Album Review: Madlib – Sound Ancestors

[Madlib Invazion; 2021]

A few weeks before Madlib and Kieran Hebden’s (Four Tet) collaborative album Sound Ancestors was set to be released, the two long-time friends were faced with a bitter pill to swallow. Hours before the sombre year of 2020 drew to a close, news emerged that rap’s ‘greatest villain’ MF DOOM had passed away. It came as a complete shock to the two musicians – so much so that that they considered postponing the album’s release. Speaking with NPR Music, Madlib opened up about his relationship with the late rapper and while a man of few words, it’s not hard to see that the passing affected him deeply.

It almost makes the release of Sound Ancestors more poignant. As we approach the 17-year anniversary of Madvillainy, the acclaimed collaborative album between Madlib and MF DOOM, the album offers the chance to celebrate the old while welcoming the new.

Madlib and Hebden have been close friends for years, and while specialising in two very different areas of music, they are unified by their love of the obscure. Hebden is responsible for a live stream of home records, which has been playing non-stop on YouTube since October 28, while Madlib thrives by consistently going that bit further in search of the perfect sound for that next beat. It’s easy to imagine that Sound Ancestors was created with little discussion, the focus instead purely on the music itself, with Hebden – who is given an ‘Arranged By’ credit – simply keeping Madlib’s superfluity of beats in order and compiled in a loving manner, adding a few light touches or suggestions here and there. Whatever the case, the result is spectacular.

While the techniques that Madlib uses to create the vast soundscapes of Sound Ancestors are no different to the ones he has used on his past LPs, this release feels a world away from the producer’s tried and trusted methods of production. The sample choices are more ambitious, as the producer digs for ever-more eclectic globe-trotting sounds. Whether pulled from 80s Welsh post-punks Young Marble Giants, Brazilian queer anti-fascist quartet Quartabê, or the late great New York rapper Phife Dawg, all samples are then twisted and shaped into mystical, head-bopping grooves.

The album is centred around lead single “Road Of the Lonely Ones”, a serene yet almost-cinematic piece of art, as two tracks by Philly soul collective The Ethics provide nifty sample choices that are then seasoned with trademark meticulous Madlib percussion. “The Call” is similarly epic, employing a Terri Britten sample and emphatic synths, along with a weighty bassline are reminiscent of his work on “America’s Most Blunted”, one of Madvillainy’s most thrilling tracks. “Riddim Chant” is probably the best example of Four Tet’s influence on the album – the wistful guitar line is layered with pinpoint, sparkling percussion to hypnotic effect.

A recurring theme on this record is the cleanliness of the sound; the strangely luxurious mixing consistently adds to the overall groove of the record. While “Two for 2 – For Dilla” is offered as a homage to the late hip hop producer James Yancey (better known as J Dilla), it’s not hard to envisage this cut on DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing. This is not the only parallel that can be drawn between Sound Ancestors and the 1996 album, as both works soar with ambition and the reckless thrill of creating new soundscapes.  

Sound Ancestors is a realisation of what the Madlib and Hebden are capable of in tandem. It’s bold, different, and takes the genre of instrumental hip hop to the next level. “An album designed to be listened to start to finish,” is what Hebden envisaged this record to be, and it is an astounding one at that.