Last night at the Luckman Fine Arts Complex composers/producers/musicians Miguel Atwood-Ferguson and Carlos Nino debuted their "Suite for Ma Dukes," a collection of music for orchestra based on the recorded works of the late producer J Dilla. It was, honestly, an odd concept going in; take the funky, sample-heavy grooves from one of the 21st Century's most lauded hip hop producers, and adapt it for a 30-odd piece collection of brass, strings, woodwinds and percussion. In the wrong hands, you run the risk of turning the rich, dynamic originals into soft, Quiet Storm r&b.
You got the idea that it was going to be a special night when Common, Illa J (Dilla's brother) and Maureen Yancey (aka Ma Dukes, Dilla's mother), came out onstage to welcome the crowd. Atwood-Ferguson and Nino's creation was named for the Yancey matriarch, who spoke of her son, and of the power of music, with such grace and warmth that you knew immediately where Dilla got his gentle touch and empathetic demeanor from. Common, whose breakthrough work, Like Water for Chocolate, featured many Dilla beats, looked to be headed off to some Oscar-night festivities; he was dressed in a tux, and wasn't able to stick around for the final part of the show, when vocalists an MCs stepped up to microphones and added words to the sounds.
The sounds? Orchestras are a dangerous collection, at times so large and multi-dimensional that controlling all those tones and eruptions can be tough. Miguel Atwood Ferguson, a consistently fascinating presence on the local groove/soul/spirit-vibe/jazz scene, crafted his arrangements with a group of young musicians, none of whom looked to be over 30. It got off to a rocky start. A few sound issues rendered the first few quiet instrumentals a difficult listen, which was doubly tough because Atwood-Ferguson was attempting to set a tone for the night, and the tone it set was one of nervousness. It felt for the first five minutes like we were teetering on the edge of chaos -- and not the good kind. Add to that the truth that the first movement featured very little percussion or discernible rhythm, and the result was a genuine concern that we were in for a long night of "serious" music.
After the intermission, though, the drummers came out, and they helped transform the evening. And, in hindsight, it makes sense. I get the feeling that Atwood-Ferguson was, in the quiet first movement, crafting the opening instrumental for a killer mixtape, introducing us to the concept of beauty without rhythm -- only to kick in that rhythm in the second movement to remind us of what J Dilla did with his beats. (That said, the first section was a little treacly and melodramatic). We saw it from the start of part two: percussionists hit Dilla's off-kilter, always inventive beats with tight precision, and that dose of funk lifted the orchestra, gave them a bottom end to latch onto (for dear life), and with all of them moving along within that beautiful common mind, Atwood-Ferguson conducted/dance/pumped his players to push it harder. Though hardcore classical headz might have watched the conductor onstage and dismissed his unorthodox technique, the funk headz couldn't had cared less; there were there for the songs, and with each quote or phrase from a Dilla track, different parts of the crowd yelped in recognition.
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The final part of the evening was when the real insanity began, and when the evening's rocky start was eclipsed by the kind of musical transcendence that turns hype and hope into reality and magic. The rumors had flown for the past few weeks that special guests were lined-up to cameo, and on that list were some pretty heavy hitters. (The name most bandied about was Erykah Badu, but she was unable to attend, having just given birth a few weeks ago.)
Indeed, the list of surprises was excellent. Detroit vocalist Dwele, best known for his work with Dilla's former group Slum Village, flew in to pay tribute to his longtime collaborator. Up next were the evening's best-received surprises: Pos from De La Soul jumped up for a killer version of "Stakes is High," followed shortly thereafter by Talib Kweli, and together the two kicked into the Pharcyde's "Runnin'," the track that helped establish J Dilla as a creative force. Bilal came out for a smoother vocal track (didn't recognize that one, but am waiting on a set list from Carlos Nino).
The evening ended with a ton of people onstage singing and rejoicing at the memory of their late friend, who made a huge impression on the world in his 32-years. That star will only continue to rise if last night's show was any indication. This performance seemed to be some sort of step toward anointing J Dilla as an icon of hip hop. Dilla, the Coltrane, or the Miles, of an era. He deserves to be taken seriously. (Just not too seriously.)
(Note: we're awaiting the annotated set list, and roster of players, from Carlos Nino; we'll post here when it arrives.)