How Madlib and MF DOOM Captured Lightning in a Bottle With ‘Accordion’
‘Madvillainy’ is Madlib and MF DOOM’s legendary collaborative LP, released in 2004 via Stones Throw Records. The album has had a long-lasting impact on hip-hop and music in general, with DOOM’s lyrics and Madlib’s production resonating with listeners across generations. In ‘Madvillain’s Madvillainy,’ released this spring via Bloomsbury Publishing as part of the long-running 33 1/3 series of music books, Will Hagle tells the Madvillain story using interviews with individuals involved in the album’s creation. In this exclusive excerpt, we learn how one of the album’s most iconic tracks was made after an early version of ‘Madvillainy’ leaked to an eager audience online.
If Madlib and MF DOOM hadn’t searched for ways to make Madvillainy different from the version that leaked into cyberspace months before the album was supposed to come out, “Accordion” might never have existed. What a tremendous loss that would have been. “Accordion” is essential. After the intro, it kicks off Madvillainy in earnest. Its hypnotizing swirl establishes the album’s ominous yet inviting tone.
Madvillainy is responsible for lodging the loop in so many brains, but the melody and rhythm were tumbling around Alfred Darlington’s head when they were enrolled in a piano class at USC in 1996 or 1997. In 2002, it materialized on Darlington’s debut album under the moniker Daedelus, Invention.
“The intention of that record is bashing samples against acoustic instruments and trying to blend the two in such a way where you don’t know what is sample and what is instrument,” says Daedelus. “But [‘Experience’] is one of the few songs in the record that’s entirely instrumental.”
On “Experience,” Daedelus plays the part on a Magnus 391 Electric Chord Organ. Not an accordion, despite DOOM’s lyrics and the song’s title immortalizing it as such. The Magnus 391 Electric Chord Organ looks like the tiny USB keyboards that modern aspiring beatmakers use to tap out MIDI patterns in laptop DAWs. Except it’s bulkier, heftier, and debuted in the 1950s and 1960s as a small, affordable alternative to grand pianos. Like an accordion, the instrument has a fan. Pushing on keys sends air blowing across reeds, resulting in the harmonica-like tone. On “Accordion” and “Experience,” you can hear the clacking of plastic keys.
The section Madlib looped began as another producer’s deliberate concoction rather than a live performance, because it can’t be played on two hands. It would require four. Daedelus layered the two intertwining sections in Pro Tools. They sang harmonies in the background, and enlisted local jazz virtuoso Ben Wendel to perform saxophone.
“Experience” is not a song in which most producers would hear potential to become one hip-hop’s most classic beats. The harsh tones of the accordion — and/or the electric chord organ — run counter to the smoothness of jazz- and soul-inspired production (although legendary photographer B+ excitedly informs moi that the accordion, despite its pre-modern associations, is “the first synthesizer”). The piece is a meditative exploration of interweaving melody that evokes a specific aura without the need for added percussion.
Somehow, somewhere, Madlib dropped his needle on the record and had the opposite instinct. Although Madlib dug crates and favored obscure jazz, “Accordion” shows his comfortability sampling records from any genre or era. Madlib had remixed another Invention track, “Playing Parties,” in an official capacity. Daedelus had no idea Madlib had sampled from other parts of the album, but that was the Beat Konducta’s process. If he had to listen to an album, he’d do it while connected to a sampler, mining the entire record for the best parts.
Daedelus, unlike artists of an elder mindset or generation, recognized how Madlib had transformed their melody through simple additions. “It’s a smaller recontextualization to add a drum beat and bass line, but it’s huge in terms of reformatting it,” Daedelus says. “As a sampling artist myself, I know there’s an alchemy-like process to sampling. Transmuting what is nothing to someone else, to being something. And goodness, Madlib is incredible at that process, and has the Philosopher’s Stone, firmly.”
Most hip-hop producers wouldn’t sample an accordion-like sound for a beat. Most rappers wouldn’t choose to rap over that beat, namecheck the instrument in one of its most memorable lines, and name the song after it.
“Accordion is a juxtaposition, right? Accordion is not what you imagined to be a part of the hip-hop lexicon of beats, rhymes, and life. It doesn’t exactly fit. MF DOOM could make anything fit into his world,” says Daedelus.
DOOM begins his verse with an acknowledgment of his limited amount of time on earth. This opening line was iconic while he was alive, but takes on heightened meaning post-transition.
“What’s crazy is he knew he was sick, back then. Think of the rhyme,” says Eric Coleman, the photographer who shot the image of DOOM used for Madvillainy’s album artwork. “That’s him telling the world, ‘I’m fucking sick. I’m dying. I’m fucking dying.’ When you think about that, it’s insane. He told us. He told us everything. We just have to figure it out.”
Daedelus recalls being excited when they heard that their work was being featured on DOOM and Madlib’s album.
“When I first heard about ‘Accordion,’ it was kind of like, asking permission to use it,” Daedelus says. “I was super cool with the handshake deal for the longest. Because I feel like it really created an opportunity for me as an artist to be heard in the same paragraph as this ultimate desert island record. I adore that record. Even if I didn’t participate in it, I would love the album. Then to have my name, even as a footnote, is phenomenal. It’s certainly opened doors for me and put me in rooms that I probably didn’t belong in or didn’t initially merit. So I’m super grateful.”
Due to that “handshake deal,” Daedalus says they didn’t receive financial compensation “for a very long time,” aside from what they describe as some modest payouts when the song resurfaced in various forms, like Drake or Trippie Redd using the same beat much later. Perhaps, they and others suggest, this was a result of the album’s unexpected success in 2004.
“They probably could have gotten ahead of it,” Daedelus says. “At the time they could have had me sign a piece of paper that said I would have gotten nothing and I would have been happy about it. Who knew this was going to happen? Nobody knew this was going to happen. I adore Madlib. He is such an incredible talent. DOOM is all-time. But when the project was rolling around, it wasn’t like they were bankable. They certainly didn’t cross the very strict boundary that underground hip-hop, a.k.a. Black artistry, has been continuously relegated towards.”
Stones Throw offers its own version of what happened. “With respect to Daedelus, their sample was cleared prior to the album’s release with a handshake agreement as they indicated,” Jason McGuire, the label’s general manager, says. “At the time, Daedelus agreed to forego taking a share of Madvillain’s royalties other than a substantial percentage of film and TV licenses if there were any, and I don’t believe there have been any. Years later our attorney and Daedelus’ attorney amicably papered up the handshake agreement with Daedelus and they’ve been paid everything they’re owed in addition to having one third of the track’s publishing.”
Despite any issues later on, Daedelus is still proud to be included on Madvillainy. “I’ve benefited so much just by being in that breath,” they say. “Like, I see the way people dig for that record, and it gives me goosebumps. When some pristine old copy or a test pressing comes up, it makes me feel like I’m in a different whole world. It’s something I used to communicate with when I was deep in bins and record stores. It’s just neat. I’m forever going to be in wonder and awe about it.”
On a personal note, Stones Throw founder Chris Manak, a.k.a. Peanut Butter Wolf, adds: “Daedelus has always been respectful and friendly to me, after I met them through Madlib sampling them, and I appreciate it. When I found out the sample was from a contemporary artist who was involved in the L.A. experimental music scene, I had to reach out … I am forever thankful for their contribution to that album and every other artist who was featured on it beyond Madlib and DOOM who I’m of course most thankful for.”
Although Daedelus didn’t play the titular instrument on the recording, it’s impossible not to associate an accordion with “Accordion” once you’ve heard the song. Madvillain’s visual approach reinforced this concept.
“I did end up playing the accordion itself for a few live dates with Madvillain,” says Daedelus, who joined the Madvillain and Jaylib tour stops at the El Rey in Los Angeles and Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. “I was literally just on stage to play the accordion. I would trot out and play.”
The image of Daedelus playing accordion — hair frazzled, staring downwards, distant and close, like a Medieval shoegaze jester — is familiar to anyone who has seen “Accordion”’s music video. In the black-and-white clip, MF DOOM raps his verse to the camera. He’s standing in a narrow hallway at the Stones Throw office. Behind him is a lone female dancer, gyrating with interpretive choreography. Then there is Daedelus, pushing fingers against keys, opening and closing in somber rhythm.
The video came together at the literal last minute. Andrew Gura — a filmmaker and photographer known for, among other projects, capturing the image that would become the cover for J Dilla’s Donuts two years later — called Daedelus and asked if they were free to come by. Gura had just finished filming the video for Madvillainy‘s closing track, “Rhinestone Cowboy.” The dancer booked for that video had time remaining.
“[Gura] was like, ‘Hey, we have [the dancer] booked for the rest of the day. We’ve already finished, so we’re going to do a video for ‘Accordion,’ just because we have extra time with that one dancer,’” Daedelus recalls with a laugh.
So they brought their accordion over and knocked the whole thing out in a few takes over the course of about 20 minutes. Gura gave neither Daedelus nor the dancer any direction. Both just did their thing, behind DOOM doing his. The result is a contrast to the visual for “Rhinestone Cowboy,” which is also simplistic but was shot in multiple locations and with a predetermined plan.
“Again, what a testament to DOOM’s performance ability. He can just hold a mic and spit and just look iconic,” Daedelus says. “I wish I’d combed my hair.”
© 2023 Will Hagle, from ‘Madvillain’s Madvillainy’ published by Bloomsbury Academic at a price of $14.95 on March 9, 2023.