Remembering J Dilla
Recalling the genius of James Yancey a decade on from his death.
Even if you’re not all that familiar with the name James Yancey, you know J Dilla’s sound. The Detroit-born producer may have had only had a brief bump in the spotlight before he died on this day in 2006 at 32 years of age from an incurable blood disease and lupus, yet he had an influence way beyond his years.
He was a craftsman, a producer who had a way with sounds which was both distinctive and idiosyncratic. Many other producers of his vintage worked electronic noises, eerie samples and warm, evocative instrumental snatches into the boom-bap, but you could recognise a Dilla piece of work a mile away. Your head would nod, your feet would shuffle, your mind would spin.
The maestro attracted big-name, box office acts like Erykah Badu, The Roots, The Pharcyde, De La Soul, Busta Rhymes, Mos Def, Common and many more. They came around to his house because he could give their sounds another dimension, another factor. They probably also dug the vibes which this brilliant producer brought to the studio.
What’s interesting about Dilla is his influence since his death. A month doesn’t go by that you don’t hear a track from an act, hip-hop or otherwise, which reminds you of his work. It’s how his blueprints have gone on to inform the handiwork of countless other acts and producers which is Dilla’s real legacy as much as the records he left behind.
From The xx to Flying Lotus to every wide-eyed maverick producer aiming to record the buckwild sounds they hear in their heads, Dilla’s soundscapes have cast a wide net. There are times when you check out the work of the new school that it feels like Dilla never went away.
The Dilla story begins in the Motor City where the son of a singing mother and a bass and piano playing father started dancing to James Brown and Michael Jackson when he was two years of age, making beats when he was 11 and taking trips to the local park with records and a turntable soon afterwards. You hear a lot about how music in the home influences the life choices of the kid and there was little doubt that the Yancey household, where the parents had an a capella jazz group, influenced the young Dilla.
He studied the cello as a kid – “not the instrument of choice in the ghetto,” as his mother puts it in the sleevenotes to posthumous album “Suite for Ma Dukes” – and perhaps it was the influence of those classical lessons which put the twist on productions where, instead of the strict four-bar pattern, Dilla favoured five, seven and 11 bar loops.
By the time he was in his early twenties, Dilla’s rich drum sounds, warm, fuzzy instrumentation and endlessly inventive melodies were very much in demand. Aside from the A-list acts ringing his number (such was the demand for his services that he could have spent all his time in the studio working on Janet Jackson and A Tribe Called Quest releases), Dilla had his own projects to keep on track. He steered the ship for Detroit’s Slum Village, joined the Ummah production team with Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad and was part of the Soulquarians collective alongside such heavy hitters as Common, Mos Def, Questlove, Erykah Badu and others.
All of this activity spread the word about his sounds. Listening back to the records Dilla made while he was alive, there’s a spirit to them which is hugely infectious. They’re heavy on rhythm and percussion and, more often than not, slightly off-beat. It was beautiful yet bizarre music, sounds which were twisted and manipulated seamlessly by this wizard into great slabs of sound.
One of the best places to start your Dilla digging is probably “Donuts”. Released in 2006 just three days after his death, he recorded the album on a portable sound system from his hospital bed. For the previous four years, Dilla had fought a battle against his health problems. Blood tests in 2002 had shown that he had both lupus as well as thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura, a blood disorder that causes microscopic thromboses to form in the blood vessels.
By autumn 2005, Dilla was confined to the Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles, the hospital where Eazy-E and the Notorious B.I.G. had died. He probably knew himself that his time was running out so he had his studio moved into the room and went to work. “Donuts” is the performance of a real master at work, sculpting eerie, leftfield swirls and stabs which are as deep in soul as they are wide in funk. There are no MCs onboard, just Dilla flicking switches and lovingly putting a unique shape on a thrilling collection of brilliant beats.
When Dilla died, he left behind a large unpaid tax bill, a messy series of contracts managing the rights to his work and a bunch of unfinished albums so there have been other posthumous releases. These include “The Shining”, where Detroit jazz drummer Karriem Riggins put the final finishing production touches to tracks featuring the likes of Common, D’Angelo and Busta Rhymes; the fantastically grimey “Ruff Draft”; his collaboration with Madlib on “Champion Sound” and 28 previously unreleased instrumental tracks rounded up by Pete Rock for “Jay Stay Paid”. There’s also other unreleased works in the archive, such as the long lost album “The Diary”.
There’s also been a ton of tributes to Dilla’s sound and impact, both from those who’ve worked with him to those who were touched by the records he made. One of the most interesting tributes was “A Suite For Ma Dukes”, a release and live event organised by composer Miguel Atwood-Ferguson and producer Carlos Niño featuring a 60 piece orchestra and such collaborators as Bilal, Posdnuos, Talib Kweli, Karriem Riggins, Thundercat and Amp Fiddler playing and reinventing Dilla productions. That series of shows became an album and a film directed by Limerick-born film-maker Brian Cross for Mochilla’s Timeless series.
Dilla’s real legacy will live on in the music he had a hand, act or part in while he was alive. The world didn’t really take notice of his talents until after his death so there are hundreds of tracks to grab your attention. One of my favourite Dilla tracks has always been his remix of Janet Jackson’s “Got Till It’s Gone” in 1997, with Dilla’s simple, sublime production making a pop record sound like an alien broadcast. The Joni Mitchell sample was perfectly pitched but Dilla made the space and dynamics around the beat sound just as magic.
For the hip-hop heads, there are many, many choices in the back-pages. There’s “The Light” by Common, a track which sounds totally timeless and anthemic. What he did with The Pharcyde on “Runnin’” is equally majestic, a light-as-a-breeze sound which resonates with such depth and width. He worked on D’Angelo’s “Voodoo” album (though was uncredited) and his trademark sound is all over that opus. He had a big part to play in The Roots’ “Things Fall Apart” album, especially on one of the standout tracks “Dynamite”.
All of this makes you wonder what could Dilla have done had he not succumbed to illness. As with any act who dies in their prime, you can speculate until the cows come home about what might have been. Dilla had worked with renowned hip-hop and soul acts, but imagine what would have happened if he had been paired with a pop act. Could Dilla’s mix and match of electronic noises, eerie samples and warm, evocative instrumental snatches have worked in tandem with a pop voice and tune? Listening back to his work on albums like Q-Tip’s “Amplified” or Erykah Badu’s “Mama’s Gun”, there’s no doubt that he has the skills and smarts to make such a big splash. Alas, he ran out of road. RIP Dilla.