When asked of my favorite albums, Fantastic Vol. 2 always seems to be a great starting point. It was on this release that we saw the Detroit trio of Baatin, T3, and J Dilla at their finest. The importance of Slum Village’s sophomore release is something I will eventually discuss in much further detail. But for now, I use it to serve as a segue for another moment birthed out of its lineage.
The aspect most relevant to our current conversation is the production value of Dilla. When I hear his work, I am compelled to recognize it as a hip-hop orchestra, of sorts. With each sample playing a specific role, the various sections – melody, drums, claps, vocals, etc. – are tightly bound by the compositional brilliance of the late producer, making for thoroughly laced arrangements. When naysayers claim that hip-hop is not music, my mind wanders to place where Rev. Run drops vocals atop a Stan Getz/Woody Hermann collaboration.
Amongst the wealth of remarkable compositions from Fantastic Vol. 2, there is one in particular that has always stood out. And that would be “Untitled/Fantastic.”
Galvanizing a library of synthetic sounds, Dilla fashioned ambient music within the vehicle of hip-hop. Its laidback cool has served as the centerpiece to many a nights spent enjoying the calm of the midnight hours. As I continually stand in awe of its greatness, I was even moved to share its orchestral counterpart.
Miguel Atwood-Ferguson has received critical acclaim for his reworking of several Dilla classics, but this deserves special recognition. For this interpretation, he took a song, ostensibly hip-hop in form, and reconstructed it into a perfectly conducted symphonic masterpiece. The long-lasting significance of this piece is much greater, however. In his reconceptualization, Atwood-Ferguson managed to redefine the song’s entire mood.
Leading with a sharp interpretation of the song’s original form, there is a momentary break in the action found halfway through the recording. The collective reconvenes with a lush array of strings, slowly building upon itself as it confidently rehashes the same few measures of music. Gradually, this repetition begins to grow stronger and in doing so pulls from its listeners an unavoidable emotional reaction. It’s triumphantly gorgeous. As the song reaches its crescendo, the entire orchestra has been reintroduced back into the fold providing a breathtaking display of creativity across genre. Through this work, we can hear the artistry of hip-hop actualized. It is not only compositionally sound, but conveyed with the distinctive passion unique to the medium.
Special thanks goes out to Miguel Atwood-Ferguson for his vision and, of course, the incomparable spirit of J Dilla.
Words By: Paul Pennington