Rest in Peace, J Dilla
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Last week in Detroit, over 300 friends and family gathered for a memorial service for one of the most prolific beat makers of our generation, J Dilla. James Yancey a.k.a. Jay Dee / J Dilla / J-88, a co-founder of the Detroit hip-hop group the Slum Village, co-conspirator with fellow master producer and long-lost brother Madlib, a Detroit native and a Pistons fan passed away on Feb. 10 in Los Angeles. He was only 32.
He had suffered for over three years with an incurable blood disease and had also been diagnosed with Lupus. In recent years, after moving from his native Detroit to Los Angeles, his mother, Mauren Yancey, followed her son to be there to support him, and J Dilla made his spiritual transition in her loving arms.
You can call him a beat maker, producer, rapper, hustler, icon, son of Motown, cultural innovator, or just Mr. Old Soul and the master of all things dusty and vinyl. His short, prolific, career included production and rhyming with the likes of Common, De La Soul, The Roots, Mos Def, and he is most known for the 'Boom Clap, Boom Clap' -- his signature Detroit sound. If you have been under a rock for the past 13 years or have been paying attention to only the more mainstream elements of the hip-hop world (shame on you!) then you must check and listen to his impressive discography. For real, it is probably safe to say that nearly every beat maker that is doing his or her thing today has in some way been influenced by him.
J Dilla was the man in the crossroads of soul and hip hop: independent, soulful, underground, yet aboveground, and always international. In fact, J Dilla "gave hip hop soul," says Asya Shein the founder of Mir Media and Fusicology, who once organized a tour for Dilla throughout Europe -- the same tour that almost got canceled due to his illness. Dilla went hard all the way until the end, doing a tour recently from a wheelchair.
J Dilla was born in the ubiquitous home of the hip-hop mayor -- Motown. From soulful house to hard techno, the Motown Sound permeated everything in the "Motor City" of Detroit. While J Dilla was undoubtedly hip hop to the core, there was a strong soulful element that gave his sound a universal appeal. In the mid-'90s he brought that soulful energy to hip-hop heavyweights like Busta Rhymes, Pharcyde, Common, A Tribe Called Quest (he produced many tracks on the Love Movement Album ), and collaborated with then silky, soulful Detroit native DeAngelo.
Black Thought, MC of The Roots commented, "I've never seen anyone with a better understanding of sampling and reinventing sound. I've never seen anyone with a tighter grip on technology and how to use it to broaden ones perspective without losing sight of the original â€¦ hip hop." "He was a true hip-hop artist. The vinyl of the world served as his colors. The sp1200, mpc60, keyboards and computer programs were the brushes he used to apply his gift to the canvas," Black Thought added.
J Dilla's imprint is massive in today's independent soul as it bubbles under the surface steeped in DJ culture, feeding popular mainstream culture with authenticity, creativity, and pure rude-styled coolness. In the areas of serious dance music -- New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, San Francisco, Tokyo, London and Toronto, among others -- J Dilla is as popular as Kanye West, Just Blaze or any of the other super-producers in the hip-pop pantheon.
DJ Sake 1 -- arguably the reigning soul music DJ in California's Bay Area with his flagship crew ((Local 1200)) commented, "I kinda get the feeling that the era after 2005 will be known as the "A.D." or After Dilla years."
In true Dilla fashion, he did not go out without leaving his fans and fellow producers something meaty to chew on. His latest release is a hard-driving, guitar-laced, wall-of-sound-esque collection he titled Donuts. If J Dilla were alive now he would be in a feverish touring and promotional grind the likes of which may be partially to blame for his condition.
In 2003, according to Asya Shein, who drew closer to Dilla in his last years, Dilla nearly canceled a European tour realizing that being on long promotional tours for months -- notorious for its seven-days-a-week gigs and junk food -- wasn't good for his health. In 2004, during another intense production period, he spent part of the year hospitalized.
"What happened was that the doctor told me that I'd ruptured my kidney from being too busy and being stressed out and not eating right," J Dilla told the Urb Magazine in 2004. "He told me that if I'd waited another day, I might not have made it," he said in the interview. "This is definitely my second chance, my wake-up call. I still love the music, but I wouldn't put it first in my life. It's family first, and then everything else." On Donuts, the track titled "Workinonit" evokes the work ethic of a man struggling with illness but refusing to take a break, or even pause for one second -- except, of course, to watch the Pistons play the Lakers.
Ten years ago -- while at the helm of Slum Village -- he produced the underground classic Fantastic Vol. 1 , where traditional jazz snare and snatch sound transformed into underlying heart beat of a musical revolution emanating from America's musical heartland, Detroit. "Dude's influence was so thorough, there's almost no genre of urban music that wasn't infected," says DJ Sake 1, "from rescuing MPC drums (and with it, East Coast hip hop) from the dustbin of history with the Ummah and to laying the foundation for broken beat and nu-jazz with crazy syncopation ideas, to formulating bass lines that birthed [artists] named Sa-Ra and Madlib."
It was Dilla's work with Q-Tip's production team titled Ummah (meaning community in Arabic) and work with a production group Sa-Ra that made independent soul bubble to mainstream surface and Dilla's influence continues to be most evident. Those names may sound esoteric and unfamiliar to most young people today, but their genre-shifting styles are the backbone of a sound that Dilla is partly responsible for.
Shannon Washington of FREE Magazine and Current TV says, "Mainstream music never really got the chance to appreciate his music, or even understand the complexity of his production â€¦ like on the first Slum Village album, I never heard an emcee use his rhymes as a form of vocal percussion that wasn't scatting â€¦"
Twenty, thirty years ago mainstream music would appreciate him more. Today, most producers turn less-than-creative talking into eight bars of formulaic, bland and uninspired "songs". But back when twenty- and thirty-somethings like Jay Dilla were conceived, music was different. The radio was different.
In the '70s, radio stations played whole albums on radio largely dominated by local tastemakers. Music became popular only after it had local, then regional, then national and international listeners. Today the music industry is like the Hunter S. Thompson quote, "The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs â€¦"
His passing is significant not only for his loved ones, who were many. The popular turntablist, MC, and producer Rich Medina stopped a recent set with a moment of silence. Partying also changed. In a recent album release party in San Francisco that became a Dilla tribute in San Francisco, Madlib spun to crowd revelers described as like being in church or a hip-hop instrumental funeral.
Beni B of ABB Records recently noted, "Dilla was a producer's producer. He was a triple threat combining, production, deejaying and emceeing into a style all his own. He brought out the best in other producers and emcees. â€¦ His gift was truly a gift from God; hip hop is in a better place musically due to his efforts."
J Dilla was way ahead of the game. As a pioneer of independent soul he touched and embraced urban music in all forms inspiring younger artists to plug away in their own basements. Almost like he was, as Shein muses, "an old Motown cat that died young and came back as a beat producer."
The good ones often die young. Tragic as it is, folks can take solace in an impressive body of music, and like DJ Sake 1 reflected, "Dilla was and is everywhere â€¦ So, maybe he ain't really gone after all."
ibrahim abdul-matin, from the Planet of Brooklyn, is a writer by night and organizer by day, living in Oakland, California.