I honestly couldn't tell you how I discovered Madlib, Dilla, or the Stones Throw crew... As far as I can remember, they've kind of just always been there. Madlib in particular has embedded himself as a consistent staple in my day-to-day listening for the better part of 10 years, and yet, he remains a genuinely mysterious force of music. Last week I hopped on the phone with Egon, a Stones Throw pioneer and now business partner with Madlib, to get an extremely rare peek into the world of the Beat Konducta.
Hey! How you doing?
Doing alright man. How are you? I take it you’re quarantined in LA right now?
Uhhh, I’m good. Yeah, I’m in LA. Things are obviously pretty crazy right now.
Has everything been OK with Rappcats and NowAgain? I know it’s been tough for small businesses.
Honestly, not really. Everything has kinda ground to a halt. It’s fucked up. You can’t make records right now. You can’t put anything out. You can’t even make half the parts for a record right now. And then you don’t even know when things are gonna change. That’s the biggest issue. They’re saying this stuff could drag out for the next, what, 6 months?
Is there anything you guys can work on during this downtime?
Yeah I mean the office is officially closed. But like, one person usually goes in every day and does a little something, or as much as they can. But still, all the record stores are closed and there’s no way to do shows. We’ve been trying to stay as productive as possible given the circumstances. I guess that’s how I should put it.
What’s the best way for people to support you and all the projects you have going on right now?
Well I’ve been trying to use Rappcats as the hub for all the things I’m involved in, whether it’s NowAgain, Madlib, or any of the other record-related stuff. I’ve just been tryna move it all online.
For instance, Doug Hammond, the spiritual jazz musician, drummer, band leader, record producer, etc., we’re selling a bunch of records we got out of his basement in Detroit. We’re doing the same thing for Gene Perla from PM Records. You know, just coming up with different ways to keep sharing music as inexpensively as possible. That way, people can have a moment to indulge in something that we all love, but without having to go out. The longer that this goes on, the less likely it’s gonna be that people can even keep the most basic things going. It looks like we’re headed for a pretty crazy recession, which obviously doesn’t bode well for musicians.
The Doug Hammond stuff that you mentioned: Are you selling records from his personal collection or are you selling actual Doug Hammond records?
Well I had readied everything for this pop-up that I was gonna do myself. I was gonna host my own pop-up at Rappcats, which we usually do once a month. That didn’t happen of course due to COVID-19, so what I did was take a lot of the stuff that I bought from people over the years and turned them into grab bags and offered them online. I realized that there was a whole separate set of records that I got from Doug Hammond in his basement in Detroit. So, they’re records he produced and issued himself. That’s probably the only place where you can get some of them. It’s literally old stock that I bought straight from Doug.
Yeah I remember you did a pop-up with DJ Shadow a while back. I was looking at some of that stuff online.
Yeah! That’s exactly the type of stuff that we do.
Yeah I'm a huge fan of everything you guys are doing there. The photos you guys post on the website are so... rare, too. I actually wanted to go ahead and kick this off by just asking about how this whole thing came about. So, I grew up on all the Madlib, Dilla, and Doom releases from Stones Throw, but I think what really got me hooked was when I started digging into that next generation of music that was influenced by it. Odd Future was a huge part of my high school years, and they were obviously influenced by Doom. Like, they didn't even try to hide it. There was also the more jazz-derivative stuff like BadBadNotGood and Flying Lotus, and they were clearly informed by and affiliated with all the stuff you and Peanut Butter Wolf were putting out. At this point, I’ve probably read pretty much everything that’s out there on Stones Throw, but I’d love to hear directly from yourself how you got involved, and basically the genesis of it from your point of view.
Yeah, it’s pretty straightforward honestly. Like many people, I’m 41 right now. My exposure to music came from outside the context of the internet. The information that I got was given to me by my elders, basically. So like, I learned from my parents, their friends, I learned from hip-hop producers, whatever. I was very into hip-hop from a young age and so I was able to meet a bunch of interesting, well-versed, record-collecting types in New Haven, Connecticut where I grew up, and they were able to teach me a lot by the time I was 17. I think at that age I definitely had a leg up on most people around me.
Yeah, and also by the time I became 17, it became more obvious that the internet was going to be this really pervasive thing. It went from being this thing that a few people had, to everyone having it, and then I realized how much it was going to change music. So, I went to college in 1996, and it was obvious that if I just used the internet to find any information, I was way better off than the people who had come before me. If you wanted to find something about a musician who had only privately produced or released records in a specific city, you’d have to go to that city, literally get a yellowpages and try to find people’s names. But those days were over because I was able to just do all of that online.
So, I was doing a lot of digging, researching, DJing, and collecting records and stuff, but also envisioning what it would look like if I put together this kind of cyclical approach to hip-hop where I would not only be able to produce hip-hop records but also get into the musical scenes that preceded hip-hop and directly informed it. At that time, I was doing shows in Nashville and I was bringing Peanut Butter Wolf out from the Bay Area. He had just started Stones Throw and I was a big fan of the way that he approached music. DJing was definitely a big part of hip-hop culture back then… People revered the DJ in a way that I don’t think they have for many years since, and of course, I was a DJ, so that worked with me.
But yeah, with Peanut Butter Wolf, he signed Madlib and the Lootpack. He sent me a test press of the Lootpack album, and told me that for a show that I was gonna do later that year, I think in ’99, he wanted me to bring out Lootpack to perform. He told me Madlib was the producer, and I already knew Madlib from his work with Tha Alkaholiks. Madlib and I hit it off in person at the show in ‘99, and it was just a really special show because I also brought out Weldon Irvine, the jazz pianist. So it was this really cool show where Weldon Irvine was playing, but we also had Madlib and the Lootpack, and Peanut Butter Wolf was also DJing with this other DJ from Cincinnati named Mr. Dibbs. It was just a really eclectic mix of people.
It was around that time that Peanut Butter Wolf decided he wanted to offer me a job at Stones Throw. So, less than a year later he said he wanted to bring me down to LA where he was moving the company. He didn’t really say what he wanted me to do, but by that time, since I was doing college radio, I was traveling around to all the conventions where the college DJs and artists would congregate, so I had seen enough of the hip-hop landscape to know that after Wolf had put out Lootpack and Quasimoto that that was my sound. I wanted to do with whatever Madlib was doing, because, you know, he was just the greatest.
So yeah, he offered me this gig, and I took him up on it. This was in 2000, right when I graduated. I flew out to New York that week and we did a DJ gig together there, pooled our money, rented a van, drove across the country, and showed up in LA. Then for 6 months it was basically just me, him, Jeff Jank – who’s the Art Director of Stones Throw still and does all the Madlib stuff with me and Rappcats – and Madlib, all living in the same house. That’s where we started running the Stones Throw office, and I became the General Manager of the company for no reason other than that I was the only person willing to commit to the administrative side of running the business. Everybody else had other things to do.
I knew that, really, that was going to be how we either made it or didn’t. I was 100% sure that that was my calling in the mix. I had of course maintained my ability to DJ, and I was still traveling all over the world to DJ with the Stones Throw guys, but my main thing was figuring out how we wanted to make all the records that we wanted to make and essentially give the business an upward trajectory.
Yeah, so we had this really incredible moment where Madlib got an interview opportunity with the LA Times, which for us, was unbelievable. We did the interview down at the Long Beach aquarium, which was this super psychedelic place that Madlib really liked back then. So, he and I drove down to the aquarium and we were walking around with the guy who was interviewing him, I think his name was Marc Weingarten. We were in this jellyfish room where it was really dark and there were just these bioluminescent jellyfish swimming around… Marc was just like “Well, who do you wanna work with?” And Madlib was like, “There’s only two people I wanna work with: Jay Dee and MF Doom.”
So when I got back to Stones Throw, I told Wolf, “I know you’re friends with Dilla…” and Wolf had actually introduced me to Dilla back when I was in college. I had hung out with Jay Dee because of Wolf. He actually gave me Dilla’s number back then, so I would call him and we would hang out all the time. So yeah, I was like “I know you know Dilla, so call him, and let’s make this thing happen because that’s what he wants to do.” At that time my buddy lived in the same town as MF Doom, and so I knew we could get in touch with him too and put some projects together.
Wait… So you basically architected those collaborations off the Madlib interview?
Yeah, those two specifically. Those two were the ones.
Ok… I’m gonna need you to unpack a lot here… I guess first off, it sounds like you were acquainted with Peanut Butter Wolf before you met Madlib?
Yeah I mean I knew who Madlib was because of the work he did with Tha Alkaholiks, but I didn’t know Madlib with the Lootpack until Wolf had sent me the test presses like 6 months before it came out. So, I knew the Lootpack after he sent me the test press.
So how did you even get in touch with Wolf to begin with? Like, why was he sending you this music?
I got back from my college radio station when he put out his 3rd record, and it was just like Peanut Butter Wolf and Rasco. There was a number on it, so I called it, and it was him! It was that easy!
Ha! What was that conversation?
I was just like “Hey, I have this college radio station, I love Stones Throw, etc. etc. and I’d really like to interview Peanut Butter Wolf.” He was like “Well, I’m Peanut Butter Wolf.” So, I did an interview with him in I think 1997, back when I think he only had 4 releases out on Stones Throw.
I really liked all that stuff man, that was my whole thing. I loved that whole era of music… that spirit that hip-hop was starting to show again, you know the self-starting DIY kinda thing. I loved all of that, and Stones Throw was the weird outlier because it was based in San Francisco but it had a vision. You know, that Charizma and Peanut Butter Wolf 12” was really good! It was timeless stuff.
Ok… So when did Madlib more formally become part of the picture with you and Stones Throw?
Probably around July of 2000, basically when we moved into the house. Within weeks, he was at the house. But within months, he was literally living with us. I’m gonna guess within 3 months of us moving to LA, Madlib was pretty much spending all of his time at our place. And then he just moved in, so then it was 4 of us basically.
So I watched the movie on this, Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton, back in college. I remember there was some crazy footage of the Stones Throw house back in its heyday. What was that experience like, living in that house?
I mean I had just left university, so even though I always had my own separate room, I was always just in dorms. So, it didn’t strike me as much different from that, except that I was with some older guys and they were hip-hop heads. It was kinda weird though, because Jeff wasn’t into the same basic stuff as we were. Like he was into hip-hop... He loved Public Enemy, was into Cypress Hill, and he loved Madlib, but really he’s a punk rock guy at heart. And of course, you can imagine what it was like living with Madlib. There was just music equipment everywhere. And I’m a record collector too, but I’m also very organized, so I was just always tryna clean, and it was just… crazy.
I think about it now, and there’s no possible way I could’ve seen that working, but it did. It worked because really, when it came down to it, we were all broke. If anyone had any money, it was Wolf, but Wolf didn’t know what to do with money. He was horrible with money.
Yeah, I mean money came and went. Everything had to be done to pay the rent, have enough money to produce a record, to go do press somewhere… All this stuff that you don’t have to think about now because it’s irrelevant.
Today, you can just email me and we can do this interview, but all this stuff used to have levels of middle-people in-between. It was all these bills you had to pay… The only way we could make it work was if we worked together, and we did that in the house until about 2003. I found an office space in 2003, because specifically in mid-to-late 2002 I said I couldn’t keep running the business out of my bedroom.
Yeah there was specifically an A-Trak quote about this in the movie, and I have it here with me. He described you as a “very diligent, responsible, and passionate guy that came in, moved to LA, and came on board to make sure that things were getting done.” I mean, that sounds about right based on what you were saying.
Ha! That’s kinda cool, I mean I never watched the documentary but that’s interesting to hear he said that, because you know A-Trak and I have been friends since he was a kid. I met him through Wolf too, he might’ve been like 15 when I met him. A-Trak used to come around the house all the time. Like, if I wasn’t in town he would sleep in my room. It was that kinda vibe at the house, where everyone was hanging out together tryna figure out what it would take to run this business. But the thing is we always had a vision for it. You know, we all loved Blue Note Records, we loved CPI, we loved James Brown’s “People” label… We all had ideas of what we wanted this thing to look like, but none of us really had any roadmap for it.
We only knew that we wanted it to be different, and my vision of different, meant efficient. My vision of different meant that it wasn’t gonna be the same type of shady hip-hop label where an artist shows up to get some answers and they’re like, shuffled around by some accountant on the phone. It was gonna be me doing that instead. That’s what Weldon Irvine, and all the people I worked with who I consider to be mentors, taught me. That’s how you treat artists. So, I looked at that as the barometer for the type of relationship that I could have with an artist. That’s how we were able to pull off all those projects, like JayLib, Madvillain, and all that. It’s like, there wasn’t a label guy. We were all creative people, and so when an artist came in, they talked with us. Like Doom was into the same type of shit we were. I met Dilla through old records. When I was talking with Dilla or Dilla’s manager to put a record out, it wasn’t like some guy in a suit, it was the guy who gave them the Galt McDermott records. It was this guy who just got back from buying records in Japan, and like, look at all these records he has.
So basically you’re saying that having an actual “music guy” like yourself enabled all these fluid relationships, which of course helped the business as well.
Yeah but it wasn’t just me. You know, Jeff did incredible artwork and was always on top of coming up with a beautiful visual identity for the label, but still keeping it questionable, different, and weird. He was also really big on the internet back then, so Stones Throw had a really good internet presence back then when most other labels didn’t. He was also the type of guy that was really bullish on Apple, so he got Stones Throw on iTunes really early. So that was Jeff – that’s the Art Director! Just think about the multiple ways of being that we had to be to make this work.
Same with Madlib. Like he’s a hip-hop producer, but he basically became the spokesperson for the label. Wolf was obviously the figurehead at the top who signed the albums that he liked, and Stones Throw was supposed to be the extension of his musical tastes, but it changed because Wolf met Madlib. And you know, Wolf is a good hip-hop producer. Again, that first Charizma record is really good. But, I think Wolf realized as soon as he met Madlib, that Madlib was the greatest. It wasn’t like everyone was running around trying to find out how to make Wolf happy. At a certain point, everyone was running around trying to find out how to make Madlib put out more music. His music was just better than anything. That’s the end of it, really.
Ha! One of the biggest questions I wanted to ask was about the whole Quasimoto thing. There are stories about how Quas only comes out after Madlib does shrooms for like, months on end. Is that true?
The thing with Quasimoto is that there were no records. It was initially just a series of tapes, cassettes, and reel-to-reels and stuff. He was doing all of that by himself at his house in Santa Barbara, so not even Wolf saw that unfold. By the time Wolf was involved in Quasimoto, he was just pulling together the stuff that Otis had already done on his own. And yeah, he smoked a lot of weed, and was into psychedelic drugs, and I’m 100% sure that’s how it went down. But I can see that even while we were all living together, yeah, everyone was constantly smoking, constantly doing mushrooms, acid, ecstasy, all types of stuff. I didn’t do drugs, though. I would drink wine. That was my thing.
And to be clear, Madlib wasn’t a drug addict. He would just like… get in an altered state to make music. During that second Quasimoto album, which I remember distinctly because we were all living together, he would just be holed up in a bomb shelter for a long time. We would see each other, and it wouldn’t be any different than normal, but even to this day, if I see him and he’s on mushrooms I wouldn’t be able to tell.
So was he always just like this very quiet, reserved, unreadable character? But as soon as you give him some records and sampling pads he makes this explosive music?
Yeah. He’s a very… uhh… How do I put this… He’s a very intelligent, thoughtful, articulate, introspective type guy, with thoughts on music, life, everything. He just doesn’t really like talking. When it comes down to a lot of the mystique that builds up around him, it has more to do with his impatience with people. He’s not good at explaining who he is or he’s doing because I don’t think he really has the patience to see whether or not they get him. He doesn’t like clichés.
I wanted to ask you about the trips you took with him to Brazil. Actually, if you go on the “About” page of my website, Lettermans, there’s literally a picture of Dilla and Madlib digging for records on one of those trips. I’ve always been obsessed with those old Brazilian pop records, so I gotta hear about what you guys were doing down there.
Oh, that’s so cool. Yeah I remember that was a trip that B Plus put together, and Dilla got very ill during that trip. I think that was one of the only trips that Madlib made to Brazil with Dilla. If I remember correctly, it might’ve actually been the only one.
So they only went to Brazil together once?
Yeah, only once. Because Dilla got really sick when he was down there. I remember talking to his mom and B Plus during that time, and we were trying to figure out how to get him back home… But yeah, I mean they used to go dig for records everywhere, even back home, like at Amoeba. They were constantly sharing music.
But yeah I was there for the first trip to Brazil with Madlib. We went for about 3 weeks, and there’s actually footage of me interviewing him for the Red Bull Music Academy down there. We lived in this crazy hotel in the Jardins section of São Paulo, and there were these beautiful suites that we all stayed in. He shared a joining set of rooms with Cut Chemist and had this crazy studio setup that he basically fashioned himself. It was a cassette player, a sampler, a portable turntable, and uhh, he was basically just in there making beats. I was in a room down the hall or maybe upstairs, and we spent every day just hanging out with legends. Everyone was in the same hotel. All these great musicians were all around us, and every day we went buying records, discovering new stuff about music, and it was just… beautiful. I think I ended up spending about 5 weeks down there that first time. I extended my stay.
Wow… Yeah I think my introduction to Brazilian music came through the Arthur Verocai self-titled album.
Yeah, see so that record was a big deal even back then. We were there in 2002, and I think it was just starting to get on people’s radar. We didn’t find it that first trip, but everybody was into it. I remember coming back to LA and Dilla was really into it... Madlib even had one of the songs as his voicemail on his phone. I was like… You know what… I’m gonna go back down there and get it. So, I actually flew back down about 6 months later and I stayed there until I found a copy.
Ha! You actually flew to Brazil just to get an original pressing?
Well, I mean I liked Brazil too. It’s obviously a great place. But yeah, I basically bet that if I went down a second time that I could find it. And I did. I found an original copy of it at the same store we were buying all our other stuff from at the time, this Carlinhos spot called “Vinyl 7”. We had so many moments like that though… Going around the world and buying records.
Madlib is, you know, a very all-encompassing music fan. So we had a very good understanding of how we could go through a record store. I’m very fast, so I don’t spend a lot of time listening to the records in the store. I just pick out whatever looks interesting, I’ll needle drop it, and I’m ready to go. Madlib doesn’t even do the needle drop, he just picks up whatever looks interesting and buys it. So yeah, we had great rapport when going out and buying records. We’d go out with Wolf too and sometimes we’d go to warehouses and buy whatever.
Yeah, so you might actually have one of the deepest record collections in the world. I’m a bit of an archivist too, but being younger and growing up in the digital era, my collection is almost entirely digital. I’m still using .mp3s and stuff, which is nice, because no one can ever take those files away from me. When there’s random developments like Jay-Z pulling all of his music from streaming, I still just have my files. So for me, there’s definitely this archivist aspect of having music in an offline medium, and I do sometimes joke about being able to pass my library on to my kids and stuff in the future… Is that archivist angle there with you too?
Yeah, totally. I mean how do I put this... I think very cyclically about all of this stuff. It’s not like I’m gonna own this thing, and it’s gonna be in this one form in this one place forever. Because I realize that everything that I got came from another person thinking probably the same way, and the number of people that can actually pull off like a wholesale transfer of their collection to a place that can archive it is very small. So, there’s a reason for all of this, and particularly with me, the hard copies of the stuff that I save… You know, if a master tape is lost and all that exists is a record to transfer from, it could definitely be worse. You could just have a lossy .mp3 file of that track.
For instance, when I was working on the Dilla unreleased album, which we wound up calling The Diary, there were songs that only existed in lossy .mp3 forms. When I did track down the CD that Dilla submitted to MCA, the coding was literally chipping off. Now, if he had cut that to acetate instead of CD-R, it probably would have still been able to be transferred. So I think about all the work that I do to keep music in print, and it comes down to vinyl being the most durable medium. Even if my collection doesn’t go somewhere in its entirety, which is unlikely to happen, at least parts of it will be important to different people. I mean, there’s stuff in there that I might have the only clean copy of. In the case of acetate, I might even have the only copy.
I saw that you were actually a pretty big collector of Iranian music, and I’m a fan of some of the pre-revolution stuff from 70s. My parents grew up in Iran during that time, and my mom and aunt would always tell me about the women pop stars from that era. Iran technically banned non-religious music after the revolution, so to my understanding, if you want to get an original pressing from before the revolution, someone literally has to smuggle it out of the country. That’s if they even managed to hold onto it for the last 40 years. So my question is: How’d you get your hands on that stuff?
Well, I mean it’s like everything else. When you’re collecting records, you meet people who are collecting similar things, and you realize that a person knows something about a culture that you might have an affinity towards, but you didn’t have a reason to dig into any further. In my case, it was Iranian music. And then you meet a person who is like, “Oh, I have some of that for sale, actually.”
So, the way that I really got into it was with Madlib actually. We had found this crazy dealer up in Toronto named Golam Farahami. A friend of mine who knew that I was really into the Iranian stuff told me that when I came up to Toronto he would introduce me. When Madlib and I went to Golam’s place, we found out he had a ton of psychedelic records too, so Madlib really loved all of his stuff. I remember Madlib buying tons of Krautrock and esoteric European stuff, but the one thing that Golam had, which Madlib and I bought almost completely, was this incredible collection of 70s Iranian music… Like, everything. He had the orchestral pop, the pop pop, the classical music, I mean Golam just had tons of it because he’d been smuggling it out of Iran for a long time.
So, I bought all of those records with Madlib and we divvied them up. Over that process of listening to those records, I was figuring out which artists were the most intriguing to me. The main one, of course, was Kourosh Yaghmaei, whose music I went on to anthologize and reissue outside of Iran for the first time.
What! Kourosh Yaghmaei? You did that?
Yeah, I mean I represent all of his music. If you go listen to the Kanye and Nas record, “Adam and Eve”, I gave Noah the hard drive with that sample. Noah gave it to Kanye, and Kourosh got paid.
I’m assuming this is Noah Goldstein, right?
Yeah, he’s Kanye’s engineer and co-producer on a lot of records. We met because of Madlib working with Kanye, and Noah's a big fan of records in general. He’s into the same stuff we’re all into. So, we were having a conversation just talking about records and stuff, and yeah, he got Kanye that Kourosh sample along with a bunch of other samples from my catalog for that slate of records that came out about a year and a half ago.
Dude that is so cool. That’s definitely a bit of Persian music history for me that I didn’t know about.
Oh yeah, Kourosh and I talk all the time. He’s a really special guy. One of the best musicians that I’ve ever met... Probably the most unique, and overall he’s just a very open-minded human. I love that guy. We’ve never met in person but we touch base often.
On the Kanye front, I know Madlib and Kanye have a working history, but I only know of it loosely through interviews and their general affiliation with each other. There was obviously the “No More Parties in LA” beat in 2016, and I know that beat goes even further back to at least like 2012, but do you have any other stories about the relationship there?
Yeah I mean it’s weird. We’re all mutual friends and collaborators with Kanye. Like, Madlib spends time in the studio by himself with Kanye. Kanye went to his space down in Highland Park one night, and that’s when he picked out a bunch of beats that ended up being held and taken off other albums. One of them ended up being “No More Parties In LA.” The thing with Kanye is, how do I put this… I was a fan of Kanye when I was in college because he was producing for this guy at a label where my buddy was a promoter. So I reached out and interviewed the guy the same way I reached out and interviewed Peanut Butter Wolf. I was curious about the people who were producing his music, and one of them was Kanye West.
So, it’s not like Kanye was the “College Dropout” guy to me. To me, he had lineage. But at the same time, he was so “out to lunch” by the time we had started working with him, that it’s like… What level of a relationship are you gonna have with that guy? The end result is that we have a much closer relationship with a lot of his collaborators, like Noah Goldstein, Jeff Bhasker, Emile Haynie, etc. Those are the people that, throughout this whole thing, we became super close with. I think about it now, and I have zero Kanye stories that are really interesting, but I have tons of great ones with Jeff, Emile, and Noah.
Really what it came down to is that Madlib isn’t a flashy guy. When Kanye asked him to go to Hawaii, Madlib was like “Why? Why would I go to Hawaii? There’s no reason for me to go to Hawaii if I’m not there with my girl.” I remember him saying it exactly like that. He’s just not the type of guy that shows up, but yeah, I still get phone calls. Kanye still really loves Madlib stuff. His new engineer called me about a month ago saying that Kanye wanted Madlib on the new album. The one person that he wanted was Madlib. He heard the new Black Star record and said it was the one that he aspired to do better than, if I understood it correctly. He really liked how it came out, so yeah, I got the call randomly one night when I was at Emile’s house. It was funny, I was telling Emile like, “Look at this call that came in.” And there it was.
I think a lot of people forget that Kanye was, and still is, as you’d put it earlier, into “all the same stuff” we are. He's always been really sample-driven and you could tell there was just an all-round appreciation for the music that came before him. I feel like it’s obvious that he’s cut from the same cloth as guys like Madlib with regard to being an actual music enthusiast and enjoying the process of finding new music.
Yeah, people definitely forget. He’s a difficult guy. I think when it comes down to his politics, maybe there’s a bunch of inexcusable things that he says and does. I get that. But when it comes down to him as a musical force, I’m very interested in what he’s making. I’m always paying attention. I think most people that care about music in the modern realm have no choice but to say that when Kanye does something, even if it’s a spectacle, you owe it to yourself to check it out.
One the note of that whole “class” of artists, I feel like my music listening and discovery process is pretty similar to theirs, and I’m sure yours is too. I mean, we obviously spend a lot of time finding and listening to older music. For me, even the newer stuff I find will be like Young Thug and Playboi Carti leaks from a few years ago, and even that isn’t technically new. Know what I mean?
So, I think a lot of people will misconstrue my listening habits as like… They’ll think I’m someone who believes the whole “They don’t make ‘em like they used to” thing. Or they think I believe that music is somehow “getting worse,” whatever that means. The reality is that I actually really resent that way of thinking. I think music today is as good as it’s ever been, but the fact of the matter is that most music is old. It almost sounds funny when you say it out loud, but it’s just true. Most music did not come out in 2020 or 2019. So, if I’m just someone who likes music, and I’m out there searching for more of it, of course most of the stuff I’m gonna find is gonna be older. But I’m curious what your thoughts are on that. Do you actually think music has gotten worse?
It’s interesting you ask that. I spend a lot of time, and I mean a lot of time, thinking about what elder musicians thought about the music that came out before they were making the music that I think is landmark. So, if you go on Spotify and listen to this old John Coltrane interview that was done on some old Scandinavian radio station, you’ll hear Coltrane talk about what he was listening to, and you’ll be like, how is it possible that he was listening to this? Because it’s incontrovertible that John Coltrane was just listening to standard jazz made by people who just had good tones. Because he’s John Coltrane! You’d think he’d be telling you in 1965 that he was already listening to Sun Ra or something, but that’s just not the case. He was listening to people that played standards.
And if you read the liner notes of some of these crazy records, like I’m currently reading the liner notes on these Lansdowne records that came out through Columbia and EMI in the UK 1960’s jazz scene, you’ll see the stuff they’re talking about listening to just seems so out of touch. You’re like, how the fuck did these people listen to that? And why did they love it so much when they were making this music? You start going through that cycle, you start realizing that if only the stuff that you listened to would lead to the new school, then 30 years from now you’re gonna seem completely out of touch. Like even right now, when I listen to Gang Starr from when I was 15 years old, it’s still good but it sounds archaic.
So, I feel like what I always had, especially with Madlib and Dilla, is that we always had a tremendous reverence for music from the past, but our goal has always been to make music to push it forward. We can’t spend an inordinate amount of time listening to new pop music, because new pop music is not representative of what good music is in 2020. New pop music is the same as Engelbert Humperdinck, or Barbra Streisand, or Neil Diamond. Like that’s what it is. It might be packaged differently, or look cooler or hipper, but that’s really what it is. It’s the Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass Band of 2020. Know what I mean? So what we think about is, how do we focus on new music that is meaningful?
Doug Hammond for instance, in 1989, at the tail end of the decade, signed this one guy… Muneer something… I’m blanking on his name… but in 1989 he makes probably one of the great jazz records of the 1980s. Now, no one has ever heard that record, but I can tell you that in 1989 Doug Hammond made one of the great jazz records of the 1980s. And it wasn’t like he wasn’t trying to make new music, or that he wasn’t even listening to new music, but he was just choosing to listen to stuff that was meaningful to him. And that’s the same thing with Madlib and me. We’re constantly looking for new music that we could be putting out. Constantly.
Yeah I think what you said at the end there is really important. He was just listening to stuff that was meaningful to him. There’s still newer stuff that could be really meaningful too. Even with Madlib, I remember listening to Bandana, and what’s that third track… “Half Manne Half Cocaine”. At first glance, it’s not a typical Madlib beat. It almost feels like a Metro Boomin beat, and to see that come from Madlib, it’s almost like an act of reinvention. It’s just cool to see that someone who clearly has so much reverence for older music is still able to make something more contemporary-sounding too.
Yeah, I think we’d be doing ourselves all of our musical collaborators a disservice if we just constantly talked about how great music was back in the day. We’ve gotta talk about what we can do to push music forward, and we gotta do it from a place of true understanding of the technology that’s available to us.
So, what is some of the newer stuff that you’re into? There are a lot of producers who are still making music in line with the Stones Throw sound, like Alchemist, but he’s obviously been around the entire time. There’s also the whole Griselda Crew, Roc Marciano, etc. Is that the stuff you have in mind?
Madlib is really into all the stuff you mentioned, because we pretty much work with all of them, but he’s also into working with a lot of younger rappers. He’s working with Fly Anakin and a couple other younger guys from Oxnard, where Otis is from. There’s also the live musicians that we work with, like this Brazilian musician I signed named Fabiano do Nascimento. There’s The Heliocentrics, you know we put out their new album. There’s this guy Little Berry, Karriem Riggins… The list goes on and on. It’s people who obviously appreciate older musical styles, but are still trying to find a way to do something new with it. So, if we’re working with a young rapper, even if he might be your age and only have discovered hip-hop through the era in which we were making hip-hop, there’s a good chance that he’s probably studied back and figured out who other people were. If you start doing the math like that, you’ll see that there are young people who have a reverence for the OGs but can make music that sounds outside of them. They don’t have to just make reverential boom bap hip-hop. That would be boring.
Like The Heliocentrics, they’re not a retrospective rock band. They’re not even a psychedelic rock band. They’re like an amalgamation of the last fifty years of recorded music being performed in a really unique way. So, it makes perfect sense that we would put them out on Madlib’s label. Same way that we put out Freddie Gibbs. Freddie Gibbs is a timeless rapper. He happens to rap over trap beats, but when you hear him rap over sample-driven tracks, whether it’s Madlib or Alchemist, you’re like “Oh… I guess it works here too.”
Ha! I get you 100%. But how do you feel about contemporary artists that aren’t looking that far back? Like Griselda are an anomaly today in terms of how far back they’re looking and how overtly they’re doing it. But a guy like Uzi, on the other hand, sounds informed mainly by rap music from the last 10 years. I know there’s a lot of discussion with him and punk rock music or whatever, but to me, I don’t feel like it goes much further back than Lil Wayne. Playboi Carti might only look as far back as Lil B or Curren$y. I think these guys are looking back to the time that they grew up in, but not necessarily anything before it. And that’s OK!
Yeah I think it was different when sampling was such a huge thing in hip-hop. If you’re Guru and you’re hanging out with DJ Premier, you’re gonna know the records that he’s sampling. I think that generation grew up around that music because it was technically from their parent’s generation. It’s different now.
The only issue I have with current hip-hop is that the production styles can be a little bit generic, especially with trap music. Like Kanye can go out there and synthesize a trap song, but he would at least make it interesting, kinda like that “Half Manne Half Cocaine” type thing. But I think there are a lot of people who are just tempted to throw out random beats, and there’s only so much interest I can have in a rapper if the beat’s not good. I’m just not hearing a lot of great hip-hop tracks, which to be clear, are not the same as the reverential, retro, boom bap, sample-driven stuff. I just want great hip-hop tracks.
I think Kanye is one of the last people still doing it. When I hear him do a good song, like that “Everything” song on the Nas record, which is actually based on a sample of mine, not only is it a dope hip-hop song, but there’s like two different choruses in it, it’s well-produced, it’s well-written, just everything about it is dope. And it doesn’t sound retro! It’s not even a sample-driven track, like that Lil Wayne record he produced with the David Axelrod sample. It doesn’t sound like he’s just trying to make a retro-sounding hip-hop track.
What about the more recent rap music that sometimes isn’t even intelligible? One of my favorite songs from the last decade has this Young Thug verse where he straight up sounds like a machine gun. I have no idea what he’s saying, but it’s incredible. It’s just really fun and melodic music.
Well, Young Thug is very psychedelic. Some of the stuff that’s coming out right now is like, truly psychedelic music for a new generation. The Young Thug stuff is insane, and I don’t like all of it, but Four Tet and I were having a conversation about this once… We were going to visit this jazz musician, Henry Franklin, and he was playing me tracks from this playlist he thought I needed to listen to and the stuff that stuck out to me the most on that drive were the Young Thug tracks, because they were just nuts.
Wait wait wait. Four Tet had a playlist full of Young Thug songs?
Yeah. He’s a deep music head. He’s out there seeking stuff even more than I am. The thing about me is that all the rappers I’ve ever worked with have been people who I thought would be a good foil for Madlib. I don’t go out and try to find rappers who I think would sound good over anyone else’s beats, because that’s not my goal in life. My goal in life is to make Madlib music, with Madlib.
I remember when Madlib and Kendrick were talking, and this was before Kendrick had signed his deal. When I heard Kendrick’s music, I was just like, well, this is the guy. I get his number from Madlib, and immediately I get on the phone with Kendrick Lamar. And apparently at that time everyone was already trying to get on the phone with him, because he was the man, but I didn’t know it at the time. I thought he was just another up-and-coming rapper in LA.
Ha! What year was this?
Right around the time we did the first Freddie Gibbs record, so around 2010. Madlib and Kendrick are tight. Even back then they were always calling and texting each other back and forth. Dude, I had a long conversation with Kendrick. It was a great conversation. I explained to him the whole thing, like we had a whole record with Freddie coming out and we wanted to do the same deal with him. Let’s do a whole record with Madlib! But of course it never happened, because he blew the fuck up. But yeah, that’s how I listen to rappers. And I have to remind myself because I’m 41 now, and Madlib’s 47. So it’s hard for me to put myself in the shoes of a young person who’s never heard Madvillain. Like, why do they care about Madlib? Well, they probably don’t.
So, there are very few people that I go out and spend a lot of time listening to, because my goal is to gather collaborators for him.
Ok, so question I’ve been dying to ask you. We talked about the current crop of rappers that are still informed and definitely looking back at older music. There’s this current crop of kids that are even younger than me, and a lot of them have kinda taken after Earl Sweatshirt from the whole Odd Future movement. Are you familiar with any of these guys? Like Mavi, Medhane, Navy Blue, Pink Siifu, Maxo, MIKE etc.?
Hmmm, Yeah I know Pink Siifu. I’ve listened to all of Earl’s records and I’m pretty sure MIKE was on the last one, if I’m remembering correctly. Pink Siifu has been doing some stuff with Fly Anakin too. But yeah, I pay attention to all that stuff too. I guess that’s the other side of it… Like, you want people like that to keep making music.
Earl for example, I tried really hard to work out a project between him and Madlib. I mean, I tried really hard. You want that stuff to happen because they’re like “keepers of the flame” types. But at the same time, it would be tremendously more interesting if, like, Young Thug or Da Baby wanted to rap over a Madlib beat. That, to me, would be like the ultimate thing... I mean, what would that sound like?
It’s always been a really interesting thing for us because we don’t go out and solicit work. Like, Madlib doesn’t go out and work with rappers just to say that he’s worked with them. Madlib is very much alone, by himself, doing his own thing, and when a person comes up that understands his process and wants to collaborate with him in a respectful way, then great! Something can be created. But that doesn’t often happen. A lot of people are still making music in a really archaic way, and Madlib has always been way, way beyond that.
Wow, an Earl project would’ve been incredible… I actually remember there was an early Earl track literally titled “Stones Throw” where he was rapping over “Vinca Rosea” by MF Doom. That would’ve been such a full circle moment.
Yeah, he’s a huge fan. But listen man, I’m gonna have to run here in a minute. I need to help my kids with their homework.
Ha, all good man. We can wrap this up.
Yeah, I mean if I could only convey one thing to you throughout this call… What it boils down to is Madlib, because most of our conversation has been about him, which is great, because he’s the type of person that conversation should revolve around.
But when you think about it, you start realizing that he’s one of the last people left that truly strikes us as a timeless, creative musician irregardless of genre. He’s like Miles Davis or Lou Reed. He’s just gonna be one of those people that continuously makes music that people are inspired by over time. And so, you start looking at a person like him and what his discography looks like… and that’s really my goal, because that’s what I work with him on, his discography. But I just wanna keep him creative and stable so that we could have a great discography to look back on and say that it’s meaningful.
And really, this goes back to the whole reason we started working together to begin with. It wasn’t because I thought Madlib and I were gonna make a bunch of money together. I just thought, here’s a kindred spirit. He’s a fucking weirdo, and so am I. How lucky that Peanut Butter Wolf’s a weirdo, and Jeff Jank’s a weirdo too. Here we are, just working together for this unified goal. And for a while we did it together, and it was wonderful, but now it’s pretty much just me and Madlib. Wherever Jeff can get involved we definitely have him involved.
At the same time, the vision is still very much the same. So I love seeing it. I love seeing this stuff play out, and I love being a part of it. It’s probably the most meaningful stuff that I’ve ever been involved in. With the exception of like getting Kourosh Yaghmaei's music outside of Iran, which I take tremendous pride in, working with Madlib and helping him realize his vision has been like the most meaningful, creative thing I’ve done in my life.
Well dude, thank you. Thanks for your work, because it’s obviously pretty embedded into my own work, the music that I listen to, and it’s also literally embedded on the site. Also, just thanks again for your time. I’ve always wanted to get in touch with pretty much the entire Stones Throw team.
Dude, 100%. Not a problem at all.
I know you gotta run, but there’s just one last question, and this was actually a request from a friend. Real quick: What was your favorite memory of Dilla?
Oh, that’s a good one. Hmmm. Dilla… Madlib and I had this conversation all the time: Dilla was like Coltrane. Doom was like Charlie Parker. And Madlib was like a cross between Sun Ra and Miles Davis. So, I look at hip-hop of a certain era and it was like we had the whole thing, if you transpose it to jazz terms.
So, with Dilla and me, we had a really straightforward relationship. I ran the label, but at the same time, I was a capable, efficient, managerial type that could help him out in any aspect of his career that he wanted me to. If he wanted me to settle a show or handle paperwork with another label, I’d handle it. I think there’s a lot of reasons I became the Creative Director of his estate after he passed, because it was pretty obvious that I was doing all of that for him during his lifetime.
So, I knew Dilla when he was healthy and very powerful but I also knew him when he was very sick. I gotta say the one thing that I think about the most with him, because I saw it and it was very private… It wasn’t like everybody else could see this, but I saw him on death’s door multiple times. I remember one time after it, we were having a conversation and he had to wear this crazy mask that forced air into his lungs. But we were talking a couple days after he had pulled out of it, and the lack of fear which he showed, and the humility that he showed in that conversation and multiple conversations after, was crazy to see. To me, he was one of the greatest musicians to ever walk the planet, but at the same time he was a human being who I called a friend. I got to see him fearlessly face down this tremendously difficult disease, and I saw him become a different, more humble, beautiful person over the course of it. I never saw him angry about it, and I always saw that as a lesson in just how to be. You know, just from being around him in moments like that.
That’s a beautiful story man.
Yeah man, that’s my most special memory of him. He was a very, very intense, serious, amazing, complex human being. That’s why he made the music that he did. It wasn’t that he wasn’t complicated, because he was very complicated, just like all of us.
Well alright man, I definitely don’t wanna keep you from your kids any longer. Thanks so much again for everything.
Thanks for hitting me up! I enjoyed it. I’m glad we could do this today. I appreciate you trying to spread the word about all this. I think people need hope right now with this whole COVID-19 situation, and if there’s one thing I can tell you about Madlib, Dilla, and all of them really, it’s that hope plays a huge part in their music. I think it’s why their music resonates with so many people.