On the 10th of February 2006, just 32 years young, music luminary J Dilla lost his battle with rare blood disorder TTP. Ten years later, the continued, galvanizing force of his prolific output is a testament to how inspirational he was and continues to be.
For the uninitiated, Dilla often transcended the company he kept by way of his shimmering, soul-stirring original productions. He used increasingly sophisticated techniques that sometimes bordered on science fiction, yet his music retained a distinctive human and soulful character. During his unfairly brief career he worked with some of the most dynamic figures in hip hop as a co-founder of Slum Village, Madlib’s partner in Jaylib and a member of Q-Tip-fronted production collective The Ummah. Even if you’ve never heard the name James Dewitt Yancey you will have heard his fingerprints all over collaborations with, and productions for, heavyweights such as Talib Kweli, Janet Jackson Erykah Badu and De La Soul.
Dilla had a huge effect on the evolution of hip hop connoisseurs’ label of choice, Stones Throw, and his partnership with Madlib pushed both the production titans to shift gears and take their music to new realms. But above all, Dilla will be remembered for the genre-defining Donuts, which came out just three days before his death.
As the world pays homage to a true original, read tributes from DJs, producers and music writers alongside our favourite videos, mixes and tracks that celebrate Dilla’s long-lasting imprint on hip hop and beyond.
DJ and owner of Brownswood Recordings
“I remember doing a show with Dilla, Madlib and Mos Def in Switzerland where we had the chance to hang a bit. Even though we’d done stuff previously, it was then apparent what a mad, mad appetite for music and sound he had… more than anyone. He had so many questions! And he was already quite sick by then. He’s another one of the jazz type musicians who was only truly appreciated in his afterlife. A true giant innovator and motivator.”
Thank You Jay Dee
Started as a mixtape, and inaugural Stones Throw podcast, three days after J’s death in 2006, label-mate J Rocc turned his audio dedication into a four-part series, released between 2006 and 2009. The entirety of ‘Thank You Jay Dee,’ along with full track listing, is available for download at Rappcat.
Questlove on Dilla from Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton
Dilla made a huge musical and emotional impact on Stones Throw records and during his period of collaboration with the LA-based indie he joined forces with Madlib and released his masterpiece Donuts. This clip is just a short section from Stones Throw documentary Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton, but the film is well worth tracking down, just for the moving section on Dilla and his last days. Also check out Questlove on Dilla’s unique sampling technique:
DJ and promoter runs the J Dilla Saved My Life tribute night.
“J Dilla’s legacy and output is unparalleled, especially given the brevity of his career. To this day I am coming across Dilla beats I have not heard before and hearing new things in those I have. His genius was not only in making the toughest of drums but being able to cover a huge range of sounds without losing the distinct ‘Dilla’ sound. From hard glitchy digital beats to smooth soulful productions he managed to create soundscapes as varied as they are inspiring, that were as well suited to hardcore Detroit rappers like Guilty Simpson as they were for soul superstars like Janet Jackson.
Jay Dee’s ability to flip samples in ways unimaginable to the average producer makes him stand out as one of the most creative and innovative producers in hip hop history. It is a real honour to have been throwing the J Dilla Changed My Life tribute parties, which we now do regularly do in three cities in the UK and have taken as far afield as Moscow. From these I have developed a close relationship with his family which I hold very dear.”
Flying Lotus tribute
Slum Village’s ‘Fall in Love’ transformed a tiny hook from Gap Mangione’s ‘Diana in the Autumn Wind’ into an anthem with just seven, seemingly simple, words: don’t sell yourself to fall in love. Flying Lotus’ short cover version adds subtle shades to a classic. This is headphone fare.
Madlib’s Beat Konducta
The history of hip hop is rooted in call and response, give and take, ebb and flow, and the power of the collective has always been stronger than going it alone:
Can I kick it?
Yes you can.
Umi says shine your light on the world,
Shine your light for the world to see.
Well these are the breaks.
Break it up break it up break it up.
The first volume of Madlib’s — now multi-volume — Beat Konducta series, a funkified, wild-ride through global rhythms, was started as a response to the Donuts album. As such, it’s only fitting that for the 5th and 6th instalments, he and labelmate J Rocc dedicated their audio output to the man that inspired it all, Jay Dee. Beautifully frenetic, Dilla-inspired, hold-on-to-the-edge-of-your-seats, beat exploration at its best.
“I think Dilla is one of those unique musicians who manages to influence generation after generation way beyond the scope of the genre he was working in. For me, his music was what made me start to really investigate drum programming, EQ, synthesisers, production techniques. He wasn’t just looping up breaks, he was working scientifically to a ridiculous level of technique that you couldn’t just copy. His music lead me to Theo Parrish, Moodyman and Detroit in general. You can see the massive influence it has on the current wave of UK-led dance and people like Kaytranada.
I was lucky enough to meet him when I was starting out and he took the time to answer me and my best mate’s nerdy questions about what synths he used and how he felt about certain trends in production. He didn’t have to talk to us but you could just tell he loved to talk about music. I still remember him telling me what synth he used on ‘Raw Shit’. I went out and got one and it’s on nearly every Anushka record. He talked to us because he cared about where it was all going. I think that’s why he’s still driving it now.”
Sadly, the 44-minute album long video for Donuts that appeared on YouTube from user Houston loves Dilla last month has been removed, presumably due to film licensing issues. Here’s hoping it sees the light of day in some form or another in the future. That said, there’s still a wealth of interweb celluloid footage to be found. Going straight to the source, Stones Throw hosted a video competition that produced some serious gems. This neat 2-D promo for JayLib’s ‘The Heist’ is a particular highlight.
J Dilla’s Lost Scrolls on NPR
When record store owner Jeff Bubeck, of UHF in Royal Oak, Michigan, inadvertently bought the holy grail of digging finds — Dilla’s 6,000+ wax and cassette collection – at a storage unit sale, he had no idea who ‘James Yancey’ was. In this riveting Snap Judgement podcast on NPR, Bubeck details his remarkable discovery, and what he decided to do next.
Japanese indie tribute
Part of the beauty of J Dilla’s work is that it has inspired individuals on every corner of the globe. Case in point is this beaut’ of a tribute by Japanese band RF, who released their homage on Timeless Records, with a smooth-as-hell running cover on the A-side, entitled ‘Thnx 4 Dilla (Farah Re-Edit)’ Followed by a rousing, acoustic version of Yusef Lateef’s ‘Love Theme from Spartacus’ on the flip.
Dilla homework edits
Author of Donuts in the 33 ⅓ book series on iconic albums.
“The drums. It always comes back to the drums.
I remember trying to play along to ‘Runnin’’ by The Pharcyde in ’96, back when I was first learning how to play. Usually when I practiced playing along to punk and rock records, I could work out the patterns fairly easily; even if I did it poorly, I had a sense of what sound went where, and when. But ‘Runnin’’ was just impenetrable to me. The kick drum was all over the place, it never did the same thing twice, and it was constantly changing. I didn’t even know you could do that in hip-hop, and it totally changed how I understood the music.
That’s what always impressed me about him. He was fearless in the face of musical convention. The drums are off time? You can’t sample from CD’s? Nobody’s sampling indie rock? Who cares, it sounds dope. A lot of contemporary beatmakers seem reluctant to let go of their sonic signatures, and they should be; turning away from the thing that brought them acclaim in the first place is a scary prospect. But Dilla never once hesitated to change gears when he felt he’d perfected a given style, which is exceptional.
I always say Dilla was the man who brought me back to hip-hop. When he was doing the bulk of his early work, I was off listening to acid jazz and power pop. But I’d hear a Common song, or a Q-Tip solo joint, or Erykah Badu, and it would punch its way through to me. These songs resonated with me, the soulfulness of them, the way the bass scratched some itch in the back of my neck I didn’t even know I had. I didn’t realize until later that one man was the connecting thread throughout all of them. Once I figured that out, no one could touch him in my mind.
What’s incredible is how his music continues to resonate, without nostalgia or irony. I’ve been to so many tribute shows, in Toronto and Detroit, amazed at the cross-section of fans in the crowd. I saw kids who would have barely been in kindergarten when ‘Runnin’’ came out, but somehow Dilla’s music finds its way to them, and they take their own inspiration from it. And some of those kids will go on to make beats of their own, and credit his influence, which will send another generation digging into his catalogue. He was so ahead of his time that his impact is still being heard and felt almost a decade after his passing, and there are very few people who can say that in any art, let alone music. We are poorer for what we’ll never get to hear, the evolving genius we won’t be able to witness, but so much richer for what he left us. His legacy is perpetual. Thank you, Jay Dee.”
Show your love for Dilla by supporting the J Dilla Foundation.