J Dilla and the Art of Musical Translation

In linguistics, the act of translation is one fraught with complexity, one that does not always work. Whilst attempts can be made to approximate equivalences between words from one language to the next, the creation of meaning – crucially, a similar meaning to the original – is altogether more difficult. Conveying meaning is perhaps something we take for granted, something we see as inhabiting the language in which we speak; jumble the words together in the right order, punctuate and you’ll have your meaning. Yet, when conveying emotion, as much language does, meaning becomes something almost indefinable, a patchwork of word-units jostling together to create sense/sensation, rather than a scientific approximation. Meaning is produced when language comes together as a whole, and it is this whole that is so difficult to effectively carry across – translate – into another language or medium.

J Dilla was a master of musical translation. Unlike the jazz standards and classical repertoire we so often hear synthesised to death in each elevator and on each phone line when placed on hold, Dilla reappropriated his musical originals to serve a new purpose whilst retaining their original splendour. In his seemingly haphazard but innovative methods of sampling, he recontextualised musical elements, uprooting them from their original surroundings, chopping them up on his clunky MPC 3000 and then placing them over his sludgy drum beats. Rather than merely take entire recognisable elements of tracks – their hooks or melodies – and neatly place them within a new surrounding, making the new track essentially a remix of the original, Dilla would so alter the originals that they would become initially unrecognisable. This transformation into a new work of music, seemingly effacing the context of the original, might seem at odds with a translation. Yet, since meaning in art is generated as sensation, his productions imbued these melodies and instrumentals with a deeper meaning through their recontextualisation and disruption, whilst gesturing towards the original.

Playing Dilla’s samples alongside his productions, you can hear the work that has gone into their rehousing and still recognise each element; pared down, flipped, or even looped, they keep the sense of their unity in this new language, or genre. Take, for instance, the relatively straightforward loop Dilla employs on his Busta Rhymestrack, Show Me What You Got, repurposed from Stereolab’s Come and Play in the Milky Night. Whilst Stereolab’s experimental pop is, on the surface, at odds with Busta Rhymes’ usually frenetic delivery, Dilla’s loop of their bassline retains its ethereal, jazz-inflected essence. Through paring it with a somewhat dissonant hook and a calmer set of Busta’s verses, the production makes the seamless transition from one genre to the next. Alternatively, Dilla was often more complex, taking disparate elements of one track, such as the instrumental sections of Roy Ayers’, Ain’t Got Time and piecing them together meticulously to sound like a loop on Black Star’s Little Brother, when in fact it is a whole new instrumental. Notwithstanding such chopping and changing, the meaning of Ayers’ original, its uplifting rhythm and political message, is still present with Mos Def and Talib Kweli‘s verses.

It is this generic fluidity of Dilla’s productions, their capacity for endless interpretation, that means even after his death they can continually be repurposed by others to generate deeper meanings. In November of last year, I witnessed composer and string-arranger Miguel Atwood-Ferguson put on a performance of Dilla’s Suite for Ma Dukes, an orchestral rearrangement of Dilla’s productions named in honour of his mother. Throughout the evening, Atwood-Ferguson embellished on Dilla’s productions, expanding them from DJ tracks to luscious acoustic instrumentals so that the intricacies of his sampling technique and melodic choices became clear for all to see. The performance also made the important statement of translating Dilla’s productions into the concert hall finery of the Barbican. This month, The Abstract Orchestra will also be performing a medley of Dilla’s productions at the Jazz Café, further diversifying the ways in which his music can be enjoyed. Breaking away from cultural distinctions, Dilla’s music achieves the variety of performance-settings it deserves, owing to the variety of genres that he spliced together.

Yet, not all orchestral rearrangements have this capacity for translation from their original setting into the concert hall. Over the last five years, Jules Buckley’s Heritage Orchestra has become the go-to ensemble for producing live rearrangements of electronic music, from Goldie’s Timeless album to their more recent work with Pete Tongon his reimagining of Ibiza Classics. Tong, the Ibiza and BBC Radio 1 stalwart, is touring a string of huge venues, such as London’s O2 Arena, at the end of this year with Buckley’s Orchestra, as well as releasing the album Classic House which contains studio recordings of the pair’s work. Dilla’s music works in the concert hall because it was made of a patchwork of acoustic instrumentation refracted through the electronically-facilitated drum machine to create the sampled sounds of hip-hop. Its orchestral performance is therefore an act of reversal, opening up the productions to reveal their underlying craft and original state as live performances. Placing the natively electronic and synthetic sounds of the club, however, into a concert setting is a perverse translation.

The classic house and euphoric rave of Ibiza is a music deeply rooted in its context, the club-space, and its removal from this sweaty, hedonistic habitus into the seated, relative calm of the commercial concert venue alters the music’s power. Like a translation performed by pulling each word away from the whole, resulting in fragments of meaning, it ends as a Chinese whisper with limited reference to the original. There is no question as to the musicianship and creative vision of Jules Buckley, Goldie, Pete Tong or the Heritage Orchestra but take away the club-space and the DJs, hike ticket prices – to almost £75 per ticket for the O2 shows – and soon you have a touring piece that can descend into functioning mainly for nostalgia.

Tong’s work with the Heritage Orchestra was premiered at the 2015 BBC Proms. Appearing at the same annual event was a performance entitled Grime Symphony. It featured MCs including Wretch 32, Stormzy and Krept and Konan rapping over grime instrumentals that had been given the orchestral treatment. It was an admirable effort by the BBC to encourage a younger audience to attend the largely classical-minded Proms. However, the grand setting of the Royal Albert Hall and high average ticket price excluded the disadvantaged young people who have made and supported grime to make it the mainstream success it has become. Those who couldn’t afford to attend could tune in on the radio, but as far as a live experience goes, the opportunity was financially impossible for many.

These translations of socially and culturally-specific music into the opulence of the concert hall can serve to merely make the music more acceptable to a certain audience; one that would normally consume orchestral music in grand settings, with ticket prices to match. Although the Grime Symphony may have intended to reach out to fans of Wretch 32 and Stormzy, they instead served fans of Classical music. Perhaps for these fans it provided an accessible introduction to a different genre, and sure, that’s a positive thing. However, the intention of the music in its original state, is completely lost in translation when served this way. The power and energy of the tracks lack amplification by the orchestral reimagining and are instead altered through their re-instrumentation. In being made palatable to a wider audience, the meaning of the original is obscured, since it is tied to its performance by DJs in the club. Breaking down cultural barriers is a necessary act but how do we do so without making culture homogenous?

Perhaps, though, such cultural specificity is a myth in this digital age; perhaps it is something propagated by music writers in an effort to find things to write about. Perhaps with the increasing use of VR, the live music experience will be democratised and make the context of its production irrelevant. As The Abstract Orchestraand Pete Tong play in the coming months, you can listen to Dilla, go to the club, and make your own mind up.

[This piece was originally published on Jazz Standard on 10/2/17]