle of a natural sample loop. (He leveraged a similar technique on “Flat Tummy Tea,” his recent single with Gibbs.) The countervailing force at work here is the sample itself, an extraordinarily clean Brenda Russell chop that proves once again that the chipmunk technique of vocal sampling will never truly go out of style. Aloe Blacc rounds out the track with a towering hook.
13. Quasimoto – “Low Class Conspiracy”
Madlib created his best-known alter-ego, Quasimoto, because — like most people — he didn’t like the sound of his own voice. (How does Madlib create Quasimoto’s pitched-up voice? “The old school way,” he told Scratch Mag. “Record with the beat slowed down, then speed it back up.”)
Though Quasimoto had been lurking in the background for a couple years, he made his formal debut on the 2000 album The Unseen. While Quasimoto proved to be a renaissance for Madlib’s rap career, this album also produced some of the best, most resourceful beats of his career to date. “Low Class Conspiracy” mines two entirely different vibes from 10 seconds of a Wes Montgomery song.
12. Quasimoto – “Microphone Mathematics”
“Microphone Mathematics” contains the sharpest lyrics of Madlib/Quasimoto’s career: “On the 3-4, I broke about a dozen mics / On the 1, 2s, I took out a hundred crews / 365 days to a year, subtract it off your life / In 2000, that’s the end of strife.” The cover art of The Unseen depicts Madlib making beats in the back of a pink Thunderbird, oblivious to the police car behind him in hot pursuit. Even in the case of the most important rapping album he ever made, he couldn’t help but frame himself as a producer.
11. Kanye West Feat. Kendrick Lamar – “No More Parties in LA”
The world stops when Kanye West tweets. At least, that’s how things were in the weeks leading up to the release of The Life of Pablo in early 2016. Buzz surrounding the album reached a fever pitch when Kanye released, “No More Parties in LA.” “We just wanna thank Madlib for these 6 beat CDs he sent over #scary,” he tweeted four days after releasing the song. Though “No More Parties” was apparently six years in the making, it only took shape the day before it was released, when Kanye wrote 90 bars on a plane home from Italy in an apparent manic frenzy. Madlib made the beat on his iPad. The song remains Kanye and Madlib’s only collaboration.
10. Madvillain – “Raid”
Madlib made the majority of the beats from Madvillainy during a trip to Brazil. “We went to every little [record] store we could find,” Madlib told Pitchfork. “I was keeping Brazilian time, sitting in my room smoking some terrible weed and sampling shit, while everyone else was out partying and getting drunk.” “Raid” came into existence in this fashion. It dives into a classic Bill Evans sample (“Nardis”) before taking flight on the wings of a sample of the semi-obscure Brazilian musician Osmar Milito. While most of Madvillainy feels physically underground, or from an another planet where inhabitants subsist on argon rather than oxygen, “Raid” offers a breath of fresh air.
9. Madlib – “Fallin”
The best measure of Madlib’s clout circa 2003 is when Blue Note Records asked him to raid their archives from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, and re-frame them through the mind of a contemporary hip-hop collagist. The result, Shades in Blue, feels much more in his wheelhouse than Yesterday’s New Quintet, his previous, more ambitious foray into jazz. In 2014, he told Spin that Shades of Blue is “the album I’m most proud of actually out of everything.” The poignant “Fallin” is an obvious highlight that speaks to Madlib’s ability to distill the essence of any given sample. It’s also tidily composed by his standards.
8. Madlib – “Slim’s Return”
Another standout from Shades of Blue, “Slim’s Return” bounces along on the bass strings of a sample of “Book of Slim,” originally performed by the jazz-blues master Gene Harris. It’s as slinky and cool as Blue Note’s famous, bleached-out aquamarine album covers — the soundtrack for a man who has just emerged from his midlife crisis with his swagger fully intact and evolved.
7. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – “Harold’s”
“Harold’s” isn’t Action Bronson-level food porn and it doesn’t necessarily inspire hunger. But it remains the great chicken-spot tribute of the decade — a portrait of the chicken-spot as it pertains to Gibbs: “KFC, Harold’s, Sharks or Popeyes / Adidas suit with a plate of chicken, got mob ties / […] A plate of chicken with the bread stuck to the bottom / But fuck my enemies, what you looking for? Bitch I got ’em.” The strings Madlib mines on Piñata are striking in the variety of their texture. While the strings of “Deeper” are sharp and cold as Japanese steel, the strings of “Harold’s” glitter like gold.
6. Jaylib – “The Official”
Madlib and J Dilla’s 2003 album Champion Sound follows a simple formula: Madlib raps over a Jay Dee beat, then Jay Dee raps over a Madlib beat — rinse and repeat. “Just so people know, we didn’t go in the studio, lay a version, then track it down,” Dilla said in a 2003 interview before the album dropped. “It was all straight off of CD, overdubbing, straight mixtape shit. Raw. Everything you hear is straight two tracks and overdub.”
On “The Official,” Madlib flips the Birth of the Cool-style orchestral instrumentation of Gap Mangione’s “Diana in the Autumn Wind.” The frolicking harmony between clarinet, flute, upright bass, and muted horns imbues the track with a kind of festive, ceremonial feeling. It does feel pretty official — shades of Sam Spence’s frosty, autumn NFL classic soundtrack.
5. Quasimoto – “Astronaut”
Madlib and shrooms go together like Paul Wall and lean. Psilocybin helped him bring the Quasimoto character into existence, and then into focus. “I was doing a lot of shrooms and stuff back then,” he said in an interview with Grantland. “I was just trying to make music without thinking about it. And talk how I wanted to talk. Just trying to be free.” As such, the production on the song “Astronaut” doesn’t connote the unfathomable grandeur of space so much as an inward journey: “You ain’t no astronaut, but we’ve been out there in orbit / And walked further than the moon ain’t we?”
4. Madvillain – “Accordion”
You can almost feel the accordion bellows expand and contract in the sample that forms the heart of “Accordion.” Madlib’s flip of the original Daedelus composition is straightforward but what’s special about it is the way he gives the accordion fresh context. A claustrophobic loop and DOOM rapping about the children’s computer game Wacky Races.
3. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – “Thuggin'”
“Thuggin'” came out in 2011 — three years prior to Piñata — and like “One Beer,” it provided an incredible taste of things to come from MadGibbs. ‘Thuggin'” is a 100-degree day — when the pavement is white-hot, and sunbeams penetrate thick forest canopies and reflect off shimmering watering holes. It speaks to our world as an entity that is ambient but also very much alive. It’s an out-of-body experience grounded by Gibbs’ impregnable raps. A sensation of floating offset by the cold-blooded dealings of a cocaine cowboy: “Swiftly ’bout to stick a sweet dick in your sweetheart / Then go and get some groceries off my geeker EBT card.”
2. Mos Def Feat. Slick Rick – “Auditorium”
Mos Def’s “Auditorium” is a simple redux of “Movie Finale,” which appeared on Madlib’s’ India-inspired beat tape Beat Konducta 3-4. From Britney Spears’ “Toxic” to The Game’s “Put You On Game,” Bollywood samples have a track record of making Western clubgoers lose their gourds. “Auditorium” offers a different kind of sensation. One of rhythmic forward motion and methodical sequencing, getting swept up in wave after wave. The sky’s the limit for that Madlib/Black Star album — if they ever get around to making it.
1. Madvillain – “All Caps”
On “All Caps,” Madlib toggles between innocent and sinister motifs, shifting tones so dramatically and seamlessly that it feels playful rather than dramatic. Like “Auditorium,” “All Caps” possesses a certain cinematic flair, with its samples purloined from a pair of ’70s detective shows set in San Francisco. The only match for this beat is the diabolical comic book rap supervillain MF Doom. And even DOOM, who tends to get lost in his own thoughts, can’t help but stop for a moment to appreciate Madlib’s handiwork. “The beat is so butter,” he remarks.
Danny Schwartz is a New York-based music writer. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, GQ, and Pitchfork. You can follow him @dschwrtz.