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Grooving on Artistic Freedom

Madlib's funhouse creations have won a notable following. But rap stardom isn't his goal.

January 20, 2002|MARC WEINGARTEN

Standing among the schoolchildren and tourists gawking at the glassed-in sea life at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, a man in beige pants and a matching turban studies all manner of coral and kelp with his hands clasped behind his back.

Otis Jackson Jr., who lives just a few blocks away and frequents the facility, could be mistaken for a professor of marine biology or perhaps a grad student. He's enraptured by the exhibit featuring toxic fish and checks out a school of circling anchovies.

But what Jackson is really here to see are the sea dragons. He remembers them well from his last trip to the aquarium, when he had partaken in a little "mind-alteration," and they really threw him for a loop.

"Check them out," Jackson says in a honeyed whisper as he points at the garish, monstrous-looking fish. "Man, remember those sea monkeys from the comic books? These look like what I always thought sea monkeys should look like!"

Of such whimsical observations does Jackson--who goes by the name Madlib and made his breakthrough record under the moniker Quasimoto--concoct some of the most imaginative, structurally complex and flat-out hilarious hip-hop of the moment. The Oxnard native's musical universe is a funhouse of the mind, hosted by an MC with multiple personalities and an arsenal of self-made field recordings, movie dialogue, comedy records and jazz samples.

The goal for Jackson, 28, is not rap superstardom, but the freedom to record whatever he wants, when he wants. "I didn't get in this to make a lot of money," he says. "I could do what the industry does--it would actually be easier than what I do now--but my brain and heart won't let me. As long as I'm living decent, then I'm cool."

"The Unseen," the 2000 release that Jackson recorded as Quasimoto, packs countless sounds and ideas into 24 dense hip-hop constructs. The pace is leisurely and trippy--Jackson's Quasimoto character raps in a high, reedy voice that sounds as if it's been dipped in helium--but the musical invention is restless and relentless. Jazzy grooves collide with comedy shtick, as Madlib/Quasimoto weaves a vivid slice-of-life urban tableau.

After going virtually unnoticed after its initial release, "The Unseen" picked up fans by word-of-mouth, and Spin magazine declared it one of the best overlooked albums of the year.

"Madlib is one of the most refreshing people out there in terms of musical selection and taste," says rapper Q-Tip, the former A Tribe Called Quest member who, along with the Roots, Limp Bizkit and DJ Shadow, is an avid fan. "His approach is just a breath of fresh air. I like how vulnerable he allows himself to be in this age of super-rappers."

Jackson's latest release, "Angles Without Edges," which he recorded under the name Yesterday's New Quintet, is a screaming U-turn from "The Unseen's" dada-hop. Jackson, who has no formal musical education, plays bass, vibes and Fender Rhodes piano on the instrumental album, a loving homage to the jazz giants he reveres.

"When Otis first approached me about making a jazz album, he didn't own any instruments," says Chris Manak, owner of Jackson's L.A.-based label, Stones Throw. "Instead of an advance, I bought him a bunch of instruments, and he just taught himself to play everything."

Despite his musical fecundity and the approbation of an underground hip-hop community that regards him as a visionary, Jackson is self-effacing to a fault. He originally recorded "The Unseen" without any intention of distributing it, and only a tiny percentage of his massive recorded output has seen the light of day.

"I didn't want to put out 'The Unseen' because I thought I would be criticized," says Jackson, one eye on a clutch of frisky sea otters. "I thought everyone would think the sped-up vocals were a gimmick. I had to be convinced to put it out."

Jackson is astonishingly prolific. He has two more Quasimoto records in the can, as well as 16 Yesterday's New Quintet albums--that's 320 tracks--waiting for Stones Throw to either release or not, as the case may be.

"With each album he wants to challenge himself," says Manak, an acclaimed DJ who records under the nom de scratch Peanut Butter Wolf.

"He's in our studios eight to 10 hours a day recording, and it's hard to keep up with him. But my label is open to doing anything he wants."

Jackson's musical path was almost preordained. His father, Otis Sr., was an R&B singer in the '60s and '70s who recorded a number of records with the great arranger H.B. Barnum. His mother, Senesca Jackson, was the elder Otis' main songwriter and backup singer, and her brother is the great jazz trumpeter Jon Faddis.

"That's how I got interested in the recording studio, just going with them when they were recording," says Jackson.

Reared in Oxnard, a town that was plagued by gang violence, Jackson kept to himself and made primitive mix tapes in his bedroom.

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