the unknown side of what's bumpin' in the trucks

Stelfox remembers J Dilla in March issue of The Wire…

In posse on 2008/03/14 at 4:38 pm

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Generation Loss

by Dave Stelfox

Hip-hop has a long history of posthumous mythology. From the industry’s mercenary exhumations of Tupac and Biggie, to the grassroots worship of fallen local heroes such as Texas’s DJ Screw and the Bay Area’s Mac Dre, its relationship with mortality flits from the complex to the conflicting, the sincere to the crassly opportunistic. On 10 February 2006, however, its safe to say that the culture lost one of its most formidable talents. After a long battle with the debilitating immune condition lupus, James Dewitt Yancey, also known as Jay Dee or J Dilla, passed away at his home in Los Angeles at the age of 32. Two years on, its now clearer than ever that this young producer achieved something that few musicians ever manage, leaving not only a timeless and innovative back catalogue, but a whole generation inspired by his idiosyncratic and intricately wrought work.

While artists such as Sa-Ra Creative Partners and Flying Lotus continue to carry Dilla’s torch, he was equally revered in life, counting figures such as The Neptunes’ Pharrell Williams. Kanye West and Just Blaze among his biggest admirers. Even so, he cut a remarkably low-key figure in the frequently brash and excessive world of contemporary urban music Rather than basking in the limelight, Dilla was always happiest letting his beats do most of the talking. And how they spoke.

Growing up a shy child in a musical household in Detroit. his later involvement with the city’s independent hip-hop scene would shape his life. After rapping and making music on a rudimentary studio set-up, it was thanks to being taken under the wing of local producer Amp Fiddler that Dilla would begin to realise his full potential. By 1993, Dilla and his friend MC Phat Kat had dropped their first wax as the duo 1st Down. In addition to this, he also produced an LP entitled The Album That Time Forgot for 5 Elementz, a group including the late Detroit MC Proof. Throughout the mid-to-late 1990s, working under the name of Jay Dee, he continued to concentrate on studio work, steadily rising through the ranks and creating infectious music for instantly recognisable names such as Busta Rhymes, A Tribe Called Quest, The Roots. D’Angelo and Erykah Badu.

Blending forward-looking techniques with a deep knowledge of hip-hop’s past, his aesthetic perfectly suited these distinctive MCs and honeyed neo-soul vocalists. Dilla’s presence was such that even those unfamiliar with his name or the breadth of his oeuvre will know at least some of the work from this period, chiefly a stellar remix of Janet Jackson’s “Got Till It’s Gone,” De La Soul’s “Stakes Is High” and a large proportion of The Pharcyde’s 1995 album Labcabincalifornia, including the classic “Runnin.”

It was, however, as Slum Village, the group formed with childhood friends Baatin and T3 at Pershing High School, that Dilla’s gifts really began to shine. While membership allowed him to step out from behind the mixing boards and command the mic – a facet of his career that would continue to be explored on 2001’s Welcome 2 Detroit and Jaylib’s 2003 Champion Sound albums – it also gave him the creative control and freedom to become the kind of instrumental artist we know him as today.

Of course, others had recognised Dilla’s promise far earlier. As longtime friend DJ House Shoes says: “I got to know him when I was working in a record store in Detroit. I remember hearing his music for the first time in the same way I remember first hearing hip-hop. If there were two big musical moments for me, they’d be discovering hip-hop and then discovering Dilla. He was doing things that no one else was doing, really pushing it to the next level. To this day, I still think that he’s one of the most underrated artists of all time.”

Slum Village’s albums, the underground Fantastic Vol 1 (1997) and the much delayed but eventually commercially released Vol 2 (2000), provided ideal showcases for Dilla’s signature sound: a woozy, smeary and crackly collage of soul and jazz licks underpinned by the lurching, peg-legged rhythms with which he gradually became synonymous. In a time when urban music was steadily undergoing a futuristic reinvention thanks to the increasingly far-flung beats and steely synths employed by the likes of Timbaland and The Neptunes, Dilla’s work was both timely and contradictory. Heavily influenced by the styles of DJ Premier and Pete Rock, the source material was bass-heavy and grainy, as if it had been discovered at the bottom of a dark, dusty cellar. The way these samples were assembled, chopped and spliced together, though, lent a resolutely contemporary gloss. Dilla merged the modern and inventive with a uniquely organic warmth and accessibility.

This approachable character extended into his personal life and his dealings with other artists, too. Even after Dilla had relocated to Los Angeles, he maintained close links with Detroit and took any available opportunity to rep his city. Working with the likes of Frank N Dank, Platinum Pied Pipers and Common (a relationship that reached its peak with the 2000 album Like Water For Chocolate), this friends and family vibe was vital to his vision. A desire to surround himself with like minds was also evident in his membership of the Soulquarians collective -along with Talib Kweli. Common, Mos Def, James Poyser, Erykah Badu, ?uestlove, D’Angelo, Q-Tip, Raphael Saadiq and Bilal – and production crew The Ummah, with Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad of ATribe Called Quest.

Detroit MC Guilty Simpson, whose current album Ode To The Ghetto includes the Dilla produced track “I Must LoveYou,” explains: “Getting involved with me was typical of Dilla. He didn’t care who you were. It didn’t matter how famous you were or if you were just coming up. If he liked what you were doing, he’d do everything he could to help you. He also always did what he could for Detroit and never stopped supporting the city. Now that he’s gone, it’s up to all of us to make sure that his work lives on because, even though he’s an inspiration to thousands of people, no one has come even close to making music like he did.”

As if to prove his hometown credentials, in 2001 Dilla released in both instrumental and vocal versions his solo debut album Welcome 2 Detroit on the UK’s BBE label (this affiliation would also continue in death with 2006’s The Shining, an album that had to be completed by longstanding associate Karriem Riggins). As one might expect, this was a solidly Motor City affair, featuring vocal contributions from Phat Kat, Beej, Frank N Dank, Elzhi and Dilla himself. Unfortunately, little of the MCing matched up to the production. Phat Kat’s turn on “Rico Suave Bossa Nova” is particularly dismal and Dilla’s own verses show him to be less of a lyricist than a behind-the-scenes man at this stage. However, instrumental interludes “Think Twice” and the cheekily titled “BBE (Big Booty Express)” are especially noteworthy; the former a delicious lick-over of Donald Byrd’s track of the same name, highlighting one aspect of Dilla’s sound, and the latter a thumping, kinetic reworking of Kraftwerk’s “Trans Europe Express” that, in hindsight, acts as a significant preview of his later work.

Around this period, a solo deal with MCA Records had also come Dilla’s way, leading to his departure from Slum Village. It was at this point that he changed his recording alias from Jay Dee in order to avoid confusion with fellow producer Jermaine Dupri. Breaking with that which had already been seen on Welcome 2 Detroit, Dilla’s plan was to rhyme over instrumentals by others, among them Madlib. Pete Rock and Kanye West. Unfortunately, the whole project went sour when MCA’s personnel changes, and it remains mothballed to this day.

As a reaction to this disappointment. Dilla took a typically contrary step. In 2003. he released the Ruff Draft EP on the German label Mummy/Groove Attack. For someone with designs on establishing themselves in US hip-hop major leagues, this move could be seen as virtual career suicide: wilfully cutting all corporate ties and putting out a limited-run mini album on a European imprint that few people who mattered in the industry would know or even care about. Evidently Dilla didn’t think like that, and saw it instead as an opportunity to confound expectations and deliver the kind of adventurous, uncompromising work that would truly represent who he was.

All recorded in under a week, Ruff Draft did exactly that. In many ways a confrontational record. originally distributed on vinyl only, it combined off- the-cuff spontaneity with a deliberately eclectic and experimental attitude, exploring a new corroded sound equally indebted to Industrial machine music, synthpop – much like the earlier “BBE (Big Booty Express)” – and glitch. As promised in an intro saying, “You wanna bounce in your whip with that real live shit Sounds like it’s coming straight from the motherfuckin’ cassette, y’all,” an intentionally gauzy, lo-fi quality masks much of the music, adding a dense, gritty and brooding quality Implicit in the proclamation is an alternative assertion of what hip-hop really is.

Although most of the original pressings six full tracks are closer to avant garde electronica than contemporary street rap, this is still music made for banging in your ride or kicking beck with your people This broadening outlook and desire to reach out to other musical communities can also be seen in collaborations such as Dilla’s remix of Four Tet’s “As Serious As Your Life” released in the same year as Ruff Draft, and his vocal contribution to Dabrye’s 2004 single “Game Over.” While tracks such as “Make’em NV” make explicit his disillusionment with the larger hip-hop machine and braggadocio reigns supreme in many of the rhymes, there’s still plenty of playfulness to be found, especially in the sublime “Nothing Like This”, featuring nonchalantly sung verses processed to within an inch of their life then dropped over a squalling reversed melodic sample, and the gratuitously lascivious funk of “Crushin’ (Yeeeea!).”

As well as a stylistic turning point, this EP also underscored Dilla’s increasing commitment to independent labels. This much was apparent when he hooked up with Peanut Butter Wolf’s Stones Throw imprint to record Jaylib’s Champion Sound, released in 2003. A collaboration with producer and MC Madlib (Otis Jackson Jr.) on which each raps over tracks by the other, along with contributions by Talib Kweli, Guilty Simpson and Percee P, most of this album was realised with both men living thousands of miles apart. Accordingly, Dilla and Madlib worked remotely, sending tracks back and forth to one another, as illustrated in the introductory instrumental “LA to Detroit.” However, the result is far more cohesive than such approaches generally allow. While Dilla’s MCing occasionally falls short of brilliance, it’s much tighter than on Welcome 2 Detroit, and by this point his production was on fire. With Madlib much the more accomplished and versatile rapper, the tracks on which he ides Dilla’s beats are by far the most satisfying, particularly “React” and “Strip Club,” both featuring Jackson’s helium-voiced alter-ego Quasimoto. Jarring, strange and otherworldly, this record shows that despite their essentially contrasting natures, both producers’ styles come from a similar and complementary place. It’s difficult to imagine a better pairing.

“To be around throughout the period when he and Madlib were working on Champion Sound was an incredible experience,” says Stones Throw’s general manager Egon. “Here was this man who had recently come out of the major label system, but you can tell that he really wanted to get away from that and do something different. On that record, you could feel that all the rules had changed. Seeing the way that those two artists influenced each other and the way that they interacted with each other musically was a real inspiration. It was one of those times when you feel truly privileged.”

Throughout this time, Dilla’s health problems were also beginning to take their toll, his punishing working schedule only making matters worse. Soon after Champion Sound was completed he decided to relocate to Los Angeles for the sake of both his own wellbeing and career. Few but those closest to him realised the true extent of his illness until, in a frequently quoted March 2004 interview in Urb magazine, he referenced an earlier collapse from kidney failure.

“I had never been so sick in all my life, he said. had never been in the hospital for nothing. What happened was that the doctor told me that I’d ruptured my kidney from being too busy and being stressed out and not eating right. He told me that if I’d waited another day, I might not have made it There’d be days when I wouldn’t eat at all because I’d be in the basement working all day. Even after being in the hospital so long, I had to fight with the doctors to go home! because being away from music was starting to get to me.”

Sadly, this downward trajectory was to continue, with Dilla performing the bulk of a 2005 European tour confined to a wheelchair. Similarly, his final and by far his best album, Donuts, would largely he constructed in a hospital bed. His mother, Maureen Yancey, taking equipment to her son’s room so he could keep active and continue to do what he loved best. Listening with this in mind lends a deeply visceral and emotive quality to the content of Donuts. Of its 31 tracks, few last much longer than a minute indicating the artist’s failing stamina, and giving a very real sense of a man battling to realise as many ideas as possible before it’s too late. This feeling is only emphasised by the fact that the album begins with the prophetically titled “Donuts (Outro).” Hidden meaning aside, the mood of the music itself is dazzling, fluctuating from the tough and intense “Workinonit” to the kind of scratchy, soul soaked grooves that drove so much of Dilla’s most popular early work. There are also moments of transcendent beauty, including “Waves,” “Don’t Cry” and “Dilla Says Go” that hint at the attainment of inner peace. perhaps even a cautious optimism.

Typically, the building blocks used to construct Donuts are omnivorous, blending the obscure with the commonplace arid giving the album a sense of grounding but also a mysterious, unknowable air. While “Geek Down” hooks itself around a chunky, well-worn loop, “Lightworks” plunders Raymond Scott’s eerie cartoon soundtracks. As such, Donuts may appear schizophrenic and half-finished on first listen, its samples roughly chopped down, its melodies and beats breaking off with not so much as a moment’s notice or jacknifing abruptly into the nest track. However, this is unlikely to be the case Dilla’s perfectionism was always at the very core of his appeal. Given the circumstances surrounding is creation, it’s far more reasonable to assume that this multilayered record is exactly what he had in mind – an astonishing and endearing self-written epitaph. After all, as with their composer’s own life, these songs may be short but they still do extraordinary things.

www.thewire.co.uk

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  1. […] Major, a under appreciated giant within the music industry (think Dilla, for real) passed away a little over a year ago on Feb 28, 2008 at the age of 33. He died from […]

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