The Enduring Legacy of J Dilla

Like most music lovers on a fiend for something fresh back in the mid-'90s, this Remix writer copped his first real dose of one of hip-hop's best-kept
Image placeholder title

Maureen Yancey, mother the late legendary hip hop producer J Dilla, recently announced that she is donating his custom Moog synth (one of the last synths personally built by Dr. Moog) and Akai drum machine to the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is set to open in 2016. The announcement was made at the 9th annual DC Loves Dilla concert on July 19. In an effort to further the conversation about preserving Dilla's legacy, we bring you this retrospective from the Electronic Musician archives...

Like most music lovers on a fiend for something fresh back in the mid-'90s, this writer copped his first real dose of one of hip-hop's best-kept secrets from a 12-inch promo single. Of course, a gang of people by then had already sussed out the kid from Detroit who was destined to ride the next wave of up-from-the-underground genius. But for me, the track that tripped the alarm was A Tribe Called Quest's “1nce Again,” and what set it apart immediately was the crisp-sounding crack of the snare drum. I'd heard that sound before. Was it The Pharcyde's Labcabincalifornia, or Mad Skillz' From Where??? or that nutty “bounce” remix of Busta Rhymes' “Woo-Hah!!”? Forty seconds into the song, Q-Tip provided the answer, dropping a soft-spoken callout that was easy to miss but still unmistakable: Jay Dee was in the house.

The album, Beats, Rhymes and Life (Jive, 1996) marked both a departure and an arrival. On the one hand, it heralded a significant change in musical direction for the Tribe, as they moved toward a more complex, jazzy and overtly soul-driven sound. On the other, it announced the rise to bona fide stardom of a young artist whose meticulous breaks, sample chops and mixing abilities — along with his signature behind-the-beat soul claps and other metric quirks — had coalesced into a funky new style of hip-hop production. By the time Jay's own crew Slum Village released its much-anticipated major-label debut Fantastic, Vol. 2 (Goodvibe, 2000) — the title was a nod to its “street” debut Fantastic, Vol. 1, which had been circulating on bootleg tapes since 1996 — he'd already worked with The Roots, Common, Pete Rock, Heavy D, De La Soul, Macy Gray, D'Angelo, Erykah Badu and even Janet Jackson. Jay's talent and work ethic prompted The Roots' Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson to observe that “[Jay Dee's] approach to production is envied, copied and respected by hip-hop's most elite producers. If it weren't for Slum Village, I'd quit the business and go back to college.”

Dilla himself appreciated the recognition of his peers, but he also felt that music allowed him to travel beyond the hype into an area that, for him, was a higher calling. “When I hear good shit, I want to go make something,” he told The Dustbusters' Y'skid (Wisekid) during an interview in early 2003, “but not something like what I just heard. What I feel when I make music is energy, but I'm not thinking about Premier or Pete Rock or Dre when I'm making it. I love their work, but what it is for me is how I feel for the day, you know? I don't understand how the shit comes to me. When I feel the urge to work, it just happens. It's a move. Some days I wake up, and I might not want to make anything, but I'll get a phone call from Pete Rock, and I'm back in it. Anything will push me like that.”

And it's clear that he pushed himself, squeezing more into a 10-year span than most do in a lifetime. Connect the dots, and the music he churned out with such beyond-the-curve creators as Madlib (under their shared Jaylib alias), Oh No and MED begins to emerge. Then there's the ever-burgeoning body of work he built with his fellow Motor City natives, including Dwele, Phat Kat, Frank-N-Dank, Lawless Element, Steve Spacek, Dabrye and Amp Fiddler (to name only a few). With all this and more, the matrixlike mind of J Dilla begins to come into focus.

Most who knew him will say that the portal to Dilla's personality — soulful, insightful, dedicated, open and, above all, humorous — went through the music, which of course makes his loss all the more poignant. At the age of 32, his life was cut short in his adopted home of West Hollywood by the ravages of a rare blood disease that he'd been fighting courageously — and silently, with little complaint to any of his friends — for almost four years. Only his mother knew what was really wrong. “It's a new thing getting used to, his being gone,” Maureen Yancey explains from her home in Detroit, “because we spent the last year-and-a-half just together around the clock. But I'm not in mourning. I'm still rejoicing and celebrating my son's life. Every time someone calls who's a fan or who wants to know, it just makes me feel good about everything he did to realize his dream.”


As Mrs. Yancey tells it, Dilla's musical talent manifested at an early age. “I hate to say it because people think I'm nuts,” she jokes, “but at 2 months old, James could harmonize with my husband's upright bass. My husband and I were both singers, and we did a lot of a cappella training with other groups, and it was just unbelievable and magical to hear. He could get perfect harmony and pitch — with just gurgles — no matter where my husband went on the scale.”

It wasn't long before the youngster found his way to records. “Before he could walk,” his mom continues, “we played music in the house, and the first two beats of any James Brown record would draw him from the middle of the playpen to the side, dancing. [Laughs.] We knew then that he had a musical gift, and at age 2, he began to collect records. He'd carry 45s on one arm and a little record player on the other, and my husband would walk him over to Grand Circus Park to spin records for the adults down there!”

His love of vinyl pulled him toward a wide range of musical styles, and by the time he was a teenager, Dilla was playing keyboards, DJing and rapping — all with his parents' encouragement. “I remember MC Silk was his rap name when I met him,” recalls Baatin, who co-founded the group H20 with Dilla, T3 and Waajeed in the early '90s — later to morph into Slum Village. “He would come and pick us up in the Escort and play these beats from the song ‘Louie Louie’ that he had sampled on two tape decks. And I watched how he went from those pause-and-record mixes all the way to the [Ensoniq] ASR-10, the [E-mu] SP-1200 and the [Akai] MPC, you know? As I watched him grow, he just became the greatest producer.”

Amp Fiddler, another Detroit musician who had broken through with George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars (as well as on his own with his brother Bubz in the group Mr. Fiddler), took Jay Dee under his wing around this time, showing him the ins and outs of the MPC60. “We all grew up in Conant Gardens,” Amp says, “and there was a kid named Cricket who kept coming by saying he wanted to rap. One day he brought T3 and Jay Dee with him; I remember that day because Jay had everything on tape. I had an MPC, and I was amazed because I didn't realize that cats were looping beats from cassette to cassette — I guess kids make possible what they have to when they're in the creative mode. I saw that he definitely had skills, so I told him to come back with all his samples separated so he could load them into the MPC. He was always hungry to learn; that was amazing to me because most kids weren't that serious at that time. He had to be 16 or 17 years old, but I had never met anybody else with the drive and the persistence that he had about music.”

Amp was so impressed that while on the road with P-Funk on the 1994 Lollapalooza tour, he arranged a meeting with Q-Tip, who was touring with A Tribe Called Quest. It turned out to be a pivotal moment in Jay Dee's career, opening doors not only for his stint with The Ummah (the production trio he formed with Tip and Ali Muhammad), but also for the seemingly inexhaustible outpouring of creativity that kept him almost constantly shacked up in his basement studio. “In the beginning, that was always the case with me,” Dilla would say later. “That was part of why I had to leave Slum Village afterwards. I would take all day in the studio, from the time I get up until the time I go to sleep.” Later on, the odyssey would take him inside such revered spaces as Electric Lady and Battery Studios in New York, and the famed Studio A in Detroit.


By the time The Roots came out with Things Fall Apart (MCA, 1999), which featured Dilla's crafty jazz guitar loops on the song “Dynamite!”, it was clear that he'd developed a sound that was as musically unpredictable as it was raw. He reached apotheosis on Common's Like Water for Chocolate (MCA, 2000), working with the Soulquarians (?uestlove, D'Angelo, James Poyser and guitarist Jef Lee Johnson) to mix sluggishly loping rhythms with an attention to timing and melody that was impeccably smooth despite the “broken beat” aesthetic. The suits at MCA were interested.

“I was in the studio with him for about a week when I went to Detroit for his MCA record,” says Madlib, recalling the brief period in 2001 when Dilla had begun work on his major-label solo project, which was eventually shelved. “He just had the basics that people usually have — a couple of keyboards, a computer, the MPC and his records; mainly the records and the MPC. He's just different, and there ain't nobody like him. He's one of the few cats that got soul without even trying. He don't even work around you really, unless it's like Common or somebody, and even then he's usually got the headphones on doing his thing, just like how I do.”

Madlib himself had spawned a West Coast — inflected brand of psychedelic beat-making that relied heavily on his eclectic knowledge of vintage records; his first meeting with Dilla, then, was essentially a near-perfect moment in the natural order of things. “I had done some remixes of J-88,” he says, referring to the alternate identity of Slum Village, “so when they came through L.A., my man J.Rocc introduced us. It was just an automatic musical connection because we liked the same shit. He started the MCA project pretty soon after that, and he wanted all the producers that he liked to work on it. He chose me to do a couple tracks, and he flew me out there. I gave him some beat tapes and he showed me some beat tapes, and from there it just clicked.”

Once Dilla had extricated himself from the clutches of MCA, the collaboration with Madlib escalated, yielding the Jaylib joint Champion Sound (Stones Throw, 2003). “I think DJ House Shoes was showing him all of Madlib's stuff,” Stones Throw founder and producer Peanut Butter Wolf muses, referring to the Detroit-based DJ who first alerted him to Jay Dee's music back in 1994, just before Q-Tip had entered the picture. “I mean, he and Madlib remind me so much of each other. They're both really quiet, confident guys, but they're not cocky. They know their abilities, and they just draw people to them without being overbearing. And for Jay Dee, one testament to his talent was that whoever wanted to work with him, whether it was Erykah Badu or whoever, pretty much had to go to Detroit to do it, you know? I think they all were happy to do that because there was a vibe that he created in the studio that was special.”

Ghostly International artist Dabrye, who worked with Dilla on the 2004 single “Game Over,” sees him not only as the central catalyst on the Detroit hip-hop scene but also as an innovator in the context of Detroit's more well-known techno creed. “One of the most important things about his production was the way he shifted rhythmic elements,” he says. “There's a composer's term for this — I think it's called metric modulation. And the stuff he sampled, I could just relate to all of it. I don't know if it was a Detroit thing because of Electrifying Mojo playing it in the '80s on the radio, but Dilla was taking Art of Noise and Kraftwerk and synth music and integrating all that into his sound. He reinvented the drums in this kind of thing.”


Dilla's knack for innovation and evolution never waned, even when he was confined to a hospital bed. The all-instrumental sonic mosaic Donuts (Stones Throw, 2006) proved to be his last official release while he was still alive, coming out as it did on his 32nd birthday, three days before he passed away. Other projects were in various stages of completion, with the Jay Love Japan EP (Operation Unknown) due later this year, and The Shining (BBE) — the follow-up to his solo debut Welcome 2 Detroit (BBE, 2001) — offering what promises to be his most comprehensive vision yet, melding live elements with exquisitely orchestrated samples and featuring guest spits from Common, Pharoahe Monch, Busta Rhymes, Madlib, MED and more (see the sidebar “Living Illuminations”).

“He killed me with Donuts,” Baatin confides. “That album really shows his versatility, because the way he looped the music up for that — he never did that before. So many other DJs, they'll find a nice loop, and they'll stop the record, but Dilla will play the whole song and try to appreciate it until he finds a part where he can do something new.”

Indeed, Dilated Peoples' Babu is one of the elite DJs in hip-hop who knows full well what Dilla's stroke has meant to the longevity of the art. “He's just been such an innovative beat maker,” Babu asserts. “He was always innovating and finding new approaches and new ways to look at sound and flip it and make ill beats out of nothing. I know he's up in heaven right now making music with Biggie and Pac and Coltrane and Miles and all them motherfuckers, you know?”

Even in his absence, J Dilla's music continues to amaze; it will no doubt be his enduring legacy for years to come. “I always tripped out when we went digging,” Madlib recalls approvingly, “because he never really bought a lot of stuff, but he always came with some crazy-ass shit. [Laughs.] I'd be buying boxes, and he'd come out with four records, and damn! And his programming is always different. He'd do so many styles — it could be hard drums with some soft chords — his shit is always in-between. It ain't computerized or quantized like all these people today. It's in human time, soulful and funky. He's like Coltrane to jazz. Maybe people don't know that yet, but they will.”

Living Illuminations

As an experienced session drummer and longtime friend of Jay Dee's, Karriem Riggins has lent his sound to a number of Dilla-produced projects over the years — including, most prominently, all his studio work with Common, as well as Welcome 2 Detroit. (Watchful eyes will also recognize him as the main drummer for Kanye West's band.)

When work began in 2004 on Jay Dee's second solo outing The Shining, the approach was once again to meld live instrumentation with sampled beats into an organic whole that breathed. “The live sound is a certain taste you've gotta really have an ear for,” Riggins explains. “It can't sound superlive because that can take away from the raw element. And Jay Dee knew how to mix. I've never seen him use filters or anything — it was more about the tuning of the drums themselves. Sometimes I would just turn the snare upside down — crazy stuff, you know? I produced a track on Welcome 2 Detroit called ‘The Clapper’ where I put a towel inside the snare drum and tuned it all the way down. For The Shining, we did one with MED where I use a tom-tom as the bass drum and a hi-hat as the snare. Dilla came up with a tambourine part, and that was the whole beat. [Laughs.] It was just really free, not forcing anything or using any scientific method. That's what Jay Dee was open to — always experimenting.”

Dilla was also intimately familiar with Digidesign's Pro Tools and Digi 002 interfaces, but after moving to L.A. in 2003, he had gone back to a more streamlined setup. “I think we did Welcome 2 Detroit on 2-inch,” Riggins says, “but this one is on Pro Tools. He was a master with Pro Tools. He learned all the plug-ins and had all kinds of secrets, but his decision-making, when it came to chopping beats, was where he was great. He had a pretty basic setup — an MPC, a mixer, a turntable and a MicroKorg synth. He also had a Rhodes, some type of ARP-style synth and one of the new Moog Voyagers. It says a lot about the music because it sounds really big.”

BBE plans to release the album later this spring — all with the support and blessings of Maureen Yancey. “Strangely enough, I was flying from New York to L.A. to go see him,” BBE label head Eddie Bezalel remembers. “That's when I got a call that Dilla had passed, so I went to see his mom the next day, and the first thing she said to me was, ‘The Shining needs to come out; I want all his music to come out. His legacy needs to live on.’ I went to the house, and I was all torn up. No one was really talking, and his mom was just like, ‘You guys need to pick each other up.’ It was a pretty amazing thing to experience.”