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How a Stolen Disc Built the Legend of MF DOOM and Madlib’s ‘Madvillainy’

In an excerpt from his new book, Will Hagle looks back at the leak that could’ve broken the underground superduo—but only made them bigger

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On March 9, Will Hagle’s new book, Madvillain’s Madvillainy, will be released as part of Bloomsbury’s 33 ⅓ series. Below is an excerpt of the chapter on Madlib’s 2002 trip to Brazil, where the producer found samples to include in several songs that ended up on Madvillainy, and the record first leaked into cyberspace. To purchase a copy of Madvillain’s Madvillainy, click here.

Six months after their initial meeting in Los Angeles, MF DOOM and Madlib had cobbled together a strong offering of tracks. Given his propensity for filling up CD-Rs with the intention of making “albums” that he could listen to on his own, Madlib burned 15 “Madvillain” songs onto a disc and packed it in his bag for a November 2002 flight to Brazil.

“Some people think that that was a first draft of the album,” says Jeff Jank, artistic director at Stones Throw. “Well, it was in that Madlib put it together. But he didn’t necessarily put it together to be the album. He put it together because he wanted to listen to something that was like the album on a flight.”

The internet would regard those 15 songs as “a first draft of the album” because, while Madlib and a handful of individuals from Stones Throw were in Brazil, it leaked into cyberspace. In 2002, when the internet suffered the awkward growing pains of digital puberty, a leaked album was a potential death blow to a project for a label so dependent on vinyl sales. In the end, the leak had the opposite effect. It maximized anticipation. It helped make Madvillainy the highest-selling hip-hop album in Stones Throw history and propelled Madvillain into legendary status.

Prior to the leak, Madlib flew to São Paulo with a collective of American DJs and drummers, on a trip organized by Mochilla photographers B+ and Coleman, to lecture and perform with the Red Bull Music Academy. The trip’s purpose, documented in Mochilla’s film Brasilintime, was to encourage a cultural exchange between the Americans and their Brazilian counterparts. The trip also had a consequential impact on Madlib, Madvillainy, and the exposure of Brazilian music to American audiences (and vice versa).

In the apartment-style hotel room suite, Madlib set up a makeshift studio with the bare necessities: a portable turntable he brought with him, his battery-powered SP-303 sampler, and a stack of records that grew larger each day he and the others ventured to local record stores. Making beat after beat in the room by himself, Madlib recorded from the SP-303 into an analog tape deck that the hotel provided.

“He was just making beats. He was on that Oxnard shit,” says J. Rocc, another DJ who accompanied the American crew on the trip to Brazil. “Otis [Jackson Jr.] has never changed. He’s probably, right now, making a beat. He was the same way in Brazil as he was in Oxnard. Making 60-minute beat tapes in the hotel. He’d just be in there all day while everyone else was going out doing whatever, checking the city, seeing the sights. Nope. Madlib was in the room, making beats the whole time.”

J. Rocc’s description perpetuates the idea of Madlib as an obsessive creator—someone whose vacation time is spent with the same commitment to craft, a hotel room substituting for the bomb shelter. Cut Chemist, who shared a suite with Jackson Jr., wants people to know that Madlib, like the others, also made a point to get out and enjoy himself. He even confronted his suite-mate, asking him about his own hesitation to explore. “Otis was like, ‘Dude, what are you doing? You’re in Brazil. You need to go out there and experience this to the fullest,’” says Cut Chemist. “He kind of got me out of this isolationist version of myself and got me to experience life, which I thought was ironic because I viewed him as this reclusive person, but he became my social guru, in a way.”

When not making beats, performing or hitting nightlife, the crew scoured São Paulo’s stores. The exchange rate was advantageous to the American dollar. There were so many cheap records to discover. Madlib bought anything that piqued his interest. “He had a different approach to it than all of us. He’s really an enigma. We’d all be out shopping. All the stores had record players. People would make a pile. Then we’d all one by one go up to the record player, put on the headphones and needle drop our way through a little stack and make a smaller stack and go buy it. Otis would make a big stack. I’d say, you’re not going to listen to that shit? [He’d say] ‘Nope.’ I’d say why aren’t you going to listen? [He’d say] ‘Because I’m the one that makes these records dope,’” B+ says. On the other end of the phone, during a brief pause after a chuckle, I can hear him shaking his head. “We’re out here trying to find dope records. No, ‘I make them dope.’”

Throughout the trip, Madlib also played the Jaylib and Madvillain songs he’d been working on for his fellow travelers. As much as Madlib would have preferred to lock the door and focus, people cycled in and out of the suites often. At some point, they learned that the unreleased music they were enjoying had made it onto the internet.

In 2002, iTunes was less than two years old. People still purchased CDs, inserted them into PC decks, uploaded them and transferred them to an iPod for personal consumption. Napster and other peer-to-peer services existed, and illegal downloads occurred, but file-sharing had not yet decimated the business of vinyl-driven underground hip-hop.

“The label was scrambling,” Coleman says of the reaction post-leak. “That, I remember. Because that never really happened. That was new for the label. Why would you bootleg anything on the label? It was underground.”

“Everybody panicked,” says J. Rocc. “Everybody was pointing fingers at different people.”

An important finger, attached to Chris Manak, a.k.a. Peanut Butter Wolf, founder of Stones Throw Records, happened to point at Coleman and B+. Coleman claims the first time he heard the project was in Japan months later, when a fan showed up at their hotel and told them he had a bootlegged copy. B+ says he had no idea how to upload music at the time.

“When it leaked, I was really bummed,” says Manak. “Someone told me that Eric Coleman gave it to a friend or two when they all went out to Brazil and I was getting pressure to hit him up and confront him about it. When I did, he was really upset that I accused him of it, so for a while, it kinda strained our relationship. I know he wasn’t trying to sabotage the release, but I had to ask him why he would risk that.”

Everyone has their personal theory, but the truth of who leaked the album is unsolvable. People in Brazil played it a lot for the same reason anyone does: It was groundbreaking. Madlib had a tendency to hand out CD-Rs to people he trusted. Laptops were left open in unattended rooms.

“The funny shit about Otis was he was burning CDs of random music he was working on. Then after you’re done chilling he’d just leave you with the CD and be like, ‘Nah, you hold that. You just check that out, let me know what you think of it.’ I remember getting a lot of Madvillain stuff on some of the CDs he gave me,” says Havana Joe, who assisted Stones Throw with marketing for Madvillainy and other projects, and was blown away hearing the album in its entirety for the first time on one drunken night with Madlib.

Although no one realized it in the moment, the leak had a net positive effect. It confirmed the eager ravenousness of a large global audience. The responsible party should be convicted only for aiding and abetting the proliferation of excellence.

“Madvillainy leaked in this spectacular way, and it didn’t kill the project. It only made the project bigger,” says Egon Alapatt, who worked for Stones Throw during the Madvillain years.

Because of the unresolved accusations against him, B+ has a less romantic view of the leak: “In retrospect those records are what saved Stones Throw and many people say those records are what saved underground hip-hop. ... When it turned out to be that successful, it’s not like [Manak] ever came back and fucking thanked us either.”

In the angry confusion of the immediate aftermath, the project felt doomed in the worst way. An album that had consumed so much time was now free on the internet. How could they move forward? With their cavalier attitudes and prolific natures, the only people who didn’t seem to mind were the only two people who could make the album: the artists themselves.

“When I heard from Egon and them [about the leak], they were bummed, obviously. They were angry, as they ought to be,” says Coleman. “But then I remember Otis being like, ‘Well, I’ll just record a new record.’ I remember that very, very well. He was just like, ‘I’ll do a new record.’ He wasn’t tripping at all. I recall laughing at it, being like, ‘This guy just said he’ll do a new record? It’s that easy?”

Excerpted from Madvillain’s Madvillainy by Will Hagle. Copyright © 2023. Available from Bloomsbury Publishing.