Originally, Ezequiel Olvera started making illustrations of Madlib’s beats because he wanted to meet the LA-based producer. Ezequiel, or “Zeke” is a 24-year-old artist working at Los Angeles’s Underground Museum. He says that his project, titled 40Days4Madlib, was originally an homage. According to Zeke, he saw other people doing creative projects for artists they admired. The projects would usually be 40, or another fixed number of days, throughout which you would make creative projects in tribute to the artist.
40Days4Madlib started in 2013. “The 40 days sort of got stretched into like two years,” says Zeke. Over that time, the project has changed from a tribute to an artistic expression that stands on its own—with the accompaniment of beats from not only Madlib but also producers like Onra, TUAMI, and Knxwledge. The project is a series of illustrations, each one paired with a beat from one of those artists.
Most of the illustrations in the series are done on tan- and blue-toned sketch paper. Some of the illustrations, like Fancy Clown—titled for the MF Doom and Madlib collaboration of the same name—are directly inspired by the beats they’re paired with. Fancy Clown’s imagery comes directly from the song it references, including the figure of an actual clown and another character shedding a tear over the woman he lost; the tear itself has the figure of a woman inside of it, possibly the one from the song.
Ezequiel says that part of his goal with the project was to represent the themes and aesthetics that appealed to him as a visual artist. Part of that, he says, was making busy illustrations with a lot of marks and figures. “With those busy pages what I was doing was taking a sepia-toned marker, and making marks without an original drawing behind it,” says Zeke. “Then I would go in with Sakura archival ink fine-point pens.” He says at that point, the illustration started coming together. “The drawings with the fine-point pens would outline these abstract shapes. So maybe two days into the process I’m like, ‘Okay, this is a narrative now.’”
Elsewhere in Fancy Clown you can see industrial imagery—factories with smokestacks on top of them, spilling out into the air. Speaking of Madlib’s beats and why they appealed to him, Zeke says “his music is gritty.” Later, he elaborates: “I think when I say grit, I describe a certain area like the Arts District of Los Angeles before it was gentrified…you think of these factories and streets where hobos and crackheads are hiding out.”
Zeke says that Madlib’s vision of Los Angeles meshed with his own. The producer’s beats put LA in a specific context that he then seeks to capture with his illustrations. Eventually, Zeke realized the project was about more than paying tribute to a great producer. After meeting with Noah Smith, the editor of Mouth Magazine, for a critique of the work, Ezequiel began to realize the extent to which he was incorporating personal motifs into the project.
“I was really trying to like break down the work and say ‘these drawings represent this, this, this, and this of Mad Lib’s,’ when really I was just projecting my own very intimate world.” Zeke says. “A real process of introspection started to happen. So I went back to the work and started breaking it down, and started to ask like, ‘what do the characters I draw represent in my reality?’”
After this Zeke says he saw his father’s face in one of the drawings, Static Invasion. “It doesn’t look like a good picture of him either.” Zeke says that his father’s health is a big part of his life. “I kind of had to come to terms with that.” After that, Zeke decided to make some of the works more intentionally introspective. Papi on Patio, an animated illustration, features an image of Ezequiel’s father that he incorporated more intentionally. Zeke says he photographed his father standing on their patio at home, and turned his movements into an animation.
Meditation, another illustration, is paired with an Onra beat, called “Fight or Die.” Onra has released two separate projects paying homage to the influence of Asian culture in hip-hop, which both sample from that culture and build beats around that influence. The piece itself is an acknowledgement of meditation’s influence on Zeke’s work.
In a sense, you could call the entirety of 40Days4Madlib a meditation on the nature of a beat and what can be gleaned through the experience of listening. “The most important point of the work is viewing beats as spiritual wells of information,” Zeke says. “I guess you could say blues provided spiritual motivation for certain people, and jazz in the same way. I think beats have that same depth for our generation.”
But beats aren’t only significant for people trying to express themselves musically—Ezequiel’s project proves that statement. The beats inspired his artistic expression, manifested in the form of his 40Days project, and he hopes that the cycle can move forward from there. Specifically, he hopes his illustrations might have a reciprocal effect on the producers who inspired them. While working on the illustrations, Zeke discovered a potential avenue through which he could actually show the illustrations to Madlib.
“We go to the same barber shop,” says Zeke. “There’s only one person who cuts my hair, and that’s like the mother of the person who cuts [Madlib’s] hair. After a while I was like ‘wait, dude, you cut his hair, I should just give these drawings to you so you can pass them on.’ I gave them to his barber last week.”
As for Ezequiel’s original goal, actually meeting Madlib, he doesn’t seem overly concerned. “I think it’ll happen in it’s own time and way,” he says. “The genie of Madlib will appear.”
You can see more of Ezequiel’s project here.