Jay Dilla aka Jay Dee (James Yancey)
b. Detroit, Michigan, 1974-2006
1996: Pharcyde's Labcabincalifornia. 1996: Slum Village's Fan-Tas-Tic Vol. 1. 1996: A Tribe Called Quest's Beats, Rhymes, Life. 1998: A Tribe Called Quest's The Love Movement. 1999: Q-Tip's Amplified.2000: D'Angelo's Voodoo. 2000: Common's Like Water for Chocolate. 2000: Erykah Badu's Mama's Gun. 2000: Slum Village's Fantastic Vol. 2.2001: Fuck the Police Single. 2001: Welcome 2 Detroit.2002: Common's Electric Circus. 2003: Jaylib's Champion Sound. 2003: Ruff Draft EP. 2006: Donuts. 2006: The Shining. 2007: Phat Kat's Carte Blanche.200?: Jay Love Japan.
Dilla is that odd kid in your elementary school, never talking, head-down, drawing weird comic book worlds with little interest in recess, as if he discovered alienation and angst six grades before everybody else. You peek over at his drawing and he covers it up, maybe even has a 49ers folder ready to stick over ridiculously detailed sketches. My image might be the result of posthumous idealization, but the true stories cum legends, how he hid in the car with his Mom outside of the Grammys, how he made beats in the hospital rail-thin and dying, are inspiring whether they are totally true or not because the music sounds like a dude that did that stuff. I recall reading after his death that he was survived by children...can you imagine Dilla having sex? I thought he never left the studio?!
Especially after his death, Dilla was referred to over and over again as "the producer's producer" and while that may be accurate- his reputation among a wide variety of beatmakers and serious rap nerds is unmatched- his style is too out-there and rarified to really take that title. It is more appropriately given to someone like DJ Premier because the "blank's blank" in any artform generally suggests unmatched virtuosity, that is only fully appreciated by the obsessives and it was not Dilla's virtuosity that made his music fly over the heads of the normies but his disinterest in not being obscure.
He's the kind of guy that will forever be an influence on others but short of his development of the "neo-soul" sound, Dilla was not tangibly "significant". Pharrell Williams' thick, loud drums have their roots in a Dilla influence and Kanye West's grab-from-anywhere-obvious-or-obscure sampling does too, but neither of them are "Dilla-esque". That's because no one really sounds like Dilla and it will forever stay that way.
The early work, for the most part, really is "producer's producer" type stuff. A lot of it, defined the too-subtle, too-laid back bohemian neo-soul, "concious" sound that bores me to tears. He got an early reputation as the guy who "ruined" Tribe and the Pharcyde and while there might be some validity to the Tribe accusations, those Pharcyde beats are undeniable. Labcabincalifornia isn't "fun" but it's not boring and it's actually mature and you know, not "mature". It seems however, that into the 2000s, he grew tired of maturity and "maturity". Recognizing that "neo-soul" had become a grotesque cliche, Dilla began releasing solo works that succeeded any of his work for others.
2001 saw him leaving the group he helped found (Slum Village), switching his name from Jay Dee to J Dilla, allegedly to avoid confusion with Jermaine Dupri but I think, to reflect a change in attitude. The single Fuck the Police has a beat and message immediate as his earlier work had been contained and subtle. That same year, on the BBE label, he released Welcome 2 Detroit featuring a bunch of friends and an insanely varied but cohesive group of songs. His Donald Byrd cover 'Think Twice' is a wonderful 70s soul-jazz vamp, that is a homage without winking or nodding, even the super-sexy keyboard intro doesn't sound like camp- but then it ends with 40 or so seconds of audio of a bunch of friends talking and then running from random gunfire; Dilla began to define himself by contrast and contradiction.
In 2002, he was diagnosed with a rare, incurable blood disease. Although his integrity was always unmatched, it's hard not to read an increased not giving a shit attitude due to the fact that he had an incurable disease. It appears that he began completely following his muse (not that he hadn't already but still-), working on Common's polarizing Electric Circus and showing little interest in giving production to acts that weren't his friends. That same year, a solo album and album with Detroit rappers Frank-N-Dank, went unreleased by MCA and as the liner notes for Stones Throw's re-release of Ruff Draft tell the story, this inspired him to make that EP (knowing he was going to probably die early had something to do with it too).
Ruff Draft is Dilla's statement of intent, although not his most accomplished or best release, it feels angry, contrarian, and inspired. Over increasingly avant samples, whirls of sounds and lo-fi beats, he spits with equal anger against those killing the game and the backpackers: "And those backpackers wanna confuse it/Niggas is icy ain't got nothing to do with the music" (from 'Make Em' NV'). One interlude is simply a poorly recorded answering machine message of a woman bitching him out and that segues into 'Crushin' an off-kilter half-groove containing the chant "I wanna fuck all night". Of course, the album also contains the emotional 'Nothing Like This' a love song and an outro track that cites friends and influences; again with the contrast. His collaboration with Madlib, Champion Sound, is well-loved by fans but I find it to be only halfway engaging (the Dilla half).
In 2005, his health problems became more public and more apparent and he was also diagnosed with Lupus. The stories are well-known and touching: Dilla in and out of the hospital, working on beats from a hospital bed, his Mom and friends at his side. Donuts, released on his birthday in 2006 (and what turned out to be three days before is death), is his masterpiece. Knee-jerk cynics suggested that it would not have been embraced the way it was/is/will be if it were not on the heels of his death, but that's missing the point because it is an album about death. I'd understand if the posthumous The Shining received vast amounts of praise the way Donuts did, but it did not because one is a complete, complex piece or art and one is a conventional producer album, with different rappers on each song (the instrumental version of The Shining however, makes for a great listen).This guy that runs this great record store in Baltimore told my friend that Donuts is “[J-Dilla’s] love-letter to the world” and that isn’t far-off. I won't even attempt to articulate the greatness of Donuts, you just need to hear it.
Songs You Should Have On Your IPod:
'Stakes Is High' (off De La Soul's Stakes Is High)
'Runnin' (off Pharcyde's Labcabincalifornia)
'Somethin That Means Something' (off Pharcyde's Labcabincalifornia)
'Got 'Til Its Gone' (off Janet Jackson's The Velvet Rope)
'Dynamite' (off the Roots' Things Fall Apart)
'The Light' (off Common's Like Water for Chocolate)
'Thelonius' (off Common's Like Water for Chocolate)
'Let's Grow' (off Lyricist's Lounge 2, song by Royce Da 5'9")
'Climax' (off Slum Village's Fantastic Vol. 2)
'Fuck the Police' (off Fuck the Police Single)
'Think Twice' (off Welcome 2 Detroit)
'Pause' (off Welcome 2 Detroit)
'The $' (off Ruff Draft EP)
'Crushin (Yeah)' (off Ruff Draft EP)
'Starz' (off Jaylib's Champion Sound)
'Reunion [MC Only]' (off Slum Village's Detroit Deli)
'Time: Donut of the Heart' (off Donuts)
'Dilla Says Go' (off Donuts)
'Last Donuts of the Night' (off Donuts)
'Whip You With A Strap' (off Ghostface Killah's Fishscale)
'So Far to Go' (off The Shining)