The First Time I Heard... J Dilla
When I was a sophomore in high school, my older brother had a copy of J Dilla's CD Donuts. At the time I was mostly listening to punk rock and heart-on-your-sleeve indie-rock songwriters. After hearing a few tracks, I finally asked him:
Me: Hey, what is this?
Brother: New J Dilla. It's good.
Me, casually: Oh. Right, right. *Googles furiously.*
It was raw, it was fast (most tracks hover around the two-minute mark), and it would turn on a dime from hard, staccato guitar riffs to Motown vocal samples, soft and sweet. I was hooked.
It's difficult to calculate J Dilla's influence on music, but I think about that oft-repeated line about The Velvet Underground's debut album, The Velvet Underground and Nico: though it wasn't a commercial success in its time, everyone who bought it started a band. I imagine the apocryphal Velvet Underground tale gets close to describing the ripples that J Dilla's music has made far outside of the fans and artists he touched during his lifetime—including such hip-hop and R&B luminaries as A Tribe Called Quest, the Pharcyde, Erykah Badu, and Common, among others.
J Dilla had a preternatural ability to sift through thousands of records . . . and then splice and stitch together minute parts into sounds greater than the sum of their parts.
Today, 11 years after his premature death due to complications from a rare blood disease, J Dilla's music still garners legions of fans. His stamp can be heard everywhere, from his trademark, slightly off-kilter drumbeats to the eclectic sampling of Kanye West and to MCs like Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper, who have since rapped over his beats. J Dilla had a preternatural ability to sift through thousands of records—from soul to jazz, rock to bossa nova and beyond—and then splice and stitch together minute parts into sounds greater than the sum of their parts. On Dilla's genius, Questlove distills it best: "It's the equivalent of someone solving a 10,000-piece puzzle in record time." Ask any number of hip-hop producers or MCs, and the message is clear: J Dilla's inventive body of work confirms his legacy as a singular artist in his field. So who would dare touch an artist as untouchable as Dilla?
Los Angeles–based composer, arranger, and multi-instrumentalist Miguel Atwood-Ferguson is another artist who moves fluidly between vernaculars. The impressive list of musicians with whom the classically trained Atwood-Ferguson has worked cements his status as the consummate artist's artist: from Ray Charles to Esa-Pekka Salonen, Talib Kweli to Kamasi Washington, to name a few. He's a remarkable violist and ensemble leader, but there are many virtuosic bandleaders. To me, Atwood-Ferguson's genius is spiritually akin to that of J Dilla: impeccable timing, respect for a variety of genres (jazz, hip-hop, and orchestral flourishes coexist harmoniously in his compositions), and an experimental frisson that runs through every phrase.
Atwood-Ferguson takes artistic license to highlight and augment specific musical phrases, while preserving the emotional core of the original songs.
Take this clip from a 2010 performance at Grand Performances in Los Angeles. In it, the Miguel Atwood-Ferguson Ensemble—including such heavy hitters as Thundercat, Kamasi Washington, and Flying Lotus—rework the Flying Lotus track "Drips" and then subsequently flow into an interpretation of J Dilla's "Take Notice." In both arrangements, Atwood-Ferguson takes artistic license to highlight and augment specific musical phrases, while preserving the emotional core of the original songs. The stakes are high, both in terms of the urgency inherent in both pieces and in the need to do justice to the source material, but Miguel Atwood-Ferguson pulls it off and makes it look downright easy.
At Lincoln Center Out of Doors, Miguel Atwood-Ferguson revisits a piece first performed in 2009 in Los Angeles—where J Dilla lived and worked before his death—and named after Dilla's mother, Maureen "Ma Dukes" Yancey, who cared for him as his health was failing. J Dilla's music is the best kind of gift, replete with intricate samples that reward multiple listens. I'm constantly hearing new sounds and ideas in his music. It follows, then, that Miguel Atwood-Ferguson's interpretations create a feedback loop that builds endlessly upon the legacy of a creative icon.
The New York premiere of Miguel Atwood-Ferguson's Suite for Ma Dukes will be presented for free on Friday, August 4, in Damrosch Park as part of Lincoln Center Out of Doors.
Daniel Soto is the Associate Producer of Public Programming at Lincoln Center.