Freddie Gibbs and Madlib: A classic pairing
“A Mexican guy tried to cut my eye out once…”
Freddie Gibbs is holding court in a slick wine bar on Hackney Road in east London. He is cracking jokes and telling war stories to a small crowd, including Madlib, Eothen ‘Egon’ Alapatt (Madlib’s manager and Now-Again Records boss), the photographer, crew, a sommelier, myself and a local drunk who is swiftly shown the door by Gibbs’ tour manager. The venue is chosen as the duo, rapper Gibbs and cult producer Madlib, have a shared love of wine. Madlib’s tastes reflect his sampling choices: “I look for something a bit funky, something people might not really like. Rare like.”
While Gibbs is “a little bit opposite. I like it sweet. I like that Riesling.”
© Michelle Helena Janssen
Wine aside, we’re here to talk about Bandana, an album released earlier this summer by the pair occasionally known as MadGibbs. Five years in the making, it is the follow up to Piñata – a record that feels like it has deepened over time, like a good wine, and one that helped establish Gibbs in wider rap circles. Bandana finds Madlib crossing over further into Gibbs’ world, using spliced beats to devastating effect, as in tracks like Half Manne, Half Cocaine. Despite the big name guests – Black Thought, Killer Mike, Pusha T – Gibbs is the undoubted star of the show, rapping as if his life depends on it.
On the vinyl edition of the album there is a sticker stating: ‘Movie – Western/ Adventure’. While the artwork features Quasimoto (Madlib’s cartoon alias) sat upon a zebra, both smoking on a joint, peering out from behind the Hollywood sign at a city in flames. Freddie Gibbs and Madlib as frontiersmen, looking for adventure, money, drugs, power and catharsis. Is this record about the pursuit of a dystopian American Dream? Gibbs is unequivocal: “This album is a manifesto. I wrote the majority of it when I was incarcerated. I thought I was gonna go away for ten years.”
“We didn’t even think we were gonna have this album out,” Madlib adds “I wrote from memory [while in jail]. I’ve got a good memory when it comes to Madlib beats. They stick to your ears. I look at this shit like sport. He’s like a good coach, making me sharper.”
“Right now, I’m the best rapper. I’m also the most slept on. Technically nobody can rap as good as I rap”
As a huge sports fan and natural competitor, Gibbs compares himself to the Brooklyn Nets forward, Kevin Durant. “‘I score when I want to. I have my way with the track. I embody that when I get in the booth. I have my way with a rapper. I’m waiting on a rapper to diss me, ‘cause I want to get in a rap battle.” Where does he see himself in the 2019 rap canon? “Kendrick and J. Cole hold the measuring stick. But right now, I’m the best rapper. I’m also the most slept on. Technically nobody can rap as good as I rap.”
It’s a typically confident response. Yet in terms of Gibbs’ ability as a raconteur, it’s probably an accurate one. Bandana is a comprehensive body of work. The album presents a mirror to society, reflecting our hopes, dreams and flaws.
Gibbs’ stories, told through his gruff cadence and double time raps, veer between cynicism and empathy, often in the same track. This sense of conflict is present throughout the album, and highlighted in songs like Crime Pays – “Diamonds in my chain/ Yeah I slang/ But I’m still a slave” — as he laments, and begrudgingly accepts, being part of a broken system over Madlib’s sample of Walt Barr’s Free Spirit, a saccharine soft rock track.
Endorsements from a producer as revered as Madlib speaks volumes, and Gibbs remains the only MC with whom he’s released a second album. Madlib elaborates: “I listen to this n****a so much. He’s made me make music differently. My beats can speed up and slow down and he’s one of the only [MCs] that can keep up. That’s why he’s one of the best.”
Gibbs appreciates the influence Madlib has had on him musically, and beyond. “He’s challenged me as an MC, and made me a better rapper. He’s widened my palette.” Right on cue, the sommelier pours out three glasses of wine from a fresh bottle of Chardonnay ‘Guille Bouton’.
When the ‘MadGibbs’ collaboration was first announced back in 2011, eyebrows were raised. They seemed like an incongruous pairing. Lyrically, Gibbs is miles away from the style of Madlib’s previous collaborators, like the abstract wordplay of DOOM, and further still from Talib Kweli’s conscious rap. If anything, Bandana is conceptually closer to the legendary Jaylib project, Champion Sound, that Madlib produced with J Dilla. There are strip clubs, parties and consumption but somehow – depressingly or otherwise – Bandana is further steeped in reality.
Madlib emerged in the early 90s, producing records for Tha Alkaholiks and his own group Lootpack, alongside Wildchild and DJ Romes. It’s music that “makes me cringe now” according to the man himself, but back then it was good enough to catch the ear of Peanut Butter Wolf. Wolf released the first Lootpack album on his nascent label, Stones Throw Records, in 1999.
There was a triumvirate of seminal Madlib records in the early part of the noughties – The Unseen (via Quasimoto, his sped-up rap alias), Champion Sound, and the storied Madvillainy alongside MF DOOM. By this point Stones Throw had developed a cult following, and in Madlib they had their totemic leader. The beat conductor has been notoriously press-shy throughout his career, only perpetuating the myth that surrounds him. Madlib has often let his music do the talking.
Freddie Gibbs’ career has been less straightforward. Born in Gary, Indiana, he spent much of his teenage years and 20s selling crack cocaine. His major label debut was cancelled after a change of senior management, and he was shot at after a record store performance in Brooklyn in 2014. In 2016, he was briefly jailed in France, accused and soon acquitted of all sexual abuse charges relating to a case in Austria.
© Michelle Helena Janssen
Gibbs explains: “I ain’t that far removed from the streets. I couldn’t get a record deal for years. It may seem like I move like a major artist, but I’m just really getting out of the drug game.”
“If shit was bumpy it’s ‘cause I was halfway in the streets and halfway in the music. It’s been a difficult balance; a lot of these rappers didn’t have to deal with what I had to deal with. From 10-6 I’d be in the crack house. When Piñata came out I was still selling dope, bro.”
Madlib takes a deep gulp of his glass of Chardonnay, before adding: “That’s why it was supposed to be called Cocaine Piñata.”
“It is what it is,” Gibbs sighs. “I’m not gonna bite my tongue, or kiss nobody’s ass, so I feel I get left out of certain conversations in rap circles.”
“That’s why I fuck with him,” Madlib says with a brotherly smile. “Hip-hop fans like him, and street people like him. Not too many people can do that.”
“But I don’t give a fuck about being politically correct. If I start conforming then I’m not Freddie Gibbs no more. I’m not into rap crowds, or cliques, none of that shit. Fuck a good look, I’m all about making good music.”
Freddie seems to be turning his life around. Leveraging his profile to help fundraising efforts for high school supplies in his hometown. Bandana, like much of his recent output, does possess tender moments of introspection like the soulful Practice. He is charismatic company and open-minded. After a transatlantic misunderstanding when I refer to a local weed dealer as being ‘a bit of a freak’, he retorts with “you should love who you love, it’s 2019.”
While Madlib may look like the coolest man on the planet, he comes across humble and approachable. In Freddie Gibbs, Madlib has found an unlikely foil; a hungry, uncompromising and authentic rapper, and his most potent collaboration since Madvillain. In their solo guises, Gibbs is “about to start working on an album with Alchemist.” Madlib mentions he would love to write film scores: “Martin Scorsese needs to call this n***a right now!” Gibbs excitedly responds.
But right now, it’s all about MadGibbs. With a third album in the works, reportedly called Montana, the future is bright for the duo. Madlib explains they have a surprise release in store for fans. “We got champagne coming out, Bandana Champagne. It’s good shit. We’re testing it at the moment.” Freddie hastens to add: “Fuck an album, we sell liquors. From selling dope, a couple albums, to selling wine! If that isn’t a success story, I don’t know what is.”
Photography: Michelle Helena Janssen
Location: Sager + Wilde, London
Bandana is out now via RCA Record.