A Conversation With Madlib, the Best Hip-Hop Producer of 2019

Madlib discusses the making of his Freddie Gibbs collab album 'Bandana' & reacts to being named Complex's Best Hip-Hop Producer Alive in 2019.

Madlib, 2019's Best Hip Hop Producer
Complex Original

Illustration by Sho Hanafusa

Madlib, 2019's Best Hip Hop Producer

Madlib hasn't slept in three days. More than 20 years into his career, the veteran producer still gets so excited by making beats that he often finds himself staying up for days at a time, digging for perfect loops. 

"It's kind of like meditation, how people do yoga and all that type of stuff," he says. "I zone out, and it be a day later, you know what I mean? Really, it's weird. I think it's spirits or something."

Fighting through sleep deprivation and momentarily ignoring a long-standing aversion to media opportunities, Madlib is seated for a rare interview inside the Rappcats record store in Los Angeles. He's here to discuss the making of his 2019 collaborative album with Freddie Gibbs, Bandana, which earned him the distinction as Complex’s Best Hip-Hop Producer Alive in 2019.

After decades of perfecting his sample-based production techniques, working with everyone from MF Doom to De La Soul to Mos Def to Kanye West, Madlib is sharper than ever. And possessing one of the most finely tuned ears in rap, he doesn't need to rely on state-of-the-art or expensive equipment. "For the last seven or eight years, everything's been on an iPad," he tells Complex. "Equipment don't matter. I never had great equipment. I always use low-budget stuff."

All those long nights hunched over his iPad paid off. Unlike some Best Hip-Hop Producer Alive winners, Madlib didn't reinvent the wheel and help usher in a new sound that dramatically changed the landscape of rap. Instead, after over 20 years of sharpening his skills, he focused on a timeless approach to create an album that he calls "a mesh of my weird underground world and [Freddie Gibbs'] gangster, hood stuff." To many, including Complex, it was the best rap album of 2019.

Sitting down with Complex's Pierce Simpson, Madlib spoke about the making of Bandana, his relationship with Freddie Gibbs, future collaborations with Pusha-T and Griselda, Kanye West studio sessions, and more. Watch the video interview below, read why he was named 2019's best hip-hop producer here, and continue for a full transcript of the conversation.

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How does it feel to be named the best hip-hop producer alive in 2019?
Oh, it's an honor. Because my stuff's mainly underground, so for people to really get my stuff like that, it's just cool, man.

You say you shy away from popular music and you don't want to necessarily be considered mainstream. So to be named the best hip-hop producer alive—
Yeah, that's weird.

Is that tough to grasp?
Because there really ain't one, but I'm glad [Complex] acknowledged me. I mean, the greatest to me is Dilla, but that's my musical cousin, so...

Your career has been very prolific. But your most recent projects with Freddie Gibbs have been able to transcend and introduce you to a new audience. What about that collaboration has helped you transcend?
Because he has a different crowd. He kind of does trap music. I also do trap music, but I'm known for whatever you all know me for. It's a mesh of my weird underground world and his gangster hood stuff, you know what I mean? So I treated it like Compton's Most Wanted. They used raw loops and crazy story-telling and stuff.

It's cool that you mention that, because I know you're a big fan of DJ Quik, and you grew up in Oxnard. So you were kind of close to the movement with NWA and the California music that was coming out.
Right. DJ Pooh was the first dude that helped me out. DJ Pooh and DJ Broadway, and Tha Alkaholiks came too.

Do some of those influences that you heard early on still come up in your music today?
Oh, yeah. I always do new stuff, but I keep the old. I may move somewhere else, but I'mma still do what I always used to do.

For sure. You and Freddie Gibbs initially connected in 2011. What about Gibbs drew you to him?
He was funny. He'd keep you laughing. Some hood stuff. He's like one of my cousins. I have my family like that, so I relate to him.

“It's a mesh of my weird underground world and his gangster hood stuff.”

So whenever you collab with somebody, you have to mesh with them on a personal level?
Yeah. Because usually, I just send music out. I don't really get with the artists. So it takes a special person for me to come out the studio.

In 2013, you compared Freddie Gibbs to Tupac, but more in the sense of his duality. He can talk the gangster rap, but he can also do other things.
Well, he's into Huey Newton big-time and all that type of stuff, so yeah.

Do you still agree with that comparison?
Yeah. I mean, they're two different people, but that's who I would compare him to. Tupac's the greatest, but you know...

Of course. When you two initially started collaborating, it was just EPs and shorter projects. As the relationship grew, it turned into albums and longer projects.
We were just recording a bunch of music, and the EPs came out first. I mean, we had albums done before.

So why initially such a small sample size?
Just to see if people would like it.

Right. Was there any hesitation that people wouldn't like it?
Nah. I would just do what I feel. But we wanted to see if it would catch on, and it worked.

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In 2014, when Piñata was released, it was initially supposed to be titled Cocaine Piñata. As Freddie Gibbs put it, you still very much in that world. When you're making beats, are you trying to fit the aesthetic to his lifestyle, or was he more so trying to fit into yours?
On the first album, it was more like I just did whatever, and he just talked crazy. The second album, I tried to come more where he's at and let him shine more. And I made the beats more minimal. A lot of people accused me for looping, but my name was Loop Digger. I mean, I grew up on RZA, Prince Paul, you know. All the L.A. dudes.

Did it bother you when people were calling you that?
Nah. That's what hip-hop's based on, if you know your history, from the old school.

Throughout your career, you've seen different iterations of music. How do you adjust to the shift of modern music?
I like it all. I can do stuff like the Migos. I can do stuff like Sun Ra. Or whatever.

Freddie has a lot of coke bars. And the zebra imagery was an homage to that type of lifestyle. So when Pusha-T linked up on "Palmolive," he was the perfect person to collaborate on that record. How did that come about?
I was surprised like everybody else. Gibbs has a relationship with him. And I didn't even think he was going to get him on it, but he just sent the song to me.

Did you expect him to black out the way that he did?
Nah. He actually just hit me up. We about to work right now.

Oh, really? Can you talk more about that?
We're just sending music right now, you know what I mean?

Would a collaborative album be something you would like to do with Pusha-T?
Yeah. I'm trying to do that album with Pusha-T. I'm also working with the Griselda crew. All three of them are real dope. They're bringing back that real New York shit.

When you're scouring for new music, how do you go about it?
I look on the internet like everybody else.

When you made Bandana, what do you feel like it provided the game that the game was missing?
We don't really even think about it like that. We just try to create good music. I don't try to do music to be the best. I just try to make good music that I would sit and listen to. And if I like it, it comes out. We don't overthink things. We just record.

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I've heard stories that when you're recording, you'll go three or four days without sleeping. Is that still true?
This is my third day.

Right now, this is your third day not sleeping?
I mean, I'm late [to this interview] because I couldn't get off the drum machine, you know what I mean?

Break it down for me. How do you go 72 hours without sleeping? You're just making music? You're just in the zone?
Because I'm excited, just making music. It's kind of like meditation, how people do yoga and all that type of stuff. I zone out, and it be a day later, you know what I mean? Really, it's weird. I think it's spirits or something. I don't want to scare you. But I don't think I'm doing everything.

Have there been any situations where it became a detriment of staying up all those days making music?
Nah, man. I'm used to it now. I've been like that since the late '90s. That's how I was then. I'll sleep when I die or something, you know what I mean?

When Freddie Gibbs went through his turbulent time overseas and he was arrested
That was crazy.

“For the last seven or eight years, everything's been on an iPad.”

He told Complex that he was literally listening to your beats while he was being handcuffed. The beats resonated with him so much that even when he was locked up, he couldn't have access to the speakers, but the beats were continuously playing in his head, and he was able to write a lot of his raps to it. Where were you when you initially heard the news? Were you ever concerned that he wasn't coming home?
Oh, yeah. I didn't think we were going to have this album done. Yeah. I was in the studio, like I am now. When I heard the news, I just called him every day I could and helped him out. I didn't think he was going to get out. I knew he didn't do it, but everybody was acting like he did. Now everybody's all cool with him now.

Does that bother you, as a friend of his?
Yeah. It was just a lot of fake people. I saw a lot of stuff, right?

Do you put him on game with that? Because I'm sure he couldn't see who was all—
Oh yeah, I told him. I told him straight up. We talked a lot.

What were those conversations like when he was overseas and he was locked up? Like, yo, keep your head up? What were you saying?
Basically stuff like that. Basically uplifting stuff.

How was your mindset? I'm sure that's heavy for you.
Yeah. I just wanted him to be able to come back. He just had his baby and all that. And I know he's innocent. He's a good dude, you know what I mean? But they try to portray his music like he's like that. They played it in court, and they were like, "Oh, that's what you do?" No. You know how they do us.

Does that leave you conflicted at all, that your art can be turned against you? We've seen that done in murder trials.
No, that's just being black. That's just being black, I guess. With everything, you know what I mean?

That's unfortunate, man. In 2016, you said sometimes you don't want to hear rap. Sometimes you want to hear the beats, and tell stories with beats. An instrumental version of Bandana is about to be released
Yeah, I can't even listen to that. I can't listen to four-minute beats just going on and on and on. I can't do that.

With Bandana, what was the story that you tried to tell?
I was mainly letting him tell the story, and I kept it more minimal. Not too much hard drums and stuff. Just making it old school style.

Why don't you like to listen to your own music? Is it just being too critical of yourself?
No, I just do stuff and move on. Just keeping moving.

Does it get conflicting for you when fans come up to you and be like, "Yo, I loved your tape from—"
Oh yeah. My shows are kind of like that, yeah. People are confused because they're expecting Quasimoto, and I'm just playing crazy stuff. All the stuff I grew up on, or unreleased stuff, or whatever.

You mentioned Quasimoto. You have a rap career. How does that help you whenever you're crafting beats for rappers?
That's why I can visualize, because I used to rap. It wasn't great or nothing, but I know how to be a trumpet on a beat, you know what I mean?

You said you would change your voice up because you didn't really like your voice.
That's why I don't rap anymore. And I didn't have much to say, either. I was mainly a beat dude.

You had another quote that also stood out to me. "Niggas be sleeping thinking they need all this gear." You created one of your most beloved songs, "Raid," on a portable turntable, a tape deck, and an SP303. For Bandana, is it true that you made all the beats on an iPad?
Yeah. For the last seven or eight years, everything's been on an iPad.

How do you transition from using actual equipment?
Equipment don't matter. I never had great equipment. I always use low budget stuff. I'm down with Flying Lotus and all those type of dudes. We keep it minimum.

So you said for the past seven to eight years, it's strictly on an iPad.
Maybe longer. But people thinking Bandana is just... "Oh, them beats sound weird." Because I've been doing this. I don't even tell people.

Really? So when artists come and see you work, and they see you working off an iPad—
They don't see me work. Nobody really see me work but my kids. Dilla, I used to hang with Dilla, but..

But just an iPad. That's incredible.
Nah, that's the best piece of equipment you can have.

Is there a specific program?
You don't even need a studio anymore.

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During the early 2010s, you and Kanye linked up for several sessions before My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy came out, and you gave him some beats. But ultimately, he passed on it.
They didn't fit.

They didn't fit. But a part of me feels like if you found placement on that album, you may resent it now. Do you feel that way?
Nah, Kanye's my dude. I don't really care if they use it or not.

The reason I say that is a lot of people call My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy the album of the decade. You said you don't like to listen to your old work. That album would have played—
I wouldn't have been on that anyway. When you think about it, yeah.

What were those sessions like?
It was crazy. I was sitting next to the Kardashians. El DeBarge right here, and then... Me and El DeBarge talking about doing an album and stuff. [Laughs].

Were you picking up game from Kanye at all? Because you're both very much esteemed producers.
I just watched. Watched what they do. I mean, whatever they were doing, I already know.

One of those beats you did ending up becoming "No More Parties in L.A." with Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar.
That beat was 10 years old, too.

Really? Were you shocked when it initially came out?
Nah. Because I try to do timeless music, so it could come out any time.

“I'm trying to do that album with Pusha-T. I'm also working with the Griselda crew.”

You mentioned on Hot97 that wasn't the only song that Ye and Kendrick recorded on your beats.
Oh, they did like 30 minutes of stuff, just going back and forth, going crazy. I heard it. Somebody played it on the phone, but I haven't actually—

Are you dying to hear those records?
Yeah. They were going off, too, man. Because I do my beat tapes like one-minute beats, and they were just, one minute on that one, that one, that one. It was crazy.

So would you sign off if Kanye came up to you and was like, "Yo, I want to release this"?
Yeah, I would. They wouldn't do it, though.

Why don't you think they'd do it?
Same with Mac Miller, but it ain't going to happen.

It ain't going to happen?
Yeah. It's not up to me, though.

Freddie Gibbs also recorded a track called "Cocaine Parties in LA." Do you know which track was recorded first?
No, I don't. I know which one I like better, though.

That was my next question. I was afraid you weren't going to answer that.
I ain't going to answer that.

In what ways has the for your collaborations with Freddie Gibbs been similar to your collaborations with MF Doom and J Dilla?
Let me think. I think me and Gibbs hung out longer. We had more time to hang out. We went around the whole world a couple times together and all that.

How were your collaborations with Dilla? How were those times? I'm sure that's something you hold on to and cherish.
Yeah, that was the best time of my life. He just like me, but deeper, you know what I mean?

Are those tracks tough to listen to now?
Nah, that keeps him alive, you know what I mean? Bumping stuff, turn it up.

On YouTube, there's a fan-made collaboration titled Otis Benjamin...

And it's André 3000's best verses...
Vocals all offbeat.

So you've heard.

Would you ever be open to working with André 3000?
Hell yeah. We'll make that shit way better than that. That was like... Eh. We'll do it right, you know what I mean?

André recently did an interview with Rick Rubin and talked about the issues he's had getting back into the game. How would you help him get back into the game?
I mean, he can do a flute album with me if he wants. [Laughs]. Pied Piper and the Beat Konducta.

Final question for you, Madlib. What can fans expect from you going forward?
Some more good music that I like. You may not like it, but I just do what comes from my heart.I just do that shit.

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