From an early age, Tarek Kandil gravitated towards music. Growing up in Amman, Jordan, in the 1980s, and with little else to occupy his time, the young Kandil began an informal internship at a local recording studio. When not at school, he would busy himself with a different kind of learning, MIDI technology. Sometimes he would skip the studio and head to No.1 Recordings, a local store that sold cassettes. Kandil had a friend called Ammar, older and cooler, who was a local authority on hip-hop. In 1994, Ammar gave Kandil a copy of Dr. Dre's debut album, The Chronic, telling him, “Listen to this, try and copy it, and learn how this guy makes his music.” Kandil did as he was told. Taking apart the tracks in an early MIDI editor called Studio Vision, he sensed something in this ray of synthesised funk sunshine booming out of California and into the world. Perhaps it was a feeling that the music would make history.
Today, Kandil lives in Beirut, Lebanon, where he works as a videographer while pursuing musical interests on the side. Last year, two decades after he first heard The Chronic, Kandil decided to try something. “2014 had been a rough year for me,” he explains over email, “I went through a transition phase in what I listened to and became obsessed with finding the original tracks behind samples.” He put together a small band, nicknamed The Love Ain't Enough Orchestra, and began to interpret The Chronic's productions. Kandil continues, “the idea was to sample backwards. It was a thought experiment, but with music.” Tonight at central LA's iconic Wilshire Ebell Theater, Kandil's thought experiment transforms into California Love, the first orchestral rendition of Dr. Dre's music and a celebration of the legacy of Compton's best known son.
Dr. Dre, the music and business giant born Andre Romelle Young, turned 50 this past February. 2015 has been a good year for the Doctor. His early work as part of the rap group N.W.A was immortalized on the big screen this summer, and he returned to our car stereos, headphones, and nightclubs with Compton, his first album in 16 years. It seems fitting that the year should end with a 30-piece orchestra playing his music at home (or close enough at least). Past the headlines and noise of modern celebrity, it's easy to forget that Dre's beats are now history. “That's why the music lends itself to such re-interpretation,” Kandil explains, “We've all grown up.”
The unique concert is produced by two LA-based organizations: the Playing For Change Foundation (PFCF), a non-profit dedicated to creating a positive change in the world through music and arts education, and Mochilla, a production company with a long history in the LA underground. How it came together was a case of fortuity.
Kentyah Fraser, day coordinator for PFCF, wanted to bring the organization's worldwide work closer to home with a live show and reached out to Eric Coleman, a friend and the co-founder of Mochilla. Since the early 2000s, Mochilla has been producing unique one-off music events in LA. Their work culminated in 2009 with the Timeless concert series, which included Suite For Ma Dukes, a 60-piece orchestra performing music from the late Detroit producer Jay Dee. Coleman and Fraser began discussing ideas for a similar event. That's when Laith Majali, a Jordanian editor with Mochilla, played a song in the office that a friend had sent over. It was Kandil's interpretation of "Ain't Nothing But A G Thang."
Speaking by phone from the Mochilla studio, Coleman excitedly recalls how “the bells and whistles went off in my head.” He pitched doing a concert based around Dre's music to Fraser, uncertain whether the foundation would be sold. But the idea resonated with PFCF. “Dre's music represents a core aspect of LA culture,” Fraser explains by email, “and, in a sense, it mythologises the process of a creative inner city youth.”
In July, Mochilla and PFCF began pooling their experience and contacts, the pair began to assemble a historical line-up that includes Parliament-Funkadelic's Bernie Worrell, a cornerstone of Dre's G-funk sound, Steve Lindsey, Dre's piano teacher, and Mark de Clive-Lowe, an internationally renowned musician, on keys. Joining them are Vince Wilburn, nephew of and drummer for the late Miles Davis, Leon "Ndugu" Chancler, whose drumming can be heard on Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean," and local multi-instrumentalist Dexter Story on percussion. Completing the orchestra, which was put together by local trumpeter and arranger Todd Simon, are guitar, bass, flute as well as strings, brass, and woodwind sections.
Speaking over the phone from his west coast home, Worrell, who at age 71 remains a staunch preacher of the funk, calls Dre “a genius.” The accolade is a surprise considering the doctor built his legacy on the shoulders of Parliament. “It's an honor to think I contributed to music that a younger generation picked up on and that technology took further,” he says of hip-hop's inclination for sampling. However, never having been paid remains a sour note. “Dre was given a gift, like I was. He kept the beat alive.” Worrell was convinced to take part after learning that proceeds from the show would go towards PFCF's educational work. He continues, “the school system in America has removed music from the curriculum. And that's not right, in my opinion. I don’t know what’s going on in their brains, but I'll do anything I can to help a cause like that.”
When Kandil first began to arrange interpretations of Dre's debut album, he toyed with idea of performing them locally but soon realized “the music would have been in a place it doesn't belong.” Mochilla's Majali echoes this sentiment: “It's only right to have the music premiere in LA and it still shows how far the sound has travelled, which is important.” Unfortunately, Kandil is unable to come to America for the show due to visa restrictions and so the team had to look for someone else to finish his work and conduct the orchestra. That someone is Sylvester Onyejiaka, aka Sly5thAve, a Brooklyn-based composer who has worked with Quantic and directs the Club Casa Chamber Orchestra. The recommendation came from Brian Cross, aka B+, Mochilla's other founder.
“I was sold instantly,” Onyejiaka admits by email. Born in Texas of Nigerian descent, Onyejiaka is no stranger to re-interpreting hip-hop. In the past few years he's transformed Kendrick Lamar's "Bitch Don't Kill My Vibe," Drake's "Hold On We're Going Home," and even Mark Ronson's "Uptown Funk" into lush instrumental versions. Despite the distance, the arrangement work is a collaborative effort. Kandil supplied Onyejiaka with seven versions, three of which will remain in their original format, and since the summer a further 26 renditions from Dre's back catalogue have been completed.
Interpreting the work of a modern west coast master might seem daunting to most but both arrangers remain rather unfazed. “The medium, orchestra vs drum machine, is different,” Onyejiaka explains, “but it all comes down to production and arranging things a certain way.” Onyejiaka starts by transcribing the parts before imagining which instruments would fit. Once a basic arrangement is done he looks for a twist, “something unique inspired from the composition.” The new versions are instrumental, “so we have to find a way to tell a story through melody and sonic textures.” For Kandil, hip-hop productions make a solid bed from which to evolve: “It's easy to manipulate, but it isn't easy to recreate from scratch. That's what makes it precious.”
It was Onyejiaka's cover of Lamar's "Bitch Don't Kill My Vibe" that made Coleman realize that the young musician would be the perfect man for the herculean job of bringing Dre's beats to life across 30 instruments. Thinking back to the Timeless series and the inspiration this project draws from it, he sees California Love as “more pop culture friendly. We're taking the same energy and love we put into Timeless but directing it to Dre. Timeless was about musicians we love and admire but who remained somewhat outside the mainstream. Taking a pop culture icon like Dre and re-imagining his music is the complete opposite of Jay Dee. In a way this one is a lot harder.”
As fun and impressive as orchestral renditions of Dre's catalogue are likely to be, it wouldn't be a proper Compton celebration without a touch of the city. To this end Coleman, born and bred in south central L.A, brought on board two of Dre's friends and longstanding associates. Battlecat, who has produced for Snoop, The Game, and Xzibit, will be one of the night's DJs alongside The Beat Junkies' Rhettmatic and Jeremy Sole. Hosting the event will be Fuzzy Fantabulous, a Compton native and radio personality who recently worked with Dre on his Beats1 radio show. “Dre's legacy is in so many directions now,” Fuzzy says by email, “it's important for us to pay homage to one of the greatest to ever do it.”
Thanks to Fuzzy, word of the concert reached Dre and the doctor gave his blessing. “I almost cried,” Coleman remembers, “I just want him to know, we're trying to honour him. He should be there and see that these are all people he can use and bring on board if he wanted.” Does he think Dre will show up? “I think he will,” he replies.
Dr. Dre, Fuzzy Fantabulous, and Eric Coleman
Hip-hop is a universal language. You don't need to understand the words in order to get the music. That a concert of Dre's productions should involve such an international cast, with the music bouncing from California to Jordan and back, is testament to this. What's more Mochilla's founders have a long history with Dre. B+ shot N.W.A in their prime and Coleman worked with Dre in the 1990s. These aren't just fans paying homage, but people whose lives have been impacted by Dre's sound in a variety of ways. It's a celebration of creative visions. “Many creatives want to see how far they can push their skills,” explains PFCF's Fraser, “and a production like this is very much a vision-based endeavour.”
In an age of instant access and streams, an event like California Love provides a chance for people to come together and, as Coleman puts it, “go to church.” He continues, “Like Timeless, this show will only live in the moment. It's one thing to hear about it, but it's another to experience it. It’s going to be the ultimate hood experience. And everyone loves the hood experience.”
Laurent Fintoni is a writer based in New York City. Follow her on Twitter.