On February 22, 2009, Mochilla organized (with funding from VTech) Suite For Ma Dukes. One third on Mochilla’s “Timeless” series, the Harriet and Charles Luckman Fine Arts Complex in Los Angeles played host to Miguel Atwood-Ferguson’s 60-piece orchestra composition of the music of James “J Dilla” Yancey.
With Mochilla recently releasing the Timeless concert series on DVD, Suite For Ma Dukes Director/Producer Brian “B+” Cross spoke to HipHopDX about the affair. With appearances on stage from Dilla’s mother, Maureen “Ma Dukes” Yancey and his brother, Illa J as well as musical guests such as Bilal, Talib Kweli, Shafiq Husayn, and Posdnuos, B+ was asked about the event’s blend between improv and rehearsal. “It was a little bit of both, to be honest with you,” said the author of 1991 Rap book It’s Not About A Salary. “It was two full days of rehearsals. All the shows were on Sunday nights. Rehearsals generally started on Friday. On Friday, you had just the orchestra. The first part of the day wasn’t even [percussionist] Karriem [Riggins] and them, it was just strings, horns [no] rhythm section. Suite For Ma Dukes, the DVD, is 73 minutes long. That 73 minutes [did not include] six or seven [additional] songs. It was two hours of music, two hours of pretty intense music. For a string player, that was a lot of stuff. A lot! The quality of musicianship that they were bringing to it was super-heavy.”
Some of Dilla’s onetime collaborators began arriving the following day. However, Dilla’s mother, who handles the Slum Village/Jaylib member’s estate. “The second day of rehearsals, Ma Dukes came. Miguel [Atwood-Ferguson] introduced her to the orchestra. She sat there [and listened]. It was so heavy that after a while, she couldn’t take it. It was super-heavy. Pretty much, the first time [the orchestra] struck up, everybody got a shiver. It’s something about the air of all that happening acoustically is pretty [overwhelming].” In early 2006, the Detroit-born Dilla passed away in Los Angeles from complications of Lupus.
B+ continued, explaining that not all the musical guests were rehearsed. “Saturday, the guests came. The main guests that were there for rehearsals were Bilal and [De La Soul’s Posdnuos]. Dwele, we knew he was coming, but he never made it to rehearsal. We knew he was in L.A. He flew to L.A. on his own – when we reached out to him, he was already coming and had already bought his ticket. So they ran [‘Angel’] down once, but not with him. That was something that completely happened the night of, which was pretty amazing when you see what he did.” B+ revealed that although it did not make the film’s edit, Dwele offered a speech prior to his performance, explaining the significance of the event. “Talib [Kweli] showed up, which was great. Common [did as well]. I didn’t know that Pos had asked [Talib] to do the second verse of ‘Stakes Is High’ till he literally walked onto the stage and did it. We were as surprised by that as everybody else,” said B+. Although impromptu appearances are commonplace at Rap shows, he empathized with the Classical orchestra. “I don’t know enough about this type of music to know if that’s normal.”
In watching the film, the orchestra may not have been prepared for certain guests, but they did Jay Dee’s music proud. Throughout the 15-song performance, members of the orchestra maintain a nod to the beat typically associated with Hip Hop audiences. “I think Oliver Wang said it at the time,” began B+, paraphrasing the Rap journalist’s review of the show. “Somehow, through the process of doing this experiment, certain things were liberated from [J Dilla’s] music, or certain things were made clearer that wouldn’t have been otherwise possible. One of them was sort of the emotional power of his music. At the end of [Suite For Ma Dukes], regardless of whether you’d heard of [J Dilla] before or not, everybody in that orchestra was feelin’ it.”
One person who wanted to feel it was Erykah Badu. B+ said that the Soul singer had planned on being there, but due to her giving birth less than three weeks earlier, was unable to perform. He did share that Badu loves the film, in honoring the same producer whom she has devoted much of her recent lyrical content towards.
Just over a year since the documented night in Los Angeles took place, other composers are showing their interest in Dilla’s music in this format. “Because we’ve done this, and because Miguel has committed this to paper, the way things work in that world is, orchestras reach out and say, ‘We’d like to perform that music.’ He gets a fee and he gives them that music, and then they take it,” explained B+. “There’s an orchestra in Cedar Falls, Iowa [with a] progressive conductor. He pays a lot of attention to music happening in L.A., whether it’s what we’re doing or [Flying] Lotus or Stones Throw [Records] or whatever. He reached out, over Christmas, and asked Miguel for four songs.” Performed on February 7, 2010, The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony honored Duke Ellington, William Grant Still, George Gershwin, and J Dilla.
B+ traveled from Los Angeles to Iowa to document the event. He described Cedar Falls initially as, “Corn fields and a lot of snow, and extremely white,” with an average age of 70 in the audience. “By the time they played ‘Untitled,’ every single person in that place stood up and applauded.” B+ reiterated what he heard condictor Jason Weinberger tell those in audience, “The walls that we think exist, a lot of times, we make them ourselves.”
Dilla’s musical genius shines brightly, breathing life in new places.