By: Daniel Hodgman and Justin Cook
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.
Stones Throw, 2003
Champion Sound was originally just a simple idea tossed around between J Dilla and Peanut Butter Wolf (Stones Throw founder). In actuality, it’s surprising that the project ever got off the ground at all. As it turns out, the project eventually evolved into Wolf connecting Dilla and Madlib, and in the months to follow the two artists sent each other beats to rap over (“L.A. To Detroit”).
As one might expect, Champion Sound celebrates these two renowned producers by omitting a rich and seductive record that is as lush as it is green. Furthermore, it’s solid from start to finish, hardly losing momentum, and presents a drooling doozy of sample-heavy beats and cuts. The rapping plays second fiddle to the production, but at this point that’s the whole point of this record. What should be celebrated is the variance and differences between these two legends, as they trade punches behind the production and provide a funny commentary on each others’ tracks.
One of the best parts about the music of hip-hop is its potential for collaboration. If you break it down, hip-hop is collaboration in the sense that both an MC and producer are needed to write, record and perform a track. The other elements such as break dancing and graffiti can also be used to encourage people to work together, for a common goal, to produce art, a dance or song. There is nothing like a posse cut with a couple of your favorite MCs, each slaying the track in his/her particular style on the same song. On this type of posse cut or in a rap group, each artist is pushed to be the best they can be, utilizing all their talents for the collective. This always takes the music, art or dance to a new level.
One of the best examples of this from the early 2000s is the collaboration between producing giants J Dilla and Madlib. In 2003, under the moniker Jaylib, they released Champion Sound. This is one of those records where the beats are so incredibly on point that rapping over them seems secondary. These tracks are more than an instrumental for an MC; each track is a testament to the brilliance of J Dilla, Madilb and the art of hip-hop production. Half of the tracks feature Madlib beats with Dilla lyrics and vice versa, each complimenting the other with their unique approach to rapping and of course, beat making.
When listening to the record, the core of hip-hop production begins to take shape. The samples make use of several types of music, giving each track a distinct vibe. There are times when songs such as “McNasty Filth,” The Red,” “Heavy,” “Strapped,” and “The Official” have a weighty resonance using pounding bass, crackly snares and heavily strummed notes. At these times it feels that your head will never stop bouncing and your body won’t ever cease rocking. However, at other times there are tracks such as “Strip Club,” “Starz,” “The Mission,” “React” and “No Games” that groove hard, creating a loose, seductive ambiance. It should also be mentioned that Champion Sound is home to the best moment of any Talib Kweli show. On “Raw Shit” we hear Kweli reciting his famous call and response, “I love (I love) / That raw shit (that raw shit) / I like it (I like it) / I loves it (I loves it)” If you’ve ever seen Kweli live, it’s just too hype.
Within all of this, Dilla and Madlib draw from all sorts of songs past and present to create these various sounds. There is a Bavarian sounding jam from the 70’s by Paul Mauriat called “Melancholy Man,” a banger known as “Stomped and Wasted” from trumpet legend Dizzy Gillespie and a creepy, funk infused number from Throbbing Gristle known as “Persuasion.” The production side of hip-hop is so interesting because of what parts of a song each producer decides to sample and use. With that, hip-hop has been able to give new life to groups long past their prime and give listeners the chance to take part in research while expanding their musical vocabulary. This is the beauty of using samples as a means to making hip-hop music. Jaylib’s Champion Sound is an example of how it can and should be done. I like it, I love it.