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Review: The Dilla Ensemble at Berklee

VIDEO: Dilla Ensemble does Pharcyde's "Runnin'." Video by Faraone

If you follow hip-hop the way stalkers follow blondes, then it might seem that the mania surrounding Detroit producer J Dilla has consumed the nation since his 2006 passing. Last month in Boston, we saw a Termanology tribute to the departed beat savant. In June, Pete Rock brings his own salute to Harpers Ferry.

But in the larger pop-culture perspective, Dilla still has way fewer fans than that singing Scottish woman with the moustache. That said, the more props heads want to throw, the better. And the Berklee College of Music Dilla Ensemble — an eight-man acoustic squad presided over by Boston MC/producer/professor Raydar Ellis — is a welcome display of hip-hop nostalgia mongering.

With Gabe Kotter cancelled long ago and Tim Leary gone, Ellis might be the coolest teacher kicking. This past Friday he was certainly the most stylish, greeting folks at the premiere Dilla ensemble performance wearing hi-tops, baggy jean shorts, and a “Raise One Up for Ma Dukes” T to honor his distinguished guest, Maureen Yancey, mother to Illa J and his exalted big brother, J Dilla.

Sporting an “I ♥ Dilla” T, Ma Dukes smiled through the whole set. Her sweet and flattered affect was a portrait in motherly pride. Marinating in her son’s rhythm might not compare with holding him tight, but it’s clear that Ma Dukes connects through hi-hats, bass lines, and horn smoke.

I smile-cried through much of this. Between witnessing tender intricacies from Dilla’s gems materialize and watching Ma Dukes glow, I found the show to be at moments overwhelming — especially during the Tribe medley and the gloriously smooth rendition of the Pharcyde’s “Runnin’.”

In classic “I was down with Van Gogh before he cut his ear off” fashion, I’ve been critical of some sentimental schmaltz that’s come out in Dilla’s name. But for the most part, the creative company he keeps — even in death — is more in it for the music than for the merchandise. As for the latter, it’s the same as with the Dilla ensemble: if Ma Dukes validates, then I’m compelled and honored to give my own approval.

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