It’s no coincidence that Shades Of Blue is Madlib’s triumphant album in his forays into jazz. That can be attributed to his excellent blend of incorporating jazz themes with a heavier flair. Where his Yesterday’s New Quintet projects find moments of brilliance, oftentimes they seem to show their creator has much more passion for the genre than the chops to pull them off as wholly executed projects. But, given the access to jazz’s premier label Blue Note to chop and reinterpret, well, let’s just say he was the right man for the job. Even Steinski, a noted early hip hop producer, has to concede, “Damn, that’s a great job. How come I don’t get jobs like that?”
Leading off with the excellent “Slim’s Return,” a reworking of Gene Harris And The Three Sounds’ “The Look Of Slim,” it’s an exercise in combining the best of the original – Andy Simpkins’ bass – with equally aggressive scratching. The rattle slap that infiltrates throughout nearly every measure gives you the sense of a snake waiting to bite. Madlib essentially treats us to an instrumental hip hop track that still feels like it has plenty to say, especially when aided by vocal chops including a few whoops from The Blastmaster himself. Chief Xcel, of Blackalicious, showed us it was a menacing beat for MCs in one of hip hop’s finest displays of lyrical acumen and shit talking in “Lyric Fathom” from 1995. Madlib shows the track can still be menacing without an MC, and that starts first and foremost with the aforementioned bass.
Equally as fierce are the drums he chooses to start Reuben Wilson’s “Stormy” (which was a cover of the Classics IV song). Wilson’s version relied much more on a bossa nova groove. Madlib still gives it enough room to breathe, and amazingly the hard edge never seems out of place. Over the top, he does a wonderful job layering multiple flute melodies along with electric piano.
His choice of drums also adds more bounce to Bobbi Humphrey’s “Please Set Me At Ease.” That allows lyricist MED enough of a beat to ride. Humphrey’s flute doesn’t appear often or even that upfront as Madlib instead chooses to focus on a piano riff to lead the charge. It’s a decision that pays off for the notably more street feel he gives to the track. Humphrey’s playing, while beautiful, isn’t as forceful as needed for a concoction as potent as this reinterpretation.
One of the masterstrokes of the album is utilizing various clips of informative interviews to create meaningful interludes. Many hip-hop acts tried their hand at the interlude and usually ended up bastardizing the project. Madlib instead finds clips that are short enough to be educational and eschewing long-winded rants that would lose the listener’s attention. It also doesn’t hurt that he gets legends such as Lou Donaldson, Galt MacDermot, and Melvin Sparks to give credence to the project as well as current hip hoppers such as MED, MF Doom, and Steinski to appeal to the underground hip hop crowd. The curators hit their target markets with precision.
Madlib would start a mixtape series, of sorts, with his Medicine Show releases years later, but Shades Of Blue is where he started to cut his teeth in that market. It’s an overwhelming success that proves that when given strong material, of which there was certainly plenty to draw from, Madlib can executive produce with the best of them. In working with such highly acclaimed material, it could have easily fallen on its face but instead flourishes while paying respect to jazz progenitors and stepping into tomorrow with hip hop’s new school.
Madlib – “Stepping Into Tomorrow”
Words by Eric Luecking
For more information: http://www.stonesthrow.com/madlib