J Dilla’s Legacy Remembered

by Paul Cantor

Today marks five years since J Dilla’s passing from an incurable blood disease. The man born James Dewitt Yancey (commonly credited as Jay Dee, although now almost universally known as Dilla) is revered for changing the sonic landscape of hip-hop in the mid-90s and early 80s. Musically, the Detroit-bred producer mined jazz, funk and soul records for his sample sources, and was known for his off-beat drum programming, where kicks and snares arrived either early or late in the pattern, and created a lazy laid-back feel. Before Dilla, that sound, which is so common throughout music today, not just hip-hop, didn’t exist. In the late 90s Dilla was the bridge between underground rap with neo-soul, and though he never won the Grammy for it (producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis received it instead), Janet Jackson’s “Got Till It’s Gone” was perhaps his biggest coming out party.

Here we take a trip down memory lane and list some of Dilla’s finest musical contributions, in no particular order, because they’re all great in their own way. Rest assured, there are way too many to list.

Pharcyde “Runnin” (1995) – If the first single from Labcabincalifornia, “Drop,” wasn’t enough to convince folks that the Pharcyde had a new sound, “Runnin” certainly did. It was a more mellow approach and featured singing and a jazzy bridge. Oddly, while the song is a hip-hop classic, it did little to help the album sell at the time.

Common “The Light” (2000) – Common’s fourth album, Like Water For Chocolate, is often looked at as either his 1st or 2nd best LP (some argue that his 2nd LP, Resurrection, is better). That Jay Dee produced a huge chunk of it, along with the rest of the Soulquarians (?uestlove, James Poyser, D’Angelo, etc), should come as no surprise. But Dilla really gave Common his first pure radio record with “The Light.” The song was nominated for a Best Rap Solo Performance Grammy award in 2001, and is one of the few classic modern day rap love songs.

Janet Jackson “Got Till It’s Gone” (J-Dilla’s Revenge) (1997)- One can only speculate how Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis ended up with the credit for the original record, but when the remix dropped, it became pretty clear. Maybe they changed the drums? Otherwise, this one’s all Dilla all day.

De La Soul “Stakes Is High” (1996) – This record came at a unique time for hip-hop, and is looked at as a turning point, where the Native Tongues movement sort of grew up and started taking to task some of the more popular rappers of the day. The production was subdued affair, brassy hits expertly weaved over a filtered jazz bass line.

2pac “Do For Love” (1997) – Reportedly, Soulshock & Karlin, Danish producers who were working on 2pac material for the posthumous R U Still Down? album, sampled Dilla’s beat from The Pharcyde’s “Y (Be like that) Jay Dee remix” for this record, reworked it a bit, but never credited him for it. It wound up being a big record for Pac right after he died.

A Tribe Called Quest “Find A Way” (1998) – It’s a toss-up between “Stressed Out” and “Find A Way” for the better ATCQ single produced by Dilla. “Find A Way” though was more indicative of the sound Jay Dee would end up utilizing as his career progressed. It’s breezy without being weak-sounding, with handclaps that just punch through the mix and low bass tones that just that groove along perfectly.

Slum Village Fantastic Vol. 2 (2000) – Although the original album was completed in 1998, it was released two years later, with a bunch of songs from 2005’s Vol. 1 refreshed on it. It didn’t sell many records upon release, but attained a level of acclaim in the underground, and a re-pressing included “Thelonius,” from Common’s Like Water For Chocolate album, which is where many people first got acquainted with the group. But in essence Vol 2 was the platform from which the Slum Village movement really jumped off.

Jay Dee Welcome 2 Detroit (2001) – A Dilla solo album, W2D really spotlighted the producer as a rapper (something we’d see years later from similar producers like Kanye West), as well as talent from his hometown. It also jumped off the producer series of albums called the Beat Generation, by the British label BBE. Subsequent albums were released by Pete Rock, will.i.am and Marley Marl, among others.

Brother Jack McDuff “Oblighetto” (J Dilla remix) (2004) – This track was from the Blue Note Revisited album, which was a project that saw Blue Note jazz recordings reworked by a select group of producers, Dilla being one of them. The reason why this track is so landmark is because the original “Oblighetto” was sampled as the main loop for A Tribe Called Quest’s classic “Scenario.” Here, Dilla reworks it into a contemporary soul record, complete with his signature hand claps and pulsing kick drums.

Steve Spacek “Dollar” (2005) – Most people had never heard of the band Spacek before Dilla produced this cut from the band’s third album. The song sampled Billy Paul’s “Let The Dollar Circulate” (which would later go on to be re-worked by Don Cannon for Young Jeezy) and instantly put the name Spacek on everyone’s radar. It also showed again what Jay Dee could do with a simple vocal sample

M.E.D. “Push” (2005) – This song was the lead single from Cali rapper M.E.D.’s debut album Push Comes To Shove, which dropped on Stones Throw Records. Though it never crossed over or got much radio play, the song featured Dilla rapping on it and was certainly a more commercially accessible sound from him. The drums gyrate and move in a way that make you nod your head, but also want to dance too. And not in subdued neo-soul sort of way. This was just Dilla showing another side of himself as a producer.

Busta Rhymes “You Can’t Hold The Torch” (2006) – Dilla was a longtime contributor to Busta Rhymes’ albums. He’d done countless records for him in the past. But this one was particularly special because it was Busta and Q-Tip, and the two hadn’t collaborated in many years. It was like a reunion of sorts- The Abstract, Busta, and Dilla- all on one record again.

Ghostface “Whip You With A Strap” (2006) – Ghost’s album Fish Scale was chock full of bangers, but this particular song was one of the highlights. It was all sirens blaring over chopped vocal samples and Ghostface reminiscing on his mother giving him beatings as a child. The beat was again used on Dilla’s album Donuts, titled “One For Ghost,” which showed that he’d made specifically for Tony Starks.

J Dilla Donuts (2006) – an instrumental LP, Donuts was released just three days before Dilla died. He was reportedly working on it in the hospital in LA, where he would have to go for dialysis regularly. Many of the beats as singular compositions were crafted from multiple samples, a tactic that had fallen out of favor in hip-hop production, which mostly relied on loops or chopped samples from one source. It was critically lauded as a production masterpiece that clearly exemplified the genius that was Dilla. Not coincidentally, many of the instrumentals were co-opted by rappers like Drake, Busta Rhymes and Talib Kweli, who used them for their own projects.

Raekwon the Chef “House of Flying Daggers” (2009) – Proving once and for all that Dilla, even in death had the musical chops to jump an album off, Raekwon used one of his beats post-humously for his second single (although often looked at as the first, since “New Wu” had been out for a long time prior), “House of Flying Daggers,” from Only Built 4 Cuban Links … Part II. It was a Wu-Tang posse cut in the same vein as their classic tunes, and it helped introduce the album itself, which went on to receive critical acclaim and return Raekwon to relevancy in the hip-hop landscape.

What’s your best memory of J Dilla? Tweet to us at @MTVRapFix or tell us in a comment below?