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Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre, series, or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing gateways@theonion.com.

Geek obsession: Madlib

Why it’s daunting: What’s difficult to grasp about the L.A. producer, rapper, DJ, and musician Madlib isn’t the music he releases so much as its sheer quantity. Even in an era where more artists release more music than ever, Madlib’s catalog stands out. At this writing, there are 226 items in his official discography at the website of Stones Throw Records, which has issued the bulk of it. Of those, 105 are as primary artist, either solo or in collaboration. Not all of them are full albums, of course—singles, EPs, digital one-offs, DJ-mix CDs, and stray album and compilation tracks by other artists dominate. (Not to mention Madlib’s habit of releasing instrumental versions of his rap material.) Still, it’s an intimidating mountain to climb. 

There’s also the not-so-little matter of just how many monikers the man uses. Even his aliases have aliases. Born Otis Jackson Jr. in 1973, Madlib emerged in the mid-’90s with tracks for L.A. rappers Tha Alkaholiks, and in 1999, his group Lootpack issued a sturdy, inventive debut, Soundpieces: Da Antidote! After that came a flood of releases credited to more than a dozen aliases, among them Quasimoto (a.k.a. Lord Quas), Yesterdays New Quintet (whose “members,” all the same guy, have each issued “solo” material), The Last Electro-Acoustic Space Jazz & Percussion Ensemble, DJ Rels, and Sound Directions. That’s not counting collaborations with MF Doom (as Madvillain), J Dilla (Jaylib), Guilty Simpson (OJ Simpson), and Ivan “Mamão” Conti (Jackson Conti). He’s also done production work for rappers famous (De La Soul, Ghostface Killah, Mos Def, Talib Kweli) and obscure (Percee P, Planet Asia, Prince Po, Strong Arm Steady), as well as R&B giant Erykah Badu. And he has remix credits ranging from Jay-Z and Beastie Boys to Jill Scott and TV On The Radio. 

On the surface, he has some similarities with his good friend and collaborator, the late J Dilla, but Madlib gets away with this hyper-prolificacy because his music is so immediately, recognizably his. His drums glug and clunk as much as they boom and bap; pocket-sized samples of jazz, Bollywood, Brazilian music, funk, acid rock, and more are chosen for their surface noise and warped timbres as much as their ability to rock a party. He works hard at seeming casual, frequently baffling listeners by changing directions in the middle of tracks, throwing gnarly noise into a track once and only once, skipping freely between genres. He’ll try anything once, often for the duration of an album. Madlib’s music is sticky, staticky, warped, and engrossing—reflecting the weed habit that so heavily marks its creation. 

That grime may make Madlib the most “East Coast” of L.A. hip-hop producers, a kind of Golden State answer to Wu-Tang Clan’s The RZA in his spooky prime. The difference is that Madlib’s tracks have a wide-eared, flinty sense of agog; even the most outré stuff bustles. He’s one of the most solipsistic of great rap producers: fewer beatmakers are as well suited to headphone listening. A lot of headphone listening, and it isn’t about to abate anytime soon: In 2010, he’s releasing a monthly CD series called Madlib Medicine Show to help clean out the vaults. (What’s scarier—the fact that he’s released so many albums already, or that there was so much left?) Madlib caters to die-hards, but for everyone else, here’s where to begin.

Possible gateway: Quasimoto, The Unseen (2000)

Why? Flat-out one of the most original hip-hop records ever made, The Unseen set the stage for everything that followed. Quasimoto is Jackson rapping in a jabbering, slightly sped-up voice about records, herb, and inertia over tracks that insinuate themselves gradually—an album that can be played to death without growing tired. “Microphone Mathematics” and “Jazz Cats Pt. 1” twist jazz drums, brass, and vibraphones ’til they sound as spooked as Quas himself, and if something sounds iffy, just wait a minute or so, and it’ll change completely. The 2005 follow-up, The Further Adventures of Lord Quas, takes a while to sink, before it eventually does. But The Unseen remains Madlib’s masterpiece.

Next steps: The primary reason 2004’s Madvillainy wasn’t the main pick—it’s a consensus choice as one of the past decade’s best rap albums—is that The Unseen is Madlib’s show all the way, whereas Madvillain is his duo with the gruff MF Doom, whose imaginative leaps are a perfect match for Madlib’s. Doom had been making music again after an extended break in the mid-’90s, and Madvillainy cemented his status as an underground comer who just happened to have made classic rap during the early ’90s (with KMD, as Zev Love X). Madlib turns in one of his most delightfully jagged set of beats, and Doom rhymes like a laid-back madman. Naturally, fans have clamored for a sequel, which the 2008 release Madvillain 2 is not. Rather, it’s a Madlib remix of the entire debut, and fine on its own terms. That follow-up is forthcoming, though: Just a couple of weeks before this writing, Madvillain issued its first new track in six years, “Papermill,” as a free giveaway from Adult Swim’s website.

For those who’d like to hear Madlib as the loop-digging beatmaker unencumbered by the need to stretch his tracks to fit vocalists, or even to create songs, per se, the first two CDs (or first four vinyl LPs, if you prefer) of his Beat Konducta series—2006’s Vol. 1-2: Movie Scenes and 2008’s Vol. 3-4: In India—are well worth the time. These are mostly one-to-two-minute snippets tweaked and toyed with for their brief durations, but in aggregate, they paint complete pictures.

Madlib has been nearly as prolific a worker-for-hire as he has an artiste. He has standout tracks on both Erykah Badu’s great New Amerykah albums: “The Healer” and “My People” from 2008’s Part One: 4th World War and “Umm Hmm” and “Incense” from 2010’s Part Two: Return Of The Ankh. He also produced all of Strong Arm Steady’s fine In Search Of Stoney Jackson (2010); pay particular attention to the mesmerizing “Two Pistols,” in which the L.A. trio spits hungrily about gunplay over a bluesy vocal snippet and liquid guitar.

Madlib is also an industrious DJ, with several mix-CDs both licensed and not. The best of these is 2002’s Blunted In The Bomb Shelter, in which Madlib melted down 45 classic ’60 and ’70s reggae tracks from the Trojan Records catalog into a single disc, making some of the genre’s most overexposed music genre revelatory again. 

Where not to start: One consequence of being so insanely prolific is that your stumbles are generally public, and generally interesting, in a “Here’s where he explored this facet of his sound” kind of way. That’s about as much as you can say for Sunjinho, the 2008 album Madlib made with Ivan “Mamão” Conti, drummer of jazz fusion-infused ’80s Brazilian samba faves Azymuth, under the moniker Jackson Conti. It isn’t a horrible album, and there are moments when Conti’s traditional Brazilian rhythms really rev up, but it’s generally forgettable.