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Beats, Rhymes, and Life

A Tribute to Recently Departed Hip-Hop Producer J. Dilla

STUDIO REET: The late J. Dilla was known for funk, not flash.

By Ethan Padgett | Posted 2/22/2006

You can find an exhaustive Dilla discography at www.stonesthrow.com.

Producer, bandleader, and composer James Yancey—better known as Jay Dee or J. Dilla—died of kidney failure and complications from lupus at his home in Los Angeles on Feb. 10, age 32. Over the past few years, he had been confined to a wheelchair, even while still performing. Since underground label Stone’s Throw was heavily promoting his new album, Donuts, word was that his health, though generally kept under wraps, was getting better. His unexpected death deprived hip-hop of a quiet innovator whose signature—an unassuming funkiness—belied his stature and his reach.

If Dilla wasn’t quite a household name like the Neptunes, it wasn’t purposeful obscurantism. In fact, Dilla’s aesthetic revealed the supposed differences between mainstream and underground rap as partisan bullshit. It wasn’t about how “innovative” or “futuristic” his beats were, or fidelity to a true-school sound that supposedly disappeared during Bill Clinton’s second term. It was about a hip-hop producer’s prime directives: bringing the funk and making rappers sound their best. And his beats turned average MCs into poets, great MCs into prophets.

Dilla’s first major production, the Pharcyde’s “Runnin’,” was a life-changing song for a young rap fan in 1996, and its smooth-but-pensive power has not diminished with age. (Proven when Mya used it almost wholesale for her own gorgeous 2003 hit “Fallen.”) After crewing with the producers supergroup the Ummah for A Tribe Called Quest’s classic, underrated Beats, Rhymes, and Life, Dilla cooked the enveloping beat for De La Soul’s Stakes Is High and contributed jittery funk to Busta Rhymes’ platinum The Coming. The only good spots of Tribe’s final album, The Love Movement, had Dilla’s fingerprints all over them.

Running through his accomplishments touches on many corners of hip-hop and R&B. He held down Erykah Badu’s raw Mama’s Gun and Common’s classic Like Water for Chocolate, provided guidance (though he’s not listed in the liner notes) on D’Angelo’s Voodoo and Common’s meandering Electric Circus. Evangelizing for Dilla typically breaks down into listing his productions, which is barely enough to convey the scope of his influence. Though in the last few years he was an underground fixture, he managed genuine radio hits with “Runnin’,” Q-Tip’s “Vivrant Thing” and “Breath and Stop,” Common’s “The Light,” the 1996-defining remix of Busta’s “Woo-Hah (Got You All in Check),” and more.

If you want to know about Dilla, listen to his beats. You’ll hear their faint outline against a firm, blocky bass line—often funky, always comforting. Listen beyond the jerky rhythms he crafted for his own group Slum Village (as influential as Timbaland’s contemporaneous stutter-funk) and the tweaked experiments of his recent work, and you’ll mostly hear Dilla’s extraordinary warmth. It’s a spare minimalism—mostly a thick, humming sub-bass, and the yearning soul of DeBarge or Luther Vandross, the spiritual jazz of Roy Ayers or Pharoah Sanders. Dilla’s music glows enthusiastically.

After jetting from Slum Village following its 2000 breakthrough, Fantastic Vol. 2, Dilla went deeper underground with a string of solo releases. An odd collaboration with kindred producer Madlib, 2003’s Jaylib, is muddled and self-indulgent at times, but even their slack methodology still yielded a shining track like “The Red,” Dilla’s crisp, unclouded sound working in contrast to Madlib’s fuzzy breaks.

On his own, as heard on Jaylib and Welcome 2 Detroit, Dilla was not much of a rapper. At best, he would stumble endearingly on the mic, usually on his own productions, most notably 2001’s summery, essential “Fuck the Police.” In recent years, he began to focus on unproven artists such as Phat Kat and Que D, usually dull MCs but perfect on his tracks. And he still found time to produce two of the best tracks—“Love Is” and “It’s Your World, Pts. 1 and 2”—on Common’s sublime Be from last year.

All instrumental, the recently released Donuts is frustrating. So much like his work tapes of beats-in-progress, many of which leaked to the internet a few years ago, Donuts sometimes wanders into moments of genius but is weighed down by dinky, unresolved ideas for tighter productions that never manifest. At the time of his death, Dilla’s aesthetic profile was riding high as ever with the success of underground R&B groups such as Platinum Pied Pipers and Sa-Ra Creative Partners, both Dilla-affiliated and much indebted to his sound.

James Yancey found love from all corners of the rap game. Both ?uestlove and Pharrell Williams listed him as their favorite producer of all time. Dilla was equally at home with twitching thumps for the club, the experimental margins of the rap underground, and the jazzy glow of the early-’90s golden era. His influence can be heard in everything from 9th Wonder’s soulful cuts to the factory stomp of a Trakboyz production. Prodigious at 23 and a legend by 32, he remained a gracious and humble man throughout his career. He will be missed by all who came in contact with him, even if just through his music.

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