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Miguel Atwood-Ferguson on Lincoln Center's orchestral tribute to the Notorious B.I.G.


THE NOTORIOUS BIG: (Rapping) I love it when you call me Big Poppa. Throw your hands in the air if you's a true player.


Christopher Wallace would have turned 50 this year. And, of course, to many, the man known as The Notorious B.I.G., Biggie Smalls or simply Biggie, is considered hip-hop royalty. Though the city won't ever stop repping The Notorious B.I.G., official festivities draw to a close tonight at Lincoln Center with the encore performance of an orchestral tribute. It'll be MC'd by Biggie's longtime friend and collaborator, DJ Clark Kent, and will feature the rapper's most well-known songs. Here to talk more about it is the show's composer, Miguel Atwood-Ferguson. Welcome to the show.

MIGUEL ATWOOD-FERGUSON: Oh, thank you so much.

RASCOE: I mean, I think most people hear Notorious B.I.G. or Biggie and they hear orchestra and they think, how does that work? So I'm going to ask you, how does that work?

ATWOOD-FERGUSON: Yeah. Well, there's a couple different approaches that people usually take. The way that I have chosen to celebrate his life and his amazing music is to kind of do a combination of recreating some of his original productions while kind of expanding some of the sounds, some of the textures.


THE NOTORIOUS BIG: (Rapping) We don't play, mess around, be DOA. Be on your way.

ATWOOD-FERGUSON: I take all these influences that I was raised with - you know, like, Western European classical music and Motown and Jimi Hendrix and various world musics, jazz music - and it works itself in there. So it's kind of a combination of making the original productions recognizable for all his fans, but then with a little twist.


THE NOTORIOUS BIG: (Rapping) B-I-G P-O-P-P-A. No info for the DEA. Federal agents mad 'cause I'm flagrant. Tap my cell and the phone in the basement.

RASCOE: I mean, it's incredible. You know, I mean, look, you can't overstate what Biggie you meant to - we say the East Coast hip-hop scene, but, I mean, to hip-hop in general. That said though, you are from the West Coast. At the time, you know, when Biggie was big, there was this whole thing about East Coast, West Coast. Everybody knows about that. Did you listen to Biggie? Like, what did his music mean to you?

ATWOOD-FERGUSON: Back then, I was in high school. And I would religiously listen to him, going to and from school, with my two neighbors. And so it was like a communal thing that we shared.


ATWOOD-FERGUSON: (Rapping) It was all a dream. I used to read Word Up! magazine. Salt-N-Pepa and Heavy D up in the limousine.

ATWOOD-FERGUSON: Did I consider him a hero? Most certainly - somebody that gave my life direction and inspiration. All these years later, he still inspires me to new degrees.

RASCOE: Well, why do you think his music has held up so well? I mean, it's been 26 years, you know, since he was fatally shot. And I know I still listen to Big's music.

ATWOOD-FERGUSON: I think he has transcendent authenticity. And I think pretty much everything about him is relatable. And he was embracing himself as holistically and sincerely as possible. And I think that's what really inspires us and touches us. He was so young when he passed away, and he was already making these huge life shifts those past couple years of his life. And I'm no expert on anything, but it seems to me that he was becoming a peacemaker those last couple years of his life. I think that he would have just kept on rising and continuing to be this lighthouse. He was that inspirational that his message transcends the genre and the platform.

RASCOE: Can you pick one of Biggie's songs and, like, walk us through the journey of creating its orchestral composition? Like, what is that process like, and what are some of the challenges you faced while composing?

ATWOOD-FERGUSON: So one thing that's really close to my heart is having diversity - spanning a concert, spanning a song, spanning a production. A lot of hip-hop, for instance, is in four-four time, like one, two, three, four, one, two - and nothing wrong with that.

RASCOE: But one, two, three and to the four.


RASCOE: Snoop Doggy Dogg and Dr. Dre is at the door. OK (laughter).

ATWOOD-FERGUSON: Yeah, thank you. That was very nice. Yeah. So nothing wrong with that at all. But when we have a symphonic work show with us, we do have some other colors available, you know, to our palette. And so why not also expand, you know, some of the time signatures, for instance, without getting too crazy with the song and without trying to, like, make the song such a new thing that it's not recognizable - without doing that. Like, one of the songs is "Notorious Thugs."

RASCOE: Oh, that's an amazing one.

ATWOOD-FERGUSON: It's really just amazing. They just really - just, everything about it speaks to me.


THE NOTORIOUS BIG: (Rapping) Armed and dangerous, ain't too many can bang with us. Straight up - no - label us notorious.

ATWOOD-FERGUSON: And so something that's unique about our take on the song is that I transcribed Biggie's verse rhythmically and harmonically. And I wrote out every single word of his verse for the orchestra. And we actually are playing, non-verbally, every single syllable of his solo.


RASCOE: So, I mean, ultimately, what are you hoping that New Yorkers take away from tonight's performance at Lincoln Center?

ATWOOD-FERGUSON: I want them to feel Big's humanity. And, yes, he's brilliant, to me, like, on the level of William Shakespeare - like, that type of unparalleled wordsmith. But to be able to feel his - so he's not just talented, but to feel this transcendent life that even though was cut short, he's still, on one hand, alive and doing better than ever. And his artistry, his life is as relevant as ever. And to me, he's basically saying, if you work hard and you respect yourself and you put in the time, you can reach amazing heights in this life. So go for it, and don't cut yourself short.

RASCOE: That was composer and multi-instrumentalist Miguel Atwood-Ferguson. Thank you so much for being here with us.

ATWOOD-FERGUSON: My pleasure, my honor. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.