Mad World

Los Angeles-based DJ Madlib Puts on Mediocre Performance at San Francisco's 103 Harriet

Summer Dunsmore/Photo

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Otis Jackson Jr. showed up Friday night to SF's 103 Harriet for a highly-anticipated DJ set - not the venerated producer Madlib, not the crate-diggin' Beat Konducta, not the latchkey rogue Lord Quas, nor any of his other many aliases. He arrived as himself, unwilling to play the part of a persona, listlessly toying with his beats. What was supposed to be a celebratory reception for a rare appearance turned into a battlefield, as hip hop's cult hero fended off catcalls, retorted with his own boos and left the crowd questioning what the hell had just happened.

How was it that an artist could release one album per month for his Medicine Show series and yet not dish out a steady groove for a two-hour set? He made it plain that it was not for lack of skill, but a refusal on his own part to perform, a "joke" as he continually reminded audience members. "I'm just fuckin' with you," assured Madlib between f-bombs thrown his way. Well the joke didn't pan out, not even for a devoted fan such as myself.

The show started off slowly, and from there only dragged itself to exhaustion. Missing were the odd quirks and curveballs of his music. What we got in the beginning was a ton of low-end and some fragmented bits, often interrupted by unintelligible shout-outs. At first it seemed harmless, part of the routine - gotta rep J Dilla, Flying Lotus, West Coast, the usual suspects. But he really never stopped, like a blip on a CD. The moment the music was about to take flight Madlib would halt, spew out some more names, and let the beat splinter to pieces. It was as if he were denying any sense of momentum, allowing it to creep in slowly, eyeing it in his periphery only to suddenly shaft it altogether. "Let's play some real shit for you," Madlib said to the audience. Yet he wouldn't budge. Not even once.

But this is Madlib, so you wait; you hone your patience in hopes that there might be a signal amid the noise. And I waited, at first patiently, then desperately, until the performance simply plateaued. Was this really him, "America's Most Blunted"? The papers and nuggets were sprawled next to a turntable, but where were the blunted beats? A steady stream of music, a seemingly simple favor for such a talented, singular force, could not be found. Instead we received something like a pre-show sound check, fussing around with noise and mechanics with an air of not really caring.

I had talked to another crowd member who told me that on the rare occasion Madlib performs he will behave in such a way. It allowed me to smirk for a moment, to consider that of course someone like him would challenge our preconceptions of what he would be like. But when you stretch that out for two hours, it seems to be more of a disrespectful blow than a playful joust. MF Doom may hire an impostor, but Madlib himself was rubbing it in our faces.

Madlib is the genius hovering in the shadows of others, a self-professed behind-the-scenes guy responsible for supplying some of the most dynamic sounds in hip hop. It really would not have taken much to involve the crowd, but instead he opted for the path of self-destruction. Yet it was still unclear as to why he would spurn his own fans, people unhealthily invested in his dense catalogue of work.

Perhaps Madlib did not trust the initial cheers, as if he came to the conclusion that people bought into his mythological status without knowing why, that admiration had turned into thoughtless idolatry. The performance at times seemed like a game to catch people off guard. He asked who had bought the new Quasimoto album (one that does not exist) and laughed at the cheers. He started his own chorus of "F**k Madlib," which oddly enough turned into "Deconstruct Madlib." Finally, amidst the boos, Madlib challenged the audience in a daring tone, "But you won't leave." Tensions of confrontation and mockery swirled in the air. Was he trying to gauge his fans, test their worth? Was he just drunk from guzzling Crown Royal?

Madlib is first and foremost a producer, not a performer. But that of course begs the question, why perform? Why show up to purposefully fail? It's one thing to metaphorically lift your middle finger to the audience, but to leave it hanging there the entire night was insulting.

Ad lib some mad libs with Justin at [email protected]

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