Back in 2003, rising hip hop sound-smiths Madlib and J Dilla hooked up with a simple concept in mind: each producer would contribute 8 instrumental tracks for the other to rap over. The result was Champion Sound, a gritty, roughed up exploration of some of hip hop’s grimier sonic possibilities. It’s an album that disappeared under the radar rather too quickly as both Madlib and J Dilla subsequently went on to higher profile projects, but Champion Sound has built up a cult appreciation of its own over the years. It’s also a record that pointed the way forward for a whole new generation of raw, blunted and experimentally minded hip hop production coming deep from the underground.
By 2003, both Madlib and J Dilla had attracted the appreciation of their peers and an aura of hip underground credibility, but neither had made much of a dent on the wider hip hop community’s consciousness. Madlib had been the sonic inventor behind the blunted out beats of Lootpack, and released Shades of Blue – a brilliant hip hop / jazz pastiche assembled from Blue Note’s immense back catalogue of classic jazz records. Not long after the release of Champion Sound, he would achieve his breakthrough with Madvillainy, a collaboration of inspired, twisted genius with underground superstar MC, MF Doom.
J Dilla had been the largely unsung creative mastermind behind classic (yet all too often overlooked) tracks from The Pharcyde, A Tribe Called Quest, Erykah Badu and Common, as well as helming the production duties for his own hip hop group, Slum Village. He would go on to receive critical applause for his instrumental album, Donuts, elaborately constructed from a dazzling array of obscure samples. Sadly, J Dilla died from complications relating to Lupus shortly after the album’s release, just as he was finally beginning to receive wider acclaim for his prodigious musical gifts.
Champion Sound captures both producers at a critical juncture in their respective musical careers. Both Madlib and J Dilla were moving away from the lusher, jazzed out stylings that had characterised their earlier work and into considerably more experimental territory. Each producer had adopted an approach that was in a similar vein to pioneering dub studio wizards such as King Tubby, taking obscure samples into the studio and then completely messing with the grooves, hollowing out the beats and chopping them up into unusual, off kilter patterns to create a minimalist, spaced out, hip hop soundscape that sounded as raw and gritty as a gutted out gravel pit. Each producer was moving in a similar musical direction while retaining their own uniquely individual sonic character, influencing each other into unexpected directions.
Considering that the album was largely assembled by sending mix tapes to each other through the mail, Champion Sound is a remarkably consistent listen. You can hear the individual musical personality of each producer behind the beats, but there’s an undeniable unity of vision behind the kind of sound that each man was trying to achieve. Madlib perhaps has the greater propensity for pushing the sound further out into more of an avant-garde hip hop sensibility, while J Dilla keeps it a little more grounded, a little closer to a more classical hip hop groove, with a nod to mid sixties soul. Within that framework there’s a lot of room for adventure, with both producers really letting it all hang loose and giving their creativity free reign.
While Champion Sound features some of the most inventive and head spinning beats of any hip hop album in the early 2000’s, it’s not especially noteworthy for its lyrics. That should hardly be surprising. Although both Madlib and J Dilla have stepped up to the mic at various points in their careers, it’s always been clear that they’re both much more comfortable behind the production decks, letting their beats do the talking for them. The lyrics are often mumbled and faded out or off the beat, and don’t go much beyond self referencing braggadocio, trash talking and meandering weed talk. Once again, Madlib hides behind his helium voiced invented persona, Quasimoto, for a couple of the outings, and neither producer demonstrates much in the way of vocal dexterity on the mic. The best that could be said is that the lyrics carry the beats along and don’t detract too much from the listening experience.
Which is probably as it should be. Champion Sound is a collaboration between producers, not MC’s. The focus is strictly on the possibilities for sonic construction in the studio, on exploring the blunted, mutant sounds of a hip hop beat in the outermost stratosphere. If you’re interested in discovering how deep, rough and twisted hip hop beats can get, then Champion Sound is an album you’ll want to check out, but aficionados of verbal dexterity and sharp witted lyricism had best look elsewhere.
It’s an album that’s simply loaded with gems for the discerning beat junky, however. The title track is built around a sample from an old Bollywood movie soundtrack, alternating between a swinging bass throb and an Indian chorus. It’s a jumping off point for the deep Bollywood crate digging Madlib would explore more fully on his Beat Konducta in India recordings. Raw Shit features one of those signature shuffling J Dilla underbeats with a grimy, pulsing bass signature. Like all of Dilla’s best work, it sounds diffuse at first, but has a knack for working its way under your skin the more you listen to it. Strapped is perhaps Madlib’s best beat on the album, a lean, tough sounding gangsta’ groove built around a haunting horn loop in the best hip hop tradition. J Dilla drops Champion Sound’s most memorable line over this track: “Sit in the cinema with my legs stuck out / any nigga with a problem get his teeth chipped out.” The Heist offers up another nasty, grinding beat from J Dilla, sounding like a clock ticking over a glacial, sinister bass boom.
Sadly, one of the album’s best cuts, The Red, has been the subject of sample clearence troubles, resulting in a totally reworked version for subsequent reissues. The original version was probably the most infectious and immediately recognisable track from Champion Sound, so it’s disappointing that it isn’t included on more recent editions of the album. The reworked version turns the track into a completely different beast altogether and it is still a nice beat, but if you’re picking up a re-release of Champion Sound then you’ll probably want to see if you can hunt down the original version of The Red so as not to miss out on one of the album’s high points.
Champion Sound is a record that comes across loose and rough, almost like a basement mix tape, and that’s just how it’s supposed to be. Neither J Dilla or Madlib were especially interested in crafting cohesive, structured songs at this point. It was all about getting new ideas down on tape, one after another. Although it wasn’t immediately apparent at the time, this is what the sound of underground hip hop became over the next few years: raw and nasty beats, with teeth rattling, grinding bass. For J Dilla it was a refinement of the sonic possibilities he’d already touched upon in Welcome 2 Detroit and Ruff Draft, while Madlib continues to explore the same vein of frenetic beat experiementation today. Champion Sound is one of those albums that started off almost like a throwaway project, but the two producers came together at precisely the right time to create something that once again pushed out the boundaries for what was possible in hip hop music.