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Remembering J Dilla On His 45th Birthday

posted by Tim Carmody   Feb 08, 2019

Donuts.jpg

On his 32nd birthday, February 7, 2006, J Dilla (born James Dewitt Yancey, in Detroit, MI) released an unusual instrumental album called Donuts. Three days later, he was dead, from complications of lupus. Since then, February 7 has become an especially important day for fans of Dilla and Donuts, and this year (which would have been his 45th birthday) was no different.

His local alt-weekly, the Metro Times, gathered a collection of memories from other top producers and collaborators, including Q-Tip, DJ Jazzy Jeff, and T3 from Slum Village, the underground hip-hop group to which Dilla belonged for years.

At High Snobiety, Danny Schwartz published a lengthy tribute to and analysis of Dilla’s contributions to musical history:

J Dilla operated within the rich tradition of sampling, and like many other hip-hop producers, he used the MPC to layer jazz, soul, fusion, and other styles of music on top of breakbeats. What distinguished Dilla from everyone else was his holistic approach that imbued his massive production catalogue with a dynamic range of sounds and textures. His most important innovation was that he turned off the ‘quantize’ feature of the MPC, so that his kicks and hats might arrive significantly before or after the beat. To put it another way, he loosened his beats from their rhythmic bedrock; they were not rigid, but gambled forward with a woozy lilt. One could easily argue that Dilla and Lex Luger influenced the rhythmic sensibilities of pop music more than anyone else since funk drummers like James Brown’s Clyde Stubblefield. Dilla was a perfectionist, and his rhythmic idiosyncrasies, however off-grid, were perfectly calibrated; like Gandalf, he arrived precisely when he meant to.

An MPC is a sampling machine. A little over a year ago, Vox put together a nice little video specifically about Dilla’s idiosyncratic, influential use of his MPC3000:

A 2006 feature in The Fader has memories from everyone from Madlib to Erykah Badu, but Dilla’s mother Maureen Yancey (affectionately known as “Ma Dukes”) talks specifically about Donuts, probably Dilla’s most famous album (although you’re sure to start a fight if you call it or any other of his albums his “best”):

I knew he was working on a series of beat CDs before he came to Los Angeles. Donuts was a special project that he hadn’t named yet. This was the tail end of his “Dill Withers” phase, while he was living in Clinton Township, Michigan. You see, musically he went into different phases. He’d start on a project, go back, go buy more records and then go back to working on the project again. I saw it because I was at his house every day, all day. I would go there for breakfast, go back to Detroit to check on the daycare business I was running, and then back to his house for lunch and dinner. He was on a special diet and he was a funny eater anyway. He had to take 15 different medications, we would split them up between meals, and every other day we would binge on a brownie sundae from Big Boys. That was his treat.

I didn’t know about the actual album Donuts until I came to Los Angeles to stay indefinitely. I got a glimpse of the music during one of the hospital stays, around his 31st birthday, when [friend and producer] House Shoes came out from Detroit to visit him. I would sneak in and listen to the work in progress while he was in dialysis. He got furious when he found out I was listening to his music! He didn’t want me to listen to anything until it was a finished product. He was working in the hospital. He tried to go over each beat and make sure that it was something different and make sure that there was nothing that he wanted to change. “Lightworks,” oh yes, that was something! That’s one of the special ones. It was so different. It blended classical music (way out there classical), commercial and underground at the same time.

At okayplayer, Elijah C. Watson focused on Dilla’s influence on contemporary hip-hop artists, especially the emerging subgenre of lo-fi hip-hop:

Also called “chill-hop,” “jazzy hip-hop,” or the more specific “lo-fi hip-hop radio for studying, relaxing, and gaming,” lo-fi hip-hop has become a subgenre and subculture. It’s a subgenre featuring instrumentals rooted in the melancholy melodies of jazz and boom-bap drums of golden age hip-hop.

Playlists dedicated to lo-fi hip-hop can be found on music streaming services but YouTube serves as its primary base (with a looped image of an anime scene often being featured.) Channels like Chillhop Music, ChilledCow, and Private ChillOut offer 24/7 streams of the subgenre — the subscriber count anywhere from 102,000 to 2,500,000. Through these channels, the aesthetic of lo-fi hip-hop is best experienced. Fans from across the world listen to the tracks and engage with each other in real time, all while a looped image of an animated character writing or working on a laptop is featured.

At Ambrosia For Heads, Dan Charnas discusses his research for his forthcoming academic book, DillaTime: How a Hip-Hop Producer Reinvented Rhythm and Changed the Way Musicians Play:

[J Dilla’s] story gets complicated first as he encounters some of the pains of the business and then, later, illness. The thing he most wants to do becomes harder and harder for him to do. But that laser focus, as his friends and family have painstakingly documented, remains until his final hour. Talk about triumph and pain mixed together. One of the things I’ve grappled with since the day I walked into his basement in 1999 is why people have such an overwhelming emotional connection to this person and his work. And one of the answers I’ve come to is that, in every piece of music, we can somehow sense that overwhelming will and spirit…

My co-author, Jeff Peretz, and I took about 20 students to Detroit in 2017 as a part of my Dilla course at the Clive Davis Institute… The Detroit experience was a real eye-opener for our students. Context and environments are crucial to understanding. I’ll tell you one of the things that always strikes me about the D: everyone in Detroit always seems to be building something. Dilla’s ‘Uncle Herm’ isn’t just a chef and baker—he gutted and built the donut shop with his own two hands.

Hanif Abdurraqib contributed this unforgettable anecdote

We miss you, Jay. You should still be here.