Stream: Carlos Nino and Miguel Atwood-Ferguson “Find A Way”
Suite For Ma Dukes is an original orchestral work inspired by the music of J Dilla, written by Miguel Atwood-Ferguson with conceptual contributions and guidance by Carlos Niño. It will be performed in full for the first time with a 40-piece orchestra as part of ArtDontSleep/Mochilla/VTech’s Timeless series on Sunday, Feb. 22, and the Suite for Ma Dukes EP will be released on the same day. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
Do the orchestral players you work with know who Dilla is?
Miguel Atwood-Ferguson: In my experience, I’ve met three people out of maybe three hundred that actually know Dilla’s music. Probably more have heard it without knowing it’s Dilla. But my main point is saying that Dilla is transcending hip-hop music. The people I hired for February 22 I have a long history with. I sent them emails with links to Dilla. The main point is Dilla conjures up a lot of Debussy and Ravel—two famous impressionist composers. I had a great conversation with Karriem Riggins about this concert—did he have any general suggestions? And he said something really profound to me. Not verbatim, but—‘Just make sure not to feel you have to recreate what Dilla did. Dilla was all about the feeling.’ Besides the impressionism—the really colorful creative thing he had through his music, even the rough-edged beats he did—there is this feeling through most of his music. And to me it’s love. He talks about women in a kind of misogynistic way I don’t admire—there’s that lower side of love, but the other thing I feel is more transcending and it’s what people connect to. It’s very universal. It feels good but it’s more than something just meant to feel good.
What’s it like writing music to Dilla this way? A conversation? A continuation?
Carlos Niño: I’m not writing, so I can’t answer from writing anything. But in spirit, I’d say the philosophy is best described by Miguel when he said he felt like we were continuing a conversation. Rather than covering the ground Dilla already covered, we’re sort of recognizing his spirit and trying to progress further. We’re gonna take all of this wonderful inspiration and energy he put out there and continue talking to him and all the people in the music community and the whole world that are listening that might have the ability to hear this—to really feel this!
M: In a jazz context, a lot of people admire someone like Charlie Parker or John Coltrane. When Charlie Parker was creating the music later called be-bop, he was just being really honest. In his enthusiasm of life, he was creating that music. That’s what we try and do—not recreate, but celebrate. It’s definitely something that happened in the past. But we’re in the moment now—looking toward the future. We have our own thing to say. We’re not trying to hide behind Dilla. We’re actually infusing this with courage and spiritual qualities that are not necessarily easy. But it’s a joy. And people respond to joy. And love. That’s what we’re doing.
What does an orchestral arrangement draw out of Dilla’s music?
M: Life is infinite—infinite spheres within each other—and an orchestra can get into all these spheres. All these pockets of different dynamic and color and texture. And some of the productions Dilla did really invoke a lot of infinite feelings. They’re not just one-dimensional. There’s a lot there. Something subtle can really intimate something else. With an orchestra, we can really get into different worlds within worlds. You think of all the people in the world—it’s so rich and so diverse, and nature is so diverse. That’s what we’re trying to do. I wanna just imitate nature—in infinite wonder—but celebrate it.
How is this different than writing with someone who is right there with you?
M: It’s funny—I work on my Mac and I have all these screensavers. I don’t know how many pictures of Dilla—it changes every fifteen seconds, and I’ll be in some deep moment doing an arrangement, and then his picture comes up! I don’t think there’s such a thing as a coincidence. To me the timing is so profound. It’s like he’s talking to me! No joke whatsoever! And almost every picture he’s smiling and saying something reassuring—it’s amazing.
Carlos, you met Dilla—how does that affect where you feel the music should go?
C: We weren’t close at all. I met him maybe ten times, maybe talked on the phone. In general, I was a big big fan. I wouldn’t say we were close friends or that we hung out a lot. But it was brief and really nice to feel that someone you admired so much musically was a good person. I always got a good vibe from him. Not always in lyrics—that side I don’t always connect with. But a lot of people got into him probably because they related to the content, and then the music. I feel he was very musical as a vocalist and rapper. But for me—I’m a serious instrumentals collector from day one. My radio show is notorious for playing unreleased and hard-to-find instrumental hip-hop alongside music from all over the world.
M: I have a question for you, Carlos—when you spoke to Dilla, was there something unique you noticed in him that touched you?
C: Just a real willingness—he was—in a way—like Madlib is, where he’s a man of few words but very enthusiastic. And his enthusiasm comes out in his gestures and his smile. I definitely appreciate that. Every time we hung out, it was a good vibe. The first time I got him to be at a Build An Ark concert, after I got off the stage, Dilla was like, ‘Yo, man—yo, that was incredible! Anything you need, let’s do something!’ For me, that sort of willingness and openness—some people, no matter how talented, can be caught in their attitude, or their ideas about things makes it hard for them to open up. I felt he was very sweet.
What’s going to be on the eventual Suite for Ma Dukes album?
M: Stevie Wonder and Prince are going to play all the instruments.
C: I’ll remind you that’s where we get in trouble in interviews! Our well-intentioned sense of humor. That’s off the record, or to be mentioned as a very humorous projection! But that is his lineage to me—Stevie Wonder and maybe Herbie Hancock, but Stevie Wonder to me is the quintessential artist in this realm. He did it all—played all the instruments, did the sampling and looping—he was in front and in back of everything. He’s really the guy! The only other person besides I’d say most directly influenced all that was Herbie Hancock. Dude put it down in the ‘60s and ‘70s and ‘80s and continues—his influence is massive in hip-hop, but especially to people like Dilla. So we’re trying to reach out to a lot of wonderful musicians to be part of it. I’d love at least a song or two to be performed by a full orchestra in a live setting—in a real orchestral recording studio, where we do it like a film score. Our vision is vast!
M: One thing that’s important to this is diversity. The music Dilla put into motion is really connected to something profound. We want to celebrate that in as many ways as possible. On the EP—which we’re really happy about!—that’s its own thing. All kind of the same realm. On the full-length, we’re gonna get a lot more diverse. Maybe tracks with some percussionists, maybe some Balkan music to try and re-interpret things—maybe a vocal choir!
How did you decide what songs to start with?
M: Carlos is the one who hipped me to Dilla in the first place. He gave me Dilla mixes and I started massing this library, and I started to understand his language and his vernacular. I don’t know how many hundreds of hours I spent composing! Probably thousands now. Orchestrating this stuff—it’s beautiful but painful also. It’s immense! So it’s me picking tracks I want to spend that much time with. Another influence—on tracks where he takes a sample, I use a lot of those original tracks. On the 22nd, I’m orchestrating some of those original tracks. There’s a Herbie Hancock song—‘Come Running To Me’—that Dilla sampled, and I’m orchestrating Herbie’s version. To give the concert more diversity.
C: I related it the other day to a master chess player who gets to play another master for a year versus a master chess player in the park on a time clock. He’s given a challenge to pull something off on the level he wants in the amount of time it has to be done in! It’s pretty exciting for me to see Miguel wholeheartedly dive into it. It’s a wonderful opportunity but there’s quite a lot of danger there. That’s what I relate to expressing it as a river of creativity—as an ocean! Not only literally about the work or the work he samples—but maybe if we did get Herbie Hancock, we might record something completely brand-new in the spirit of the project that pays tribute to Dilla! In a way, this whole thing can be alive. So often covers are stagnant—why would someone want to redo something that was already done perfect? But it’s because they love it! The reason people cover things is they feel really drawn to it. In the purest sense, we cover songs because they’re great songs. With Dilla, every artist I’ve heard that tried to do what he did did not do it—even the people closest to him. He had his own thing, but he encouraged people to tap into their own thing. That’s really what’s happening here—Miguel is tapping into his own thing! I help with the conceptual and actual facets of it, and the writing is really coming from Miguel’s life.
M: That’s what Karriem said when he said don’t feel like you have to recreate. Like Charlie Parker—people identify with the magic of celebrating that moment, and looking to the future with optimism and courage. It’s not like, ‘Ok, let’s play those exact notes.’ Then you can be sure the magic won’t be there. On the album and the EP and at the concert are full sections where it’s just my original music. I’m consciously trying to create new music to continue what he did and also magnify a certain vibe or sentence Dilla might have said. Carlos talked about Herbie Hancock as an example of maybe coming in the studio to make something new. I want entire pieces to be original compositions dedicated to Dilla! To the whole community we have—to the future also.
What does it say about Dilla’s work that you’ve made this new project?
C: In a word—how soulful he was. When Miguel says he transcended hip-hop—I don’t consider him a hip-hop producer as much as a soul musician. He was doing what I feel like the Motown cats before him did. People like Quincy Jones. Not in a literal sense soulful—not that he sounded like Motown. But it was just—really soulful!
M: When I think of soul musicians, I think Dilla falls in the that category. But when I think of other soul musicians whose work I’d like to interpret—it’s not as cosmic as Dilla’s. To another degree, that’s what answers your question. It’s not just humanity. Yes, he has this soul—it’s really really heartfelt. But it’s something kind of cosmic. When something is so pure and undeniable that it just transcends time—that’s what I think Dilla was doing. Dilla is a new definition to soul music.
ARTDONTSLEEP, MOCHILLA AND VTECH PRESENT CARLOS NIÑO AND MIGUEL ATWOOD-FERGUSON’S SUITE FOR MA DUKES WITH 40-PIECE ORCHESTRA PLUS DJ HOUSESHOES AND GUESTS ON SUN., FEB. 22, AT THE LUCKMAN FINE ARTS COMPLEX AT CAL STATE LOS ANGELES, 5151 STATE UNIVERSITY DR., LOS ANGELES. 7 PM / $22.50 / ALL AGES. FURTHER INFORMATION AND COMPLETE SCHEDULE AT VTECHPHONES.COM/TIMELESS. THE SUITE FOR MA DUKES EP RELEASES SUN., FEB. 22, ON MOCHILLA. MOCHILLA.COM.