Only days after hip-hop's beloved auteur and beat-charmer James "Jay Dee aka J Dilla" Yancey died of complications from lupus, hip-hop Web sites began selling T-shirts with a new motto: "J Dilla Changed My Life." I own one.
It's not rare to find someone donning a T-shirt that symbolizes their allegiance to a deceased musician, but, in the hip-hop world, these gestures come stuffed with innuendos that evoke cynicism from folks who view hip hop as anything but artistic, spiritual or life-changing.
While not as iconographic or baroque as the ubiquitous Biggie or 2Pac knee-length T's, the shirt was important to me for its assertion that a hip-hop producer had somehow transcended the idea of simply appreciating good music. But he wasn't just a producer: He was a musician, a savant, an ascetic and, apparently, a "life changer." I'd heard other hip-hop artists refer to him as "the producer's producer" so often it almost sounded cheap. But, now, I had to understand how Dilla had changed my life. I was sure he had, but I didn't know how.
I don't buy instrumental hip-hop CDs. For me, they're useless. I'm not an emcee, so sitting through four and a half minutes of a naked, vocal-less track usually turns into a humiliating experience where I try to add my own improvised vocals. Dilla has dozens of these unofficial "beat CDs" floating around, and—in all my kick-drum-enthusiasm, despite my instrumental aversion—I can stomach any of them. Some of the tracks are possibly better than those that have been released on actual labels, but, because of problems clearing samples, they will never see commercial light.
But that was fine by Dilla: He was never too concerned with being in the spotlight, a studio hermit with a confident work ethic and a will to get things done. During his last hospital stay, even, he made Donuts, a 31-track instrumental LP released three days after he died. It's a continuous swan song, a panoply of Dilla's savvy swagger with his Motown-down samples. Each exhibition lasts for no more than two minutes before another idea ricochets in.
I find myself far too blushingly captivated to even try a couple of freestyles over Donuts' beats, but a few tracks have been lengthened and used by other artists. For Fishscale, the most recent LP from Ghostface Killah, the Wu-Tang journeyman rhymed a haunting, airy ode to childhood whippings on "Whip You with a Strap," a beat. The Roots' new Game Theory LP opens up with "Dillatastic Vol Won(derful)" and ends with a nine-minute dedication outro featuring Black Thought waxing poetical over Dilla's "Can't Stop This."
For more than a decade, that could have been Dilla's mantra. Raised in the Conant Gardens District of Detroit's lower east side, Dilla started doing it all in 1992. As a DJ, emcee and someone who "did beats." Dilla got busy developing his groundbreaking trio, Slum Village, and working with other local artists. After being introduced to A Tribe Called Quest's Q-Tip by friend, mentor and fellow Detroit musician Amp Fiddler, Dilla steadily become the guy who, now, some call the best hip-hop producer of all time.
The story, of course, is an epic discography, chock-full of unfathomable feats (and beats). For that reason, it's hard to single out a revelatory, life-changing moment from Dilla, but I remember the peaks.
I fell in love with my first Tribe album, Beats, Rhymes & Life, in 1996. It was their fourth album: I had been 11 when their debut was released, and I was oblivious. But my introduction was definition-Dilla: He had only recently joined forces with Q-Tip to form the production unit The Ummah, and the squad had managed to give ATCQ's sound a newfound pungent edge. Perhaps previous Tribe projects were more didactic and atmospheric, but this was the perfect opportunity for them to stand atop Dilla's fledgling drum-heavy persona.
Dilla, of course, didn't stop there: Rightfully, he's credited as a key figure in the then-emergent "neo-soul" subgenre. A founding member of the musical collective known as the Soulquarians, Dilla—along with co-founders Ahmir Thompson (?uestlove from The Roots) and musician/producer James Poyser—brought together people like Mos Def, Common, Erykah Badu and D'Angelo to create a new brand of black soul music.
It was his less-is-more philosophy that translated so divinely on albums like D'Angelo's Voodoo and Erykah Badu's Mama's Gun. By the time the Soulquarian outfit stopped recording together, they had made some of the most soulful R&B music since the days of Motown's prominence.
Despite the trip into ostensible soul music, Dilla's production never lacked the identifiable "stank." From the beginning, he refused to quantize the snares or claps in many of his songs, giving the beats a grittier, almost corrupted swagger, creating the illusion that Dilla was working from a drum set and not a drum pad.
With that in mind, Dilla began his solo career by spearheading the Beat Generation series for British label BBE (Barely Breaking Even). He turned in the Welcome 2 Detroit LP, a polychromatic collection of instrumentals, lyrical tracks and slick renditions—the most notable being his transformation of Kraftwerk's "Trans-Europe Express" into his aptly titled (again, BBE) and willfully throbbing "Big Booty Express." Welcome still bled with Dilla's heavy-snared panache, but it appeared as if he had assumed the responsibility of uniting Detroit's oft-heralded "Motown Soul" legacy to the city's new electronic music torch.
Dilla reunited with Common and the rest of the Soulquarian family to record Common's fifth solo LP, Electric Circus. But Dilla's Kraftwerk-esque experimentations—driven by synthesizer chords and robotic nuances—proved to be a little too futuristic for Common's fanbase. Many listeners, stuck in "hip-hop purist" mode, had admired Dilla's previous work in 2000 on Common's Like Water for Chocolate, but wouldn't get to hear that sort of raw fundamentalism until Dilla showed up for two tracks ("Love Is," "It's Your World) on Common's recent platinum-selling masterpiece, BE.
The last few years of Dilla's life and recordings highlight a return to his penchant for spreading himself equally amongst many different artists—giving listeners such as myself an extra reason to boast about being up to date with all of the rather obscure, below-the-radar hip-hop projects. It may not mean much to the average Top 40 listener that Dilla laced Elzhi—one of the most prolific emcees to ever touch a pen—with some beats for his Witness My Growth mix CD, or that on De La Soul's last album, Dilla provided the Jeffrey Osbourne-sampled track "Much More"—probably the strongest single of their career. But for the devoted Dilla fan, this knowledge became fraternal. Because of Dilla, being an "underground" hip-hop listener was a mark of elitism, not closed-mindedness.
On Aug. 22, J Dilla's solo project, The Shining, was released on BBE. Dilla realized that he'd never finish it before he died, but he carried it 75 percent of the way. He called on his friend and fellow Detroit beat-behemoth Karriem Riggins to carry his torch. Once Riggins received approval from BBE and Dilla's mother Maureen Yancey, he began fulfilling Dilla's vision. By adding the vocals from some very obliging artists to the remaining tracks and engineering the album down to where he thought Dilla would have done it, Riggins tried to continue with Dilla's original idea of making a "live hip-hop album."
If "J Dilla Changed My Life," it was because his aptitude for composing dreamy melodies and programming nasty drums lent me the grace that I needed to defend hip-hop music. It'll help me sound dignified when chatting with my 60-year-old relatives about contemporary black music; it'll help me have more respect for folks who work hard at whatever it is they do for a living, for love. Maybe, when I find all of those "unofficial" Dilla beat CDs circulating out there, I'll use them to polish up my rhyming and maybe get some kind of life-changing record deal.
But maybe not.
Local hip hop comes together for a benefit for the J Dilla Foundation—which raises money to help Dilla's family pay his extensive medical bills—on Thursday, Sept. 7 at the Lincoln Theatre at 10 p.m. Artists on the bill include Inflowential, Median, King Fuvi and H2O. Tickets are $8 in advance and $10 at the door. See www.lincolntheatre.com.