Berklee Keeps J Dilla's Legacy Alive at Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival

Liz Burg
June 15, 2010
J Dilla Ensemble faculty advisor, Raydar Ellis
The J Dilla Ensemble performs at the 2009 Hip-Hop Symposium.
Photo A. Garcia
Photo Matt Dolland

Students and faculty from Berklee College of Music are joining forces with the Brooklyn Bodega to bring a didactic focus to the Bodega's 2010 Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival. Because this year's festival pays particular attention to the legendary producer and composer J Dilla, Berklee's J Dilla Ensemble—the only one like it in the world—will participate in the Bodega's inaugural Education Initiative and will perform at the festival. On July 6, the ensemble's faculty advisor, MC, producer, DJ, and Berklee graduate Raydar Ellis, will add an academic voice to a Bodega Education Initiative panel on J Dilla's production techniques and creative process. On July 10, the ensemble will share the stage with De La Soul, Smif-N-Wessun, Black Moon and other prominent artists for the festival's closing day performances.

"Hip-Hop is over 30 years old. It is time to create a comprehensive intellectual archive of all that our culture has produced and given to the world. Hip-Hop is a multi-billion dollar industry; we must move beyond just the entertainment aspect," said Wes Jackson, executive director of the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival and president of the Brooklyn Bodega. "We are excited to be launching the Education Initiative at this year's festival. Joining forces with an esteemed institution such as Berklee, along with its faculty and students, makes our endeavor even more potent."

Ellis developed the framework for the J Dilla Ensemble by meeting student demand; he organized the course by asking students what they wanted to play, demonstrating that the study of hip-hop has a place at a preeminent music school. The J Dilla Ensemble examines the artist's repertoire in an academic light by deconstructing and performing the breadth of his catalogue. Students' participation in the ensemble is part of their academic curricula. Adding another layer of intrigue to the group, the ensemble is inextricably connected to the newly reformatted J Dilla Foundation. J Dilla's mother and creator of the foundation, Maureen Yancey, developed the organization's functional backbone—particularly its contributions to young, aspiring musicians—after seeing the ensemble perform on Berklee's campus in 2009.

The J Dilla Ensemble is a nine-piece group, including a violist, MCs, and saxophonists. Though it's only in its second year, a spot in the ensemble is in high demand on Berklee's campus; Ellis was forced to turn away more  than 30 musicians after the most recent audition cycle. In the future, Ellis and Yancey hope the ensemble will play a role in the J Dilla Foundation's youth outreach initiatives by playing for and conducting workshops with college and grade school students.