Thoughts on J. Dilla

Throughout the blogosphere, everyone is paying their respects to the King of Swing, the Sultan of Samples, the Emperor of the Handclap: J. Dilla.  Three years since he’s passed from lupus.  Damn…

The first Dilla track I ever heard was Tribe’s “1nce Again” from Beats, Rhymes, and Life.  That snare would make my eyes blink everytime.  I remember buying that album at Wal-Mart in Harrisburg just to listen to “1nce Again” on my CD Walkman.  I remember thinking “1nce Again” reminded me alot of De La’s “Stakes is High” which came out a year earlier, so I copped that CD, and hey, it’s that Jay Dee guy behind it all.

Unlike most (new) Dilla fans, I didn’t appreciate duke till he passed away.  I remember seeing Donuts at Tower Records on Broad Street (RIP) on that Tuesday, three days before he passed.  I remember thinking “Oh shit, Jay Dee’s got a new CD out” then went back to my office.  I was a late comer to Slum Village and the Detroit scene as a whole, and I wasn’t about to spend $15 on a Dilla solo joint–I wasn’t blow away by Welcome 2 Detroit when it dropped via BBE at the beginning of this decade. 

Like everyone else, when he passed later that week, I went back and listened to Donuts on iTunes and ended up it buying it immediately.  It wasn’t out of nostalgia or guilt–the album was that incredible.  I later felt like a jerk for not appreciating Dilla’s catalogue while he was alive, but honestly I wasn’t at that point yet as a listener to fully grasp his sublime tutleage.   

After Dilla died, I remember reading a quote from possibly Oliver Wang that summed up J’s signature: most hip hop is made on a anthemic level–killer loop, big chorus, bombastic raps, etc.  Dilla’s best works were anti-anthem–they were subtle.  It was all about the bounce.  The moods and ambient pieces that you the listener would connect at your own speed as his drums backhanded your spine–that was his game.   After all, hip hop was built on the drums.

Being an East Coast rap fan of the 4/4 drums at 88-97 beats per minute for most my life, this Detroit method to beats didn’t compute at first.  It was like trying to teach German to a cat.  The joints he did on Busta’s Anarchy were ill but unsettling.   Same goes for the bulk of Q-Tip’s Amplified and Common’s Like Water for Chocolate.  Dilla introduced a new vibe to my favorite artists who already had an established sonic identity.  I didn’t really like it.  A change was coming though.

 A former friend of mine started shaking me off the Wu-Tang/Rawkus/Mobb Deep sound by constantly banging Slum Village and Jay’s “F*ck the Police.”  My response: “Those dudes are wack!”  I was fronting.  Those cats didn’t get me open yet.

After Dilla passed and I saw this massive outpouring from artists I enjoy and admire, I began rethinking my relationship with Jay.  Voodoo is my favorite R&B album of all time–his style was the basis for that record.  “Stakes is High” is my favorite De La song ever–Dilla Dawg.  “Cold Blooded” and “Dooinit” are mainstays in Common’s cannon–whoop whoop do ya thang!  I needed a wake-up call. 

Fantastic Vol. 2 was a good start.  So was Jaylib’s Champion Sound.  Heck, throw some one-offs from Heavy D in there for good measure (“Listen” from Heavy’s last major label album).  While I was too busy being serious with my rap, Dilla and his squad were driving recklessly, holding massive knots, drinking and smoking in the studio having a blast.  I decided “It was time to have fun.”  I remember reading an interview Slum Village did with Blaze magazine in the late 90s.  The blueprint of their music was talk about how they were feeling that particular day.  “Sometimes I feel like getting money.  Sometimes I feel like shooting a n*gga.  Sometimes I want to pray and be by myself.  And sometimes I want to talk to a chick at the club.”  Fun + honesty + orignailty rarely fails. 

When I’ve learned in the past 3 years via J. Dilla is that emotion and vibe are just as important to hip hop as battle raps, boom-bap drums, double-time hi-hats, DJ scratches on the hook, movie samples as interludes, and odes to marijuana and women.  As an MC, I don’t listen to Dilla beats–they yank me into their vortex.  They force me to nod my head a certain way and spit a certain flow.  As a producer, I marvel at his technical vocation.  Whether he’s karate chopping a classic breakbeat or filtering a familiar sample into a hypnotic oblivion, his beats make you feel something.  He may not have instant crowd pleasers for a Now That’s What I Call Music! compilation, but Dilla channeled his emotions into tracks.  They could be ignornat, fun and flippant.  They could be heartbreaking, somber and grim.  But it comes across from the first kick drum.  And it feels like soul music.  And it bangs like that $500 system in a $200 hooptie.

Dilla’s taught me so much as a hip hop artist that I can never go back, nor would I want to.  I’m not mad at the overanxious fans of his; they may be overdoing it with blind praise and bootleg t-shirts, but the connection they have to his musical output shouldn’t be brushed aside.  I have that connection with Jay’s music now and I’m glad his work is still relevant regardless of the messenger.  Here’s some of my favorite Dilla joints for you.  Rest in Peace Jay!

De La Soul “Stakes is High”

A Tribe Called Quest “1nce Again”

J. Dilla “One Won’t Do”

Q-Tip “Let’s Ride”

Elzhi “Love it Here”

BUY J. Dilla’s music here



  1. Man, you perfectly captured the reason records like Fantastic, Vol. 1 or Champion Sound can be certifiable classics without, like, super talented MCs on them (I mean, I love Madlib, but his flow is never more than adequate). The feel of the records is undeniably soulful and honest, and that can’t be denied.

  2. Man, I always feel so lame being into an artist after they pass, but J. Dilla is totally amazing. I remember being 13 spending my summers in Alabama. I’d go into Blockbuster Music and listen to that Tribe album for hours. I fell in love with that album, even tho most people at the time found it to be awful. It was only this past year I realized it was J Dilla. In the words of one of the few Janet Jackson songs I’ve ever loved (ironically, produced by J. Dilla), “you dont know what you’ve got till its gone.”

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