The impact of J Dilla’s music can hardly be overstated. An idol to legions of bedroom hip-hop producers, many see his ability to cut obscure parts of obscure records over crunchy, offbeat drums to create hip-hop masterpieces as unparalleled. Dilla’s influence extends far beyond the bedroom, with megastars such as Kanye and Pharrell also citing him as a key inspiration for their work.
Sadly, few people have ever heard his work live, because Dilla passed away in 2006 at the age of 32. Since, Dilla has enjoyed levels of posthumous fame that has disseminated his music and legacy further afield than had happened in his lifetime. Because of the adulation of these wider audiences, a quasi-tribute industry has grown around his music. His old group, Slum Village, still tour and rap his lyrics with passion, DJs play dedicated all-Dilla sets, and orchestras have tried recreate his music live.
One of these, UK hip-hop ensemble The Abstract Orchestra, have written their own instrumental reinterpretations of the late producer’s music and are touring it this month. Booked in their hometown for The Wardrobe’s long standing Soul Rebels night, nearing the 11th anniversary of Dilla’s passing, we were interested to see how they translated Dilla’s music into live performance.
On The Wardrobe’s low gig floor, it was difficult to get a full perspective on who was playing what, but an interesting part of the performance saw two vocalists joining the orchestra to sing the vocal samples from Dilla’s instrumentals, smartly sidestepping the need for any artifice in their performance. They began with a number of instrumentals from Dilla’s seminal album ‘Donuts’, including classics such as ‘Gobstopper’ and ‘Time’. They segued impressively through the pieces, and for a rendition of ‘Raw Shit’ they even brought out a local MC to rap some of his own lyrics between Dilla’s chorus.
The biggest reception of the night was, of course, for a stirring rendition of Slum Village’s ‘Fall In Love’, and the grins on the faces of the crowd exhibited just how happy people still are to hear Dilla’s music so many years after his passing.