That Damn Fusion

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Madlib is an underground hip-hop musician. To label him “just” a DJ or “just” and MC would not only be insulting, it would be devastatingly inaccurate. He’s backed several projects and solo ventures such as Madvillan and Quasimoto, and produced for the likes of Mos Def, Kanye West, Erykah Badu and several others. He remains both prolific in the underground and an instrumental piece of credible mainstream hip-hop.

But, I find his 2003 album “Shades of Blue” to be incredibly unique in its approach, but one of the best examples of his production style; on a deeper level, it also serves as a great example of a trend becoming more popular as time goes on: a sort of revisionist fusion.

It’s not much of a secret that hip-hop owes much of its development to jazz. With it’s adventurous lyricism and reliance on time signatures, jazz helped pave the foundation for some of the world’s greatest hip-hop. But, what makes “Shades” so unique is its overt homage to famous jazz label “Blue Note.”

For an album, Madlib was allowed to go into Blue Note’s vault to sample and remix their catalog. What is created is an album that is personal, packed with excellent music, and serves as Madlib’s love letter to jazz. But, he creates textures and remixes that brings up a question: in revisiting and revising music, is such a style both viable and ethical? Also, is the act of fusing old and new distinguishable, or does the old naturally come into the new?

It’s incredible to think how little many realize how much of the world’s most popular music took either direct inspiration or interpretation of another. Led Zeppelin has been sued so many times for alleged appropriation it is frankly embarrassing. But, it could also be argued the group were simply following a blues tradition of reinterpretation–granted, one of the group’s inspirations Muddy Waters went on record claiming he made more money painting houses than music. So, it’s hard to sympathize with the multi-billionaire brand that is Led Zeppelin.

Led_Zeppelin_airplane_starship_plane_bob_gruenSeen Here with (hopefully) their only private jet.

So, less than forty years after the fact, despite the line between inspiration and appropriation still being blurred, it is beyond gratifying to see an album like “Shades” being released. An album rooted in not only the approval of musicians and labels, but carried in the hands of a genre’s premier musicians who can handle such a heavy legacy.

Handling the legacy may be one thing, but being able to infuse hip-hop into a genre that helped create it. It is handled with such loving craft and care, that the process of revisionist fusion can properly and respectfully take hold.

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