Abstract Orchestra have been playing their particular brand of instrumental live hip-hop since 2011, but it was their 2017 debut 'Dilla' that helped to catapult them into the consciousness of music fans across the world. Initially taking their lead from Miguel Atwood-Ferguson’s orchestral interpretations of J Dilla, they quickly found their own sound: a heady brew of the big band arrangements of Gil Evans & Bob Brookmeyer, the film scores and large scale production work of Quincy Jones & David Axelrod and the rhythms of Madlib & Dilla.
It’s within this musical landscape that Bandleader and Arranger Rob Mitchell firmly placed last years follow-up 'Madvillain Vol. 1', this time mining the collaboration between producer Madlib and rapper MF DOOM on their 2004 album 'Madvillainy' and 2008’s 'Madvillainy 2' . A harder hitting record than 'Dilla' it explores the Jazz and Funk side of Madvillainy with interpretations of tracks such as the Miles Davis sampling 'Raid', and 'Fancy Clown' (which samples Love Unlimited’s 'Walkin' in the Rain With the One I Love').
Madvillain Vol. 2 was recorded during the same sessions as Vol. 1, live in its entirety over two days at ATA’s own vintage analogue studio in Leeds. All tracks were recorded in one take with little to no overdubs and no editing, quantizing or other such studio trickery. The band were recorded live in the room to 2 inch tape and the recording captures a group of creative and dedicated musicians that have honed their sound through years of touring.
With this month’s release of Madvillain Vol. 2 we caught up with Rob to discuss the album.
How does Madvillain Vol. 2 differ to Vol. 1?
“With Vol. 1 the intention was to explore the jazz and funk side of MADVILLAIN, slowly becoming darker as the album progresses. Vol. 2 is a shift from this, to explore the darker side of the music. ‘Eye’ and ‘Borrowed Time’ really influenced the sound, which have more synth and electronic aspects to it. I love writing for brass and making them sound like synths, or to blend them with synths, something Bob Brookmeyer explored in his later career, which is a great influence on me.
‘Meat Grinder’ and ‘Figaro’ also appear on this Volume and add to the darker feeling to the album. I used more effects on the production of this album, something I was pointing toward on the final track of Vol. 1 with ‘MADMIX 2’, and use delays, tremolos, distortion and synths much more on this second volume. It gave me the opportunity to work with sculpting sound, and not just the notes on the page.”
How did you approach the arrangements this time around?
“When arranging the music, again I wanted a darker sound, and space was important. It was central to the sound that ideas had their own space, and I wrote musical ideas down as refined as I could. In some cases, it’s the most space I’ve used in arranging, yet the results have been the greatest. Adding to this sound I wanted synth keyboards more than piano (except MADMIX 3) and have used a combination of blending that sound with the brass or sitting it on top as a lead synth.”
There’s definitely a heavier lean towards electronic instrumentation on Vol. 2. Has technology informed the writing process in other ways?
“I wanted to include nod to Madlib in the inclusion of a two ‘MASHUP’ tracks, where I sampled Abstract doing MADVILLAIN tunes and chopped and flipped them. Madlib, like Dilla, is a massive influence on me, not just in writing for the orchestra but also for chopping beats and loops on my sampler. I bought an MPC 1000 from a second-hand music shop and started learning some time ago. I was also really into Pete Rock and DJ Premier, that also influenced me. Learning to write on a sampler has changed the way I compose for Abstract. Perhaps one informs the other.”
You also mixed the album…
“The mixing process was sympathetic to the arranging process in trying to give instruments space, so I used wide stereo imaging and depth from early reflection within reverbs to help this. I’m very sparing with reverb, the tails of reverb can add mud to the sound of a large and loud band. I like up-front sounds, they have more impact and you feel inside the music rather than distanced from it. I love the classic Qunicy Jones productions, they are full of punch and energy. I use UAD software for mixing and the SSL Console 1, they give me the sounds I like and have great hands on feel with the SSL Console 1. I use a custom summing mixer with Neumann transistors onto a digital master recorder, which I find keeps the zeros and ones in check!”
How did the inclusion of DOOM’s vocals on 'Air' come about?
“One of the biggest challenges on this album was to get clearance to use the DOOM acapella on ‘Air’ and I have to admit I didn’t think it was ever going to happen! Obviously ‘Air’ doesn’t appear under the MADVILLAIN title but it’s a track we do live and I use a sampler to trigger DOOM’s vocals, so it felt natural to include the track as a track on the album. The track is originally by Dabrye and appears on his album ‘Two/Three’, which I’m a big fan of. I love Dabrye’s music and I’m greatly inspired by him. I contacted Dabrye directly and to my surprise he replied! He directed me to his legal team at Ghostly and we agreed terms in principle, upon approval of the track with Dabrye and of Course, DOOM’s team. After some changes Dabrye agreed the track and it was sent to DOOM’s team for approval.”
Madvillain Vol. 2 was released on the 24th of May on LP, CD and DL and has since garnered praise from the likes of BBC6 Music’s Gilles Peterson and Huey Morgan who made it his “Meat Of The Week”.
By Pete Williams