Happy 20th Anniversary to Lootpack’s debut (and only) studio album Soundpieces: Da Antidote!, originally released June 29, 1999.
The importance of Lootpack’s Soundpieces: Da Antidote may not be readily recognized, but it was integral in shaping the development of west coast left-of-center hip-hop. Released 20 years ago, it was viewed by some as a solid entry by an avowed “underground” crew. The tried and true backpacker that I am, I bumped this album constantly, both driving through Chicago and on the black sand beaches of Greece. I also recognize and celebrate what this album helped put into motion years later.
Comprised of rapper Jack “Wildchild” Brown, rapper/producer Otis “Madlib” Jackson, Jr., and DJ Romeo “Romes” Jimenez, Lootpack have been recording music since the early ’90s. Madlib and Wildchild both first appeared on “Turn the Party Out” on Tha Alkaholiks’ debut album 21 & Over (1993). Madlib produced that song, as well as the single “Mary Jane” from the same album. The crew continued to collaborate with the Likwit Crew, appearing on Tha Liks’ next two LPs.
In the meantime, they released the “Psyche Move” 12-inch in 1996 independently through Crate Diggas Palace Records, run by Madlib’s father. The 12-inch caught the attention of Christopher “Peanut Butter Wolf” Manak, who heard “Psyche Move” playing on an LA-based college radio station. PB Wolf was in the process of launching Stones Throw Records and was seeking artists to sign to his label. He tracked down the trio, who became the first group signed to Stones Throw, and released Soundpieces a few years later.
Although Soundpieces is technically Lootpack’s only full-length, this release solidified their position as the cornerstone of Stones Throw. Many of the artists that PB Wolf signed during the late ’90s and early ’00s were in some way associated with Lootpack. Either they came up in the same circle, were related to Madlib by blood, worked with Madlib as a producer, or some combination of the three. Furthermore, PB Wolf’s association with Lootpack directly led to Stones Throw’s most successful releases, such as Jaylib’s Champion Sound (2003), Madvillain’s Madvillainy (2004) and J Dilla’s Donuts (2006).
But back in 1999, it was just Wildchild and Madlib flexing their skills over the latter’s dusted loops, while DJ Romes held down duties behind the two turntables. In terms of subject matter, Lootpack rarely strays away from dissing wack emcees and asserting their own skills. While some thought that it made the album repetitive, it was indicative of the major split occurring in hip-hop during the late ’90s. With so many mainstream hip-hop artists embracing commercial appeal, members of the strong “underground” scene felt the need to reject these materialistic trappings loudly and more forcefully.
Soundpieces opens on the right note with “Questions,” Lootpack’s dedication to emcees and groups working to preserve the true essence of hip-hop culture and lambasting those who adopt fake personas and don’t respect hip-hop’s origins and tenets. “The Anthem,” the album’s first single, explores similar territory, as the group extols the virtues of creating “real” hardcore hip-hop and mocking rappers “acting like you’re an Amazon when the camera’s on.” While Wildchild is “straight up re-arranging all your drums,” Madlib does a masterful chopping job, splicing together piano and organ strikes to create a dense and busy track.
Of the two rapping members of the group, Wildchild is the more adept lyricist. He’s given a few solo tracks to shine, and makes the most of his time. “Whenimondamic” is another anti-wack emcee anthem where Wildchild stresses the importance of being able to rock a live show and rap off the top of the head when necessary. Over a ridiculously funky re-constructed bassline, he raps, “I’m like a baseball player on track, got on steel cleats / I represent the conscience styles until it hits the streets / My backbone attack wack poems, got mad rap tones / I destroy fake Madlib beats and Crackerjack poems.”
“Weededed” is the rarest of hip-hop anomalies: an anti-weed song. Well, strictly speaking, it’s not completely anti-weed: Wildchild rails against emcees who use weed as a crutch and feel they “need” it in order to write their rhymes. Given the preponderance of weed usage among, oh, roughly 99.4% of all hip-hop artists, it striking to hear Wildchild mock weed-dependent rappers.
Madlib does indeed share half of the rhyming duties on the album, even though his lyrical skills back then were a bit, shall we say, limited. But while he occasionally sounded a bit stilted, Madlib does provide a wholly competent performance throughout Soundpieces. He even engages in a few solo exercises himself.
The best of these is “Crate Diggin’,” Madlib’s ode to getting his fingers dusty looking for the perfect loop and/or obscure gem to transform into hip-hop. The beat for the song is one of Madlib’s best on the album, as the heartbeat-like drum track pulses away, backing beeping keyboard sounds and stabs of strings. Madlib might not give his finest performance on the mic with “Hityawitdat,” but he very much shines as a beatmaker, manipulating and chopping keyboard sounds to create a peppy groove.
Madlib continues to serve up some of the finest musical concoctions of his now-storied career on Soundpieces. Madlib and Wildchild trade verses on the deliberately paced “Speaker Smashing,” a dense and muddy production featuring warped guitar and organ blasts that are almost disorienting. The brief “Laws of Physics” is built around an elaborately reconstructed string sample from Mavis Staples’ “What Happened to the Real Me.” “Answers,” one of the best songs on the album, serves as the informal sequel to the aforementioned “Questions,” with Madlib and Wildchild each kicking a slower rhyme flow over a flute loop sampled from Lee Mason’s “Shady Blues.” The track was one of the first to features vocals from Quasimoto, Madlib’s blunted bipedal aardvark alter ego.
Along with the Future Lord Quas, Wildchild and Madlib deploy their friends and family members throughout Soundpieces, allowing each emcee to showcase their styles and lyrical abilities. “Level Zero” features the first widely distributed appearance by Oh No (one of Madlib’s younger brothers) and Medaphor (aka M.E.D.), now each accomplished and prolific emcees/producers in their own rights. God’s Gift contributes a pair of verses on “Verbal Experiments,” a sparse recording features a solid drum track, sharp grunts and yelps, and shimmering notes and tones. Declaime aka Dudley Perkins makes one his earliest appearances on “Break That Party,” a melodic track where Madlib first began to show his penchant for sampling soul/spoken word artist Melvin Van Peebles.
Lootpack also enlist some of their LA Underground contemporaries to do their thing on Soundpieces. Dilated Peoples joins the crew on the rugged “Long Awaited,” probably the strongest lyrical track on the album. “Likwit Fusion” is a reunion between Lootpack and their mentors Tha Liks, along with Likwit Crew affiliate Defari. It’s a funky, messy posse cut where everyone gets their opportunity to wild out.
The album ends with “Episodes,” a marathon, nearly nine-minute group track in the same vein as Gang Starr’s “I’m the Man” or “Speak Ya Clout.” The song features many of the members of Lootpack’s extended crew, all of whom also appear earlier on the album. The track makes clear the diversity in lyrical styles of the Lootpack affiliates, while offering further evidence of Madlib’s expert ability behind the boards.
Lootpack never recorded another album after Soundpieces. They released a 45 RPM in the early ’00s, and later Lost Tapes, a compilation of all of their pre-Stones Throw material. Wildchild’s Secondary Protocol (2003), also on Stones Throw, featured Madlib’s production and scratches from DJ Romes, but that was their last hurrah. The crew parted on amicable terms. Wildchild released a few other solo projects, and Madlib has of course gone on to be one of the most acclaimed Beat Konductas of his generation.
Soundpieces may get some guff for being largely one-dimensional when it comes to subject matter, but its presentation and commitment to its values prevail. And honestly, it’s one of the best musical exhibitions, production-wise, of the late 1990s. Wildchild and Madlib were rarely as honest and raw as they were on Soundpieces, and their careers were better for it.