We travelled to the legendary Barbican Centre to see the works of, the late, J Dilla reinvented as contemporary chamber music by LA composer Miguel Atwood-Ferguson and producer Carlos Niño. All backed by a 17-piece ensemble.
Even as a self-proclaimed Hip-Hop aficionado, you may be forgiven for not knowing Suite for Ma Dukes. The brainchild of accomplished composer Miguel Atwood-Ferguson has never had its name up in lights in Europe before. However you will almost certainly be familiar with James Dewitt Yancey, otherwise known as J Dilla, upon which Miguel’s music compositions are dedicated. The Detroit producer defined an entire generation of hip-hop, from his productions with Slum Village, A Tribe Called Quest and De la Soul, to his everlasting influences on the likes of Kanye West and Mos Def. Earlier this month, for the first time ever, Miguel brought his orchestral homage to the greatest that ever lived across the pond for one night only.
Things began with a suitably trippy improvised performance by co-producer of the evening, Carlos Niño, featuring commanding vocals from Dwight Trible that rumbled the Barbican walls. After a fleeting cameo by Gilles Peterson, the 17-piece ensemble took to the stage, bursting into De La Soul’s “Stakes is High”; a storming entrance that immediately sent the crowd into rapturous cheers. The heavy Detroit boom bap was untwined and reformed into rich long tapestries that ride out over extended solos, conducted by Miguel as he shredded the violin. The depth and complexity of each composition only highlighted the mastery of Dilla’s own melodies. Miguel summoned arresting stops and flurries of volume from his ensemble, reminiscent of Yancey’s signature erratic drum patterns. The crowd became more raucous than any I’ve experienced in a theatre setting, with emotional outbursts and hollers of “Dilla saved my life” filling every lull in volume. It was a passionate audience that knew they were beholding true genius. The evening ended with Slum Village’s “Fall in Love” as a huge roster of surprise guests joined the stage, including Jazzy Jeff, Gaby Hernandez, Nia Andrews, Dwight Trible, Daymé Arocena, Moses Sumney, Larry Brown and Eric Lau.
At one point, Miguel admitted he had only met half of the musicians on stage just 3 days ago; an incomprehensible achievement considering their chemistry on stage and a testament to their respective talents. The three rounds of standing ovations speak for themselves. Miguel also summed up the magic of J Dilla impeccably:
“When you do something good it continues to bring joy and value to people’s lives long after you are gone.”
Here, 10 years after his death (would you believe some of the audience would have still been in primary school when he formed Slum Village) Jay Dee’s music still feels relevant and invigorating. With A Tribe Called Quest releasing their first album in over 18 years earlier this month to a roaring fanfare of praise, it is clear that the sounds of Dilla’s legacy are still very much alive. Perhaps more important than this however, is how Miguel’s show is not simply “hip-hop lifted to orchestral standards”. Instead, the evening proved without doubt that Hip-Hop, when in the right hands, can exude timelessness equal to any classical work.
We look forward to many more boundary-pushing performances within the historic chambers of the Barbican Centre and 2017 will see performances from the likes of King Creosote and audio visual experiences from Robert Henke and the techno godfather, Jeff Mills. To see the upcoming calendar and to buy tickets click here.
Words by David March.