The Madvillain Orchestra

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by Liam Thomas

Madvillainy (2004). Even with fifteen years between its official release and today, the collaborative project between legendary Stones Throw Records signees; peerless producer Madlib and the equally revered wordsmith MF DOOM, feels as fresh and original as it did on the day of its release. The synergy between these two acts elevated both of their respective contributions to the project, resulting in one of the most recognizable and cohesive pieces of modern hip-hop to date. However, while DOOM’s endlessly quotable lines and Madlib’s eccentric drum patterns are both thrilling to behold, what truly elevates Madvillainy to its iconic status are the distinctly unique sample choices that Madlib peppers throughout the record. 

Madlib finds his clips in all realms of musical influence, sampling artists ranging from George Clinton to Yoko Shimomura to create an expansive quilt of differing sounds that amount to a multifaceted and deeply rewarding listening experience. Of course, the act of sampling, of cherry-picking certain musical elements from separate compositions and re-working them into the context of your own, was nothing new to these two hip-hop icons upon the release of Madvillainy. Over the years, sampling has become an essential component of hip-hop production, and much of this can be traced back beyond Madlib’s eccentric and definitive sample choices that dotted his production throughout the early 2000s.

On November 2, 2018, the renowned big-band Abstract Orchestra released Madmix Vol. 1. Fresh off the successful release of their 2017 Dilla project, which served as an orchestral tour through the work of the peerless J Dilla, the group has now moved on to their next undertaking: a tight, expansive, 40-minute big-band cover album of the Madvillain instrumentals. The group takes heavy influence from such iconic acts as The Roots and Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, and even though most of their body of work up to this point has been instrumental covers, the tunes on Madmix Vol 1. are both inextricable from Madlib and wholly original to the Abstract Orchestra. 

Now, while cover albums may be nothing new, they generally don’t play with the format as much as Madmix Vol 1. Cover albums and songs, for the most part, tend to remain stringently faithful to the composition and style of the original piece. However, with Madmix Vol 1, Abstract Orchestra has done so much more than that. Through the practice of Interlocution - the act of reconfiguring a given piece of music with new instrumental compositions - Abstract Orchestra both elevated the form of a cover album and reappropriated Madvillainy’s already sample-heavy instrumentals into a completely new piece of art. On Madvillainy, Madlib translated jazz (amongst innumerable other genres) into terms of Hip-Hop, and MF DOOM filled in the blanks. Abstract Orchestra has re-translated the sampled music back into terms of jazz but now filtered through a lens of hip-hop production.

Attempting to trace the origins of all the records Madlib chose to sample throughout Madvillainy, dissecting each track and unearthing a whole host of new sounds that feed into each of them, is part of the album’s interminable appeal. Madlib utilized sampling to bring together sounds of the past and the present, creating something that is recognizably different from its source material, but that is undeniably tied to the musical elements it borrows from. The quality of the record aside, there is a recognizable and defined split between what is sampled on Madvillainy and Madlib’s individual production contributions. In the case of Abstract Orchestra’s Madmix however, what is or isn’t sampled on Madvillainy becomes unclear. With over seventeen musicians providing individual instrumental contributions to these Madvillainy covers, Abstract Orchestra’s re-translation of the album into terms of big-band jazz blurs the line between Madlib and the tracks he chose to sample, making the instrumentation present on Madvillainy sound more cohesive than ever.

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