A lot of people have wanted to see the end result of the Suite For Ma Dukes performance that was created in honor of the late James “Dilla” Yancey, and now it has been released. While it is certain it will be released on its own, you’ll have to purchase the full DVD box set it is in, but it’s worth the cost of admission.
Timeless: The Composer/Arranger Series (Mochilla) was, as the press material says, “the name of a concert series that was created in homage to the composer/arrangers who have influenced hip-hop in the most literal and profound ways.” In other words, it is a much deeper way of experiencing the music that influenced a cast of producers, DJ’s, and fans than just reading interviews.
Ethiopian jazz musician Mulatu Astatke was someone whose music may not have been massively spread in the same way Miles Davis and John Coltrane, but his influence has spread around the world for his unique musicianship, compositions, and arrangements. A recent reissue of his work by Strut Records (my review can be found here) explores what he has been known for, primarily in hushed circles but now people are getting a chance to hear his genius. For some elitists, jazz should be purely American and only American, but by going directly to the primary source of that jazz, Astatke comes full circle with it as an unspoken means of communication, and to finally see him performing this live is incredible.
Things get lifted to a higher level when Eothen “Egon” Alapatt introduces an artist who was a big influence on him and a number of people. He’s interrupted by MF DOOM briefly before Egon speaks on finding Verocai’s album, and asking the crowd if they have a specific pressing of the album, the “must have” pressing (record nerds know the deal). Before this segment, we see a photo collage of Verocai in the studio, and almost 40 years later, we see him as he is today, in the flesh, tall and lanky, ready to play. As soon as he gets the orchestra and band ready, there’s something you feel will happen. Then “Karina” begins, and it’s true magic. It’s the unfolding of the album, the equivalent of seeing a music video for the first time after staring at album covers and reading liner notes for years. In this case, it’s in the flesh, in your face, and live. You are seeing your imagination and admiration come to life, and it’s happening, song by song. Those in the crowd know these songs by heart, and to hear each song get applause less than five seconds after each one is sensed is very moving. It’s soulful, it’s funky, it made an impact on hip-hop in a small way, and it is that “outside” admiration that has managed to make him bigger outside of his home country of Brazil. You see Verocai smile a bit, and you know he’s feeling it too. 18 songs later, and you wish he would play another 18.
Suite For Ma Dukes is the music of Dilla recreated by Miguel Atwood-Ferguson and a 60 piece orchestra. As a record collector, you’ve probably gone through countless records by big bands, high schools, and Air Force groups, and yet you enjoy them because it’s small parts of a big puzzle unknown and unnamed. These big bands will not hesitate to cover the music of a musician, band, or composer. Dilla was known for not just sampling known and unknown tracks, but to do it in a way that doesn’t exactly sound like the original, he was funky and got a lot of attention because people liked his work. To be able to hear his works recreated by a 60-piece orchestra is a trip, because now you’re hearing one’s sample-based intellect turned into reality, it’s not a drum machine or sampler you’re seeing, but each sound reproduced as traditional composition, notated note by note, beat by beat. You’ll hear familiar sounds, familiar beats and rhythms, and one can only imagine what it would have been like of Dilla was alive to see and more importantly, hear this. The crowd goes nuts as soon as they recognize things.
One of my favorite moments is when “Stakes Is High”, the song Dilla produced for De La Soul is performed. Various special guests roll up on stage, showing love and support for the music Dilla created, and… I should also state that most of the songs performed in Suite For Ma Dukes is very much a suite in the jazz and classical sense, all done instrumentally. The orchestra is getting down, the guests are getting down, and conductor Ferguson is banging and head-nodding, showing his appreciation for the feeling he is helping create. All of a sudden, out from the crowd of special guests on the stage comes Posdnuos with microphone, and the crowd absolutely goes nuts. It turns from a controlled jazz and classical performance to one where one could imagine people in the crowd pointing at the stage, placing hand to mouth, and saying “oh shit, that’s motherfucking Plug One!”. In place of Dave (Trugoy) was Talib Kweli, and to see the smiles on the entire orchestra… they know what’s going on. It was such a moment for me, especially as a De La Soul fan, I almost started to tear up. It’s a great song unfolding and revealing itself, from our imaginations to the reality, and it looks and feels good. As Jurassic 5 once said, it’s about holding on to what’s golden, and this was truly a golden moment. The cinematography is incredible, true to the photographs of Brian “B+” Cross and Eric Coleman (who directed this), one of my favorite shots is at the intro to “”Don’t Nobody Care About Us”, when you see the drummer about to get ready, he’s looking at Atwood-Ferguson’s cue as he conducts. The music is causing the drummer’s sound barrier to vibrate, and it makes Atwood-Ferguson look like a cross between the album cover of Johnny Harris‘ Movements and the music of Don EllisAt Fillmore. When the drummer finally kicks in, instant chicken skin. As you see Atwood-Ferguson vibrating and rocking you realize: that’s how a lot of us feel when we’re listening to hip-hop. The effect works.
The entire DVD was beautifully shot in black & white, and the extras on the DVD’s, featuring everything from behind the scenes footage, photo galleries, and interviews only add to the greatness of this box. What I liked is that while hip-hop is far from dead, people are acknowledging the influence and its influences by archiving what has existed, so that those in the future will know what it meant to people. Just as jazz has become America’s classical music, hip-hop music is very much that for its followers, creators, and admirers, even though the powers that be will never make it so. Hip-hop, at its best, has never been about what anyone else thought, it was done because there was an unspoken movement to make it work. The Timeless treats Astatke, Verocai, and Dilla as legends, or at least humble musical spokesman for those who were not able to speak, as musicians and producers who had a need to be heard. This is honor, and I hope Mochilla will continue to “unfold” and “reveal” more artists and producers like this in the future.
As a producer, it is an extreme honor to have your music created in this way, and one can only show support for a “fellow producer” who was shown this kind of respect. To see one’s hard work, determination, and creativity turned into a project like this… it’s a beautiful thing. Job well done.