J-Dilla: The Beat Goes On
On the surface, the adjectives one uses to describe the work of the late Detroit producer Jay Dee/J-Dilla (born James Yancey) don't sound particularly complimentary: flitting, gauzy, textured and — the worst of them — subtle. In a form that exalts the moment and props its swagger on four-minute epiphanies, Dilla was a master of the anti-anthem—of beats with an inscrutable appeal. Dilla died last February at the age of 32 after a long bout with lupus.
As the bad news traveled, efforts were made to give the oft-imitated, low-key producer his due standing in hip-hop history. The problem was that the most defining moments of Dilla's early years earned him more misplaced scorn than respect. After toiling in relative obscurity (the early '90s were the days before "regional rap" signified something good) for a few years with his Detroit trio Slum Village, Dilla suddenly found himself an integral member of the Native Tongues franchise around 1996. Once the standard-bearer for creative and thoughtfully made hip-hop, the Tongues of the mid '90s didn't seem so invincible anymore. Dilla seemed on the verge of great things, doing beats for A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, as well as Pharcyde, Busta Rhymes and Keith Murray. But with a few exceptions (the effortless samba trickle of Pharcyde's "Runnin'" comes to mind), fans couldn't quite grasp the faith their heroes had placed in the unknown Dilla. His beats felt wispy and brittle compared to the low-end throb or crinkly funk they were used to; he was unfairly blamed for softening the sounds of some of hip-hop's most beloved groups.
Dilla just heard things differently—take the second Slum Village album, where a filtered '70s vocal sample of the Singers Unlimited cooing "Clair" somehow came out as a chorus of "Players," one of the trio's best singles. You could never quite tell how a Dilla beat would sound by hastily dropping the needle — you had to figure out how it worked, where the beat kicked, how the different layers mingled. In recent years, it seemed that our ears had finally caught up to Dilla's. His unique minimalist approach was being studied and aped by artists like Little Brother and Sa-Ra Creative Partners. He established himself as a cornerstone of the loose neo-soul community, contributing languid, arresting beats to albums by Erykah Badu and his roommate Common.
Despite the august company he kept, Dilla seemed to prefer the shadows to the spotlight. He began pursuing solo projects with the U.K.'s BBE label. Welcome 2 Detroit, his 2001 entry in BBE's "producers series," still stands as a thrilling assembly of grimy loops, fierce stabs and hiccupping drums. "Brazilian Groove" is an atmospheric, stuttering versioning of the Earth, Wind and Fire classic and Dilla's finger-snapping "Think Twice" nearly matches Donald Byrd's classic jazz-funk original.
Dilla found a home when he connected with Los Angeles indie stalwarts Stones Throw. In 2003, Dilla and revered producer Madlib traded beats over the mail for the excellent Jaylib album—check "McNasty Filthy" and "Raw Shit" for a nice Dilla verse and beat, respectively. Having stepped away from Slum Village, Dilla also developed some local Detroit artists, Frank-N Dank ("Take Dem Clothes Off") and Phat Kat, and contributed to Amp Fiddler's lauded 2005 album, Waltz of a Ghetto Fly. In particular, his work with Amp showed a new side, as he served up full-bodied, dense and swirling orchestrations that perfectly matched the singer's spaced-out soul.
Other than a few tracks for Lawless Element, Oh No, Dwight Trible, M.E.D., Talib Kweli and Diamond, in the past few years Dilla maintained a lower-than-usual profile. His health was waning and touring proved to be an exhausting, withering experience. Rumors persisted that Dilla had died, or was in a coma or had ballooned up in weight.
The Tuesday before he passed saw the release of Dilla's latest masterpiece, the stunning and playful Donuts. The album was composed during one of his lengthy hospital stays, sampler cradled in his lap. Donuts is the kind of record that deserves study. Upon first listen it seems sloppy and incoherent—it opens mid-beat and gets messier from there. But as a full album it perfectly captures the quick-witted spontaneity of the creative process: beats are only given a minute or two of life; he speeds things up and slows them down, trying to find the right fit; and suddenly it's onto the next idea, before a rapper can shop up and taint the vibe. Dionne Warwick's aching "You're Gonna Need Me" seesaws elegantly a few times on "Stop" before Dilla decides it might be more fun to cut the bridge up. Some of the beats here showed up elsewhere—there's another version of the rousing, RZA-like "The Diff'rence" featuring Steve Spacek called "Dollar" and Ghost raps over the broke-down soul of "One for the Ghost" on his Fishscale album.
Hip-hop deaths usually assume a rather melodramatic tone, since so much of the music dwells on the idea of mortality. But Dilla's death was different—it was sad in a quotidian, almost anonymous way. He leaves behind a circle of shattered friends, a body of work we'll be dissecting for years and a whole lot of grist for our late-night, what-could-have-been imaginations.