TIMELESS INTERVIEW: Suite for Ma Dukes Composer Miguel Atwood-Ferguson

In 2008, composer Miguel Atwood-Ferguson along with Carlos Nino created what many would call, one of the best tributes in hip-hop. The Suite for Ma Dukes, which debuted to a packed concert hall last year Los Angeles, features a 60 piece orchestra and such names as Bilal, Dwele, Common, and Talib Kweli.

Before being attached to the Timeless series, Miguel has worked with many names in the music industry, large and small. He’s arranged strings for a variety of industry names–from underground pioneers such as Build an Ark to industry mainstays such as Christina Aguilera.

But away from the glamor of the industry, Miguel has been most known in the hip-hop community for his orchestral takes on the genres classics. Although he did not know Dilla personally, Miguel has been influenced by his work. His renditions of Common’s “Nag Champa,” and A Tribe Called Quest’s “Find A Way,” solidified him as favorite among underground hip-hop fans around the world.

On the heels of the TIMELESS DVD release and the DC screening this Saturday, we spoke with Miguel on his involvement with the project and his plans for the future.

What made you want to sign on to the Suite for Ma Duke’s project?

The Suite for Ma Dukes project has been one full of love. It has been an honor to have been involved and a lifetime opportunity. I love Dilla’s music and all of the music within his music that I hear influenced him. I’m a fan of music and art that inspires people to create a better world. Dilla’s music is so heartfelt, soulful and transcendent. It is perfect for someone like me to reinterpret and celebrate in my own way. It’s really been fun for me to explore his music in an orchestral setting.

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Peter Lindhberg, Melodie Mcdaniel, Steve Heitt

How were you able to stay true to Dilla’s vision? How long did it take to arrange the concert series?

I can’t say for certain that I know what Dilla’s vision is. I never knew him. To me, his vision has something to do with joy, loving life, being strong, continuing to discover the infinite, applying oneself and doing your thing whatever that is. So, was I true to his vision? I hope so. I definitely gave it my best shot and worked ridiculously hard to come up with something special that lots of different people could enjoy. I worked on it the month of the performance 16-20 hours everyday, the month prior, at least 10 hours everyday and that was all after already having done the EP and one orchestral concert of some of the material in Holland.

One of the first things I realized when watching the Suite for Ma Dukes is that J Dilla’s beats were so transferable to an orchestra setting. It seemed effortless, however, did you have any difficulty when arranging the songs?

Musically, it was so fun doing this, that it was really not difficult at all translating his music into an orchestral setting. What was difficult, very difficult was being so unselfish to work that consistently on it in such a condensed period of time. Performance wise, having such an incredible orchestra was an absolute must and they need to be given tons of credit for doing such a great job.

Ma Dukes was in the building and on stage. Was she down with the concept from the beginning?

Yes she was down form the beginning. Another testament to how profound and beautiful a person she is. She cried when she first heard the EP and when I first met her around that same time, she made me cry just out of joy and appreciation for sharing sacred time with her.

You’ve worked with such acts as Build an Ark as well as pop stars such as John Legend and Kirk Franklin. How are you able to bridge the gap between popular and classical music?

Music is just music regardless of anything and is a vehicle for expression no matter what we may label it. I am able to play different genres through love, sincerity, genuineness and study. Everything I play or write, I try to sing from my heart. Studio and live gigs that I don’t want to do because I am not able to do them joyously and sincerely, I simply turn down. I could really use the money too, but luckily I realize that music is a holy thing and it is too special to me to misuse it.

Your project has turned on many hip-hop fans to the sounds of orchestral music. Any plans on working doing more hip-hop influenced projects in the future? What other projects are on the horizon for you?

I plan a lifetime of doing this. I just love life and music. I just had a wonderful time arranging and playing quite a bit for Flying Lotus’ new album Cosmogramma and on Bilal’s new record as well. Doing stuff for Busdriver, Jneiro Jarel and the Brazillian superstar, Seu Jorge right now. I want to do orchestral concerts of my arrangements celebrating the music of Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Wonder, and many, many other people. Hip-hop is a very, very special thing to me, but is just one aspect of expression. It is a pretty huge vehicle though. That is a testament to how profound hip-hop is. It is wide open. It is not just some small genre with a very refined and specialized vernacular that only a small number of people can enjoy. Hip-hop music is empowering and gives a voice to a huge amount of very awake people. Thank goodness! Power to the people!

TIMELESS screens in DC This Saturday at Midnight at the Wolly Mammoth Theater in Penn Quarterwith a video mix by J.ROCC Followed by Q&A with B+ and Coleman