The jazz group out of Leeds, led by Rob Mitchell, have taken on the classic hip hop album Madvillain and added some freshness and color.
Look again – Madvillain Vol 1. is sure to induce double-takes for the uninitiated. In record stores from Leeds to London, this album’s cover art as well as its title will wrong-foot passers by before prompting them to lean in for a closer look.
They will see a colorized image of MF DOOM in his trademark gladiator mask and Doctor Doom-inspired green hoodie. Here, the mean, monochrome, sinister-eyed image from Madlib and MF DOOM’s seminal Madvillain has been traded for something more inviting and playful. The same sense is echoed in the music.
Led by Rob Mitchell, the Abstract Orchestra are a self-styled big band known for their impressive live performances. They explore the shared territory between jazz and hip hop by taking modern classics such as Madvillain and J Dilla’s back catalogue and filtering them through classic arrangement techniques. Or is it the other way round? Either way, their process is one of mutual reconstruction whereby the tropes of both genres feed into each other. The result is part homage, part interpretation.
Big band color
J Dilla, Madlib and MF DOOM have all engaged in the kind of creative sampling that has helped define the architecture of modern hip hop. In this way, their art has often been built on a platform of sounds they love, borrowed and repurposed for new material. Fittingly, the Abstract Orchestra have engaged in the very same process here, flipping great music and pulling it through the prism of a live jazz band at the ATA (All Things Analogue) studio in Leeds.
The nine-track album might make listeners feel that the lights have been switched on – especially on the most immediate pleaser, “Fancy Clown.” The murky, moody and creepy wonder of the original has been bathed in a big band glow. It’s crisper and cleaner, and the band play with the freedom and confidence that comes from having just finished touring the tracks.
Re-colorization is the technique used by photo editors to touch up old images. When done well, it can succeed in drawing out character, refreshing and illuminating aspects of the original. When done badly, the result can appear tacky and unreal. Though Madvillain is only from 2004, its sound is brilliantly grainy and its visuals are famously muted. The Abstract Orchestra’s versions of these tracks have sustained the licks and grooves, bringing them to the fore with a fresh vibrancy.
At times it feels like a change in weather. On the “Accordion” original, DOOM sounds like a hooded figure, stomping the darkened streets under a grey sky. This reinterpretation takes that forward motion and transposes it onto a scene where the clouds have parted and the sun shines alongside bright horns and ambulating drums. Speaking to Qwest TV, Mitchell said that the band could “go off-script on top [of the music] … but groove is number one.” This is clear to see: the musicians are free to add their own energy, while staying true to the backbone of the groove.
It comes as no surprise that Mitchell, an ardent fan of Quincy Jones, draws influence from film scoring techniques. Speaking to UK Vibe, he described how they can sound “angular, dissonant frantic and captivating” as well as “lush and beautiful.”
Madlib’s techniques have sometimes felt informed by the same ideas. He makes use of film dialogue on Madvillain as well as in his later remixes. The sampled sounds often combine, especially at the beginning of tracks, to create a vast atmospheric soundscape. In the spirit of diegetic sound engineering, they seem to conjure a space in which the character of the music and DOOM’s personages are free to play out a narrative.
The Abstract Orchestra take this mood, this scattered attitude towards construction, and wrap it in the timeless silky sounds of orchestral jazz. In “Great Day,” the different parts creep up on each other before the drums come in and set everything on the same track. In the “Raid” original, Madlib’s samples flicker into life, seemingly in fast-forward or rewind, half-shielding a far-off piano. The Abstract Orchestra’s take is what it would sound like if someone were to press the resume button, allowing the piano’s melody to come to the fore.
For Madvillain Vol 1, Abstract Orchestra have liberated their process of reinvention in a fashion that follows Madlib’s lead. What has been lost in terms of tone (especially when it comes to the lack of DOOM’s lyrics) has been replaced by something that has enough groove and intrigue to stand on its own two feet.
Abstract Orchestra – Madvillainy Vol. 1 (ATA Records)