ALBUM REVIEW: Madlib – Sound Ancestors (prod. by Four Tet)

sound ancestors cover

Four Tet gets unprecedented access to Madlib’s wide collection of unreleased beats to edit, arrange and master an album that gives listeners a holistic perspective on one of the most mysterious names in Hip Hop. The result is Sound Ancestors; an audible psychedelic museum trip through one of the greatest collections of human recorded sounds, Madlib’s hard drives.


Madlib, 47, has produced music solidly since the 90s, featuring works with J Dilla, Kanye, Erykah Badu, the late MF Doom, Freddie Gibbs, remixes for Blue Note, works dedicated to film scores, works inspired by India…Alotta work to put it frankly.

Works that place the man born as Otis Jackson Jr. as the final boss of hip hop producers. During his influential career he has collected a lot of samples. Sounds with the potential to transport listeners deep across the universe of recorded human experience.

Otis Jackson Jr. Internationally known as Madlib.

However, until now he has never truly released a definitive solo album and was never planning on doing so. His most notable records are usually collaborative efforts with Hip Hop icons where Madlib plays unpredictably with sounds in the backseat, with the rappers driving the car designed, fuelled and engineered by the man himself. Or how about the notorious album Unseen (2000) released under the Quasimoto alias: a collaboration between Madlib and his own alter-ego Lord Quas. It may be 100% Otis Jackson Jr., but not a Madlib solo. Even the Beat Konducta series plus two Rock Konducta albums were great displays of his skills at sound manipulation and wide influences, but must be listened in their entirety to grasp the true international spirit of Madlib.

Luckily, a close friend had been thinking about this concept album. Most people know Kieran Hebden, the friend, as the experimental sound artist, Four Tet. Hebden is better known for his eclectic sample-bending dance music, however, readers might be surprised to know Madlib and Four Tet largely collect the same kinds of music. Both share an affinity for British psychedelic rock, freeform jazz and other soul-strumming sounds. Madlib argues Four Tet is undoubtedly a little more “out there” with his collections of bug sounds but is sure he’ll get to that point one day in his crate digging future.

The Madlib x Four Tet relationship started in 2001 when artists from indie label Stones Throw came to DJ in London. Meanwhile, outside the venue, Kieran got speaking to Eothen Alapatt, the owner of Stones Throw, known as Egon. The two stayed in touch and Madlib eventually became part of that relationship, who now renders Four Tet more of a brother than collaborator.

Madlib and Four Tet

Jump 20 years on from that fateful night and Hebden is locked down in the Catskill Mountains, NY, piecing together a Madlib album with unheard records. Puts my cotton-bud champs de elysee lockdown project to shame doesn’t it?

Probably less of a challenge than mine though; Four Tet has always been a master selector. His DJ sets are famously unique from one gig to the next, never playing the same song twice. And that is what listeners should expect when diving into this hip hop album: an amalgamation of 60s psych rock, reggae, soul, funk, glistening celestial jazz, bamboo drums, answering machines and spanish guitars, all told through lib’s carefully placed finger tips.

The lead single, Road of the Lonely Ones, has been widely revered, getting radio reception and online adoration thanks to Madlib’s ability to make hip hop records that are deeply emotive. People are left inspired through his sample selections and every Madlib album is a music education at the same time. For example, the Lonely Ones samples Philadelphia quartet ‘The Ethics’ who split at the start of the 70s, their style worn better by the more recognisable O’Jays. These ancestors of ours, lost but not forgotten in the art of hip hop sampling. Below are some of the samples used in the album.

Listeners of sample masters ‘The Avalanches’ may recognise the voice behind their hit Because I’m Me on the last track of the album Duumbiyay. Madlib takes a snippet from the 1959 album Six Boys In Trouble, which features some very young vocalists from the projects and adds the depth of a New York Jazz bar with piano, ecstatic drums and a jubilant atmosphere.

All this is done under the philosophy that without the ancestors who created these sounds Madlib would not have music to make. His homage to J Dilla, a collaborator who died in 2006, on track 12, Two for 2, see’s Madlib adopt the unquantized freestyle finger drumming that Dilla did for so many years. This album is basically Four Tet’s homage to Madlib’s unreleased homage to the sound ancestors that came before us.

Fans of Madlib will not find listening as exciting as Quasimoto or Pinata or Madvillain, but it is more than a moment in time. It is the clearest portrait we have of the mystical man behind some of the best hip hop albums ever made. In just 16 tracks we can understand Madlib’s technical skill and love for the world of music curated by a friend, who is just as much an audio-whore as him. And that’s well worth a listen.

Top Track: Duumbiyay




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