I suppose this review can also fall under the category of a dedication, of an artist I literally just stumbled across. J Dilla worked with an array of different artists such as Janet Jackson, Q-Tip, De La Soul, Busta Rhymes and plenty more. He was a brilliant producer. Great respect goes out to producers nowadays because, lets face it, the artists without their expertise would be nowhere. Look at Michael Jackson, who worked with Quincy Jones on Off The Wall. Superb album, and I am sure Quincy had a huge impact on the particular sound Jackson was trying to create.
But there is also Mark Ronson. Without him, how big a music superstar would Amy Winehouse be? She would probably be stuck in Jazz Cafe’s for the rest of her life. Ofcourse we cannot ignore Timbaland, who has launched international success for the likes of Missy Elliott, Nelly Furtado, and Justin Timberlake. But producers nowadays are just as important as the artists themselves. In rare cases do the artists themselves orchestrate how they want a sample made, or how its mastered etc. They are the conductors, and J Dilla was a maestro.
But I wouldn’t be surprised if you are reading this and wondering who on earth this guy is? As I mentioned about producers in current times they can’t help but drop their name into a song (e.g. “Konvict……Just Blaze….David Banner….So…Def”) as if they are the artists themselves! Pharrell Williams gave a speech once in an award ceremony and mentioned Dilla to be his favourite producer, and mentioned to the crowd that “you probably don’t know who he is do you?”
He never produced a mainstream hit, but his life work was hugely influential. He produced music that had hardly been heard of before in the Hip Hop scene. It was a different sound, a Dilla sound. He never marked his territory like other producers, or hogged the mike, he just concentrated on his work. He was so serious about his work, its sadly took an unhealthy toll on his life.
Growing up in Detroit, James Yancey had been forced by his parents to get into music! From a young age he was already listening to Jazz, Funk and Rap albums. He played the keyboard, cello, trumpet and most notably the drums. He formed a group in High School called Slum Village, and they began to record their music with the help of Dilla leading the way.
A session musician named Fiddler who had worked with the likes of Prince, met Dilla, and introduced him to the MPC drum machine. He was a very quick learner, and it was here that his love for drums really reached it’s peak. He was a natural. Hardcore Hip Hop fans remember Dilla for his shuffling high-hats, oddly placed handclaps, spacious drum loops, and drastically reshaped samples sometimes obvious (use of a classic motown track) or obscure (Jazz/Funk fusions, Benny Goodman style).
From being introduced to Q-Tip (thanks to Fiddler), he was well on his way to a consistent career of producing. It was no surprise Busta Rhymes, De La Soul, Janet Jackson, and Common (to name a few) were after his services. Similar to the artists he worked with, he was never really chasing the limelight, or hitting the big time in the charts. He was content with what he did. He was pleased to be working with such people, doing what he loved so dearly.
Dipping in and out of Hip Hop from 2004 onwards, he was also experimenting with R&B and produced Erykah Badu’s Mama Gun. But Dilla wasn’t only just a producer, he became a prolific solo artist from 2001 onwards. Welcome 2 Detroit was his debut, followed by Donuts which was a series of instrumentals. A majority of albums and mixtapes you will find on the net belonging to Dilla were mainly instrumentals as his love for music screamed through all his workings.
He never really stopped. He was diagnosed with a serious blood condition two years before he released donuts in 2005. But that never stopped him, he still toured and worked around the world in a wheelchair! It was his calling, it was his passion. February 7th 2005, 3 days after his birthday, J Dilla passed away, after a cardiac arrest.
Ultimately, his death has had a significant impact on the hip hop community. Besides countless tribute tracks and concerts, Dilla’s death created a wealth of interest in his remaining catalogue, and, consequently, Dilla’s influence on hip hop production became more apparent.
75% completed, The Shining was released in 2006. It has one of the best Hip Hop samples I have ever heard; Won’t Do, which has a great video, and Dilla himself Mcing, is a great way to bow out. I suppose there is a lot to take on the chin by him. Its strange to praise somebody that hasn’t received the great compliments he deserved when he was alive. He was a worker, and he worked his way to the top, but sadly also to his death.
Next time you hear a “So Def,” or a “Just Blaze,” although cool producers, they are just attention whores. The real producers are the ones who work for the music. J Dilla did just that. May he rest in peace. x