J Dilla - 20 Of The Best
“I HAVE TO WORK ON BEHALF OF J DILLA” – KANYE WEST
I don’t think I would be leaving a trail of blown minds behind me if I was to say that part of what makes Kanye West is his relentless ambition and ego. Its what makes him so supremely successful and revolutionary, his ability to look at any producer and rapper and prove to whoever will listen that he can do what they do – but better. Yet one musician Kanye “I am a God” West refuses to place himself above, or even near, is J Dilla.
Your favourite producer’s favourite producer, J Dilla may not have the discography of Kanye, the radio hits of Dr. Dre nor the clout of DJ Premier, but he is the best producer to ever do it, and they all know it. Dilla broke every single rule in the book of producing, resulting in an approach to music that no one had pioneered before, and no one has since. Hip Hop revolves around syncopation. The relationship between lyrics and programmed drums which fall perfectly when they should, to deliver a cathartic connection between beats and vocals. Producers typically take four bars, loop them and then quantize them, an automatic adjustment tool which aligns the drums in a perfect rhythm. Dilla didn’t use that, and whilst that may sound sloppy, it was genius. Dilla’s music has a fifth dimension: feeling. The drums he laid down became the most revered drums in the industry, and nobody could wrap their mind around it. He was taking a drum machine and a sampler and making beats that sounded like fully fledged bands. He embraced the imperfections of his music, and the result were beats that sounded alive. He humanised his production to the extent that the drum machine sounded like a real drum set, every kick, snare and bassline was carefully selected and layered to produce a sound that’s musical richness knew no bounds. The art of sampling is lost on so many, to those that believe it’s a form of musical theft and that anyone can “put drums over a famous song”, J Dilla exists for your humiliation. Nobody sampled like Dilla. Obscene amounts of cratedigging in the nineties saw the top producers deem certain records “unsamplable”, but twenty minutes with Jay Dee and you have a timeless track that you would never have thought of in your wildest dreams. His catalogue is near flawless, he wasn’t a charting producer, and nor was he interested in the limelight. There was no producer tag, and he was relatively low key, but for everyone that worked with him he changed their perception of music forever. His idols and influencers became superfans and students of him by the end of his career. To listen to Dilla’s music is to feel his unflinching dedication to his craft, he was a musician like no other. Unfortunately due to his tragic passing in 2006, we only got a decade of music, but there isn’t a drop in quality throughout.
Without ordering them, I created a list of my favourite (almost an impossibility) J Dilla Beats. Choosing took an age, because they are all excellent.
Runnin’ – The Pharcyde (1995)
J Dilla’s highest charting song was actually one of the first major release songs he ever did, when he was locked in to produce The Pharcyde’s follow up to the their legendary “Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde”. Although not fully appreciated at the time, as people were turned off by the departure from their more light-hearted and comical approach in the early nineties, nobody would argue that greatness was born when Jay Dee cut his teeth with the single “Runnin’”. It’s just so irresistibly different. An obscure Spanish guitar loop rolls in just before a snare slap that has more in common with Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” than it does anything in the hip hop canon. Obviously the Pharcyde do their thing, but the beat is front and centre of what makes this track so great. Questlove of the Roots couldn’t believe this was a drum programmed song, demanding to know why he wasn’t asked to drum for the track and to meet the mysterious man behind the hit.
Can’t Stop This – The Roots (2006)
This is probably the only example of a song (Time: The Donut of the Heart) being lifted off “Donuts” and the essence of the song wasn’t in the least bit compromised. Probably my favourite beat off “Donuts”. The Roots were obviously closely associated with Dilla through the Soulquarians, and payed tribute to him with this song shortly after his passing. The Jackson 5 sample, in true Dilla fashion, is taken and manipulated to serve a completely different purpose and becomes the centre piece of one of the most emotive beats he ever crafted. Black Thought being one of the best to ever touch a microphone pays homage in a way that doesn’t overburden the track, and The Roots give the instrumental plenty of time to breathe. Again, this song is the reason people flock to J Dilla, it’s the feeling. There is something indescribable in his music that no other producer has learned how to harness, it’s just emotion.
E=mc2 – J Dilla & Common (2006)
This beat is as fucking ridiculous as it’s name. Dilla takes some obscenely obscure sample from a maths orientated techno song and turns into possibly the most monstrous beat I have ever heard in my life. Blasting this on speakers is cause for concern, it sounds like the beats trying to break out and assault you, all whilst a distorted autotuned voice wails “mc squareeeed”. Its truly the love child of bizarre and brilliant. Common steps up to the challenge of taming this beast, and he does it perfectly; riding the beat with trademark finesse.
Climax – Slum Village (2000)
J Dilla was the heart of his hometown group Slum Village, a beloved underground trio that released a cult classic “Fantastic Vol 2” during the Soulquarian era. The tape lacks the lyrical dexterity of many other artists that Dilla worked with, but I think that was a deliberate move. Baatin and T3 recognized that this tape was special because of Dilla’s musicianship. These beats were some of the best beats hip hop had ever heard, so why overperform and risk clashing with the smooth instrumentals when you could just embed yourself in the music. “Climax” is easily the smoothest beat on the whole album. Spacey, ambient and not without that lazy, laidback beat clap that’s deceivingly difficult to pull off without sounding sloppy. Dilla even raps the first verse. Its musical honey.
Find A Way – A Tribe Called Quest (1998)
The second phase of the legendary A Tribe Called Quest always feels a little underappreciated in my book. Sure, it wasn’t nearly as ground-breaking or as classic as Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders, but Beats, Rhymes & Life and The Love Movement are really solid albums in their own respect. A diminish in chemistry is certainly apparent, and the addition of Consequence proved controversial to die hard fans, but one thing that can only be seen as a positive was Q Tips decision to heavily involve his mentor Jay Dee in production. The Love Movement, whilst not a perfect album, has J Dilla’s fingerprints all over it, and Find A Way is the perfect feel good single. The hook saturated in harmony gets a one-way ticket into your mind, while the beat thumps away, swaggering slightly behind as it does so, creating a chilled but upbeat love anthem that’s vastly underappreciated in the Tribe canon.
Pause – J Dilla (2001)
A perfect example of Dilla’s versatility. After a stretch of Soulquarian albums full of funk, soul and jazz, Dilla paints a vivid picture of his hometown Detroit, crafting a strip club anthem. It’s a sultry, classic Dilla beat with multiple layers of percussion, with each thump backed up by heavy bass that overrides the sound of keys shimmering in the background. As Frank n Dank come in with their verse an electric guitar slides into the mix, creating an epicness to their introduction. Its cut and chopped to leave the barebones beat to nestle the verse into perfection. An underrated gem that reeks of club smoke.
Feel Like Makin’ Love – D’Angelo (2000)
Although he remained uncredited for this whole album, his presence looms over D’Angelo’s neo soul opus like a guardian angel. D’Angelo almost drove the Soulquarians, particularly the drummer ?uestlove, insane during the process of recording, as he kept asking for “drunker” drums. What he meant by this was what Dilla had mastered 5 years previously. D’Angelo, despite concern from his drummer, wanted the drumming to lag behind to almost the point of ridicule, and to be quote on quote “lazy” to induce a late night, slow and inebriated sound. The result was pure perfection, and arguably the best soul album of the last 30 years (seriously). Feel Like Makin Love was never officially credited to Dilla, but it was later revealed that he had done the record, and its not hard to tell. Dilla slipped into the neo soul / RnB pocket unbelievably well, crafting his heaviest, stickiest, sexiest instrumental yet. The hot and slow funk of this record builds in presence, not in a rising sensation, but one that mimics treacle soaking into bread. It’s an incredible song mastered by the king of neo soul himself.
Players – Slum Village (2000)
There’s not much to say about this record other than its one of the most ingenious slices of sample manipulation there is. He famously sampled from The Singers Unlimited song “Clair”, he took a vocal snippet of the band singing the word “Clair”, slowed it, distorted it, and now you have “Player”. Its truly remarkable, and so simple, but so brilliant. The song is one of the most relaxing in his catalogue, a gorgeous beat based around vocal samples and Voodoo-esque drum claps. This beat could be looped from 24 hours in my ears and there wouldn’t be a single complaint, it’s hypnotic.
The Light – Common (2000)
This was the first J Dilla beat I ever heard and remains one of my absolute favourites to this day. I would say along with “Runnin”, this is his most recognisable work and for good reason. The way he worked the Bobby Caldwell sample is musical mastery. Again, its on the simpler end his spectrum, but that its beauty. His synergy with Common is perfectly complimented by one of the prettiest hip-hop songs out there. The drums reach deep into your ears, snapping on the way out as the piano sample skips along the top of the track, to be accompanied by layers of piano keys as it hits its chorus. The verses are laid bare, topped with an aquatic and warped guitar lick as Common delivers his affectionate verses. It’s a perfect marriage; the chemistry between an artist and a producer that everyone is searching for is on full display on this record.
Love Is… - Common (2005)
Common’s career is impossible to separate from his production. He’s one of the few artists that’s lucky enough to have worked with three different generations of legend, No I.D in 1994’s Resurrection, J Dilla in 2000’s Like Water For Chocolate, and on this album Kanye West. This was undoubtedly Kanye’s album, and he did a wonderful job of bringing a slightly fading Common simultaneously back into the mainstream and the Hip Hop community, but still Common gave two tracks to his long-time partner: J Dilla. He tackles Marvin Gaye’s “God is Love”, and delivers a sonically simple, but astoundingly beautiful instrumental composed of a stunning chord progression and sun kissed piano notes that chime in with the string section chorus. Common matches the vibe perfectly with his writing as usual. It really is one of the most beautifully produced songs I have ever heard.
One For Ghost – J Dilla (2006)
Towards the end of his legendary instrumental album “Donuts” comes “One For Ghost”. An ode to old school soul sampling, the beat is built around Luther Ingram’s line “She used to whip me with a strap, when I was bad”, and it sounds jarring on paper, but works wonders on the track. Its vocal loop of the drawn out “baddd” makes for a mesmerising hook, and the barebones, gentle drums create a track steeped in atmosphere and emotion. As the title requests, Ghostface Killah used this beat in his 2006 song “Whip You With A Strap”, a heartfelt reminisce about his childhood. He does the original more than justice.
Fall In Love – Slum Village (2000)
Slum Village’s most beloved song is an ode to the boom bap. This song manages to harness a bizarre juxtaposition. Its built on crispy, echoed, loud drums reminiscent of the early nineties which give the track a wintery East Coast feel. But they are overlapped by warm almost synth like bass notes, which brilliantly mimic the melody of the chorus, as a voice that’s mastered to be far off can be heard singing “fall in love..”. Part of Dilla’s genius was his ability to be pragmatic about his beats. He would often react to the vocals that were being laid down by the rapper / singer, and would match their tempo or emphasis, completely abandoning the original drum pattern, only to return to it once that small section was complete. Its flourishes that make “Fall in Love” brilliant, there is nothing showy or flashy to see here.
Didn’t Cha Know – Erykah Badu (2000)
The Soulquarians (of which J Dilla was a crucial part in) overtook Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studios in New York from 1999-2001, and the creative output was some of the best music of the last 20 years. As D’Angelo was painstakingly crafting “Voodoo”, another neo soul giant Erykah Badu was in the next-door studio making her album “Mama’s Gun”. She recruited Dilla to produce multiple tracks, with the clear stand out being “Didn’t Cha Know”, an irresistible piece of neo soul history. This instrumental is mind blowing. It’s slow, heavily layered jazz that swings with alarming amounts swagger. Dilla occasionally sends in an array of African Drums that flurry over the top of the beat like a swarm of bees, flying from the forefront of your speakers and then getting lost in the funk. The guitar loop sounds as though its melting as it warps its way across the track whilst Erykah delivers a killer vocal performance, using her voice as another instrumental layer. He is so much more than a hip hop beat maker, and this track perfectly hammers that point home.
The Diff’rence – J Dilla (2006)
Another “Donuts” instrumental, this one has euphoria by the gallon. This beat is happy to be alive, it’s an anthemic celebration that takes from its Kool & The Gang horn section and pairs it with a thumping bassline. The endlessly pillowey piano jumps create a vibe that deserves to be up there with the “September” of the world. Its two minutes of pure bliss. That’s all. He makes it sound so seamless and so simple, but there’s over four samples that are coexisting at the hands of the chief puppeteer, merging to create greatness.
Think Twice – J Dilla (2001)
This is Dilla’s way of saying “don’t box me in, I’m different”. On an eclectic album that ranges from street beats, to Spanish influence, this is by far the smoothest coolest song on the entire project. Jay Dee gives in to his urges, and fully commits to making a jazz instrumental, and its unreal. The trademark, deep, bassy thumps come in over the top of a mirage of slow jazz. A horn section begins to work its way in between the percussion, but before it can let loose the song cuts to a deep piano riff and finger clicks, and the listener is transported to a 60’s spy film. The beat than wanes its way back in, now fully accompanied by the rich horn section, giving it a silkiness that would make a bed sheet blush. The drums change at least three times in this song, creating cathartic and subtle beat switches which don’t phase the other instruments at play. A Masterclass in versatility.
It’s Your World – Part 1 & 2 – Common (2005)
The only other Dilla beat on this Kanye West lead album, and its another gem. Perhaps James Yancey’s increasingly domineering illness had instilled a new level of sentiment in him because this beat is another emotive piece of music. It’s the cinematic brother of “Love Is…”, a song filled with hope and dreams. That’s all that comes to mind when this song comes on, there is no real way to describe it, it just feels so right. “Its Your World” (thanks in part to Common’s writing) feels like exactly that, it feels like the first ray of sunshine after a storm, its endearingly warm and comforting, and its easy to get lost in. Its pure soul.
Rock My World – Yancey Boys (2013)
I rarely make statements as bold as this about artists because usually they are blind and futile, but I find it difficult to refute the belief that Dilla doesn’t have a bad beat. It blows my mind that in 2013, seven years after his passing, his brother Illa J is still able to find an album worth of unreleased Dilla beats, and they are as good as they are on “Sunset Blvd”. This Yancey Boys album is home to some incredible beats, beats that producers would die to attribute themselves to, and they are the loosies, the unreleased dregs of the Dilla machine. This is probably the most rogue song on this list, and its not widely known at all, but it should be. It’s a simple but danceable beat interjected by acoustic guitar chords, and it just makes for such a mover of a track. Its impossible to not move to this beat. Your head, even if you aren’t aware of it, will bob along to this groove, unless you’re a psychopath.
10 Bricks – Raekwon (2009)
This beat is originally “The Red” off J Dilla and Madlib’s beat tape “JayLib”. Usually I would prefer the original, but Madlib is not the most gifted rapper and I always felt he squandered this beat. This beat ventures a step beyond aggressive, and into the realm of downright nasty. It feels like shards of glass penetrating your skull with the sharp guitars cutting through the drumline with a tense hostility. The Wu Tang Clan would at first appear to be in a very different realm of Hip Hop to the soulful Dilla, but for this track, they were perfect. Raekwon lifted the beat for his highly anticipated follow up to his mafioso classic “Only Built For Cuban Linx” and turned it into the aggressive, lyrical, street posse cut it was destined to be with help from Cappadonna and Ghostface. Its classic. The best producer hooks up with some of the best MC’s alive.
So Far to Go – J Dilla, Common & D’Angelo (2006)
This always feels like Common’s send off song for his beloved friend. It’s a simple, spacey beat that samples the Isley Brothers, but this version is special as D’Angelo blesses the hook and unlike the original “Bye”, this has a beautiful piano solo that plays out the song. Common isn’t rapping to the level he usually does here, but it feels deliberate. The vibe of the song is incredibly chilled, and almost reflective, and to have a high energy Common twisting his words wouldn’t seem right. This song feels so warm, gifted by the triad of the Soulquarians, and D’Angelo’s hook is perfectly executed, not over-sung, but at one with the music.
Last Donut Of The Night – J Dilla (2006)
I have thought long and hard about this song, and have come to the conclusion that I will never be able to describe what about this song hits me, but this song devastates me every time I listen to it. Dilla created the entire of “Donuts” on his death bed as he was battling Lupus. His friends bought him a portable record player for his hospital bedside, and his mother every single day would go down to his favourite record store and bring him a crate of records. Propped up, on oxygen and slowly dying, he used his last strengths to make his magnus opus. It’s the purest dedication to a craft there is, and the album is an immense listen, all completely instrumental. This song was supposedly the last song he created before he died three days after the release of “Donuts”, and I think its integral to the DNA of this instrumental. But again, there is nothing grandiose, overly morbid, or dramatic about this song, it just simply sounds like an acceptance that this world is no longer for him. I can’t describe it, but this song no matter where I am or how I’m feeling captivates my attention without fail and sends my mind into his headspace for just a split second. It sums up perfectly J Dilla’s work. “Donuts” showed the world that he could speak through his beats, he didn’t need words, his instrumentals conveyed and induced the exact feeling he wants, and this song is no different.