By: Daniel Hodgman
“If you were to secretly ask the most praised hip-hop producers, if given a top three, who they fear the most, Dilla’s name would chart on everyone’s list, hands down.” –Questlove
There are very few certainties in hip-hop. For instance, you can be engrossed in a discussion and say “you don’t like Nas” because of his back catalog and it’ll be fine; you can claim Life After Death is overrated because of its length and it’ll be fine; and you can say New York City is a hype machine simply because of its name (I’m looking at you Saigon) and it’ll be fine. However, one certainty in hip-hop that will always stand is that of J Dilla, and if you enter a discussion and bring any negativity regarding the name, you better be prepared to defend yourself.
James Dewitt Yancey (aka J Dilla, Jay Dee) was an inventive hip-hop producer from Detroit, Michigan. He was a visionary in every sense of the word, subtly creating mass works of music that imposed so many different angles and features it was impossible to replicate his work. As both a producer and MC, he remains as one of the, if not most, influential figures in hip-hop. On top of this, he has touched the realms of other genres, and has been cited as one of the biggest influences in contemporary jazz. Dilla didn’t find much mainstream success during his lifetime, but since his death he has represented this special aura, a spot reserved for only a select few.
To me, J Dilla has always shined as a legendary entity. When he died in 2006 of Thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura, I was still young, so it didn’t hit me like it would today. However, I still knew his name and I still knew of him. Local hip-hop acts in Lansing, Michigan would always throw around “Jay Dee” or “J Dilla” or “Donuts” and I would get it. And that’s one reason why Dilla’s legacy alone is special. Comparatively speaking, it’s like the same effect The Velvet Underground’s legacy would have on a kid in 1975, or how seeing The Vines before 2002 was something special. Comparisons however, don’t do J Dilla any justice.
Jay Dee stood out from everyone else because of how he composed himself both as a human being and musician. Those who knew him say that he was a talent, but more importantly a well-rounded and caring guy. Moreover, lots of cats claimed that he was the ultimate encyclopedia because of how he arranged his record collection. All of his records were cast into alphabetical order, and this essentially made it easy for him to dig up a sound if an idea sparked in his head.
The end result of this can be heard all over Dilla’s cuts. Every sample is a precise and significant component of the track, no matter what sound it is; every percussion backbeat has a different texture; the live instrumentals Dilla incorporates range from guitar to keyboards to body percussion; and all of Dilla’s creations consist of hundreds of single notes and blips from hours of sampling and research. Not only was Dilla a mastermind, but he was also a perfectionist with intricate workings that were placed for a specific reason. He was as prolific to hip-hop as Mozart was to the Classical Era.
The following J Dilla cuts are some of my personal favorites. They range from tracks produced for MF DOOM and The Visionaries to instrumental pieces he compiled on compilation records. Jay Dee’s discography is vast, and these are just a few of his gems.
The real catch for me is the percussion bells in the background. To me they provide a perfect example of Dilla’s attention to detail; nothing was good enough for him until every sound in his mind was incorporated. A masterpiece.
Although DOOM throws down crazy bars commenting on the likes of figures like T.S. Eliot, it’s the beat that entices the ears. The first minute or so features a plodding bassline, well-placed scratches, haunting organ sounds that creep vicariously and very distant percussion echoes. By the 1:20 mark the beat completely changes and transitions into unraveling production that mimics the movements of a cobra. This section is the same beat that Jay Electronica uses for “Dimethyltryptamine.”
Released on Ruff Draft, “Shouts” is a spacey tribute to all of the artists Dilla knew and respected. It may seem minimalistic at first, but “Shouts” pulses at every angle.
“Life” is a work of emotion, and behind the moving piano chords is a percussion beat that bounces from one end of the headphones to the other.
“Raw Shit” is Dilla throwing together synth organs with a throbbing synth bass backdrop to create an undisputed party banger.
It’s amazing how an instrumental can send chills up your spine. “Last Donut of the Night” is one of the best examples of this, and Donuts is an album chocked full of these.