Quasimoto - The Unseen

On Quasimoto’s The Unseen

Twenty years ago today, Madlib released The Unseen as Quasimoto. This San Francisco Bay Guardian essay was published at its initial release.

Twenty years ago today, Madlib released his landmark album The Unseen under the guise of Quasimoto, the first of dozens of aliases he has used during his career. To mark the occasion, I am re-posting an essay I wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian during the time of its initial release.

“When you making music, you’re talking to spirits,” DJ Quik once rapped on “You’z a Ganxta.” It’s a ritual latter-day musicians often practice — reviving old traditions in order to resurrect memories of past experiences, hoping to create a new standard in the process. Through Common and Jay Dee’s “The Light,” Bobby Caldwell’s quiet-storm era “Open Your Eyes” bobbed above the surface of our consciousness; similarly, Lil’ Kim and Darren “Limitless” Henson tossed several ingredients into their cauldron, from Special Ed to Jose Feliciano, to turn “No Matter What They Say” into a trip down memory lane as well as a club hit.

Past recordings play such an important part in pop music, it’s disheartening how little acknowledgement is given to yesterday’s artists besides an occasional liner note (which is usually done for legal, not benevolent, reasons). For most, old-school records are mere fodder for samples and interpolations, not admiration and canonization. Concurrently, Madlib, whose production savvy drives (alter ego?) Quasimoto’s The Unseen doesn’t give any credit to the dozens of artists he samples; yet his respect for them is made clear on tracks like “Jazz Cats Pt. 1.” “I love jazz, my man,” he and Quas rap, rattling off dozens of names and labels. “I be gettin’ lit listening to Sun Ra.”

Like most of his contemporaries, Madlib brings back old R&B, ladling it onto The Unseen’s 24 tracks. But unlike his saner rap brethren, he’s clearly driven by ghosts, dashing to the Mexican border with Melvin Van Peebles on “Come On Feet,” laughing with the Last Poets at heroin junkies on “Discipline 99 Pt. 0.” He even finishes Van Peebles’ sentences, as if the cinematic hyphenate and Blaxploitation pioneer were rapping on the track, too.

The Unseen is infested with classic soul breaks, spoken word epics, free jazz snippets and funky drumming; it even snaps and crackles like an old 45-rpm single. Yesterday’s hits haunt him, it seems, as he chops and splices loop after loop into another two-minute epic, complete with laconic, off-kilter rhymes from Quasimoto and himself. “Yo Madlib,” Quas asks on “Return of the Loop Digga,” “Why you waste so much money on records and getting high, man?”

“Man, I ain’t got no time for silly shit! Hey throw this record on, pack a bowl, take a hit,” Madlib responds, unfazed. Perhaps herbal addiction is why Madlib takes “appropriation” to bewildering new heights, channeling a lifetime’s worth of crate-digging through his MP3000 sampler.

In three short years – ever since his first single with the Lootpack, “The Anthem” — Madlib has garnered a reputation as one of hip-hop’s most esteemed, and prodigious, loop diggas. Until now, however, his work on the Lootpack’s Soundpieces: Da Antidote! and Declaime’s illmindmuzik, as well as his several remixes for Zion-I, Planet Asia, Slum Village, and others, closely adhered to the rap paradigm, where the MC’s oversized personality rule the musical proceedings with an iron fist. The Unseen’s massive patchwork of sounds finally allows the spirits fueling his compositions — Andy Bey singing “across the universe,” Bill Cosby and a chorus of children preceding a diatribe by Madlib and Quas on the rap industry’s moral and spiritual decay — to flourish.

The panoply of voices can be disorienting; each song, fueled by Quasimoto’s high-pitched raps and Madlib’s monotone verbals, fizzes out at three minutes or less, leading to another sonic collage, another conversation with the unseen, the undead. In the middle of it all, Madlib lights up a bong, inhaling and coughing out its contents. “I get so high, I hope that I don’t start babblin’,” Quasimoto says on “Astro Travellin’.” There’s even an indication, at the end of The Unseen, that the two are driven mad by gluttony. Riding atop a hard bop lick, Quasimoto’s voice goes woefully out of tune and pitch, slowing and accelerating until it begins to resemble — Madlib’s?

Madlib’s overindulgence, though artful, may be too self-referential for some, especially for those who like their retrospection unobstructed by weird skits and segues that lead to nowhere. But his insistence on building hip-hop from rare grooves is refreshing, even quaint at a time when most producers prefer to plaster harsh keyboard bleats over their interpolations. It hearkens to a time when Public Enemy cobbled together more than 100 different sounds for It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, wrapping Reagan-era polemics in Black Power dynamics; or when KRS-One rewrote the Beatles “Hey Jude” into a testament to his lyrical omnipotence on “Criminal Minded.”

Back then, one of rap’s charms was its wistful nostalgia, its yearning for memories of high-school dances, or watching your parents dance to the latest hits with a mixture of fascination and awe. Perhaps it’s difficult to discern what is real and imagined on The Unseen because Madlib acknowledges that we are guided by spirits, that the act of remembering is just as powerful as the art of invention.

(San Francisco Bay Guardian – July 12, 2000)

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Kings from Queens: The Run DMC Story

The tale of Run-DMC has been told many, many times in numerous forms, from autobiographies to a VH-1 Behind the Music episode. The appeal of Kings from Queens: The Run-DMC Story, beyond its commentary from sundry golden-age legends like MC Lyte and LL Cool J as well as familiar music-doc talking heads like Questlove, is to give testimony about a history that most fans of a certain age will know by heart. The three-part documentary debuted on Peacock on February 1 and, without commercials, lasts around two-and-a-half hours. But it isn’t exhaustive and tacitly avoids some of the group’s controversies. (Run and DMC are listed as executive producers.) Jam Master Jay is rightfully memorialized, but the doc avoids the murky circumstances surrounding his 2002 murder. Jay’s famed protégé 50 Cent is also absent. The group’s final album, 1999’s Crown Royal, goes unmentioned, as does Rev Run’s disappointing solo excursion, 2005’s Distortion. Even their battles with record label Profile, documented in books such as Raising Hell: The Reign, Ruin, and Redemption of Run-D.M.C., are glossed over. The filmmakers rightly conclude that old heads will enjoy throwback clips of the trio performing at Live Aid in Philadelphia, and DMC’s heart-rending confessions about struggling with substance abuse and finding solace in Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel.” But where are the post-millennial voices like Joey Bada$$, Fivio Foreign, or Nicki Minaj? Where are the scenes connecting Run-DMC’s sound with modern-day shouters like Meek Mill? While the filmmakers don’t need to pander to the kids, failing to illustrate why younger audiences should care about these 80s hip-hop heroes seems like a missed opportunity to burnish their legend. Kings from Queens is directed by Kirk Fraser and produced by Believe Entertainment Group.

May the Lord Watch: The Little Brother Story

A common trope of authorized music documentaries such as May the Lord Watch: The Little Brother Story is that the filmmakers tend to deliver lengthy, single-camera interviews instead of a compelling, dynamic story. It opens promisingly enough with photos and camcorder footage of Little Brother’s rise in North Carolina during the turn of the century and the making of their 2003 classic The Listening. Animated clips, courtesy of Creative Junk Food studio, as well as talking heads such as The Roots’ figurehead Questlove and journalist Dart Adams fuel the narrative. But eventually, the doc slows to a crawl as Phonte Coleman and Big Pooh go back and forth, detailing issues with former labels ABB Records and Atlantic Records as well each other, leading to a 2010 breakup, a reconciliation, and an anticipated reunion album, 2019’s May the Lord Watch. Fans who have followed the Little Brother story won’t be surprised by the absence of producer and group co-founder 9th Wonder. More damaging is that the filmmakers fail to show instead of tell us how Little Brother are part of a “bridge” between Native Tongues and current superstars like Kendrick Lamar and Drake. Fewer scenes of the duo sitting in separate rooms, talking into a camera would have helped. And did you know that Big Pooh featured on Lamar’s breakthrough mixtape, Kendrick Lamar EP? Look it up because this film won’t tell you, although it manages to include an unexplained clip featuring Pooh, Lamar, and Ab-Soul. May the Lord Watch is directed by Holland Randolph Gallagher, and was released on YouTube last November. Little Brother and the company Rap Portraits, a collaboration between Gallagher and Yoh Phillips, produced it.