On Shades, Madlib subtly uses sample technology to revive and rhythmically boost tunes from Blue Note's crucial middle age -- the mid-'60s through the mid-'70s -- which saw the label both maintain its hard-bop legacy and nurture its new soul-jazz and jazz-funk hybrids. Making himself at home within the era's groove-centered sound, Madlib infuses his technique with Blue Note's urban yet transcendent aesthetic. On "Slim's Return," he gently scratches vocal bits from KRS-One and Gangstarr into Monk Higgins' "The Look of Slim," before trailing its string-section riffs into history's mist. Later, he turns the long groove of Donald Byrd's "Stepping Into Tomorrow" into an almost spiritual environment, caressing the original's murmuring horn lines and bridges, and foregrounding the ad-libs of one of its female background vocalists, instead of Byrd's lead crooning.
Refreshingly, Madlib refuses to enslave himself to tunes that fit into the default hip hop blueprint. He infects saxophonist Wayne Shorter's 3/4-time "Footprints" with delicately ringing vibraphone and swooping electronics, and sluices synth magic onto his enriched versions of Horace Silver's tumbling "Peace" and Herbie Hancock's wandering "Dolphin Dance." It's this kind of risk-taking that's long distinguished Blue Note and that has since rubbed off on Madlib, the label's most promising next-generation sonic scholar to date.