By: Jack Stein
On February 10, 2006, we lost one of hip-hop’s preeminent visionaries, one James Yancey (ne “J Dilla”) to complications from lupus. The enigmatic Detroit-based producer spent the early portion of his career crate-digging to provide hypnotic, warped beats for the likes of A Tribe Called Quest and Busta Rhymes, but his contributions that truly resonate with the music of today took place during the last years of his life.
Beginning with 2003’s Champion Sound ( a collaboration with also-renowned producer Madlib) and ending with 2006’s brilliant & timeless swan song Donuts, J Dilla underwent a creative renaissance and became the unwitting forebear for a burgeoning strand of woozy, emotionally wrenching and soulful instrumental hip-hop. Anytime you throw on a Clams Casino record, admire the production of fellow Detroit native Danny Brown, listen to Burial’s haunting dubstep or even hear the incessantly looping soundscapes of artists as disparate as Panda Bear and Oneohtrix Point Never, you have J Dilla to thank.
The trademarks of J Dilla’s now-signature sound lie in his tasteful, moving choices of samples, pulling from long-forgotten soul and R&B artists and melding their paens to loss and love with his typically frenetic and Endtroducing…-inspired drum patterns. Although most posthumous analysis of J Dilla’s work focuses on the morbid aspects of his music (the story goes that he reportedly cut Donuts off at 31 tracks in anticipation of not making it to his 32nd birthday, three days before his death) the same way that we analyze the records of Elliott Smith or Nick Drake, such shortsighted analysis truly sells Dilla short.
The man had a true sense of humor, imbuing even his darkest tracks with a sense of vivid life, typically through his constantly-shifting cadre of sampled voices (check the duo of intertwining divas ironically lamenting that “only one can win your love” on Donuts’ “Two Can Win”, or the rambling chastisement of “Anti-American Graffiti.”) Even in the face of his impending demise, he laughed in the face of adversity and embraced optimism; as one of the last tracks he recorded, “Don’t Cry” serves as a sort of self-effacing ode to maintaining stoicism in the face of tragedy, a plea for those around him to appreciate the good in the world rather than lament the hardships.
Rest assured, the world of hip-hop hasn’t seen anyone quite like J Dilla, but, like many renowned artists before him, we haven’t even begun to realize the full scope of his influence on other contemporary artists. The singularity of his sound and the widespread underground movement toward ambient eclecticism that he presaged ensure that we will be talking about, listening to, and feeling the resonation of J Dilla for a long, long time.
Check a few signature tracks from Dilla below, and listen to Donuts in its entirety for one of the more rewarding auditory experiences of the last decade.
- “Believe in God” (from Jay Love Japan). A classic song in the Dilla sense, this one combines one of his more recognizable samples with his pitch-shifting work on the boards. A thing of quiet, plaintive beauty.
- “Dollar”. Arguably his greatest guest production work, the endlessly spinning beat for Steve Spacek (who?) shimmers in a subtly different way each time you give it a listen.
- “Time: the Donut of the Heart”. The haunting climax of the seminal Donuts, I first heard this track during the posthumous outpouring of love for Michael Jackson in the summer of 2009. Sampling the Jackson 5’s “All I Do is Think of You,” J Dilla flips that pretty track on its head and hones in on the darker undercurrents of the song by adding ominous strings and slowing things to a woozy crawl at the halfway point before letting things snap back into place. The tormented voices flitting in and out of the auditory ether (“please”, “oh, baby you”, “there comes a time”) only serve to heighten the sense of impending loss, and add to the stark beauty of this 1:39 of bliss. Arguably the crowning achievement of Dilla’s too-brief career.
Also, for proof of Dilla’s ever-expanding influence, a jazz quartet(!) cover of “Time” is below.