Few figures in hip-hop have had such a resounding impact on the jazz community as Detroit’s own James Yancey, better known as Jay Dee, or J Dilla. A prolific producer whose clientele included everyone from A Tribe Called Quest to Busta Rhymes, from Erykah Badu to Janet Jackson, Dilla’s unique sound and
revolutionary beat concept influenced an entire generation of contemporary musicians. From early collaborations with Slum Village and The Pharcyde, to his late 90’s association with the Soulquarians (a collective that included names like D’angelo, Common, and ?uestlove), Dilla was a pioneering force in the hip-hop and R&B of the future, eventually inspiring the work of a wide array of artists, including Robert Glasper, Chris Dave, Karriem Riggins, Madlib, Mos Def, Shafiq Husayn, and Miguel Atwood-Ferguson. With the 5th anniversary of his passing approaching, we asked four of our favorite artists to share their thoughts on J Dilla–his life, his music, and his legacy.
Bilal Oliver–Neo-Soul Pioneer, Dilla collaborator
When did you first hear Dilla’s music?
Bilal: Originally I heard Dilla’s music and really got put onto him by Ahmir–?uestlove. I had never heard him before and everyone was talking about him. He had a reputation among heads and his music had a mystique. I remember me and Rob [Glasper]; I used to bring Rob with me when I would go out to Detroit. Everybody was wondering, “What’s Dilla look like?” Rob was there when I went to work with him.
The first project Dilla and I both worked on was with Common [2000's "Like Water For Chocolate"], but I Didn’t get to see his creative process until I brought him in on 1st Born Second. He was very loose, very organic. He started with a really simplistic, minimalist kind of beat, and he would use his records to add the colors that he wanted to. He knew how to handle every piece of his lab.
What made Dilla different from other producers?
Bilal: Dilla was the first cat–he knew all music. He had such a library in his head. I remember the way he would get a lot of his ideas- we would just drive around in his car. Before people had an iPod, he would take his records and bounce them to CD, so we could listen to them while we were driving.
Cat’s whole house was covered with records. His house was like a library. He was always checking out music. He would be walking around the house like a human iPod, checking out records and writing the beat in his head. He would be done with the whole beat before cats would be finished writing the verse.
He had an understanding–he had a certain understanding of music. He had an understanding of voicings. Later on in his life he started to play instruments. He could always get on an instrument and jam with cats. I remember him being able to recreate whole samples by himself.
What were the foundations of his creative concept? What was he thinking about when he made a beat? How did he influence cats that came after him?
Bilal: Dilla played a lot with time. He also played a lot with the clave and how that worked. He was great at how you break down the triplet like [Bernard] Purdie would do it. He brought a new concept to the shuffle in hip-hop.
Dilla influenced my sound in a lot of different ways. Working with him–his fluid approach to music is the way that I approach mine, in the way that he made his music and blended all different styles to make the music he was hearing. Dilla just put it in the air that you didn’t have to be a skilled musician to play the instruments and get the sound that you want out of it. He was a fucking genius. I miss him a lot.
Waajeed–Producer and MC, of Slum Village / Platinum Pied Pipers
Your relationship with Dilla goes back to the early days of Slum Village. When did you first meet? When did you first hear a beat he’d made?
Waajeed: Even before Slum Village. I was a sophomore in High School. 16 or 17 years old. Oh man, it’s a crazy story. At the time, I was a budding producer and a budding DJ, but I was more on the DJ side. Baatin is my oldest friend. Baatin and I had a group, but I was trying to form another group cause I had eyes to win this school talent show. At the time, T3 was a well-known rapper in the cafeteria (laughs). I think they had heard of each other from Conant Gardens, but nobody had officially met. I had these groups but i didn’t have the resources to make beats. Anyways, we were in art class, and this kid named Earl was telling me about his brother who made beats, and said I should holler at him. I got the number and the address, went to his house and it was Dilla. Long story short, we lost the talent show.
Big on the scene when you were growing up were DJ’s like Premo and Pete Rock. Dilla spoke a lot about Pete Rock; how do you see Dilla as an extension of that tradition of production?
Waajeed: Definitely more Pete than Premo. Pete is the father. About 1992, Mecca and The Soul Brother [Pete Rock/C.L. Smooth] came out. That was a monumental record for all of us. When we was leaving school and going to get burgers in Dilla’s Ford Escort, that was always playing.
What was his relationship with jazz early on? People say his father was a jazz musician? How do you see Dilla’s music influencing jazz?
Waajeed: Dilla’s father had some roots in regards to jazz, possibly even his mom. But I would say, people like Glasper or Chris Dave. The inspiration they’re pulling from Dilla comes more from funky shit–Comes from us studying James Brown. We had a particular “fetish” for the “Funky Drummer.” It’s funny–I realize it now, but I didn’t realize it at the time. We were discussing the theory of the music. How did they make the swing happen in that way. That was a major influence in terms of cutting off the quantizer and formulating our style. Also, I would definitely have to add techno–Detroit techno–In terms of what led to the swing and feel of the music.
On that note, could you speak specifically about some of the musical concepts present in his work? Where did the inspiration come from to develop the kinds of beats he was creating?
Waajeed: Well–I’ll say this. Detroit is the motor city of the world. Most of our parents, and a large part of the community were all employed by one of the Big 3 auto makers. With that being said, the city was made for over 2 million, but inhabits less than 1 million. The only way to get around, because of the Big 3, and being the home of the Big 3, most people drive. If you just go up the street to the market, most of the time you’re driving- it’s kind of like the West Coast. A large part of the culture has to do with cars. A lot of the ideas of the music stems from driving. The hump in the beat comes from this idea of being in your car, nodding your head on the freeway going from point A to point B. The idea behind the off-kilter feel and the swing comes from the feeling of driving in your car.
What artists today are most truthfully continuing his legacy?
Waajeed: There are countless people. Whether from Rodney Jerkins doing production for Brandi, all the way to the most underground shit, myself and countless others. It’s impossible to pinpoint just one. He affected the world in such a big way.
Miguel Atwood-Ferguson–composer/arranger behind the Suite for Ma Dukes, collaborator with many of those influenced by Dilla, including Flying Lotus, Bilal, and Shafiq Husayn.
When did you first hear Dilla? What was your initial response to his music?
Miguel: I was in high school, and I wasn’t aware at the time that it was Dilla. I didn’t know who the producer was, but the record was Tribe’s “Beats, Rhymes, and Life.” Tribe was probably my favorite hip-hop group at the time. I was also really into Biggie and Tupac, that was kind of the universe I was living in at that time. I was a classical and jazz nerd, so I wasn’t really well versed in hip-hop music but I loved those records.
What makes him different than other producers?
Miguel: I think what makes him great was this combination of all these amazing traits- heart, and now his soul, and honesty. Everyone is dedicated in different ways, but from what I’ve heard about Dilla–he was at it all the time. He didn’t really care about much else. He was clearly into women (laughs), but when it comes to the integrity of what he was doing he was working at it with more gusto than most other people.
In terms of him being different, I think he cared more about the music than about any hype. A lot of people around him that certainly cared about the art a tremendous amount would also care about the hype. I mean, Dilla was in LA and he didn’t even wanna go to the Grammys and Q-Tip had to drag him there.
In terms of him being unique–he wasn’t just a producer, he was really a musician. I never realized this until I started notating his music, getting inside his music. It took almost 1,000 hours to write the Dilla orchestral stuff. There’s all these threes, fives, sevens and elevens.
Like on “Get Dis Money” [from Slum Village's "Fantastic Vol. 2"]?
Miguel: Exactly–and it sounds really organic. He was definitely an audiophile and music historian. He was able to blend all these genres. When he would be crate diggin, he was going to records that other people weren’t: music from Brazil, or [French avant-garde composer] Eric Satie, or electronic music from the UK. He was really going for it; he was able to combine all these different amazing modes of expression in a way that was really sincere to him and pertinent to the artists he was working with. Dilla’s music is really accessible. It shows how great he is–his music is really complex, but theres a simplicity to it that allows people access to the jewels right away, that’s pretty amazing. There’s a lot there.
Can you talk a little about how you see him as an influence on contemporary jazz musicians, and on LA’s Brainfeeder scene?
Miguel: I think that a lot of those musicians, like Chris Dave, for instance, happen to be some of the worlds greatest jazz musicians. Obviously, “jazz musician” means different things for different people. I think that they’re more than jazz musicians. I’m trying to be a global musician…I think Chris Dave is the same way. I think people definitely are just inspired by Dilla because, in doing his thing so sincerely, it is kind of giving everyone else the green light to do their thing sincerely.
Dilla’s influence on Brainfeeder is huge but it’s nothing thats necessarily spoken of or overt. I really do think if you’re honest enough and if you’re going within yourself you can come up with great music without really studying anyone. But as you know, real artists, when they’re in their developmental stage, it’s good to copy other artists for the sake of practice. I think real artists–we can be inspired by others but we have to be our own inspiration. I know that Dilla is and has been Flying Lotus’ biggest influence, and I hear Dilla in his sound, but Lotus is definitely doing Lotus. For the most part, a lot of cats who are trying to do something new–they’re inspired by Dilla but are doing their own thing.
I’m obsessed with jazz, I love classical music; I think that sometimes people get excited when they discover someone who touches their heart. It becomes a focal point as a community, and its a way to celebrate something truly amazing. I feel like Dilla is a visionary, and a luminous spirit, and a torchbearer. Dilla was just kind of like ferociously doing him, and I think it transcends just hip-hop. It’s a transcendental effect that Dilla has on us encouraging us to do our own thing.
Shafiq Husayn–Sa-Ra Creative Partners, Founding Member; Master Teacher.
When did you first hear Dilla?
Shafiq: The first Dilla I heard would have to be through The Pharcyde or Tribe records. It was Beats, Rhymes, and Life, I think. As far as his own music, Jesse West had these beat CDs from this guy Jay Dee–this is Jesse West who produced a lot of the original Bad Boy, KRS-One stuff. Jessie don’t give it up to nobody, but I remembered the artist because he kept talking about this beat CD.
In 2000, Taz Arnold [of Sa-Ra] came to this studio I was working at and played me this beat CD by Jay Dilla. He started it off, and as it went along it kept getting better and better! It was so dope; it made me seriously reassess what i was doing right then at that moment. It sounded so natural–he was having a lot of fun. Everything perfect that made you fall in love with the dopest hip-hop song, all of it was on that beat CD. And there weren’t even lyrics on it! He really went in.
What was the creation of “Thrilla” [from 2007's "The Hollywood Recordings", Sa-Ra Creative Partners] like? How did the collaborative process begin?
Shafiq: Originally, he had come to a session at the Sa-Ra crib. He had heard a lot about the Sa-Ra stuff, he was a fan of that, but he had never heard just a beat CD from us. He was just like, “Go ahead, play something.” He just rolled up a couple of L’s and I put the beats on. He’s sitting there like “Ooh! Yeah!” I’m bugging out, because Dilla is sitting here in my living room bugging off my music! And I’m supposed to be doing business!
I gave him a few of our beats to work with. Fast forward–we catch back up, I’d made a whole bunch of other stuff by then. I pressed play on this one particular track, and he just said, “That one! That one right there,” and he went in, and then from the conversations, we start putting the verse together for what would become “Thrilla.” He just went in and meticulously worked that verse, like he always did. He had some of the lyrics in his head from another song he had been working on–he wrote it and flipped it around. This was around 2004.
Was “Thrilla” the first project you worked together on?
Shafiq: Yeah, “Thrilla” was it. He and Common would come through to the Sa-Ra house–they were staying together at that time. At our crib we had a baby grand, Rhodes, Clav, all these instruments in our living room. We had prophet synths, an SB1200 and 3000 in the kitchen. Dilla would come through, chill for two, three days straight, just smoking, talkin’ about life, and listening to music. Om’mas [of Sa-Ra] would ride him to Com’s house, he’d go in and get his stuff, change his clothes, and come right back out and spend another two or three days with us.
The process was natural. For me, I don’t really make music with specifically the music industry in mind, I have to make music from the standpoint of an artist or writer or painter–like someone who is a chess grandmaster. Have to think of the perfection and craft of it first. Kindred spirits are like-minded; he felt comfortable enough to take time away from his own world and spend that time working with us.
Do you see the growing public awareness of Dilla’s work as indicating a shift in the music industry?
Shafiq: Yes and no. For us to say that because there was a Dilla and a Slum Village, that public awareness of real music is being increased, that would be downplaying Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder. They was all dope as hell, and they did it first compared to everyone else’s music at the time, it was all truly original. And I’m sure if you asked them the same question back then they’d be talking about the ones who came before. The type of music that we do is always gonna be relative, because even though it has hip-hop in it, it has transcended the definition of hip-hop. I think what Dilla’s music did for us is that it solidified the vision of our music.
What artists currently making music do you think he’s influenced?
Shafiq: Everybody and their momma. Every producer, somewhere in their music sounds like J Dilla. I don’t think any of the young producers that are coming up can say that they heard a Jay Dilla beat weren’t like, “Damn.” And then subconsciously it gets into the music. It would be unfair to point out one and not another. I would just go with everybody.
I’ve thinking about the last couple of days I spent with him. I was thinking of all my times that I spent with Dilla–in the studio, in my house–the first time I met him, which was at a Sa-Ra show. And I was able to chill with him in his studio, over at his spot where he lived with Common on the west side of LA.
I learned a lot from him. All the stuff I had in my head, all the assumptions I had, he confirmed them all. He reminded me that the craft should be respected. He was a die hard; he was a purist. If you research the word pure, you’ll understand what J Dilla meant to music and, more importantly, what the music meant to J Dilla! We keep talking about what J Dilla meant to the music, but we must speak about what the music meant to him! It is all about the Love Vibration. I’m working on the follow-up to “En-A-Free-Ka” right now–L.∞P.– Love’s Infinite Power. The Love LP. Utilizing signs and symbols of a conscious mind for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, but its not gonna be over the head of the laymen, the common person is still gonna be able to understand what I’m getting at.
I mention this because, if you’re making music for the audience, there’s some type of mindset that you have to have going into it, and you have to have them in mind and not be so closed. Creation is a reciprocal thing. And the audience–they want to travel too, they don’t want to be in the same chamber they were in two albums ago, they want to grow with you, that’s the fun. The J Dilla’s, Pete Rock’s, the Jimi’s, they tapped into that, and that’s what I meant about there being an importance to what the music means to the artist. That’s what the music does to you. Long Live J Dilla!
Words by Spencer Murphy