The shortest, dullest little phrases can really make your heart sink, can’t they? You’ve endured a long, hot drive to Anaheim and braved the theme park queues and then upon approaching the Pirate ride your 8-year-old was so achingly, unyieldingly set on: Closed For Maintenance. Or: you thought it was Monday, not Tuesday, so all of a sudden you have two minutes to enrol for XYZ online or have funds irrevocably wrested from your already-crippled bank account – ok, here’s the WiFi – Connection Failed. Or: you’re digging for native yams at Lake Joondalup and you feel a sharp stinging pain that sears up your arm. You see it writhe and slide away – oh man, you know what that is – a dugite. Don’t panic, don’t panic, there’s a Medical Centre down the road with the antivenene. You struggle along the footpath trying to remember the appropriate first aid ‘til you see the door. Out to Lunch. Back in 1/2 hour.
Or another thing that could happen is that you could be perusing The Internet™ as innocently and inadvertently as if it were a coffee table book of Japanese Ornamental Gardens and then woah woah woah woah – Madlib is SOLD OUT. What? This can’t be! The Bakery is enormous and… I mean… oh man.
Immediate pirouette into desperation mode. I contact our CoolPerthNights editor-in-chief. He’s reclining on a deckchair at a sun-kissed northern latitude. I must become the hunter. I take to the streets, sniffing like a truffle-pig for that golden ticket. I search in alleyways and gutters. I peer into rabbit warrens and beehives. It’s no good: I seat myself at an old pub and begin the task of drowning my sorrows.
And then – hark! An acquaintance with a straw hat and a spare. My luck’s done an about-face. The sun sinks and we flash our IDs. Inside a vibe is slowly brewing like drip-filter coffee. Local stalwart Kit Pop is supplying some choice cuts (lots of fellow traveller Taku’s material) but it inevitably treated as sonic wallpaper. Toes aren’t itching yet – on Bakery time, it’s still beer-and-conversation-on-an-astroturfed-pouffe O’Clock.
White dinner-jacketed music-nerd-cum-vibe-wizard EGON refuses to accept that kind of attitude, though. The lovably dorky DJ (who’s also known for being general manager of Stones Throw records and his own Now-Again label) doubles as a hyperactive master of ceremonies, giving us a guided tour of every new musical offering that comes to greet our ears. His enthusiasm is totally contagious, though even if he were frowning at his pointy leather loafers I doubt anyone would be able to resist the calibre of the funkiness on offer. Egon is perhaps best understood as a chirpy musical pilot, flying his captive passangers at supersonic speeds between disparate corners of the globe: we hear The Quests, a 1960s pop band from Singapore; the Ngozi family out of Zambia; The Greek Pop Festival (hi-speed funk wildness – “sounds like no pop music I ever heard!” exclaims Egon); Warhead Construction (a high-school psych rock band from Lagos, Nigeria) and so much more. This stuff is rarer than raw beef. And yet this isn’t obscurity for its obscurity’s sake: all these tracks are total brain-melters, triggering compulsive nods of the heads and vocal ejaculations. “Hip hop is universal at this point,” Egon cheers as he drops the beat of a folkloric Turkish drum circle – “this is hip hop! You ain’t never heard hip hop like this before – but this is Madlib medicine show – of COURSE you’re gonna hear shit like this!”
If Egon gave us a strange and exciting wordly tasting-platter, J-ROCC is all set to serve up nought but party treats like mumma used to make. You know, fairy bread, cocktail weenies, bright orange fizzy drink, a big gooey cake. The DJ, dripping with triple-distilled steez, approaches the stage and is introduced by Egon as “the best DJ in the world.” Is he? Maybe, maybe not, but hyperbole seems fitting. He fires up a selection of samples chopped up and reconfigured so as to pronounce “J-Rocc” in a variety of ways. From here, he segues into a beat via a very obscure sample – ‘Le Petit Chevalier’ by Nico, sung by her young son Ari on the Desertshore album. And yep, there are plenty of other little arcane wonders and interpolations in this set – but primarily, it’s an hour of bangers, and there’s no tune too classic for J-Rocc to happily whip out. Which means we encounter such numbers as Dre/Snoop’s “Nuthin’ but a G Thang,” Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” and Pharoahe Monch’s ubiquitous, Godzilla-sampling “Simon Says” (that darnt-darnt-darnt-darnt is a sure-fire adrenaline injection, whenever, wherever – cheap points, perhaps, but worthwhile). Meanwhile, there’s no shortage of scratch-based virtuosity and spoken word interludes to keep things interesting, engagingly complex – and if you were ever getting sick of THE HITS, there’s ongoing recourse to little-known, funky instrumental gems. Even the stage presence is sublime, with MJ-inspired dancing, crowd interaction and vocal miming. J Rocc nails it. NAILS it.
Now the man of the hour – I’m talking about Otis Jackson Jr, aka MADLIB – is an enigma wrapped in a riddle wrapped in a cloud of suspicious-smelling smoke, and though he’s been a reliable source of amazing beats, mixes and music in general for the last 15-odd years, he’s also pretty unpredictable. He’s maybe my favourite hip-hop producer in the history of hip-hop production, exceeded perhaps only by the late, great J Dilla himself. And yet his copious and incredible output seems to be the result of an over-active, volatile brain, the sort of bubbling brain that’s either gonna produce genius or sheer mess, rather than straight-up solidity (see: J Rocc). With this in mind, I’d figured Madlib’s set would go in one of those two directions. Turns out it goes in both.
Madlib, the Beat Konducta, stokes the fire straight away with one of his finest collaborative efforts: “Accordion” from the Madvillain project with MF Doom. It’s a tune that encapsulates many of the things that make Madlib so great: there’s idiosyncratic quirk (how many producers would try to forge an entire track around a romantic accordion sample, let alone succeed?), there’s a drunken wonkiness amidst a dependable groove, it mixes old and new vibes effortlessly, and as a whole, it’s both memorable and understated. Here, he mixes it up with EQ fluctuations and pauses just enough to differentiate it from the album version. Next, however, the set takes something of a turn for the inaccessible. Madlib errs away from letting any beats play out, instead messing with the crowd’s collective head by constantly switching it up, dragging out minimal rhythmic scratch-blasts, warping sounds into unrecognizable club-next-door mushes, and generally having all sorts of esoteric sound-manipulation fun. It’s interesting, but after the all-in party atmosphere of J Rocc, it feels slightly awkward. Here’s the thing: Madlib never has been, never will be, a simple crowd pleaser. He makes music on his own terms, presumably to satiate his own ears’ desires, desires which are sometime pretty far out. So when he drops his classic beat for Mos Def’s “Auditorium,” it lasts about ten seconds and is squished under another sample before rapidly disappearing. Blink and you’ll miss it! Yep, Otis is in freaky mode. Soon enough, he senses that the room might not be feeling these wig-outs quite as much as him (a muddy FOH mix doesn’t help either), and swings things in the direction of reworked disco and funk numbers from some of his Medicine Show records, providing a bit more momentum for danceability. The set never quite settles into a dynamic, but it’s an intriguing look into the real-time workings of Madlib the man, the wild mind. And of course, J Dilla tributes abound: the three members of the Medicine Show Tour unite onstage for an airing of Dilla’s classic Raymond Scott-sampling “Lightworks.”
Though the feeling of Madlib’s slightly baffling set following J Rocc’s presentation of bangers is a little unusual, tonight ultimately offers us an awesome trifekta of approaches to DJing; the crate-digger, the party-bringer, the smooth mad scientist (yeah, I couldn’t really fit Madlib’s approach into an established DJ archetype). As such, it felt like the Medicine Show Tour was totally justified in its decision to combine these three specific gentlemen; the night would have been lesser had it swapped out any of its particular components. As far as DJ-focused nights go, I can already tell this one will stick in my mind for years. My spirits were on the road to ill health when I thought I wasn’t going to make it. Turns out the Madlib Medicine Show was just what the doctor ordered.