The Abstract Orchestra tribute to J Dilla & MF DOOM – Live Review – Leeds Belgrave Music Hall

The Abstract Orchestra tribute to J Dilla & MF DOOM – Live Review – Leeds Belgrave Music Hall (2)

By Andy Johnson-Green, October 2023

Belgrave Music Hall has been a fixture of the Leeds scene for a decade now. To celebrate its tenth birthday, Abstract Orchestra, assisted by MCs Micall Parkinson and Joker Starr, performed a tribute to two late hip-hop greats, J Dilla and MF DOOM to a packed room.

Abstract Orchestra are a Leeds-based collective led by Scottish saxophonist and arranger Rob Mitchell. Members of the group have worked with a lot of high profile artists such as The Roots, Mark Ronson, Amy Winehouse, Adele, Roots Manuva and Leeds’ own Corinne Bailey Rae.

The horn section is the heart of the Orchestra’s sound but, this being hip-hop it would be rootless without a rock solid rhythm section. J Dilla, christened James Yancey, had a very distinctive approach to rhythm. His productions had their own special feel that’s been highly influential on the current crop of jazz musicians. It’s 18 years now since he died and his influence has only grown in that time.

The Orchestra recontextualise his productions in a little more of a straight ahead fashion. Brilliantly named drummer Joost Hendrickx and bassist Chris ‘Fatty’ Hargreaves keep the groove going admirably. They plough a furrow that is both jazzy and funky but never ends up as the dreaded ‘Jazz Funk’.

Funk, is of course the basis of hip-hop and the Abstract Orchestra horn section are very much in the tradition of James Brown’s famous backing band the JBs. For those of us brought up on guitar music it’s easy to lose sight of just how physical the sound of a good horn section can be. Done right it’s a powerful thing to share a room with. The Orchestra has a tight horn section. They take Dilla tracks like ‘Stop’ and ‘McNasty Filth’ which were built inside a sampler and remodel them with big band arrangements.

The Abstract Orchestra tribute to J Dilla & MF DOOM – Live Review – Leeds Belgrave Music Hall (1)


And the emphasis is on big. I counted 18 musicians on stage. You don’t get many gigs with three trombones, a pair of trumpets and all of the different sizes of saxophone.

For about half of the time the band were joined onstage by the two MCs, Parkinson and Starr. They did a lot of crowd work in the classic hip-hop vein. ‘Make yourselves some noise Leeds’ was said a few times. It wasn’t strictly necessary as the crowd were already very enthusiastic. Still, the energy in the room built throughout the first, J Dilla derived, half of the set. It was quite intense by the time they got to set closers ‘F*ck the Police’ (no relation to the famous NWA track) and ‘Raise It Up’.

After an intermission came their tribute to MF DOOM. There’s a spiritual connection between Leeds and the late Daniel Dumile. An intensely private man whose life, lyrics and death have been greatly mythologised and pored over. He spent the last years of his life in Leeds (in Shadwell of all places). The mask he wore gave him anonymity. It’s said he was a regular at the Brudenell
Social Club, checking out music incognito. He died tragically in St James’ infirmary three years ago this week.

And so it only seems right that a tribute to his work should be in the city. DOOM was famous for his lyrical prowess and skill with similes. He’s often referred to as ‘your favourite rapper’s favourite rapper’. For this reason I felt a little bit sorry for rappers Parkinson and Starr. Those are awfully big shoes (or should I say shelltoes) to fill. MCing is the art of projecting your own personality through lyrics and delivery. Reproducing the rhymes and flow of such a respected artist is a herculean task and a little superfluous.


The Abstract Orchestra tribute to J Dilla & MF DOOM – Live Review – Leeds Belgrave Music Hall (3)

Mural on the wall outside the venue

The DOOM half of the show proceeded through much loved classics like ‘Ballskin’, ‘Accordion’ and ‘Meat Grinder’. The latter two instrumental tracks were particular highlights. The horns were a perfect balance of grunginess and clarity (did I mention how tight the horn section are?) There was space in the arrangements. Things were allowed to breathe.

There was lovely interplay between the members of the brass section and most got to take a solo. I was particularly taken by one of the trombonist’s (sorry guys, I don’t know all your names) ability to channel James Brown bandleader Fred Wesley for a solo on ‘Curls’. There were pretty, modal jazz-style extrapolations on flute and baritone sax. Personally I could have handled more of this approach. DOOM was a great lover of jazz and I’m sure he would have approved.

The set moved on and the audience were never anything less than ecstatic. There were good vibes all round. But of course the whole thing was tinged with tragedy. The knowledge that the man himself should have been in the room. And it’s for that reason that the most effective part of the night, for me, was ‘Air’.

For this track MF DOOM himself was part of the mix. His voice triggered from a sampler operated by bandleader Rob Mitchell. There was something uncanny about his being present yet absent. The space in the centre of the stage was spectral, spooky, ghostly. It’s not often that hip-hop evokes such complex, deep feelings. It was a fitting tribute to the man and his life.

Overall a pretty impressive gig that managed to connect the dots between jazz, funk and hip-hop. Things could have been a little more abstract and experimental, but maybe that’s just me. The audience filed out into the chill of an October night full of cheer. The sounds of fallen heroes ringing in their ears.

images: Andy Johnson-Green


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