How J Dilla Transcended Hip Hop
J Dilla in his lifetime never reached household name status, and nor did he seem to want to. He was like every musician’s best kept secret, their weapon, their favourite beatmaker that could give something truly unique, and always brilliant. In hip hop, J Dilla has reached legend status. There isn’t a rapper worth their salt in 2022 that hasn’t either used a Dilla beat, sampled Dilla or idolised him: the list stretches from Drake, Kanye, Kendrick, Earl Sweatshirt, J. Cole, Danny Brown, Blu, Tyler the Creator and Frank Ocean. Whilst he is lauded as a revolutionary in Hip Hop, that influence stretches far beyond. He is a musical icon, simply due to his impartial attitude to conventional rules and thinking. His melancholic, bass heavy compositions help birth entirely new genres of music such as Neo Soul and Lo-Fi. His reach finds his material being idolized and scrutinized by modern jazz musicians like Robert Glasper and Terrace Martin. There are entire orchestral performances of beats that he made on an MPC in his mothers’ basement. It’s a testament to J Dilla that his music was so intriguing, so addictive, and so unique that it permeates pretty much any genre it wishes to. He blew away anyone that was smart enough to listen, and these days his fingerprints are everywhere, not just in Hip Hop. These are five Dilla compositions that demonstrate his genre defying influence.
Got Til It’s Gone (Ummah Jay Dee’s Revenge Mix) – Janet Jackson
Janet Jackson’s “The Velvet Rope” is considered to be one of the greatest feats of her career and of R&B in general, and her collaboration with a young producer going by the name of Jay Dee has become clouded in controversy and infamy. J Dilla’s burst onto the scene was one that struck the attention of those who listened, but his climb to public acclaim and iconicity was slow. Back in 1997, Dilla was a relative unknown whose revolutionary way of looking at programmed music had garnered him an almost apprenticeship with A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip, who brought him to every sceptical name in the industry, singing his mystical praises. The first to listen were at first, understandably, confused. But when Jay Dee (as he went by back then) played the Pharcyde the “Runnin” beat, and Busta Rhymes first heard “Still Shining”, Dilla had arrived. He was an entity that viewed a genre that was often beautifully rigid in the rhythm section and decided that he could change that. He took every aspect of the beat and just loosened it up. The kick drum was all over the place. He would record it in real time, unquantized, for sometimes twenty bars, letting it come and go as it pleased, dotting all over the place and constantly shifting in velocity. His snares were perfectly tuned and EQed, hitting like gut punches. His basslines varied from dreamily aquatic, to downright bizarre. What this created was an intersection, his music refused to conform to straight or swung, they occupied the middle.
The original “Got Til It’s Gone” stands as one of Janet Jackson’s biggest songs. Featuring Q Tip and sampling Joni Mitchell, it has all the trademarks of a classic Dilla track, and that’s because according to well accepted rumour – it was. J Dilla was never one for self-promotion, all he seemed to care about was the music, and according to many close collaborators, Dilla produced the track (one of the biggest of the nineties), but was never given official credit on any record sleeves. So, he decided to make a “revenge” remix, which is in my book arguably better than the original. It’s 1990’s Jay Dee on steroids. Wonky kick drums and neck snapping snares riding over a perfect sub bassline. Partner that with a slightly psychedelic Rhodes sample that swims around the mix unpredictably, and you have a relatively unknown beatmaker crafting a fresh new sound for R&B’s biggest name.
Feel Like Makin Love – D’Angelo
J Dilla is often considered the godfather of Lo-Fi hip hop, and whilst that cannot be disputed, I feel like the space that Lo-Fi hip hop is in right now occupies an incredibly different lane to the one that Dilla mastered. But a genre that for me that Dilla ushered in is Neo Soul. Whilst the titans of Neo Soul are indisputably set in stone as the D’Angelos and Lauryn Hills of the world, if you trace their sound back further, they stem from a movement that Dilla sparked. J Dilla coming onto the scene in 1995 almost perfectly collided with D’Angelo’s debut album ‘Brown Sugar’, and sonically the resemblance was clear. Again, there was a looseness, and an intricate laziness to their compositions. Although Questlove has stated that D’Angelo’s was perhaps a result of him not reading the MPC manual, Dilla’s was anything but a mistake. By the time 2000 was upon the world, Questlove, D’Angelo and Dilla had teamed up to form the Soulquarian collective, responsible for the best Neo Soul and Hip Hop fusion there ever was.
By the time the making of D’Angelo’s opus “Voodoo” was underway Dilla’s influence was everywhere. Questlove has recalled many times that J Dilla, and Dilla alone, completely changed the way he played drums. Never before had he felt as liberated from rigid structure than when he first heard a Jay Dee beat – the kick drum sent him into a complete frenzy. Dilla’s willingness to push time signatures and lazy, swung beats to the absolute maximum became a religion for D’Angelo and Questlove in the Voodoo sessions, with D’Angelo often yelling at Questlove to play the drums “drunker”, to the point where the acclaimed drummer was concerned about his reputation. But the result was a piece of music like no other. Although once again Dilla is not officially credited as a producer, Questlove has come out and said that he produced the Roberta Flack cover, and it is incredible. It is hard to explain just how difficult it is to comprehend that Dilla crafted those thick, luscious funky drums on a sampler. The low end is everything on this song. It’s a murky, deep mess of kicks and Moog basslines, that are never afraid of embracing space. The top end is carried along with classic Dilla snares, layered in with a number of claps, clicks and rims that are constantly changing throughout the track, another one of Dilla’s magic subtleties. This song is not only a Neo Soul giant, but ventures into the realms of conventional soul, jazz and even funk, and is the brainchild D’Angelo and Dilla.
Didn’t Cha Know – Erykah Badu
2000 was a busy and brilliant year for the Soulquarian Collective. Having completely taken over Jimi Hendrix’s “Electric Lady” studios for the best part of three years, in one year they released a string of modern classics, with one notable being Erykah Badu’s “Mama’s Gun”. Erykah Badu recalls meeting a very shy and humble J Dilla in 1998. Dilla was famous for making beats in his basement in Detroit, and he never liked to be too far away from it, because that’s all he wanted to do. Erykah Badu was invited down into the basement to meet J Dilla for her upcoming album, and they sat and talked and looked through his meticulous record collection, chucking records on and off the plate as he sat there and watched her sift through. She eventually came to a record she liked the sound of, and he showed her how to sample, and lift the portion she wanted to create the track around. So many producers at the time were demanding the best studios in town, popping up in music vidoes, and shouting their names on tracks. This was the era of Aftermath Dr. Dre, Timbaland and Missy Elliot were all over the radio, and Pharrell and the Neptunes were about to start an iconic run. Where was Dilla? In his basement, and anyone that wanted to work with the wizard had to humble themselves and come and chill. Their friendship blossomed from there, but the song that came out of that session was one of the biggest of Erykah’s career, “Didn’t Cha Know”.
What makes Dilla different was that when he collaborated with his soul contemporaries, he made it work like no one else. The idea isn’t new, but so many times when beatmakers venture into soul or R&B it can feel a tad clunky, maybe even shoehorned in as a “hip hop crossover”, but with Dilla, it was seamless. Sonically this track feels like a record melting in the heat of the day. The bassline takes centre stage, weaving its way through an array of endlessly groovy kicks, rimshots, shakers and an army of congo drums that fly over the mix like bees. I challenge anyone to listen to this song on a summers day and not fall in love with it’s groove. It’s not a hip hop song, it’s a neo soul classic, and a brilliant collaboration between two creative minds.
Reminisce – Bilal
Rounding off Dilla’s Neo Soul run for this list is his collaboration with “Bilal”. This song is almost the brother of the one above, with a heavy focus on bassline. Dilla’s basslines can often go overlooked unless they take centre stage. They could arguably be the hardest aspects of his magic to recreate. Always completely restricted to low end, they have this unpredictable quality to them that is utterly unique, and work so well that no one else could have ever crafted them. Whether they simply compliment and beef up the kick drum, or, as in this case, they carry the track, they are timeless. His musician ship here is on full display, and the bassline creates this warm, mesmerising riff that runs alongside his signature funky, heavy drums. There are samples at play here aswell, but they are very subtle. No one approached sampling like Dilla, apart from maybe Madlib. Here he has lifted a minuscule section from a Joe Bataan song, and just dusted it over his own creation, almost to the point where it just washes over you, almost like a high hat. Using samples like musical components to a track is beyond difficult, and here Dilla seems to recognise that the sample can be the polish, rather than the wood itself.
Think Twice – J Dilla
Although J Dilla was primarily interested in the MPC, he did sometimes dabble in instrumentation, particularly drumming, and ‘Think Twice’ is a mind blowing example. Questlove in 2011 can be seen talking about this track, and Dilla’s unflinchingly nonchalant attitude towards equipment. Questlove went into shock when he saw the drum kit Dilla used to record his jazz opus, it was a piece of scrap metal drum kit, with screws and parts missing all over the place. Dilla didn’t even have drumsticks, and since he was recording late at night with no shops open, he found a mallet, some toilet paper and a few rubber bands. His reasoning was that he wanted the drums to sound muted, and therefore his DIY approach fitted better. J Dilla and his janky drum kit were at the steering wheel of this jazz track, and in the passenger seat was Dwele on the keys and trumpets, and Antwan Gardner on the trombone. On an album full of hip-hop centric beats and cyphers, “Think Twice” stands alone, and has gained a cult following for its ambition.
You would be hard pressed to find a song that is this smooth, smokey, groovy and sultry all at the same time. Dilla took his hand to drums and musical direction and made a cult classic first time around. The drums on this song are bananas. Everything is perfectly muted, never overstepping the mark. The kick is so muffled yet so punchy, and the snare is barely a snare. It’s just a mess of claps, rims and clicks that do nothing but add to this building swing. The track falls away into this isolated jazz piano break, and the beat comes back in with this unexplainable force and groove that is the closest music can get to addictive. It’s hard to really talk about how unique this song is for an MPC beat maker to have made, but this song as a fusion stands utterly alone as the one of the grooviest and most dynamic songs I have ever heard.